A Sermon about Esther, Sexual Violence, and Speaking Out


Content note: This has been an especially hard week in national news, between the Bill Cosby verdict and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. It has been especially difficult for our siblings who have experienced sexual violence and have had to be subjected to reliving that trauma in the swirl of endless headlines. I see you, I hear you, I believe you. Period. If you need to reach out to a safe, qualified, trained sexual assault counselor, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 1.800.656.HOPE (1.800.656.4673).

Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
30 September 2018 + Lectionary 26B (Pentecost 19)
Esther 7.1-6, 9-10, 9.20-22

The book of Esther is complicated. As it opens, we find the ancient Israelites living in exile in Persia. On the one hand, there are elements of satire at work. Very quickly, we learn that the king of Persia has a bit of a temper and is time and again proven to be inept and oblivious:

  • Early on, when he summons his first queen  (before Esther) to join a party he’s throwing and she refuses, he consults seven advisors to decide, ultimately, to banish her from his kingdom.
  • Later, Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, overhears an assassination attempt on the king and quickly intervenes to stop it — all the while the king remains oblivious to the plot against him and about who saved his life.
  • Yet again, when the king signs off on his second-in-command Haman’s decree to kill all the Jews in Persia, there’s no real evidence to suggest he actually knows what he’s signing.

Time and again, the book of Esther satirizes the  supposedly powerful king and portrays him as inept, oblivious, and just not a great ruler, undermining his very legitimacy.

Throughout all of this, however, another more significant figure emerges for whom the book is named. Not long after Esther becomes queen to replace her now-deposed and banished predecessor, she hears of Haman’s plot to systematically murder all of the Jewish people living in the empire. In light of this imminent danger to her and her people, Esther becomes convinced, albeit reluctantly at first and with great risk to her own life, to act, to speak out, to try to change what the powers-that-be are about to do. Even so much as approaching the king, her own husband, without being summoned was an offense that could have gotten Esther killed — rendering her efforts pointless and changing nothing. Up until this point, the king has no idea that Esther herself is even Jewish. But still, Esther risks everything.

The book of Esther highlights a woman who speaks out against injustice and violence when it is neither prudent nor expedient to do so.

Were it not for Esther’s bravery, nothing would have changed. And there was probably never going to be a more prudent or well-timed moment for Esther to speak out before it was too late, either.

From his jail cell in Birmingham, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote his now-famous letter addressing his fellow clergy who were concerned his civil rights activism was “unwise and untimely.” In response, King writes, “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ … This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”

Indeed, the call to speak out against injustice and violence cannot wait, well-timed or not.

Were it not for the first Montgomery bus boycotters and the civil rights movement spearheaded by Dr. King, we might have never broken through the evil of segregation.

Were it not for the drag queens and transgender women of color at Stonewall in the 1960s, we might have never seen the birth of the modern LGBTQ rights movement.

Were it not for the first women who boldly and with great risk spoke out about their experiences of sexual assault and those after them who have said #metoo, we might never have had a heightened awareness about the gender-based harassment and violence experienced by people of all genders.

I have to acknowledge that, regardless of politics, this past week has been exceptionally difficult and triggering for our siblings who have experienced sexual assault and violence. On Thursday alone, the National Sexual Assault Hotline reported an unprecedented increase in call volume. It is no small thing to overcome the fear of coming out, out loud, as the victim of sexual assault, and yet there are those who will do everything but just believe their story: She should’ve said something earlier… That was 30 years ago… We knew about this for months and you’re just bringing it up now?… Think about the person you’re accusing… You’re destroying his character…

No wonder over half of all acts of sexual violence go unreported — when the victims have to put up with questions, excuses,  blame, and even accusations against their credibility or recollection of events (“are you sure?”).

Today, the story of Esther offers hope. The story of a woman who, despite great risk to her own life, despite the very real possibility of being dismissed, speaks out against injustice and violence is a story we need to hear. This is a story that says I believe you. Period. This is a story that encourages us to speak up and speak out against injustice and violence, that gives voice to victims, even when it’s risky or “not the right time.”

When we read the story of Esther, it’s also surprising to discover, for a book of the Bible, God is never once explicitly mentioned. And yet, I am convinced God is present nonetheless. This is a story not of God’s apparent absence, but just the contrary. Indeed, it’s Esther’s faith that compels her to speak up.

This is a story of seeing God in hidden, unexpected places. This is a story of seeing God alongside those who suffer and certainly with those who dare to speak out against injustice and violence, despite great risk.

This is very crux of our faith: We proclaim a God who made us all very good, in God’s own image, and we proclaim a God who laments at the ways we hurt each other and tarnish that image. We proclaim a God who is with us even and especially in those dark places because we proclaim a God who became one of us, who suffered as we suffer, and who, ultimately, overcame the power of evil to bring new life and healing.

Thanks be to God.


A Sermon about Greatness


Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
23 September 2018 + Lectionary 25B (Pentecost 18)
Mark 9.30-37

This week, I’ve had two sermons to write. That’s a lot of work — so you’re going to help me finish writing this morning’s sermon. Yes, this is one of those sermons. I’m going to ask you to participate.

I want you to think of someone who has been a role model, or a hero, or a mentor, to you. What was it about that person that made them great for you? What about that person made an impression on you that made you look up to them?

With one or two other people, take a few minutes now to share with each other about that person in your life. Who has been your role model, or hero, or mentor? What about that person made them great for you?

After a few minutes, I’ll call us back together with the sound of the bell.

From the sound of conversation, it sounds like we have more than a few role models, heroes, and mentors in our lives that made an impression on us — professors or teachers, work supervisors or colleagues, family members, close friends, pastors or other church leaders. If we had the time to share, I’d love to hear why each of those people you named were great for you.

The question of greatness takes center stage in our gospel reading today. On the way to Capernaum, the disciples are arguing about which one of them is the greatest. Later, at home, Jesus offers a valuable lesson about greatness that we’ve heard before: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Or said another way, in a another gospel: The last will be first, and the first will be last. (Matthew 20.16)

Jesus’s lesson here sounds simple enough, but it’s one of those verses so often cited, one of those biblical phrases so often uttered, it’s easy to lose clarity of what it’s actually saying.

Indeed, the idea of being last is so counterintuitive, so countercultural, so opposed to everything we’re conditioned to believe and to do. We have solid ideas of what it means to be the greatest — measured by how much money we make, how many academic degrees we have, what kind of car we drive, what neighborhood we live in, the people we know, how many “likes” and “retweets” our social media posts get. Perhaps most timely of all: Ask one political party what it means to make something great, and another will tell you it already is or has always been great. It’s not difficult to see why the concept of greatness is so divisive, so dangerous, so relevant.

The disciples are afraid to answer Jesus’s question about what they were talking about because the disciples are afraid that Jesus will upend and dismantle their culturally-conditioned notions and perceptions of greatness. As it turns out, their fear is well-founded because that’s exactly what Jesus does.

Think back to last week’s gospel reading: Jesus asks his disciples, casually, “Who do people say that I am?” They offer some answers: John the Baptist? Elijah? One of the prophets?

And then he turns the question on them: “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter (oh, Peter…), quick as always to try to give the right, most impressive, greatest answer: “You are the Messiah, the great deliverer who will vanquish all our enemies, free us from the tyranny of the Romans, and restore our rightful status as the greatest nation!”

Do you remember Jesus’s response? “Get behind me, Satan!” Yikes. That seems like a harsh way of telling Peter he’s wrong, but it gets the point across, doesn’t it?

Peter’s idea of a great Messiah had been woefully misguided. Jesus has already told his disciples plainly the kind of Messiah he is. He will take up his cross, undergo great suffering, rejection, and even death. He will give up his life for the sake of others. He will be last of all and servant of all. He will be betrayed into human hands and they will kill him… but he will rise again.

Jesus gives us a model of what it means to be great, far from our preconceptions of what it means to be great. By becoming human, by willingly becoming part of our frail and flawed existence, God shows us that being great has to do with solidarity with those who are oppressed, with relationship with the least of these, with love for all creation.

Greatness is not determined by how much money we make, how many degrees we have, what we drive, where we live, or anything else. To return again to my very favorite biblical commentator Karoline Lewis: “Greatness is determined by weakness and vulnerability. By service and sacrifice. By humility and honor. By truthfulness and faithfulness… [and] we are called to embody this kind of greatness, so that the world can witness the true meaning of greatness born out of love.”

I’d be willing to bet that the examples you gave at the beginning of this sermon have to do with this kind of greatness. We look up to people, to our mentors, to those who have had the most influence on our lives, for the way they live that guides the way we live.

We have the ultimate model of this kind of greatness in Jesus — the Creator of all who becomes as one of his creatures, the Master and Lord of all who becomes a servant of all — showing us the way of love in self-emptying servanthood, pouring out his life, giving us his very body and blood, for the sake of our life. For it is in dying that Christ destroys death, and it is only by dying that Christ rises to new life and indeed raises even us to new life.

Thanks be to God.

“Who do you say that I am?” + A Sermon about Who Jesus Is and Who We Are Called to Be


Redeemer Lutheran Church, Hinsdale
16 September 2018 + Lectionary 24B (Pentecost 17)
Mark 8.27-38

“Who do you say that I am?”

It’s a deceptively simple question: “Who do you say that I am?”

For as long as the Christian church has been in existence, questions about the identity of Jesus have enticed the minds of historians and theologians. Even artists have taken up this debate, each offering their own distinct visual representation of Jesus. While of course we don’t really know what Jesus looked like, some of their representations are certainly closer to the truth than others.

It’s fair to say, too, that for as diverse as the visual answers to this question are, the theological ones are just as vast and varied. Turn on the TV to certain megachurch pastors, and the Jesus you’ll hear about often sounds more like a self-help book or a magic, wish-granting genie. Still other depictions of Jesus by the Christian Right and Left would seek to align him with one political party or another, with all the implications that entails.

So what about the Bible? Surely that will give us a more definitive answer to this question. So we might think — and yet we have four gospels with four very different portrayals of Jesus, plus the twenty-three additional books of the New Testament that each offer their own unique insights about this radical, first-century, itinerant Jewish rabbi-carpenter.

Maybe we just have to face the fact that there is no one simple answer. After all, even today’s gospel reading itself offers four different answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets, or the Messiah. And just as easily as Jesus poses the question, he moves even more quickly to shut down the conversation, sternly ordering his disciples to tell no one about him. Technically, Jesus never really even confirms or denies Peter’s answer.

“Who do you say that I am?” Maybe another way of posing the question, as biblical scholar Karoline Lewis suggests, is this: “Who will you say that you are?” Indeed, Jesus’s identity is very much wrapped up in our own identity as followers of Jesus. Try as artists and theologians and historians might, we can never fully know what Jesus actually looked like or said or did. Sure, we have the witness of the four gospels and the other New Testament writings, and that paints a pretty good picture — but evidently not clear enough, for indeed, interpretations throughout centuries of Christian belief and practice have given way to innumerable divisions and denominations within the church.

Lewis continues: “Who you say Jesus is, is who you have decided to be.” Or maybe it’s the other way around. Who we are, who we have decided to be, what we have decided to believe is who we claim Jesus to be, superimposing our own beliefs, for better or worse, on Jesus.

This is a dangerous game that has led to the church’s often exclusionary and harmful attitudes toward marginalized communities throughout the years. When the church answers Jesus’s question “Who do you say that I am?” out of its own self-interests, it has historically resulted in some pretty convincing, albeit misguided, “biblical” arguments in support of slavery and segregation, against the leadership of women in our pulpits, and opposing the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in the life of the church.

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, says it this way, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” We can safely assume we’ve made Jesus into who we say Jesus is when suddenly he doesn’t seem all that different from us.

With that in mind, Peter’s identification of Jesus as the Messiah is less a confession of faith or giving the right answer and more revealing of what Peter wants Jesus to be. Following the popular Jewish thought of his time, Peter yearned for a Messiah, a specially anointed king from the royal line of David, ancient Israel’s greatest and most respected king. Descended from David, this new king was expected to powerfully vanquish Israel’s oppressors, to free Israel from the occupation and foreign rule of the Roman Empire, and to restore Israel’s status as an independent and divinely chosen people.

But that’s far from the kind of Messiah Jesus is, and he sternly rebukes Peter, even calling out Peter’s proposal as satanic and evil. Maybe it’s a bit harsh, but it certainly gets the point across.

The role of the Messiah that Jesus has in mind is much different. The Messiah that Jesus claims to be is a Messiah who takes up his cross, who undergoes great suffering, rejection, even death. This is Jesus’s answer to his own question. “Who do you say that I am?” This is the Messiah who suffers and gives up his life for the sake of others, who manifests God’s great love for God’s creation by offering his very self for our life.

This is also the answer to the flip side of the original question that Karoline Lewis poses: “Who will you say that you are?” ELCA pastor Elisabeth Johnson, who serves as a missionary in Cameroon, offers these words:

“Jesus speaks of losing our lives for his sake, and for the sake of the gospel. Taking up our cross means being willing to suffer the consequences of following Jesus faithfully, whatever those consequences might be. It means putting Jesus’ priorities and purposes ahead of our own comfort or security. It means being willing to lose our lives by spending them for others — using our time, resources, gifts, and energy so that others might experience God’s love made known in Jesus Christ.”

This passage is an invitation to discipleship, to following Jesus — but it doesn’t promise that the life of following Jesus will be easy or without challenges.

In the years before 2009, before the ELCA officially began ordaining and consecrating openly LGBTQ pastors and deacons, many Lutheran clergy who did not identify as straight either served closeted, withholding their identity from those with the power to defrock them, or were barred from serving entirely.

A few, however, chose to serve the church openly, at great risk. As an act of holy disobedience, the first three openly gay and lesbian pastors in the ELCA — Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, and Jeff Johnson — were ordained “extraordinarily” (outside the bounds of official church polity) in 1990, which promptly led the removal of the congregations that had called them from membership in the ELCA. In the years that followed, more and more gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender pastors and deacons were ordained and consecrated extraordinarily, served their congregations and ministry settings openly, and faced similar consequences — until the church finally started to catch up.

These early instigators of a movement toward full inclusion knew this life of discipleship well. They knew what it meant to take up their cross, to suffer the consequences of following Jesus faithfully, following the example of a Messiah who constantly reached out to the margins, toppling walls meant to keep “those people” out, and subverting boundaries every step of the way. These faithful instigators of the church knew what it meant to put Jesus’s priorities and the mission of the gospel ahead of even their own safety and the comfort and status quo of the institutional church.

“Who do you say that I am?” If we profess the church to be the body of Christ, we need look no further than these early instigators and other faithful witnesses to the gospel of radical inclusivity and love and justice for all people. These are the body of Christ. These are the answer to who Jesus is because these are the followers of Jesus.

Following in their witness, following in the witness of Jesus, this is our invitation. Who do you say that Jesus is? Who will you say that you are?

Image Description: Pastors Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, and Jeff Johnson join hands in prayer and blessing on the occasion of their “extraordinary” ordinations in 1990. (Credit: Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries)