A Sermon about Resistance in the Face of Suffering

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Augustana Lutheran Church
7 May 2017 + Fourth Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 2.19-25



Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Fourth Sunday of Easter brings us to Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s tempting, isn’t it, to dwell in the midst of the idyllic early Christian community described in our reading from Acts, or to linger beside the psalmist’s green pastures and still waters, abiding in the tender care of Jesus our shepherd. So given all that, it’s also tempting to just gloss over that second reading from 1 Peter. I mean, really, who put that in there alongside today’s other readings? On the other hand, at least they spared us an even more disturbing opening line that didn’t make the cut in the final lectionary edits: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you…” the epistle writer goes on. Kind of changes the perspective, doesn’t it?

And yet, I believe, this text, including the address to slaves, begs examining. It begs examining because the history of this country, built on the institution of slavery, makes the very word slave difficult to digest and yet at the same time necessary to confront. It begs examining, too, because so many in our world today still suffer injustice and violence and the last thing they need to hear is someone from a lectern or pulpit telling them to suck it up because the Bible tells them so.

In the first place, let me be clear: The point of this text is not to suggest that suffering for suffering’s sake wins over God’s approval. Nor is it meant to insist that those in physically abusive and potentially life-threatening situations should continue to endure abuse. But, the epistle writer clarifies, if you endure when you do right and suffer for it—or to put it another way, if you are pursuing justice and righteousness and that lands you in hot water to the point of suffering—so be it. The epistle writer’s aim in the larger context of this passage is to outline a “code” for Christian conduct in society, and the far greater emphasis in this passage is the exhortation to do good and to pursue justice. It nearly goes without saying that the history of civil disobedience among people of faith in this pursuit predicts suffering as its probable by-product.

Oftentimes, though, professed Christians have been the worst offenders of upholding the very unjust systems that others so passionately fight against. Slavery in the pre-Civil War era was condoned by Christian slaveholders with passages such as this, and still today, many of our LGBTQ+ siblings are bombarded by so-called “well-meaning” Christians who pluck out choice passages of Scripture to deny their very humanity.

In recent weeks, the newly debuted TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale makes us keenly aware of this point. The series depicts a not-so-far-off future United States, now governed by a strict totalitarian government based on an extreme form of Christian fundamentalism. Here, the class divide is stark, comprised of an elite ruling class and a class of servants and sustained by a select, literal interpretation of Scripture. In one scene this dramatically comes to a head when one of the handmaids is reminded, “Remember your scripture. Blessed are the meek.” And in a short-lived but fierce act of defiance, for which she is then subjected to an attack of physical violence, the handmaid responds, “And blessed are those who suffer for the cause of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Like the handmaid and like the slaves to whom the epistle writer writes, the condition of slavery and oppression is never one that is sought out or chosen, but there are ways to live defiantly even in the midst of injustice while fighting against it.

Another verse outside the bounds of our lectionary reading is key: “As servants of God, live as free people,” verse 16 begins. So, while this is still an address to actual slaves in the first-century world, it also includes a reminder that they are first and foremost servants of God and therefore are free. It does not deny their present suffering nor make excuses for it, but it does offer them hope and encouragement even in the midst of it.

The principle of Christian freedom—that we are not only freed from sin, death, and the power of evil but also freed for service to our neighbors in the world—is a core part of Lutheran theology. Of course, as we know, using that freedom for the pursuit of justice is not easy. In recent months, people of faith have marched in the streets and called and emailed legislators to bear public witness to the faith that compels us to oppose harmful and life-threatening policies around health care, immigration, and so much more.

Nearly 60 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this well when he wrote of the path of nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance is not passive: it does not mean being a doormat in the face of injustice. Nor does it mean that those who resist become the aggressor or oppressor in return. Nonviolent resistance, for King, meant opposing evil itself, not the persons who commit evil acts, and he admitted that it also meant a willingness to suffer and sacrifice.

In that same spirit, the epistle writer offers us Christ as an example of what it means to suffer as a result of opposing evil for the cause of pursuing justice. Lifting up the lowly and reaching out with unconditional love to the marginalized was the whole point of Jesus’s earthly ministry. And it got him killed.

As James Cone has said, “If you are going to worship somebody that was nailed to a tree, you must know that the life of a disciple of that person is not going to be easy.” Following in the path of Jesus, as we who profess to be Christian claim to do, we are told that we don’t suffer in isolation for the cause of justice, but that the crucified Christ who has gone before us still accompanies us today.

Today we hear a word of comfort and hope that the crucified Christ is with us still, in every moment, and in this Easter season, we proclaim the victory of Christ’s resurrection over the forces of evil that newly emboldens us in our baptismal calling to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

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A Sermon about Change and Being Called as Dearly Beloved Disciples

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Augustana Lutheran Church
22 January 2017 + Third Sunday after Epiphany (Lectionary 3A)
Matthew 4.12-23



How are your New Year’s resolutions going? I won’t make us do a show of hands (though that would be kind of fun), but I’m willing to bet most of us who made some sort of resolution for 2017 will likely fail, if not already. In fact, there’s even an unofficial holiday, observed every January 17th: “Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day.” (Who knew?!)

A statistic I stumbled across in Forbes magazine suggests that only 8% of people actually achieve their intended resolutions. The reasons for failure are varied, from making too many resolutions to setting goals that are simply unachievable. In short, our resolutions often set us up for failure. And of course, as we all know, change is hard.

Change, it seems, is the order of the day in our gospel text. John the Baptist has been arrested. Jesus retreats and moves to Galilee. He begins to proclaim that the dominion of heaven has come near, and he starts recruiting followers. Followers who experience drastic change, immediately leaving their occupations, families, and livelihoods. And they go throughout Galilee, as Jesus only intensifies his public ministry of teaching and preaching and healing.

If the calling of these first few followers is any indication, it’s a given that change is caught up in what it means to be a disciple. Indeed, discipleship demands transformation.

Last Monday, in the thick of the ice storm, I happened upon an episode of the daytime talkshow The View. One of their guests that day was Arno Michaelis. His story began in an alcoholic household with parents who would often fight. By his own admission, he reacted by lashing out and turning to bullying and violence as an outlet. By the time he was a teenager, he had gotten into the punk rock music scene, an interest which led him to fall in with the white supremacist movement. Eventually, he would become a founding member of one of the largest white supremacist organizations in the world, using his own band as a platform for his hate-filled agenda.

Then, slowly, his life began to be interrupted.  He attributes his gradual awakening to people he claimed to hate—people of color and sexual orientations different from his own—who showed him kindness when he least deserved it. At 24, he became a single parent to his young daughter. A few months after that, he lost a second friend in a violent street fight. “It was the slap-in-the-face moment,” he said, that gave him the opportunity to leave a life of hate behind.

Today, Arno has become an anti-hate activist. In 2012, one of the members of the hate group he had previously helped form killed six people at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Following the shooting, the son of one of the victims reached out to Arno in an attempt to better understand what had happened at his place of worship. The two have since become close friends.

It’s an inspiring story of transformation. Though most of us have never and probably will never experience a change quite that dramatic in our own lives, the call of discipleship is nonetheless caught up with change.

One pastor (T. Denise Anderson) writes of this week’s gospel text and the abrupt call of these disciples, “[Their] assignments have to change because the culture—indeed, the world—has changed. God’s call often seems to be directly related to some major shift that requires a strong witness.”

In the aftermath of the most divisive election in recent history and a new administration that has left many of us feeling afraid and angry—indeed, in the midst of national change—our call as disciples only intensifies our public witness to a radically inclusive, justice-seeking gospel that proclaims love, not hate. Just last night, I participated in the Women’s March downtown, with hundreds of thousands of others around the world who did the same. It was a powerful witness that love can and does indeed trump hate.

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Women’s March through the Old Market in Omaha, NE (photo credit: Josh Evans)

Often, though, I fear that we lose sight of the why in favor of the what, focusing on the work itself and its results and not our calling and identity that compel us.

I suspect this is also why so many New Year’s resolutions fail: We are coerced into making commitments to better ourselves that are not really goals that are important for us and who we authentically are. When you’re not in touch with your own identity, it’s easy to suffer burnout and lose energy for the things we think we’re supposed to be doing.

Yes, change is demanded in the life of a disciple, but it is a call to change systems that are hurting people, because indeed we are already changed through the work of Christ. The Reformers called this idea the third use of the law in our book of Lutheran Confessions. For the Beloved Community of the Church, the law—God’s unchangeable will for justice—becomes “a sure guide, according to which [we] can orient and conduct [our] entire lives” (FC Ep VI.1). The call of the disciple, therefore, is to do those things which the law requires—to do justice and to love kindness—freely and without compulsion, and most especially in the face of hatred and all the forces that tell marginalized communities they don’t matter.

We can follow this path of discipleship—Jesus’s call to “follow me”—precisely because of who we are as beloved children of God, made in the divine image, with inherent sacred worth and dignity. These first followers of Jesus most assuredly had no idea what on earth he meant by becoming “fishers of people.” But the fact they were called to begin with indicates that Jesus saw something of value, some potential, in them.

This is true for us, as well. As another preacher (David Lose) writes, even when we don’t know what being a child of God exactly means, or when we’re not confident of what precisely we’re being called to do in the world, we can rest in the assurance that God values, honors, and loves us, just as we are.

This is a truth that we need to be reminded of, regularly. Being a disciple is hard work, and we need to be fed in that work. We are fed every Sunday at this table. We are fed in fellowship during adult forum, coffee hour, and our potluck meals. We are fed in small group book studies, and we are fed in relationship with other people, both within and outside of these walls.

Once we are fed, I suspect we will find that the rest will follow.

A Brief Reflection for MLK Day

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…which started out as a Facebook post that became a wee bit too long.


The first class I took in seminary was The Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr. I learned so much in that class — from readings from King, from classmates, and of course from the brilliant Dr. Pete Pero.

One of our first assignments was reading a trio of King’s sermons, and one short but profound quote that has always stuck with me comes from the one entitled “The Drum Major Instinct,” preached in 1968, just months before his assassination. About serving, King says:

“You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.”

A tall order, indeed.

I’m also reminded of another quote, this one from King’s famous letter from Birmingham city jail:

“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied’…

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is…the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

I quote these words, not as a preacher (as though I can say them with the same authenticity and integrity as King), but as an act of confession — a confession that I have far too often been part of the “white moderate” of which King speaks. And I suspect this is a confession I will need to continue to make — a confession that my calling to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA requires of me:

“Consistent with the faith and practice of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, every minister of Word and Sacrament shall…speak publicly to the world in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world.” (ELCA Constitution, Chapter 7.31.02)

The gospel is clear: God in Christ has reconciled the world unto God’s self. Likewise, our calling: We are agents of reconciliation, love, and justice. Not for some “more convenient” time in the more distant future, but now. Now, in a world where people are hurting. Now, in a world where people live in fear. Now, in a world filled with refugees and immigrants and people afraid of losing their health insurance under the ACA.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is not just a federal holiday that means no work, no mail delivery, and posting quotes from “I Have a Dream” on Facebook. It’s a call to be about the work of justice, always, a call to confess when we fall short, and a call to recommit ourselves to that work.

All you need is a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.

A Sermon for Those Who Have Been Told to Take the Lowest Place

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Augustana Lutheran Church
28 August 2016 + Lectionary 22C
Luke 14.1, 7-14



Wash your hands.
Pray before you eat.
Don’t chew with your mouth open.
Keep your elbows off the table.

All phrases that I imagine each of us has heard as children that teach us table manners.

And the fancier the meal, these table manners only seem to get more strict and more elaborate. Imagine Downton Abbey.

Or closer to home: when the good china comes out at Christmas or Thanksgiving, or maybe going out for a nice dinner at the best steakhouse in town.

And yet all these settings would probably pale in comparison to a candlelight supper, hosted by one Hyacinth Bucket. That’s B-U-C-K-E-T, bouquet.

If you get that reference, you have instantly 2073727127_a383fce445_zbecome of my new favorite people who knows and appreciates the television masterpiece that is Keeping Up Appearances.

The show follows the anything-but-ordinary life of Hyacinth Bucket, whose relentless and often exaggerated attempts at climbing the social ladder provide much of the show’s humor. In nearly every episode, Hyacinth goes to great lengths to steer clear of her much more “lower-class” sister Daisy and her husband, while constantly reminding everyone of her much wealthier sister Violet—all part of her ceaseless social climbing.


Jesus encounters a great deal of social climbing in today’s gospel. At the house of a prominent religious leader, all the guests clamor for the places of honor.

The instruction Jesus offers to the guests in his parable seems straightforward enough: Don’t scramble for the place of honor. If someone more important comes along, you might get bumped down lower. So instead, do just the opposite. It’s better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower. It’s advice straight out of the wisdom sayings we encounter in our reading from Proverbs.

But even more radical is what Jesus says in the follow-up to the parable where he turns his attention to the hosts. Don’t invite the usual suspects, but invite those who are poor, crippled, lame, blind—those who cannot invite you back, those who are explicitly excluded by first-century Palestinian “table manners.”

These are the ones who have had no choice but to take the “lowest place”—or no place at all—because that’s where the system has told them they belong. But they’re precisely the ones that Jesus would have at the table.


The church, too, is guilty of its own restrictive and exclusive “table manners.”

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Clare Byarugaba (photo credit: Timothy Meinch / Christian Century)

Clare Byarugaba is an activist who lives in Uganda. She also happens to be a lesbian.

 

She talks about growing up in the Anglican church in her hometown of Kabale, in southwestern Uganda. Her father played the organ, and she sang in the choir. Clare fondly remembers a happy childhood experience in the church: “I never really questioned my faith or the Bible,” she says. “I was in a certain place with God, and it was good.”

Even after she first noticed her same-sex attraction, and started bringing her girlfriends to church with her, she had reconciled her sexuality and her faith. Certain of her identity, she laughingly remarked, “God will deal with it.”

The church of her adulthood, however, holds a different opinion. Clare recounts one Sunday in 2009 when her pastor urged the congregation to sign a petition backing antigay legislation that would make provision for the death penalty in certain cases of same-sex activity. That day, she decided it would be the last time she went to church, reflecting later, “It was so, so painful… The people who were supposed to bring you closer to God were calling for your death.” [1]

Unfortunately, homophobia in the church is a phenomenon not restricted to Uganda and one we know all too well in our North American context. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals told they don’t belong simply because of who they are and whom they love. Or at best, welcomed, but with an asterisk to take the “lowest place.” Be celibate. Don’t get married. You can’t raise children. Don’t be too flamboyant.

There is no shortage of persons in our world who have been told they belong in the “lowest place.” LGBTQ+ persons are just one example.

A video produced by Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago highlights another. It’s called “Get Home Safely: 10 Rules of Survival,” and it features black youth offering advice to their peers on how to survive getting stopped by police. [2] Advice, I must admit, I never had to consider growing up white. Be polite. Don’t argue. Keep your hands visible. Don’t run. Don’t resist. In other words, take the “lowest place” because to attempt to do anything more is to risk your life.


When Clare Byarugaba decided to return to the very church that only a few years earlier had deeply hurt her, she walked in during an opening praise medley that included a song paraphrasing Isaiah 61:

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”

Words that should sound familiar because they are the very words spoken by Jesus that launch and define his public ministry earlier in Luke’s gospel. Words that give Clare hope for the future of her beloved church.

Words that declare that God is always and especially concerned for the outsider and the oppressed.

I am grateful to come from a seminary that embraces the idea of public church, because public church, too, is, at its best, rooted in these words.

The church declares that in baptism we are claimed as God’s own and marked with the cross of Christ forever. The church declares one’s worth is not dependent on where society tells you you belong—but that you are worthy because you are a beloved and redeemed child of God.

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And the public church proclaims that message of sacred worth to the world and fights like hell against systems that deny it to queer lives, to black lives, to refugee and immigrant lives.

Jesus’s insistence that poor and crippled and lame and blind lives matter enough to have a place at the table is much more than a lesson in simple table manners. It’s a radical re-envisioning of a world marked by God’s reign of justice.


[1] http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-08/unshakable-uganda

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqJ-psD9vJw

A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday in Which I Quote Doctor Who

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Grace Lutheran Church
7 February 2016 + Transfiguration of Our Lord
Luke 9.28-43



After about a month and a half of vacation time, I am very pleased to be back among you this morning and preaching no less on this feast day of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. I spent most of the holiday season visiting family and friends in Michigan and Ohio, and on New Year’s Eve in particular, after a brisk walk at dusk through Cuyahoga Valley National Park, I spent a quiet evening at home eating dinner, drinking champagne, and watching Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.

Of course, the most notable feature of that evening in New York City is the Times Square 3onzqffdBall: an impressive 12 feet in diameter, covered in 2,688 Waterford crystal triangles, and illuminated by no less than 32,256 LED lights, beginning its descent just seconds before midnight to ring in the new year in all its splendor.

Meanwhile in Chicago, instead of a dropping ball, the Windy City’s inaugural Chi-Town Rising event ushered in 2016 with shooting stars and fireworks off the river. A spectacular event, I’m sure.

But I can’t help but wonder, as one headline dares to question, what does Chicago have to celebrate? This past year saw a city rocked by protests over police shootings, demonstrations that shut down the Magnificent Mile on Black Friday, and a budget stalemate in Springfield. With so much violence, inequality, and instability, Chi-Town Rising feels like false celebration.

I became poignantly aware of the state of inequality in Chicago whenever I would join South Loop Campus Ministry to deliver sack lunches to our neighbors experiencing homelessness. We would walk down stretches of Lower Wacker Drive, literally right below the Magnificent Mile, but so different that it felt like a strange, separate world. It’s the kind of place we’d rather not go to.

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South Loop Campus Ministry distributing sack lunches on Lower Wacker Drive

We’d much rather stay above ground—on spotless sidewalks, trimmed with impeccable landscaping down one side and store after brightly lit store on the other. Like Peter in our reading today, we’d much rather stay on the mountaintop where things are dazzling white and bright and clean and happy and safe. Because when you’re on the mountaintop, it’s easy to ignore what’s going on down below.

Even our lectionary (the cycle of readings we read every Sunday) would prefer to stay on the mountaintop and ignore the demon-possessed child in the narrative that immediately follows. If you look in the front of your hymnal, you’d see those verses in brackets, making that part optional. But it’s not optional because it’s there.


In the novel Howards End by E.M. Forster, one of the main characters, privileged by all accounts, remarks: “[We] stand upon money as upon islands. It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its very existence. It’s only when we see someone near us tottering that we realize all that an independent income means.” In other words, when we’re one of the privileged, it’s easy to ignore what’s going on below us, until we’re confronted by it.

But Anglican priest and poet John Donne reminds us, as the poem famously begins:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
…any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.”

We don’t get to live in isolation by thinking our wellbeing isn’t connected to that ofeveryone else.orgslarge


51pr5yn2kol-_sy355_Shifting gears just a moment, if you’ll indulge my latest TV addiction, consider Doctor Who. For those of you who haven’t watched it: the series follows the time-traveling journey of “the Doctor” and his companion. In one episode, they find themselves in New York City in 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression. In the heart of Central Park, they encounter a group of people living in Hooverville, one of many colonies of down and out people so affected by the Depression they have nowhere else to go—the poorest of the poor. Looking up at the construction of the Empire State Building, Solomon, the leader of the group, remarks, “How come they can build that [pointing] and we got people starving in the heart of Manhattan?”

I wonder if maybe the demon-possessed child might have looked up that day at the mountain and caught a glimpse of the Transfiguration. “How can they experience that and I’m suffering down here?”

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A shack in the “Hooverville” shanty-town in Central Park, New York City, circa 1930 (image source here)

It’s a question that reorients our attention. As the text shifts from the mountaintop to the village below, I wonder if maybe the point of the Transfiguration narrative—the whole story—is to refocus our attention on the work of the kingdom of God, to the demands of a broken world in need of restoration.

In this way, the Transfiguration reminds us that we can’t always dwell in glory at the expense of ignoring suffering and injustice. It’s why Peter gets reprimanded for suggesting they stay and set up camp: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Listen to him as speaks of his departure, his exodus (as it says in Greek), his work of liberation, which he is about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Listen to him, and keep moving. Listen to him, because there’s work to be done.


fp3134-doctor-who-daleks-exterminateBack in the world of Doctor Who, sometime later in that same episode, Solomon encounters a Dalek for the first time (imagine an evil R2-D2 bent on killing everything and everyone that’s not like itself), and he remarks that the universe is much bigger than he realized, which terrifies him. But he goes on to say, “Surely it’s got to give me hope, hope that maybe together we can make a better tomorrow.”

In the scene that follows, we meet a rogue Dalek who has morphed into a half human breed and is beginning to exhibit signs of emotion. See, Daleks are by their nature emotionless (hence the mass killing), but this particular one who has gone his own way seeks to change that. About their emotionlessness he says, “It makes us lesser than our enemies. We must return to the flesh and also the heart.” “But you wouldn’t be the supreme beings anymore,” remarks the Doctor. And the Dalek replies, “And that is good.”

I think what this rogue Dalek is trying to get at is something that’s more universal than just part of the plot of a TV show. It’s not good to be the supreme beings, to be better, to be separated from other people. But returning to a state of community, of the heart, at the base of the mountain or in Hooverville, that is good.

The Christian journey, like Jesus’s journey, moves us toward this end, toward places of suffering. Not for its own sake but in order to confront it, stand in solidarity with those deeply affected by it, and ultimately bear witness to the fact that it doesn’t have the final word. As our liturgical life today moves us from Christmas and Epiphany (seasons of light) to Lent (a very different season), we’re reminded that we can’t always dwell in the light but must go to dark places too. It’s part of the life of Jesus, it’s part of the life of the church, it’s part of our lives.

But those places are exactly where Jesus is found. It’s precisely because of the Light that
was born in Bethlehem, and the Light that shines in glory on the mountaintop, that we are compelled and strengthened to go into the world, in all its
brokenness, to restore our

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“Transfiguration” by Jan Richardson

connection to our fellow human beings. The mystery of the incarnation we celebrate at Christmas—the Word made flesh and living among us—finds its fullness in the Transfiguration event, the whole event. Instead of being removed from it all and staying on the mountain, Jesus comes down to us, offering healing and wholeness. And the thing about healing is that it always happens in community.

That healing, life-giving community happens when we gather for fellowship over coffee and pastries before church every week and talk about our lives. It happens when we gather around this table for communion every week. It happens, more often than not, in ordinary places.

And it’s in those ordinary, everyday places, at the base of the mountain, where we have the promise of God’s presence, where we experience life in community, and where we begin to enact God’s justice for the sake of the whole world.


Such is where my sermon ended until 8 o’clock on Saturday night. But then a friend posted a poem by Jan Richardson, which was too perfect not to share. So I conclude with that, found here on Jan’s website. (Never mind the fact that I messed up the first line of the poem…but grace, right? 😊)

A Sermonette About Immigration Justice and God’s Abundance

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Every first Friday of the month, people of faith gather in prayer and song in front of the immigration detention center in Broadview, IL, to minister to our sisters and brothers who are being deported that day and to advocate for a more compassionate immigration policy in this country. This month I was invited to share the Christian reflection.


Christian Reflection for Interfaith Prayer Vigil
Broadview Detention Center
4 September 2015 + Mark 6.30-44


Is there going to be enough?

That’s the message I hear echoed in our reading today. The disciples are tired, and they’re hungry. And after a long day of being surrounded by swarms of people, they just want to eat some fish and some bread in peace by themselves.

Is there going to be enough?

That’s the question that always ran through my mind when I gathered with my campus ministry to serve a hot meal to our sisters and brothers in Chicago who were experiencing homelessness. We do this every month and we can plan all we want, but in the end, we never know how many people are going to show up. It’s not difficult then for me to imagine the disciples’ position.

Is there going to be enough?

In my seminary this week, several of us gathered for a community conversation on diversity. Near the end, we had a panel of representatives from several different communities, and one question asked of them was to name the greatest sin facing our world today. What struck me is that all of them, in some form or another, kept saying fear of scarcity and the subsequent hoarding of resources and inequality. That fear separates the haves and the have nots, the privileged and the oppressed, those who are citizens and those who are struggling to become citizens. As one panelist suggested, I think the majority of the world’s “isms” and phobias would begin to fade away if we learned to fear less and trust God more.

But I also want to acknowledge, at least for myself, that it’s hard to trust. This summer I had the opportunity to preach on the passage of Mark’s gospel that immediately precedes the feeding of the five thousand. It tells the story of the death of John the Baptist. At that time, Herod threw a banquet for his birthday, and at that banquet, his stepdaughter danced to entertain the party guests. In return, Herod promised to give her whatever she asked for. So she went to her mother to confer. Now her mother had a tiny grudge against John the Baptist because he had called out Herod, her husband, for marrying her, who happened to be his brother’s wife. So she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, and Herod reluctantly complied.

I tell that story to highlight the fact that there are two back-to-back banquets in Mark’s gospel. There’s Herod’s banquet that ends in death, and then there’s Jesus’s banquet that ends in life-sustaining goodness and abundant leftovers. I don’t think that juxtaposition is just a coincidence.

I think it’s a reminder that human power so often struggles to maintain itself at the cost of human life. I think Herod, who was in a position of power, was afraid of losing his authority and the respect of the people. And as a Jew himself, I think he was afraid because John called him out for his marriage that stood in violation of Torah. And so out of fear, Herod had John silenced.

But we know God’s way is vastly different from Herod’s way. Where Herod’s way is oppressive and exclusive and ends with death, God’s way is always concerned for the outcast, the outsider, the oppressed, the immigrant. God’s way is disarming and unexpected. It comes to us in the form of a baby born in a dirty barn stall, it comes to us in the form of a peasant carpenter-turned-rabbi, it comes to us in the form of crucified Savior, and it comes to us finally in the form of a resurrected Christ. God’s way ends in life.

And in the second banquet, God’s way also says there is enough. And it stands in stark contrast to Herod’s fear of losing power and control and to our fear of scarcity and the subsequent hoarding of resources. When we, like the disciples, want to send the crowds away to go get their own food because, gosh darn it, we worked hard for what we have and so should everyone else, we hear Jesus’s simple instructions, “You give them something to eat.” It’s incumbent on us to love our neighbors, all of them, as ourselves, and to care for and protect those who are the most vulnerable. That’s why we’re here today, and it’s why you keep showing up here every Friday.

Theologian Paul Tillich has referred to sin as separation. What we’re doing here today is protesting the separation of families and loved ones who are simply trying to take their place at the banquet table and fully realize their inherent, God-given sacred worth and dignity. When we turn back our sisters and brothers who come to this country seeking a better life, we are separating ourselves from our fellow human beings. If separation is sin, then this practice of deportation is sinful.

Back to campus ministry: One week we decided to host a meal in the middle of the month, made possible by a very generous donation. We had a beautiful spread of fried chicken and all the usual suspects on the side. But it deviated from our schedule, and no one knew about it. We had two people show up. There was obviously more than enough, and so we took the food to the streets and hand delivered it.

“Christ of Maryknoll” by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

That’s the other great part of the gospel. Just as it readily welcomes all, it also actively pursues all, as the psalmist writes: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23.6). And so we openly welcome all, and we actively seek all, and we pray for our sisters and brothers being sent away this day and everyday around the country. We know that God’s justice says that all eat and are filled and that all are welcome at the table because we know that there is enough. I pray for the day that we let go of fear and recognize that unfailing abundance.

Amen.

A Sermon About Calling Out Injustice Even When It’s Uncomfortable (or costs you your head)

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Louis Stokes VA Medical Center
15 July 2015 + Pentecost 7B
Mark 6.14-19; Amos 7.7-15

[Now with audio for your listening pleasure]


Sometimes I wish I didn’t come from a tradition that compels me to preach the lectionary because sometimes the preacher winds up with texts like this one, texts that make you add a question mark, “The Gospel of the Lord?” Texts that make you feel uncomfortable. But I wonder if maybe that’s the point of this text—discomfort. Hold on to that thought.


Our reading from Mark’s gospel begins on a note that beckons us back to the verses that immediately precede it: “King Herod heard of the disciples’ preaching.” It’s enough to assume, as the text leads us to believe, that Herod had simply caught wind of Jesus’s rapidly spreading ministry. At this point in the gospel, Jesus is well into his public ministry and has caused so much of a stir that he’s just been thrown out of his hometown of Nazareth. And so he sends his disciples out to keep the momentum going.

Feast of Herod, Bartholomeus Strobel

But I think there’s something more to what piqued Herod’s interest. The message that disciples preached, we’re told, is repentance. When Herod heard of it, the text goes on, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” It made him remember another man who preached repentance, a man whom he had killed. And I suspect that it made him afraid.

The way Mark tells it, Herod had married his brother’s wife, a direct violation of Torah, and John the Baptist called him out on it. Even though Herod was a Jew, he was first and foremost a government official working for Caesar. His interests were the interests of the Roman Empire, not God’s law. But because Herod was a Jew, the text tells us that he still feared John, a righteous and holy man, and protected him, even in prison.

Herod’s new wife, on the other hand, not so much. And so when Herod threw his birthday party and promised his stepdaughter whatever she asked for, she went to her mother who finally had a chance to act on her grudge and demand John’s gruesome death. This put Herod in a difficult place, but in order to preserve his authority and the respect of the people, he gives her what she asks for.

John called out Herod for violating Torah, and he ultimately got himself killed for it. John risked his life for the sake of asserting that God’s law trumps the practices of the Roman Empire. John’s message of repentance was rejected, like Jesus’s message after him was rejected. Jesus announced his ministry saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The kingdom of God, not the kingdom of Rome. The kingdom where demons are cast out, where lepers and paralytics and hemorrhaging women are cured, where the dead are raised to life. The kingdom where outcasts are sought out and gathered in, the kingdom that makes those who struggle to hold on to power fearful of losing it. It’s not difficult to imagine why Herod was afraid.


Of course, this emphasis on justice was nothing new. The Hebrew prophets before John and Jesus had been preaching God’s concern for the oppressed, widows, orphans, foreigners, for a long time. Perhaps no prophet is more scathing in his indictment against those who exploit the poor than Amos.

Our first reading today contains the third of three visions about God’s judgment against Israel. In it, God shows Amos a plumb line. Now in construction a plumb line is used to make sure walls are built in a straight line. Here, it’s a religious and ethical plumb line, and God’s people have failed to align themselves with it. And Amos names their sin, as one translation puts it: “Listen to this, you who rob the poor and trample down the needy! You can’t wait for the Sabbath day to be over and the religious festivals to end so you can get back to cheating the helpless. You measure out grain with dishonest measures and cheat the buyer with dishonest scales” (Amos 8.4-5, NLT). God condemns their exploitation of the poor and even goes far as to condemn their worship practices: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5.21-24, NRSV).

sign from a “Moral Monday” march in Chicago, protesting Governor Bruce Rauner’s proposed budget cuts

Hypocrites, God calls them. The festivals and observances prescribed by Torah are meaningless when they neglect justice, the heart of God’s law. And Amos calls the people out on it. But it’s not a popular message. It’s not a message King Jeroboam or his priest want to hear. “O seer,” they say to Amos, “go, flee away to the land of Judah… but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” We don’t want to hear it. It makes us uncomfortable. We like what we got going on here. Go away.


Such is the prophetic tradition in which John takes his place in our gospel text. But it doesn’t sound much like gospel. This text reminds us that the calling out of injustice is risky business. It’s uncomfortable, life-threatening even. This text, it seems, is not good news. This text is more like Good Friday. The powers that be appear to win. Like Amos, John the Baptist is silenced. And the text foreshadows that, like John, Jesus too will be silenced. All for preaching repentance and justice.

This text reminds us that human power so often struggles to maintain itself at the cost of human life. It hinges on corruption and stems from greed and fear. It is power misused and has no regard for the other. It is power that seeks to control and feel better than the other.

The Resurrection, El Greco

But God’s power is vastly different from Herod’s power. Herod’s power is oppressive and exclusive and ends with death. But God’s power is always concerned for the other, the outcast, the outsider, the oppressed. God’s power is disarming and unexpected. It breaks in and says there’s another way. God’s power comes to us in the form of a baby born in a dirty barn stall. God’s power comes to us in the form of a peasant carpenter-turned-rabbi. God’s power comes to us in the form of a crucified Savior. And God’s power finally comes to us in the form of a resurrected Christ. God’s power ends with life.

That might not be immediately obvious when you just look at this banquet, but you see, there are actually two banquets in Mark’s gospel. This week’s reading ends with Herod’s banquet of death, but immediately following is Jesus’s banquet of life and abundance. Jesus feeds five thousand people, with leftovers. That banquet points us back to God’s power and God’s justice. And that’s where the good news is.


Like Amos and John the Baptist and Jesus’s disciples, we are called to call out injustice. We know it’s risky business. There are consequences. And it’s uncomfortable. But we do it because we know that resurrection is always the last word. To paraphrase one preacher this week (Barbara Lundblad), we do it because we believe that God’s promise of life is stronger than the threat of death and because we believe God’s kingdom, God’s reign of justice, has come near, and that makes all the difference. [1]


“Moral Monday” protest with Bishop Wayne Miller of the Metro Chicago Synod (ELCA)

In my home state of Illinois this summer, it’s what has given dozens of clergy and people of faith the ability to risk arrest in protest of the governor’s proposed budget cuts that would be especially devastating to society’s most vulnerable. They risk calling out injustice where they see it, and yes, they disturb the comfortable status quo of those in power.

Martin Luther King, Jr., knew something about disturbing the status quo too. He knew something about God’s justice back in Montgomery, Alabama, when he took charge of a movement that began by challenging where someone gets to sit on a bus. He risked saying there’s another way because he knew that all people are created in the image of God and are of inherent sacred worth and dignity. He knew that until the very end when his preaching and activism took him to Memphis, Tennessee, to advocate for sanitation workers.

When King railed against injustice and the powers that be, he knew what it was like to live in Good Friday. But he knew Easter was coming, as he preached in his Easter sermon from 1957: “Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the drums of Easter.” [2] He was no stranger to struggle and despair and rejection, but he was more confidently acquainted with the inevitability of God’s justice.

God’s justice says that all eat and are filled. God’s justice says that all are welcome. God’s justice says that black lives matter. God’s justice says that love wins. And we can continue to call for God’s justice because we know God’s kingdom has come near and we know there’s another way. We can live with the risk and the discomfort and even read difficult texts like this one because we know where the story ends. Thanks be to God.

Amen.


And then I played this song:


[1] http://day1.org/6698-truth_and_consequences

[2] http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/questions_that_easter_answers/