Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, February 1, 2015: Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Deuteronomy 18:15-20  +  Psalm 111  +  1 Corinthians 8:1-13  +  Mark 1:21-28

Paul writes “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1) and Jesus enters the synagogue where he teaches “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22) Read side-by-side, these two passages give me a bit of pause as a preacher, a member of a guild that strives to teach for transformation but all too often ends up confusing knowledge with authority.

It’s striking to me that after calling Peter and Andrew, James and John, Jesus heads to the synagogue to teach. So often we imagine Jesus teaching on the mount, or on the plain, or as they walked, or over dinner, even at the cross. So little of Jesus’ ministry is spent in the synagogue, so it struck me as significant that in Mark’s gospel Jesus begins there. The reaction of the assembly is instructive however. After he finishes teaching, the people are astonished at how different his presence is among them. He is said to teach “with authority, not as the scribes.”

At first this is frustrating to read. Jesus teaches with authority, but Mark doesn’t bother to tell us what Jesus said, what passage of scripture he chose to read, what application he made between their shared Jewish heritage and the present moment. Whatever knowledge Jesus imparted, it was apparently not the most significant aspect of his ministry in the synagogue that morning. Instead of telling us what Jesus said, Mark narrates an encounter between Jesus and a member of the community described as having “an unclean spirit” (v.23).

As Jesus finishes his teaching this man cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

“What have you to do with us?” It’s a slippery question. Who is the man referring to? Later in Mark’s gospel Jesus will speak to a Geresene man possessed by a demon who identifies itself as “legion, for we are many,” (5:9) but this is not that encounter. Perhaps this event foreshadows that later one, and we hear the unclean spirit referring to itself as “us.” As I imagine the scene however, I place the man in the middle of the assembly gesturing to the people all around him as he heckles Jesus, “what have you to do with us?” It’s the sort of manipulation that playground bullies learn early on, to speak as though they represent a great many others. It’s the voice of “everyone knows” or “people are saying.” It’s the voice that inflates itself by claiming to stand for the majority.

“What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?”

Ah ha! Now the real fear is exposed. First the unclean spirit questions what Jesus has to do with this community, this assembly; then it tries to incite a panic, “have you come to destroy us?” I suppose you could answer that question either way. On the one hand, the unclean spirit is right, Jesus has come to destroy the present arrangement of things. People and their families, synagogues and cities, powers and principalities will be upended and the world will not be left the same as it was. On the other hand, Jesus has not come to destroy but to heal, to liberate, to restore. Jesus is not the force of destruction, but God’s answer to the destruction of this world. The unclean spirit accurately names Jesus as the Holy One of God, before whom the status quo cannot stand, which is rightly threatening to most people, including us.

When Jesus arrives, things change. Jesus came to the seashore, and soon the disciples were leaving their nets and learning to fish for people. Jesus comes to the synagogue and the spirit that has taken up residence there has to go. Jesus liberates people from habits of life and patterns of accommodation that hold the status quo in place. I think this is what the people in the synagogue mean when they ask, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority!” They recognize that Jesus is more than an interesting lecture, a warm sentiment, or a well-constructed sermon but that in him the word is embodied, that intention is joined to action in a way that will not allow the present arrangement of power to remain unchallenged.

You can imagine how energizing this liberation movement could be to people and communities held under the thumb of empire. In fact, we know that within a few decades the apostle Paul was writing to the congregation in Corinth, for whom the knowledge of their freedom in Christ had taken on a rough edge, whose embrace of their liberated status had run rough shod over others in their community who were still coming to grips with the implications of the unfolding revolution.

At that time animals were still being sacrificed to a variety of gods worshipped throughout the empire. Choice cuts of meat might be burned on an altar, then served in a meal, while the remainder of the animal was sold to the meat market and then re-sold to whoever might purchase it. If you were being especially conscientious in your religious practice and trying to avoid eating meat dedicated to other gods, it could be very difficult. In response some Christians avoided eating meat altogether. Others, however, ate meat freely arguing that since there is no god but God, that meat dedicated to those idols was truly dedicated to nothing, and that there was nothing to fear from eating it. Apparently their disregard for the concerns of those who were being diligent in avoiding such meat was creating conflict in the congregation, so Paul steps in to reframe the debate.

The issue, he contends, isn’t whether or not it’s right or wrong to eat the meat. The issue is how you treat your neighbor who is earnestly struggling to live out their faith with integrity. The knowledge that there is no god but God may free you in principle, but if in your freedom you injure your brother or sister who shares your faith but not your knowledge, then what good has it done you or them? It’s not that knowledge is bad, it’s that it is secondary to love. When knowledge serves love, then the community is built up. When knowledge serves itself, then divisions creep in and take hold.

The injunction to keep love at the center of our life together as Christian people can be terribly inefficient. It is often much quicker to dispense with love and rely on knowledge alone. The knowledge of who is right and who is wrong, who stands with us and who stands against us, who is our ally and who is our enemy, is the world’s standard operating procedure for getting things done. Cut the issue and count the votes. Secure the win. We see it in our national politics, in our corporate boardrooms, in our community organizing, and sometimes in our congregations as well. It is outcomes at the expense of process, creating winners and losers constantly vying to gain or regain their power.

Knowledge without love seeks status. Knowledge with love seeks service. Perhaps this helps to explain why Jesus commands the unclean spirit to be quiet, not to reveal his identity, as he will command the leper he heals later in this chapter, or the disciples after he asks them who they believe him to be. Jesus is not seeking status, he is not concerned with whether or not people show him the appropriate level of respect. He has come to serve the creation by giving himself away in acts of love for the sake of healing, liberation and restoration.

At the river Jordan a spirit descended on Jesus like a dove, demonstrating a solidarity between Jesus and God, a solidarity we are invited to enter into as well. There are other spirits in this world however, spirits that puff up rather than build up, spirits that divide and conquer. In our baptisms we are asked to renounce those spirits and give ourselves to the Holy One of God who has come to set us free from anything that would separate us from one another and the God who created us in love.

What might it mean for us to renounce that unclean spirit, to exorcise it from our relationships to one another here in this congregation, from our dealings with those we disagree with at work or at home, from our politics — both local and national? What would it look like to use the freedom we have been granted by the gospel to meet those around us where they’re at, rather than to judge them for where they as yet are not? What are the conditions that make transformation possible? In my life knowledge has never been enough. It has always been love that has made me brave enough to believe that something new was possible.

In the name of Jesus. God’s love made visible.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 8, 2014: Day of Pentecost

Texts: Acts 2:1-21  +  Ps. 104:24-34,35b  +  1 Cor. 12:3b-13  +  John 20:19-23

No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3b-13).

I’ll admit that when I was young, this verse was confounding.  I wondered if it could be true, in a literal way. I wondered if there was magic in the words “Jesus is Lord” that summoned the Holy Spirit, or if maybe it was the other way around; that by hearing or reading those words, I was inviting the Holy Spirit inside me, where it would work to bring me to say the words as well, “Jesus is Lord.”

With time I’ve come to a different understanding, though not completely different. I now hear these words, “Jesus is Lord,” as an early creed, a Christian reimagining of the tradition handed down to us through the words of the Torah, the prayers recited in the morning and evening by our Jewish brothers and sisters, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” (Deut. 6:4).

But it’s not a creed in the way that we sometimes experience the creeds in worship, like a fragment of memory preserved in amber and recited as a testament to the past.  To say “Jesus is Lord” is a creed in the way that creeds may first have been used, as a public declaration of independence from all the forces of this world that work so hard to enslave us. The forces of greed, of violence, of envy, of terror. The forces that masquerade as the basis for our life together, the marketplace and the military, a strong economy and the power to keep it that way. To say “Jesus is Lord” is an act of bravery and imagination, because it implies that there is another way to live than the way we are living now, another world than the one we know, and it commits the speaker to the work of bringing that world into existence.

You know what I am talking about, because you are dreamers.

In his speech to those gathered in Jerusalem from every nation of the known world, Peter foretold the moment we now inhabit. He said,

“In the last days it will be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams.

Even upon my slaves, both men and women,

in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”

(Acts 2:17-18)

What have you been dreaming about lately?  Do you know?  Do you remember your dreams?  What is your soul trying to say to you about the deepest yearnings of your heart?

Dreams are powerful things, in part, because they create a space where the mind can conjure up impossible solutions to impassable problems.  I remember that as a boy I had a recurring nightmare that I was being chased by a mob of children down the street on which I lived.  Each time I had the dream I would run as fast as I could until the children would finally grab hold of me, pull me to the ground, and begin to beat me.

a71013ea374c84f9efb44b25ee607130_largeOne night, as I was fleeing, it occurred to me that I might escape them by climbing a tree. So I leapt up and grabbed the lowest branch, pulling myself up and resting as the children gathered around the base of the tree yelling at me.  Soon they began throwing sticks and rocks at me, so I jumped from one tree to the next, evading their attacks, until I came to the end of the street and there were no trees left. Then the children began to climb the tree so that they could drag me down again.

It went on like that for another year or so, the nightmare visiting me every so often as I slept, always ending with me in that last tree at the end of the street, until one night when it occurred to me that I didn’t need another tree to escape, because I could fly. As the children began swarming at the base of the tree, reaching for its lowest limbs, I climbed up to the highest branch and looked up into the sky. I remember there was a bird coasting on the wind, barely working at all to stay aloft, and I decided to fly. I didn’t even have to leap, I just spread out my arms and rode the wind away from that tree on that street with those children. I never had that nightmare again.

Dreams make the impossible possible, they give us a chance to practice imagining a world different than the one in which we spend our waking hours.  For a little boy, the daily anxiety of navigating rooms filled with children who could be carelessly cruel seemed inescapable. In my dreams however I discovered that I could rise above my fears and found the freedom to explore the wider world.

Do you remember any of your childhood dreams?  What were they trying to tell you?  What new possibilities, what new worlds, did you create with your prophetic imagination?

lead_brueggemannI’m borrowing that phrase, “prophetic imagination,” from Walter Brueggemann, a biblical scholar who was interviewed by Krista Tippett a few years ago for her radio program “On Being.”  In that interview he said,

“I think at the broadest level, it is hard to talk about the fact — I think it’s a fact — that our society has chosen a path of death in which we have reduced everything to a commodity. We believe that there are technical solutions to everything, so it doesn’t matter whether you talk about over-reliance on technology, the mad pursuit of commodity goods, our passion for violence now expressed as our war policies. All of those are interrelated to each other and none of us, very few of us, really want to have that exposed as an inadequate and dehumanizing way to live. I think, if one is grounded in the truth of the gospel as a Christian that’s what we have to talk about.”

What Brueggemann is describing is our calling as Christians to imagine a world other than the one in which we live.  He describes the commodification of creation as the primary obstacle to envisioning a new world, and I agree.  We see this most easily in the advertising that surrounds us, a kind of waking dream in which impossible ideas get expressed as though they were reality — cosmetics equal beauty, cars equal power, cereal equals health, cell phones equal friendship, new homes equal family. The waking world in which we live and move and have our being has adopted the symbolism of our dreams, offering us a kind of pseudo-escape from the very real problems that pursue us. Except that, when we spread our wings and try to fly away from the anxieties of our lives in our new car, or our new home, or our new vacation, or our new phone, we find that we have really only leapt from one tree to the next, and our problems are still waiting for us.

What Peter preached to the people of Jerusalem, what Paul confessed to the people of Corinth, was not just another illusion, another substitute for the deepest longings of their hearts. What they offered was a new vision for the world, a living dream that was breaking into reality, that was calling people to renounce their old allegiances to empire and exploitation, to fear and accommodation.  The alternative they proposed was like a word spoken in a dream at the beginning of time, planted deep in the mind of every dreamer.  The word was light in dark places. The word was truth in a culture of lies. The word was power to the powerless.  The word was hope for the despairing.  The word was food for the hungry.  The word was love for the lonely. The word was life, rising up from every grave and waking every dreamer from the long night. The word was loose, and could not be contained, could not be silenced, could not be bought.

The word has a name, it is Jesus, and he is LORD.

When we say that, it is like the moment that sometimes happens while you are dreaming when you realize that you are in a dream, and it dawns on you that you might shape the dream rather than just observe it. Lucid dreaming, it’s called. When we say, “Jesus is LORD,” we are making the choice to not simply observe the world around us, but to change the world around us. We are committing ourselves to God’s dream for the world, and we are working to birth it into reality.

Sisters and brothers, these are the last days, and God’s Spirit has been poured out on us. We are God’s dreamers, God’s visionaries, God’s prophets. We rise from our beds like Christ rose from the tomb, undefeated by the powers and principalities of this world. We rise from our beds like Christ rose from the earth, glorifying the God of creation for whom nothing is impossible. We rise from our beds with stories to tell about the dreams and visions God has placed within us all, dreams that point the way to God’s preferred future.

Tell me, you prophets and seers, about your dreams. Tell one another. Can you see the new world coming? Come, let’s build it.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, January 5, 2014: Epiphany of the Lord (transferred)

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6  +  Psalm 72:1-7,10-14  +  Ephesians 3:1-12  +  Matthew 2:1-12

12-years-a-slave-quadI told you last Sunday that my family took in a movie together over the holidays.  Well, later that day Kerry and I returned to the theater, but this time just the two of us, to see 12 Years of Slave at the Logan.  I know some of you have already seen the movie, because we’ve talked about it. Lots of people are talking about it and the film seems on track to be nominated for all sorts of awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director.  There’ve been plenty of award-worthy movies this past year, and this one certainly holds its own against any of them.

The story begins in a somewhat unexpected place for a slave narrative in that the protagonist, Solomon Northup, an African-American man from Saratoga Springs, New York was not born into slavery. He’d been born free, and had lived as a free man until his early-30s, when he was kidnapped by slavers in the nation’s capital then taken to New Orleans and sold into slavery.

Much of the horror in the film comes from watching Solomon slowly internalize the rules and realities of slavery as a means of surviving. Immediately upon arriving in Louisiana he is given a new name, a new story, and each time he tries to assert the truth of his life he is punished swiftly and violently. In the dozen years he spends as a slave he sees first-hand how the evils of slavery have warped and distorted the minds and lives of all involved, slaves and slaveholders alike. Without minimizing the distinct suffering of African-American people under slavery, it seems to me that one of the movie’s central points is that racism enslaved us all.

We live in the age of “isms.” Racism. Sexism. Classism. Consumerism. As parts of speech each of these “isms” is a noun yet, unlike other objects, you can’t put your hands on them. If they are objects they are a sort of thought object. Ideas that obtain undeniable mass and reality as more and more people fall under their sway. The New Testament doesn’t use the language of “isms,” but refers instead to the “powers and principalities,” or as our translation of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians puts it “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10)

Like 12 Years a Slave, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a refutation of a mentality, of a spirituality, that divides the world into people “like us” whom God loves and saves, and “everyone else” who must then exist outside God’s care and concern and, therefore, can live outside our care and concern as well.

In the short passage we heard this morning, Paul gives a succinct summary of the mystery of Christ, “that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). It is a paradigm shift, a revolution in thought, a revolutionary thought. There is no God “for them” and a separate God “for us.” There is only one God, for all of us, who has created, and sustained, and redeemed us all.

The fact that I can say that and that we can all nod our heads in pleasant boredom shows the extent to which Christianity’s message of universal access and God’s grace has permeated our culture and consciousness. But there are clearly other thought regimes still enthroned in our collective minds that propose a different reality.

Do you remember how, after 9/11, Americans all of a sudden became much more interested in Islam then they’d been beforehand? Most Americans had been pretty content to let Muslims be Muslims, out-of-sight and out-of-mind, until long simmering anger at U.S. involvement in the Middle-East boiled over in acts of terrorism that made it impossible for us to ignore parts of the world as deeply shaped by Islam as the West has been by Christianity.

Blinded by fear and anger and loss, I remember hearing people — at work, on television, in churches — saying that they worshipped a different god, a god named Allah, who was not the same as the God made known to us by Jesus and the prophets. It was breath-taking how quickly our culture mobilized to make sure that anyone who fit the very poorly constructed profile of a “Muslim” — never mind if they were Arab or Assyrian or Persian, if they were Muslim or Hindu or Sikh — was understood as so “other” that they even belonged to another god. All of which, ultimately, was about making it easier for our nation to accept the idea of war. The first step in preparing to kill a person is to imagine that they are no person at all.

Which is part of what makes the Epiphany story so unexpected.

We are all familiar, I suspect, with the story of the three kings who came bearing gifts for the newborn baby Jesus. Listen closely to the story and you’ll realize that it says nothing about kings, or how many there were. Those are later additions to the tale that don’t show up anywhere in scripture. What Matthew’s gospel wants to get across is that these visitors are disciples of a different wisdom tradition, they are “wise people” who do not worship the God of Israel, yet have come to pay homage to the incarnation of God in Christ Jesus.

But these wise men aren’t simply foreigners, they are “from the east” — the direction of Babylon, or Persia, or Arabia. They are contrasted with King Herod the Great, who ruled in Jerusalem as a vassal of the Roman empire in the west, along with the chief priests and scribes of the people.

So one of the first scenes associated with Jesus’ ministry is the clash of empires, the Romans in the west, and the Parthians (or ancient Persians) in the east. Nothing plays out as expected, though. Rather than being accepted by his own people and rejected by the foreigners, Jesus is hunted down by his own king and venerated by those with no relation to him at all.

Again, the story has become so familiar to us that it’s very difficult for us to feel the sense of shock and awe the author intends. To get that, we would have to imagine something totally foreign to the everyday world as we experience it. Something like going to a baseball game at Wrigley Field and hearing in place of the national anthem a call to prayer issued in Arabic.

Something almost as odd happens about two-thirds of the way through 12 Years a Slave.  While working alongside his master and another hired hand, Samuel Bass, a White man from Canada, Solomon overhears a conversation in which one White man confronts another over the insanity of racism and the evils of slavery.

“The law can’t make a person a slave,” Bass says. “The law could change tomorrow and make you a slave. That wouldn’t mean it was true.”

Heard with our modern ears, this is the voice of reason and sanity. It is the voice of heroism, confronting the powers and principalities of this world. But, in the moment when such a conversation occurred, between an itinerant Canadian laborer and an American landowner and slaveholder, it was insanity. A paradigm shift that would upend an entire social order. A revolutionary thought.

When the prophet Isaiah stirs the nation of Israel from their sleep with the beautiful words, “Arise, shine; for your light has come,” he is speaking to people who are not yet fully restored. His audience is those who had returned from their exile in the East, who had been promised liberation but had only received a new kind of oppression in the form of poverty and occupation in a land that was once theirs, but was now ruled by others.

“Arise, shine; for your light has come” is what Isaiah says to people accustomed to life’s disappointments, struggling to imagine that anything new could ever take place in their lifetimes. So the prophet imagines it for them, describing a world they have never seen, but have always longed for.

“Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you … They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Isa. 60:4-5,6b)

Isaiah whispers words of hope to occupied imaginations and weary hearts, promising that someday the world will be drawn to the light of God’s truth, reflecting off of them; that the rich and the powerful of the earth will bring gifts suited for royalty to people treated like slaves.

Centuries later, as they told and retold the Jesus story, they realized that their long-awaited future had broken into the present. That in Jesus, a disrespected child born in a barn, brought into a world defined by empires and ruled by violence, all the disrespected bodies, all the occupied imaginations and weary hearts, had been honored. It signaled the beginning of a revolution.

Revolutions create revolutionaries, like Paul, who gladly endured imprisonment for the sake of the gospel, who writes, “This is the reason that I, Paul, am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles” (Eph. 3:1).  Paul, the prisoner, reveals the truth that we are all prisoners of one kind or another. We may be prisoners of the present order, like the slaveholder who cannot imagine a world in which any Black person is his equal; or we may be prisoners of another power and principality, any of the “isms” that are constantly campaigning for our hearts and minds — the sexism that tells you you are only worth as much as the man who picks you, or the militarism that tells you you are only as safe as the weapons you carry, or the consumerism that tells you you are only as precious as the objects you own; or we can become servants of Isaiah’s vision, reflecting the light of truth, that God desires to dignify all of humanity by reconciling and restoring us to one another.

Paul, liberated by a love that transformed his whole life and set him free from the violence of his own religious zealotry to choose imprisonment for the sake of people so very different from him says, “Of this gospel I have become a servant.” As the light of God’s truth consistently pulls the scales from our eyes, we too are invited to imagine a world without borders, an undivided humanity and a new creation.

Arise, shine; for your light has come.

Amen.

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