Sermon: Sunday, September 20, 2015: Second Sunday in Creation — Humanity Sunday

Texts: Genesis 1:26-28  +  Psalm 8  +  Philippians 2:1-8  +  Mark 10:41-45

It doesn’t seem to be the case so much anymore, but I remember a time when care for the environment was thought of as a bourgeois concern. It was the kind of thing celebrities and upper-middle class white people could afford to care about, as it offered practical solutions (like recycling) and goals (like reducing carbon footprints) that, ironically, could be achieved with the help of a new range of consumer goods (like electric cars). It was the sort of cause attractive to optimistic activists, because it didn’t require us to examine our own hearts in quite the same way that decades of struggle in the civil rights movement had.

Today that kind of dualistic opposition of environmentalism to human rights has begun to break down due to a growing awareness that, in Pope Francis’ words, “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together,” that “the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet.” (Laudato Si, 48)

800px-KatrinaNewOrleansFlooded_edit2One of the most obvious and dramatic examples of that fact in recent memory here in the United States was Hurricane Katrina.  It was ten years ago, right at the end of August, that Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast and burst through the levees in New Orleans causing $108 billion dollars in damages and leading to the loss of almost two thousand lives. It was part of a season of tropical storms in 2005, the most active Atlantic hurricane season in recorded history, and as such it came to occupy a special place in our collective consciousness as both a real event and a parable of human disregard for the earth and the poor. When the levees broke, it was the poorest areas of New Orleans that were hit worst and we likely all remember the scenes of houses and cars being carried away on the water, as people stranded on their rooftops reported seeing the bodies of those unable to flee floating by. Prisoners were abandoned in their cells as guards sought shelter on higher ground. Ecological crisis and human callousness came together in a horrifically perfect storm.

This tragic scene is playing itself out across the globe on a scale so large it can be hard to see.  Again, Pope Francis names the human contribution and the human cost to our disregard for the environment, citing the Bishops of Argentina.

“We note that often the businesses … do here what they would never do in developed countries or the so-called first world. Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural resources, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable.” (51)

This is the distorted, dystopic view of humanity’s place within creation generated by a bad reading of the passage from Genesis we heard this morning: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen. 1:28) One symptom of our sinful state is that we have for too long taken stories such as these as divine warrant to treat creation and the inhabitants of its seas, skies and land as objects that exist solely for our gratification.

That utilitarian reading of our sacred scriptures is short-sighted and ironic, since the larger story being told by the book of Genesis is the mythic imagining of how human life came to be so hard. The book of Genesis is a story of ruptures in the relationships between humanity and the rest of creation that begins with humanity fully at home in the garden and ends with the first family torn apart by jealousy, toiling on the land, and the first civilizations divided by different languages and at war with one another. If anything, the book of Genesis is a warning to humanity that when “dominion” becomes “domination,” violence and death will soon follow.

Pope Francis says it this way,

“We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us … Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion ever the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” (67)

But to say that we are not God still slightly misses the point, leaving the authority to dominate creation to a higher power; conceding that we are not the ultimate power, but that such a divine power does exist and with it a divine right.

The passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians deconstructs that idea, presenting Jesus as the visible face of the invisible God who reveals God’s power and authority to be entirely different than we would ever imagine, encouraging us to understand our dominion in light of Jesus’ servitude:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:5-8)

The story from Mark’s gospel illustrates the same point with characters whose motivations are all too familiar.  The disciples, James and John, have come to Jesus literally asking to serve as his right and left hand men. In his teaching and his healing, they see a man of power and they want to secure positions near that power for the sake of their own glory, glory that would set them apart from the rest of the disciples. But it is that desire to set ourselves apart from one another that Jesus has come to heal, that definition of dominion that sets us over and above our kin in creation that he has come to correct.

Think of all the ways we work, each of us, to set ourselves apart from those around us. Imagine the inventories of items we surround ourselves with in order to feel accomplished, attractive, elite. Houses and cars, clothing and electronics, each at a cost to the earth and those whose labor makes them accessible to us. What price have we paid, in real terms, to put so much distance between ourselves and each other?

In Jesus, God shows us what divine power looks like. It looks like service to our neighbor. It looks like a self-emptying love. Are we able to imagine how such love, taking root in our hearts, might change the world? I mean, literally change the world. If love of neighbor were so strong that we might curb our cravings for excess such that manufacturing and agricultural practices might change, so that carbon production might diminish, so that extreme weather might abate, so that storms might surge with less power, so that levees might hold, so that lives might be spared. Can we imagine a love that powerful, or more appropriately, a power that loving?

We can imagine it because we’ve seen it, because it has claimed us in water and fed us at its table. We can imagine it, because it has taught us how to pray for daily bread, a serving size that meets our needs and allows our neighbors to be fed just as much. We have known love this great, so great that our most divisive cravings are satiated, that our hunger for power and privilege passes, and we are fed with the thing we most desperately need: communion, within and between ourselves and the rest of creation, of which we are and always have been an integral part.



Sermon: Sunday, September 13, 2015: First Sunday in Creation — Planet Earth Sunday

Texts: Genesis 1:1-25  +  Ps. 33:1-9  +  Romans 1:18-23  +  John 1:1-14

Good morning St. Luke’s!  I don’t know what it is, if it’s the fact that it’s Rally Day or Homecoming Sunday, or if it’s the fact that as we gather this morning we begin a fall season that will culminate with our exodus from this building, or if it’s the fact that the Bears are playing the Packers after church today — but there’s a level of adrenaline pumping through me this morning that’s both thrilling and exhausting in equal measure.

Actually, I think we’re all pretty clear that it’s not the Bears/Packers game that’s got me buzzed. I’m so tuned out to the world of sports that I’m feeling proud of myself for even knowing that the Bears and the Packers are playing today, which is nothing at all like the kind of excitement real fans are feeling — I know, because I’ve spent the last two days up in Wisconsin preparing for and then celebrating our friends Ryan and Rachel’s wedding. It was a beautiful ceremony and the love radiating out from the couple was palpable, but when Rachel’s father made a point of the fact that Ryan is a Bear’s fan during his toast, the sudden explosion of cheers and jeers made me think that we may want to say a prayer for that couple on game days.


The view of Lake Michigan from the scene of Ryan and Rachel Coffee’s wedding in Racine, Wisconsin.

Rachel and Ryan got married at the home of one of Rachel’s relatives, in a spacious backyard overlooking Lake Michigan. The weather was perfect: a sunny blue sky, a cool breeze, the sound of the waves washing the sandy shore. I joked with a couple people that there was no need for a sermon — all I needed to do was point to our surroundings and say, “Look, God’s creation proves God’s love for us!”

The apostle Paul makes a similar point in his argument about the sinfulness of human nature.  “Look,” he says, “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” (Rom. 1:19) He says “them” because he’s setting up a contrast between Jews and Greeks (so that he can later knock it down), but we might as well say “us” because the point he’s making is that God’s goodness and power are obvious in God’s creation, and that we hardly need scripture or divine revelation to observe that we are part of a created world that is fearfully and wonderfully made. “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things [God] has made.” (v. 20)

It occurs to me that this statement may make Paul the unwitting accomplice of all those people who say that they don’t need to come to church to encounter God, because they find God in the sunset, or at the lake, or in the mountains. “Yes!” I can hear Paul saying, “Precisely! We do not need church or religion to know that God is powerful and active in the world, because the splendor of creation testifies to that basic, foundational fact all day long!”

And, that is not why we gather for worship each week. We are not here because we think God is trapped in this cage, waiting for us to come visit, like the lion at the zoo. We’re not here because we went down to the lakeshore, but we just couldn’t find God. We’re here because we know that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but that in God’s mercy and compassion we are forgiven and set free to share in the work of healing and reconciling a planet and its inhabitants that are groaning under the suffering caused by so much human greed and negligence.

The reality of sin is distasteful to the culture at large, I think, mainly because it is so wrapped up with experiences of shame. For many people, even hearing the word “sin” shuts them down. It may be that some of you are already feeling shut down right now, hearing me talk about sin from the pulpit. If that is so, I ask you to try and keep an open heart and open mind for just a little while longer.

In our world, it is often the case that if we admit we are in the wrong, we expect to be embarrassed in front of our classmates, punished by our parents, humiliated by our friends, dismissed by our colleagues, divorced by our spouses. If we admit that we make terrible, terrible mistakes then we expect to be abandoned. We are not trained for grace. We do not have enough experience with forgiveness. We are merciless because we do not expect mercy.

Why do people go to church, the logic goes, just to be made to feel bad about themselves? I don’t need help feeling bad about myself, I need to surround myself with positivity.

I turn 42 next month, so it’s time to schedule my annual physical. Every year my primary care physician looks at my height and weight, and asks me how many times a week I’m getting 30 minutes or more of exercise that elevates my heart rate. He reminds me of the facts: that regular exercise and a healthy diet will reduce my risk of heart disease and stroke and that I’ll have a much higher quality of life if I make even small changes to my lifestyle. I don’t ever tell him, “what a downer! I don’t know why I even bother coming to you each year, I need more positivity in my life!” Because I know that what he says is true, and that he’s not interested in shaming me, but instead that he’s encouraging me to become an actor in the story of my own healing and wholeness.

Paul says, “So we are without excuse; for though we know God, we do not honor God as God or give thanks to God, but we have become futile in our thinking, and our senseless minds have become darkened. Claiming to be wise, we have become fools; and we have traded the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being …” (Rom. 1:20-23)

Like a doctor speaking a hard truth to a patient, Paul puts us all on notice with a diagnosis delivered two thousand years ago that has only been confirmed with the passage of time. Although we can see the evidence of God’s goodness and power in the splendor of creation all around us, we have become so preoccupied with ourselves that we have traded the worship of God — which pursues unity and reconciliation out of gratitude for the goodness of the gift of life God freely gives — for worship of ourselves — which encourages division and self-interest in an attempt to secure for a few those things we all require for life. We betray God’s abundance by creating scandalous poverty, even as we pretend that there are no limits to what we can extract from the earth, or the ocean, or the land.

But God, whose face is seen throughout creation — in the mountains, under the big sky, has also worn flesh like ours and has wrapped the living Word in frail humanity so that all creation could be made new. As bleak as the present moment is, environmentally speaking, we remember that God’s Word, God’s life, God’s light is not overcome by sin, or by ignorance, by fear, by greed, or by despair. God keeps coming and coming for us, inviting us to embrace the truth not because it will shame us, but because it will set us free.

prayergraphiclaudatosipopefrancis1 (1)With Pope Francis’ visit to the United States just over a week away, I’ve been drawn to read his most recent encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si (which is Latin for “Praise be to you,” drawn from the beginning of Francis of Assisi’s canticle). I’d like to invite you to read the Pope’s letter to the church with me throughout this Season of Creation. The document is a beautiful interweaving of the science of climate change, the human roots of the ecological crisis, the political and economic realities of poverty and global inequality, and the resources of Christian faith and life that culminate in a call to action on behalf of our fragile planet. Laudato Si is available online for free (and I’ll include the link in my sermon when I post it later today) and I’ve set a few copies out in the narthex for those who may not have access to the internet at home.

Near the end of that document, Pope Francis draws a connection between our worship and the created world. He writes,

“[The Lord’s Supper] joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation. The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to [God] in blessed and undivided adoration: in the bread of the Eucharist, ‘creation is projected toward divination, toward the holy wedding feast, toward unification with the Creator[’s own self].’ Thus, [Holy Communion] is also a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation.”

Yes, God is present in the sunrise, at the lakeshore, in a grain of sand … and God is also present in these bits of created matter — in bread and wine that we can only receive when we are together, which is also (not un-coincidentally) the only way we will survive this crisis: together, in restored communion with one another that requires a restored relationship to the earth. Our unity, demonstrated in the sacraments, but imparted to us as a gift freely given, removes shame’s threatening loneliness and replaces it with the solidarity that comes from a deep and abiding knowledge that we belong to each other and to the earth, our sister, our home.

Praise be to you, our Lord!



Sermon: Sunday, April 20, 2014: The Resurrection of Our Lord

Texts: Acts 10:34-43  +  Colossians 3:1-4  +  Matthew 28:1-10

It might seem crazy, what I’m about to say.

But I’ve seen things left for dead come back to life.

I’m not talking about the Walking Dead, I’m not spouting Sci Fi. I’m talking about real, live people and places left for dead that came back to life. In fact, you’re sitting in one of them right now.

It might seem crazy, but ten years ago this church had been left for dead. Had been told there was no life left in its dry bones. Was down to a handful of people knocking around in this cavernous sanctuary like guards standing watch at a tomb.

But look at us now. Look around this room. See how God is bringing new life to people and places left for dead. My God, it makes me so happy!

It’s a story that just keeps repeating, day after day, year after year, place after place, life after life.

It’s the story of my life. It might seem crazy, what I’m about to say, but ten years ago I thought my story was over. A failed relationship. A career over before it had even started. I was living in a friend’s basement surrounded by boxes of books I’d bought in pursuit of a degree that qualified me for the one job it seemed I’d never have. To call it a garden level apartment was an insult to gardens. Its one window gave me a wide open view of the crawl space under the front porch, where a nest of rats had made their home. They would come to the window to watch me, as if I was the one stuck in a cage, because I was. The ceiling was about eight inches above my head, high enough for me to stand up but not enough to stretch.

Life that wasn’t life went on like that a lot longer than three days, a lot longer than forty days. It went on like that for a couple of years. It went on like that until a small church on the north side of Chicago called me out of my tomb and unbound me. The day I knelt in this room as hands were laid upon me and I was ordained to serve God’s people through God’s church, I was so happy. I felt like a room without a roof.

Like I said, it might seem crazy, but that’s just how God works. Over and over. Bringing new life to people and places left for dead. It’s the story of your life. I know, because you’ve told me.

It might have seemed crazy, staying put as all your neighbors sold their houses and left the block. People said Logan Square was too dangerous, that all the good families were getting out while their homes were still worth something. But you stayed. Longer than three days. Longer than forty days. Hell, longer than forty years! You stayed. You lived through decades of feeling like you had to apologize for living in Logan Square, when the only news was bad news, talking this and that. You heard it all, no holding back. And you sold flowers each spring for people to plant in their gardens and in their window boxes so that they might remember, in the middle of gangs fighting for turf and drugs on the corner, that there was still beauty here, still life in these homes.

I’ll tell you what. If you stayed through those hard years, could I ask you to do something? Could I ask you to raise your hands? Raise them high, yes both of them, just like this. And now, bear with me, could you just clap your hands, just once, if you stayed through the hard years. That’s right. That’s the truth.

But it’s not the only truth. There are other stories in this room, other resurrections taking place. I know because I’ve seen it with my own two eyes, and I can testify that it’s true.

I’ve seen people caught tight in the grip of an addiction hellbent on killing them find the strength to live one day at a time, people certain that their lives were going to end in the bottom of a bottle of pills, or booze, who are alive today by the grace of a higher power that came to them in community and restored them to life.

I’ve seen people trapped in marriages and relationships that felt like tombs, that left scars on their hands and feet, bruises on their face and abdomen, break free from cycles of violence that were entirely unredemptive and take back their lives.

I’ve seen people who fled from the lands of their birth, because of a lack of opportunity, because they were of a minority religion, because they were of a minority sexual or gender identity, people who’d been locked away in prison for a decade, people who’d been blackmailed and harassed by the police, people who’d been beaten to within an inch of their life. People who now live in the relative safety of a new land, making a new start, building a new life.

If you know one of these people I’m talking about — maybe it’s you, or someone in your family, or someone you love — could you please put your hands up in the air, and help me out here. Clap your hands, if you feel like that’s what you want to do.

This room, this neighborhood, this world is full of people who know what it’s like to be left for dead, to be stuck in the grave, only to discover that Jesus had been there first and ripped the roof off that tomb! Which is why, crazy as it may sound, we proclaim,

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

I’ll tell you something else. When you’ve experienced this resurrection, it’s not something you want to keep to yourself. It’s not something you can keep to yourself. It wells up in you, it bubbles out of you, it has the tendency to erupt in spontaneous acts of testimony and riots of truth-telling.

Peter, one of the twelve who knew Jesus before his hot-air balloon took off for space, distilled the essence of his happiness into this statement: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God” (Acts 10:34). God shows no partiality! That’s incredible! That’s radical. That’s so much more than, “God plays fair” or “God doesn’t play favorites,” which is kind of how it sounds at first. No, for Peter, who delivers this message while standing in the home of Cornelius, a pagan and a high-ranking soldier in the very same army that had occupied Peter’s homeland, “God shows no partiality” is one of those statements that blows the roof off the place. It’s a statement so radical that he gets called before his colleagues back in Jerusalem, who want to know why he’s talking to the enemy. But that’s the point of his message, that’s the essence of his irrepressible joy, that by the power of our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is no enemy that can divide us from one another.

If death can’t bring us down, then neither can our wars. If death can’t bring us down, then neither can our nationalities. If death can’t bring us down, then certainly neither can our religious differences. If death can’t bring us down, then neither can our politics, or our immigration status, or our HIV status, or our marital status. If the love of God in Christ Jesus has raised us from the grip of every death that has tried to bring us down, then can’t nothing bring us down, God’s love is too high!

Can I get an amen?

Clap your hands if you know what happiness is to you.

And now we can begin to understand why the women left the tomb that first resurrection morning with both fear and great joy, great happiness, because the tomb was empty, and that meant everything was going to have to change, that everything had already changed. And change is hard, even the change we’ve all been waiting for, the change happening in our own lives.

In his open letter to the church titled The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis echoes the apostle Paul when he writes,

The joy of the gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded. That is what the angel proclaimed to the shepherds in Bethlehem: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.” (Luke 2:10)

He goes on to say,

An evangelizing community is filled with joy; it knows how to rejoice always. It celebrates every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization. Evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy, as part of our daily concern to spread goodness.

Peter says, “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). And at the tomb, Jesus says to the women, “Do not be afraid; go and tell…” (Matt. 28:10).

That is our happy task this day, and every day for the rest of our lives, to go and preach to the people caught in the grip of powers that are trying to bring this world and everything in it to the grave. We look at the cross, and we look at the tomb, and we look at each other and see the risen Christ rising again and again in each one of us, and we say,

Give me all you got, don’t hold it back.

I should probably warn you, I’ll be just fine.

No offense to you, don’t waste your time.

Here’s why:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!