Sermon: Sunday, January 4, 2015: Epiphany of the Lord (transferred)

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

A few years ago on one of his trips to Chicago to hang out with me and Kerry, we took my dad to the Adler Planetarium. I hadn’t been to a planetarium since childhood, and didn’t know entirely what to expect aside from a memory of a darkened auditorium and an old-fashioned globe casting pin-prick maps of constellations in the sky against the inside of a half-dome. What we found instead was a state-of-the-art museum dedicated to educating the public about humanity’s explorations into space and time.

_DSC5778One exhibit in particular has stuck in my mind. It was a 3D film about the birth of the universe, the so-called big bang, and the rapid expansion that has followed ever since. Using images taken from deep in space by the Hubble telescope, the film gave me a glimmer of understanding of the size and scope of the known universe. It showed a small section of the night sky as we see it here in Chicago and zoomed in reveal a region of spacetime containing hundreds of thousands of galaxies and millions of stars all racing away from the center of the universe as it continues to expand at an unimaginable rate. As the film returned to the familiar first-person perspective of a person standing on the shore of Lake Michigan staring up into the night sky I felt myself awed and unsettled. The universe is vast and unknowable, and we are smaller than specks of dust on a tiny planet circling a single sun in a galaxy that is but one among billions.

The night sky we look at is virtually the same as the sky our ancestors looked at two thousand years ago, but our perspective is radically different. They lived with a cosmology that imagined the world to be flat, with waters held back beyond the sky by a dome high in heavens and resting upon other waters deep below and around the earth. They thought the stars were finite and fixed, and that they narrated the exploits of humanity’s course throughout the ages. Essentially, their world was much smaller than ours. The answers they proposed solved problems whose very premises no longer make sense to us, who now implicitly trust in a universe defined by laws of gravity and relativity articulated over the last few centuries and built into every facet of our lives from satellite-assisted global navigation systems to precision time-keeping. Our ancestors would barely recognize us as members of the same species, and when we consider what that means we find them and their stories equally as foreign.

We, then, are like the wise men from the East described in Matthew’s gospel who arrive at the scene of Jesus’ birth using foreign technology and alien religious practices to make their way to the vast and limitless God who takes on particularity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, born at a moment in history, in space and time. We have to slow ourselves down a bit to hear it, since the story has become so familiar after two thousand years, but to its first audience the story of foreigners following a star in the heavens was not a story about following traditions, but breaking them. To us, the wise men and their star are figures carved in alabaster in the crèche making their way toward the manger year after year, printed on calendars and surrounded by legends. To the first-century Jews who were Matthew’s audience, they were foreigners who did not know Israel’s stories, Israel’s prophets, Israel’s God. When they arrive, they do not do as Mary does in Luke’s gospel, they do not quote Israel’s scripture to interpret Israel’s present. Instead they rely on a foreign and foreclosed source of knowledge: the stars. Moses taught,

When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. No one shall be found among you who … practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur … (Deut. 18:9-10)

And the prophet Isaiah dismissed the power of wisdom found outside Israel’s traditions, saying,

You are wearied with your many consultations; let those who study the heavens stand up and save you, those who gaze at the stars, and at each new moon predict what shall befall you. See, they are like stubble, the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame. No coal for warming themselves is this, no fire to sit before! (Isa. 47:13-14)

So it comes as a surprise when Matthew, whose gospel is so thoroughly oriented toward Jewish tradition and who presents Jesus as a new kind of Moses, introduces these three wise foreigners who make their way toward this incarnation of God by means of their own native wisdom and traditions.

For centuries the church has told this story as one of triumph, to say that from his very birth people of every nation flocked to Jesus as the definitive incarnation of God in human history. Indeed, there is a theme established by this story in Matthew that will be developed throughout that gospel where those closest to Jesus fail to recognize who he is as those outside the community, and even demons, immediately recognize him as the Son of God.  From there it was only a small leap for the church to begin to imagine itself as the Holy Family, as Mary and Joseph receiving the gifts and recognition of outsiders from around the known world who were coming to faith in God through Christ Jesus. In this mode, we often heard this story preached and taught as one about evangelism, that God welcomes into God’s house people from every nation, bringing every kind of gift.

I think we’re living in a different era however. As the church struggles with the birthing pangs that are delivering it into a new station in society, ushering it into a world where it is established not at the center of mass culture but on its margins, this story takes on a new significance for all of us as we see ourselves in the role of the wise people from different and distant lands, feeling our way forward with sources of knowledge and revelation previously discounted, even disrespected, but now seen to be powerfully accurate in guiding us toward God’s manifestation in this day and age.

We experience this as people who trust and rely on the insights of science to teach us about the nature of the observable world and our history within it. We generally take for granted what previous generations found blasphemous: that the earth is much, much older than the stories passed down by our various religious traditions; that humanity emerged as a species through a process of evolution that connects us to all other life on the planet; that the earth is not the center of the universe and does not exist for the sake of humanity alone. In this, we are like wise people from the east, feeling our way toward God even as we lean on and learn from sources of wisdom and knowledge that challenge and sometimes contradict received traditions.

We experience this as people who go to work each day with people of different religious identities, and who claim no religious identity at all; as people who are related by blood, adoption, marriage and affection to people from around the world and people who live in and among us with different ethnic and cultural traditions. We have worked alongside, dined with, listened to, learned from, and loved people whose vision of God is not only different, but often irreconcilable with our own. Yet we continue to navigate toward a shared future by sharing our stories and listening to each other’s, knowing that truth is not only found in our history and experience, but outside it as well.

It is in light of this rich diversity and unexpected openness that I hear Paul’s words to the Ephesians,

This grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Eph. 3:8b-10)

What I hear today with fresh ears is Paul’s hope and vision that the church would participate in revealing the rich variety, the rich diversity, of the wisdom of God. Note that he does not say that he was tasked with bringing the boundless riches of Christ to the Gentiles, but that he was charged with bringing the news of the boundless riches of Christ, as if to say that he is sharing news of what already is true — that the wisdom of God in its rich variety is found among all peoples and nations.

What a different church we might be if we imagined ourselves not as the star’s destination, but as the wise travelers feeling our way forward together, guided by light coming to us from the far reaches of space and time and governed by laws that have governed us all even before we could name them or know them. A church on the lookout for God’s wisdom shining throughout creation, among our neighbors, our enemies, even ourselves. A church on the margins speaking to the rulers and authorities about what can be learned when we stop hungering to live at the center.

That church, that society of diversity, that rich variety is coming into view in our lifetimes. It is a revelation, an epiphany, a manifestation of God among us challenging our most basic ideas about membership, citizenship, identity and belonging. It is a place we are finding together, which will demand all our gifts and talents, and which will take us down roads none of us have ever walked before.

Thanks be to God!



Sermon: Sunday, June 23, 2013: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 1 Kings 19:1-15a  +  Psalms 42 & 43  +  Galatians 3:23-29  +  Luke 8:26-39

amos-mlkThroughout the summer we’ve been enrolled in what I’ve been calling “A School for Prophets,” following the stories from Hebrew scripture of the prophets of Israel.  Within this series, for the last few weeks, we’ve been focusing specifically on the prophet Elijah, who was called to speak out against the idolatry of Israel’s king, Ahab, and his wife, Jezebel.  We’ve remembered the story of the widow of Zarephath, who fed Elijah out of her meager pantry.  We’ve witnessed as Elijah called down fire on the prophets of Baal.  We heard with horror how Jezebel engineered a plot to steal Naboth’s birthright. Throughout, we’ve been challenged to understand that prophesy is less a form of fortune-telling, and more a vocation of truth-telling, a vocation that is not confined to the past, but is called for in every age.

If this summer School for Prophets had a textbook, something other than the bible, something more like those heavy hardbound chapter books we got back in high school and lugged around in backpacks, then today’s lesson would be laid out in a single page, followed by two case studies or examples.  The chapter would be titled something like, “The Freedom of a Prophet.”

The lesson, in its simplest form, comes not from Hebrew scripture, but from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  He is writing to a community of people who have begun to turn away from his teaching, who have begun to impose a kind of legalism onto the faith they’d received, making their religion into an exercise in following the right rules rather than cultivating and maintaining relationships.

“Now before faith came,” he writes, “we were imprisoned and guarded under the law.”  In the narrowest sense, the law Paul is referring to is not Roman law, but Jewish law.  It seems that the people who have come around since he left Galatia have been teaching a different gospel.  Paul had taught that we are all justified, or made right with God, through faith — which is to say, through a living, loving, trusting, dynamic relationship.  Those who came after Paul were teaching that in order to be right with God, to be justified, the people needed to follow a set of rules and practices connected with Jewish faith and life.

Remember that Paul was speaking as a Jew to and among other Jews.  So, in his context, he was experiencing a reformation of religious identity.  He was talking and teaching others about what it meant to be freed from slavish religious legalism, and to experience relationship with God as a source of liberation, not regulation.  If we wanted to draw parallels to our own day and time, rather than contrasting our religious experience with people from other religions, it would be more appropriate for us to look for examples within our own tradition, or even our own lives, where we have come to experience faith in God as a living, loving, trusting, dynamic relationship.

But, just as we think we’re beginning to understand what Paul is talking about.  Just when we’re beginning to think this religious liberation sounds pretty good, Paul continues,

“for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:27-28)

You and me, we live in an age of growing comfort with and acceptance of religious pluralism and multiculturalism.  So, to us, this passage may just sound like the preamble to a song from “Free to be You and Me.”  But try to hear these words with other ears, ears tuned to the dynamics of power, violence and abuse.

Instead of “there is no longer Jew or Greek,” try on “there is no longer American or Afghan;” or “there is no longer White or Black or Latino or Native or Asian or Arab.”  Even for those of us who embrace diversity and strive for something better than mere tolerance of difference, Paul’s words feel dangerous.  We don’t want our differences to be demolished.  We aren’t looking for one identity into which we can all be dropped, erasing all that makes each of us distinct.

Instead of “there is no longer slave or free,” try on “there is no longer undocumented or born-and-bred,” or “there is no longer hungry or well-fed,” or “there is no longer rich and poor.”  Now Paul’s rhetoric sounds not only foolish, but feeble.  What can he have meant?  In his day there quite clearly were citizens and there were slaves.  In our day there are quite clearly citizens and undocumented, people with papers and people without.  People with wealth, people with food, and people without.

Finally, he says, “there is no longer male and female.”  Here the pattern has been broken.  Paul has said Jew or Greek, slave or free; but now he says male and female.  This is an echo of the language we first heard in Genesis, when God sets out to create humanity saying,

“let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God did God create them; male and female God created them.” (Gen. 1:26-27)

Men and women are created in the image and likeness of God, but in Paul’s day and to this day, men and women both here in the United States and around the globe are not treated equally.  Whether we look at women’s pay, women’s education, women’s access to health, or rates of violence against women, it is clear that the world has not set its societies up to affirm what our scriptures tell us is true, that both men and women are created in the image and likeness of God.

Far from being some kind of proto-hippie love anthem on how we should all just be free, and get along, and enjoy our diversity, Paul has rejected a rules-based religion in favor of a relationship-centered faith in which we are called to live and act as though all the people with whom we are in very complicated relationships of power and privilege are integral to our own life, are a part of our own body.

This kind of living is a prophetic challenge to everything we’ve been taught about what it means to be free, because it means our freedom is not from other people, it is for other people.

So now, if we were reading our “School of Prophets” textbooks, we would come to the case studies, one from the gospel of Luke, the other from First Kings.  Both of these stories are incredibly rich, and deserving of a slow reading in a solid bible study, or a full sermon of their own.  I’m not going to be able to do either, so I’ll just make a plug here for another way you can delve into these texts.

Beginning next week, and running through the rest of the summer, there’s going to be a Sunday morning adult bible study on the prophets we’re covering in worship from 9am – 10am.  These bible studies are being led by Ray Pickett, Greg Singleton and Erika Dornfeld, each of whom brings a deep understanding of scripture and a unique perspective on how the vocation of the prophets is shared by each of us who, by baptism, has “put on Christ,” who himself inherited the mantle of the prophets.  I am looking forward to learning from all three of these teachers, and I hope you’ll make an effort to join me for at least a couple of these two week units on each of the prophets.

To return to the texts, I want to draw our attention to a feature that each text has in common: their endings.

In the gospel of Luke we hear the story of the Gerasene demoniac who has been chained up in a graveyard, possessed by demons who say their name is “Legion,” whom Jesus exorcises into a herd of swine that then run off a cliff and into the sea.  As I said, this story deserves a good long bible study.

But as the story comes to its conclusion, the Gerasenes, the people who had chained this demon-possessed man up in their graveyard have asked Jesus to leave them.  Jesus, by casting out their demons, has disrupted their social order.  They’d had a system for handling their demons, namely by scapegoating a man they kept chained up like a slave.  Now that he’d been set free, they were afraid.  Jesus does what they ask, and leaves them there on the far side of the sea, and the man he has healed begs to come with him.

But Jesus sends him away, saying, “return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you. So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” (Luke 8:38-39)

Jesus may have freed this man of his demons, but he will not liberate him from his people.  Even though he will still be an outcast among the Gerasenes, though now for a different reason, Jesus does not invite this man to leave his community and withdraw to some better place among better people somewhere else.  Instead, liberated from death, he is sent back to proclaim a new world order.  Set free for, not from.

In the story we hear from First Kings, Elijah — like the Gersasene demoniac — is enduring a kind of living death.  He’s not chained up in a graveyard, but he is hiding in a cave from Queen Jezebel who has promised to see him dead within a day.

As Elijah is hiding out, away from the people God sent him to serve and to save, the word of the Lord comes to him, saying, “what are you doing here, Elijah?”  Elijah offers his complaint, essentially saying, “this prophetic work is hard work, it has not made me any friends, and I’m worried that I will lose my life.”  God tells Elijah to go stand on the mountaintop, the place where God had traditionally met God’s people, and then we hear all the ways that God had traditionally been manifest among the people — winds, earthquakes and fires.  But God was not present to Elijah in those ways.  Instead God was present in silence.

Again, God asks what Elijah is doing hiding out in a cave; and again, Elijah complains that this work is hard, and it has not made him many friends, and he is worried that he will lose his life.  But, does God carry him away from this danger and hardship to be with better people in some better place somewhere else.  No, instead God says, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”

Here, in the School for Prophets, I think we learn one of a prophet’s hardest lessons.  The prophet is called to live with, to love, to lead in a world that, frankly, didn’t ask for the word the prophets have been sent to deliver.  Paul’s radical relationships sounded a lot harder than rule-based religion, and people weren’t sure they wanted to stick with it.  The Gerasenes had figured out how to manage their demon problem, and keeping one guy chained up in a graveyard seemed like an acceptable price to pay for their relative freedom.

The prophetic word wasn’t welcome in Israel under Ahab and Jezebel, and it’s not really all that welcome here, in Logan Square and Humboldt Park, in Chicago, in the United States, among the nations.  Because the prophetic word is this: there is no escaping each other.  There is no freedom from each other.  There is no neighborhood you can live in that exempts you from the violence done in other communities.  There is no wall you can build that keeps one nation separated from another.  There is no trade agreement you can sign that can differentiate the humanity of one worker from another.  There is no getting away from each other.  We are all in this together.

Even in our churches, we sometimes come, huddling, like Elijah in his cave, stinging from the hurts of so much hard work out there in the world.  Hoping God will maybe show up this Sunday to say, “well, yes, that’s enough.  You can be done now.”  But God doesn’t do that, because somewhere there is still a widow in Zarephath running out of food, and somewhere there is still a man chained up in a graveyard, longing to be free.

So, instead of giving us a way out, God gives us each other, a company of prophets.  Freed, not from the world, but for the world.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.