Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, November 28, 2018: RCL Texts for the Wednesday following Reign of Christ

The following sermon was preached in LSTC’s Augustana Chapel on the Wednesday following the festival of the Reign of Christ. Audio of the sermon can be found here.

Texts: Ezekiel 30:20-26  +  Psalm 76  +  John 16:25-33

I love Jesus. I love Jesus, and I long for the reign of Christ.

Earlier this week, as I listened to Samantha preaching that brilliant sermon on the texts for the festival of the Reign of Christ, as I listened to Doc’s exquisite improvisation on the Canticle of the Turning, I’m not ashamed to admit that I didn’t get all the way through the hymn without crying. 

“From the halls of pow’r to the fortress tow’r, not a stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your justice tears ev’ry tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn; there are tables spread, every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.” (Canticle of the Turning)

Yes! Yes, I want to live in that world!

Yes! I long for the day when the hungry poor are fed first from the table of abundance.

Yes! I can even name my family’s self-interest in seeing that world come sooner, rather than later. I know that in that world, my sister will have access to work and housing with dignity, my family will have health care without conditions, my husband will be reunited with his incarcerated brother, and I will be able to walk arm in arm with my beloved without the fear of violence hanging over our heads. Yes! I want to live in that world — Come, Lord Jesus, come!

But I don’t think I’m ready to give up my Amazon Prime account.

Amazon-Prime-Logo

Maybe you’ve heard. Despite the company’s recent move to raise the entry-level wage for its U.S. workers to $15 per hour, Amazon workers worldwide continue to protest the low wages and horrible conditions under which they are required to work. In cities across Europe last week, Amazon workers went on strike. It was barely a story here in the United States.

I’m not trying to make this sermon into an exposé on labor rights for Amazon workers, though that’s a worthy topic for further investigation, because to spend too much time here is to invite you to focus too narrowly on whether or not you can justify the Amazon Prime account that you may or may not have. The point I’m making is that I don’t think I’m ready to give the account that I most certainly do have up.

Or, to be frank, I must confess that I am often more motivated by narrow self-interest and fear of scarcity than I am by care for my neighbor and trust in God’s abundance.

In this morning’s reading from the gospel of John, Jesus nears the end of his lengthy farewell discourse with words that are unexpectedly troubling. After a ministry filled with allegories and cryptic sayings, Jesus now speaks plainly, “I came from Abba God and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and going to Abba God.” (John 16:28) If that’s not plain speech, I don’t know what is. The cat is out of the bag. Jesus is the messiah, the one sent by God as the ultimate sign of God’s love for all creation.

In response the disciples say, “Yes! Now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.”

Yes, this is what we’ve been waiting for! 

Yes, we know! 

Yes, we believe!

It would seem that the whole gospel has been building toward this moment, this declaration of belief in Jesus by those who followed him. But Jesus immediately casts doubt on their belief.

“Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to their home, and you will leave me alone.” (John 16:32)

It is more than anticlimactic. It is disturbing. The disciples’ profession of belief is not convincing to Jesus, who rightly predicts that they will not keep faith with him in the moment of his passion which has now arrived. That they will scatter when confronted with the consequences of their association with Jesus.

This is not the first time that the word “scatter” has appeared in John’s gospel. It appears one other time, back in the 10th chapter, when Jesus was still using figures of speech. There he says, 

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away — and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” (John 10:11-12)

As Jesus approaches his eschatological hour, this previous figure of speech haunts the scene. The wolf is coming with death in its jaws, and the disciples will soon scatter, like both the hired hands and the sheep.

And, of course, the language of scattering goes even further back in Hebrew scripture. We hear it in Genesis in the famous story of the Tower of Babel. There, in a time preceding history, “the whole earth had one language and the same words.” In a bid to protect themselves from the divine imperative to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, humanity adopts an “us first” isolationist stance toward the future, preferring to build a tower and establish a uniformity of identity rather than participate in the unfolding diversity of human community. In response, God scatters them abroad “over the face of the whole earth.”

600px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_ProjectWhen read in light of the Babylonian exile, the story of the Tower of Babel has been interpreted as representative of Jerusalem, scattered in captivity. This theme is especially prominent in Ezekiel, as in the passage assigned for today, where God promises to scatter the Egyptians among the nations (Ezek. 30:23,26) in language very similar to the story of Babel. A few chapters later, in the 34th chapter of Ezekiel, the language of scattering reappears in a prophesy against the shepherds of Israel that offers a stark contrast to Jesus’ image of the Good Shepherd:

“Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts … My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” (Ezek. 34:2b-6)

This is the world as it is. The weak left to struggle, the sick left to die, the injured left to suffer, the straying and the lost left alone. This is the world I was born into, yes, and that I have had a hand in maintaining. This is the world that is required if I want to continue to enjoy cheap gas and cheap clothes and cheap airfares and cheap food and cheap labor. This is a world that cheapens life itself. It is the world that my Amazon Prime account creates and requires, and I’m still not sure I’m ready to give it up.

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Dr. Gail O’Day

In her article “Preaching as an Act of Friendship: Plain Speaking as a Sign of the Kingdom” Dr. Gail O’Day, who was my faculty advisor at Emory University and who died earlier this fall, offers a context that helps make sense of Jesus’ stinging words to the disciples following their statement of belief. She writes,

“In their quick and easy assent to his words, [Jesus] recognizes the behavior of a flatterer instead of that of a friend. Jesus’ rebuke suggests that he suspects the disciples are saying what they think Jesus wants to hear, not what they really believe. To prove they are flatterers and not friends, Jesus links their false words with what seems to be a much more serious offense, their abandonment of him at his hour.”

This is what I want to avoid. Being a flatterer. Saying one thing in my sermon and living another truth with my life. What does it mean for me to say, “Jesus is Lord!” or “Come, Jesus, come!” when my life actively demonstrates my half-hearted allegiances and my scattered loyalties? When I abandon my espoused values the moment they become inconvenient? When I denounce the political rhetoric of “America first” nationalism, but continue to pursue a “me first” consumerism?

What it means is that I am human, which is to say that I am a sinner, just like you. My best efforts are inadequate, and my worst mistakes are tragic. And ironically, while my knowledge of my failures often leaves me feeling painfully isolated, it is actually proof of my membership in the human family.

Jesus knows that his followers will abandon him, that they will scatter before the consequences of their association with him. Just as we do. Yet, even as he is abandoned, Jesus remains a part of the divine community which is the inner life of God. “I am not alone,” he says, “because Abba God is with me.” This is the same God whom Jesus assures us loves us, is accessible to us, shelters us, calls to us, forgives us, encourages us, saves us.

“I have said this to you,” Jesus explains, “so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution,” he acknowledges. “But take courage; I have conquered the world!” It’s precisely the kind of thing a good shepherd might say, or a good friend, the kind willing to lay down their lives for you, the kind who will keep loving you through all your fears and betrayals. The kind who will gather up the scattered fragments of your life and call you home to yourself. Peace, take courage, I’ve got this.

Have I told you how much I love Jesus, and long for the reign of Christ?

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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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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, March 26: Fourth Sunday in Lent

Texts: 1 Sam. 16:1-13  +  Psalm 23  +  Ephesians 5:8-14  +  John 9:1-41

In the third chapter of Luke, which we read at the beginning of Advent every third year, John the Baptist quotes the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: (break) ‘Prepare the way of the Lord…’” And every time this text comes up, I remember learning that scripture, in its original Greek and Hebrew forms, doesn’t come with commas and quotation marks. We impose them on the text, and where we choose to place those periods and commas can make a world of difference. Instead of implying that the voice will come from the wilderness (as John the Baptist did), we might have read, “The voice of one crying: (break) ‘Out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord…’” (Luke 3:4), implying that the Lord will appear in the wilderness.

What we find in the text so often reveals what we went looking for. Our expectations shape our perceptions. The gospel text illustrates this point perfectly:

As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1-2)

 The way they have framed the question already presumes the answer, that blindness is a result of sin. Furthermore, the question starts us down the path of looking for sin. It suggests some kind of invisible, underlying moral physics to the universe, a cosmos of divine cause and effect, tempting us to think that we can make the world conform to our expectations of it.

beggarSo then, what do we find in Jesus’ reply when we go looking through the filter of our expectations? “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (v. 3) In this rendering, which is how I’ve always read it, how it has usually been read to me, no one is blamed for the issue of blindness (that’s a relief) — but an equally troubling problem is proposed, “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” This proposes that God imposed blindness on a person, a condition which led to poverty and condemnation, so that later God could prove God’s power by healing him. A God who hurts us so that God can heal us, so that we can be properly awed by God.

Here is another way to place the periods and commas: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was born blind. (break) So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of [the One] who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” In this framing no one is blamed for the issue of blindness (still good news), it’s simply a fact of life: he was born blind. Then a shift, a call for the disciples to join Jesus in revealing God’s indelible handiwork in each and every human life, casting no one out of the circle of God’s love and care.

During the season of Lent we’ve been preaching on some of the core doctrines of Christian faith as a way of remembering that this season has traditionally been used to prepare people for baptism by instructing them in the core tenets of our faith — and that we are all still learning what it means to be baptized. In the field of theology the term for our attempt to justify the goodness of God in the midst of so much pain and suffering is theodicy. This story seems to present us with a case study.

Beneath the question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” is an assumption that blindness is an evil that must be accounted for. What is implied is that God imposes blindness as a punishment for sin. This says something quite terrifying about God, yet — even more terrifying — is how inclined we are to believe it.

Why does that kind of logic come so easily to us? Why are we so ready to accept the horror of a God who would torture us with the poverty and exclusion that come from something as arbitrary as a condition of birth over which a person has no control?

Because this is how we treat one another. We are conditioned from birth to accept our place in the hierarchy of humanity on the basis of things over which we have no control. We see it at the earliest of ages when children, full of curiosity, look too long or ask impolite questions about the texture of a person’s hair, the size of their body, or the color of their skin; when they notice that some people walk quickly and smoothly, while others have a slow, syncopated gait and use a cane or braces; when they see that some bodies seem male or female, but are confused by others that confound easy categorization; when they point at surprising pairings of people holding hands. When children exhibit their natural curiosity at the amazing diversity of God’s good creation they get shushed, and from that silence they learn that there is something wrong with difference. That there is one best way to be in this world, but a million ways to be wrong in it. From that silence grows a fear, “what if I am one of the things that is wrong in this world?” From that fear emerges a question, “why was I made like this?” On the basis of that question, one answer seems most obvious, “God did this to me.”

But what is obvious is not always right, especially when our questions are built on the foundations of our mistreatment of one another. Once Jesus gives sight to the man born blind the story becomes an extended debate in which the religious authorities attempt over and over again to reinforce their view of the world on a set of facts that refuse to support it. Despite the evidence of their own eyes, they cannot see what has taken place, because they have already placed the periods and commas in such a way that clearly show where God’s grace begins and ends.

For me, the most poignant moment in this story comes at the end, after the man who now has sight has been cast out of the community once again. Jesus goes out to find him, just as Jesus went out to meet the Samaritan woman at the well, just as God consistently moves toward each of us. Jesus asks, “Do you believe in the Human One?” and the man replies, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” For this man, born blind and given sight, not even the experience of being at the center of a controversy or being repeatedly oppressed and excluded from community can dim his devotion to Jesus, the one who finally treated him like a human being. Whoever the “Human One” is, if Jesus asks for belief, this man is ready to give it without doubt or hesitation. That is the quality of trust that is implied by the word “believe.”

What is the real miracle here? That a man born blind was given sight, or that a human being raised to think that he was one of the things wrong with this world came to believe — to trust without question — that he was, in fact, beloved by God?

How have you been taught that you are “one of the things wrong with this world?”

When did you discover that you are not?

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