Sermons

A Pastoral Message on the Murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Countless Others

Content notice: The following message concerns the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other acts of violence against Black people in the United States. It was written with the community of students, staff, and faculty at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) in mind. I am sharing it publicly as part of the work I believe people of faith and goodwill are all called to at this moment: to offer a public witness in opposition to all the violent and murderous consequences of the racism on which the United States was built and has worked so hard to maintain.

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Beloved Community,

I am writing to you from a place of hurt and hopelessness, anger and confusion, in the wake of the latest in a series of homicides of Black people in Minneapolis, MN (George Floyd); Louisville, KY (Breonna Taylor); and Brunswick, GA (Ahmaud Arbery). These scattered sites remind us that this violence is not confined to any one place or region. Their common thread is the use of unchecked deadly force by police (active or retired) against Black people. This violence cannot be explained away as accidental or unfortunate, because it belongs to a pattern that can be seen all across the United States stretching back to its foundation. It continues because this nation allows it to continue and, specifically, because White people as a political majority allow it to continue.

There is so much that needs to be said and there are many teachers and preachers and leaders who are speaking out powerfully in their pulpits, on the news, across social media and in the streets. In this moment and in my role as pastor to this community, I want to say something focused on our relationships to one another as a school – a community of students, staff and faculty who have already been distanced from one another for weeks and are still struggling to find ways to stay connected in useful and meaningful ways. I’ll start with a short story from my own experience.

I was 25 years old in October, 1998 when Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Laramie, Wyoming, was beaten, tortured, and left to die on a fence post along a deserted rural road. This was well before the age of social media, so I found out what had happened on television along with everyone else. It was the middle of the day and I immediately left work so that I could be with other gay people to process our shock, anger, fear, and grief. When my parents reached out in an effort to console me, I told them I couldn’t speak to them, or to any straight people, yet. In those first raw moments, I could find no comfort outside of the community of people who shared my own experience – even from the people who had known me longest and loved me the most.

In a moment like this, when Black lives are snuffed out while camera phones capture and transmit the images across the world at the speed of light, we are all brought into one another’s presence virtually and immediately with no preparation or protection. Some among us need to withdraw, to be in the company of those who share their experience, to find safety and solace among those who do not need these tragedies to be unpacked and explained. Others are left reaching out, trying their best to say or do the right thing only to find their efforts unwelcome or inadequate to the needs of the moment. What is said is insufficient. What is left unsaid is negligent.

Holy scripture is filled with words of comfort and reassurance to people and communities under oppression and in exile. God speaks to the people through the prophet Isaiah with promises of protection and restoration,

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

(Isa. 43:1-2)

But those words can ring false and hollow in the face of unchecked evil and murderous power. So we join Jesus in recalling the words of the psalmist,

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”

(Psalm 22:1-2)

To members of our community of African descent, who carry the weight of daily uncertainty because of the color of your skin, I simply want to say what should go without saying: that your lives matter, that your experience is sacred and holy, that your truths are trustworthy, that your anger requires no apologies.

To other communities of color among us, who also face deadly racism every day, I want to add to the above what you already know to be true: your stories and experiences are not secondary or subordinate in this moment, your strength and your struggles are essential to any true movement for liberation, that you belong everywhere and anywhere you choose to make your home.

To those in our community who are White I want to say: I know that your hearts also break, that you may struggle with confusion and uncertainty about what to say or how to act, that you wrestle with feelings of guilt and defensiveness when confronted with reality of racism and its consequences, and that you are no less necessary in the work of dismantling racism. In fact, the opposite is true: we must use every bit of unearned power and privilege afforded us by this racist system to take it apart from the inside out.

The work of reformation is ongoing and is possible only by God’s power and through God’s grace. We are witnesses to that truth. May each of us, in all the ways we can, offer our testimonies to the living, loving, and liberating presence of God – the one who brings power and life to people and places left for dead.

In Christ,

Pastor Erik

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Sermons

Sermon: Monday, September 25, 2017: Lectionary 25 / Proper 20

This sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) on Monday, September 25th.

Texts: Jonah 3:10 — 4:11  +  Psalm 145:1-8  +  Matthew 20:1-16

In my own personal history of interpretation, this parable of Jesus has gone through a series of evolutions — each one raising different questions, none fully exhausting the possibilities of the story, which I suspect is an intentional teaching strategy on Jesus’ part.

godly-consumer-art1As a confirmand, this story was presented to me as a parable of grace. The workers clearly perform different amounts of labor, yet are rewarded equally. I was nine years old when I got my first paper route to earn money toward the plane ticket that would take me to Thailand with my parents when we adopted my sister. As soon as I was legally able, at age fourteen, I got a part-time job at McDonald’s after school and on the weekends, so that I’d have some spending money to keep up with the consumer demands placed on young people who want to fit in with their peers. Early on, I’d accepted the social contract that my time was a commodity to be bought and sold on the labor market. As such, the wage slave in me knew that this story was, somehow, unfair. People who work more hours should get more pay.

But, I was taught, grace is not for sale and cannot be earned — and this is a story about grace. So the hard working student in me set his mind to mastering this bit of Lutheran dogma — there is nothing I can say or do to earn God’s grace, love, or forgiveness. God, like the owner of the vineyard, is free to do as God wishes. And what God wishes is for everyone to live upon the earth equally.

Later on, after college, I spent a year teaching junior high in the Boston Public School system. I learned a lot that year about the art of teaching, stuff I’d read in books about developmental psychology took on three dimensions in the young people with whom I spent my days. As I struggled to scale the undergraduate education of which I was so proud down to an age-appropriate takeaway for the twelve to fourteen year olds before me, I began to wonder what had been stripped out of my own Christian education and formation.

Like this parable. Was God really like the owner of the McDonald’s franchise down the street from my folks’ house in Des Moines? Was the only thing being critiqued in this story the sense of injustice felt by the workers when the value of their labor was set aside for some kind of non-negotiated guaranteed income? I’d had just enough exposure to both Marx and post-modernism in college to be suspicious of this (and every) text. I wanted better answers to my questions.

In seminary I learned to read scripture with an awareness of the history surrounding each text, to ask questions about how power and wealth operated in the lives of the people who would have heard these stories first so that I could make better guesses about what these stories might have sounded like to their ears. I began to learn how military occupation had transformed a subsistence economy into an export economy, how ancestral lands had been stolen by invading powers, how peoples who’d once worked the land or fished the sea to feed their families now worked the land and fished the sea to earn a wage off of which their families could barely survive. I wondered why Jesus would tell such people a story about a land owner who took away their last inalienable asset, their labor, and would identify God with such an actor. God as the conquering power, the robber baron, the proto-industrialist, the erratic capitalist. My childhood faith held firm, that God wishes for everyone to live upon the earth equally, but how this story conveyed that message was far less clear.

In 1989 Peggy McIntosh published the article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” giving fresh language and a new conceptual framework to an enduring problem. Twenty years later in 2009 she published a shorter, lesser known, article titled, White People Facing Race: Uncovering the Myths that Keep Racism in Place. In it, McIntosh asserts that white people “resist looking at racism because we fear damage to ourselves as ‘good people’ in the ‘greatest country’ in the world,” and asks the question, “how have whites kept such a strong sense of pride and deservedness?”

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The answer she proposes is that white people have been raised on five strong cultural myths: meritocracy, manifest destiny, white racelessness, monoculture, and white moral elevation. It is the first of these myths, the myth of meritocracy, that draws my attention as I think about this strange parable of Jesus and wonder what he was doing when he told it to these occupied people in first century Palestine.

In her essay, McIntosh defines meritocracy as

“The myth that the individual is the only unit of society, and that whatever a person ends up with must be what [they] individually wanted, worked for, earned and deserved. This myth rests on the assumption that what people experience; how they see, feel, think, and behave; and what they are capable of accomplishing are not influenced by any social system or circumstance. The myth of meritocracy acknowledges no systems of oppression or privilege that, for various people and in various situations, could make life arbitrarily more, or less, difficult.”

When I look back and try to remember what nine year old Erik thought, as he delivered the newspaper; or what fourteen year old Erik thought, as he passed milkshakes through the window at the drive through, it’s complicated. There was some resentment, in that I realized that not everyone seemed to need to work in the ways I did to have the things I wanted. And there was some pride in discovering that when I worked hard, I could affect my environment. As a young person, who often had very little control over my environment, this was an empowering discovery. But I suspect it also laid the groundwork for a false logic that the powers of racism and capitalism later exploited: the assumption that everyone could just do what I did and get what I’d gotten. The myth of meritocracy.

I wonder if Jesus told this parable to people whose ancient ways of being and belonging were being disrupted as a way of agitating them, intentionally provoking them, helping them to remember that they had once been more than wage slaves and that in God’s economy they’d never been slaves at all. Could it be that this story wasn’t comparing God to a wealthy landowner, but instead critiquing the ways that both oppressor and oppressed come to accept and internalize the myths that structure and support all the violence that follows from them?

The myth of meritocracy is just that, a myth. It’s simply impossible that any of us is self-made. We are all products of the complex web of relationships that connects us to one another. For this reason, it’s just as impossible to say that any of us are getting what we deserve in any individual sense. Individually we are all simultaneously paying it forward and cashing in on the labor of others. It is only collectively that we might be able to say that we are reaping what we have sown.

Therefore, because we have sown fear of our neighbors, we have reaped this new travel ban. Because we have sown colonialism we have reaped devastation in the form of hurricane damage in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean that could have been mitigated if the United States had invested in infrastructure and the economy long ago. Because we have sown white supremacy and enforced it with a militarized police force, we have reaped a national discourse in which taking a knee and proclaiming that Black Lives Matter is tantamount in the eyes of many to an act of treason. Here, the “we” I speak of stands in for all the various estate owners in my current understanding of this parable of Jesus; who are, most often, white people.

But our unpacking of this parable remains incomplete if we do not also ask ourselves how we have internalized the myth of meritocracy. How old were each of you when you learned the rules of this deadly game? When and how did you start playing by the rules? How has accepting the rules of this rigged game saved your life? How has it destroyed your relationships? What did you have to give up to get over?

I don’t think my confirmation teachers were lying to me when they bottom lined this parable as a story demonstrating that God’s love is free and cannot be earned. I just think they knew that we were only just beginning to understand the rules of the game, and that they themselves were caught up in the myth. I still believe, I know, that God wishes for everyone to live upon the earth equally. I also believe, I know, that Jesus will keep troubling my certainties and disrupting my attempts to accommodate myself to the lies this world tells, until we can all remember that we are all in this together.

Amen.

Hear this sermon preached aloud here.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 20, 2017: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 56:1,6-8  +  Psalm 67  +  Romans 11:1-2a,29-32  +  Matthew 15:10-28

Jesus called to the crowd and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

It was a provocative statement. By referencing “what goes into the mouth,” Jesus is playing identity politics, intentionally provoking the crowd and raising tension in the scene. “What goes into the mouth” is a reference to dietary law, to the Torah, to ideas about purity found in the book of Leviticus. It brings to mind not only laws about what can and cannot be eaten, but who can and cannot be married, who is and is not part of the people called “Israel.” The moment Jesus says, “it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles” he has issued a very specific challenge to the idea of ethnic nationalism that was a given norm in his day.

Ethnic nationalism. God save us from ethnic nationalism.

 

You know, that’s not just the plea of a broken and exhausted heart — which is exactly how I expect we are feeling after a week of repulsive demonstrations of racist demonstrations and defenses of white supremacy: broken and exhausted — it is also a description of what is happening in this biblical story. God is saving us from ethnic nationalism.

“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person,” Jesus says. It is not our ideas of ethnic purity and racial superiority that define us, Jesus implies. “But it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

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“Blood and Soil”

Where to even begin? The things we have heard coming out of people’s mouths in recent days. They turn my stomach. “Blood and soil.” “You will not replace us.” “Jews will not replace us.” Words even more vulgar than these. The rallying cries of the Nazis and the Klan, which we’re supposed to call “neo” to indicate that this is the new incarnation of racism, except nothing about it feels new at all.

Jesus exposes the ultimate consequences of constructing an identity, personal or national, on ideas of race and ethnicity. Because it seems to be almost second nature for us to deride, degrade, despise whatever is different. Jesus says as much in his explanation of the parable, “out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” (Mt. 15:1-28) In other words, we ought to be less concerned with the dangers we imagine others represent, and more concerned with the very real and ever present dangers that live within our own hearts.

Then, in an ironic twist, the scene shifts and we get an illustration of just how hard it is to do the work of uncovering our own biases and prejudices. Having just lectured the disciples and the crowds on the dangers of ethnic nationalism, Jesus encounters a Caananite woman in desperate need of aid — her daughter is being tormented by a demon — and Jesus sends her away precisely because of her ethnicity. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” I came to take care of my own. Foreigners go home. Whites only. That kind of talk.

It’s shocking. This is not the Jesus we know, not the Jesus we talk about. This Jesus punctures the myth of perfection we’ve wrapped around history and shows us something troubling. Something, perhaps, we’d rather not see.

How many times over the course of the last two weeks have you heard someone say, “This is not who we are as a nation!” “This is not my America.” But, of course, we know that this in fact is who we are as a nation. This is our America. These are the myths upon which our nation was built. This is the original sin of our birth. We are a nation built on the lie of race. The power and prosperity this country has amassed over the last two hundred and fifty years was stolen from indigenous peoples, extracted from enslaved African peoples, and compounded by exploited immigrant peoples. This is who we are as a nation. Still. Today. As we pursue trade policy that keeps our goods cheap by exploiting foreign labor. As we preserve what we have secured by the threat of violence. You don’t have to march with a tiki torch to benefit from the racism, the ethnic nationalism, that built this country and underwrites the privileges we take for granted.

indexThat’s the nature of sin, it captures us in its constructs whether we choose to participate or not. We are not pure or impure on the basis of our individual choices or decisions. We are, as Dr. King said back in 1959, “tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.  And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” He went on to say, “For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”

It seems also to be part of the nature of our sin that we quickly perceive the ways we are oppressed, but ignore or deny the power we have to oppress others. So Jesus, who is able to see so clearly how the purity codes enshrined in the law of Israel have engendered a spirituality of separatism cannot see how he himself has internalized that ethos. He, who has the power to heal, does not immediately recognize his own power and privilege as he encounters this Caananite woman. As prepared as he was to notice and name the sin around him, he was not immediately ready to confront the sin within himself.

That, of course, is a heretical statement. I’ve just uttered heresy. Mark the date and time. Scripture, elsewhere, says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21), and that’s fine for the argument Paul is making to the Corinthians. But here, I think, scripture is showing us something equally true, equally valuable. Something we need to pay attention to and not explain away. Jesus, the Beloved child of God, the one the church has called fully God and fully human, shows us what it looks like when the myth of perfection cracks against the facts of history. When gospel promise meets human prejudice. The one we least expect to participate in the broken structures of human sin, who has just condemned ethnic nationalism and called on those who follow him to watch what comes out of their mouths, calls this woman, a mother fighting for her child’s life, a dog.

You hear the insult don’t you?

He calls this woman, a Caananite woman, a woman of color, he calls her a dog.

You hear the word, don’t you?

This ugliness is in us all. I’m sorry, but it just is. No matter how many workshops you’ve been to. No matter how many friends you have who are Black, or Trans, or immigrants, or disabled. No matter where you studied abroad, or served for a year as a missionary. Our hearts carry the scars of centuries, even millenia, of division. We learn the alphabet of its violent words before we are old enough to speak in subtle gestures, in micro-aggressions. We learn to fear and despise whatever is not us, then we try to unlearn it, then we feel guilt and shame for having been taught it, then we feel powerless to end it, so then we take one of a dozen different paths: we ignore it, we deny it, we rationalize it, we defend it, we embrace it — or we commit to dismantling it, without holding ourselves to the expectation that perfection will somehow be reached this side of eternity.

Jesus, in his humanity, does the thing we have all done. He says exactly the wrong thing. But she does not give up, she argues with him, she takes his insult and turns it back on him. She wrestles with God, like Jacob along the banks of the Jabbok.

And wasn’t it by wrestling with God that Israel got its name? This thing the Caananite woman does, isn’t it so like what Jacob did when he said, “I will not let you go until you bless me!” What would it look like, if a nation, a people, were defined not by adherence to an impossible idea of purity, but by a shared commitment to wrestle together with God, to hold on for dear life until we are blessed, to weave the single garment of destiny, to embrace the inescapable network of mutuality?

For me, it looks like baptism. Ordinary water combined with God’s promise that all people are God’s people. Water that makes us pure, not by erasing our difference, but by washing away everything that hides the image of God native to us all.

This morning we have baptized Sophie Geneva, revealing the truth that she belongs to God. So do you. So do I. So does everybody. We make this claim by faith, trusting in God to heal us all.

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