(Another) Unnamed Sermon

(sermon 8/4/19)

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Photo © Ken Chuchu

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”

And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

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Imagine this scene: you’re having a conversation with someone and you’re explaining something in great detail, something important, something they really need to be paying attention to; and then, in the middle of that, the person will ask you about something completely unrelated to anything talking about. And you know that they haven’t been listening; their mind has been somewhere else. It’s all been a waste of time, ten or fifteen minutes of your life you’ll never get back. It’s annoying, and frustrating, and at one point or another, we’ve all been there.

It seems that Jesus was there, too, at the beginning of today’s gospel text. As it opens, Jesus has been speaking with a crowd of people, teaching them about the ways of the kingdom of God. And in the middle of his teaching, someone in the crowd pipes up and asks step into a financial dispute between him and his older brother, to convince the brother to split up the inheritance with him. It probably caught Jesus broadside for a moment, realizing the man hadn’t heard a word of what he’d been saying. And after he shook his head for a moment, he said to the man, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Trying to refocus the man’s attention back onto God, the subject of Jesus’ message that day. Then, he essentially offered a warning to the man to be careful what he asked for; that while wealth and personal possessions weren’t an inherently bad thing, it can lead to greed – wanting more and more, and wanting to hoard it all for yourself, and maybe worst of all, eventually leading to a false understanding of where the wealth came form to begin with. For example, if the man in the story did actually get his brother to split up the inheritance, it wouldn’t be long before he’d forgotten that this wealth had been given to him, and he’d be telling people that he’d earned his wealth by his own two hands, his own hard work and smarts.

I say that might be even worse than the underlying greed because not only isn’t it a delusional lie, contrary to facts, it ends up poisoning the mind into thinking that the self is the center and measure of the universe. Greed leads a person to think that they’re a self-sufficient, self-contained system, insulated from needing or considering or caring for anyone else, including even God. I think that’s what Jesus was getting at when he tells the story of the rich man that he ultimately calls a fool. Did you hear the man’s inner monologue in the story? “What should *I* do?… *I* will do this… *I* will build bigger, taller… *I* will keep more of *my* stuff, all for *me*… it will all be by my doing, without anyone’s help, not even God’s, so *I* will say to my soul, good job; well done, now take it easy – you got yours; let everyone else worry about getting their own….” It’s all about him and his own supposed abilities – it’s a closed system where no one else enters. He’s good at gaining wealth and building things, but his life isn’t connected to anything. His buildings are full but his soul is empty.

Make no mistake: that mindset, regardless of the specific details and wherever and in whoever it’s found, is the complete, polar opposite of the gospel. It is the complete opposite of the precepts of the kingdom of God. It is the complete opposite of Christ.

And make no mistake about this, either: the same mindset that’s embedded within that greed, the wanting to have and to keep more of everything for yourself at the expense of others who are supposedly not as important as you; is exactly the same mindset, taken to its ultimate conclusion, that’s embedded in yesterday’s white supremacist, white nationalist terrorist attack targeting Latinos in El Paso – this man who came to believe that just by virtue of the color of his skin, he had a right to kill or wound 46 people all in the name of protecting the country from the supposed threat of brown-skinned people, and preserving the supposed “whitenesss” and white control of our country. It’s the same self-centered mindset that was behind the shootings in Gilroy this past week, and El Paso yesterday, and then again, not even getting a single night’s sleep after El Paso, early this morning in Dayton. It’s the same damned mindset.

I’m not going to say much about these shootings today, because frankly, I’ve run out of things to say. It’s all been said, over, and over, and over again, and I’m just sick and tired of it. I’m done with trying to craft  another lofty sounding prayer of lament, and asking “How long, O God, how long?” because at this point, I’m pretty much convinced that God’s response to all the beautiful sounding prayers offered up after another mass shooting is to scream at us to just shut up. That our society’s obsession with guns and violence, and using them in order to solve our problems, and that our current lack of common-sense regulation of gun ownership that still respects our Second Amendment rights is just insane. God has given us the intellect and the ability to do something about the problem but for whatever reason, we don’t. So I’m convinced that God’s response is to say stop trying to pin the problem, or the solution, on me; the problem, and the solution, lies with you.

Jesus was trying to get his listeners that day to stay focused on the real truths, the real priorities that he was explaining to them. He was trying to show them that he was talking about an alternative way of living from the insulated, self-focused way the rich man in the story saw life, the way that many people in the world see life.

The way of the rich man – the way of loving self at the expense of others, leads to hatred of the other, and all manner of harm and violence against the other.

Proclaiming and teaching and living out that alternative way, the eternal way of living, is what all this is about. This church family, this building, everything about us, is geared toward proclaiming a reality 180 degrees away from that other sick, twisted way of thinking.

Here, we’re part of a church family that includes people born not only in the United States, but Mexico, Iran, and India, and Hongkong, and England, and those just the examples I can quickly think of. Members of our church family are from all different ethnic backgrounds, and while we’re predominantly white, we are multiracial. Members of our church family are from different religious backgrounds – on a given Sunday, you can find members of all three Abrahamic faiths here in this place. Within our church family and our immediate families, we represent L, G, B, T, and Q. If you aren’t here in the building throughout the week, you may not know it, but with our ESL students and their children, you can often hear laughter and a dozen different languages being spoken. God draws all of us together here, under this roof, which was raised not like the rich fool raising the roof of another barn to hoard his stuff but rather, to shelter all of God’s people under it, to offer the world a witness to the gospel truth that all people are beloved and equal in the eyes of God. We come here, to this Table, to this sacrament, this common meal shared by all, to offer witness to our unity with God and with one another; to say NO to anyone who would preach the evil of separation and division and self-centeredness and the supremacy of one race or one people over another; and YES to the kingdom of God and to the dignity, equality, and value of all of God’s children. Here at this Table there is no room for hatred. There is no room for racism. There is no room for white supremacy or white nationalism. There is no room for xenophobia, for fear of foreigners, immigrants, or asylum-seekers. There is no room for homophobia; there is no room for sexism; there is no room for self-centeredness or exclusion of any kind because here at this Table, Christ says that there is room and welcome for ALL. That is at the core of the gospel. That is at the core of what Jesus was trying to teach his listeners that day. And that is at the core of our response to the evil of white supremacy, white nationalism, and hatred of the other that has become so common in this country today.

Amen.

*Terms and Conditions (Do Not) Apply

(sermon 3/17/19)

christchurch mosque

Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

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You can hear the sadness in Jesus’ voice in today’s gospel text. First, some Pharisees come to warn him – look, we know you’re a man of God, we agree with what you’re saying, but you’re ruffling Herod’s fathers. You’ve got to be more careful – there must be some way you could continue to spread your message without upsetting or discomforting people. If you aren’t more careful, there’s going to be a backlash, and you’re going to get squashed like a bug.

It must have been the same kind of feeling that Dr. Martin Luther King felt as he was sitting in the Birmingham jail, reading the letter from the handful of local clergy telling him they agreed with him in principle, but urging him to be more moderate, not to make waves, to take things more slowly and not upset the governmental or social powers that be.

It had to be frustrating to Jesus when people wanted him to moderate and modify his message to make it more palatable. To add an asterisk, fine print, terms and conditions to the good news that God had sent him to proclaim. As he said in this passage, he knew that it wasn’t anything new; people had done the same with the prophets who had come before him, and now it was the same with him.

As he’s considering that reality, he refers to his love, and God’s love, being like that of a mother hen, protecting all of her chicks under her protective wings, and leaving none of them unprotected. It’s beautiful imagery. It’s also one of the times that we see God being described in female terms, reminding us that we always need to try to use inclusive, non-gendered language when talking about God.

But when it comes right down to it, we’ve always had trouble accepting the fullness of that image. It’s easy for us to imagine God’s protective wings for us, but many times we’ve had difficulty understanding that those wings are meant for all of us.

This morning, we’re experiencing yet another in a long line of examples of just what that sinful way of thinking can lead to. Today, God’s heart must ache along with ours in the wake of the terrorist attack on the two mosques by anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, white supremacist terrorists in Christchurch, New Zealand. Just as God’s heart ached when the local Hindu temple was broken into and vandalized. Just as it ached after the terrorist attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Just as it aches in the wake of every church burning and bombing and killing. Just as it aches every time someone tries to mistreat or threaten violence against someone else because of a difference of religion, or any other distinction.

These kinds of tragedies can only happen when we think that some of us are less worthy of being loved by God; less worthy of being under those wings, than we are. They’re only possible when people accept  this vile, obscene argument that God, the Creator and Parent of us all, loves some of us more than others; or even worse, loves some of us but some others not at all.

Some more conservative Christians criticize more progressive Christians by claiming that the progressives portray a God who’s too warm and soft and fuzzy, and that denies that God would ever exhibit wrath. Well, I think it’s in precisely these kinds of times, when we want to put terms and conditions on an unconditional God; when we want to limit which of God’s chicks are worthy of being under God’s protective wings; when we refuse to hear and accept God’s saying “No! All of them; they’re all mine!!!” – That’s when I believe that God’s wrath is real, and at its greatest. I firmly believe that whenever we try to put terms and conditions on God’s unconditional love for all people, that’s when we really risk facing the wrath of God.

As we continue our Lenten journey this season – as we recommit ourselves to hear and follow Jesus, who accepted no terms and conditions on the gospel – let’s also offer prayers for all those affected by the New Zealand terrorist attack. Let’s pour out our compassion and our love for them in this time of their suffering. And just as importantly, let’s examine our social structures, our churches, organizations, governmental systems, and public figures – anyone or anything that would proclaim a false gospel of fear and ignorance and hatred against different groups of God’s people. Let’s examine anyone or anything that would directly or indirectly incite violence against other supposedly less desirable. Anyone or anything that would say that some of us are insiders worthy of God’s love and protection, and others are dangerous “invaders” who aren’t.  As part of our Lenten journey of moving closer to Jesus and closer to the cross, let’s examine all of those people and things that would put forward this obscene false gospel of tribalism and tribal supremacy, however they might want to define the tribe. And whoever t is, and wherever we find it, let’s recommit, in Christ’s name, to having the courage to stand up against it and to call it out as the literal evil that it is – even in cases where it might cause discomfort; even if it might ruffle feathers or make for difficult conversation at the dinner table; even if Herod doesn’t like it.

At the same time, let’s recognize that this false gospel doesn’t only show up out there, in others. In ways large and small, sometimes in ways we don’t even notice, we fall into that same false gospel that there are others outside our own tribe who God cares about less, too. It’s wired into us as part of our evolutionary development; it’s part of the survival instincts encoded into our most elementary, reflexive brain functions. I fall into it; you fall into it; we all do. But through Christ, God has called us new creatures, and has called us to seeing life as God sees it.

The reality of the no-strings attached way that Jesus describes God’s love is very good news for all of us, because no matter who we are, at some point when people are trying to define tribes, and who is, and isn’t, worthy of being under God’s protective wings, we’ll all be defined as outsiders, supplanters, invaders. So in these weeks of Lent – this time of self-examination, and meditation on our relationship with God and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, let’s try with God’s help to refocus on the reality that all people are God’s people. Let’s remember the good news from Genesis that God created all human beings and called us very good. Let’s remember the good news from the gospel according to John that God so loved the world, not just part of it. Let’s remember the good news that all of us are worthy of the same love, and protection, and justice, and mercy, and being under God’s wings. All of us. No asterisk. No fine print. No terms and conditions. Not now. Not ever.

Thanks be to God.

Lord, When Was It/When Will It

(sermon 8/20/17)

Karl Barth Desk

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

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On the second floor of the library at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, there’s a big, formal, rectangular reading room. For some reason, it’s filled with an odd collection of reproduction colonial furnishings, mashed up against ultra-sleek, ‘70s-modern seating. Despite the weird furnishings, it’s still a nice, quiet space that offers a more appealing environment than the study carrels scattered throughout the book stacks. At one end of the room is the entry to a large, formal conference room; I suppose the Board of Trustees probably meet there, and at the opposite end of the room, there’s a simple, well-worn wooden desk and chair, with a little cordon between metal stanchions to keep people from sitting down at it. It really doesn’t look like anything important; you’ve probably seen nicer looking pieces of furniture in yard sales and flea markets. But people have been known to travel for miles, even from other countries, to see this desk and maybe get their picture taken next to it – because this used to be the working desk of the great 20th-century theologian Karl Barth; his son donated it to the seminary back in the 1960s, and it’s been there ever since. It was largely at this very desk that Barth wrote more volumes of brilliant, complex theology than most people could read in a lifetime, and few could fully comprehend. When I was a student there at the seminary, I’d drive in from Columbus, usually arriving a couple of hours before the evening classes would start, and I’d spend that time in the library. Sometimes, I’d use the time to finish up some last-minute homework. Other times, I’d just grab a short nap. There was a nice, thickly padded loveseat that sat right next to Barth’s desk that I’d use to try to catch a catnap, but it was just too short for me. So more than a few times, I’d glance around to make sure no one else was around and I’d kick off my shoes and stretch out on the loveseat, hanging my feet out over the edge, and resting them on top of that desk. I was really very lucky; if anyone ever caught me doing that, they’d have probably dragged me out on the quad and burnt me at the stake. But I guess I can admit it now that the statute of limitations has run out.

It always fascinated me to think about that desk, and the history that it had been witness to. I imagined old Karl sitting there, and maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer leaning up against its side, and they each have a pint of beer in a mug sitting on the desk and leaving wet rings on its leather-covered top, while they hammered out the wording of the Barmen Declaration – that amazing confession of faith written to the German churches and people in the 1930s as a witness to Jesus Christ and a denunciation of Nazism, which is now a part of our own Book of Confessions. I imagine the two of them, and their other associates, recognizing that whether they liked it or not, they were living at a critical moment in history.

The ancient Greeks recognized two different kinds of time. There was kronos, which was linear time, clock time, the way we measure hours, days, months, years. And then there was kairos, which was more about the significance of a time rather than its literal measurement. Kairos represented a particularly opportune, critical moment within which some especially important things would play out.  Sometimes, it’s very clear when you’re in a kairos moment; other times it only becomes apparent after the fact, in the rear-view mirror. Working together at that old desk, I’m sure that Barth and Bonhoeffer certainly knew that they were in the midst of a kairos moment, where they had to take a bold, vocal, and even dangerous stand to confess Christ and denounce evil in their society.

In today’s gospel text, Jesus describes the final judgment, and what criteria God used to invite, or disinvite, people to inherit the kingdom of God. As he tells it, those who are invited into the kingdom seem stunned and surprised at being told that they had – or hadn’t – actually cared for God many times throughout their lives, whenever they had cared for the poor, the sick, the oppressed. Over the course of their lives, they’d been in the midst of kairos moments without even realizing it.

Well, you know where this is all going.

I think that we’re in a kairos moment right now, one that has parallels to both Barth and Bonhoeffer’s moment around that desk, and the ones experienced by the people in Jesus’ parable. For the two theologians, the society of the time was in a period of social unrest, uncertainty, and fear. That fear bred racism, nationalism, white ethnic supremacy, homophobia, and fear of the foreigner, as people looked for a scapegoat that they could blame for all of their problems. These evil views were held by many average people, and they were fed, nurtured, even proclaimed at the highest levels of their government as well. At the same time, most of the churches in Germany wouldn’t criticize, and in many cases even supported, the pursuit of these evils, all while wrapping themselves in claims to national patriotism that put the policies of the politicians over the commandments of Christ.

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the very real, and dangerous, parallels between that time and our own. It is unbelievable that we’re now living in a time when we actually have to have discussions to explain why Nazis, the KKK, bigotry, white supremacy, and homophobia are evils that always deserve our unflinching opposition – and that those who are the targets of those evils deserve our unflinching support and help.

I want to be clear – for us, as Christians, here under this roof, this is far deeper, and far more important than just a political issue. This isn’t a Republican or Democrat thing; it’s a Jesus thing. As followers of Jesus, we’re aware of the importance of caring for, and standing up for, those who are suffering. We might sometimes ask “Lord, when was it that we helped you?” but we also know the tragic truth that on the flip side of that issue, there are people continually asking, “Lord, when will it be that you’ll help us?” and that Jesus has called us to be the agents of that help.

For their own parts, Barth and Bonhoeffer responded to being in their kairos moment in very different ways. The elder Barth continued to write, encouraging the German church to turn their focus back to Christ and his teachings, and to boldly oppose the evils of their society. At the same time, Bonhoeffer took a more direct, active role in resistance, taking part in an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Hitler that ultimately led to his arrest, imprisonment, and execution in the last handful of days of the war.

In a similar way, each of us has to listen for the voice of God to guide us in how we’re being called to respond to our moment in time. But make no mistake, every single one of us is called to respond to it in some way. We each have to discern how we’re being called to be the face of Christ. How God is calling us to resist, how to stand against the evils that we saw on parade in Charlottesville and other cities this past week. How to stand for the ways of the Kingdom of God to our families, our friends, our coworkers, our political leaders, whenever they might stray down these evil paths. We have to discern how we’re going to stand with the people who are the targets of all that hatred.

What should your response be? I don’t know – but it’s got to look like something. Maybe it will be writing good, thoughtful letters to political leaders, or letters to the editor. Maybe it will be joining together with Jewish brothers and sisters in an interfaith sign of support. Maybe it will be taking part in workshops that open our eyes to systemic and other forms of racism all around us, and help us understand a better way forward. And maybe it will be a bit bolder. Maybe it will be physically inserting yourself between a Muslim, or a transgender person who’s being abused in some public place by a bully. Maybe it will be taking part in counter-protests wherever the promoters of evil gather to spew their hate.

Our response needs to be something. Your response needs to be something, because these are truly not normal times. And it needs to look something like Jesus’ parable, recognizing that sometimes, caring for those who are suffering might look like offering a food, clothing, shelter – and at other times, it might look like chanting, carrying a sign, serving as a human shield. Because whatever the details, as people of the gospel, as the people of God’s good news proclaimed for all people, we’re called to love and serve the God who is always hiding in the face of the ones who are suffering and in danger.

Thanks be to God.