Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 27, 2014: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Genesis 29:15-28  +  Psalm 105:1-11,45b  +  Romans 8:26-39  +  Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

51MfVDOlEkL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_There was a book that came out almost twenty years ago by an author known most commonly as don Miguel Ruiz titled “The Four Agreements.”  It was a book of practical wisdom, aimed at helping people to order their thinking and behavior in ways that lead to greater happiness, peace and love. The goal was to keep it simple. Four agreements we can each make with ourselves to reduce conflict and increase contentment in our lives. The first one was: Be impeccable with your word.

To be impeccable with your word means to be exceedingly conscious of the power of your words to shape reality, both your own and the reality of those around you. It is the decision to use your word to create and strengthen honest and loving relationships. This is the principle that lies behind such familiar proverbs as “say what you mean and mean what you say” or “let your yes be yes and your no be no” (Matt. 5:37). It is an acknowledgement that, contrary to the childhood rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me” that names, in fact, can hurt us. That words create worlds.

It seems like a simple thing at first, to be impeccable with your word, but it’s not. Once you make this agreement with yourself and begin to practice it, you quickly realize just how often you are less than impeccable with your word. How often you use words to blur the truth, to conceal your thoughts and feelings, to gain influence and favor. Once you set this limit upon yourself, you begin to see how those who do not limit themselves in such a way get ahead in this world. How a silver-tongued fast talker can seem like the one to follow, to model yourself upon.

Scripture gives us just such a character in Jacob, whose story we’ve been reading for the last few weeks as we work through the book of Genesis this summer. The first story in the cycle gave us a portrait of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, whose birthright Jacob coveted. That jealousy grows over time so that, as their father Isaac is laying on his deathbed, Jacob and his mother Rebekah conspire to rob Esau of his birthright by tricking Isaac into giving his blessing to Jacob. They dress Jacob in furry clothes to emulate his hairy brother and cook father Isaac his favorite meal. Then Jacob brings the food in and presents himself to his father who asks, “Who are you, my son?” (Gen. 27:18). Jacob replies, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, that your soul may bless me” (Gen. 27:19). The charade goes on for a while and each time Isaac asks a question, Jacob responds with another lie, until finally Isaac gives to Jacob the blessing intended for Esau.

René Girard, an American academic whose work has influenced the fields of literary criticism, theology, psychology and philosophy, posits that all desire is mimetic, or mimicked — meaning that all desire is learned. Beyond our basic needs for food, water and shelter, we learn what we want by observing what others want. Joseph seeks his father’s blessing because Esau values it. The fact that they are twins, but that one is valued above the other, only strengthens the rivalry. Girard suggests that all conflict originates in mimetic desire. We see it at the earliest ages when children compete over toys. Fighting-ChildrenKerry and I have watched our goddaughter Kai playing happily on her own, only to become frustrated and upset as soon as another child begins playing with a different toy. “Mine!” she says, driven not by her desire for the toy, but by her rivalry with the other child whose desire for the toy suddenly makes it precious to her as well.

But it’s not just children that engage in mimetic rivalry, and it’s not just toys that get competed for. As we grow older we struggle with our friends and classmates over who will date the most attractive or the most accomplished boy or girl. In fact, their value as a partner seems to grow in direction proportion to the number of people who vie for their attention. Throughout our lives, we learn which jobs to compete for, which neighborhoods to live in, by watching — by mimicking — the desires of other desirable people. These cycles of desire create value, so that a neighborhood like Logan Square which people once apologized for living in can become the hottest neighborhood in Chicago.

Our mimicry of one another creates not only value, but conflict, as we compete over goods, social and material, so that we can be more like someone else. Isaac asks, “who are you, my son?” and Jacob replies, “I am Esau.”

z_p18-MimeticIn his studies of mimetic rivalry, René Girard has also suggested that religion was necessary to human evolution as a way of controlling the violence that results from our covetous nature. He uses Jewish and Christian texts as examples of how our religious traditions work to disrupt the ongoing and escalating cycles of conflict, as in today’s scene from the Jacob cycle.

Having cheated his brother, who now wants to kill him, Jacob must flee from his family and make a life for himself among his distant kin. He falls in love with Rachel, the daughter of his mother’s brother, Laban, and agrees to work for his uncle for seven years in return for the right to marry her. Jacob is true to his word, but on the night of the wedding, Laban tricks him by sending Rachel’s older sister, Leah, in to him. Jacob cries foul, “why then have you deceived me?” (Gen. 29:25), but it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for him at this point. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. If words create worlds, then this is Jacob’s world, Laban’s just living in it. In fact, as if to rub it in, Laban replies, “it is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn” (Gen. 29:26). He seems to be pointing directly at Jacob’s offense, stealing the birthright and the blessing from his older brother.

Having little leverage in this situation, Jacob agrees to give Laban another seven years of his labor in exchange for Rachel, whom he is allowed to wed a week later, but the damage is done. Jacob feels coerced. Leah, the older sister, feels despised and humiliated. As time goes on, all these relationships will be strained. Leah and Rachel’s sisterhood will be infected with mimetic rivalry as each compete for pride of place in Jacob’s eyes through their children. Jacob and Laban’s suspicion and mistrust will take them to the brink of violence. The entire cycle of stories is a parable about the destructive nature of jealousy and the power of our words to abuse and manipulate one another.

It’s painfully easy to see this ancient story being played out again and again in our time, all around us, in ways both great and small.  What are national borders, if not our human attempt to build a wall around something God created in love for those God loves — all of us — and to call it ours, to hoard resources behind fences and checkpoints and then punish others for trying to stake a claim on what we have held back for ourselves. It’s happening in Israeli settlements and along our own southern border, the cycle of conflict and violence that comes from coveting and claiming for ourselves what others also want. We give our prizes mythic names that enshrine their value, “the American dream” or “the Holy Land.” Isn’t all land holy? Don’t we all have dreams?

I wonder how hard it would be to find this cycle of mimetic rivalry at work in your own conflicts. If you were to scan your memories from this past week and consider those you’ve resented, those you’ve debated in your head, those you’ve gossiped about, those you’ve torn down with your words — is there some element of rivalry there? Do they possess something you want — a job, a reputation, a degree of power and influence, a natural talent, a platform, a network, a family? Are you coveting in someone else the things that you yourself lack? Are you contributing to a cycle of conflict and violence in your workplace, in your own home, through the words that you say, or refuse to say?

I’d like to return for just a moment to the act of confession and forgiveness with which we began our our worship this morning, and I’d like to repeat it one more time for good measure. Please, turn once again to your neighbor and share these words of assurance: “In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.”

What a small thing they are, words. The pass the gates of our lips and are carried away on the air. They leave no record of themselves that we can see, but their impact is felt in our minds, in our hearts, on our lives.

pearlsJesus shares a set of parables this morning about the power of small things to make a huge impact. A mustard seed. A bit of yeast. A hidden treasure. A single pearl. A net that snares us all together. But it is Jesus’ own life that is the greatest parable. A Word, incarnate, taking on flesh in the particularity of someone insignificant. A Jew. A Galilean. A working class boy. An immigrant and a refugee.

But this living Word lived impeccably. He did not try to be someone else. He did not base his actions or his decisions on the desires of others, he did not play their game by their rules, but instead told stories in which something small and weak and unnoticed could grow into something large enough to house the birds of the air, or leaven an entire loaf, or become more valuable then everything else we possess.

These are violent days my sisters and brothers. My heart breaks each time I read the news. The magnitude of creation’s sufferings is beyond my ability to imagine or understand, and they seem intractable, impossible to resolve. These fights are the same fights we’ve been watching for generations. What can we, who are so small, do in the face of these horrors, which are so large?

There is power in small things. Words create worlds, so be impeccable with your word. Do not use it to try and be someone else, to claim what is not yours. Instead, let your word, your own powerful word, give witness the power of God’s Word at work in the world, siding with the small, with the weak, with the despised, with the lost, with the rejected. Let your word be a part of God’s Word, which is truth and love and forgiveness, which is newness of life, and hope and a future for us all.

Amen.

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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, July 7, 2013: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  2 Kings 5:1-14  +  Psalm 30  +  Galatians 6:1-16  +  Luke 10:1-11,16-20

When I was in junior high, or sometime very early in high school, the guidance counselor gave us all a vocational aptitude test to get us thinking about what kinds of work each of us might be best suited for.  When the results came back, my answers indicated that I might have the right set of interests and talents to be a performer, a politician, or pastor.  I remember wondering what those three jobs had in common, then finding the answer in the lyrics of a song by the Police, “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da:”

Poets, Priests and Politicians have words to thank for their positions, words that scream for your submission.

That made sense to me.  Even at a pretty early age, I’d figured out that words were my friends.  I knew how to use them to get permission, to bring a smile, to avoid a fight, to win an argument.  I saw how they fit together to direct lines of thinking and steer conversations.  I could tell there was power in them.

In high school I joined the debate team.  I loved doing the issue research and coming up with arguments, filed away on index cards with quotes and citations that could be deployed like pieces on a chess board to defeat the opposing team.  That sense of power was irresistible to the brainy kid who did well at school, but not at sports, at an age when it seemed like real power was completely out of my hands.

We were all trying to find our power at that age.  Some of us found it in words, others in fists, or in appearances.  It’s tempting to look back and try to rank which kinds of power were more noble, more enviable.  I think the truth is that power itself, no matter the form, was value-neutral.  It was the ends towards which we used them that gave our powers their meaning and worth.  Mostly, at that age, we were using whatever powers we’d begun to master to try and protect ourselves as we maneuvered through the treacherous path from childhood to adulthood, deploying them like a shield against the dangers of our neighborhoods, our schools, even our homes.

Childhood is such a terribly vulnerable time.  Physically we are weaker than most of the people that surround us.  Emotionally we are defined by dependencies to others who may or may not have the resources to nurture us or meet our needs.  Intellectually we are always playing catch-up, learning the rules of an incredibly complicated game as we go.  It is entirely understandable that we cling to whatever powers we discover early on, and begin to identify ourselves with them.  They are our ticket out of the vulnerability of youth.  We are no longer geeks or nerds, but techies and entrepreneurs.  No longer jocks and cheerleaders, but managers and marketers, turning childhood pass-times into professions and careers.  We learn to tell stories about ourselves in which we identify our personhood with our power as professionals or parents.  What we are in charge of becomes what we are.

So I become a pastor, and you become a teacher, or a banker, or a lawyer, or a musician, or a nurse, or a manager, or a parent, or an editor, or a soldier, or a spouse and it becomes clear who you are…

… until the day you get called into the office and told that your position is being being eliminated, or your place of employment — a school, a factory — is being closed.

… until the day your doctor sits you down and gives you the diagnosis you’d spent your life dreading: the cancer your mother had, the virus that killed your friends.

… until the day your spouse dies, or your partner leaves you, and the relationship that defined you is now in your past.

Who are you then?  Where is your power?

This morning is our last with the prophets of First and Second Kings, Elijah and Elisha, whose stories have formed the first unit in our summer school for prophets.  Next week we’ll be moving on to the prophet Amos, then Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah.  Last week we studied the transfer of power from Elijah to Elisha as the former was taken into heaven and the latter was left with the company of prophets to continue his work.

Today we are reminded that, for all his power, Elisha was a prophet to a conquered people.  Israel may have had a king, but there were other kings in other countries with military forces far more powerful than Israel’s.  Aram was one of those countries, and the commander of its army, Naaman, kept a slave girl in his house who’d been taken from her home on one of Aram’s successful raids of Israel.

Can we even imagine how powerless that girl must have felt in her position?  Stolen from her family, taken from her land, forced to serve the very people who had invaded her home and destroyed her way of life.  Even the story conspires to disempower her, robbing her of something as basic as a name.

By contrast, Naaman, the master of the house in which she serves seems blessed in a variety of ways.  He has strength, he has wealth, he has connections to the king of a powerful nation.  His victory over Israel is described as divinely ordered, yet this man has leprosy.  His flesh is infected and he may well be contagious, which is why those with leprosy were quarantined away from the rest of the community, so that the illness would not spread.

Naaman, a man defined by his power, faces becoming a pariah.  So he, like the unnamed slave girl in his house, faces having everything he knows and loves taken from him by a disease over which he has no power.

It not difficult to imagine the enslaved servants in Naaman’s house secretly delighting in their master’s misfortune.  Perhaps they saw it as divine justice, humbling the man who had humiliated them.  Or, perhaps they were terrified as well, since their well-being now depended upon their master’s well-being, their future on his future.  However she felt about it, the young Israelite slave girl knew firsthand what it felt like to stand before your future feeling utterly powerless.

She in her slavery and Naaman in his illness had learned the same lesson: that despite all illusions our lives are not entirely in our own hands, and that we will all be forced to rely upon one another in this life.

So the slave girl uses what is, perhaps, her last remaining power — her faith — to assist the very person who has robbed her of the rest.  She gives her testimony to Naaman’s wife, her knowledge that there is a prophet in Israel through whom God had acted to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, and to raise the dead.

In this act, this nameless servant of the Lord exemplifies the counsel Paul gives in his letter to the Galatians, where he writes:

“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith … for neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” (Gal. 6:10,15)

Circumcision, you may remember, is the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham.  So, the point Paul is making to the Galatians is that we are called to work for the good of all our neighbors, local and global, those who share our faith and those who do not.  Like Naaman’s slave, whose own vulnerability gave her compassion for the vulnerability of even her master.

But we are not quick to give up on our power.  When Naaman hears that there is the possibility of a cure for his weakness in Israel, he gets permission from his own king to go to Israel, where he shows up with a royal letter of reference and deep coffers — ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.  When he arrives at Elisha’s door he seems determined to hide his weakness behind his connections and his wealth, as he pulls up on his horse and chariot.

Now it is Naaman who is in a foreign land, among foreigners, even the very people who he’d previously conquered and defeated, and he has to ask one of their prophets for the cure to his illness.  Even now, at his weakest, Naaman tries to cover up his vulnerability with the things he’d come to believe made him powerful.

Friends, I’ve been playing Naaman’s game since I was a child.  The more trouble I was in, the faster I talked.  Word after word after word.  I know I’m not the only one.  I wonder what power you’ve put your trust in, what source of strength you’ve relied on, even when it was clear to you and everyone around you that it was no match for the magnitude of your circumstances.  At some point, all our strengths fail us: clever words, gruff exteriors, piles of money, beauty and charm, even hard work.

In that moment, let’s pray God sends us to someone like Elisha, who refuses to play Naaman’s game.  Knowing that the deepest form of healing will not only cure Naaman of his leprosy, but will also relieve him of his isolating self-sufficiency, Elisha offers a treatment that forces Naaman to strip himself of his illusions of power and to learn to trust in God, the source of all power.

Elisha sends a messenger to tell Naaman to go wash in the Jordan river seven times.  It sounds like a terrible bedside manner, but Elisha knows that Naaman needs to be relieved of his sense of exceptionalism.  So he gives the military commander something to do that is so simple, anyone could do it.

This is the power the church offers to people like Naaman, to people like you and me.  Washed in the same common water that bathed our parents and grandparents, our friends and neighbors, waters that have baptized enemies and allies, the elite and the unknown, we are sent with the power to relieve the world of its false distinctions and to heal the sickness caused by the false superiorities that infect us all and so quickly spread between us.

Here at St. Luke’s we are just a little more than one week away from the launch of a new project that will bring all our neighbors together, the hungry and the well-fed, for a weekly meal in Haberland Hall.  The tagline for these Community Dinners is “hospitality, not charity,” because we recognize that the deepest form of healing we can work for is more than food in the belly, it’s freedom from the bondage of slavery to our separations from one another.

As we prepare to begin this work, we are challenged to reach out to our neighbors, some of whom will enthusiastically support this work, others who may be frightened by the presence of strangers, who are really unknown neighbors, showing up on their doorsteps.  Our hope is to lay the groundwork for this project by showing up on their doorsteps first.  Sent out in twos, just like Jesus sent the seventy, the company of prophets working alongside him throughout his ministry, we hope to knock on the doors of households throughout this neighborhood to tell them about the work we are doing, and to invite them to come and see this healing taking place right next door.  We know that we will not be warmly received at every door on which we knock, but we refuse to be distracted from the work God has given us to love and serve our neighbors, all of them, hungry and well-fed.

My prayer for us in this coming week is that we will remember the lesson Naaman learned by the banks of the River Jordan, that we will take off our armor and let down our guard.  That we will ring the doorbells of our neighbors’ homes, not armed with answers and arguments, but equipped with compassionate hearts and open minds, ready to listen to the hopes and fears of the people living all around us, each with their own stories of hurt and hope, each waiting for a cure whose form they might never have expected, for a word from an unknown messenger.

Maybe it will be you.

Amen.

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