Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 21, 2016: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 58:9b-14  +  Psalm 103:1-8  +  Hebrews 12:18-29  +  Luke 13:10-17

Well, he told them he had come to bring fire to the earth; to bring division, not peace. Now it was time to make good on his campaign promises and the opportunity came soon afterward, as he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. When we read that Jesus was teaching on the sabbath I suspect we hear that word as a day of the week, as if Luke’s gospel is simply saying “one Saturday Jesus was teaching in the synagogue,” but it’s much more than that.

This story begins with the detail that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath, not so that we will observe that Jesus went to church on the weekend like we do, not so that we will remark that he was a popular speaker who booked great gigs on the preaching circuit, because we know that Jesus was teaching and preaching and healing all the time, wherever he went on whatever day it happened to be. When Jesus healed a boy seized by spirits, Luke’s gospel doesn’t mention the day of the week. When Jesus healed Jairus’ daughter and the hemorrhaging woman, no one remarks on what day of the week it is. When Jesus casts the legion of demons out of the man chained up in the country of the Gerasenes no one bothers to record on which day that miracle took place. So the framing of this story with the fact that it took place in the synagogue on the sabbath matters. Without that detail, the rest of the story doesn’t make sense.

To begin by saying that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath is to begin by reminding us that the God shown in Jesus is a covenant-making, promise-keeping God. That God is faithful. To begin by saying that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath is to remind us how the sabbath came to be. In the word “sabbath,” we hear the echoes of Israel’s liberation from the slavery of Egypt and the covenant made with the people, the giving of the law and the Ten Commandments with the sabbath as the sign of that covenant.

The Third Commandment

When we hear the word “sabbath” we’re supposed to remember all of this and more. Those of us who were raised on Luther’s Small Catechism hear his brief explanation of the Third Commandment (“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy”) explained as meaning that “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn it.” Of course, Luther had much more to say about the sabbath — as he had much more to say about practically everything. In Luther’s Large Catechism, he offers a much richer reflection on the ethical importance of the Third Commandment:

“We do not observe holy days for the sake of intelligent and well-informed Christians, for they have no need of them. We observe them, first, because our bodies need them. Nature teaches and demands that the common people — menservants and maidservants who have gone about their work or trade all week long — should also retire for a day to rest and be refreshed. Second and most important, we observe them so that people will have time and opportunity on such days of rest, which otherwise would not be available, to attend worship services, that is, so that they may assemble to hear and discuss God’s Word and then to offer praise, song, and prayer to God.”

Luther says that we observe the sabbath, not for the sake of intelligent and well-informed Christians, but because our bodies need it. There is a whole other sermon to be preached right at this point about the connection between the sabbath and the labor movement, and the long, proud history of working people facing all kinds of opposition to preserve for themselves and for their children and neighbors the right to rest. Because Labor Day is only two weeks away and because we will once again have a speaker with us from Arise Chicago, a faith-based labor justice organization, I will move on from that point for now, but I’m sure we can all hear the call to action.

Instead, let’s hold on to Luther’s assertion that the sabbath is intended first and foremost for our bodies’ rest and return to the scene in Luke’s gospel where Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath, where a crowd has gathered to hear him speak. Keep in mind that Jesus is not teaching from a pulpit and the crowd is not seated in chairs or pews. Jesus may, in fact, have been seated. The crowd may have been standing around him or in front of him. It would be hard to see past the first row of faces, to know who was in the room, particularly if you were in the back, or if you were short, or if you were hunched over as one of the women was who’d been afflicted for eighteen years.

Jesus does see her, though. He sees the curve of her spine, the way it takes a great effort for her to walk. He sees the arch in her neck that makes even the simple act of looking up from the ground a painful act of resistance. He sees her body’s hard labor, its bondage to a condition that makes leaving her home a great ordeal. When I read about this woman, I think of our sister, Betty Feilinger, who is home this morning because of sciatica that has afflicted her for the last few years. Betty, who for most of her life enjoyed walking a few miles every day all around Logan Square, but has had difficulty leaving her house since her most recent surgery. How lonely it must be to feel so cut off from the people around you by a physical ailment over which you have no control. I believe Jesus saw that as well.

Now comes the challenge, the dramatic tension in the story. The crowd that has come to hear Jesus speak has heard of his miraculous healings elsewhere, and we who have read Luke’s gospel to this point know that he has the power to free her from the spirit that has bent her over. The only thing stopping him is the body of law that has grown up around the practice of keeping the sabbath. As a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people, the people have developed a complex set of customs and regulations for ensuring that no labor takes place on the sabbath, rules that prevent a farmer from farming, a fisher from fishing, and a healer from healing. Rules that go so far as to regulate that one’s oxen and donkeys ought to be untied so as to allow them to experience rest as well. So, in this moment, will Jesus show faithfulness to the law or to this “daughter of Abraham,” this woman who was also a part of the covenant community established by God’s word.

We know how the story ends, but let’s linger for just a little while longer in the space between the moment when Jesus first sees the woman bent low and the decision to call her over and set her free. That moment of opposition, between what Jesus had been taught to do and what he had been called to do. Because we confess that Jesus is Lord, that the Christ who comes to save is the visible face of the invisible God, it is hard to imagine that there was any gap between seeing and acting. After all, this is the same Jesus who berated the crowd by asking them, “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Now the moment is upon him. Where does he find the courage to act, to do something new, to claim the authority to keep the spirit of the law by disobeying the letter of the law?

I think it was by knowing the stories and the histories, by claiming the people’s customs and traditions that he found the strength and inspiration to challenge and reform them. It was because he knew that Moses confronted Pharaoh and led the people through Red Sea on their way to freedom, because he knew that Joshua marched around the walls of Jericho until God brought them tumbling down, because he knew the stories of God’s faithfulness to God’s people, shown through the empowered and empowering acts of God’s prophets in every age. Jesus was a descendant of those heroes, women and men, who by faith saw the distance between the way things are and the way they ought to be, and who braved the leap of faith each one of us must make when we look out at the world today and wonder if we, too, are descendants of God’s holy people. If we, too, are people of the covenant.

We are all this, and more. As people marked by the covenant made with us in baptism, we make the absurd claim that we are connected not by bonds of blood but by bonds of water. We claim that we are living members of the body of Christ, that we have those eyes and those ears, that we are those hands and those feet, that our mouths are filled with words that flow from the same source as the words that flowed from Jesus’ own mouth when he looked at the woman the world had overlooked and said, “you are set free” (Lk 13:12).

We are constantly living in the moment between seeing this woman and calling out to her. There are always customs and regulations and laws, traditions cultivated to serve and protect us, which over time have come to choke and restrain us. In the face of such great opposition, we must remember our heritage. We are people marked by God’s promises, blessed with bodies that God made and God loves. We are destined for liberation, not bondage. Because God has shown such faithfulness to us, we are already free. How shall we use our freedom? Who shall we stand beside? How will our lives sing with the praise of those have known what it is to be laid low, but have also tasted the power of God to lift us up?

Together, with all God’s people, leaving no one behind. That is how. We face the opposition, which is simply another way of saying “the distance between what is and what is to come,” together.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, September 15, 2013: Second Sunday in Creation — Fauna Sunday

Texts:  Job 39:1-12,26-30  +  Psalm 104:14-23  +  1 Corinthians 1:10-23  +  Luke 12:22-31

A plot of the Lorenz attractor for values, a visual representation of chaos theory that looks remarkable like ... a butterfly.

A plot of the Lorenz attractor for values, a visual representation of chaos theory that looks remarkably like … a butterfly.

You’ve heard of the butterfly effect, right?  Aside from being the title of a mediocre Ashton Kutcher movie from a decade ago, the butterfly effect is the popular name for a phenomenon described by the field of mathematics known as “chaos theory.”  The butterfly effect refers to “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” or the observation that even minute variations or fluctuations in a system can produce vastly and powerfully different outcomes at a later state. The effect gets its name from the now well-known example of a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere on the coast of South America resulting in a hurricane across the Atlantic.

The point, of course, isn’t whether or not the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, or even a preacher’s lips, can produce significant changes in weather (or behavior), but the idea that systems are deeply interconnected on levels that we can barely begin to understand.  That even small changes produce significant outcomes, but most importantly that we can’t know or forecast what those outcomes will be.

This is a challenge to our hubris as human beings.  Despite the fact that our knowledge of the world’s workings is constantly changing, that we are constantly replacing old ideas about how the universe works with new ones on the basis of new information, humanity generally tends to act as though it already knows all it needs to know to go traipsing off into God’s creation, crashing through the rain forests or drilling into the ocean floor, making not just small changes but massive ones at every step of the way that have created massive disruptions in the world’s climate and ecology and threatened the ecosystems for virtually every species of life on this planet, including our own.

So, the butterfly becomes a symbol of the power of something small, something frail and fragile, to effect great change in a system.

But as our preacher last week, Pastor Hector Garfias-Toledo, pointed out to us, there is a difference between knowing facts about something and having a relationship with it.  In his beautiful sermon about the ocean, he reminded us that 70% of the world’s population lives just miles from the sea, and that people who live close to the sea develop a relationship with it, not just ideas about it.

The same is true for the world’s fauna, its creatures.  Certainly people with pets understand the kind of bond that can emerge between human beings and domesticated animals.  Farmers and hunters can have a profound respect for their inter-dependence on the breeds of animals they raise and hunt. Biologists and preservationists help us all to understand the marvel and mystery of species that exist beyond our experience, that we relate to in the most abstract manner — like the massive, 11 ton whale sharks that live in the warm equatorial seas and live off of plankton, but have become an endangered species because of the unintentional damage done to them by boat propellers.

But the truth is, we don’t even know what we don’t know about the incredibly diverse array of creatures, of fauna, of species that fill the earth.

When God speaks to Job, in response to Job’s preoccupation with his own plight, God asks,

“Who has let the wild ass go free? Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass, to which I have given the steppe as its home, the salt land for its dwelling place? It scorns the tumult of the city; it does not hear the shouts of the driver. It ranges the mountains as its pasture, and it searches after every green thing. Is the wild ox willing to serve you? Will it spend the night at your crib? Can you tie it in the furrow with ropes, or will it harrow the valleys after you? Will you depend on it because its strength is great, and will you hand over your labor to it? Do you have faith in it that it will return and bring your grain to your threshing floor?” (Job 39:1-12, 26-30)

The Book of Job reminds us that human arrogance has imagined ourselves as the center of God’s creation since the beginning.  In the invitation issued in the Garden of Eden to join God as stewards of God’s creation, we misunderstood the mandate that came with our vocation, and have treated the earth and all its creatures as if they exist solely for our benefit.  Even as Job laments his own deep losses, God reminds him that creation does not exist for his benefit.  The wild ass becomes emblematic of all God’s creatures who did not come into being simply to serve humanity, to be farmed, or yolked for labor.

This season of creation, which we are now celebrating for the third year in a three-year cycle, is very new.  It grew out of the Lutheran Church of Australia, but has become a global, ecumenical movement that intentionally interrupts the Revised Common Lectionary we share throughout much of the Church in order to draw our attention to the urgent, unprecedented ecological crisis in which we now find ourselves.  A crisis which threatens our climate, and therefore every species on earth in one form or another.

Season of Creation commentaryOne of the features of the theological work being done by these eco-theologians has been the development of a “hermeneutic of creation,” or a way of reading scripture that attempts to dislocate humanity from the center and to recognize the subjectivity, or perspective, of all of creation. In their introduction to the preaching resource that accompanies this season, theologians Norman Habel, H. Paul Santmire, and David Rhoads, the emeritus professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, write,

“We are seeking to read the relevant Bible texts also from the perspective of Earth and of members of the Earth community. We have become aware that in the past most interpretations of texts about creation — Earth or our kin on this planet — have been read from an anthropocentric perspective, focusing on the interests of humans. The task before us is to begin reading also from the perspective of creation.” (“The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary,” p. 11)

With that hermeneutic of creation in place, we are encouraged to hear even texts like Paul’s letter to the Corinthians with new ears.

 “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’  Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor. 1:10-13)

Paul is addressing himself to the problem of privilege and prejudice in the Corinthian community.  Some members of the congregation have come to imagine themselves as more important, more central, perhaps even more blessed, than others because they were baptized by Paul himself.  It is the basic human sin, to distance ourselves from God by distancing ourselves from one another, to harm our relationship with God by harming one another.

The hermeneutic of creation isn’t only applied to texts about wildlife, or the environment, but all of scripture. So when we re-read this passage from First Corinthians, we are encouraged to ask not only how we may be creating false distinctions between ourselves and the people sitting next to us in the pews, but also between ourselves and the species that surround us, between ourselves and the rest of creation.  Do we imagine that our commissioning at the dawn of creation, the dominion God gave to the first people over Creation’s fauna, has not only set us apart from, but above, the needs of all that God has created and that God loves?

That may, indeed, be the wisdom of this world, where corporate entities consolidate our individual appetites for consumption into engines of expanding markets that treat everything like a commodity to be purchased, packaged, and sold for our pleasure.  It may well be the wisdom of this world that says that environmental degradation is the necessary evil, the price that must be paid for human progress. Nevertheless, Paul speaks to us as Christians, as people saved from the powers of this world by the foolishness of the cross, the saving power of God, which makes itself known in the frail and fragile things of this world.

The cross teaches us about the folly of empire, the foolishness of placing our trust in systems of power, production and consumption that, in the end, will only enslave us, consume us, and destroy us.  In fact, aren’t they already?  Don’t you already sense that so much of our modern life has diminished our ability to enjoy what it means to be truly human?

Do you really think we were created for fifteen-hour work days, or weeks without sabbath?  Do you really think we were created for canned vegetables and powdered potatoes when the earth is erupting with fresh fruit in its season? Do you really think that reality television and the never-ending parade of digital distractions on your smart phones and tablets are any substitute for what is actually happening in God’s reality, for the waves of Lake Michigan crashing against the lakeshore and the wild play of children and animals and sunshine and trees?

Waves of Lake Michigan

Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

Jesus said to his disciples,

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body about more than clothing … And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” (Luke 12:22-23,29-31)

Sounds like foolishness, doesn’t it?  How are we to stop worrying about our lives, our next meal, our shelter and our clothing? Still, there is wisdom in this foolishness. Imagine the sabbath the earth and all its creatures would experience if we could curb our unceasing appetites and live lighter upon the earth.

Monarch ButterflyConsider the beautiful monarch butterfly, another of Creation’s endangered species.  It neither buys nor sells, but through the innate wisdom implanted in it by God its creator, it migrates unimaginable distances from the United States to Mexico each year, traversing national boundaries to make its home among people divided by wealth, ethnicity, language and power. Consider the monarch butterfly, in its frail, fragile beauty, which enters the tomb of its cocoon as a caterpillar and emerges ready to flutter, to fly, to become more than it had ever been. If God so equips the monarch butterfly for its future, how can we imagine God in her infinite compassion, would do anything less for us?

Amen.

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