Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Stick to the Fundamentals—A Sermon on 'Moses and the Prophets'

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

As you spend more time here at the Belfry, you will see that I do not go anywhere without a certain book. It is leather-bound (fake, vegan leather, don’t worry); it is full of information that guides my daily life; it is full of wisdom for my self-improvement; it is full of history (mine and others’); it is full of scribbles and highlights and post-it notes; I refer to it before I make plans or do anything important. No, dear ones, this book is not the Bible. It is my Passion Planner.

Whether you keep your schedule in your phone, or in your UC Davis academic planner, or scrawled on a napkin and shoved in your pocket, you are probably aware of the benefits of an organized mind.

Every once in awhile, I get really busy with unexpected stuff and I don’t even open my planner for a couple of days. Maybe this does not sound dire to you, but this is dire. I am so to-do-list centered, that when I start several projects without adding their component parts to the list, I run the risk of losing track of them completely. On one of these occasions, I’ll open my planner and see that nothing on the list has been accomplished, and that I’d even forgotten something—having been busy non-stop for days!

The solution to this problem is so easy, it’s almost impossible for me to understand why I don’t just do it the right way every time. I just have to take a deep breath and head back to basics: write down the stuff that needs doing and then do it. Genius, right?

There are plenty of complicated things in our lives that we started out with basics. You take Spanish 101 before Spanish 201; you learn to catch and throw a baseball before you learn to pitch a curveball; you start small with a 5K before training for a marathon; you learned to read at your grade level before moving onto the next.

Our life in faith is the same. Our introduction to the gospel is not likely to be a jaunt through The Complete Works of Martin Luther. That would likely be somehow simultaneously boring and overwhelming at the same time. Too much deep detail too fast, right? You’d skip right past the fundamentals.

When you were in Sunday school, or confirmation, or wherever you were introduced to learning Christianity, you may have started with the Lord’s Prayer or the 10 Commandments or the Apostle’s Creed. In mainline Protestant churches, we often look to these places for the fundamentals of our church. These come out of our scripture directly and from the first few centuries of Christians interpreting our scripture.

In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus is talking to some Pharisees—religious leaders—long before the word “Christian” entered the fray. From what we read of them, these men are Jewish leaders, teachers, and rule-enforcers, it seems. They're the ones who are always just off-stage, ready to jump in and ask Jesus a “gotcha” question. They’re just trying to do their jobs.

Jesus answers them by telling a story, called a parable, in which there is more to the story than just the literal, face-value. No parable is intended to encapsulate the entire gospel, but each tells a particular piece of the story for the listeners at hand. In today’s parable, a rich man and a poor man (Lazarus) live and die in the same community. Lazarus spends eternity with Abraham, while the rich man is in “agony” in “flames” (v 24).

Through these three characters, we learn that this rich man did not do all he could have—or, perhaps, anything—to help Lazarus or anyone else other than himself in his life. It would be easy—but inaccurate—to say that this is a cause and effect story about the afterlife. The life you live does not dictate your salvation or not, so don’t worry about that. If you’re going to worry about something, worry about what causes us to treat each other the way we do.

In this parable, “Jesus is describing the effect of living by the chasms of our world, not prescribing God’s eternal response to our sin.” [1] Jesus is not warning us about eternal consequences, but present-tense realities that we have the power to change. The rich man is worried about his brothers, and so wants them to be told about his fate so they might not suffer the same. This is my favorite part of the whole story. I can just hear Abraham chuckling, and with maybe even an eye roll or a knowing sigh, saying “they have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them” (v 29).

There’s a rad scholar named Amy-Jill Levine, who I think I’ve preached about before; she’s a Jewish woman who teaches New Testament at a Christian seminary. She knows a lot about Jesus the Rabbi. She wrote a book about parables, and there’s a chapter about this one. I highlighted like the whole thing, but here’s what I think the crux of it is:  “The rich man knows Abraham’s name and Abraham’s role, as he knew the name and the circumstances of the man in anguish by his gates. Knowledge without action will count for nothing. He refused to recognize on earth that Lazarus too was a child of Abraham and so should have been treated as a welcome member of the family. He had the resources; he had the opportunity; he had the commandments of Torah. He did nothing, and he still does nothing.”[2] Oof.

Through this story and the words attributed to Abraham, Jesus is reminding his listeners that they have all the tools they need to build a more just society: the Torah and the prophets. “The problem,” Amy-Jill Levine says, “ is not the message. The problem is that people don’t listen.”[2] If they are truly good people of faith—which they would claim to be, just as we would—they will have learned these fundamentals. It is not that there are more proscriptions to follow, more rules to learn, more admonishments to hear, more commandments or laws. If they would just follow all the ones they already have, they might get somewhere.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus rarely said anything new. He reiterated—often verbatim—Moses and the prophets. Stick to the fundamentals. There are things we can and must do to better our world, on a personal level and on a communal level. The rich man did neither.

And so, “The parable is not simply an indictment of personal behavior; it is an indictment of institutional behavior. It asks us, as the church, to look at the gates we have erected and to consider who lies just on the other side, suffering. Have we listened to ‘Moses and the prophets’?”[3]

There was a system at work in the society that the rich man and Lazarus lived and died in, and there is a system at work in ours.[4]  So what are we to do, then? Stick to our fundamentals. Take stock of our society—our Church, our school, our city, our nation—and notice the ways in which the systems we have built, participated in, benefited from—or been oppressed by—can be changed through the love of God.

Since we live in the United States, we are among some of the wealthiest people to have ever lived. However, we also live in a deeply stratified nation, where income inequality is as wide a chasm as the one between the rich man and Lazarus. The way our society is structured, wealth for a few is made possible only by the poverty of many. [5] This is not a critique of comfort, per se, but of disregard for those who lack. [6] It is not money and wealth intrinsically that are bad, but rather the love of money and of wealth that endangers us.

As we engage with one another in many and diverse ways—in class, at the grocery store, in our romantic relationships, in our families, in our churches, at our protests, in our voting booths—we must be conscious of our interconnectedness. We must not pursue domination or control over one another; we must not pursue wealth and material success at any cost; we must not devalue the lives of our siblings in the family of God. As we have read in the Torah and in the words of Jesus alike, we must love our God and love our neighbor. And like it is written in 1 Timothy, we must “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of...eternal life” (v 11-12).

Stick to the fundamentals.
Stick together.

[2] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories By Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi
[3] Noelle Damico, "Proper 21 [26]" in Preaching God's Transforming Justice
[4] Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, "Luke" in True to Our Native Land
[5] Clarice J. Martin, "1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus" in True to Our Native Land

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Welcome!—A Sermon on Matthew, Ezekiel, and You

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

Welcome! Welcome back! Welcome home! It’s so good to be here with y’all in our little chapel, making a joyful noise once again this year. We’ve just begun to share stories of summer and moving and new classes and already-changed schedules and new roommates and all of the thrills of a new quarter at UC Davis. I’m so excited about all the new-ness, but I’m also excited about the familiarity. I’m so happy to see new faces, and so happy to see returning faces. We have so much great stuff on the calendar for this year, and so much great stuff that will happen that we could never even plan for.

When I sat down at Peet’s coffee to start this sermon—like I do pretty much every time—I opened the lectionary in wonder, thinking, “What will the feast of St. Matthew say to us? What will we consider about welcome and new-ness and excitement?!” And I opened Ezekiel chapter 2 to God convincing a reluctant prophet to tell his people they’re in trouble. Oh, perfect! Nothing like a little lamentation and mourning and woe to kick off a school year!

The reason we’re reading this story today, though, isn’t because of the calamity that Ezekiel was supposed to prophesy. This is the Old Testament reading assigned to the Feast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, whom we celebrate today. Yep, that’s Matthew of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew gets his name from the word mathetes, which is Greek for “disciple.” His is the story of a disciple, just like any other. We don’t think he wrote this Gospel, but we think he contributed to it, and it includes his story, which we read today. We’ll get back to Ezekiel later.

You may have noticed that Matthew is a tax collector. We hear about tax collectors fairly often in Matthew’s gospel for this reason. Not because Jesus wants us to evade our taxes, but because Jesus wants us to take a long hard look at our empire. Because they were representatives of the empire, most folks were not about to cozy up to their neighborhood tax collector and invite them over for dinner.

But Jesus sees him in the tax booth and says “Follow me.” Not in a grand way, not in a “become my disciple” way—at least, not yet—but just, “hey, come here. Sit down for dinner with us, see what we’re about.” Matthew “sat at dinner in the house,” and “many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him” (v 10).

Looking around the table, Matthew absorbs the scene. There are people there who are like him. There are other tax collectors—he won’t even be the only one!—and there are people not usually invited to dine with important people. Jesus has mixed together people who are normally separated from one another, and maybe from everyone else. We know, now, in 2016, that this wasn’t how things were done in those days. Jesus got in a little bit of trouble here and there for welcoming the unwelcome.

Since today was the first day of classes, in the middle of a packed week here at UC Davis, you have probably heard the word “welcome” like 5 bagillion times. If you’re a first-year student, probably like 50 bagillion. I mean, I even made you sing about it.

Have you felt welcome? Have you entered into spaces where you felt comfortable? Where you felt like yourself? Where you felt like maybe a new-ish version of yourself? You, UC Davis edition. I sure hope so. And I especially hope one of those places was here, in our little yellow house.

College is full of incredible opportunities. You’ll learn all sorts of things and meet all sorts of people. You’ll go to class, most of the time; you’ll stay up super late with your roommate talking about the most random stuff; you’ll eat your body weight in pizza; you’ll check out some clubs and organizations; you’ll change your major, probably; you’ll move from place to place on your bicycle—which seems kind of unwieldy right now—and soon be amazed at how easy it is to find your way home.

In the middle of all of that, God will be with you. Here at the Belfry, we’ll be singing and praying and laughing and eating and learning and and questioning and maybe even answering. Maybe the Belfry is the place for you. Maybe not. Maybe you’ve checked your watch six times since I started speaking and you’re wondering if church is even close to what you want to do with your college life. That’s okay. You are welcome here.

You’re welcome here tonight, and you’re welcome here next week; you’re welcome here if you haven’t come back but it’s the end of the quarter and you decide to give it another shot. You’re welcome here when you read about another traumatic act of violence in the world and you need to process it with people of faith. And you’re welcome here when you suddenly realize during spring quarter that it’s Easter and you really want to shout HALLELUJAH with some folks. And you’re welcome here next fall when you try coming back, again. You are welcome here.

Let’s circle back to Ezekiel for a second. The section of the story we read may have felt long, but it was actually just one snippet—there’s more of pretty much the same on either side of the chunk we read. God saying, “Ezekiel, listen to me,” over and over again. Ezekiel doesn’t really have very many lines in this whole thing, but, from context clues, I don’t think God would have repeated Godself quite so hard if Ezekiel had listened the first time.

Luckily for us, God doesn’t mind saying the same thing to us over and over again. Luckily for us, the stories we read in the Bible—like this one, with Matthew—remind us, over and over, that we’re welcome. Luckily for us, we gather at the table together, as a community of reluctant prophets and tax-collectors-turned-disciples and everybody in between.

If that’s not the story you know—if the story you’ve been told is that you don’t deserve to be here, or that you aren’t good enough—well, let me be so privileged to be the first to proclaim that you are. You, whoever you are, are a beloved child of God. Nothing you did and nothing you will do changes the love God has for you. You’re in. We’re in. Everybody’s in. Since we’re in, we’re free. Free to live and love and try and fail and learn and grow and laugh and cry and sin and doubt and wonder and celebrate and leave and return and rest easy in the grace of God.

It’s the first day of school, you’ve got enough on your plate. Rest easy, dear ones. You are welcome here.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Baptism of OCS—a BFD

I preached this sermon to Rick and all the other good people of Spirit of Joy Lutheran Church in Fort Collins, CO on the occasion of my bestie niece Olivia Clare's baptism.

Grace and peace from God our Creator, Hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

Good morning! It is such a privilege to be here with you. Full disclosure: I’m a brand new pastor. My ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA was just a couple months ago.

A thing I have learned very quickly is that most of my colleagues are introverts, but have to function as extroverts in the job—I am already an extrovert, so I usually come on pretty strong in the guest pulpit. My favorite task of my job is preaching—pretty related, my favorite task of being a human is talking—and so when Pastor Woody invited us to participate in the liturgy I replied to the email (first) saying “Sure! I’ll preach!”

Later, I looked at the texts.

In Ecclesiastes, King Solomon proclaims “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” In his letter to the Colossians we have a classic list from the Apostle Paul about everything that’s wrong with us. And in this morning’s gospel, God says, “You fool!” To the rich man. Perfect!

Our narrator in Ecclesiastes may seem like a downer. “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun,” he says, “so I turned and gave my heart up to despair.” Splendid!

And from Paul: “The wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.” Encouraging!

And in the parable from Jesus, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kind of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions...You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” No worries!

These texts are challenging. These are texts it’s really easy to shrug off as ancient and out-of-context and inapplicable to our communities and our realities. But, are they?

The parable from Jesus this morning is particularly interesting to me. A man has asked Jesus to convince the man’s brother to share their inheritance fairly. We don’t get a lot of clues as to what that family drama is about, but we have all probably prayed that Jesus would set right the person who disagrees with us.

But for some reason, Jesus does not arbitrate this, but instead tells a story. In it, a rich man has too much, he cannot even store it all. Rather than share in his abundance, he has his barns torn down and larger ones built. Self-satisfied, he relaxes, knowing he will always have more than enough for himself.

On one hand, this sounds like a very responsible and conservative retirement savings plan. But what Jesus is reminding the crowd--and us--is that old saying, “you can’t take it with you.” When this rich man dies, what good will his riches be? When he decided to build larger storehouses, did he first consider how he might share his abundance with his family? With his community?

How has his wealth affected those in his neighborhood?

Is he prosperous only on the backs of his laborers?

Who do you think harvested those crops and built those barns?

Does he pay a living wage?

Provide health insurance? Adequate vacation? Paid family leave?

Does he invest his profits in his community, ensuring a good quality of life for his neighbors?

No, it would seem. Instead, he has succumbed to the idolatry of comfort, the slippery slope of greed.

The rich fool in this parable is not alone. Here in the United States, the majority of our citizens live in greater luxury than any other country on earth. But that’s not saying a whole lot.

Our desire for more and more and more has made beloved children of God around the globe survive on less and less and less. Like this rich fool, we have come to assume that we alone have garnered our wealth and we alone are deserving of its use. And we can never be satisfied.

Ecclesiastes calls this same vanity into question. “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest (2:22-23).” Theologian Grace Ji-Sun Kim comments: “The West has become so individualistic that many of us have forgotten about community and have lost a sense of social responsibility to one another. Instead, we work so diligently to fill the void of our one greed and lust that we fail to understand that what we do will affect others. We quest for money and status, which is meaningless at the end of life.” [1] And this greed is not just manifest in having the biggest barns.

We are embroiled in wars and armed conflicts around the globe. Climate change threatens the lives and livelihoods of billions of people. Politicians in this country and others are spreading fear, proposing policy based in racism, xenophobia, ableism, sexism, and heterosexism—not to mention “anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, impurity, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)." I do not need to explain to a room full of Coloradans that gun violence is tearing our communities apart. It is easy to turn and give our hearts up to despair.

Thanks be to God, my dear friends, that there is another way.

This morning, like any given Sunday, we are gathered together to celebrate new life in Jesus the Christ. In this new life, Paul has written, “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free.” Our divisions, borders, and exclusions fall away. Truth, justice, love, compassion, kindness, joy, freedom, hope, and peace abound in this new life. And today, we are blessed to bear witness to the newest kind of new life—baptism.

If you haven't already been told, I met Kelsey Sprowell in seminary, as well as Pastor Amanda and Pastor Eric over there. Spring semester of our first year, we took a class about the sacraments, and practiced standing up at an altar and saying the right words and knowing where to put our hands. Inasmuch as this was going to be pretty fun, it also had to happen on a Saturday morning, outside of our regularly scheduled class time, and so some of us whined. I made the mistake of whining about it to Kelsey, who shot back, wide-eyed, “You get to practice BAPTISM! That’s a REALLY BIG DEAL!” You were right, Kels. As usual.

Baptism is a really big deal. This morning, it is our duty and our joy to gather at the font with Olivia Clare Sprowell, fresh-faced member of the family of God. I learned on Friday night, around the dinner table, that Kelsey Lynn Schleusener Sprowell was the first baby baptized here at Spirit of Joy, in December of 1984! The family of God, indeed.

You, Spirit of Joy Lutheran Church; you, Schleuseners and Sprowells and such; you, body of Christ; you have the honor, privilege, and responsibility to welcome this and every child of God into your midst.

In the liturgy of baptism, you will promise to support Olivia and pray for her in her new life in Christ. Olivia’s presence in this room and in the world is a fulfillment of God’s promise to always make things new. In order to keep up your side of this covenant, you must make sure that Olivia knows what her role is in the community and in the coming kingdom of God. It is your honor, privilege, and responsibility to make the world a better place for her and alongside her.

Her baptism into the family of God is your chance to affirm yours. Believe me when I tell you that you are beloved, dear ones. There is nothing that separates you from the love of God, no matter what anyone may have every told you to the contrary.

The world we have made for ourselves can be scary, I know. It can be so easy to see only scarcity and terror instead of abundance and hope. It can be so easy to put up walls instead of opening doors. But for the sake of Olivia’s shining face, you mustn't.

As witnesses to Olivia’s baptism, it is your honor, privilege, and responsibility to teach her—and remind each other—that all are welcome in this place. That God loves each and every one of us, not in spite of but because of our genders, races, abilities, and beliefs. That she is and that everyone is an equal member of the body of Christ. You have the rest of her life to show her the love of God, and—if you haven't already—you get to start today.

Thanks be to God!


Monday, July 18, 2016

Love Your Housemate as Yourself—A Sermon at the end of a Program Year

Wow, here we are, on our final Monday night in the Belfry together. What a year it has been!

When I look at your faces and think back to the first week we spent together in this room, 11 months ago, I remember the infamous group photo, now plastered all over our social media and marketing. I remember our first retreat to Camp Noel Porter in Lake Tahoe; the adventures you went on around town, the murder mystery film you made. I remember the long car ride to and from Diocesan Convention, and all the hard work you did to such praise from the event coordinators. I remember our Reformation Day games, pinning the theses on the door, lovingly painted by a handful of you for years of future Belfry students to roll their eyes about. I remember our Advent craft party and the Star of Bethlehem collage we made out of advertising, which I am keeping in my office forever. I remember our Liberation Theology retreat at the Bishop’s Ranch, a heavy weekend of films and essays and hard conversations. I remember sending Pastor Jocelynn off on her sabbatical, and wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into. :) I remember the Monday we tried and failed to make rosaries, and then the other Monday where we tried again, and still didn’t really manage to get it just right. I remember Holy Week and Easter, where we were sadly not together, since it was also Spring Break. I remember our spring retreat to my beloved Berkeley, where we wondered aloud about the movement of the Holy Spirit.

It was certainly the movement of the Holy Spirit that brought you here, to this yellow house. You probably wondered a few times about what you’d gotten yourself into, and it may be still quite some time before you figure out what this year even was.

From my perspective, this year has been one learning experience after another. I am blessed beyond measure to be in community with the eight of you, here in this place. This is not to say that it has been a walk in the park. Y’all have challenged each other. Y’all have challenged me. Y’all have challenged yourselves.

Working in ecumenical ministry, in general, is full of challenges for me. For example: we Lutherans do not have the same relationship with saints that Episcopalians have. I had to spend some time noodling around online, and eventually just texting a friend, to find out what it meant that today we celebrate Saint Bartolomé de las Casas—let alone if there was anything problematic about him. He lived in 16th-century Spain, and is considered a human rights activist, but didn’t have it totally together. He was opposed to the developing practice of enslavement of the native people on the island of Hispaniola, currently the Dominican Republic and Haiti. However, he advocated for the enslavement of Africans instead, so, not really a winner. Once he became a priest—the first one ordained in the Americas—he realized he’d been wrong, and that slavery of any kind was contrary to the Gospel. So deep was his conviction, Saint Bartolomé spent 50 years of his life arguing for the full humanity and emancipation of enslaved people, and went so far as to refuse absolution—the forgiveness of confessed sins—to slave-owning Catholics. It is for this that he is celebrated. [1]

Like Saint Bartolomé, we’re all learning on a spectrum. There’s a steep curve sometimes, especially when it comes to matters of deep human suffering and our personal convictions. Sometimes, we take what we believe to be principled stands, only to discover that we’ve inadvertently excluded or offended someone. We can also learn from Saint Bartolomé, though, just how strong we are when we stand on the Gospel. When we look out into this messy society, and read tonight’s lessons, words repeated throughout scripture—“love your neighbor as yourself”—we can see that it doesn’t match up. We can see that our neighbors are not listening, and our neighbors are not being heard, and our neighbors are not loving, and our neighbors are not being loved.

This Gospel text is part of the Sunday lectionary during the season of Lent. During Lent, we are prepared and we are preparing. Sacrifice, discipline, work, prayer. We sit in the desert and wallow in our existential desperation, right? Though we are far from Lent, the world around us these last few months has been dreadful. Terrorism at home and abroad have relentlessly overwhelmed our television screens and twitter feeds. The epidemic of gun violence in this country has somehow worsened from the last time we thought it was as bad as it could get. We have been flooded with anxiety as a nation, as a church, as a community here in this room. All of us are operating, maybe even without noticing completely, with an added layer of fear and distrust of our neighbors. This generalized anxiety rubs off on even our smallest interactions, whether it’s with a barista or our coworkers or our housemates. We bristle, and we put up walls, and we protect ourselves.

We know, though, that living in community cannot, fundamentally, be done alone. Eight isolated human persons do not make an intentional Christian community. Renita Weems, a womanist scholar, reminds us that “As human beings, we are all mutually connected to each other and dependent on one another for our emancipation and our survival.” [2]

Eight people who are learning together, struggling together, eating together, praying together, laughing together, arguing together, singing together—that’s what you’re made of.

And conflict in community is unavoidable. Never has there been a community without conflict—never has there been even a singular human being without an internal conflict! When we read these words of the Apostle Paul, written millennia ago to a community in Rome, we might ask, “What are the lessons for those of us who are church today?” Well, “conflict in the church is not a scandal or a shame; rather, living that conflict, together in love, has been the work of the church from its beginning.” [3]

Every time we read the letters in the New Testament, there’s some issue that the Apostle Paul is trying to help a community solve. Their problems aren’t all unique to the first century—though some are—and our problems are not all unique to the 21st-century—though some are.

The questions continue. “How do we live when we hurt and anger each other? How do we live the gospel daily?”

This is what you’ve been working on all year. What does it look like when we talk the talk and walk the walk of Christian life? What does it look like when we don’t agree about all the ways we talk and walk the Christian life? We go back to our fundamentals. We listen to the words of Jesus, quoting the Torah, cited by Paul: love your neighbor as yourself.

Show up for your neighbor. Commit to your neighborhood. Commit to your common life. Be present, here, in this chapel, at this table. Shelley Douglas puts it beautifully when she writes:

“We maintain our common meal, our sign of unity and redemption. We love each other and follow God’s commands. When relationships break down, we do our best to resolve conflicts in love….We are reminded here that as a community we are not only to nurture and affirm each other, but also to guide, teach, and remonstrate. Behind every action, however, must always be the rule of love.” [4]

When you leave this yellow house next week—though you may come back—you will be leaving the community specific to the 2015-2016 LEVN program year. Never again will all eight of you live and work right here in this place. You have one week left to love these neighbors in this way. You have been doing it, for the most part, for the better part of a year. After next week, you’ll never again have the opportunity to live this particular common life with these particular beloved children of God.

But you’ll have the opportunity—for the rest of your life—to forge Christian community with your new neighbors. Your new housemates. Your new coworkers. Your new friends. Your new siblings in the family of God. Every time you come to the table, you’ll be in community with everyone else who has ever and will ever.

I am so grateful to have been in this particular community with you for this year, and I look so excitedly forward to how I’ll continue to be in community with you after you leave this place. Keep up the good work, dear friends. Continue to nurture and be nurtured; continue to affirm and be affirmed; continue to guide and be guided; and when you continue to protest each other’s actions and to have your actions protested, remember the love that underlies your life. Love and be loved.


[2] Renita J. Weems, "Womanist Reflections on Biblical Hermeneutics," in Black Theology: A Documentary History, ed. James H. Cone and Gayraud Wilmore (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993).

Sunday, July 3, 2016

They'll Know We Are Christians By Our _________

I preached this sermon to the good people of Lutheran Church of the Incarnation, Davis.

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

I’m sort of going to start with the punchline this week. The Hymn of the Day is an old favorite, “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” Do you know it? I hope so. I hope you also recognized it in my sermon title, with that last noun left intentionally blank.

The lectionary texts for this week—and the state of our nation and world—lead me to wonder just what it is that we look like. What is it that makes it known we are Christians?

In his letter to the Galatians, this is the Apostle Paul’s concern, too. The church at Galatia is a group of pagan converts—not Jews. Some in their community are rabble-rousing on the question of circumcision. Should these new Christians need to enter into God’s covenant with Abraham in order to enter into the new covenant in Christ’s blood? Paul says no. Paul says, “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” He does not mean, as many a preacher might say, that the new covenant is superior to the old, and that uncircumcision is better than circumcision. Neither is sufficient for salvation, he says. Those who are in Christ are a new creation, in which the status of the flesh is not ultimate. He brings it up as if to say, “the divisions you have created are not the point, but since you still think in this black-and-white, circumcised-and-uncircumcised way, I will make it plain for you.” “He insists that ‘only the love we show one another, not our physical markings, testifies to the God we serve.’”

Sometimes we wonder about why it’s relevant to read these old letters. They're not written to us or to people very similar to us at all, right? First century residents of the Roman Empire lived a pretty different life than 21st century residents of the United States of America. The reason we find these seemingly antiquated words to be, rather, timeless is because we are not as different as we believe ourselves to be.

When was the last time you “detected” someone “in a transgression” (as Galatians 6:1 indicates) and—instead of rolling your eyes, cutting them off two miles later, yelling back, plotting your revenge, or simply sulking—decided to “restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” When someone has committed an offense against me, my first reaction is rarely gentle. But this is step one in our Christian life. Basic human-to-human kindness.

Maybe, they’ll know we are Christians by our kindness.

Next, in this Galatians text, Paul implores us to “bear one another’s burdens.” Here in Christian community, it is not every man for himself. We are one in the Spirit.

The great Elie Wiesel—Holocaust survivor, author, and Nobel Peace Prize winner—died yesterday at the age of 87. He was famous for his words, and he said a lot of things. But what I will never forget are these words of his: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference; the opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference; the opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference; the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

We cannot be indifferent to the suffering of others. The suffering of any among us is the suffering of us all. The burden of any among us is to be the burden of us all.

This is the first sermon I’ve preached since 49 beloved children of God were murdered at Pulse in Orlando. At first, I hesitated to bring it up, like it’s already old news, just three weeks later. As I worked on this very paragraph earlier this week, I got a notification on my phone from the Associated Press that the death toll in the terrorist bombing of Ïstanbul, Türkiye’s Atatürk Airport had been raised to 36. [It has since been raised to 41, with 239 injured.] This morning, I woke to the news of over 100 dead at the hands of Daesh in Baghdad, more than 20 of them children.

There is hardly time for the sun to set on one act of violence before we’re mourning another.

Certainly, they’ll know we are humans by our violence.

In the aftermath of violence, we are quick to pray and to mourn with our loved ones and to post on our social media feeds about how we cannot believe this has happened again. We write letters to our congressional representatives about their responsibility to keep us safe, to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists, to keep bad people away from us. We wonder in private and in public about what it is that has driven these terrorists to do what they have done, what has made them so angry, what has made them so fearful. Rarely, though, do we as a nation confront these reasons head-on, before the next act of violence shatters our peace. Rarely, though, do we as a Christian community get out in front of this hateful political rhetoric—for fear that we are muddying the line between church and state.

Our violence, then, is not always gunfire, or suicide vests, or roadside bombs, or even fists. Sometimes, our violence is verbal. And sometimes, our violence is our silence.

They know we are Christians by our silence.

In these United States, whose independence and freedom we celebrate this weekend, we are well-versed in the inalienable rights of our Constitution. Our freedom to speak is, to me, the most precious. According to the First Amendment, we are free to speak our minds and hearts in the public sphere. We are not free of consequence, but we are free of prosecution. We confuse these two, a lot. And folks from every political persuasion and religious affiliation share in this freedom. Sometimes, that drives me nuts. Quote-unquote Christian voices, in particular. How quick I am to say, “Oh, no, I’m not that kind of Lutheran. I’m not that kind of Christian. I’m not that kind of American.”

They know we are Christians by our divisions.
They know we are Christians by our hate.
They know we are Christians by our fear.

Dear friends, it doesn’t have to be this way.

The human distinctions we have made (race, gender, class, ability, nationality) are not from God. Do not misunderstand me—they are real, but they are not from God and they are not ultimate. The Apostle Paul has invited us into a “distinction-free form of life.”

They can know we are Christians by another way. They can know we are Christians not by our silence, or by our divisions, or by our hate, our by our fear.

When you encounter violent speech—even when it’s subtle—you can say something. If a racist, or sexist, or classist, or ableist, or xenophobic word is uttered in your presence, you can counter it. You can. When the “Christian” voices in our nation and world are not saying what you’d say, or what you believe Jesus has said, you can speak up.

You, Lutheran Church of the Incarnation, are a Reconciling in Christ congregation and for that, thanks be to God. We, the Sierra Pacific Synod are a Reconciling in Christ synod, and for that, thanks be to God. We, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are, a place where we claim All Are Welcome. We can proclaim that truth much louder than we do.

As followers of Jesus we are a people of non-violence. In the kingdom of God, there is no need for a stockpile of assault rifles. We can proclaim that truth much louder than we do.

They can know we are Christians by our prophetic voices.

And in our Gospel lesson for this week, Jesus sends us on our way! He sends 70 disciples into the neighboring towns—to “every town and place where he himself intended to go (Luke 10:1). Some among the 70 were likely hesitant; before, they had always gone a step behind Jesus—not ahead—watching him interact with people, hospitable and not-so. Some others were probably chomping at the bit, ready to take their discipleship out for a spin!

Jesus tells them as they go on their way to be certain that, upon entering each house, they proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God—“Peace to this house!” they’ll announce.

One of the surprising take-aways of this text is its emphasis on hospitality—not just provided, but received. We are well aware that our Christian vocation emphasizes being welcoming to strangers. We know that when a new person moves into the house next door, we should introduce ourselves and maybe bring over some cookies or a bottle of wine to say “welcome to the neighborhood!” We know that when a family we don’t recognize is in church on Sunday morning we should introduce ourselves and be sure they know when Vacation Bible School is.

This text though, turns hospitality from passive to active. Hospitality must also be accepted. We cannot just welcome others into our homes, to our tables, to our cultures, to our norms. We must go where we are foreigners. We must feel what it feels like to be a guest. Provide hospitality to strangers, yes, but also allow strangers to provide hospitality to you.

They can know we are Christians by our mutual hospitality.

The first half of 2016 has been quite an adventure, and shows no signs of slowing, let alone stopping. We can be discouraged by this. We can throw up our hands and refuse to participate any further. We can double down on our divisions.

Or, we can be the transgressive radicals Jesus calls us to be and we can instead speak peace to each house we enter. The peace of God which passes all understanding. “God’s peace is a peace founded on life, rather than death. On relationship, rather than enmity. On engaging and accepting mutual hospitality, rather than building walls of division.”

They can know we are Christians by our peace.
They can know we are Christians by our hope.
They can know we are Christians by our love.