Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Baby of the Star

The following poem was written by Tim Muckian, a volunteer with the Takin’ It to the Streets program of South Loop Campus Ministry. He usually stays at the Pacific Garden Mission on the Near South Side. Tim is a member at Grace Place Episcopal Church, where SLCM hosts the Takin’ It the Streets program, and he always brightens the mood with his off-color jokes and proudly Irish heritage. Tim has been writing poems for Christmas for a number of years, and this is the one for this year. Many thanks are do due to him for sharing this with all of us.

The Baby of the Star
Christmas time is almost here
A day we all hold so dear.

Three wise men traveled every so far
To find the baby of the star.

They found the baby while at rest
Nuzzled to his Mother’s breasts.

She held him close and with such love
Then gave him a kiss, and a tender hug.

Then placed him back where he laid
On a bed made of hay.

Not much of place for a new born King
The ruler of everything.

But all the same he came to be
Part of the Holy Trinity.

He’s the one who loves you most
The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

So wherever you come from, and wherever you are
On Christmas Day drop to your knees and pray
For the baby of the star.

By Timothy Joseph Muckian

Friday, December 13, 2013

Season of darkness, season of light

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
-          John 1:5

It’s a dark time of year. It just is, at least this far north. Within a few weeks of the longest night of the year, the shadows seem to creep deeper. The sun seems further away. Slowly but surely the status quo seems to freeze into place.
Lights and dark at the Lincoln Park Zoo makes for an odd, if
bewildering, contrast. 'Tis the season.
            And at most universities, this dark time of year just happens to coincide with the end of the semester.
            Sitting at the cafeteria at Roosevelt University’s Wabash Building, I observed a sort of dry anxiety among students. It’s like they’re too little butter spread over too much bread. Jobs claim many hours to pay tuition and other bills, and classes claim many more hours. Sleep comes in naps between study sessions and take-home finals. A “personal” life seems like a cruel mockery, and the future is even more frightening.
            And oh! The irony of Daley Plaza’s Christmas Village and Lincoln Park Zoo’s winter wonderland.
Wander into Macy’s material maze of festive magic that appeared before the Halloween cobwebs had been put away. Get a cup of coffee while an electronic jazz band contemporizes an Irving Berlin classic. Okay, will you just stop trying to force joy, dammit?!
            We in the Church know these things. We feel them, too. Especially during this season we anxiously look toward an empty crèche, searching for the boy-king who will brighten the darkness with all his Baby Jesus Powers. How long, Lord? How long?
            It feels to me like we’re stuck at the foot of the cross. We’re looking for some miracle on the mountaintop, but all we see is death. Perhaps we forget that the miracle of the resurrection didn’t occur until the darkness was perfect in the sealed grave. We prefer the open air of Calvary to the claustrophobia of the empty tomb. We feel like we have more control if we can just have a visible escape route.
            I’m often surprised that the gospel reading for Christmas Day is the first chapter of John, but within a few weeks of the darkest day of the year, it seems so appropriate. We so desperately need light—in our final exams, in our finances, in our overworked and underappreciated bodies—and we celebrate the light on Christmas.
            This is the message we in the Church have to offer. We call it like it is. We see death around us, we see the darkness, but the darkness did not and does not overcome the light. We’re scared of the dark, too, but our hope is greater than our fear.
            So yes, it’s dark out. All the lights on the Magnificent Mile can’t stop that. However, the light that the darkness cannot overcome doesn’t come from the retailers. The light that truly brightens the dark world doesn’t come from spotless resumes and transcripts. The light to which baptizers testify comes from inside the still, deep darkness of the tomb.
            And then that light—unexpectedly—rolls away the stone.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A time to lament

[Presented as part of November, 2011 South Loop Campus Ministry board meeting.]

When the darkness appears
 And the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand, 
guide my feet, hold my hand
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

Seeming to based on Romans 5:20, this is written on a
wall of a loading dock by Lower Columbus Drive. SLCM
volunteers regularly deliver sandwiches to homeless
folks who sleep there.
I don’t know how long we would have stood there, at the corner of Lower Wacker and Lower Michigan,
with the homeless woman crying and wailing about the cold, about being hungry, about the conditions in the shelters…about so many things. I don’t know how long we would have tried to hold her hand, squeeze her shoulders, pray silently and pray aloud, nod empathetically and stare blankly back at her. I don’t know how long we would have felt helpless to help.
            I don’t know how long we would have been stuck in our not knowing if Thomas, one of our homeless guides, hadn’t tapped me on the shoulder and said, “She’s like this all the time, and now I probably won’t get any sleep tonight. Time to move on.”
            Walter Brueggemann wrote in Prophetic Imagination that lament is a necessary action to break out the paralysis of what he calls the “royal consciousness”, that state of being stuck in whatever state we’re in right now. That status quo always serves the already powerful and always hurts the already hurting. And damn—that woman at the corner of Lower Wacker and Lower Michigan was hurting and lamenting.
            In a much quieter manner students were lamenting up on the 14th floor of Roosevelt University’s Wabash Building where we had set up a Reformation Day door. Students wrote their grievances and their visions for change in the world on pieces of paper and then literally nailed them on the door. People wrote about everything from a living wage for workers to legalization of pot to “some lovin’ for Mexicans”. I don’t know exactly what spurred them to write what they did, but a lot of people liked the action of nailing their “theses” to the door. I suppose it was an avenue to release some of their pent up anguish. I doubt our flimsy door could survive a full release of their anguish.
            Sometimes in ministry pastors can get to thinking that people have such petty problems. Don’t these people know that while they’re whining about their roommates other folks are freezing down by the Chicago River? And don’t get me started on economic inequality…
            Here’s the thing—lament is lament, even if I don’t understand why a certain issue is problematic. If justice is “right relationship”, then injustice must be broken relationship. And that is something to lament.

Kyrie eleison.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Church of the Misfits and the Dissidents

Sermon given at First Lutheran Church of the Trinity on Aug. 25, 2013 based on Acts 11:19-26, 13:1-3.

I had a great week at church this week.

A few of the misfits and dissidents on the first night of
Jesus and Justice Camp (photo by Tom Gaulke)
Every night from Tuesday until Friday a group of about 15 to 20 people got together for what we called a “Jesus and Justice Camp”, and it highlighted what I love so much about this particular church on the corner of 31st and Lowe in South Side Chicago. On Friday night we started with the story of stone soup, a folk tale where people collectively make a “feast fit for a king” by sharing their varied foods with a protagonist stranger and with each other. Naturally, we acted out the story by making our own “stone soup”, and it was indeed darn good soup. Then we went upstairs to the auditorium of the First Trinity Community Center, AKA the Orphanage, and we shared our diverse views on more stories of wisdom and justice. Finally we ended with songs around a campfire, which miraculously did not spur the neighbors just across the alley to call the fire department. Surely God is with us!

And it was such a weird group! This church was like a former commercial emporium that was downsized to a gas station convenience store where the homeless rest, the revolutionaries plan their protests, and the dedicated faithful continue their mission come hell or high water. Hallelujah!

Though I risk aggrandizing this little South Side congregation, I can’t help but feel that maybe this is what it felt like to be part of those scattered, first century Jesus communities. The church lives with the tension of honoring the storied traditions of our forebears from centuries before and living into the unknown realms of a world that has already changed so much that we can hardly recognize it; staying within the good graces of the neighborhood and regional authorities and also challenging the rot that consumes so much of what we stone soup cooks can scrape together; recognizing the world as it brutally and beautifully is and conceiving the unfolding eschatological world that God is still creating.

Maybe the reason why I get so excited about this congregation at First Trinity is because I come to it as an outsider.

In 2010 I graduated from a small liberal arts college in the wooded hills and valleys of central Pennsylvania, and I had not a clue of what I was doing. I had been accepted into a young adult missionary program of the United Methodist Church (yes! I am Methodist! Hear me roar, you Lutherans, hear me roar!), and by May of that year I knew I was headed to Chicago to work for a non-profit that did a bunch of things I didn’t begin to understand. A week-long intern training helped clarify what Interfaith Worker Justice was all about, but I thought that I could find my own living community. After all, this was my chance to live the way that my hero, that Philadelphia ordinary radical with dreadlocks and an eastern Tennessee accent, Shane Claiborne, lived! I couldn’t wait to move half-way across the country to a bad neighborhood, befriend all the gang-bangers, and do everything that my parents and youth leaders warned me not to do!

And then I got a call that the far North Side co-op couldn’t accept me because I wasn’t a seminarian or a grad student. Not the call I was waiting for considering that I was still plucking crab grass out of the fringe of number 13 green at the golf course where I was biding my time. I frantically called my future co-workers at IWJ and my supervisor at the United Methodist Church. My chance to be Shane Claiborne was about to slip away! Help meeee! Somehow those good Methodists booked a flight for me to Chicago for a weekend to take part in another North Side co-op’s membership meeting. As I frantically made my arrangements, I got an email from one of my co-workers at IWJ about a Christian co-op on the South Side. But it was far away from the office. And the pastor had a last name that I didn’t know how to pronounce. And when I called that pastor, he told me to just use his first name anyway. What a weird place.

I spent that weekend doing my best to schmooze who I confidently thought would be my future roommates (15 of them), but out of courtesy, I made the long trip down the Red Line to see that weird place down south. I thought it was cool that it was so close to where the White Sox played, but otherwise, I wasn’t sure about it. I even saw two guys getting booked on Morgan Street just south of the coffee shop.

When I left Chicago at the end of that weekend, I still hadn’t heard of the North Side co-op’s decision about my place. Having less than a week to pack up again, I called the only cell number I had for the co-op. He reluctantly gave the bad news—they didn’t think I would be good fit. I curtly said kaythanksbye, and called Pastor Tom on the South Side to say that I would take the room in their community center.

I believe his response was, “Wait—you will?”

It was a hard transition from rural central Pennsylvania, what some of my college friends called “Pennsyltucky”, to the South Side Chicago. After accidentally driving into McCormick Place while trying to get to Lake Shore Drive and then scraping the car in front of me while trying to parallel park, I decided to stay dedicated to the CTA. The same coworker who found the room at First Trinity for me called the decision akin to a battered wife staying dedicated to her abusive husband. I was woken up by Chicago police detectives one morning after the gas station next door was the site of a shootout between a couple burglars and the cops. And I witnessed “thundersnow” for the first time.

What the crap is this place?

Well, apparently it was just where God wanted to work on me. It was at First Trinity where I first was introduced to SOUL and IIRON, the community groups with which I learned so much about grassroots organizing. It was Pastor Tom who directed me to Paul Tillich when I confessed that I could no longer turn to my evangelical theology to understand the social justice work I was doing. First Trinity even got me to get my trumpet back out when I had left it in Pennsylvania.

But more than those things, First Trinity has been my home.

When I read about start of the church in Antioch, how Luke describes it as the place where Gentiles were first accepted as Christ-followers, how it was so full of the Holy Spirit that Barnabas brought Saul (later called Paul) there, how they were so weird there that got a new name—Christians—I see bits of my journey through First Trinity.

For a church that was started as a place of refuge for the scattered German laborers of 19th century Chicago, First Trinity has had to reinvent itself and its mission. In the way that the Antioch community had to re-imagine community outside of born-and-bred Jews, First Trinity has had to re-imagine its mission as the only progressive, mainline Protestant church in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic neighborhood. In that re-imagining process, it has become what I call the Church of the Misfits and the Dissidents. I hope First Trinity bears its title proudly.

In the way that First Trinity welcomed me in my desperate times, I pray that it welcomes the many desperate people in its midst. In the way that First Trinity developed me to fight for justice locally and nationally, I pray that it prepares even more people to catch that Holy Wind of righteous indignation when violence and oppression occur. In the way that First Trinity challenged me to use my creative talents in worship, I pray that it moves even more people to express themselves artistically. In the way that First Trinity has been my home community, I pray that it will be a sanctuary for many other people.

First Trinity is also a missional church, much like that Antioch church. I am moving on with my seminary training by beginning a year-long internship with First United Methodist Church, better known as the Chicago Temple, and it is my new mission field. Though I will continue to live at Trinity House, that re-commissioned parsonage next to the church, I will not be able to be part of First Trinity’s church life this year. The Chicago Temple is very different than First Trinity, and that will be difficult for me. However, First Trinity has trained me well to accept all manner of people and their various quirks, and it has taught me to boldly bring my own quirks to ministry. Be prepared, Chicago Temple.

First Trinity both welcomes missionaries and commissions them again. And for that, I thank you.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Austerity, abundance, and my American psyche

View of downtown from on top of Mount Bridgeport
(photo by Steve Vance)
It was such a pretty day in Chicago. The July heat had broken, and October-like cool had moved in, much to my pleasure. My fiancée and walked up to the top of a hill in Palmisano Park in the South Side Bridgeport neighborhood (a place I’ve also heard people call Stearns Quarry Park for the quarry that formerly occupied the site or Mount Bridgeport for the rare change in elevation). Cotton-ball cumulus clouds drifted above us toward Lake Michigan. Children flew kites around us. It doesn’t get prettier than that in Chicago.

And then Kacie asked me what I was thinking about. For some reason, I mentioned how I was worried about money. Suddenly frowny-face clouds rushed in, covering the happy-face sun, and all the kites immediately dropped to the ground with no wind and only suffocating humidity to keep them afloat. A child started softly crying, “Why is it ALWAYS personal finances? Why?” It wasn’t very pretty now.

After some uncomfortable conversation, Kacie started to get visibly upset. She expressed that she didn’t know why I didn’t trust her to help us to achieve our dreams together—careers in ministry and fashion design (respectively) with a strong emphasis on advocacy for the poor and marginalized, traveling around the world to experience different cultures, eventually have a couple of kids (eventually). I felt distance between us.

I took a deep breath for a bit of self-reflection, and I stepped in to the confession booth with my fiancée on the other side of the screen. See, I wasn’t so concerned about how our dreams were too idealistic or grand. I was concerned about how I, and I alone, would resource those dreams. After all, as the husband of an American family unit, it will be my responsibility to make sure that everyone’s dreams come true. Unfortunately, I have a couple more years of grad school and internships before I could come anywhere close to fulfilling that role. And then there’s that student debt I accumulated so that I could break into a generally low-paying profession. The central Pennsylvania realist in me recoils at these thoughts, and suddenly all I want to see on the menu is ketchup sandwiches (preferably complimentary ketchup snatched from the nearest McDonald’s franchise). I would do anything to avoid becoming dependent on other people’s charity.

One can see this reaction to personal finances as either incredibly ironic or deeply hypocritical. After all, when I preach, I preach about a God who provides for her children with abundance, and then I go on to denounce austerity policies in various legislatures. And full disclosure, I survive off of the generous support of my home church in Pennsylvania, family all over the country, and my stipend for one of my internships (yes, I said one of them). My personal austere attitudes simply matched neither my theology nor my lived experience.

These attitudes run deep in the American psyche. Patriarchy. Rugged individualism. Meritocracy through sheer grit and determination. And they run deep in my psyche, too.

The problem is that these attitudes are counter to my Christian faith and the kind of relationships I want to have with people—especially with my fiancée. I want to base my relationships on mutual love and respect. We trust that we will do what we say will, but we also share responsibilities, whether financial, household, or social. Together we worship God who gives abundant provisions to her children, and then we earnestly look where God is touching our world.

The scary part is that we can’t depend on just ourselves any more. While we are individual agents of creation in God’s world, we are meant to work together for the reign of God. Period. We give up control of our lives to God, and God works through ordinary events and ordinary folks around us to make sure we’re all okay. Because of our fallen nature, that system of communal care breaks down a lot. However, God still calls us to trust God and each other, even through the cloudy and stormy days.

The confession on top of Mount Bridgeport helped the two of us quite a bit. We were able to enjoy the beautiful weather and the prairie flowers  and the flying kites all over again. After all, isn’t that the surest sign that God still provides abundantly?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Peace, love, and justice: a dialogue

[Dialogue written and presented for Community United Methodist Church of Naperville, IL for vocational discernment service on July 21, 2013. Also posted at Rich Experiences.]

Joe: This is Kacie. She is southern girl from just north of Nashville, Tennessee.

Kacie: This is Joe, He is a Pensyltucky boy from the mountains of central Pennsylvania.

Joe: Kacie knows just about every country song on the radio and about every Nicholas Sparks-inspired movie in the theater.

Kacie:  Joe is not afraid of camping in the mountains where there are hundreds of bears, plus he is a big sports fan, maybe not the Chicago bears but definitely a Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

Joe: Kacie is an artist. She is very visual, very tactile. She sees scenes of color and texture and transforms ordinary things into works of art.

Kacie: Joe is very intellectual. He uses big words, mainly because his head is always stuck in a book. It’s a beautiful site to see him so concentrated on his reading. He reads books by authors like Paul Tillich and Alice Walker.

Joe: Kacie is also very passionate about justice for women.

Kacie: Joe is also very passionate about justice for workers.

Joe: And so it makes perfect sense—

Kacie: That we met in—

Both: Washington, D.C. at Ecumenical Advocacy Days.

Kacie: I feel that we both have a call to advocacy, which means joining with the voices of the poor, the weak and the marginalized to make change in our nation and world by speaking stories of truth in our communities to our local, state and national leaders.

Joe: We’ve both had strong religious experiences where we felt transformed by God—what John Wesley would call “justifying grace”—but we also continue to feel the Spirit move us toward acts of mercy and justice for people around us. Wesley called that part “social holiness.”

Kacie: One of the biggest issues we advocate for is poverty and food justice. We both help with a student and homeless ministry in the South Loop of Chicago. We have a community meal with students and people from the streets, make sandwiches together and walk the streets with our friends to pass out the sandwiches.

Joe: There’s this one community off Lower Michigan where about a half dozen homeless people usually sleep. Someone wrote a Bible verse on the wall there. We always drop off a couple of sandwiches for the folks there. Last week, they were all gone and the Bible verse had been painted over. We figure that the city had evicted them for the Taste of Chicago and a movie someone was filming.

Kacie:  This is community, and we feel like we are part of the community. We are all equal, and deserve equal treatment in our society. We go to our local, state and national leaders to remind them about our friends on the street. These are the stories of truth that make up our society.

Joe: Jesus and his followers also spent much of their ministry among the sick, the poor, the socially marginalized. As two followers of Jesus Christ in 21st century Chicago, we continue to practice ministry with our friends and neighbors—Black, white, Latino—

Kacie: Gay, lesbian, transgender—

Joe: Native born and immigrant—

Kacie: Rich and poor.

Joe: We are all one in Jesus Christ.
Kacie:  Last week I completed my internship with Bread forthe World, a national organization that works with churches to end hunger through advocacy. I am using this training to start a sewing ministry for homeless women.

Joe: And I’m in seminary, making my way through the process of becoming a United Methodist pastor. I’m finding ways to incorporate God’s call for justice in acts of preaching, teaching, and service.

Kacie: One thing I’ve done in response to my call to justice is write letters to my congressional representatives. I was able to do this through Bread for the World’s offering of letters program.  I invite you, too, to write a letter to your member of congress on issues dealing with food justice or just an issue you are very passionate about, especially if you cannot travel to DC or Springfield. Get a group of friends together and write an abundance of letters. This is definitely a way to raise your voice and speak for justice.

Joe: If you’d prefer a more direct action route for justice, I encourage you join with me and my friends at IIRON, a regional community organizing network. We’ve set up shanty-towns in Federal Plaza, had flash-mobs at the Apple store, and occupied abandoned properties to show how too much money is going to excessively wealthy corporations at the expense of our friends and neighbors.

Kacie: Even though Joe loves brown and his Carhartt jacket—

Joe: And Kacie loves pink and lace.

Kacie: Joe is very talkative,

Joe: Kacie is a bit more introverted.

Both: We both have a place at the Lord’s table with—

Joe: Peace

Kacie: Love

Both: and justice.

Kacie Greer and Joe Hopkins outside of Sen. Mark Kirk's office
 in Washington, D.C. They are now engaged and plan to marry in
June of 2014.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Brother Trayvon, Neighbor George

[This sermon was preached at the Des Plaines Methodist Campground on July 14, 2013, based on Luke 10:25-37.]

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out from the ground!”

This is not the sermon that I expected to preach today. I was going to be creative and interpret the parable of the Good Samaritan in a way that I had never heard before. And it was good, yes’m. But to paraphrase Jürgen Moltmann, preachers today need to preach with the Bible in one hand and their New York Times app in the other. Recent events call for a different topic.

When the lawyer approached Jesus, probably indignant that his kind of folk weren’t included in the accolades that Jesus doled out to the seventy disciples, he wanted to be justified. See what I’ve done, Jesus? I’ve dedicated my life to knowing the Law of Moses, the covenant that makes our people different, more blessed, more exceptional than anyone else. I have all the right answers. If anyone is right, it’s me. So, Jesus, son of a construction worker, tell me this…

The lawyer got his chance to give his right answer, but that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to show his folks were the better than the other folks. After all, they sacrificed so much of their lives to know the law better anyone else, and everybody knows how much law school costs these days. It isn’t good enough to be right. I need to win, and that means someone else needs to lose. So, Jesus, son born out of wedlock, tell me this…

Well, shoot, the lawyer wasn’t expecting a story like that, and he didn’t expect a loaded question either. Who are my choices for neighbor of the year again? The priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan? But only the Samaritan, one of those less-than-half-breeds, one of those who refuses to worship the Holy of Holies where He resides, it’s only the Samaritan who helps an innocent man beaten nearly to death? How can I answer this without admitting that one of those people is my neighbor?

“The one who showed the man mercy.”

Didn't even mention who that one is. What a lawyerly move.

Dear friends, we gather today contemplating justice. The Greek word that shows up in the New Testament can either be translated “justice” or “righteousness”. I first learned this while reading a Spanish Bible that had one of the beatitudes saying, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice”, instead of the traditional “hunger and thirst for righteousness”. In other words, we gather today contemplating who is right. We want the same thing that the lawyer wanted when he asked Jesus who his neighbor was: justification. We want to be justified. We want to look into the eyes of the people we love most, the people who trust us most, the people who depend on us, and we want them to think we were and are right. Right with them. Right with others. Right with God.

How can we be right, dear friends? Nearly a year and a half after a 17-year-old Black boy was killed in Florida, and much, much sooner after so many other young people’s blood have washed the pavement of our streets, how can we assert that we are right? When whole neighborhoods look like bombed out war zones, but those war zones far away, not here, dear God, how can it be here, how can we be right? When our choices are either to convict and lock up one more brother or to allow even more violence in our streets, how can we be right?

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out from the ground!”

Dear friends, I grew up around guns. I grew up in rural central Pennsylvania where we got off school for the Monday after Thanksgiving because it was the first day of buck hunting season. There was one year that we did have school on that day, and forty percent of students, staff, and faculty were absent. I was part of that statistic. I was a pretty good shot with a rifle back then.

I’ve also grown up some more since I moved to the South Side of Chicago. There are guns there, too. On the first day that biked down to seminary last year, I came back to see the block next to where I lived. It was blocked off with yellow police tape. There had been a drive-by shooting. There was another one maybe two months later eight blocks away. I don’t like that there are so many guns around my neighborhood, and I don’t want more, either.

What does it mean to love my neighbor? What does it mean to be my brother’s keeper? Who is my neighbor? Who is my brother? Don’t you know the world is falling apart? Don’t you know that we have to get what we can while we can and then keep it for ourselves for as long we can? And don’t you tell me what I can and can’t do with my own property.

Dear friends, there are so many young people who grow up without an ounce of hope. In those bombed out war zones on the South Side, on the West Side, in Newtown, Connecticut, in Cairo, Egypt. Who is my neighbor? Who is my brother? Instead of being politically correct, instead of worrying about upsetting the biggest donors in the congregation, let’s be clear about who our neighbor is and who our brother is. Instead of referring to that Samaritan person as “the one who showed the man mercy”, let’s call him who he is. Let’s use his name.

My neighbor is Trayvon Martin. My brother is George Zimmerman.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out from the ground!”

What have we done indeed? As Saint Paul observed in his letter to the Romans, no one is righteous, not even one. We are all convicted under the weight of the blood crying out like the shrieks on that 9-1-1 tape from that night in Florida. This is the world we live in, and in a nation which we just recently celebrated on July 4th, we must take responsibility for it. Even if a jury won’t convict a man for shooting and killing a teenager, we are surely convicted by a higher court, an infinitely better informed jury, a perfect justice.

But we praise God for God’s infinite compassion, perfect empathy, and most steadfast love. Again I must publically proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nothing can make God love us more or make God love us less; God just loves us. Period.

This morning we bear the mark of Cain, but we also bear the mark of the overcome cross. The passion story of Jesus Christ does not end on Good Friday in a tomb, but resurrection is the new beginning. We recognize that we are not holy like God is holy, but we also walk into the light with the knowledge that God is actively redeeming us and the world around us. As people who have been born again of water, fire, and spirit through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus we move past the sin of Cain and to the mercy of the Samaritan. When we see Trayvon Martin sauntering around in our neighborhood, we, like the Samaritan, feel our hearts moved with pity and show him trust. When we see George Zimmerman cruising up behind us, we, like the Samaritan, feel our hearts moved with compassion and show him mercy.

So let us love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength, and with all our mind; and love our neighbor as ourselves. Through Jesus Christ, we are made right. Do these things, and we will live.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Gospel power

Sermon written for evangelism class at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and then preached at the Des Plaines Methodist Campground. It is based on the scripture Acts 3:1-10.

During the summer after my sophomore year of college I worked as an intern at a large United Methodist church in the suburbs of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I did mostly youth ministry, which was evident from a goatee on my chin, acoustic guitar strapped around my shoulder, and a couple Frisbees in the back of my ’96 Geo Metro. Ah, those were the days. The church was having a kids’ fair in their ample parking lot one night, and that’s when the news came. A young man who had grown up in the church had suffered an accident while doing gymnastics, and he had broken his back. The young adults and youth who knew him best gathered in prayer circles and called out for God to help Brian. Within a week, it was apparent that Brian would be quadriplegic for the rest of his life. Within a blink of an eye, he went from being the Eagle Scout who chose his college based on the rock-climbing nearby to someone who couldn’t even feed himself with his own hands.

And so the “Pray for Brian” campaign began.

I promise that I’ll come back to add to that story, but it’s events like Brian’s accident that really make the stories in the Bible true. It’s not just that the events of the ancient Hebrews, the prophets, and the New Testament apostles happened once upon a time; it’s that they happen in our lives over and over and over again. That’s how we know the Bible is true.

The story in the third chapter of Acts is like that. Peter and John, two of the leaders of the apostolic community in Jerusalem, walked up to the Temple with the intention of praying to God, as was their custom. It was a regular day, just like any other day, complete with the cripples and devastatingly sick people who had to panhandle to survive from day to day. The scene reminds me of the Catedral Metropolitana in the Plaza de Mayo of Buenos Aires, Argentina. It’s a holy place and a place of incredible political power, located only a quarter-mile away from the president’s office. And every time I went by there while I was studying in Argentina, there were always dozens of homeless people sitting in the neo-classical façade. People would walk by them to see the mausoleum of José de San Martín, the George Washington of Argentina, or snap pictures of the Casa Rosada where the president worked, or protest whatever the cause-du-jour happened to be. The homeless, the crippled, the sick—they stayed there even when everyone else left.

Back in Jerusalem, one of these homeless people called out to Peter and John and went through his well-rehearsed spiel about needing money because he is just SO hungry and could they help a lame man with only a few coins, God-bless-you-sirs. Peter was one of those few people who actually stopped, and he said with some funny, redneck Galilean accent, “Look at me.” I can only imagine what was going through the lame man’s mind at this point. Would it be another lecture about pulling himself by boot-straps, because that one is SUCH a hoot with his shriveled legs on display for all to see? Or maybe it would be some amateur rabbis who would debate who had sinned to make him crippled. Or, then again, they might just give him something useful for once…

Here’s what Peter says, “I don’t have any money (dammit!, thinks the crippled man) but I give you what I have. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up.” And much to the man’s own dismay, he stands up.

Friends, we need more stories like this, not just because more cripple people should be able to walk given the amazing advances in medical science, but because the Gospel of Jesus Christ has this kind of power. My Methodist upbringing doesn’t usually lead me to believe in spiritual healing, nor does my seminary training to this point, but my life experience does confirm that faith in Jesus Christ is accompanied with POWER. It is power from the living God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all that is, seen and unseen. It is power that breaks through systems of oppression that cripple as surely as a disease or gymnastics accidents. It is power that breaks through the apathy of a crystallized status quo. It is the power that strengthens sinews and quickens compassion of all that it touches. It is the power that raises an army supplied not with guns and tanks and Hellfire missiles but with empathy, solidarity, and a zeal for God’s holy justice.

See, the formerly lame man suffered not only his personal disability, but he was also caught in the social disability of his time. Anyone who couldn’t care for her- or himself due to a disability, whether in mind or body, had to survive on the charity of other people. Praise God, he was in a Jewish community that was governed (at least socially) by Mosaic Law which mandates care for those who can’t care for themselves. Of course, in desperately poor society where most people were just north of starvation themselves, it’s hard to imagine that panhandlers knew any kind of security, whether in food, lodging, or body.

Peter and John enter the scene with the knowledge and personal witness that the status quo is not the only option. They knew, not just with head knowledge but with the unshakable experience of an encounter with the greatest power the universe has ever seen or will ever see again, that pain, suffering, and death don’t always win. They knew that the new rule, the new reign, the new emerging reality is resurrection. Peter and John, empowered by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, are two of the first evangelists, that is the heralds of the new reign of the resurrected Christ.

Before I go on and on about how earth-shattering and hell-harrowing this Good News really is, I feel the pragmatism of my Methodist upbringing surging up. You see, friends, Peter and John are able to be vehicles for God’s grace because they were prepared to do so. The passage that precedes this healing story is perhaps the most famous description of the first-generation apostolic community. Acts 2:43-47 tells how the believer shared all their possession in common so everyone would have enough to live well and they spent “much time together in the temple”, yes, that same Temple where Peter and John had the occasion to heal the lame man. Peter and John were evangelists in the traditional sense, proclaiming the Gospel to folks who had never experienced it before, but they were also living a life that made such proclamation possible. When Peter said, “I give you what I have”, that’s just what he had been doing since Jesus ascended into heaven some undisclosed time earlier. His reality was marked by sharing with the folks around him, including the power of the resurrected Christ, so the healing was simply the most natural thing in the world for Peter. Similarly, the practice of “going up to the Temple” where all manner of people would be, provided the perfect stage for sharing the Gospel. We don’t know how many times Peter and John passed by this group of panhandlers in the Temple before the miraculous healing occurred, but the discipline of being with people outside of their small, tight-knit apostolic community provided the opportunities to share what they had. In the Wesleyan tradition, I think that falls somewhere between personal and social holiness, but it is certainly sanctifying grace at work.

Of course, evangelism has its dangers as well. When Peter explains to the gathered crowd where exactly the power that healed the lame man came from, namely Jesus Christ of Nazareth, they got folks’ attention, and not only well-intentioned kind. They were proclaiming the power of the resurrection of a man who had been condemned and executed within a few miles of the very spot where they were standing. Oh, and all those people did the condemning and executing were still there. Um, awkwaaard. According to Acts, it was the Sadducees, a Jewish sect who had made a name for themselves by denying any sort bodily resurrection, who heard them first. Peter and John were threatening the power of the Sadducees by demonstrating the power of resurrection, and the Sadducees reacted in the way that people of status quo power often do: they had the apostles locked up.

I want to be sure that we recognize how common this phenomenon is. A lot people in our 21st world make an excellent living off of denying the resurrection, and they even go further by making record profits off industries of death. The military-industrial complex is giddy at the thought of selling more bullets and bombs to our government and government far across the ocean. Insurance companies fight tooth-and-nail to keep from paying their customers after catastrophe strikes. And corrupt politicians and government bureaucrats build up their Cadillac pension plans by using whatever means available to maintain the status quo. My experience tells me that locking people up is their preferred means to maintain the status quo. Walter Brueggemann, one of the preeminent Hebrew Bible scholars of the late 20th century, calls such a situation the “royal consciousness”.

Praise God, we are a people of a different consciousness! Jesus Christ has awakened us to the truth that death does not win the day. Instead the resurrection continually announces that life and love wins. In fact, in the presence of the redemptive power of the resurrection, death looks pathetic. When the court came together to judge Peter and John following their arrest, they had no choice but to release them because “all of them praised God for what had happened” (4:21). Not even all the assembled political power could quell the surge of the Good News to the masses!

So what does all this have to do with us today? I see three lessons that emerge from Peter and John’s evangelism: 1) preparation leads to perfection, 2) the Spirit will give us the power for and the opportunity, and 3) love wins the day. Dealing with the first lesson, Peter and John were empowered to share the Gospel with the lame man, the crowd in the Temple, and even the court because they were already living in a community where such sharing is natural and incarnational. We, too, need to create communities where the common good is held up as God’s preferred way of living. We also need to boldly go out as representatives of the resurrected Christ among people where opportunities abound. This means we must be missionaries every time we go out into the world.

Second, we can trust that the Holy Spirit will provide what we need when the opportunity arises. In the campus ministry where I work, we go out to Lower Wacker and that maze of streets that literally undergird downtown Chicago and hand out sandwiches to homeless people there. Opportunities abound to share the Gospel, and though I am often caught completely off-guard by the requests and stories I hear from folks on the streets, the Holy Spirit gives my comrades and me the power to minister to these folks. Sometimes the Holy Spirit kindles my righteous indignation at how our country, the richest in the history of the world, can allow such suffering. And you know what? The Spirit keeps that righteous indignation with me when I go and visit those corrupt politicians in city hall and at the capitol. Never box the Spirit in, friends.

Third, despite a menacing mountain of terror and intimidation, not so unlike Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings books and movies, God’s love wins the day. I am reminded of Paul’s words to the Romans: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). The keepers of the status quo may not like it when we proclaim the resurrection, and they may even lock us up from time to time, but folks will be too busy praising the living God for the signs happening among them to keep us down too long. Our hope and faith in the love of God is so great that we can laugh and sing when they put the handcuffs on us. Dear friends, I know this is true because I’ve done it!

Brian with his three brothers and a producer from the show. 
So what about the “Pray for Brian” campaign? Brian’s friends originally set out to raise money for his medical treatment, which we did by selling LiveStrong-style bracelets, doing carwashes, and a variety of other fundraisers. However, after I left that church to continue my studies and eventually go to Chicago as a missionary, I learned that word of Brian’s story reached the producers of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”. They were touched by the tragedy of the accident and the faith of Brian’s friends, so they decided to do an episode at Brian’s family’s house. They raised millions of dollars to completely renovate the house so that it was completely wheelchair accessible. The story reached millions of viewers with the ABC broadcast. Now that’s evangelism.

Friends, I am continually dumbfounded by how God works in the world, both inside and outside the church. Sometimes all I can do is collapse to my knees with tears running down my cheeks and praise God for being so much bigger and better than I can ever humanly conceive. So how will you respond to God’s goodness? If you don’t have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, if you’ve fallen away from a relationship with God, I invite you to come to God and begin the journey of faith. If you are already a follower of Jesus Christ, then I invite you to reflect on how God is calling you to share the Gospel with the world. God gives us so many different gifts, and we can use all of them to join in the liberating reign of God! Finally, I invite all of you, as a body gathered together to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, to see how we can share the Gospel with our neighbors, all of together. We are bearers of Good News, and the most natural thing in the world is to share it everybody else around us. Amen.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A community of sharing

There are a couple words for church in the New Testament. When Paul writes to the “church of Such-and-Such”, the word is ekklesia, which literally translates to English as “assembly”. It’s just some folks who get together and follow the Way of Jesus, which was pretty radical back in the day. The other word the New Testament uses is koinonia, which is more like communion than organized church. The much cited apostolic community in Acts 2, the one where everyone shares their stuff so that everyone has enough, is described as a koinonia. Otherwise stated, the essence of koinonia is sharing.

I like to think that at South Loop Campus Ministry we are developing koinonia.

See, at SLCM, we originally intended to only minister to college students, but when homeless folks showed up to our Sunday night community meal, based on a Christian ethic of love, we couldn’t just turn them away. However, very quickly, homeless people outnumbered students on Sunday nights, and I know that I started having doubts about continuing to serve them. This is a campus ministry, for crying out loud!
  But then I starting getting glimpses of koinonia breaking through our well laid plans. As we kept handing
That's a lot of agua. Photo credit Giacomo Luca.
out sandwiches to homeless people on the street after dinner, a couple of homeless people, Ashley and Tony, started guiding us. That meant that we didn’t have to keep wandering around aimlessly hoping that we would happen upon some folks under Lower Wacker Drive. In another instance, during one particularly chaotic night when we already had a skeleton crew to set up, one of our student leaders stepped up to keep everyone (mainly over 30 homeless people) occupied and calm. Another student leader realized that all the leftover dining dollars from students’ meal plans could be used to purchase drinks and snacks for SLCM. Giacomo raised $5,000 in just two weeks. Another time we arrived at Grace Place with supplies for dinner, and we were surprised by a group of homeless folks already preparing dinner for the group. Sometimes the Holy Spirit just moves, and I sure as hell want to move with her.

There are more challenges for South Loop Campus Ministry, both now and in the future. It continues to be difficult to reach out to students at a university where religion is an unwritten taboo. I know that we haven’t figured out the ideal balance of working with homeless folks and with students. However, what we’ve started at SLCM was without a doubt inspired and resourced by the Spirit of God. I am sure that God does give us enough to live abundantly here in the world, but it is up us to share what God gives us. At SLCM, our essence is sharing. As we work through the quieter months of summer, we have the opportunity to figure out better ways to share not only material stuff, like sandwiches, bottled water, and socks, but also our empathy and love. That’s a koinonia worth developing.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Coming to dinner--scars and all

This sermon was given at First Trinity Lutheran Church on April 21, 2013. Really. I preach this way.

Let’s get one thing straight right now: I’m not going to talk about sheep today. Yeah, I know we sang Psalm 23 and the lectionary Gospel reading is about sheep and there is even a picture of a sheep on the cover of the bulletin, but really, I won’t talk about sheep today. Unless it’s about lamb chops or mutton stew because what I really talk about is food.

This resurrection appearance story in Luke spoke to me in a way that the sheep passages didn’t. Maybe it’s because I sang the “I Just Wanna Be Sheep Ba-Ba-Ba-Ba” just one time too many. Maybe it’s because I spent just a little too much time next to livestock as I was growing up in central PA, and I just don’t want to be like those dumb animals that I kept prodding with a wooden stick.

But food…that’s something else. Maybe a story about food speaks more clearly to me because I spent a weekend in Washington, D.C. talking about food justice. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so many Sunday evenings in the last six months making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for homeless folks. Maybe I’m just hungry right now.

Whatever the reason why this passage in Luke speaks to me right now, it does seem like the resurrected Jesus likes to eat. Verse 36 of this passage begins with the remaining disciples talking with each other about—you guessed it—a meal. That meal was with two other guys who were walking towards some town called Emmaus, and the resurrected Jesus snuck his way into dinner with them by explaining all of the Hebrew scriptures concerning himself. I think a lot of my Jewish friends would think that that conversation would be rather short, but it was enough to get these two walkin’ dudes to invite Jesus to dinner. Apparently dying and coming back to life doesn’t help Jesus’ table manners because he disappears just as the three of them are about to eat. I guess it’s better than dining and dashing.

So then these two walkin’ dudes rush over to the disciples and tell their story, and just as they’re arguing about whether Jesus had picked up the matzo or the foccaccia loaf, Jesus appears again. At this point I would think that the walkin’ dudes are pretty sure that phantom Jesus has decided to haunt them for the rest of their miserable existence, perpetually correcting their understanding of the prophet Isaiah and then preventing them from chowing down. But luckily Jesus puts them totally at ease by saying “Peace be with you”. That works every time, right?

Jesus convinces everybody in the room that it’s really him and not just the most annoyingly know-it-all phantom ever (so those walkin’ dudes can breathe easy). And then he eats some fish. Resurrection Jesus sure does know how to crash a dinner party, but that’s okay because he explains the Hebrew scriptures again. Sorry, walkin’ dudes, you’ve seen this part before.

But I’m going to try to release this image of Jesus as a know-it-all seminarian in search of free food, though that’s admittedly not easy for me. I am really struck at how resurrection Jesus keeps eating with people. I remember in my Bible studies as a teenager that we used to try to figure out the significance of that eating, that it has serious Christological implications about the dual nature of Jesus Christ. Or that’s what teenage me would have said if I had taken systematic theology instead of joyriding through the Pennsylvania mountains. But forget dual nature-whatever for now because even more than a free meal Resurrection Jesus is still really concerned that the disciples learn some really important things about, yes, his own identity—that’s the Christological part—and how to act with each other. Especially when eating.

Easter brunch at First Trinity Lutheran Church. No jacket
Recently I’ve learned that there are rules for dinner behavior, assuming you’re not eating pizza over the sink or something. Part of that comes from watching a lot of Downton Abbey, which is this BBC television series about English high society in the early 20th century and their many varieties of spoons, but even more comes from eating with my girlfriend Kacie. See, Kacie was super active in 4-H in Tennessee, and much to my surprise, she didn’t only raise sheep for the county fair (sheep!). No, Kacie also learned to dine finely—that is, with more class than I ever learned in my years in the Boy Scouts. We’re talking which fork goes in which hand, what to do with the napkin when it’s blocking the eating area of your plate, and how not to send a Tweet from your smart phone while someone important is speaking.

Yeah, there are rules for eating with other people, and while I can respect a lot of those as they show respect for the folks around you, I don’t see Jesus following a lot of those rules in this passage. In fact, I really only see Jesus following one rule here—be authentic when you’re sharing a meal. Jesus doesn’t dress up to impress here. On the other hand he has one of the classic guy conversations in all guy-dom: check out my scars. Now maybe that’s cool porch talk, but I think conversation about scars usually doesn’t occur at the dinner table. Yes, Jesus is soothing the disciples, especially those poor walkin’ dudes, but I have to think that he is teaching by example. Jesus recognizes that everybody in that room is traumatized at that moment, especially himself, and he draws that out as soon as he appears.

Then Jesus eats a meal and, as always happens after a communal meal, he shares a story: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to proclaimed to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Sounds vaguely like the Great Commission in the closing words of the Gospel of Matthew, huh? It’s not quite an explanation of the trauma that just occurred, but it does orient how Jesus’ listeners will respond to their trauma. Bad stuff happens in the world, but good stuff also happens, and now we need to tell everybody to change to world based on those experiences.

See, this week has been awfully traumatic for a lot of people. Bookended by a terrorist bombing and a violent manhunt for the perpetrators, with a giant factory explosion and local flooding here in Chicago, folks have seen some trauma this week. Maybe we feel scared and want to withdraw from a scary world. Or maybe we want to go out and fight the bad guys. Maybe we do actually feel a little like, well, sheep in need of a shepherd. Whatever your reaction has been to this week’s events, let’s recognize that we have experienced trauma, and let’s recognize that trauma before we take a bite at the dinner table.

Something I love about this church is that First Trinity has a weekly dinner table that is really open to everyone. And I am continually impressed at how people are willing to be authentic as they approach that table. However, this week let’s especially recognize that we are a mixed body, as Luther said, and we are a traumatized body. If you would like to work through some of that trauma, please come to the table. The church is also blessed with some wonderful deacons who truly care about caring for people who serve the church as deacons. These folks are committed to helping people in this mixed, traumatized body work through our trauma. Please seek them out if you’d like some space to continue to work through that trauma.
Now finally in closing, let’s remember that we still have to go out after the meal. We have a lot of repentance and forgiveness and world-changing to do when we get up from the table. The punch-line is that we will never be as holy and ready to go out as maybe we feel we need to be to this work. We need to do it anyway. Whether you feel like a lost sheep(!), a haunted walkin’ dude, or just somebody in need of some food, this is a good starting place. So please come, be filled, and then go, still your scars, because that’s what Jesus did, too.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Resurrection Work

Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
-          Luke 23: 42-43

[Note: This reflection was part of First Lutheran Church of the Trinity's Good Friday service that featured 7 different speakers who gave reflection on the last seven words of Christ.]

I’m not much of one for pie-in-the-sky theology. I mean, why would God make the varying hues of a summer sunrise over Lake Michigan or the smell of lilac blossoms or the laughter of best friends—why do all that stuff if the world is only supposed to be a holding pattern for the next one?

These words of the crucified Jesus kinda strike me as promised pie-in-the-sky. It seems like final absolution that degrades all the life that was lived beforehand. Of course, in the midst of crucifixion, maybe all victims want is to forget this tortured life. After all, the thief to whom Jesus was speaking was not only slowly dehydrating and collapsing his internal organs; he seemed to be considering his entire wretched existence. Please, Lord, just get me the hell out of this cold, nasty, brutish, and short life!

Then again, Jesus was suffering the same things that the condemned people to his right and left were suffering. That’s not paternalistic absolution; that’s the ultimate solidarity. Jesus was literally speaking on the thieves’ level. Jesus had spent his life among poor, militarily occupied and terrified people. Jesus was just as naked and humiliated as the other two.

That puts Jesus’ words in a different light, and 1st century people didn't understand “paradise” the same way we do today anyway. As a pharisaic Jew, Jesus thought of paradise not as an eternal escape, the ultimate vacation get-away, but it was a place for divinely justified people to wait for the earthly resurrection. The kind of resurrection Jesus meant was the kind that the prophet Isaiah talked about: eating the fruit of one’s own labor rather than working as wage-slaves; living in safe, dry lodging instead of under bridges when they've been evicted; raising kids that can learn about all the beauty of life rather than being shoved about for the benefit of corrupt politicians.

And Jesus told this thief at his side that they will be together today in this place. That phrase seems to me like Jesus was inviting this condemned guy to come home to meet his folks. But, no, it’s even more than that. This convict simply asked Jesus to “remember” him in that resurrection-world—because obviously he won’t be there—but I think Jesus takes it even further. I think Jesus, by telling the criminal that he’d be with him, is saying that this criminal will also be part of the resurrection-work that brings the resurrection-world.

Instead of an immigrant doing day-laborer work in the yard, the immigrant is building Solomon’s temple. Instead of a homeless person dragging oozing, blistered feet to Catholic Charities, they are directing the Thanksgiving dinner for the whole family. Instead of the hardened gang-banger selling dope in the park, he coaches Little League teams for neighborhood kids.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, what kind of kingdom do we pray for? Is it a balcony view of all those sinners’ suffering like Tertullian talked about, or is it taking up the cross for the resurrection-world?

So tonight let us grief for a world that locks up teenagers for an ounce of weed, but then let’s get to the resurrection-work of being with me. Being with you. Being with your neighbor. Being with Jesus.

In paradise.

And we’ll be together today.

Want an example of resurrection work? Check out CeaseFire Chicago, the nonprofit
organization that was featured in the documentary The Interrupters.