Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Wailing at Christmas

This sermon was preached at Wesley United Methodist Church in Marysville, PA on Dec. 28, 2014.

Thank you so very much, Wesley bunch, for welcoming me and giving me the opportunity to share God’s Word with you today. Some of you may not know me very well, but like many you at Wesley, I practically grew up in this church. When I moved to Chicago back in 2010, you supported me with your prayers. Then when I began seminary in 2012, you began supporting me financially, and due in part because of that support I will graduate in May from Chicago Theological Seminary. One the last challenges I have in my seminary education is an internship called CPE—clinical pastoral education. It’s meant to present pastors-in-training with heavy, often emergency, pastoral situations. I have been serving at Ingalls Hospice in the southern suburbs of Chicago, so God’s been working on me to share some of what I've been learning in those hospice cases. I hope that explains a little why I feel so moved to share about “wailing at Christmas.”
           Why might someone wail at Christmas? And when I say “at Christmas,” I do mean both “during” Christmas and “about” Christmas. There are a number of famous stories of people who kinda wailed “about” Christmas. Think of Scrooge, that squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner. Or the Grinch, who was so unlike the all the Who’s down in Whoville, at least until his heart grew 3 sizes one day. There are also plenty of real-life anti-Christmas folks in the world today, and a lot of them seem to like making top-10 or top-8 lists on the Internet to explain why they don’t like Christmas. While some of them are proud pagans and atheists, others are from Christian denominations such as 7th Day Adventists or the United Church of God. And you know what? They have some pretty good points, usually wailing about how commercial Christmas has become. To borrow from the great 20th century cultural critic, Lucy Van Pelt, whom you probably know from yanking the football away from Charlie Brown, “We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.” Good point, Lucy.
            Then again, there are some other good reasons to wail at Christmas, and this time I mean “during” Christmas. I recall meeting a woman with the campus ministry I work for in Chicago. We hand out about five dozen bagged lunches to homeless and hungry people we encounter around downtown, and we intentionally go to the places where others don’t often go. We encountered this woman at the corner of Lower Wacker and Lower Michigan, which is one story below what is considered street level. If you liked the movie The Dark Knight, Batman chased the Joker down on Lower Wacker. It was early December last year, and winter was setting in. She was grateful for the food, but soon she began to break down in front of us. She had no place to go but these dingy, noisy streets, and it was getting cold out. She cried and she wailed with us, “I’m just so tired of being so cold and so tired!” Her voice is what I think these days when I think of wailing at Christmas.
             And there was wailing at the first Christmas, too, or at least shortly thereafter. Once the magi from the East had offered their honoraria to the Christ child in Bethlehem, King Herod had all the infants two years old or younger massacred. Traditionally this episode is called “the massacre of the Holy Innocents.” The gospel writer then adds a new voice to the story, that of the ancient Jewish matriarch Rachel, who was the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. Rachel’s voice is heard coming from Ramah, and she wails and laments loudly, forsaking all consolation, because her children, her dearest family and hope for her people, are no more. There was wailing at the first Christmas.
            Before we look at more modern Christmas wailing, let’s dive into this story a little bit more. After all, I’ve spent all that time and money in seminary learning to “dive into the story,” so I’m darn well going to do it now. Rachel’s voice, which Matthew adds to lament the massacre of the innocents, is a reference from the prophet Jeremiah, who was active in the 6th century BC and talked a lot about the coming destruction of the southern Israelite kingdom, Judah. In fact, he talked so much about impending doom that his peers got tired of him and put in a dry well. Sure enough, that nay-sayer Jeremiah got it right. The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 586 BC, and they took all the nobles and VIP’s of the kingdom into exile afterward. It was a nasty business, including severe famine caused by the siege of Jerusalem and a systematic execution of military leaders. It was also the occasion of the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem. The event had such an effect on the Hebrew people that Jews commemorate it in a day of mourning called Tisha be-Av. We might imagine Rachel wailing for her lost children on that day.
            So this is what Matthew wants to remind his readers of when he quotes Jeremiah—death, destruction, and wailing. But Matthew doesn’t say, “Remember what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah,” but “then was fulfilled.” Most biblical scholars would say Matthew was playing loose and fast with his interpretation of Jeremiah’s 31st chapter to get a prophecy about the messiah. However, what if something else was fulfilled in the massacre of the innocents?
            Let me first be clear about God’s will is NOT “fulfilled” in this passage. It is not God’s will that King Herod, whom the Roman imperial authorities called “the great,” should have killed children. It is not God’s will that any person, whether innocent child or convicted murderer, should suffer in such a way. It is not God’s will that thousands in West Africa still suffer from ebola or that bombs explode in Syria or that young black men are killed in the streets here in the USA. God’s will is not fulfilled when a homeless veteran in Chicago gets locked up for not appearing for a court hearing he never knew was scheduled. It is not God’s will that a trusted police officer would abuse children in anyone’s hometown, especially not this one. God’s will is not fulfilled when these things happen.
            But these things do happen, nonetheless. So what was being fulfilled in Herod’s massacre of innocent children? Maybe…it has something to do with Rachel’s voice heard coming from Ramah. Maybe Matthew was saying the prophecy was fulfilled in how Rachel didn’t stop wailing for her lost children even centuries after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. Maybe Rachel was continuing to wail for the loss of children and loved ones even as God became “Emmanuel,’ God with us, God among our wounded, hurting, throbbing people.
            Here’s another thing: there’s no evidence outside the Bible, even outside this one passage in the gospel of Matthew that this massacre of the innocents historically happened. Now, of course this is not the kind of thing that official historians on the king’s payroll would record, so maybe we shouldn’t expect archeological evidence about the massacre of the Holy Innocents. You may believe that it literally happened, or you may believe that the story is more metaphorical. There’s a lot of stuff in Bible like that. In this case, it’s not belief in facts or metaphors or whatever else that matters. In this case, faith matters.
            Paul Tillich, a German Lutheran theologian who was pretty existentialist and whom I think is pretty awesome, says that faith is “the condition of being ultimately concerned about something unconditionally.” In other words, what matters to you more than anything else in the entire world? What makes you get in the morning? What keeps you up at night? What makes your pulse run faster? What would you sacrifice for? The answer to those questions will help you understand where you have faith.
            Given all the awful stuff that has happened on the earth since the dawn of humanity, I have to think that God must have a lot of faith in us. Why else would God trust a working class Jewish family to care for Jesus Christ during one of the most violent regimes in the history of violent regimes? When bad stuff happens, our faith in God might be challenged. We may doubt God’s absolute power or complete goodness, and that’s perfectly all right. Paul Tillich also said that the opposite of faith is not doubt—but certainty. Considering that Tillich lived in Germany during World War I and then was exiled by the Nazis before World War II, I can understand why he might not be so keen on certainty. After all, both Herod and Hitler were certain that they should defend and grow their power by all means available.
            So those of us with faith in God through Jesus Christ come to Christmas. Do you want to wail? I’ve already mentioned that I work with a lot of homeless people in Chicago. There is this one homeless couple, probably teenagers (I haven’t asked them their ages), who have helped with our bagged lunch program. They started coming back in September in the hopes that they would get a bite to eat, and then they stayed to help make the lunches and hand them out. Angie was several months pregnant, so after that first week she stayed back in the church where we have an office. Her boyfriend Tony walked with us to bring food to the streets, and boy, did he bring energy to our little group! Angie and Tony became such a part of our ministry that we planned a baby shower for Angie for the last Sunday of November.
            Then it was like Angie and Tony disappeared. It’s not uncommon for homeless people to come and go, but these folks had become part of our little family. My boss even tried calling their schools in order to try to find them. The day of the baby shower came, and we still weren't sure what was going to happen. Thank God, Angie appeared at the church for the shower. She had come with about six other relatives to celebrate with her, but Tony was not among them. Bit by bit the story came out. Tony had missed a parole hearing, which isn’t surprising given how he is homeless and has a hard time getting his mail. He arrested and sent to jail. We had a great time at the baby shower despite Tony’s absence, but Angie would spend the Christmas season without her boyfriend. In fact, she had her baby while Tony was locked up. So you know, sometimes, you just want to wail at Christmas.
            Wesley bunch, I know you feel some absences this year, too. This is your first Christmas without Allie Speck, and I know you miss her. I remember how shortly before I left for Chicago, you laid hands on Allie and me. For Allie, the prayers were for strength and healing. For me, it was safety and boldness. I tracked Allie’s progress through emails which my mom forwarded me, and I continued to wear my “Praying for Allie” t-shirt. By the way, a classmate of mine told me that the Korean characters on the back mean “strong tiger.”
            Like so many people, I was inspired by Allie’s story. I even included her story in a sermon about the power of prayer which I preached last year while I was interning at First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple. Then on Ash Wednesday of this year, I saw the news on Facebook, and my sister Jess confirmed it. Allie was gone. I have to admit, it was only in preparing this sermon that I finally read Zina Speck’s final update. Maybe living far away made it harder for me to find meaning in Allie’s passing. Maybe it makes me want to wail at Christmas.
            But like Allie said, God has a plan for her, even while she dances in heaven today. And God has a plan for us, too, no matter what terrible things happen around us, among us, to us. God had a plan for Jesus even when Herod was trying to kill him. And even nay-saying Jeremiah had more to God’s plan to tell us. After giving us Rachel’s wailing, Jeremiah goes on to say, “There is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country.” God had a plan for those exiles taken away to Babylon.
            So go ahead! Wail at Christmas! Do not cover your tears with that lovely sweater your Aunt Betty gave you. Do not quiet your voice with your favorite holiday beverage. Do not hide your mourning with faux festive cheer. As the prophet Isaiah says, shout out! Do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Wail at Christmas and the God who comes to be with us at Christmas. Wail in your loudest voice, “Where are you, God? I need you because I am hurting so much right now!” And I promise you, God will come. God will come to you and say, “I’m right here, I’m right here. And I have a plan for you while we both hurt.”
            God’s plan is to come to us at Christmas because we were and we are hurting. God’s plan isn’t necessarily to stop the pain, but God is with us in the midst of the pain. When we hurt, God hurts with us. When we wail, God wails with us. God’s plan is salvation. God’s plan is redemption. No, it’s not the palliative care that Christmas commercialism offers. It’s deeper than that. God saves us in the midst of our despair, and God redeems our doubt and grief. Even as we wail at Christmas, God comes to us and says, “I have a plan to save and redeem you.” Even as we wail at Christmas, God’s plan of salvation and redemption is being lived out among us. Let’s live into God’s plan this Christmas.


Sunday, August 31, 2014

An Open Epistle to the Chicago Temple

Dear friends of First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple,
            Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ! I have gratefully served as a ministry intern for the last year among you, and God has blessed my time with you in a great many ways. I came to Chicago as a young adult missionary of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries in 2010, and God led me to stay in Chicago for seminary at Chicago Theological Seminary. I grew up in a mid-size United Methodist church in the rolling ridges of central Pennsylvania. Not only was this Midwestern metropolis strange to me, but my interactions with different Christian denominations and non-Christian faiths stretched me in ways I had never imagined as country boy from Harrisburg. As a young adult missionary I worked at Interfaith Worker Justice, working with organizers and low-wage, immigrant workers of many faiths. At CTS, I am one of the very few United Methodists at that United Church of Christ institution. When it came time to choose a field placement as required by my degree program, I knew that I wanted to re-connect with my chosen faith tradition and serve in a United Methodist parish setting. God brought me to the Chicago Temple.
The Chicago Temple building from the
perspective of Daley Plaza
(photo credit Wickimedia).
            And what a setting it was! With a building that rose far above the streets and bells that chimed over
Daley Plaza and beyond, the Chicago Temple was clearly making its presence known. When I stepped inside the building, I was amazed to find that the main sanctuary was open to the public as long as there was a security guard present at the entrance. Being a cyclist, I went down to the basement washroom to change into more formal attire, and I discovered that there a theater down there—Silk Road Theater. You have so many ways of telling your story, First United Methodist Church!
            When I took the tour of the Chapel in the Sky, I learned the long history of public witness of First United Methodist Church, even before it was “at the Chicago Temple.” The stained glass on the 22nd floor showed the Wesley brothers, and other paintings, photographs, and memorabilia which highlighted some of the important events that have occurred in your church. Once finally in the Sky Chapel, the tour guide connected the woodcut of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, which is embedded in the altar of the first floor sanctuary, with the woodcut embedded in the altar more than 20 stories above it. The woodcut shows Jesus standing in a bank of clouds overlooking the Loop of Chicago from the perspective of the Sky Chapel. Just as Jesus wept over Jerusalem because her inhabitants did not recognize “the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:41-42), Jesus continues to weep for the city of Chicago because her modern residents likewise are blind to the things that make for peace.
            These are the stories that you tell the people who look upon your edifices, the visitors who wander your halls, the tourists who ascend to the Chapel in the Sky. These are stories of witness in the public square, hospitality for the weary, and the prophetic cry for justice in a world that has forgotten the things that make for peace. These are you stories, but they are also the Church’s stories, the stories told by the body of Christ. You are truly like the branches connected to the vine that is Christ, and you bear much fruit. Praise be to God for the fruit you bear for your sisters and brothers in Chicago and around the world!
            You proudly call yourselves “the church that stayed,” and proud you ought to be. When few other faith communities remained on Washington Street after the Great Fire in 1872, you stayed put. Your foremothers and forefathers realized that the location on Clark and Washington would continue to be the heart of the city. That street corner became even more important when the city government built its grand hall on the opposite corner. Then the iconic elevated train tracks connected the rest of the outlying neighborhood to that street corner in a circle that would give the neighborhood its name—the Loop. And so for the sake of the continued witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, you stayed.
            Like the heart of the body, the heart of the city brought its lifeblood into her center. The city’s lifeblood is her people, and indeed they have come to the Loop. Just as substances consumed through the mouth make their way to the heart, so did new people make their way to the heart of the city. Every kind of person made their way into the Loop, and so did many of these people make their way into your building on the corner of Washington and Clark. However, many of these people did not look like the members who had faithfully built and rebuilt on that street corner. There is a photograph in the office suite on the second floor, close to the pastors’ offices, and it shows the Chicago Temple men’s club in the 1940’s. It is a proud group of determined men, and every face is white. Let us praise God that no such photograph can be taken today! In any given worship service there is a diversity of people who lift their voices in praise and prayer: young and old; white, black, Latino, Asian; men and women; rich and poor and everything in between. Few other local churches in the United Methodist connection have this array of diverse people in their halls. Praise God for this diversity of people with which God has blessed you! Praise God with the stately organ and with the whisper of a harp! Praise God with the intricate harmonies of the chancel choir and the powerful emotion of the gospel choir! Praise God on bended knee, and praise God while standing with arms wide open! With whatever you have, however you are, whatever time of day or week it is, praise God!
            Yet, as your building rises into the Chicago skyline, you also walk a fine and dangerous line. It is the fine and dangerous line of any prosperous people with a richness of stories. You may fall into the sin of idolatry of a story that is only your own and not of the body of Christ. As you choose which stories to tell, you also choose whether you a modern Tower of Babel or God’s house of prayer for all peoples.
            In his book, Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, Soong-Chan Rah engages the story of the Tower of Babel that is found in the 11th chapter of Genesis. A common interpretation of the story is that God punished the people of Babel for their pride by confusing their languages and scattering them throughout the world. However, Rah points out that such a communication failure should not be confused with racial and ethnic diversity, which is already recorded in the previous chapter. Rah says that the precondition for the people’s offense is fear and distrust. The people do not trust the promises of God, particularly that God would protect them and not destroy them again in a terrible flood. The people feared that God would not keep them safe. This seems like a reasonable fear considering that the Babel generation probably grew up with stories of the flood from which their ancestor Noah was spared. Build a tower tall enough to escape a flood just in case God changes God’s mind!
            However, God did not create humankind to live in fear. No, God’s intends for us to live freely, and we should love God and love one another. If we are high up in a tower, how can we love our neighbor? Are we closer to God if we are high in the sky? Is not God in the alleys of the city as well as the penthouses of the skyscrapers? When God saw the people building a tower to heaven, God knew that only a small number of people would fit in such a tower. The rest would languish in the margins, forever making bricks to endlessly repair a tower which was never part of God’s plan in the first place. When God saw this, God confused the people’s speech so that they would have to find other ways to relate to each other. God caused the people to turn away from their vain labors and care for each as they explored a world waiting for their unlimited creativity. We should praise God for stopping the construction of the Tower of Babel so that people would learn to love one another in new, creative ways.
            On the other hand, the prophet Isaiah foresaw a different kind of building, a temple which would include all the peoples of the world. In the 56th chapter of the book, the prophet has already seen how the returning exiles of Jerusalem would rebuild the temple to continue the sinful ways of their predecessors before the Babylonian captivity. Therefore, Isaiah speaks of a temple where the eunuchs who hold fast to God’s covenant will have an everlasting name, and the foreigners who join themselves to God will be made joyful in God’s house of prayer. God’s house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples (Is. 56:7).
            Despite God’s righteous anger against the people of Jerusalem, God remained faithful to the exiles in Babylon. God brought them back to the ruined city under the leadership of Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of the city, and God raised up Ezra to restore right worship on God’s holy mountain. However, God’s people were blessed to be a blessing for the rest of the peoples. God’s people should show the rest of the world how to love the widow, the orphan, and the stranger so that all the world would come to know God. All who seek God and cling to God’s promises would find a place in that holy house.
            Which building do you have, First United Methodist Church? Is the Chicago Temple a modern Tower of Babel meant as an escape from the doubt that clings to you every day you see your city change even more? Or is the Chicago Temple a house of prayer for all peoples where the eunuchs and foreigners, the lost and the weary peoples of Chicago can find the blessings of God? Oh, please make up your mind, First United Methodist Church, so that the huddled masses can find the true house of God’s promises!
            The stories you tell the outside world sound like you want to be God’s house of prayer for all peoples. And indeed there are many things you do that are consistent with those stories of peace, hospitality, and justice. You host a meal that provides food for hundreds of needy people on Saturday mornings. You keep your sanctuary open for any person seeking respite from the restless cold outside. You support other organizations that seek justice in the halls of political power. You play music that lifts the spirits of anyone who can hear the melodies soaring through air. Praise God for these good things that make for peace!
            However, very often your worship is wholly of the Anglo-American tradition, and a quite elitist strain of that tradition at that. While lifting one person’s spirits to God on high, it is a clanging cymbal to another person. This may be true of any one tradition which is held above all others, but in a diverse body of people like the First United Methodist Church, myopia is not only unnecessary but also sinful. Your children grow up in your halls not knowing what diverse ways of worshipping God exist in Chicago. How can this be when your own body is so diverse? Let us not only honor African-American forms of worship and Christian practice during African-American heritage month, but throughout the entire year. This is true for the many other cultural traditions that your people bring into the Chicago Temple. Do not limit yourselves to only one way of worship and Christian living, for that is the way of Babel and not of the God of all peoples.
            We also know that your beautiful building and elegant programs require vast sums of money to maintain. Based on the faithful planning your predecessors, First United Methodist Church does not have to raise funds to maintain the infrastructure of the building, which is quite unique among the local churches of the connection. However, to manage the complex workings of the Chicago Temple, you find the need to attract people with an understanding of vast sums of money. Often these rich people garner special attention that the poor people of the church do not garner. The wealthy people receive special opportunities to lead the church that poor people do not receive. Of course there tasks that knowledgeable managers of money should do in the church, but these roles should not be given greater honor than other roles. Why should the chair of the endowment receive more honor than a teacher of the children? Did not Christ say that in order to enter the reign of God we must become like children? Did not Christ also say that it is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the reign of God? Beware of your riches, First United Methodist Church, for in it may lay your hidden sins.
            God brought your foremothers and forefathers to this city and to this street corner for a great purpose. You should be a witness to God’s power and mercy in a city that does not know the things that make for peace. You, as a fruitful branch of the true vine of Christ, know some of the things that make for peace. You must distinguish your building, the Chicago Temple, from the other buildings around it. As you welcome the stranger, increase your hospitality so that all may find peace and rest. As you raise up the songs of heaven, broaden your worship so that all may join in your singing. As you cry out for justice for the marginalized, sharpen your critique of oppression that all may find freedom.
            When the Holy Spirit came upon the believers on Pentecost, the believers immediately began to speak in languages that everyone in the city of Jerusalem could understand. As the diverse people heard their own languages, they questioned each other how simple country people from Galilee could know so many different languages. First United Methodist Church must similarly amaze the people of the city by speaking the different languages of the city’s people. Pastor Blackwell, when he was with you, called for the mayor to take the business and civic leaders of the city to the top of the Willis Tower and show how every part of the city is theirs as well. You, First United Methodist Church, who chooses to stay in the heart of the city, must also look out and realize that all the peoples of the city are theirs as well. Your worship must speak not only to the residents of the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park but also to Roseland and Humboldt Park. By choosing to stay in the heart of the city, you must accept the lifeblood that the city brings to you.
            Changes in the city and the church are coming and indeed already are here. The Holy Spirit will guide you through your transitions, but the Holy Spirit will also change you as she guides you. Trust God’s Spirit, for God does not break God’s covenants. Hold fast to God’s covenant with you as the church that stayed. There is still life in that heart that beats in the center of the city! Just as the city has brought her lifeblood, the diverse peoples of God, to you, you will also pump lifeblood back through the arteries of the metropolis. With each heartbeat, send hospitality, welcome, joy, peace, and above all, love, to the far reaches of the city to which you are vitally connected.
            As you continue to cope with the departure of Pastor Phil, trust the guidance of Pastor Wendy, and Pastor David. They have received a double portion of the Holy Spirit, and they are more than able to help the church change and grow in love.  Already you have strong relationships with the Northern Illinois Conference and with the varied seminaries of the city, especially Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. The leaders of the conference and the seminaries will help you as you change and grow in love. I see a bright dawn on the horizon for you, First United Methodist Church, and much of it comes from the children and young people among you. Teach them your stories, and they will add to your stories with their vibrancy, imagination, and energy.
            Even more, trust your new senior pastor, Myron McCoy. He has been tested and refined in the fires of ministry, and he will boldly take you in directions which you may not anticipate. I encourage you to follow his leadership. I am confident that he will not lead you astray, and with his guidance you will discover blessings which God has already given you but of which you had not been aware.
            I sincerely thank you for all that you have given me: financial help, professional guidance, and spiritual support. As God led me to serve with you for the last year, God will keep us connected in Christian love. Trust God and take courage in God’s promises. God will truly make you a house of prayer for all peoples, and your stories will echo throughout all the city. Grace and peace be with you in the name of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fear, Folly, and Power

King Solomon's got it goin' on. (Photo credit Wikimedia)
Who doesn’t want to be King Solomon? I mean, he’s got it all. He comes from the right family—I mean, move over, Daleys. He’s got enough money to look Bill Gates in the eye and seriously play poker with Warren Buffet. And he’s so famous that other world leaders come just to see if the hype is true. The Queen of Sheba looked Solomon up and down and, “Dang, Sol, you got it goin’ on.”

            King Solomon’s legacy even lasted into the incredulous Scientific Revolution. The Freemasons adopted symbolism that connected their fraternal order with the splendor of Solomon. And who could forget that classic Nick Cage movie, National Treasure, where the protagonist discovers King Solomon’s treasure in, um, Manhattan, but where else would King Solomon’s treasure be? That’s just one of many reasons why it’s a classic.

            But setting aside Solomon’s celebrity, let’s get some back story here. A kind of  “behind the music” look at Solomon, you know, like if Bob Woodward worked for VH1. So Solomon is the son of King David, a man after God’s own heart, and Bathsheba, whom King David pursued apart from God’s heart. If you don’t remember that story, after he had become king, David played peeping Tom after Bathsheba while she was bathing, had a child with her while her husband was off fighting in David’s army, then had her husband killed, and finally admitted his guilt once the prophet Nathan called him out. That’s Solomon’s daddy, all right. Now Solomon wasn’t David’s only son, no far from it. Solomon’s step-brother, Amnon raped Solomon’s step-sister, Tamar, and Solomon’s other step-brother, Absalom, killed Amnon in revenge. Then Absalom staged a military coup against David, in which he killed most of his step-brothers, except, obviously, for Solomon, but eventually Absalom’s head got in the way—literally, his head got stuck in a tree branch. If you want the whole story, read it in the Bible. It’s even better than Game of Thrones. So, back to Solomon. He and his mother convince King David, who eventually gets old and dies, you know, like kings do, that Solomon should succeed David to the Israelite throne. David agrees, and then Solomon goes and kills everyone who might oppose him. I think Francis Ford Coppola was reading the Bible when he was directing The Godfather. Now stay with me, we’re almost to the best part about Solomon. He was humble.

            Yes! Believe it or not, Solomon was incredibly humble. See, Solomon knew that the Israelites he was to rule were a great people and were difficult to rule, as evidenced by the deaths of all of his step-brothers. That’s enough to humble anybody, I suppose, even a Kennedy of antiquity like Solomon. But one night after a long day of sacrificing all sorts of things on a high mountain to the Lord God, God comes and asks Solomon what he wants. I kinda bet the first thing that comes to Solomon’s mind is, “I’d like know if I have any more step-brothers who might want to kill me,” but no, that’s not what Solomon asks. Solomon recognizes that God is steadfast in love and mercy, and he asks God for an “understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil step-brothers (no wait, he didn’t mention step-brothers), for who can govern this your great people?” No, seriously, God, who can govern these people, because they are, like, crazy.

            Solomon’s request for an “understanding mind” strikes a deep, harmonious chord with God, and God grants Solomon’s request, along with a bigger bank account than the entire Saudi royal family and more fame than all of the One Direction guys plus Justin Bieber put together. If you don’t know what One Direction or a Bieber is, then blessed are you. I bet you didn’t expect a beatitude tonight. But God does bless Solomon! God blesses Solomon so much! God blesses Solomon so much that Solomon makes a bunch of alliances with the historic enemies of God’s people, and Solomon develops a harem of hundreds of women, and Solomon conscripts thousands of peasant Israelites to build the temple to the Lord, because God blesses Solomon to be a blessing—and a slavemaster. Yes! God. Bless. Solomon. I even bet he made a patriotic song out of it.

            In case you haven’t been able to cut through my sarcasm, let me make this plain. I don’t really like King Solomon. I don’t really like his daddy, either. Honestly, I have a hard time reading a lot of the historical books of the Hebrew Bible. I might enjoy watching House of Cards on Netflix, but I don’t enjoy reading the same plot lines in the scriptures that leads us to salvation and liberation and redemption. Blame it on the highfalutin seminary education I’m getting in Hyde Park, but I can’t read the story of God’s gift of wisdom to King Solomon without my hermeneutic of suspicion leaking out my ears. Of course King Solomon starts out on the right foot! I mean, besides killing a bunch of political enemies, but Solomon is all right to start with. But so was King Saul before God replaced him with David. And so was King David before he had that fling with Bathsheba, Solomon’s mom. I can’t help but recall the prophecy of Samuel, through whom God said,

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

Who doesn’t want to be King Solomon?

            I grew up with the saying, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Even well-meaning people have a really hard time resisting the corruption that often accompanies power. I am a student of major revolutions in world history, and I can get pretty disheartened when I survey them. The American Revolution cast off the bondage of the British crown, but Americans kept African-descended people in bondage for another century after that, and then established Jim Crow and systematic mass incarceration came after that. The French Revolution brought down the Bastille, but after a decade or two of beheading each other, Napoleon warped the revolutionary spirit to conquer most of Europe. The Russian Revolution promised the dictatorship of the proletariat, but instead got secret police, gulags, and Ukrainian famine.  It’s enough to make an idealistic revolutionary leave the Occupy camp, put on a tie, and sit in a cubicle. At least there’s a better shot at good health insurance. Eventually.

            It’s enough to make somebody fear the folly of power, too. I remember during a community organizing training a faith leader shared that he was afraid of getting too much power. Now this faith leader had more musical talent in his little finger than most whole church choirs do, and he had a magnetic personality that sucked you into whatever project he’s working on. But he’s a man of God, and a Christian of undeniable integrity, so he was very nervous about associating with the corrupting nature of power. He didn’t want to be another Elijah Muhammad, who fathered several children by his secretaries while he was leading the Nation of Islam in the 1950’s and 60’s. However, he also wanted to participate in the great missio dei, the mission of God to liberate and redeem all of creation, and, well, what can I say but the missio dei needs powerful people.

            Yes, we may be afraid when we decide to get into God’s mission of liberation and redemption. In fact, we should approach the great throne of God with more than a little fear and trembling, but let’s not let that fear stop us from accepting the liberating power of God. Rather than leading to the worldly folly of greed, malice, and lust, the power of God works in us so that we can have power over the temptations of our culture. Accepting the power of God moves us while still amidst our folly to overcome our fear and participate in the holy missio dei.

            Dear friends, God did not wait for King David or King Solomon to be perfect before God began using them for God’s great mission. And what about Moses before them? While Moses was a prince in Pharaoh’s corrupt court in Egypt, he murdered a man, and yet God still used Moses to lead the Israelites out of their bondage and embark on the great exodus to the Promised Land. Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho who betrayed all her neighbors to the invading Israelites, but God still used her to help set up the sabbath communities where widows, orphans, and strangers would be cared for. And who could forget how Paul locked up Jesus’ followers and thought it great fun when they were stoned to death. That didn’t stop God from busting into Paul’s life, messing him so much that he blacked out for a couple weeks and then started answering to a different name.

            Our worldly folly does not prevent God from busting a move and delivering us from the tempter’s snare. We get caught up in our security and safety and a life where nothing surprising can ever happen, trying so hard to live out a life that doesn’t need God, turning away the unaccompanied immigrant children, ignoring the disheveled street people, and denying our LGBTQ sisters and brothers the opportunity to marry with the blessing of our church. We are so caught up in playing it safe that we are caught in the same fear and folly that we were trying to avoid.

            But fear not, sisters and brothers! God doesn’t wait for us to get it right to work the holy missio dei in us and around us. God’s love is so great that Jesus Christ, the holy Son of God, lived and died amidst worldly fear and folly so that all of creation, even you and me, might know salvation, liberation, and redemption. There’s no mountain too high, valley too deep, or expressway too busy that God’s love in Jesus Christ wouldn’t cross to save, liberate, and redeem all of creation, even you and me. In the words of the apostle Paul, written once he had recovered from that nasty blackout, “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.” Not even Solomon’s corrupt politics nor his daddy’s crooked wheeling and dealing can stop God’s love from blessing them from blessing the world around them. That is the power of God’s love!

            So let us seek power, dear friends, not the power that leads to folly and fear, but the power of God’s love which organizes us for the holy missio dei. With the power of God’s love organizing our lives, fear and folly lose their corrupting power. With the power of God’s love organizing our church, no walls can exclude any of our sisters and brothers from Christ’s body. With the power of God’s love organizing our world, all widows, all orphans, all strangers, indeed all of God’s creation will be reconciled and redeemed back to God and to each other. Praise God almighty! Amen.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Weeding the Kingdom of God

Crabgrass: the demon weed from the 7th circle of hell.
(Photo credit Michigan State University)
Let me tell you a golf story. Well, at least it takes place at a golf course. The summer after I graduated from college, I worked for the maintenance crew at a resort and golf course close to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I was primarily raking leaves for six weeks when my boss gave me a new assignment: weeding. Now being the son of a self-employed landscaper, I know the ins and outs of weed removal, but this was a different brand of weeding. See, there had been an infestation of crabgrass in the first cut of grass around couple of the greens—it’s called the “fringe”. My boss was baffled at how the crabgrass had snuck into the fringe of several greens, but she sure didn’t want it there for the big tournament in the middle of August. However, she also didn’t want any holes in the fringe where the crabgrass used to be. The first commandment in golf course maintenance is to keep greens smooth so that the golf ball can roll naturally. That meant that I had to remove each piece of crabgrass individually with a pocketknife and fill in each little hole that I had created with sand and a bit of grass seed.

         I spent almost two weeks doing this—kneeling on the fringe, using a pocketknife to remove individual blades of crabgrass, filling each little whole with sand—so that golfers would never know that somehow the crabgrass had been there. There was one day I spent 12 hours doing this. I called that number 11 fringe “the seventh circle of hell”.

            A landowner sowed good seed in his field; but while everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well...

            If I started with a story about golf, then this parable from Matthew 13 is a story about weeds, which means, of course, that it isn’t. Jesus knew that to get through to his audience in 1st century Palestine, he had to talk about agriculture. And he knew how to tell good story, too. When he told this parable about the wheat and the weeds, I can picture the people, many of whom are migrant farmworkers, cringing at a story about weeds among the wheat. They’d especially cringe at the mention of this kind of weed, too. See, the word which is translated “weeds” or “tares” in English can also be translated as “darnel”, which looks an awful lot like wheat. In fact you can’t even really tell the difference between the two until they produce grain. It’s pretty important that you don’t mix the grain of wheat and darnel, too, because darnel has the tendency to attract a fungus that quite noxious when eaten by humans, even fatal at times. So you see, the landowner had quite a problem on his hands, and the poor slaves would have been the ones to painstakingly separate the noxious darnel from the useful wheat. Perhaps with a pocketknife, going plant by plant, for maybe 12 hours a day, for acres and acres in the hot sun. Yes, cringe I’m sure Jesus’ audience did.

            But you know what? Sometimes you just have to pull those weeds, you know what I mean? You can’t have crabgrass on the fringe around number 11 green, and you can’t mix darnel with wheat. You just gotta do what you gotta do.

            Let’s look at this allegorically, a little like Jesus did. Sometimes we can’t leave the children of the evil one among the righteous. After all, scripture also says not to associate with nonbelievers and people who are just gonna bring you down. In the church we call some moments like this “reform”. Martin Luther was a master metaphorical weeder. He was obsessed about whether he was a child of the evil one or one of the righteous, and the church as it was in the 16th century couldn’t resolve his anxiety. There are stories about how Luther as a young man would do confession with his priest, think, “Wow, that was a great confession,” and then immediately run to the back of the line so that he could confess the sin of pride.

            Of course Luther also looked around his beloved church and saw extreme corruption. See, back in Luther’s day the Vatican was building St. Peter’s Basilica off of people’s anxiety about the eternal life of their loved ones.  For a price, folks could get priests and monks and nuns to pray for the souls of specific people, thus shortening their time in purgatory and getting them into heaven faster. They were called “indulgences”, and it was the snake-oil fraud of the 16th century church. Luther saw indulgences for what they were, and so he boiled down Christian doctrine to his slogan “sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia”. That is, scripture alone, faith alone, and grace alone, and that’s how the Reformation began with some theological weeding.

            Methodists were metaphorical weeders when we began, too. John Wesley experienced a severely watered-down faith at Oxford in the early 1700’s, and so he too went back to the basics. Wesley often said that he was trying to emulate the early Christian communities of Acts and the New Testament epistles with the Methodist societies he helped organize. Like Luther, Wesley loved his slogans, too. Probably the most famous were his “3 Simple Rules”: do good, do no harm, and stay in love with God. And Wesley wasn’t afraid to weed out folks who weren’t putting a good faith effort into the Methodist way of life. Back in the day, if you wanted to go to a class meeting, you had to have a ticket, and I’ll be darned if you could get past good ol’ John Wesley if he had taken away your ticket. Call it Christian accountability, if you will. I, being a landscaper’s son, might call it Wesleyan weeding.

            The slaves said to landowner, “Then do you want us to go and gather the [weeds]?” But he replied “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest…”

            Now, hold up. When Jesus breaks down his own allegory he identifies the landowner as the Son of the Man, which means Jesus. So that means Jesus is telling folks not to weed. Just when I had my pocketknife and bucket full of sand together, Jesus comes and tells me that should leave that crabgrass in the number 11 fringe. I’m honestly pretty happy about that because I hated that job, but what gives? Everybody knows that you can’t have crabgrass on the fringe, and it’s downright irresponsible and dangerous to have darnel among the wheat. So come, on, Jesus. What’s your game here?

            I’m gonna confess something here, friends. Sometimes I get a little over-exuberant about weeding. It’s just that I focus on one task at a time; I do that one task really well before I move on to the next task. So sometimes when I get to weeding I start yanking up every last little plant that seems just a little out of place. It’s my job, right? But here’s the thing: even though I’m a landscaper’s son, I didn’t plant this flowerbed. I don’t know exactly how it’s supposed to be, so that means I need be quite careful about weeding in someone else’s flowerbed.

            Dear friends, we are merely stewards of God’s great garden of creation. In the second creation account in Genesis, God put the first human in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. But the human didn’t plant the garden; God did. The human didn’t know what was supposed to be in the garden and what was a weed; God had to tell the human what to eat and what not eat, specifically that one tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Even though our mythical ancestors were driven out of that first garden, we still inhabit God’s garden today. That means we better be careful about how we weed God’s garden.

            That means we better be careful when we go to further and further lengths to extract fossil fuels from deep within the earth. We build our oil rigs further into the ocean, and somehow we are still shocked when something goes wrong and 4.9 million barrels of oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico. We develop new technologies that hydraulically fracture shale formations, that is intentionally causing mini-earthquakes, to collect natural gas, and we are somehow still perplexed when people’s tap water becomes flammable. More people than ever before are burning these substances and emitting all kinds of gases into the air, and then we still argue about whether our climates are changing because we raced past the scientist-recommended 300-parts-per-million ratio of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We better be careful about how we are weeding God’s garden.

            Now Jesus specifically says that his allegory is about people, so we better be careful when we start weeding out people, too. In Gaza the Israeli army is currently trying to weed out Palestinian militants by shooting missiles and marching in heavily armed soldiers. In the United States many people are trying to weed out undocumented immigrants, including unaccompanied children who showed up at our doorstep to escape the poverty and violence of their home countries. In our churches, many people are trying to weed out LGBTQ sisters and brothers, that is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer folks, from leadership and from marriage. Dear friends, don’t we know that when we are weeding out people we are violently wrenching our fellow children of God from God’s garden of life? Or are we so blind that we insanely dig and tug and yank every last weed we see in God’s garden even though we cannot see the things that make for peace? Let anyone with ears listen!

            Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”

            The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…what? A weedy field of wheat? A mustard seed? Maybe some yeast? Come on, Jesus, speak plainly! I don’t have time for these parables when there is so much darn crabgrass on the number 11 fringe.

            So let anyone with ears listen. When God gave the Israelites the laws in Sinai, God told them to especially care for the widow and the orphan and the stranger. We’ve got some widows in Gaza today and we’ve got some widows on the South and West Side today. We’ve got some orphans who are traveling to our borders for the hope of a better life. We’ve got 11 million strangers who live among us without any official documented status. How are we caring for them?

            And when the disciples tried to shoo away the little children who wanted to see Jesus, Jesus welcomed the children and blessed them. And when Jesus ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, Jesus said that the last will be first and the first will be last. And Jesus shocked the disciples by saying that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven…but with God all things are possible.

            So you know what? Let’s freely admit that we don’t know exactly what the kingdom of God looks like. It doesn’t make sense to us. It runs counter to so much of our middle class, American dream, and if I can’t just pull some crabgrass out of the fringe of the number 11 green, well, I don’t know what to do. Maybe we should just let the weeds grow up with the wheat and let God sort it out, because I just don’t know what to do. It’s such a big mess that only God can clean it up at this point.

            And so Jesus says, “Yeah, that’s the start of what I call repentance. Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.”

Sunday, June 29, 2014

No Taming This River

(Preached at the Historic Methodist Campgrounds of Des Plaines, June 29, 2014.)

When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst,I the Lord will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys;I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive;I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together,so that all may see and know, all may consider and understand,that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.

-         Isaiah 41:17-20

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and God’s servants will worship God; they will see God’s face, and God’s name will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
-         Revelation 22:1-5

These passages—the one from Isaiah 41 and the other from Revelation 22—are pretty special to me. They were both read at my wedding, which occurred only four weeks ago. I know, I know—not traditional wedding scriptures. No 1 Corinthians 13 of “love is patient/love is kind” fame or 1 John 4, which declares that God is love. It’s not even the wedding at Cana, which is recounted in the beginning of the gospel of John, but that one would have been weird at my completely dry wedding. Nope. My wife, Kacie, and I chose some prophecy for our wedding.
The Susquehanna River in the background
of the Fort Hunter lawn where Kacie and I
were married. (Photo credit Doug Austin)
Ok, so we didn’t really choose these passages for their prophetic prowess, though it’s pretty cool, too. We figured out our wedding scripture by looking around us when we did our site visit at a country park called Fort Hunter, just north of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. See, we got married on the lawn between the old Victorian mansion of the park and the Susquehanna River. It was the river that inspired us. I grew up beside that river—the mighty Susquehanna, which divides the state of Pennsylvania between east and west (and Eagles and Steelers, if you follow football) and upon which no boat bigger than a flat-bottom motor boat can travel. It starts somewhere up in the hills of New York and then cuts through the Northern Tier and coal country, going past my little one-traffic light hometown (which is one more traffic light that it had when I was living there), surrounding the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, which nearly blew up in the late 1970’s, and finally empties into the Chesapeake Bay down by Annapolis, Maryland. It’s a beautiful river, even if it’s not particularly useful for shipping like the rivers of the Midwest. It also passes Lewisburg, the town where my overeager Methodists in central PA like to think Robert Lowry wrote the hymn “Shall We Gather at the River”—he did have a house there after all. Too bad Lowry was Baptist  and actually wrote the song with different lyrics about a church in Brooklyn. It’s nice story, though, and it’s a nice river, too.
But I’ve seen the Susquehanna show its untamed side, too. In 1996 after hard winter with a blizzard or two, the high river and its ice took down a span of the Walnut Street Bridge in Harrisburg. In my senior year of high school the remnant of an Atlantic hurricane whipped up the river until there was 6 feet of water in the square of my hometown. I recall folks fishing there, where cars usually parked to pick up their pizza at Zeiderelli’s, though I hope they didn’t eat whatever they caught, considering the sewage treatment plant was less than a hundred yards away. Then again, maybe that’s why Zeiderelli’s had a limited-time-only small-mouth bass pizza that autumn. Hmm…
There’s no taming rivers, really. There’s always been that tension about rivers, and water in general. Get too much, you’re knockin’ on Noah’s door. Get too little, you join Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. Of course, all the great civilizations of the ancient world—the ones that started building their cities 20,000 years ago—were by great river systems. Egypt had the Nile. The Chinese had the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. Mesopotamia in the Middle East was the land “between the rivers.” The rivers brought not only the water which no human can live without but also the rich silt of dirt that accumulated as it flowed inexorably down-hill. In fact, many of these civilizations were successful at early agriculture because their rivers regularly flooded and renewed the soil with its floodwaters. Maybe that is to say that untamed flooding isn’t all bad.
However I know that you all have a pretty tense relationship with your river, too. You already know that there’s no taming this river. The mighty Des Plaines River has left its mark on your little civilization here at the Historic Methodist Campgrounds. I remember when I first came here last summer. The mud was mostly dry, but it was still visible in the grass and on many of the cottages. I understand many of you have been in the process of putting your cottages on stilts, and I understand that some of you didn’t make those stilts high enough for those untamed Des Plaines River floodwaters. I understand that these floods were supposed to be hundred-year floods, and they occurred twice in 5 years. Still, let’s praise God that we can meet in this tabernacle of the Lord without floating around in anchored dinghies. I’m confident that God would meet us nonetheless, but I’m glad that God has kept the ground here dry, at least for today.
What do we make of these untamed floods? How do we understand these watermarks five feet above where we stand or sit now? And if God is the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omni-benelovent God that some our doctrine declares God to be (hope you don’t mind me getting theological in here), what does it mean that God doesn’t tame these floods? My seminary professors say that these are issues of theodicy, coming from the Greek theo, which means God, and diche, which means justice. So we are treading in the untamed waters of God’s justice now, and the water looks as murky as the Des Plaines river floodwaters.
Pat Robertson, that sage of the 700 Club who told New Orleans and Haiti that their natural disasters were because of their deals with the devil, might say that these floodwaters are sent directly from God to punish unrepentant sinners. Then again, Pat Robertson also recently said that tattoos were worthy only of heathen. If Pat Robertson is consistently right, then you have word of God coming to you from a heathen today. Well, I was taught to respect my elders, but I don’t respect Pat Robertson’s theology. I don’t respect Pat Robertson’s theology because, as some of my African American colleagues would say, the Lord God Almighty is no respecter of persons. That is, God will work good things in us and through us flawed humans despite our sin. That is, God will take the weakest parts and honor them the most. That is, God will redeem even the greatest sinners, like maybe some Roman soldiers whose job it was to crucify uppity Palestinian Jews, and transform their most terrible instrument of humiliation and death, like maybe some old rugged cross from the reign of Emperor Tiberius, and make the most glorious symbol of victory, justification, and grace in the history of creation. Let’s give God some praise for God’s untamed river of redeeming grace!
Now I love praising God. It’s one of my most favorite things to do, whether it’s an old Charles Wesley hymn like “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”, or it’s an African American spiritual like “Go Down Moses”, or it’s some praise chorus fresh off the pen of David Crowder. Coming together to praise God is so good, we can rise up from these murky floodwaters into that third heaven that Paul visited long ago. I’ve heard experiences like that called “mountaintop” or “burning bush” moments, and if you haven’t experienced one yet, I pray that you will, because it is so good. Fresher than the freshest spring, sweeter than the sweetest honey, warmer than the warmest sunlight. Hallelujah!
Here’s the thing: we don’t spend all our lives in the third heaven. In fact, we’re really, really lucky if we get to spend even one nanosecond up there. No, dear friends, we spend nearly all of our earthly time here on earth, often stuck in the mud or trapped in floodwaters. So, to repeat an earlier question, where’s God’s justice in the floodwaters of this untamed river?
Let me drop a bomb on you now that sends a shockwave more powerful than any thermonuclear warhead our military or any other military can hope to build. God’s justice is not our justice. You might be shell-shocked now, so let me repeat that. God’s justice is not our justice. Just to make sure it’s getting through that Lake Michigan fog, say it with me: “God’s justice is not our justice.” No! It’s not! And let’s praise God for that! God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s justice is not our justice. God doesn’t throw away black and brown and poor folks into jail for profit or for election-day boasting. God doesn’t sentence minors to a lifetime of prison rot. God doesn’t execute folks whose innocence would be proven with just a little more effort. No, dear friends, God’s justice is not our justice, praise God! Hallelujah!
See, dear friends, God’s justice does actually flood us. God says, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Yes! Maybe God’s justice really is in those untamed Des Plaines River floodwaters, just not the way Pat Robertson thinks. See, God doesn’t want us to suffer, and God doesn’t make us suffer. Why would God want to do that when we humans are so good at making our own sinful selves suffer? No, God’s not in the suffering business, but God IS in the redemption business and the repentance business.
When our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ started his ministry in northern Palestine 2,000 years ago, he said, “Repent! For the reign of God has come near.” That word for repent is the Greek metanoia, which more precisely translated means to “re-orient” or “re-center”. It’s like when we’re caught in water over our heads, and we get off course. When I was in Boy Scouts, we always started summer camp with a swim test. I was always finished the test strongly, but I was always swimming off course for whatever reason. I always felt bad for the Boy Scout swimming next to me because he was in danger of me strongly swimming directly into him. I needed somebody to “re-orient” me so I could finish the test. I needed to repent of my wrong course so I could get to the place where I needed to go. That’s what repentance is about.
Dear friends, maybe the floor under our feet is dry today, but let’s confess that we are awash in the floodwaters of sin. We need to repent. Yesterday marked the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots which took place in West Greenwich Village of New York City, and today a million people are gathering on the North Side of Chicago for what is known as the Pride Parade. Maybe you don’t like some things that are part of the Pride Parade, but you probably don’t like some things in the Bible, too. If you think that you do like everything in the Bible, then I challenge you to read the Bible more closely. Then I challenge to check out Pride again. Because the men and women of Pride know some stuff about repentance. They know what it’s like to repent of the isolation and shame and endless bullying that they suffered for years. The real question is when will the rest of us repent of our idolatry of the white, heterosexual man who has the body of an underwear model and the bank account of a hedge fund manager. When we repent of our sinful idolatries and truly worship God the way God calls us to—that is, by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God—then maybe we too can celebrate the new heavens and new earth that God has prepared for us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
So even when we are in the midst of murky floodwaters, let us praise God for justice that cuts through the clouds like a ray of sunshine. Let us praise God for throwing us a life preserver was the river rages around us. And let us even praise God for that lovely untamed river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing untamed from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of North Halsted Street in the city of Chicago. On either side of this untamed river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, but especially at the end of each June; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations, but especially for these United States of America. Nothing accursed will be found there in Chicago any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in Chicago, and God’s servants will worship our most gracious and loving God; they will see God’s face, and God’s name, “I am what I am,” will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night where innocent people get beaten up just for being who they are; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

May it be so. Amen.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Act. Reflect. Repeat.

Preached at First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple on May 24, 2014 on Acts 17:22-34.

I have a confession to make, First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple. I’ve been cheating on you with another internship. No, no, let me finish. It gets worse. My other internship is with a campus ministry…sponsored by the Episcopalians. And the Lutherans. Yes! There it is, out in the open. Let me explain…
             I’ve been on staff at South Loop CampusMinistry since early 2013, and it’s been an exhilarating roller coaster ever since then. See, the pastor of First Trinity Lutheran Church on the South Side started working as the official campus pastor in 2012, and he offered me, a professing Methodist, a job. I’d been attending his church for a couple years, and I figured that if someone would pay me to work with college kids, I better take the offer. The thing is that Pastor Tom needed some help. See, one program he had started was a free community meal on Sunday nights at Grace Place Episcopal Church. I guess Pastor Tom remembered his days as a college student and figured that if you cook it, they will come. Well, they came, but they happened to be homeless folks from the South Loop and not students. Somehow he didn’t see that one coming.
            Instead of casting out the homeless folks, he had dinner with them. It was small group, and one night
Takin' it the stairwells at Lower Michigan
with South Loop Campus Ministry.
they had so much food left over that he and a few other people packaged the leftovers into plastic bags and wandered into the streets to see if anyone would take food from a plastic bag being carried by strangers. The answer to that quandary is yes, and that’s how SLCM’s “Takin’ to the Streets” program began. We still have free community meals at Grace Place, but now we only do them on the last Sunday of the month. We focus a lot more on preparing 60 bagged lunches of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a piece of fruit, a small bag of chips, and a doughnut from a friendly local bakery. We walk with a couple carts overflowing with paper bags up State Street and then down to Lower Wacker and back, offering food to anyone we encounter along the way.
            Then, when we get back from our 2 mile journey through the Loop, all the time looking for the people that society tries to ignore, we get to the really exciting part. We evaluate our experience. We borrow our evaluation structure from community organizing, and we do it in three parts. In the first part, each person shares one word that sums up what that person is feeling after the evening’s experiences, after which we open discussion for unpacking people’s words. The second part is what we call points of tension. When did you feel tense throughout the night? It’s very rare that a Sunday evening passes without some tension. I mean, really, just wandering into that subterranean mess of streets beneath the Loop is enough to put your stomach in a knot. We call the last part our “theological learning”, which corresponds with community organizing’s “political learning” which ends most meetings. Theological learning means anything you learned about God, faith, or even humanity, because we recognize that some people aren’t well practiced in looking for God. Then we pray.
            So let me recap this program for you. We act. We reflect. Then we repeat.
            This action-reflection model is called “praxis” in some academic circles, and it’s how we do theology at SLCM. It is also, historically speaking, how we do theology as Methodists. A lot of scholars have called John Wesley a praxis theologian, and that’s why the United Methodist Book of Discipline, our official church rule book, has “a theological task” instead of a distinct confession or catechism. Methodists act, then reflect on what we just did, and then we repeat, only a little more perfectly or holier than the previous time.
            So in the spirit of praxis, I really want to join the Athenians in heckling Paul. Maybe not for the same reasons as the rest of the crowd in Athens, but dude, Paul, can’t you see that your speech just didn’t work? Let me set the scene a little bit more. Paul has been traveling around the Aegean Sea to different cities proclaiming the lordship and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and he’s been getting into a lot of trouble for it. The keepers of first century civil society keep putting him and his comrades in prison to stop his blaspheming against the emperor in Rome—or at least to stop bothering people in the marketplace. In fact, Paul’s hosts in Beroea sent him to Athens because his own people, the Jews, were going to politely ask him to shut up before they impolitely shut him up.
            Now Athens was a different kind of town than the other places Paul had visited. It was a college town, and it attracted people who liked to learn for the sake of learning. Basically, Paul had been in the South Shore, and his friends gave him bus pass to Hyde Park. The Athenians at this point were an open-minded, academically-inclined bunch. Sure, they had forcibly poisoned Socrates a couple hundred years earlier, but they had matured since then. They even had a place called the “Areopagus” for crazy religious fanatics to entertain them. You know, crazy folks like Paul. So Paul got into Athens, did his Jesus thing, and the open-minded Athenians said, “Hm! This guy seems crazy to us. He would be perfect for the Areopagus. Let’s give him a soap box and let him go to town.” And so Paul did, and the Athenians politely humored him, at least until Paul started talking about how they would be judged by a man whom God has appointed and resurrected. That’s when the less polite Athenians, probably the ones who were only there for the extra credit for their religious studies class, started heckling him. Some were polite, but Paul had had enough of this over-educated crowd and left. Clearly Paul had not gone to the same evangelism workshops that I’ve gone to.
            Then again, maybe any critique I have of Paul’s performance at the Areopagus is really about my hang-ups with Christian evangelism and not about Paul at all. I grew up in rural, central Pennsylvania as a very active member of my little United Methodist church in Marysville, and I became quite evangelical by the time I was a teenager. I even once turned down a romantic relationship by using the excuse that I wanted to focus more on a revival in my high school. Yes, I was one of those people. I continued in my holy rolling ways during my freshman year of college in dormitory hall of drunks, potheads, and other inhibition-less people. By my second semester, I was ready to start witnessing to them. I had a pretty good relationship with one atheist engineer two doors down—his name was James—and I got my opportunity to witness to him one night while I was on crutches and I had his sympathy. We went to the cafeteria for a late supper, and I started questioning him about why he didn’t believe in God. And you know what? My hallmate didn’t want to talk about his atheism. Drats! Foiled again! I kept trying to bring up the subject again, but all James wanted to talk about was how difficult it was to maintain a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend. Girlfriend, shmirlfriend, James. Don’t you know that your soul is in peril? Flee from the wrath that is to come, James! Fleeeee!
            I had my evangelical Christian agenda, and it was not meeting my hallmate’s need for care and support that night. James didn’t need an evangelist. He needed a friend, and I wasn’t being a very good friend. I was lucky that a year later when my somewhat long-distance relationship fell apart, I did have good friends who were willing to give me the love and support I needed. In the middle of a deep, dark depression my friends brought me bit by bit back into the light. They were witnessing to me through their actions of care and love and support. They were preaching the good news to me.
            You know, Paul got this kind of good news once, too. Not the proclamation kind, but the knock-you-on-your-keister-and-accept-help kind. Back when Paul was still known as Saul and was holy rolling his way through Judea, putting Christians in prison and generally being a jerk, Jesus came and literally knocked him on his keister on the road to Damascus.
            I don’t think Jesus gave Paul all the instructions that he gave his disciples the night before his crucifixion, but Jesus still got the point across. “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” That’s one of the things Jesus told his disciples in the upper room that night long before Jesus revealed himself to Paul. “They who have my commandments and keep them…” Jesus only really gave one commandment that night to his disciples: “Just as I have loved you, you also ought to love one another.”
            Love one another. Maybe Paul received some tough love on the road to Damascus, but he got the more caring, supportive kind of love from the Christians in Damascus. They housed him and fed him and cared for him while he was sorting out his life. Even though this guy, still known as Saul, had a record of Christian’s lives living hell, they still loved him. Paul witnessed the good news through the loving action of that Christian community in Damascus, and so he witnessed Christ among them. That love brought Paul out of the darkness and bit by bit back into the light.
            One maxim I’ve learned about preaching is to avoid preaching what I don’t know. I shouldn’t try to make gleaming metaphors about astrophysics and faith because I barely passed my behavioral statistics class. I’ll leave the astrophysics to my dear friend Elizabeth who is getting her PhD in that field, and who was a great friend when I needed one after a certain nasty breakup. So I’ll leave astrophysics to her. I can, however, preach about love because I have witnessed an awful lot of love. I have witnessed love in the support that my family and friends give me even when I act like a knucklehead. I have witnessed love in how a little Lutheran church on the South Side welcomed me as a Methodist missionary and let me live in their former parsonage for nearly four years. I have witnessed love in how my fiancĂ©e, Kacie (who will be my wife in one week), is okay with me preaching tonight even when we still have SO much to do between now and our wedding.
            I have witnessed love among you, too, First United Methodist. I have witnessed love in how you help each other out when in hard times, like when someone’s mother dies or when finances are running really low. I have witnessed love when you not only provide a free breakfast for homeless guests on Saturday mornings but also when you cross lines of economic class and really listen to someone’s story. And I am witnessing love as you struggle with how to care-fully, that is, full of care, host marriages of same-gender-loving people in your building. These are acts of love, and they preach volumes about who God really is.
            Friends, we can love because God first loved us. That love very often comes through the actions of other people, but it is God’s love, nonetheless. This is God’s righteous action—to love us. As my boss at the campus ministry, Pastor Tom, likes to say, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us—me, you, and everybody else—more. And there is nothing we can do to make God love us less. God just loves us. Period.” Whether you experience that love on a mountaintop or on Lower Wacker, it’s still God’s love. God meets us wherever we are, however we are, because God just loves us.
            I think that’s what Paul was getting at while he was on his soap box at the Areopagus. He was just doing his best to witness to the love he had received from God through a faithful community of Christians. Maybe he would have done better to just get out of the way and let God love some people, but God loved the Athenians anyway. I know I would have done better back in college if I had gotten out of the way and let God love my hallmate, James, but God loved James anyway. It’s just what God does. It’s just how God acts.
            God acts. Yeah, God acts. Then we reflect. That’s what I’m really doing right now. I am reflecting on how God acts. That’s what we really do when we gather to worship. We reflect on God’s holy, righteous, and loving action. That’s what we’re really doing tonight. It’s good. It’s really good. Let’s keep doing it.
            Act. Reflect. Repeat.