Sunday, June 10, 2018

[sermon] sometimes a family is...

Sermon for the people of St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church preached 2018-06-10

Preaching text: Mark 3:19b-35

Family values are not Kingdom values.

For us as progressive Christians, “family values” is kind of low-hanging fruit. It’s really easy to poke holes in the family values of those folks who most frequently claim them. It turns out that the families that they care about are uniform in appearance and structure. They value families that have one mother, one father, and some children. Families that look different are in fact valueless, are not protected.

So, it would be really easy for me to talk about say, the racist “war on drugs” and the mass incarceration of black men that tears apart families. Or the situation at our southern border where children are being ripped away from their parents. These actions don’t strengthen families – they destroy them.

But like I said, that’s low hanging fruit.

When we talk about family values we have to talk in layers, as Jesus does. Figuring out a coherent ethic of family requires us to look not just at this passage, but at multiple passages where Jesus talks about family. Because this passage gives us only one side of Jesus’ stance on family.

but then we look at passages where Jesus Jesus casts out a demon from a Canaanite girl at her mother’s behest (Matthew 15:21-28//Mark 7:24-30), when Jesus raises a widow’s son from the dead (Luke 7:11-17), when Jesus raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead (Matthew 9:18-26//Mark 2:21-43//Luke 8:40-56). Or when Jesus commends to his beloved disciple his mother Mary, “Woman, here is your son,” and says to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” (John 19:26-27) And it’s clear from these passages that Jesus has a strong sense of the importance of family.

The reason that family values are not Christian values is that the structure and nature of family, the meaning of family, is entirely culturally dependent.

It’s not going to be possible for us to just wholesale import something called family values from scripture because we’re talking about a society that’s different from ours, where family functions differently from ours.

So what do we mean when we say family values.

And yeah, there are people who mean no divorce, no same gender marriage, no women working outside the home, strict gender roles, father knows best. People who claim the importance of family who are actually sanctioning abuse. Family values can also be used to minimize the role of the state in say educating children about sex, or evolution, or, say, history.

So that’s not what we mean when we say family values. But we do as progressives talk about the importance of family – so what might WE mean by that?

We mean the importance of children. We know instinctively it’s wrong to separate parents from children because it’s especially harmful to children, who usually thrive better in the care of those people who’ve been caring for them for their whole lives. And we mean the things that are valuable to our children – making neighborhoods that our safe for our children, providing education for our children.

We talk about “our children” as if we collectively as a society have a stake in how our children do and the world we leave for our children – which we do.

We might also think about what the LGBTQ movement has done for the protection of our families. The ability to marry legally, and the host of rights that comes with that, including the ability to have legal custody of our children, to be with our partners at their deathbeds, to inherit from our partners, to make medical decisions in proxy for our partners. To protect our partners from deportation. I’ve said the word “partners” about sixteen times now, because the LGBTQ movement decided, strategically, to focus on certain kinds of families, families with two adults unrelated by blood bound together by love and attraction to create a family where they might among other things raise children.

Notice how when we dig a little bit the progressive version of family values also looks like it’s protecting families that are shaped in a particular way, that look a certain way, that have a certain number of people.

There’s a running joke on the internet that celebrates diverse relationships with the phrase: “sometimes a family is....” A quick search turns up, “sometimes a family is nine unrelated superheroes and an adopted teenage boy,” “Sometimes a family is 1500 moms living on an island with their daughter made of clay,” and “sometimes a family is four nerds who change into animals.”

We don’t have to go to the internet to fill in the blank, though –

sometimes a family is be two sisters and a brother keeping house (like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus) (John 11, John 12:1-3, Luke 10:38-42)

Sometimes a family is a king and his one thousand favorite women (King Solomon) (2 Kings 11:1-3)

Sometimes a family is a widow and her daughter-in-law (Ruth and Naomi) (Ruth)

All those examples are families that are connected by bonds of blood or marriage. (Those are, by the way, just the PG examples)

Of course also sometimes a family is – the church – is the punchline and where you knew I was going because you read the gospel text and know that Jesus said whoever does the will of the one who sent me is my sibling, my mother.

Sometimes a family is God and all of God’s children.

Let’s look at some of the images in the Gospel text in front of us:

Sometimes a family is a strong man who can guard his household right up until he gets tied up by bandits. Which is both a lesson for housebreakers and also for householders – maybe “don’t let the strong man get tied up,” or maybe “don’t rely on one strong man to protect your house, because if he gets bound, the whole system is shot.”

Sometimes a family is an army of demons, and the lesson for Satan’s family is, stick together, because you have no chance if you’re separate.

Sometimes a family is Jesus’ folks coming to chastise him – to try to restrain him, thinking he’s the strong man in some new, terrifying, possibly satanic family, and if they can just tie him up, that will be the end of that.

But Jesus is protected by the crowds of people surrounding him.

And sometimes, a family can be a crowd.

Jesus says, “My family is made up of those who do the will of God.” But Jesus also says, “Y’all are my family, sitting here.” This isn’t directed at the twelve disciples, but at a crowd of people so thick they make it impossible to eat. This is the crowd sitting around him, maybe even still including the scribes – whom Jesus calls to himself in verse 23 to chastise.

This is not a carefully selected family made up of the people Jesus likes best, but a group made up of all those people who happen to be around him in that moment.

We need to think about family in layers.

It’s the nature of humans to have packs, to protect those whom we love, to love some more than others. I could try to argue otherwise or argue that that’s unChristian, and maybe it is, but it’s also human nature. In John’s Gospel a Mystery Disciple is referred to over and over as The Disciple Jesus Loved. For the important moments of Jesus’ ministry Jesus drags Peter, James, and John with him – to the mountaintop where he’s Transfigured [Matthew 17:1-8//Mark 9:2-8//Luke 9:28-36], to the hilltop where he sweats blood [Matthew 26:37//Mark 14:33 – and I suppose it could be because they’re the most holy, obedient, righteous people he could find in all of Judea but we’re talking Simon “Surely I’ll Never Betray you Lord” Peter [Matthew 26:33,35//Mark 14:29, 31//Luke 22:31//John 13:37] and James “shall we rain down fire on the Samaritans?” [Luke 9:54] and John “can I sit at your right hand?” [Matthew 20:20-28] sons of Zebedee, so whatever Jesus loved about them I don’t think it was their saintly demeanor.

So yeah. We love people. We love people who are annoying and infuriating and with whom we have nothing in common, and we call that love family, and so did Jesus.

And if we’re lucky, we find people with whom we have everything in common, and we form families with them. And so did Jesus.

But at its problematic worst those kinds of family are exclusionary, and insular, and leave those without families uncared for.

Think about Jesus raising the widow’s son – for a widow, having a son was not just about hanging out with someone she loved, but a necessity for her protection and livelihood. It’s the same reason Jesus, hanging on the cross, found someone to care for his own mother like she was family.

Over and over in scripture God demands that we care for widows and orphans – vulnerable people without family to protect them.

I started by saying that family values aren’t kingdom values. The Kingdom of God is the world we’re working toward, and while I can’t name exactly what it will look like I know it can’t look like this world, where some people have families to care for them and others don’t, where some people are lucky enough to marry or be born into families that can provide them with the kind of care and support they need, and others are lucky enough to find kindred spirits with whom to form families that aren’t legally sanctioned… and some people are just alone.

So when we work towards the Kingdom of God, we have to radically expand our understanding of who’s worthy of our love.

Family looks out for each other, protects each other.

So who will look out for widows and orphans?

Who will look out for children when their parents are deported or incarcerated?

Who will look out for queer children whose parents throw them out?

Who will look out for our queer elders, whose families have been lost to AIDS?

Who will look out for homeless people, wandering alone?

Who will look out for prisoners and former prisoners, for drug addicts, for people whose families have turned their back on them?

Who will look out for those who can’t look out for themselves – for people with incapacitating disabilities, for people with severe mental illness?

And who will look out for people who can support themselves okay in material ways but are desperately lonely?

Who will look out for the crowd?

It is our responsibility as Christians to care for the vulnerable like our own family, and it is our gift as Christians to be part of the crowd around Jesus, those whom Jesus names as his own siblings, his own mother – his own family.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

[sermon] Jesus is a disappointing snake god (but an okay savior)

Sermon for the people of God at St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church, preached Sunday, 2018-03-11. Lent 4B.

Preaching text: John 3:14-21

See also:
Numbers 21:4-9 and 2 Kings 18:1-4 for the full saga of the bronze serpent.


John 3:14

Or, here’s something you don’t see on billboards or bumper stickers or posters at sporting events.

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

This is a weird, unsettling story, and we tend to skim past it in our eagerness to get to John 3:16 and 17, to “God so loved the world” and “God came into the world not to condemn the world but to save it.”

The weird story with the bronze snake lifted up,
(the weird story with God’s own child hung on a cross)
that story we tell less enthusiastically.

That story is less comforting.

Of course there are actually several stories here, acting as commentary on each other, and part of what feels so confusing about being here is that we’re thrown into the middle of several stories.

story one

One dark night, a Jewish leader named Nicodemus slipped away and found the place in Jerusalem where Jesus was staying, and Nicodemus asked Jesus some questions to which Jesus gave typically cryptic, confusing Jesus-like answers. Nicodemus asked, “How can a person be born of the Spirit?” and our Gospel text for this morning is part of Jesus’ answer.

story two

Once upon a time, when Israel had already been wandering in the desert for a long time, everyone was tired and cranky and hungry. The food was boring and terrible, water was scarce, and everyone was bored and whiny and thoroughly sick of everyone, especially God and God’s buddy Moses who had brought them on this trip.

They kicked the back of God’s seat one too many times and God turned around and said “THAT’S IT” and set poisonous snakes on them.

Then the people talked to Moses and Moses talked to God, the same conversation they’d had over and over again, “Look, everyone is really sorry about kicking your seat and calling your manna gross and forgetting that you rescued us from Israel, please please please forgive us and get rid of these snakes.”

And Moses, in his role as magician, the one with the magic staff that could turn into a snake (Exodus 7:8ff) and part the sea (Exodus 14:21-22) and get water from a rock (Exodus 17:1-7), makes a magical snake out of bronze, mounts it on a magical pole, and heals people of their snakebites.

Many, many years later, when King Hezekiah is ruling in Judah, he clears out all the idols and temples to idols he can find – uproots sacred trees and breaks sacred poles, and smashes Moses’ bronze serpent to smithereens. (2 Kings 18:4)

story three

The idea that the image of a snake could cure the bite of an actual snake is the “hair of the dog that bit you” theory – which is actually kind of how vaccines work, right, injecting a less-deadly version of an illness into the body to protect it from the heavy duty version.

It’s not a bronze bull or a silver dove curing snake bites – it’s a snake. But it’s a snake that’s not really a snake (because it’s made of bronze) and it’s also not really the snake that’s doing the healing at all – that’s God.


There are more stories being told, of course, but let’s take these three for now – the story of Nicodemus conversing with Jesus, the story of Moses’ bronze snake, and the story that a fake snake can cure a real snakebite –

and think about how Jesus is like a bronze snake.

How can an image of a snake cure a snakebite? and Why would anyone believe that it could?
How is the monstrous evil of Jesus’ crucifixion a triumph over evil?

As Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?”

There are many answers to these questions – but, like Jesus’ answers to all questions, they might be more roundabout and cryptic than we would prefer.

How can these things be?

Jesus hangs on a cross for the same reason that the bronze serpent is lifted up – to cure humanity of an evil we’ve inflicted on ourselves.

Jesus hangs on a cross for the same reason Moses didn’t elevate a bull or a duck or a goat – because the problem was snakes.

When the problem is humans, the cure is also human –

the snake that Moses made isn’t a real snake, made of flesh and blood and bones and scales and venom – but Jesus is a real human, made of human flesh and blood and bones – and venom.


We’re going to take a detour for a moment but I promise we’re coming back to Jesus’ venom.

story four

A couple of weeks ago we learned that many women were accusing Sherman Alexie, a notable Native American (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene) author, of sexual harassment. I mention Alexie because this was a Big Deal in our household, but this is, obviously, a story that’s been playing out again and again as people – mostly women – come forward with stories of powerful people – mostly men – abusing their power.

When I read about Alexie I texted Joanie (my housemate, sitting in the front pew) to say, “So, bad news about one of your faves.”

And ze replied:
oh no
oh no
oh no

Later ze said, “I guess the lesson is just not to have any heroes because everyone will ultimately disappoint you – obvious exception for Jesus.”

And I said, “Well, darn, now you’ve spoiled the ending of my sermon.”


I’ve been thinking about Joanie’s disappointment in the context of this passage, thinking about what it means to lift someone (or something) up.

We elevate things to make them visible. Those billboards with John 3:16, Moses’ snake – this pulpit. So people will see them and take note and get the benefits – the healing power of Moses’ snake, the good news of God’s love for the world.

When we lift things up it’s easy to see their rough outline – their larger than life quality – and harder to see the nuances, the fine points.

Reading John 3:16 on a billboard going 70 on I-10 is different than sitting down and reading it in your own Bible, together with all the other verses that make up Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus, which is part of the longer story that John is telling about Jesus, which is itself part of the Bible in all its difficulty and complexity.

Looking up at a bronze snake, you can see only that it’s a snake, not the imperfections in the bronze and the nicks in the sculpture, not the reminders that it’s just an object and not a god.

And God lifted up, out of this world, elevated and looking down –

that God is different from the God who came down.

When God became flesh, God took on human blood and bones and skin, human flesh and human venom –

I wanted to be able to stand here and tell you that Jesus will never disappoint you but I can’t.

In lots of ways and for lots of reasons. Jesus was forever a disappointment – to parents who expected an obedient son and got a kid who ran off in the middle of the most crowded city in the country at the most crowded time of year. (Luke 2:41-50)

To everyone who was expecting a Messiah who could cure their illness with a glance and maybe drive off Roman occupiers with lasers from his eyes.

To Nicodemus, who came to Jesus after dark to ask some questions and got a longwinded not entirely relevant answer and also a passive-aggressive dig about people who do things at night, people who do evil and hate the light (like honestly Jesus some of us are just night owls, okay?)

And besides all these pious reasons – Jesus was disappointing to people who wanted the wrong things – Jesus is disappointing because Jesus is human. To be human is to be limited – unable to be everywhere you’re needed, not having enough energy to do all the good you want to – and then there’s that human venom, too, the impatience and pettiness and even selfishness that led Jesus to snap at the disciples (too many instances to cite) and curse an innocent fruit-bearing shrub (Matthew 21:18//Mark 11:12-14) and tell a Syro-Phoenician woman that his ministry wasn’t for her (Matthew 15:21-28//Mark 7:24-30).

We’d like to think, of course, that Jesus would never disappoint us, that we aren’t like those foolish disciples, that we aren’t like those bloodthirsty zealots who wanted an armed messiah – but that’s an arrogant assumption, or at the very least naive. If we’re never disappointed by Jesus, we don’t really know Jesus all that well. We’re still looking at him from a distance, up there and out of reach.

But (you might be thinking) the Son of Man must be lifted up.

And that’s true.

And Jesus’ elevation on the cross, Jesus hanging on the tree, was the biggest disappointment of all to his followers.

Jesus being hung on a cross is a kind of being lifted up, but not the kind that’s meant to bring honor to the lifted one. The cross is a place of shame. It’s a place where people are hung as an example – not an example to be emulated, but an example to be spurned. Not, “Go and do likewise,” but “Don’t do like they did or you’ll get what they got.”

And into this place of shame, God came.

God saw that the venom of humanity – our violence, our greed, our selfishness – was poisoning us – and God’s love for us was so great that God took on our humanity – our vulnerable flesh and our venomous feelings –

and told us, poisoned by evil, to lift our eyes to the cross, where a still greater evil had hung our Lord

because ultimately, ultimately, Jesus didn’t disappoint. Rebellious preteen Jesus became obedient even unto death, and took the lead role in God’s perplexing drama.

Perplexing, because we still don’t understand how this can be, how the cross works. But while how might be unclear, but the why never is.

Because God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son to hang high on a cross for the world to see, and, in seeing, be saved.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

[sermon] Jesus' Seminar on Non-Violence

Sermon for the people of God at St. Mark Hope and Peace preached, 2018-03-04, Lent IIIB
Preaching text: John 2: 13-21

There is a lot going on in this passage. Much of it makes little sense to us, not being first century Jews, and not having direct access to the practices, sacrifices, and pieties of first century Jews.

Unlike us, Jesus was an observant Jew from a family of observant Jews,. We learn from Luke that Jesus’ family went to Jerusalem every year for the Passover [Luke 2:41], and Jesus appears to continue this tradition into his adulthood.

Jesus has come to the Temple before. But this time is different – this time Jesus notices what’s happening in the outer courts in a way that he hasn’t before.

He notices people selling animals to be sacrificed, sheep and cattle for wealthier people, doves for the poor.

He notices money changers, who are exchanging pilgrims’ money into the coinage necessary to pay the annual temple tax – which, bizarrely, is the Tyrian shekel.

It was important that the temple tax be paid with silver, and Tyre – a Northern city just outside of Jewish territory – had an independent mint that made coins that were 90-95% pure silver, the purest silver around.

Unfortunately, the Tyrian coins were engraved with an image of Melkart, the city-god of Tyre, which, since we’ve just had a refresher on the ten commandments, is obviously in violation of them – it’s a graven image, and it’s an image of a God other than the One God of Israel.

When we approach the world as peacemakers, we are called to observe the world attentively, looking for gaps in justice, places where the grace of God is needed. When Jesus comes to the Temple, he finds these places easily.

I should tell you there is some debate about what exactly upsets Jesus about this scene. I suspect that there are some details we have lost – there may have been dishonesty or corruption, since those are common where there is commerce. Perhaps people we being overcharged for sacrificial animals. Certainly the use of pagan currency to pay a tax for God’s house is offensive.

The text tells us that Jesus accuses the dove-sellers of “making my Father’s house a marketplace,” and the disciples see in Jesus a person consumed with zeal for God’s house.

They are quoting Psalm 69. It is zeal for your house that has consumed me, the Psalmist writes. The insults of those who insult YOU have fallen on ME. [Psalm 69:9]

The use of currency with a pagan God’s image is certainly an insult to God, and Jesus takes that insult personally. He is deeply angered at the misuse of God’s house, overcome by the distance of the marketplace-Temple of his day from the house of prayer for all peoples envisioned by Isaiah.

This is not what the house of God is supposed to look like.

Jesus’ zeal for God’s house is a vision of what the Temple should look like – a place where all can offer prayers and sacrifice, rich and poor alike, where no one makes a profit off other people’s piety, and a place where only God is God – not money, not the marketplace and not Melkart.

Jesus sees the house of God in a world where Israel is free from her Roman yoke, where no Roman coins of any kind are used in Jerusalem, where it’s possible to give one’s offering with pure silver, unadulterated by copper, unmarred by images of idols.

And struck by the contrast between that imagined world and the real world, consumed with zeal, Jesus searches around him and uses what he finds – fraying ropes binding sacrificial animals in place, dirty reeds that were animal bedding or straw that was their food – to create a “whip of cords.”

Jesus makes a whip and then uses the whip to make one of the most important tools of non-violent protest: a spectacle.

Jesus is an active agent – he makes a whip and drives out animals, he pours out coins and overturns tables.

It’s messy and chaotic, goes against custom and law and authority. It gets people upset and paints a picture of the upside down world promised in the Magnificat, where the poor are fed and the rich go hungry. [Luke 2:46-55] Jesus literally upsets the tables to symbolically upset the status quo and paint a vivid picture of God’s transformation of the world. The marketplace world and its marketplace values will have to go if there is to be room for God in God’s house.

So to recap, Jesus’ seminar in nonviolence has so far covered these steps:
First, look at the world with attention, and notice the specifics of what’s happening around you.
Second, compare that world with God’s vision of the world as it should be
Third, look around again and find the tools that are handy to
Fourth, Create a ruckus

That ruckus should be created with purpose, of course, designed to symbolize or signify the new order we imagine.

For us, the question might be, “What will this look like on the evening news?”

What are the optics?

What will people see?

A whip, the chaos of animals milling about, coins poured out.

Candlelight vigil, arms linked in solidarity. Rainbow flag, rainbow facepaint. People sitting in the road, blocking traffic.

Water cannons, pepper spray, dogs attacking protesters. A bloody execution.

Wait, what?

Part of the strategy of nonviolence is to turn violence on itself. Nonviolence anticipates retaliation and welcomes it. We know that authorities will escalate unreasonably, will demonstrate the irrationality and wickedness that are at the core of oppressive power structures.

In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. writes, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” And again, “The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

Direct action is a dramatization that creates a crisis – as, for instance, a rabbi driving out animals and overturning tables, disrupting business as usual so that folks are forced to confront the flaws in the sacrificial infrastructure and cannot help but notice the person at the center of this chaos.

Matthew (21:12-13), Mark (11:15-19), and Luke (19:45-48) tell us this protest in the Temple came at the end of Jesus’ life, that it was the immediate cause of the crucifixion.

Jesus will scold the soldiers who arrest him in the Garden, reminding them of how he preached openly in the Temple (Matthew 26:55//Mark 14 48-49//Luke 52-53). We could mention also this open demonstration, designed to attract attention. Nonviolence takes place in the light of day, in the middle of the city, in the place that has (unfortunately) become a marketplace, filled with people.

Attracting the attention of the authorities isn’t safe. But it’s not supposed to be safe.

Back in John’s story, “the Jews” – religious authorities, presumably – question Jesus about the whole temple/marketplace/tables/doves thing – asking, confusingly, for a “sign,” as if Jesus protest itself wasn’t a clear sign, like they want “The Temple Is Not Marketplace!” painted on posterboard for this to be a legitimate protest. Like they want him to produce written permission from the high priest to cause a disturbance, or, like the religious leaders whom Dr. King is writing to, they’re wondering why Jesus doesn’t try to negotiate first, why he’s resorted to “unwise and untimely” direction action.

And typically, Jesus doesn’t exactly answer their question, saying, “Destroy this temple, an in three days I will raise it up.”

Like everything in John’s Gospel, this saying has layers of meaning. There’s the literal temple, still standing in Jesus’ time but forever destroyed by the time John is writing. And there is, as the narrative tells us, the temple of Jesus’ body, and the promise that Jesus will be killed, and that in three days Jesus will be raised again.

Even in John’s Gospel, then, when several years separate this event from the crucifixion, the logic is the same. Jesus does this sign – this act of civil disobedience – and signals the incoming of God’s kingdom. Throughout his ministry, Jesus gives signs – in his healing, in his teaching, in his table fellowship and in his body – of the change that’s coming.

Jesus is here d̳a̳r̳i̳n̳g̳ the authorities to kill him. “I’d like to see you try.”

And eventually they do try, and they succeed, except:

Jesus’ violent death provides an opening for an even more spectacular sign, an even clearer image of the new world that God is ushering in.

In the new world, peace is triumphant over violence, the temple is torn down and built up, the rich starve and the hungry eat, marketplaces become houses of prayer, and greed and hatred don’t have the final word,

Jesus’ ruckus in the temple, tables turned and money poured out, animals running amok, is a spectacular image of the upside-down logic of God’s kingdom, the kingdom promised through the prophets, the Kingdom testified to by Jesus’ mother when she sang the Magnificat.

And we are called to do likewise. To take that magnificent, Magnificat image, of God scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts just as Jesus scatters coins on the Temple floor, and to look around at the world we live in, and compare them.

When we see places where they don’t line up, where the world we have doesn’t match the world God wants for us, we’re to use the tools and images available to us to create a picture of the world flipped on its head, the marketplace brought down and the Temple lifted up – a picture so compelling that it turns heads and turns hearts, just as God is turning the world upside down.

The hymn of the day – which for the record I did not pick out – is #723, Canticle of the Turning.


Works consulted:
Keys to Jerusalem: Collected Essays by Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, on Google Books

Alexis-Baker, Andy. "Violence, Nonviolence and the Temple Incident in John 2:13-15." Biblical Interpretation, vol. 20, no. 1-2, 2012, pp. 73-96. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1163/156851511X595549.

and of course:

Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

[sermon] the veil is thin, the misuses of authority, and other spooky topics

Sermon for the people of God at St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church
All Saints Day Observed 2017-11-05

Preaching Texts: Matthew 23:1-12, Micah 3:5-12.

This is the time of year when the veil between life and death is thin.

For those of us who are a little touched – a little superstitious, a little psychic, a little mystical – it’s a thing we can feel, this time of year when the leaves turn colors, then shrivel and fall, when the first frost comes – the veil is thin and ghosts and spirits are closer than normal.

This is the time of year when pagans celebrate Samhain. This is the time of year, a medieval rabbi tells us, when “there is a night when the souls come out of their graves."

People of many faiths have noticed that this is the spooky time of year.

Which is why we celebrate All Saints Day on November 1, and the day before, October 31 is All Saints Eve – or All Hallows Eve – Halloween.

And the day after, November 2, is All Souls Day.

Some traditions draw – or have drawn in the past – a distinction between All Saints and All Souls Day, where All Souls Day is the commemoration of all the “faithful departed,” that is, all Christians who have died, and All Saints Day remembers those faithful departed who were especially good at being Christian.

We like to divide things into categories, especially when they’re scary – when the spirits of the dead are hovering, we like to be able to sort them out, make them a little more susceptible to our logic and our categories.

It is this distinction between “Saints” and “ordinary Christians” that I want to talk about with you, this All Saints Day Observed – because in life as well as in death we are fond of dividing people into categories.

In many Protestant denominations All Souls Day has been eliminated, or All Souls and All Saints have been merged, working on the assumption that all believers are saints (and of course, that all believers are sinners, even those who are saints), which is in keeping with the faith of our ancestors – the faith of Paul, who addresses letters to the beloved saints of Rome, of Corinth, of Philippi.

And, of course, in keeping with the faith of Jesus, who tells us to call no one rabbi, or father, or instructor – those titles of honor, like bishop, or pastor, or saint, that separate “ordinary Christians” from “super extraordinary special Christians.”

Jesus is addressing an audience with two parts – the crowds, and his disciples.

This is Holy Week, and Jesus has been teaching in the Temple all day, answering challenges from various factions. The crowd that greeted him on Palm Sunday has followed him into the Temple and has been enjoying the show – the overturning of tables, the parables, the arguments with Saducees and Pharisees. The verse that comes right before our passage tells us that from now on, no one dared to ask Jesus any questions. He has overawed them. And, knowing that it is Holy Week and that he is heading to the Cross, Jesus has some final instructions. There are still several more chapters of Matthew’s Gospel before the crucifixion, but this is Jesus’ last chance to address the whole crowd.

So, here is this crowd, gathering for Jesus’ sermon, and he opens by saying that they’re to follow the Pharisees’ teaching, although not their example, which is not a huge surprise – Jesus, like the Pharisees, teaches that religion is a part of life, affecting everything you do.

Jesus identifies the Pharisees who “make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long,” those who don’t just wear religious attire but make their religious attire obvious so that everyone knows that they are very religious. Their phylacteries are boxes holding scripture, designed to remind the wearer of God’s goodness and might in rescuing Israel from Egypt, and of the commandment to love and serve God with heart and soul. But in their ostentatious form they serve more to remind the viewer of the piety of the wearer, rather than to remind the wearer of his obligation to God.

Jesus enumerates the privileges that these very visibly religious people have: the best seats at dinner parties, the best seats in the synagogue, respectful greetings from everyone they meet.

And Jesus says, to his audience of Pharisees and ordinary people and his own disciples, it’s not supposed to be like that, not for Jesus’ followers. They aren’t to claim titles like “rabbi” because Jesus is the only teacher they need. They aren’t to call anyone Father because only God is worthy of that title.

The greatest title in the Kingdom of God, the title that Jesus’ followers should aspire to? “Servant.” If you try to exalt yourself, you’ll be made humble. And the servants will be lifted high.

There is a system – I would say “the old system” but let’s be real, it’s a perpetual system that reinvents itself generation upon generation – that designates some people as “holy” and then gives all sorts of material benefits to those holy people.

The way the system works doesn’t just benefit those to whom those benefits accrue, though. They are part of a system of exchange, where “ordinary people” will give extra respect to religious people in exchange for the religious people “doing their religion” for them.

There are several problems with that. It gives too much power to some people. It gives too little power to others. And most importantly, it gives too little power to God.

-It is not good for anyone to have too much power, in any realm. It’s why our system of government is designed so that no one branch has unchecked power.

There are some people who are not worthy of the authority that we give them. Like those religious leaders in Jesus’ time who put on a show of being religious, wearing the right clothes and saying the right words, but failing to do the right thing, or like the prophets of Micah’s time who “gave oracles for money,” who prophesied good things to those who gave them good things to eat.

We know that the prophet Micah comes from a small town called Moresheth, southwest of Jerusalem, and that he lived about 700 years before the birth of Christ.

The rest of Micah’s biography is found in the passage Rick read this morning. “As for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the LORD, with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and Israel his sin.”

Micah condemns a variety of people with formal religious titles – seers, diviners, and the official prophets employed by the king or the Temple to provide guidance. His complaint is that these officials have become mercenary – they will provide good news for the right price, but predict – or perhaps summon – catastrophe against the poor.

Micah contrasts the official prophets, corrupt, greedy, and cut off from God, with his own calling. Micah has been filled with God’s spirit and power, with God’s justice and might and the authority to declare God’s justice to the people of Judah.

The measure of power and authority is not in the job title “prophet” – or “teacher” or “saint” – but in the act of prophesying or teaching.

So, let me be clear, when I talk about “religious authority,” I realize that we are a church with a pastor, a bishop, a presiding bishop, all of whom are faithful and hardworking servants of God. When it comes to whether we have religious professionals, people called “teacher” or “father” or “pastor” – that ship has sailed.

And, while I think there are certain dangers and temptations that are particular to some vocations, there are also moments when all of us are tempted to let other people take care of “doing religion” for us. And those of us with some authority in the church – absolutely including lay leaders and certainly including me – must be careful with the responsibility that comes with that authority and not, well, let it go to our heads.

In a couple of weeks, at Thanksgiving dinner tables around the country, people will turn to their aunts and stepfathers and family friends and say, “You’re a pastor. You say grace.”

We are all equipped to pray. We are not all equally eloquent, but we are all equipped to give thanks to God for God’s gifts. No advanced degree or specialized vocabulary required.

Saying grace at Thanksgiving is a small thing, but there are bigger things that we are willing to let other people be responsible for. Things like building hope, and proclaiming peace, and preparing a way for the Lord.

When I say we let others “do our religion for us” I mean a variety of things.

I mean the belief in magical church fairies who come and set up chairs for events and wash communion cups.

I mean looking at religious people we admire – like the saints we remember today – and deciding that we’ll never be that brave or wise and generous, so we might as well go on being cowardly and foolish and selfish.

I mean, very concretely, the feeling of pride I had when Pr. Donna went to Ferguson three years ago, as if her marching was something I had a claim to.

And to some extent, I mean things that are individual. We are not all called to the same tasks or the same professions. We have many kinds of relationships with God.

and God has designed the Body of Christ so that we each have unique and important gifts, and lack other gifts, so that we must rely on one another.

But no one’s role is sitting passively. There is some role, some task, for which God has uniquely sanctified you – for which God has made you a patron saint.

Maybe you’re a patron saint of paperwork, or of cheerful customer service, or of driving people to church. Maybe you’re a patron saint of low-wage workers, or immigrants, or transgender people.

There is work that only you are equipped to do.

And there is work that we are all called to do. We are all called to pray. We are all called to give from the resources we have. We are all called to study scripture.

We are all called to love our neighbors with active, giving, sacrificial love.

We are all called to the communion table, and called to share its joy with the world.

When we assign teaching and prophecy and holiness to an elite group of people, we remove it from ourselves, put holiness – its power and its obligations – out there, or up there, or back there [gesture to the chancel] or, in the case of the saints remembered today, back then, completely outside the realm of the living.

But this is the time of the year when the boundary between life and death is thin. And holiness has a way year round of slipping past the boundaries we try to place around it. Holiness escapes the walls of the church, the pages of scripture, the lives of departed saints – and makes the whole world holy.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

[pride] Ours is the Task

Ours is the Task: a Litany of Remembrance and Commitment
(Written for the Kansas City Pride Interfaith Service 2017-05-31)

The core of the Litany that we’re about to say comes from the novel Wanderground by Sally Miller Gearheart.
[Gearhart, Sally Miller. The wanderground: stories of the hill women. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1984. Print. Page 196]

I was reading this novel when my friend Jeane died in 2000, which is probably why the ritual of grief that ends the novel engraved itself into my heart.

If you so believe, then so it is:
Ours is the task,
Yours is the passing.
And, although you may, you may not come again.

If you so believe, then so it is
If you so believe, then so it is

Ours is the task
Ours is the task

Yours is the passing
Yours is the passing

And although you may, you may not come again.
And although you may, you may not come again.

We gather tonight as people of many faiths and none, believers and wanderers, pilgrims and proselytes, converts and clergy. We believe in many Gods and none, in many paths to many destinations.

We believe in the transforming power of community and of faith itself.

If you so believe, then so it is
If you so believe, then so it is

We gather tonight to promise each other, our communities, our Gods and our universe that we will stand together for justice.

We are many people, of many faiths, many colors, many genders. We have many ways of worshiping, many ways of loving.

Ours is the task
Ours is the task

Ours is the task of building bridges out of our differences, weaving flags in many colors, writing poetry in many languages, learning from one another and loving those we do not understand.

Ours is the task
Ours is the task

Ours is the task of telling our stories, naming our heroes, remembering our ancestors. Ours is the task of insisting that trans women of color and homeless youth are not erased from our memory of Stonewall. Ours is the task of honoring the messy, complex identities of our forebears without collapsing them into the categories that we prefer today.

Ours is the task of reminding the world that we were not the first men to marry men, not the first women to kiss women, not the first people to realize that gender binaries can’t hold us.

Ours is the task
Ours is the task

Ours is the task of solidarity. It is ours to realize that when any people suffer, when any people are not free, when any people live in danger, we must work for liberation.

Ours is the task
Ours is the task

It is our task to be specific and fearless. It is our task to practice saying, "lesbian," "gay," "bisexual," "transgender," and "queer" precisely and clearly.

It is our task to protect Muslim women riding the bus.

It is our task to end child marriage in all fifty states.

It is our task to raise the minimum wage.

It is our task to write and speak, to remember and pray, to comfort and grieve, to protest and publicize and protect. It’s ours to give what we can from what’s been given to us.

Ours is the task
Ours is the task

Yours is the passing
Yours is the passing

Beloved ancestors: Harvey Milk, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Leslie Fienberg, Brenda Howard, Audre Lorde, women and men and queers of all genders, people of all kinds, to whom we owe our communities, people remembered and people lost to history –

Yours is the passing
Yours is the passing

Beloved ancestors who died in the closet, who never found names for yourselves, whose names we’ll never know:

Yours is the passing
Yours is the passing

Beloved generation lost to AIDS, dying fearlessly on statehouse steps:

Yours is the passing
Yours is the passing

Beloved who have been martyred recently:
The 49 victims of shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando
Gay and bisexual men murdered in Chechnya
Brenda Bostick, Sherrell Faulkner, and nine other transgender women of color killed this year in this country:

Yours is the passing
Yours is the passing

We name the horror of your deaths and the beauty of your lives, and with hope and doubt, with faith and fear, we remember you, we honor you, and in your name we say

OURS is the task
Ours is the task

Yours is the passing
Yours is the passing

And although you may,
And although you may,

You may not come again
you may not come again

Sunday, December 25, 2016

[hymn rewrite] Away in a Manger

In this humble feed trough still half full of grain,
placed there by his mother, worn out from her pain,
lies Jesus Messiah his first night alive.
Through groaning and bleeding our savior arrives.

Though Mary's exhausted the baby won't sleep.
He whimpers and fusses and then starts to weep.
With weary arms Mary lifts him to her breast,
croons, "Jesus, I love you, but please let me rest."

The baby who's crying in fresh, itchy hay,
will grow up to teach us, for he is the Way.
Christ loves us and leads us and helps us to learn
to build up God's kingdom until Christ's return.

Monday, December 19, 2016

[remarks] Building Hope

Remarks delivered at the No Divide Kansas City Social Causes Benefit Concert and Fundraiser on 2016-12-18

I am here this evening on behalf of my church. We are one of the beneficiaries of this fundraiser, and we are so grateful to the organizers for reaching out to us.

We know our church name, St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church, is a mouthful. But we try to say the whole thing when we can, because hope and peace aren’t just nice churchy words for us. They are our mission – building hope and proclaiming peace.

And we are so honored to be part of the diverse group of people gathered here today to share what building hope looks like, and to be one of the organizations whose hope-building work will be benefitted by this fundraiser.

One of the tasks of religion is to make meaning out of events, so I'm going to share some of my thoughts about the No Divide benefit, what it means for us to be here together, and what might happen next:

It’s freezing cold outside, friends, and I am so glad that you’ve come in from that cold to be in this place where we are creating warmth together.

So many bodies, here in this place, close together and lending each other warmth, creating warmth between us, sharing warmth and love and light.

Midwinter is a time when we build hope – now, when it’s bitter cold, when it’s dark, when it’s difficult. When most trees have lost their leaves, we notice and honor evergreens. When it’s coldest, we wrap ourselves in brightly colored fleece and light fires in our homes. And when the night is longest, we mark the solstice, and know that the nights will only grow shorter and the days longer. And against darkness and cold, we light candles.

For many of us who are religious, those candles remind us of God's presence with us in the world -- the God who makes one day's worth of oil burn for eight nights, the God who enters the world in a newborn infant, the God who is reborn at the solstice as the sun returns to us.

Here in this place, at this moment, we’ve come together to light candles of hope

I imagine some of you here today are teetering on the edge of despair. Those of you who worked hard campaigning for candidates who didn’t win, those who invested love and energy and hope in a vision that has been at the very least delayed, those of you whose livelihood and lives, whose homes and families, are immediately threatened by the promises that Trump has made.

If your candle has gone out, then look around, and borrow light from someone whose candle is still lit. If the anxiety in your head has drowned out every other voice, then I hope that this afternoon, you’ve been able to hear music alongside that fear, and that you will carry that music in your mind as you go back into the world.

If your hands are chapped and frostbitten with the cold, then I hope that you are able in this place to wrap them in the warmth of someone else’s hands.

If you are without hope right now, then look around, and listen. Feel the heartbeats of your neighbors, and see how beautiful all of us are together, many people, many colors, creating space for beauty against the cold --

If you are tired, borrow strength, and if you are hurting, borrow peace. If you're not sure that you'll be okay-- borrow certainty. And if you're sure that things won't be okay, borrow doubt.

borrow hope from the people around you, and know that we’ve come together today to build hope with each other.

Step into the warmth.

For many people who make building hope and proclaiming peace their life's work, it can be hard to balance the work of activism with -- well, with anything else. Self care, personal relationships, sleep.

So if you are here today as one of those people, I hope that the music and warmth of this day remind you of the world that you're working toward. That can be hard to remember too, caught up in the need to think strategically and the whirlwind of organizing and protesting and fundraising and rallying. That is incredibly important, necessary work, but it is also important and necessary that we hold onto the hope that drives us.

Hope is believing that tomorrow could be better than today. Sometimes it's only that -- "better than today" is the clearest vision that we can summon.

But for the long haul, for the justice movements that are actively, collaboratively building a new world, it's vital that we imagine that world as clearly as we can.

So whether the election has rekindled your zeal for activism or left you bereft of hope, whether you know the work that's in front of you or you're still finding your way, whether you've given your life to working for justice or attending this concert is the extent of your commitment -- or whether, like most of us, you're somewhere between those extremes -- let's all of us, whoever we are and however we came to be here -- imagine a tomorrow that's better than today:

It's so good that all of us are here, where it's warm and safe, where we're protected from the bitter cold and the icy streets. In the world we're working towards, everyone will be warm. No one will live on the streets, and no one's gas bill will go unpaid, and no one will have to choose between heat and food or medical bills. The warmth that we're sharing today is a foretaste of that future.

And it is so good that we are all able to gather here on a Sunday afternoon. In the world that we're working towards, everyone will have a sabbath -- a day to refrain from working, a day of rest. In the world we're working towards no one will have to work more than their body or mind can endure. No one will work two or three part time jobs just to keep afloat, and workers' health and safety will be more important than profit. As we rest together this afternoon, remembering the labor movement that brought us the weekend, we look towards a world where all weary people will be granted rest.

It is good to see so many bodies, many colors, many shapes and sizes, pressed together into one space, bodies hugging, bodies dancing. It's good to see and hear and feel this mass of bodies, to know that diversity is not abstract. And in the world we're working towards, all bodies are honored, always, treasured and respected. In the world we're working towards, people aren't killed as they walk down the street. In the world we're working towards, people are touched only when they want to be. In the world we're working towards, people choose what they do with their bodies. In the world we're working toward, people make choices about when and how they will have children, and in the world we're working towards, transgender people have access to the hormones and surgeries they need. In the world we're working towards, people have access to mental as well as physical healthcare, and there is no shame or stigma attached to either.

So as we gather here together honoring each other and the beautiful variety of bodies we come in, we imagine a world in which all choices and bodies and people are given honor and respect.

It's good to hear so many different voices singing, opera and roots, classical and psychedelic, new voices lifting up old songs and new songs being born in this space. Artists of all kinds -- musicians and painters, poets and dancers -- have the responsibility to reflect reality and to create new visions. And the sampling we've seen today is only the beginning -- a vision in its own right and a preview of a world where all people are free to create, to give form and voice, color and voice, shape and texture and reality, to the worlds they dream.

So as we listen to music today, we catch a glimpse of a future where no one has to surrender their dream because of the demands of practicality, a world where people have access to the education and resources they need. We imagine a world where all voices are cherished -- voices speaking many languages and praising many gods, honroing many heritages and singing many dreams into being.

And it is so, so good that we have all found our way to this city, just as it is good that Kansas City natives have been joined by people from Mexico and Burma, Somalia and Sudan.

So, friends, let's kindle hope bright and warm enough that it can be felt in Aleppo, hope that criss-crosses the world with peace.

It is good that people who grew up feeling isolated in rural America or stifled in the suburbs found their way to a city that welcomes them. It's good, that we've found our way here, that we've found the people who feel like family, the people who don't laugh at our genders or look away from our lovers. It's good that we've found our way home, and now it's on us to let the homelights burn for others.

Let's kindle hope bright and warm enough that it envelops scared, lonely queer teenagers from small towns in red states, that they might know that they're loved by strangers far away.

Let's kindle hope for those whose disabilities kept them home today, whose wheelchairs wouldn't navigate the slick streets, whose anxiety wouldn't permit them to venture outdoors.

It is good that all of us are here, lifelong liberals or zealous converts, committed to progress and convinced that the world is made better by people of many races and religions, every age and gender and sexuality, living across the street from each other, working side by side, sharing our stories and our music, our talents and our dreams. It is wonderful to see how many we are -- the people who are still here, the people who've been in and out this afternoon --

and in four years, in two years there must be more of us. And tomorrow, there should be more of us, because, "Diversity is valuable," shouldn't be a controversial opinion, because the freedom to say who we are and share whom we love and worship as we will shouldn't be limited in the United States, and in a nation that claims to be Christian, care for the poor and welcome of immigrants shouldn't be contested values.

So let's make hope that's clear enough and bright enough to be visible by people of every political persuasion. May the hope that you carry with you tonight be strong enough to open hearts and change minds, to call people into a coalition of movements that by its nature welcomes everyone.

Maybe you came here with hope, maybe this event has built hope in you, maybe you've borrowed hope from the person sitting next to you -- let's take the hope we've brought and built and borrowed, and stoke it into a bright, blazing promise of a better tomorrow, and carry it from this place into the winter night, into our homes and neighborhoods, into the whole wide beautiful world.