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.



Sermon: Sunday, November 23, 2014: Reign of Christ

Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16,20-24  +  Psalm 95:1-7a  +  Ephesians 1:15-23  +  Matthew 25:31-46

I woke up yesterday morning and noticed that it wasn’t freezing outside, and I was so grateful. It seemed like the kind of day when it might be nice to be outside, the first day in a week or so when I could imagine going for a walk in the park next to our home. But I’d committed to attending the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance’s event at Humboldt Park United Methodist Church, Connecting with Our Neighbors: Uniting Congregations for Social Justice.” I’m so glad I was there.

In the eight years that I’ve been working with the pastors of Humboldt Park United Methodist I’ve been to their building and have sat in their meeting room many times, but until yesterday I’d never been in their sanctuary. It’s smaller than ours, but with the same traditional architecture: the chancel in front with a high altar, rows of pews in the nave and a rear balcony. Like ours, it’s showing its age. Something about that made me feel right at home, the way you can walk into almost any sanctuary and understand the architecture and its function. It teaches you how to relate to each other.

So when people began to arrive, one-by-one or in clusters, I happily welcomed them and made a choice to sit next to people I didn’t already know, wanting to get to know who these neighbors of ours who worship so nearby and who care so deeply about our calling as God’s people to work for justice in the world.

We began with worship led by Humboldt Park United Methodist’s new pastor, the Reverend Paula Cripps-Vallejo, a young woman (also from Iowa) who’s been serving there for about half a year. Again, we’ve sat in plenty of meetings together already, but this was the first time I’d seen her lead worship. I was so impressed with the fluidity with which she moved between Spanish and English, effortlessly guiding us all through a sequence of litanies, songs, testimonies and prayers in both languages so that everyone in the room could be equally engaged in what we were sharing with one another.

41B3S5MR90L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_One neighbor, Leslie Willis from Kimball Avenue Church, recited Langston Hughes’ heartbreaking poem, Let America Be America Again, which unfolds around the central refrain, “America never was America to me.” She spoke of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Trayvon Martin in Sanford, and her longing for racial justice not only in our nation, but right here in our neighborhood.

Another neighbor, Flori Rivera from Humboldt Park United Methodist, shared her story of coming to the United States with us including how she came to be a member of that church. She was drawn to them because of the work they were doing with immigrants like herself, but she remained because her skills as a social worker were engaged as she and other women in the congregation built a ministry to and for families experiencing domestic violence that has been a mainstay of that congregation’s service to our community for decades now.

The stories continued, one woman speaking through tears about the struggle to keep her family safe and together through our nation’s broken immigration system. Pastor Eardley Mendis from our sister parish, First Lutheran on Fullerton, talking about the challenge of ministering to a congregation in which many of those gathered for worship are homeless and hungry. Between each story we sang and we prayed and I could feel it happening, that thing that happens when we enter into the familiar pattern of worship with unfamiliar people: we were becoming a community.

10425365_697224310373547_6689628125051795348_nAfter we’d worshipped we moved from the sanctuary to the fellowship hall and gathered in small groups around tables, a familiar liturgy all its own. After another round of introductions we were asked to share why social justice mattered to each of us, and here’s the thing I find unremarkably remarkable: no one said that they do the work of justice because they are afraid of hell.

Not one of these Christian neighbors named as their reason for their good work a fear of hell.

I call this unremarkably remarkable because to us, who gather here for worship week after week, I don’t think this is much of a surprise at all. You know each other’s hearts. You share each other’s motivations. You, like the people gathered around those church basement tables yesterday, are all engaged in the work of caring for your neighbors in a variety of ways. You share your time, your skills, your money and all your other assets feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, welcoming the strangers in your workplaces and on your block, visiting with those imprisoned by illness or otherwise incarcerated. You take action on behalf of the unseen, the unwanted, the unknown year after year, and I never get the sense that you do it from a place of fear, of hell or any other punishment.

You do it for the same reasons I heard offered around yesterday’s tables. You do it out of gratitude, recognizing all that others have already done for you. You do it out of love, for the friends and family members who need your help. You do it out of passion burning in your heart for the environment, for children, for people living at the margins with their backs to the wall. You do it out of duty, honoring the memory of parents and those who’ve gone before you, showing you the dignity in a life of faith. You do it because you’re acquainted with grace, having been on the receiving end of it, and you simply want others to experience what you have come to know — that in God’s good economy all are welcome and there is always enough.

This work of yours is unremarkably remarkable however, because for many people outside the church the message they have heard is one of condemnation and damnation. Go to church, or else. Acknowledge Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior, or else. Walk the straight and narrow, or else. Do right, or else. We may shake our heads at this fear-based, punishment-oriented caricature of Christian faith but we should not marvel at its ubiquity, after all it is simply the liturgy of the world wrapped up in religious language. Go to work, or else. Respect the authorities, or else. Follow the rules, or else. Conform, or else. Our souls rightly rebel against this deforming way of life, and against any institution that imposes it on us. Yet, it is very difficult to resist the spirituality of conditional belonging when your housing, your food, your economic wellbeing are governed by it.

In today’s gospel Jesus gives us an image of God’s judgment in which all the nations are gathered together and then people are recategorized, not on the basis of what nation, or what race, or what class, or what club they belong to, but on the basis of whether they have been turned in upon themselves or turned outward toward the needs of those around them. The deep irony in our all-to-common reading of this story is that in our anxiety about God’s judgment we begin to turn inward once again and begin the process of drawing the lines that separate us, sheep from goats.

But in God’s story, the sheep don’t know they’re sheep and the goats don’t know they’re goats and all of them are watched over by a shepherd who promises to seek after the lost, to bring back the strayed, to bind up the injured, to strengthen the weak (Eze. 34:16). I don’t know if you’re a sheep or a goat, but I can promise you that if you are lost, lonely, injured or weak, God is reaching out to you with food and drink, a warm welcome and safe lodging, healing and accompaniment. I know this because I’ve seen it, I’ve watched you reaching out toward one another, huddling together the way sheep do in a field.



Sermon: Sunday, September 9, 2012: Season of Creation — Humanity Sunday

Texts:  Genesis 1:26-28; 2:7-8,15,19  +  Psalm 8  +  Philippians 2:1-8  + Mark 10:41-45

Good morning to you all.  If you worship here at St. Luke’s with us at all regularly, you’ve probably noticed that our assembly is a little larger than usual this morning.  If you haven’t noticed that, you’re probably among the group of people who are here this morning to celebrate with Justin Dluzak and his family his great achievement in earning the rank of Eagle Scout.  Welcome to you all, to Troop 115 in particular, and thank you for all of the ways you are exercising careful and faithful stewardship of our most precious natural resource — our children.

So, let’s do see a show of hands.  How many people in the room this morning are Boy Scouts?  How about Girl Scouts?  And how many of you are Eagle Scouts, or Gold Award Girl Scouts?

Alright.  Now, how many of you are Christians?  And how many of you are really good Christians?  It feels like a trick question, doesn’t it?  We’re not even sure such a category exists, but if it does, we’re fairly certain we don’t get to put ourselves in it.  There are no Christian merit badges or ranks.  There is only baptism and discipleship.  Confession and forgiveness and fellowship at the table of the Lord’s Supper.

Still, we long to know that we’re on the right track, that we’re doing the right things, that we’re getting ahead.  Each fall the students go back to school, they advance a grade, they show progress toward goals with the hope of graduation — from grade school, from high school, from college, from grad school.  Each year a new batch of people enter the workforce, get a foot in the door, get promoted, get tenure, receive a call, make partner.  We work hard to get ahead.  We judge our progress by the rate at which we advance, by the ways we set ourselves apart, above, each other.

It seems to be hardwired into us, the desire to distance and distinguish ourselves from each other.  Even the disciples struggled with a sense of competitive ambition.  The reading from the gospel of Mark this morning seems to begin mid-sentence, “When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.” (Mk. 10:41)  Here’s what’s happened.

James and John, brothers and disciples of Jesus, have just heard Jesus teaching on the cost of discipleship. First a rich young man approaches Jesus to ask him what must be done to inherit eternal life.  The inquirer tells Jesus he has already done everything required by the law, and Jesus tells him to go beyond what is required to what is needed.  He says, “you lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mk. 10:21) The people are shocked by his teaching, and they begin to ask each other, “then who can be saved?” (Mk. 10:26)

But Peter, a leader among the disciples, points out to Jesus, “look, we have left everything and followed you.” (Mk. 10:28) In reply, Jesus offers the strange reassurance, “truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mk. 10:29-31)

This is not a clear system of reward and promotion.  This is an HR director’s nightmare.  Jesus says that the life of discipleship reverses the expectations of hard work and advancement.  There is no Eagle Scout court of honor for those who follow the LORD.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.  As they continue along the road, Jesus pulls the twelve aside and says to them, “See, we’re going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” (Mk. 10:33-34)

And it’s at this moment, after Jesus has taught the crowds that the cost of discipleship is absolute, after he’s shared with the disciples that he is leading them along the road that ends at the cross, it’s at that moment that James and John step forward and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” (Mk. 10:35)  And Jesus asks what it is that they want.  They say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” (Mk. 10:37)

It’s such a painfully awkward moment, made all the more painful because of how recognizable it is.  James and John may seem deaf to Jesus’ teaching and oblivious to their surroundings, but no more than most of us.  We, who come to church week after week, who labor hard to live a good life, still torture ourselves and each other trying to get ahead, when Jesus is inviting us to get behind.  To get behind our children.  To get behind our co-workers.  To get behind our neighbors.  To get behind each other, and — particularly during this season of creation — to get behind the Earth.

It may seem odd that we celebrate a “Humanity Sunday” during this season of creation in which the surrounding Sundays have names like “Planet Earth Sunday,” “Sky Sunday,” “Mountain Sunday,” and “Animals Sunday.”  We are conditioned to think of ourselves, to imagine ourselves, as being set apart from the rest of creation.  How can we be like the planet?  It is a place and we are people.  How can we be like the sky or the mountains?  They are inanimate and we are alive. How can we be like the animals?  They act on instinct and we act on reason.  Aren’t we set apart from all these thing?  Don’t they exist for our benefit, not we for theirs?

That is the way many of us have been taught to understand even our own creation stories.  That God created the world as some kind of garden paradise for our own benefit, and gave us dominion over it, to do with as we pleased.  Students of the bible know that Genesis doesn’t just give us one creation story, but two, and that the stories can’t — and aren’t intended to be — synchronized into one.  You hear clips from both stories this morning.  In Genesis 1, the first story, God tells humanity to “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion” (Gen. 1:28) over it.  In Genesis 2, the second story, God puts humanity in the garden “to till it and keep it,” (Gen. 2:15) though this is perhaps not the best translation of the Hebrew, which could also read “to serve and preserve it.”  Either way, the difference between the first story and the second is the difference between getting ahead and getting behind.  Is the Earth here to serve us, or us it?  What does it mean to be a human, created in the image and likeness of God?

It is to this point that Paul addresses himself as he writes to the church in Philippi.  For Paul, the cost of discipleship has been imprisonment, and it is from prison that Paul writes this letter to a community he cares for deeply and whose generosity is remembered not only by Paul but in the book of Acts as well.  The verses we read this morning are considered by some as the beginnings of the field of theology known as Christology, or reflection on the person of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ.  Because Paul’s letters are, in fact, older than the gospels themselves, we believe that what we read here in Philippians is the early Church’s emerging understanding of who Jesus was in relation to God.  Paul writes,

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:3-8)

This is what we hope it means to be a Christian, or an Eagle Scout for that matter, which is why I asked Justin to read this passage this morning.  It is our hope that in recognizing him before this congregation, his family and friends and his peers, we are not simply rewarding hard work, but also recognizing a set of values that run counter to the ones that too often prevail in the world around us.  Jesus recognizes as much when he says,

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…”(Mk. 10:42-45)

We aren’t just celebrating the culmination of a series of merit badges, but affirming a childhood spent developing qualities of character — trustworthiness, loyalty, obedience, bravery, reverence and all the rest.  The badges earned along the way were markers of growth into a pattern of life capable of sustaining these traits, traits that the world needs, that the very planet needs during this time of ecological crisis.

And while we celebrate Justin’s achievements this morning, these traits are not reserved for him alone.  You are all laboring to get behind one another, in your homes and in your workplaces.  We are still small enough as a community to know each other’s stories well. We know that among us are those who have been wiping noses and changing diapers, and there are those who have been sitting at bedsides, keeping watch during dying days.  We know that there are those who been laboring to find work, and those who have been working on behalf of those who labor.  We know that there are servants scattered all among us, patiently, quietly, faithfully serving our neighbors, in hospitals, in schools, on the bread line.

Dear friends, you are good Christians, which doesn’t mean that you are perfect, or puffed up with the pride of contraband works righteousness.  It simply means, you are the baptized people of God, welcomed at this font, fed at this table, gathered and sent for the sake of God’s world.  Together, we are the ones who get ahead by getting behind, and we continue to learn how to do this together; good by the grace of God who created all things and gazed on them and called them good; taught by the one who makes us one, Jesus Christ our Lord, in whom lordship takes the form of service to all creation.

Justin, we congratulate you on your significant achievement this day and we pray that in your life you will continue to show us and to lead us into deeper service to our neighbors and the whole creation.

In the name of Jesus,