Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 8, 2014: Day of Pentecost

Texts: Acts 2:1-21  +  Ps. 104:24-34,35b  +  1 Cor. 12:3b-13  +  John 20:19-23

No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3b-13).

I’ll admit that when I was young, this verse was confounding.  I wondered if it could be true, in a literal way. I wondered if there was magic in the words “Jesus is Lord” that summoned the Holy Spirit, or if maybe it was the other way around; that by hearing or reading those words, I was inviting the Holy Spirit inside me, where it would work to bring me to say the words as well, “Jesus is Lord.”

With time I’ve come to a different understanding, though not completely different. I now hear these words, “Jesus is Lord,” as an early creed, a Christian reimagining of the tradition handed down to us through the words of the Torah, the prayers recited in the morning and evening by our Jewish brothers and sisters, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” (Deut. 6:4).

But it’s not a creed in the way that we sometimes experience the creeds in worship, like a fragment of memory preserved in amber and recited as a testament to the past.  To say “Jesus is Lord” is a creed in the way that creeds may first have been used, as a public declaration of independence from all the forces of this world that work so hard to enslave us. The forces of greed, of violence, of envy, of terror. The forces that masquerade as the basis for our life together, the marketplace and the military, a strong economy and the power to keep it that way. To say “Jesus is Lord” is an act of bravery and imagination, because it implies that there is another way to live than the way we are living now, another world than the one we know, and it commits the speaker to the work of bringing that world into existence.

You know what I am talking about, because you are dreamers.

In his speech to those gathered in Jerusalem from every nation of the known world, Peter foretold the moment we now inhabit. He said,

“In the last days it will be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams.

Even upon my slaves, both men and women,

in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”

(Acts 2:17-18)

What have you been dreaming about lately?  Do you know?  Do you remember your dreams?  What is your soul trying to say to you about the deepest yearnings of your heart?

Dreams are powerful things, in part, because they create a space where the mind can conjure up impossible solutions to impassable problems.  I remember that as a boy I had a recurring nightmare that I was being chased by a mob of children down the street on which I lived.  Each time I had the dream I would run as fast as I could until the children would finally grab hold of me, pull me to the ground, and begin to beat me.

a71013ea374c84f9efb44b25ee607130_largeOne night, as I was fleeing, it occurred to me that I might escape them by climbing a tree. So I leapt up and grabbed the lowest branch, pulling myself up and resting as the children gathered around the base of the tree yelling at me.  Soon they began throwing sticks and rocks at me, so I jumped from one tree to the next, evading their attacks, until I came to the end of the street and there were no trees left. Then the children began to climb the tree so that they could drag me down again.

It went on like that for another year or so, the nightmare visiting me every so often as I slept, always ending with me in that last tree at the end of the street, until one night when it occurred to me that I didn’t need another tree to escape, because I could fly. As the children began swarming at the base of the tree, reaching for its lowest limbs, I climbed up to the highest branch and looked up into the sky. I remember there was a bird coasting on the wind, barely working at all to stay aloft, and I decided to fly. I didn’t even have to leap, I just spread out my arms and rode the wind away from that tree on that street with those children. I never had that nightmare again.

Dreams make the impossible possible, they give us a chance to practice imagining a world different than the one in which we spend our waking hours.  For a little boy, the daily anxiety of navigating rooms filled with children who could be carelessly cruel seemed inescapable. In my dreams however I discovered that I could rise above my fears and found the freedom to explore the wider world.

Do you remember any of your childhood dreams?  What were they trying to tell you?  What new possibilities, what new worlds, did you create with your prophetic imagination?

lead_brueggemannI’m borrowing that phrase, “prophetic imagination,” from Walter Brueggemann, a biblical scholar who was interviewed by Krista Tippett a few years ago for her radio program “On Being.”  In that interview he said,

“I think at the broadest level, it is hard to talk about the fact — I think it’s a fact — that our society has chosen a path of death in which we have reduced everything to a commodity. We believe that there are technical solutions to everything, so it doesn’t matter whether you talk about over-reliance on technology, the mad pursuit of commodity goods, our passion for violence now expressed as our war policies. All of those are interrelated to each other and none of us, very few of us, really want to have that exposed as an inadequate and dehumanizing way to live. I think, if one is grounded in the truth of the gospel as a Christian that’s what we have to talk about.”

What Brueggemann is describing is our calling as Christians to imagine a world other than the one in which we live.  He describes the commodification of creation as the primary obstacle to envisioning a new world, and I agree.  We see this most easily in the advertising that surrounds us, a kind of waking dream in which impossible ideas get expressed as though they were reality — cosmetics equal beauty, cars equal power, cereal equals health, cell phones equal friendship, new homes equal family. The waking world in which we live and move and have our being has adopted the symbolism of our dreams, offering us a kind of pseudo-escape from the very real problems that pursue us. Except that, when we spread our wings and try to fly away from the anxieties of our lives in our new car, or our new home, or our new vacation, or our new phone, we find that we have really only leapt from one tree to the next, and our problems are still waiting for us.

What Peter preached to the people of Jerusalem, what Paul confessed to the people of Corinth, was not just another illusion, another substitute for the deepest longings of their hearts. What they offered was a new vision for the world, a living dream that was breaking into reality, that was calling people to renounce their old allegiances to empire and exploitation, to fear and accommodation.  The alternative they proposed was like a word spoken in a dream at the beginning of time, planted deep in the mind of every dreamer.  The word was light in dark places. The word was truth in a culture of lies. The word was power to the powerless.  The word was hope for the despairing.  The word was food for the hungry.  The word was love for the lonely. The word was life, rising up from every grave and waking every dreamer from the long night. The word was loose, and could not be contained, could not be silenced, could not be bought.

The word has a name, it is Jesus, and he is LORD.

When we say that, it is like the moment that sometimes happens while you are dreaming when you realize that you are in a dream, and it dawns on you that you might shape the dream rather than just observe it. Lucid dreaming, it’s called. When we say, “Jesus is LORD,” we are making the choice to not simply observe the world around us, but to change the world around us. We are committing ourselves to God’s dream for the world, and we are working to birth it into reality.

Sisters and brothers, these are the last days, and God’s Spirit has been poured out on us. We are God’s dreamers, God’s visionaries, God’s prophets. We rise from our beds like Christ rose from the tomb, undefeated by the powers and principalities of this world. We rise from our beds like Christ rose from the earth, glorifying the God of creation for whom nothing is impossible. We rise from our beds with stories to tell about the dreams and visions God has placed within us all, dreams that point the way to God’s preferred future.

Tell me, you prophets and seers, about your dreams. Tell one another. Can you see the new world coming? Come, let’s build it.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 2, 2013: Second Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 1 Kings 18:20-39  +  Psalm 96  +  Galatians 1:1-12  +  Luke 7:1-10

Have you ever wanted to call down fire?

I’m talking about God’s wrath.  God’s judgment.  Proof that God is God.  That the so-called way it is, is not the way it is supposed to be, and that there is a higher authority than any bureaucracy can produce, than any government can select, than any church can own.  That there is a God who cares about what happens to the world God created, and that we are going to be called to account for our management and mismanagement of God’s creation, our treatment and mistreatment of God’s people.

Have you ever looked at the world and wanted to call down fire?

I have, and recently at that.  Months and months of organizing for marriage equality in the State of Illinois, and in the end not even a vote?  Just silence from the Illinois House.  I wanted fire.  A fresh tally of victims to gun violence here in Chicago last Memorial Day weekend, six dead and eleven wounded, as nearby as Humboldt Park; and in response, the House breaks its silence to push forward a carry and conceal bill that would make it easier for people to walk the streets of our neighborhoods with deadly weapons?  I wanted fire.

And you have cried out for fire as well, I know.  You are battling bureaucracies that put children in harm’s way.  You are fighting for the rights of the weak, the poor, the hungry, the disabled.  You are watching as big business treats your co-workers and yourselves like cogs in a machine.  You are tending to the bodies and minds of the uninsured, and seeing the impacts of generational poverty on entire families.  You are calling for an end to war in a country obsessed with violence.  You are teaching in classrooms where children have gone without food, without support, without safety, and you are being told year after year to do more with less.

I can only imagine how badly and how often you must pray for God’s fire to come down and burn away the red tape, the apathy, the machine, the system, the guns, the drones, and all the wickedness of this world.

Today we begin a summer long series focusing on the prophets of Israel, and for this season we will be a School of the Prophets.  You may remember that two weeks ago it was Pentecost Sunday, and we heard these words from the book of Acts,

In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)

Then, last Sunday, as we celebrated the mystery of the Holy Trinity, we affirmed the Church’s faith that there is only one God, but who is known as and in community.  We heard from the gospel of John these words from Jesus,

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, [it] will guide you into all the truth; for [the Spirit] will not speak on [its] own, but will speak whatever [it] hears, and will declare to you the things that are to come. [The Spirit] will glorify me, because [it] will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that [God, our Parent] has is mine.  For this reason I said that [the Spirit] will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12-15)

In truth, ever since Easter we have been studying texts that make it clear to us that one of the meanings, one of the implications of Christ’s resurrection is that the Holy Spirit of God has been set free in the world; that the Spirit has a message for the world that needs a messenger; and that God’s messenger is the church, the baptized body of Christ in the world.  Jesus said, “the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:15) and “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” (John 14:12)

And then, like Elijah whom we meeting again for the first time this morning and who eventually is taken up into heaven in that chariot of fire, Jesus seems to withdraw from the story leaving its next chapter in our hands.  We are inheritors of a mission, a commission, and a message.  Living in the last days, in a Pentecostal epoch, we are now called to be prophets, and this is our school.

As we learn about our calling, our ministry as prophets, we can learn from the prophets of Israel, in whose tradition the Lord Jesus Christ stood, whose words and wisdom would have been his bread and butter as a young man in occupied Israel in the time of the Roman Empire.

Jesus obviously would have known the stories of Elijah, who lived in Israel during the reign of King Ahab, who ruled four generations after the reign of King Solomon.  King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, are remembered for bringing the worship of foreign gods back to Israel, in particular the god known as Baal.

It’s difficult to know what the actual religious beliefs and practices of the neighboring nations who worshipped Baal were, since most of the information we have comes from these biblical texts that aren’t concerned with religious pluralism and multiculturalism.  But I think we would be missing the point if we simply read this story as a warning about other religions.  What’s being contested here isn’t the number of followers each deity, Yahweh or Baal, can muster.  What is at stake is the worldview they represent within the story of Israel’s relationship with God.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes,

There is no doubt that in the Bible, an especially in this cluster of narratives, Baalism is heavily caricatured in Yahwistic representation.  Indeed, we have only the caricature so that the narrative is not, and does not intend to be, an evenhanded exposition.  The caricature that dominates Israel’s imagination is that Baalism is a socioreligious system rooted in the capacity to secure life for self by the manipulation and control of the gifts of the creator, by self-centered management that inevitably leads to an antineighbor ethic.  Thus it must not be thought that the contest concerns mere religious symbols or slogans; it is rather a deep and costly conflict between two contrasting perspectives on reality that are deeply rooted theologically and highly visible in the life and social practice of the community. (Brueggemann, Walter.  Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 2000. p. 219)

In other words, the problem with the worship of Baal isn’t that God’s honor is tarnished, or that God’s feelings are hurt, because people are worshipping some other god.  It is instead that, what the worship of Baal represents — at least in these stories — is a turning away from the ethical and moral character of the God of Israel, an ethic of care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger; and ethic that took form in these stories in the person of a king who had first been a shepherd, who cared for God’s people by bringing them together to love and care for one another.

The worship of Baal represents a different kind of governance which leads to a different kind of community and a different kind of world, one in which power is used to secure wealth for the wealthy, and the lives of the workers and the weak are considered the cost of doing business.  It is the kind of world Jesus knew everything about, growing up under Roman rule.  It is the kind of world we know everything about today, living in the heart of a global empire.

Elijah’s first prophetic action is to declare a drought.  This is more than an agricultural crisis, this is a sign that the nation has set itself again God.  In these ancient times, the king was understood to be the rain-maker, the one who assured wealth and prosperity by guiding the nation in accordance with God’s will for the people.  The absence of rain is a sign that God’s favor is absent from Ahab’s rule.  Rather than repenting, Ahab and Jezebel scour the nation looking for the prophet Elijah whose words of judgment are undermining their power and authority.  Finally, after three years of drought, the conflict has come to a head in the story we read this morning.  Elijah faces Ahab and challenges the prophets of Baal to a contest.  They will set offerings on altars to each of their respective gods, and they will see which offering is consumed by divine fire.

The beginning of the match tells us something important about what God through Elijah is really trying to achieve.  In the face of royal power and a legion of enemy priests, Elijah turns and speaks to the people, who are the actual objects of God’s concern.  He asks them, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?  If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21)

This simple question, buried at the beginning of a spectacle, is the heart of the matter.  The question always before God’s people is, in what god do you actually put your trust?  Is is the god of the paycheck or the inheritance that will really take care of you?  Is it the god of shrewd decisions and hard work that will provide for you and yours?  Is it the god of the right family or the right connections that will give you an advantage?  Is it the god of cynicism and low expectations that will protect you from the dangers of wanting more for your life?

Or is it the God known in community as community, who does not try to protect God’s own self from danger or harm, but is willing to endure every trial and humiliation to free the creation and its many peoples from patterns of life, systems of domination, that threaten to destroy us all?

Which god do you worship, and how?

Tellingly, the people do not say a word.  They are as silent as our lawmakers, waiting to see how the chips will fall.

Which gods do we worship?

Then the contests begin, and we begin to see the price paid for worshipping other gods.  As Elijah cracks jokes and taunts the priests of Baal (“Cry aloud!  Surely he is a god; either he is meditating or he is on a journey, or perhaps he must be awakened.”), they begin to mutilate themselves.  They injure themselves by cutting their flesh with swords and lances until they are covered in their own blood.

What price do we pay for chasing after the gods who cannot save us?  We pay with our own lives.  The paycheck ends. The inheritance is spent. Our decisions are exposed as dreams. Our bodies fail. Our families turn their backs on us. Our social networks are a mile wide and an inch deep. Our attempt to escape notice works, and we end up invisible in our own lives.  The gods we invent for ourselves can never save us, but we will spend our lives, we will pour out our lifeblood, chasing after them.

After Baal’s priests fail to summon their god, it’s Elijah’s turn.  Again, he gives his attention to the people, not the king, not the other priests.  He builds an altar for his sacrifice by placing twelve stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel on top of one another.  He reminds them of their history, that out of many peoples they were made one.  That out of many nations, they were made one nation.  That their strength came from the ways that they leaned on each other, built on each other, rested on each other.  Elijah creates a symbol of the underlying reality, that we the people together are the altar where God’s holiness appears.

Then Elijah drenches that altar, that sign of God’s people, three times with water — a baptism for that which is being offered to God, and assurance that what will happen next is no accident, no random spark falling on dry wood.

Finally, Elijah prays not for himself, but for the people he has been trying to reach. “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back” (1 Kings 18:37).  And the Lord God answers the words of that prayer by sending down fire to consume the offering, the wood, the altar, the earth and even the water.

When I am angry at the world, as I have been these last few days, I want to call down God’s fire to burn up the heartless bureaucrats, the cowardly legislators, the violent warmongers, the absent parents.  But God’s fire does not consume offerings made to absentee deities.  Instead, God’s fire comes to rest on the altar of God’s own people and takes what we are willing to offer, transforming those offerings into signs that God’s Spirit is still at work in the world, moving toward us and through us and out into the world for the sake of healing, and liberation, and mercy, and justice.

Rain and Fire

God’s flames, the ones that fell on God’s altar, the ones that raised Elijah to heaven in his chariot, the ones that appeared above the apostles’ heads that Pentecost morning are signs of God’s prophetic word, given to God’s prophets.  We pray for that fire each time we gather, not to destroy the forces that oppose us, but to kindle in us a passion to tell God’s truth to a world burdened by false gods.

Oh, God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire.

Amen.

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