Sunday, October 30, 2016

Reforming Relationships: Jesus, Zacchaeus, and Standing Rock

the gospel according to Luke 19:1-10

     When I was 18, I had plans for college as many young people do.  I was registered for classes at University of Southern Mississippi an hour from home.  I had a dorm room assigned and, to my great delight, my roommate was to be one of my very best friends in the world.  I had a book list and new sheets.  I had a schedule for first week events and a date planned with a friend from a synod wide youth event for that first week of orientation…we were planning Chinese for dinner and an evening of alternative rock in a local bar…this was the 1990’s after all, we were trying our best to bring the feel of the Seattle music scene to small town Mississippi.  I was excited about this new beginning.
     But something was off.  There was a young man in my life, a member of our congregation and its youth group, who was beginning to show signs of mental illness.  We had been very good friends through our high school years, but now he was behaving erratically.  He would show up in unexpected places or call and indicate he knew things he shouldn’t have been able to know like what I was wearing at that moment or who was coming and going from my house.  Little things began to appear in places they shouldn't or disappear from places they should be.  Or he’d call demanding to know my work schedule and what I was doing after and with whom.  His self-entanglement in my personal space was feeling more and more unsafe.  And then dropped out of his university and enrolled at USM.  He asked what classes I was taking, in which dorm I would be living. Worst was how he began to really endear himself to my friends.  I began to feel as though my friends were no longer mine.  That I had no safe place. 
     So, thanks to their rolling admissions policy, the week before classes began, I enrolled at Texas Lutheran College.  I cancelled my courses and dates and roommate and plans in Mississippi and moved 10 hours away. 
I knew no one.  New city, new people, new culture.  Now the folks at the college in Texas were really nice people.  Lots of folks welcomed me.  The professors were kind.  Class sizes were small.  There was a fair amount of stuff to do even in the tiny town of Seguin thanks to the diligence of the college staff and faculty.  We even had a pastor there…and he was pretty rad. 
But I had no friends.  I had no transportation.  I had no understanding of why mariachi music should be played in the dining hall and parking lots at seemingly random times or country music blaring from dorm rooms.  I felt caught between two places:  the place I had come from and this strange place I had landed.  I felt “out there.”  I felt like I was caught on a hanging bridge.  Swinging between two worlds. I should belong in both places but really I belonged in neither place.  
     I felt alone even though I was surrounded by people.  I felt that no one understood me.  That no one even saw me. I felt lost.
     And then, one afternoon, I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I met Diana.  And this is the part that I do remember:  she looked me in the eye and invited me to dinner in the mariachi band inhabited dining hall.  And for the last 22 years, Diana has called me out of my hiding places and lost places and loneliness and into relationship not only with her but through her into relationship with the rest of the world.  And I thank God for her daily.
Luke tells us a story today about a man named Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus was also caught between two worlds. 
     He was a tax collector.  We know that tax collectors were considered sinners in the time of Jesus because they worked for the empire collecting money from the poor in order to fund the lavish lifestyle of the emperor and his cronies. In that peasant culture, if you didn’t make a living by cultivating crops or caring for livestock, you were considered a traitor to your people and a thief.   
     Luke calls Zacchaeus a “chief tax collector and rich”.  This means that he is in middle management, if you will.  He oversees other tax collectors and has the opportunity to charge his people more that the empire demanded and to keep it for himself, and he could do this kind of over-taxing through every single tax collector he supervised.  So Zacchaeus is not just a traitor and a thief.  He’s the worst kind.  He’s the ultimate traitor and thief.  And he lives luxuriously we assume because Luke tells us he’s rich.
     So, Zacchaeus works for the Romans, but he is not a Roman.  He is not welcomed at their tables or invited to their homes.  He does a job for them. 
Zacchaeus is a Jew.  But he is not welcomed at the tables of his people.  He is not invited into their homes.  He is a traitor.
     Zacchaeus is caught between worlds.  Belonging in some ways to both but belonging in fullness to neither.  He is alone even in the vast crowd.  He is lost.
     Now Zacchaeus has heard of Jesus.  He knows that Jesus is a teacher, popular with the crowds, and that he is traveling through.  Zacchaeus goes out to see Jesus.
     The crowd is thick.  The people there are desperate to see their teacher.  And Zacchaeus pushes through the crowd to see, too, but the people won’t let him in.  In his desperation to SEE what the fuss is all about, he climbs a sycamore tree and lodges himself in firmly among the branches.
     But here’s the really cool part:  Jesus walks along, looks up, sees Zacchaeus and calls to him by name.  Jesus sees through the crush of people into the heart of Zacchaeus and says, “come on down.  I need to stay at your house.” 
     Now, of course, the people grumble.  By now in the Gospel according to Luke, we’ve come to expect that we should grumble, too.  This guy is a traitor to his people, and he’s RICH…  In the upside down kingdom of God, the rich are supposed to have a very hard time.  Jesus has been preaching this sort of economic justice for chapters now.  So perhaps his followers feel justified in their anger, in their exclusion of Zacchaeus.  Maybe they think that Jesus has “lost it” a little bit.  And they complain, “why has he gone to be the guest of a sinner?”
     And perhaps because Zacchaeus recognizes that due to Jesus’ interest in him he has a platform on which to speak, or maybe because he wants Jesus to approve or maybe he just wants his name cleared or for Jesus to understand the truth (lots of possibilities here and the text isn’t all that clear), Zacchaeus says, “hey.  I just want you to know half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.”  The Greek doesn’t say “will give” but simply “give”.  And this is important because this means that Zacchaeus is already functioning in this unethical, unjust system in a just way.  He is doing his part to bring about the kingdom…living out kingdom values in the midst of the empire.  He’s pretty radical!  And very, very brave.
     But the people of his village did not recognize it. They were so angry at the system and those who participated in it that they could not see that this chief tax collector acted out of kingdom values. They blamed him unjustly for the unjust system he was a part of. As my friend Terry Kyllo says, He wasn't just short, he was short of friends.[1]
     But Jesus sees him.  All throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus sees those whom society has abused, marginalized, and cast out.  Jesus doesn’t just stumble upon them, but he seeks them out.  He surrounds himself with them.  He holds them up before others and says, “Look.  Here is my beloved.  Here is my sibling.  Here is the one, here are the ones, whom I love.”
     All throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus shows us that God is exactly not who we were expecting.  And every time we get confident enough to declare just who God says is “in” or is “out”, Jesus reforms our way of thinking about God.
     That’s a large part of our celebration today.  Not so much that we are rejoicing in a split from the Roman Catholic Church.  In fact, when Luther set out to make a difference in that unjust system 499 years ago, he wasn’t trying to begin a new church, he simply wanted the church he loved to be better than it was.  We commemorate the split from our siblings in this vast body of Christ.  But we celebrate that Luther changed the way we see God. 
     Luther recognized that he had been worshipping the wrong God…he had been taught about a God who punishes and despises us on account of our imperfections.  A God who sent his only son to be beaten up, to take the punishments that we deserve because of our wicked humanity.  Instead, through the person of Jesus, Luther began to see a God who delights in our humanity.  Who calls us “good” even when we aren’t particularly good.  A God who know us, who seeks us, who offers salvation, which means healing, through relationship with Godself…through love
     And so we are propelled through that love to build relationship with one another.
     Right now, in North and South Dakota, the people of Standing Rock Tribe are also looking for a bit of reformation.  They are protecting their ancestors’ graves, our water supply, and their sacred sites from Big Oil.  And they are doing it through prayer and passive resistance. But they are being met by police with rubber bullets, noise cannons, dogs, and sticks.  They are threatened with assault rifles and grenade launchers.  They are being arrested, numbers written on their skin, and they are locked in dog kennels.  They are being strip searched and separated from their loved ones.  Forced to sleep on concrete floors.  Sometimes the women and the children are given tarps for cover.  Sometimes they are not. They are rounded up from their places of worship and dragged through the dirt, but yet they remain committed to the protective work that they are doing.  They show up again and again every morning. 
     Because this movement isn’t only about water or oil.  It is also about the ways in which Indigenous peoples in this country have been marginalized and abused since the time of Luther’s Reformation.  It is a people calling for a nation to honor its promises and all of its inhabitants.  It is a tribe, supported by 500 other tribes, begging, no demanding that they been seen, known, and loved not in spite of who they are, but because of who they are. 
     Will we see them?  Will you see them?  See the Water Protectors at Standing Rock as beloved and valuable children of our same Creator?
     We are being called at this moment in time to reform the way this country treats its members.  Black and brown people are every bit as beloved and cherished by God as white ones are…if we read the Gospel with honest eyes and we recognize that the oppressed, the cast out, the abused, are beloved by God and are the ones whom God pulls especially close (the last shall be first and the first shall be last, remember?), we have to be willing to admit that at this point in history God is most assuredly screaming into this nation's seemingly deaf ears that Native Lives Matter and that Black Lives Matter.  And if we are indeed to be one nation under God, we must reform ourselves to God’s way doing things.  Actual justice for all.
If we are called, and I believe we are called, through this reformed church to be the hands and feet of Jesus in this world, we have to see our siblings, hear their cries for justice, and put our own bodies in motion for the in-breaking of the kingdom in the unjust system of these United States.
     Diana saw me and brought me from that place of outsider into community and into relationship which continues some 22 years later.  Jesus saw Zacchaeus sought him out and brought him salvation,  which is healing, and, we can assume, back into community.  We, the body of Christ, must see our siblings at Standing Rock and demand that they be welcomed into community and into places of respect not in spite of who they are but because of who they are…beloved by God.
     Hear the Good News:  through the person of Jesus, you are sought out, you are freed, you are forgiven, you are beloved.  And in response to that Good News, let's put our bodies in motion for the reformation of this world.  Through your actions, others just might see God.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

God Is a Woman

The gospel lesson today is Luke 8:1-8

First, I want to acknowledge that this week has been a particularly difficult one to be a woman (or a girl) in this country.  And if you are feeling extra vulnerable or extra-triggery or anxious or angry…you have every right to be.  The words we have heard in public spaces about what is acceptable to do to us or the justification of the upholding of masculine power over us have been extra prevalent this week. 
We have heard recorded conversations which would attempt to justify sexual assault by a man who is running for president of this nation.  We have witnessed the support of and justifications of his words by those who would claim to speak for God…too many pastors who are part of the religious right (religious wrong most of the time, in my opinion) are quick to insist that the words spoken by this man hold no real public consequence.  Or that they are an acceptable price to pay for his potential leadership in the executive office.   
According to the Maine Counsel on Sexual Assault, “one in five women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Nearly 1 in 2 women have experienced sexual violence other than rape in their lifetime.”[1] So know that you are not alone. If you need to talk with someone about something that has happened to you, I know Pastor Randy is available to listen, but I am available, too.  If you need my contact information, let me know after worship or contact the church office.  They’ll get it for you.
The truth is, violence against women happens not just in the context of sexual assault.  This week, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan condemned (rightly so) the video in which Mr. Trump bragged about sexual assault in part by saying "Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified."  In response, my friend Pastor Terry Kyllo said, “The last word (objectified) is certainly appropriate. Women are not objects but human beings. But really the rest of the sentence is quite horrible. First the sentence structure still implies that women are the passive recipients of the actions of others - "women are to be...." Second, the things that women are to have done to them are to be "revered and championed." I would hope that all human beings, made in the image of God, are to be revered. It is telling that women, instead of being of equal power, worth and human agency need to be "championed." While his (Ryan’s) condemnation of Trump's taped comments from 2005 is a good thing, it reveals that he and many other men, and indeed much of our whole society, live in a world of white male privilege. His wording suggests that women have less power and agency than men and that this is the natural order of things. The only difference is that Speaker Ryan's words suggest that men (should) treat women well while still maintaining power over them.”[2]
And this week, I heard more than one man say something like “as a father to two daughters, I condemn this language” or “it is unacceptable to talk this way about our mothers and our wives”.  Do you hear the possessive pronouns?  Language does matter and to speak like this denies the humanity and dignity of all women.  It should not be that we are concerned with glorification of sexual assault because we have a particular relationship with a particular woman.  We should be concerned with the way women are treated in both public and private spheres because women are made in the image of God.  We, too, bear Christ in our bodies (Galatians 6:17) so that violence against our bodies—made in the image of God—is violence against the One who created us and called us “good” (Genesis 1&2).  Women hold inherent value as created by God and called “good”.  Women are worthy of respect and voice and the total control of our own bodies—not because a particular man has a particular kind of relationship with us—but because God does.  The only one to hold claim over us is God.
Now, the gospel lesson this week is a parable.  Jesus is telling truth by shining light through narrative.  We are a people of story, after all.  And Jesus tells us about a widow and an unjust judge.  The widow comes to the judge over and over asking for justice and eventually the judge consents because he has grown weary of her pleas.
One way, perhaps the most common way, to interpret this parable is to focus on the power of prayer.  And this is valuable because it is true, prayer is powerful…although to paraphrase C.S. Lewis…not because it changes God but because it changes us.  However, the idea that God is an unjust judge or that God will only grant justice if we relentlessly beg for it is repugnant.  Over and over and over again in the gospel accounts we learn that that is precisely not the way God functions.  God is ever present to the marginalized and the poor.  And this widow is certainly both.
Widows in the ancient world were particularly vulnerable.  They are listed time and again in the Bible as those who need special protection along with orphans and immigrants.  In those days, widows were not allowed to hold property.  Her belongings and her wealth—whatever there was of it—was handed to the closest living male relative.  If there was no relative, her property was held in state, but we can be sure that those holding it had little to no regard for a widow. 
Their culture, too, was one of male dominance.  Patriarchy on steroids.  Jesus uses a widow in his parable on purpose…she would have things done to her and for her…but Jesus reveals her determination, her power, her agency.  The judge grants her justice against her opponent because of her persistence, her courage, her determination.
This widow approaches a judge who, by his own admission, neither fears God nor respects people.  Because this phrase is repeated twice in the lesson, we can assume it holds special relevance.  I agree with my beloved professor David Lose that this might just be Luke’s shorthand for the definition of justice.  “The beginning of justice, according to Jesus, is when we show our awe for God by respecting those around us, by granting them a measure of dignity, by being willing to view them as fellow children of God who are worthy of our respect and fair treatment.”[3]
The widow approaches this judge…a self-admittedly unjust person…and begs him for justice.  And by his own admission, the judge’s motivation for settling the woman’s claim is that she is wearing him out.  A fair and kind description of her actions and her qualities might be persistent, assertive, strong.  But the words we would most likely hear to describe her were she to live today, this week especially, are annoying, bossy, bitch.  A more literal translation for the reason behind the judge’s “giving in” to the widow is not that “she is wearing me out” but that the widow “is giving me a black eye”[4]

My professor says, “Like all black eyes, the one the widow's complaints threaten to inflict have a double effect, representing both physical and social distress.”  The judge is concerned that the widow’s persistence causes him physical harm and public embarrassment.  She’s shrill and annoying.  She talks too much.  The judge relents not because he has changed his mind but to rid himself of potential public humiliation.  Who wants a socially weak and outcast woman hanging around demanding things?  She is a danger to his reputation.  She’s an embarrassment.  He relents simply to shut her up.
When we look at the parable this way, it is a tale of encouragement for those of us who are suffering injustice to continue to fight for the in-breaking of the Kingdom here on earth.  To fight for justice for ourselves and for our neighbors.  It is a reminder that sometimes it takes persistence and assertion and strength to effect change in this world.  Sit-ins and boycotts and interstate closures are sometimes necessary to embarrass the powers and principalities that exist in this world in order to bring change.  And we will be called annoying, bossy, uppity …fill in your favorite demeaning-to-a-marginalized-community noun here…bitch, fag, savage, n*****.
For Jesus, prayer is an act of human agency in the midst of injustice.  For Jesus, true prayer is prayer for justice.[5]  So hear the Good News:  God is present in our struggles.  God is present in our hurt and in our suffering.  God meets us there with empathy because God knows intimately what it means to be human, to be outcast, called names, despised, and rejected.  God lives in the margins.  God is queer.  God is Black.  God is Native.  And this week especially, God is a woman.


Sunday, August 28, 2016

Jesus Teaches Knife and Fork School...or Something Like That

Luke 14:1, 7-14
A Sermon for the People
Of Messiah Lutheran Church
Montgomery, Alabama
August 28, 2016
Let’s pray.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

We read the gospel lesson every Sunday, and every Sunday, I am struck by some quality of Jesus.  He’s kind to the woman at the well, he’s angry as he cleans the Temple of moneychangers, he’s terribly brave (and maybe a bit foolish) as he is questioned by Pilate, he is clearly human on the road to Emmaus as he asks his companions if they have anything to eat.  This

Sunday, I am struck by just how smart and how good a teacher Jesus is.

As I described Jesus last night, I used the words “incredible theologian”, and then I was struck by how funny that sounds.  We tend to spend so much time tending to the divine Jesus Christ that sometimes I think we forget that Jesus of Nazareth was beautifully human as well…and so as God put on flesh here on this little planet in the first century, God was a diligent student of theology…of the study of God. 

As he studies and teaches, Jesus has this really neat way of interpreting scripture.  He does it this morning in the gospel lesson, did you catch it?  Jesus teaches the lesson from Proverbs, the same passage as our 1st lesson. 
6 Do not put yourself forward in the king's presence or stand in the place of the great; 7 for it is better to be told, "Come up here," than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.
Jesus demonstrates that he is a credible teacher (and yes, an incredible theologian) as he quotes from the wisdom literature, says it in his own words, and adds to or expands on the scripture.  He does this frequently, and our own Martin Luther uses this model of teaching, too, it is especially notable in his explanations of the 10 Commandments, for example. 
Here, Jesus takes a two line bit of advice intended for young men being trained for leadership in politics as a way to avoid embarrassment (knife and fork school for those of you in the armed services), and he turns it into a lesson on pride and humility.  “all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  In other words, this Proverb warning against pride becomes, in the mouth of Jesus, a word against self-promotion.  Jesus uses his by now very familiar language of the first will be last the last will be first to remind us of the upside down kingdom of God. 
And this remains in this day and age very, very counter cultural, doesn’t it?  If you are trying to get ahead in politics or in a military career or in most business or entertainment environments, you are SUPPOSED to be self-promoting!  If I don’t tell you how great I am (whether that be based in reality or fiction), I may never be noticed.  I may not get that raise, people may never listen to what I am saying or value the art I am making…if I don’t stand up and make some noise and draw some attention to myself.  In a culture that values the flashy, the loud, and the pompous, to be meek and humble most often means to be overlooked.
But once again, the humility requested and required of us by Jesus is the opposite of the pride and self-promotion requested and required of us by the world.
After his lesson on pride, Jesus spends a moment talking about rules for who to invite to a banquet.  (I get pretty tickled at all of the places Jesus helps us to figure out the guest list for our lives.) think that everytime I have hosted a dinner party or a luncheon, I have absolutely invited my friends or my neighbors…and I am sure that they would all balk at being called “rich”, but in reality and on a global scale, they are all absolutely rich.  Looks like I still have some work to do in my own life.
  "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
Here’s the thing, Jesus is not just talking about hosting dinner.  As with all of his parables, there is a deeper meaning here.  Jesus is talking about all of the places where you might be in position to invite or to welcome someone…especially the poor, the sick, the lonely, or the socially undesirable. 
I want for you to do something, and I apologize in advance to the introverts in the room, but I think this will be helpful.  Take a minute to think of a time you were the host or a time you were the guest at a metaphorical banquet.  So maybe it wasn’t a dinner, but maybe you needed something, something you were unable to provide for yourself, and it was provided for you with no evidence or expectation that you could repay that kindness.  Or maybe you remember a time when you were able to provide that for someone.  Then, in groups of two or three, share that time with your neighbor.  Ok, go!
(5 minutes, tops, depending on the noise from the congregation)
Did your neighbors have good stories?  Do you feel a little changed from sharing your own?
What you have just described for one another is the tender beginning of authentic relationship.  Real relationship born in love, genuine care, and concern for one another.  This kind of relationship is so very rare out in the world, isn’t it?  It’s upside down Kingdom of God relationship…free from pride. And that kind of grace and love and mercy is transformative and healing. 
Most of our relationships are transactional…we invite and welcome those who can repay us or who can do for us.  Quid pro quo…a favor or advantage expected or returned for something.
But to quote theologian Karoline Lewis, “…then here comes Jesus, who basically says, ‘yeah, that whole quid pro quo thing? That’s not going to fly in the Kingdom of God.’”
The problem with a quid pro quo mentality is quantification. How do you measure or calculate repayment of love, of mercy? ...We tend to forget that our beliefs about faith and discipleship are also claims about who we think God is. If we insist that our faith, our salvation, is dependent upon an equal rate of exchange between God and us, then we need to ask ourselves, in what kind of God do we believe? What happens if we don’t measure up?[1]  
And as we seek to fulfill our baptismal call to be the body of Christ, the hands and feet of God in this world, we are called to mirror God’s intended relationship with us.  A relationship that is true, grounded in love, and reliable.  We’ve been invited to a banquet, now we are blessed to extend the invitation.
God relentlessly pursues us with mercy, with love, with grace upon grace and calls us into authentic relationship with God and with our neighbor who is anyone.  In that calling, we are blessed, and we are blessed to be a blessing.  We’ve been invited to a banquet! 
Thank you, Jesus.


Monday, April 25, 2016

Love in the Public Square

In the gospel lesson today (John 13:31-35), Jesus explains that he is going somewhere that his disciples cannot follow, but he’s leaving behind a to-do list.  The list is short and sweet, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
         Short and sweet, “love one another”, but Jesus says it THREE times in the two verses I just read to you.  “love one another”. 
         Well of all the things a thoughtful, smart, and demanding messiah could ask us to do…this seems to be a pretty easy set of departing words.  “love one another”
         But here’s the thing about “easy”.  Rarely is it ever the truth.
         This set of five verses has been taken right out of the bigger picture of John’s gospel and placed in front of us without any context.  And reading any part of the Bible out of context is a dangerous thing to do.  If we don’t understand the larger movement behind Jesus’ new commandment, we might think it means that we are only obligated to love other Christians.  Or we might find it easy to believe that when Jesus speaks of love he means affection, fondness, warmth, attachment, or endearment.  We might talk ourselves into thinking that time in prayer for the person in the pew next to us or delivering a casserole for someone on the prayer list or sewing a quilt for someone we like is fulfilling that commandment.  And while all of those things are good and can be expressions of love, without deeper thinking, we might be tempted to look at love as a shallow feel-good kind of fun thing to do in your spare time after the grocery shopping or soccer games or the latest episode of, well, whatever.
         Let’s step back and look for a moment of the bigger frame for this lesson.  Jesus and his disciples are at the Last Supper.  He has washed the feet of his friends making himself symbolically among the lowest servants in a household.  He has broken bread with them.  And he has just seen Judas rise from the table to go about the business of betrayal, setting in rapid motion the arrest and execution of Jesus and the gospel according to John says that Jesus knew exactly what was about to go down. 
         And if we continue to read after our appointed selection, we see that the very next thing to happen in this tumultuous dinner hour is that Simon Peter...always determined to be the best, the most, the greatest...Simon Peter declares his great love for Jesus by promising to die for him.  But Jesus, knowing Simon Peter (and the rest of us) all too well, says, “Will you lay down your life for me?  Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”
         When we look at the command from Jesus to “love one another as I have loved you” in its proper context, it begins to feel a little more weighty, doesn’t it?
         Judas has betrayed him.  Peter will deny him.  But Jesus is focused on love.  His last sermon to his friends is not focused on blame or shame or what could have been.  Instead, Jesus lovingly prepares them for what is to come and promises that in love for one another they will be bound to one another and in that binding be bound publicly and eternally with Jesus.
Elizabeth Johnson, a theologian in Cameroon, says, “Jesus demonstrates his love for the same disciples who will fail him miserably. Jesus washes and feeds Judas who will betray him, Peter who will deny him, and all the rest who will fail to stand by him in his hour of greatest distress. The love that Jesus demonstrates is certainly not based on the merit of the recipients, and Jesus commands his disciples to love others in the same way.
We as disciples of Jesus have continually fallen far short in our love for one another as well as in our love for those outside the community of faith. Theological, (moral), and ethical arguments often descend into personal attacks and name-calling; personal interests often trump the common good of the community; those in need of compassion find judgment instead.
Jesus could not be clearer: It is not by our theological correctness, not by our moral purity, not by our impressive knowledge that everyone will know that we are his disciples.”[1]
They will know we are followers of Jesus by our love.
So if prayer and cooking and quilting can be expressions of love but are not the totality of love, what is? 
To understand the love of which Jesus is speaking, we only need look at his life and at his death.  Jesus, in every interaction in every gospel lesson in every account, calls for justice.  Love in action in the life of our incarnated God is the insistence on justice for everyone.
“Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that “Peace is not the absence of war but the presence of justice.” Our world changes when justice prevails. When we love one another -- no matter who they are -- justice and peace become part of our reality. When we work for justice and equality we are fully living into the love we are commanded to show one to the other by Jesus.”[2]
Last weekend, I was in Washington, D.C., with approximately one thousand other people of faith as we went about the business of preparing to speak with our Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill about issues of justice which we perceive to be of particular importance (Ecumenical Advocacy Days).  This year, we were talking about international trade practices and their human and environmental (Creational) impact and about restoring the ability to vote to thousands of Americans.  I was tasked with speaking to our elected officials from Alabama. (A couple of volunteers from Tennessee accompanied me.  Thanks be to God.) 
While we were there, we saw thousands and thousands of people (one might even say a multitude) flood the Hill and the Supreme Court to advocate for immigrants, for families, and for all sorts of things that were and are heady intellectual political issues…issues I thought were best settled by folks who know more than I do.  I am NOT an expert on trade agreements or on immigration policy by any means.  But, it turns out, I am becoming an expert on what fairness is, on what justice looks like, and on how listening, really listening, looks a lot like love.
And as I walked in my clerical collar (which felt like a very brave and foolish thing to do on Capitol Hill) among my sisters and brothers who were there to seek justice for themselves and for folks they’d never met (saw a couple of black women from New York State holding hands with displaced immigrants from Alabama…and as I slowed near them, I was greeted with ‘hey, Sister!’ and ‘!hola, Mama!’), in that moment, I understood that what I was doing there was using my voice inspired by my faith and by this commandment and so I was part of a greater movement across the nation, not for political gain…not once all weekend did I hear anyone cite the name of a presidential candidate or recite campaign speeches…but for justice and the restoration of morality in our country with an impact throughout the world.  Justice and equality for all people.  Restoration for Creation. Love for one another.  That is where our faith and our politics ought to intersect.
The Aboriginal Activists group in Queensland has said, “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
When I understand that my freedom is bound up in yours, that my livelihood is dependent upon yours, when I understand that my comfort, my hope, my very existence and salvation is wrapped up with yours, and not just yours but all the world’s, then, I can begin to speak about loving my neighbor, loving one another as Jesus loves us.
As Karyn Wiseman of Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia says, “This text focuses on love but the justice piece for many is that all of Jesus’ disciples will be known by their love of others. For Jesus, love did not mean a sweet sentimental feeling. It meant action. It meant actively loving -- putting one’s love into real world activities.”[3]
Living faith in the public square.  Inviting others into the conversation.
I heard a rumor that that very thing is the directive Rebecca left with us this weekend (as you all evaluated our redevelopment together).
How do we do we live our faith in a way that is meaningful and bold, out there beyond the safety and sanctuary of our church walls?  What does the seeking of justice look like in Prattville?  How do we show love, real, deep and abiding love, to our neighbors?
How do we bear a loving and just witness to a living, loving, and just God with our words, with our actions, with our lives here in Autauga County and even into Montgomery?
How do we show love to one another, to all people, when we know that somewhere among us in here or out there resides a Judas or a Simon Peter?  These are the questions we have to address as faithful followers and lovers of Jesus.
It feels risky.  Because it is risky.  But it is the kind of life and love to which Jesus calls us.
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  We know that Jesus loves us past the point of disappointment.  Past the point of uncomfortable-ness.  Past the point of humility.  Past the point of death.
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
In one little sentence lies all of law and all of gospel.  You are freed, you are forgiven, and you are loved.  Go, tell the world, and do the same.
Boldly.  Deeply.  Sacrificially.  Out loud.  And in the public square.
Take courage and be bold.  Jesus loves you.


[3] ibid

Sunday, January 17, 2016

God of Change and Transformation

(A sermon for the people of Christ Lutheran Church in Prattville, Alabama)

It’s good to be back with you.  Most of you know that I spent the last 10 days in St. Paul, Minnesota, attending class at Luther Seminary.  It is supremely cold in St. Paul. -12 with a “real feel” of -33 when I checked this morning.  Brr!
I love going to campus.  Much of the time, I attend coursework online, which is a blessing.  I wouldn’t be able to make school happen otherwise.  But being present and in person for a couple of weeks at a time feeds my relationships with classmates, fuels my relationships with faculty and staff, and rejuvenates my faith.  It’s the toughest, working hard-est “vacation” ever.  At school we attend lectures for hours, read more than one would think humanly possible, and write more words than I ever think I could possibly pull from my brain.  We worship daily, attend informal lectures by faculty during our “downtime” at venues off campus in events called “Pubs and Profs”, and are exposed to a variety of opportunities for interacting with a purpose, and we get up in the mornings and do it all over again.  They don’t call them “intensives” for nothing.
But normally, the best, most life-giving time at school happens in the dorms after hours in a time of holy recreation, when we can gather with our friends and classmates and sing folk songs, or dye psyanky eggs, or play a card game, or enjoy a glass of wine and the pleasure of one another’s conversation as we share our deepest joys and lamentations.  After all the events of the day are past, we gather together, folks from different communities, different economic backgrounds, different nations, and different races to dwell in the best time of the whole day.  We save the best for last…and though it may look like nothing special is happening, this is, arguably, the most important time of the whole seminary experience.
This is the time when stories are shared, when we can talk with one another about our prides and our pleasures and our successes, our hurts and our wounds and our shortcomings….about the ways we’ve damaged ourselves or others.  In other words, it is a time of communion with our brothers and sisters with whom we are bound through baptism into the body of Christ.  A time when relationships are strengthened, when lives are changed as we bear witness to the power of God to change us.  A time to welcome God into our midst and to ask God to make something new of us.  To extend to us through the relationships in that place grace upon grace.
The gospel lesson today takes us to the very first public act of Jesus’s ministry in the Gospel according to St. John.  Mary has been invited to a wedding, another place of holy rejoicing and recreation…and since Jesus and the disciples are in town, they are invited along, too.  And it is here that Jesus performs his first act as a public leader, some of the gospels would call this a “miracle”.  But the gospel writer calls it a “sign”.  This is significant, because John does everything deliberately, with great purpose, and so to call these kinds of incredible doings of Jesus “signs” rather than “miracles” means something.  A miracle might suggest divinity and call attention to the person of Jesus, but a sign points to something in particular.  And so as we read or listen to this story, we have to pay attention to what the sign is pointing as Jesus points away from himself and toward something else.
As we read through the gospels, we see more and more stories of Jesus doing something really cool, more miracles and more signs, and in each other instance, the sign seems to be for a purpose.  But in the wedding text, there seems to be no discernable purpose.  We can wrap our heads around feeding the hungry as in the loaves and fishes or showing a particular object lesson to a doubting disciple…but here, what is the lesson?  What is the point?  A lesson on wine distribution?  A lesson on grocery shopping?  Jesus as party planner?  “Always buy more than you think you’ll need…don’t want that party to end on a downer”
Nah.  The overarching theme of John’s gospel is the “dawning of a new age.  To John, the coming of Jesus as the Messiah has changed the world from what it used to be into something totally new and different.”[1]  And the overarching theme of this story is the illustration of “grace upon grace” as Jesus saves this couple and their families from certain social casting out (a serious deal in that time when livelihood depended on the support of the family and of the neighbor).  Jesus provides wine which will save them from ostracizing by providing that which they need beyond “enough” into “abundance”.
What is our water that Jesus has come to turn into wine?  Where is God fully present in abundance in ways we don’t deserve or understand?  What system or old way of thinking is Jesus changing from what it used to be into something totally different?  Or is Jesus changing us from “enough” into “abundance”?
One the classes I took this intensive is called “Dismantling Racism”.  With seminary students, faculty, 60’s era civil rights leaders, and elders in the Black Lives Matter movement, in this course we learned from and with one another and were confronted with not only the history of racial division in this country, but also its continuity…as racism has changed over time to become less overt.  Less individual prejudice (though, as any person of color in this country will tell you, those prejudices still exist) and more about systemic or structural racism.  The ways in which people of color are still oppressed in the country by virtue of the color of their skin.  The ways in which white America still holds the power in this nation.  The ways in which that death grip on power by people who look an awful lot like me is actually still a death grip around the necks of our Black and Brown brothers and sisters. 
Blacks are still a significant racial minority in this country, yet nearly 50% of the prison population is composed of Black bodies. 
Black and Brown actors are still not celebrated (or even recognized much) in Hollywood.  The Oscar nominations are overwhelmingly white this year…even though the Black film “Straight Outta Compton” has been nominated for Academy Awards, the only nominees for that film are the white screenwriters.
If you are Black or Brown in the United States, you are less likely to be granted a loan, a scholarship, or a rental agreement for an apartment.  You are less likely to be given a job.  You are more likely to be killed by the police, the very folks who are supposed to “serve and protect” you.
White supremacy, or the belief consciously or unconsciously, that white folks are better, smarter, prettier, more polite, less brutal or impulsive, shows up even in our art and our depictions of God.  We know that Jesus was a person of color, and yet our imagery of him in this country is overwhelmingly white.  What does that say to a Black person?  What does that say to a Brown person?  Heck, what does that say to a white person?  That God identifies with the racial majority?  That blue eyes are Godly?  That in the eyes of our God my life is worth more than my neighbor’s?
And we don’t have to look too far to visually see the division.  How many people of color are present in this space?  Why do you think that is?
Not too long ago in this nation’s history, racial division and white oppression were the law of the land.  Nowhere did this play out more than here in the South.  We host the site(s) of over 4,000 lynchings[2] in this nation.  The Montgomery Slave Market is just minutes from where we are sitting.  The site of the first Confederate white house is just down the road.  Even Prattville High School, here in town and constructed in 1976, bears the name of George Wallace, governor of this state who famously said, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever[3].  And what is more treacherous than his legacy inscribed in stone is the fact that we do not talk about it.  Every kid who walks through the front doors of that building is taught a lesson of acceptance of the ways things were and the way things are by our lack of conversation about all of this. 
It is far easier and much more comfortable for us white folks to say, “that was a long time ago,” than it is for us to relive our national shame or for us to admit that we are still benefitting from a system designed to lift us up and to push down those who don’t “look like us”.
But as Martin Luther King, Jr. would remind us, “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  I don’t know about you, but I want to LIVE.  And I believe with my whole heart that God wants us, all of us, to live, too.
Hear the good news:  God is a god of change and renewal and grace upon grace.
By God’s mercy and grace we are able to change ourselves, our language, and our systems.  We invited to become the wine and to point beyond ourselves to the dawning of a new age.  An age where all people are equally valued and beloved not just by God but by all of society, and I believe that we are called to public ministry, to work in this direction until that day comes.
Soon, beloved, we will be hosting a conversation on racism with the goal of working toward dismantling it in this place.  I urge you to come.  This will not be a time of shaming or a time for wallowing in guilt for the way things were or even for the way things are.  This will be an opportunity to share with one another and with those whom we encounter how a system of racism and white supremacy has damaged all of us and what we can do about it.  To share our hurts and sorrows and joys and stories of redemption.  To welcome God to immerse Godself into our midst and to make something new of us.  To extend to us through the relationships in this place grace upon grace upon grace.  This conversation will give us new ways to speak with one another. And we will invite others in the community to join us here as we do this work. 
And we are not doing this all alone.  On Thursday night, Bishop Eaton and others hosted a “Confronting Racism” podcast in which we have all been invited to engage the work of confronting and dismantling racism.  Our national church body is being called to work together for the sake of our Black and Brown brothers and sisters…and thereby for our own sakes as well.
This Monday we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King.  And I can think of no better way to honor him and the life he lived for Jesus and for his and our brothers and sisters than by committing to continue the work he began just down the road in Montgomery, Alabama.  We have been freed by a God of abundant grace and called to extend that grace and relationship to our neighbors.  We are called to walk together and to cry out for justice for the whole world.  And we do not do this alone.  We walk together.  And Jesus walks with us along this pilgrim journey toward the dawn of a new day.  Transforming us from water into wine.


[1] Lectionary Lab
[3] Wikipedia