These Are The Facts

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on February 5, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany:
Isaiah 58:1-12 + Psalm 112:1-10 + 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 + Matthew 5:13-20

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Please pray with me this morning:

Holy God,
You tell us the truth about ourselves.
That we are salt. That we are light. And you call us to live like it.
Remind us of these truths, these facts, when we are fearful.
And especially when we aren’t feeling particularly flavorful or luminous.
Amen.

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A few years ago I was making the solo 14-hour drive from Chicago to Arlington, TX. I was doing it solo because I had a meeting with my candidacy committee and Tiffany had to work, so I set off on my own. I left Chicago about 5:30 in the morning, grabbed my Starbucks iced coffee with 4 shots of espresso, and away I went. I turned on NPR as I do quite often, and I just kept going. I got about halfway down Illinois before I had to switch radio stations, and then I found the central Illinois NPR station, then the southern Illinois NPR station, and then the St. Louis area NPR station, and at that point it really just became a game. I made it almost to Joplin, Missouri before I was no longer able to find a public radio station.

I went almost 9 hours and nearly 900 miles of just listening to news and facts and commentary.
That’s another reason I was driving alone, because there’s no way Tiffany would have let me do that if she were in the car…

I consume information.
I listen to public radio, I read blogs, and articles, and headlines, and updates.
I am data junkie.

But to what end? What does my consumption of information do for me?
I certainly consider myself well informed. I purposefully seek out perspectives that are different than mine. But ultimately, what have I gained?

Knowledge without purpose isn’t useful. Our knowledge needs direction.
Consider us this morning, church. I mean, for the most part, we have a lot of information about Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and God. We know a lot of stuff.
But knowledge for knowledge’s sake is just that…information, data…

But what if we amassed information and knowledge for the sake of the actual, physical, life-or-death difference it might make on the life of another?

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that knowledge about God cannot exist simply as knowledge. Knowledge about God—or more simply, theology—is the knowledge of God’s very presence in the world. To know about God is to notice the ways God is moving and active in our world.
It’s not enough, then, to know about God. As disciples, we have to live into, we have to be the activity of God in the world.
It’s not just that we are salt and light, Jesus calls us to be salt and light.
Jesus calls us to live out our identity as salt and light.

To let our righteousness, or more accurately translated justice, exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.
That type of justice is an embodied justice, it’s actualized.
Like Dr. Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Church, it’s one thing to sit in here for an hour on a Sunday morning and nod our heads in agreement because everything I’m saying and everything we’re praying and singing sounds really good and really, wouldn’t that be lovely…but it is a wholly different thing to take these words to heart, and not just to take them to heart, but to let them seep into our very bones, the very fibers of our being, and have these words bind up our lives so that we can’t not go out and do the very things that the Gospel is calling us to do.

Knowledge without purpose, without action, perpetuates the way things are.
Knowledge without action allows us to see injustice in the world, but justify our inaction because it doesn’t square exactly with our worldview, or the problem is just too big, or there are too many problems, or “I’m just one person, so what difference could I really possibly make…”
Friends, it is a myth and a lie that injustices in the world are mutually exclusive. Yes, our world is rife with injustice. Yes, our world looks very different than the vision of the peaceable kingdom that God envisions for God’s world. But dear people, this is an opportunity, not a prohibitive excuse!
Because these are the facts: You are salt. You are light.
And as claimed, and called, and beloved children of God, we must start living like it. Because it is truly a matter of life or death.

Knowledge without purpose allows us to continue in the dominant narratives of fear that we tell ourselves.

I fully believe that, fundamentally, it is fear that prevents us from truly living as God calls us to live, as salt and as light.
And so I wonder, church, what are you afraid of? What do you fear?

How you answer that question probably depends on your demographic or your social location.
For example, if you’re a 30-something like me, you might fear that you’ll never be able to pay off the mountains of student debt you might have.
Or if you’re a little older, you might fear the increased number of visits to the doctor, or the myriad of specialists you now have to make appointments with.
If you identify as LGBTQ, you might be fearful of being able to be your fullest self, for fear that some people might not accept those parts of you.
If you have a daughter, or son, or family member, or loved one serving in the military, you might fear the prospect of them being put in harm’s way, or worse, returning from their service only to be so deeply emotionally and mentally affected that they’re just not the same again, only to find a system not set up to give them the support that they need and deserve.
If you have family or loved ones overseas, you might fear for their safety. You might legitimately be afraid of going to visit them, for fear of not being able to return home.
These aren’t politics, church, this is real.
Just this weekend, a hate-filled note was left at the house of someone in the Riverstone community, just down the road. This also happened in Sienna Plantation. And near the Galleria.
This is not who we are.
These are all real, actual fears that many of you sitting here this morning have.
These are all real, actual fears that many of your siblings in Christ have.

barbed_wire_in_the_sky

Friends, don’t hear me saying that fear isn’t real, or that fear isn’t warranted. God does not say don’t be afraid because there’s nothing to be afraid of. God says do not fear, but rather trust that in all things God is with you. That God is with you in the midst of your fears and worries.
God says do not fear, because in the death and resurrection of Christ, God has taken away and freed you from the power of sin and death. God has overcome death and is actively at work redeeming the world, and does so through you, so you are free to live out your identity as children of God. To speak God’s peace and God’s justice to a world that desperately needs to hear it.
Rather than practicing self-serving fasts, like the prophet in Isaiah says. Rather than quarreling and fighting and going back and forth on facebook.

Because “This is the fast that I choose,” says the Lord, “To loose the bonds of injustice, to set the oppressed free, to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into your own house, to clothe the naked, to give to those who ask of you
Then your light will shine forth like the noonday! Then your light shines in the darkness!”
Then…you are being light.

You are free to be Christ…to be the very embodiment of God…to be Love…to your neighbors who are fearful. Who need to be wrapped in the loving warmth of God.
You are free to be salt and light to a world that needs to be flavored and illumined.
Don’t let your fear prevent you from living out the truth of who God calls you to be.
God says be salt and be light anyway, in spite of your fear.
Because by doing so, maybe…maybe…we can begin to overcome our fears.

If I’m honest, sometimes my continuous consumption of information makes me feel overwhelmed and causes fear to rise up inside me. And it’s not easy to see God in the midst of those times. But when I take time to pause, and breathe deeply, and really look for God, often a small flicker of light, a glimmer of hope, catches my eye.
It happened to me two weeks ago, when I was feeling particularly discouraged and fearful. And just then an unread email caught my attention. It was from a then-unknown friend at The Islamic Institute here in Houston. One of my predecessors had reached out to them and begun conversations about finding opportunities for partnership between our congregation and any number of Islamic faith communities in our area.
He and I have only just started exchanging emails, but I am so, so hopeful for the future directions of these conversations. I hope we can build bridges of peace in our corner of the world, rather than digging deeper trenches of division.

What do people see when they see you? Do they see salt that has lost its taste, or light that has been snuffed out under a basket?
Church, we are salt. We flavor the world we inhabit. Let that flavor be good and wonderful and pleasing to God.
We are light. Light that shines forth from us wherever we go. I hope that what people see from us is beautiful and Christlike. That people see Christ in us, and give glory and praise to God in heaven.

These are the facts, Church:
We are a city on a hill. We are the salt of the earth. And we are the light of the world.
Christ has freed us to live it.

Love Without Restrictions

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on February 19, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany:
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 + Psalm 119:33-40 + 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 + Matthew 5:38-48

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Please pray with me this morning:

Holy One,
We are often caught up in the world’s
cycles of retribution, and revenge, and violence.
Increase our capacity for love, as you have loved us.
And by loving, may we begin to overcome and end those cycles.
Amen.

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For the past 2 months, as we’ve been moving together through this season of Epiphany, I’ve been centering us in the narrative of a life of discipleship. I’ve been noting for us how a life of discipleship fits certain patterns of life, how a way of living and being that is modeled after the life and ministry of Jesus looks a certain way and reflects certain values. I’ve been calling attention to the ways in which living and being this way, as a Christ-follower, sometimes…oftentimes…looks very different than the patterns of life that are lifted up as good or desired or admirable by the world.

But mostly, I’ve been highlighting how these patterns of living and being aren’t easy and don’t come naturally for us.
In my own sermon preparation, in my devotional time, or in leading weekly Bible studies for the staff, I find myself saying, “These are some of the most difficult words from Jesus.”
In fact, it’s possible that I’ve said those words explicitly each week for the past 4 weeks as we’ve been working through the Sermon on the Mount.

Each week it feels like Jesus is taking the calling on our lives a little further. Each week, it feels like the expectations are increasing, like the bar is being set higher and higher. Each week, it feels like Jesus is trying to outdo himself from the previous week.

And this week is no exception.

This week, with his talk of resisting retribution and loving enemies and nonviolent resistance and praying for those who would prevent others from living full and abundant lives, Jesus is taking this Christ-like living to another level.
But how can we? How can we truly love like Jesus is asking us to love?

The word for love here is not the emotional kind that we associate with the holiday from this past week. This love is consequential relationship. It’s a deep and abiding love. But I want to suggest something to you this morning that I think will help us as we unpack Jesus’ words, and it’s something that I also hope will totally shift how you think about and live out love.

Love…is an action verb.
You cannot love passively. This type of love that Jesus is talking about is actualized. It’s embodied. Love requires something of you. Those of you who have deep and abiding love for your partner or spouse or significant other or children or grandchildren or family or loved ones know that this is true.
Love requires something of you.

merton285Father Thomas Merton, a Cistercian monk and mystic who lived in rural Kentucky said, “Love seeks one thing only; the good of the one loved. It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves. Love, therefore, is its own reward.”
Love seeks the best for the one being loved, not the one doing the loving.

Love means that we risk vulnerability. That we give up our innately human desire to pluck out eyes and pull teeth. Love relinquishes the need for retribution or revenge.
Love has no use for violence, because our world is violent enough.
Love is the ultimate self-giving act… It’s a cruciform way of living… It’s the way of the cross.

When we say that God is love, we mean that God seeks, above all else, the best for God’s beloved, which is all of us. And not just us here, but those that are not here this morning.
God so loves the world, right? Do we take God at God’s word?

When Jesus says to us this morning, “Be perfect, therefore, just as God is perfect,” I think he’s talking about perfect love.
The Greek word for “perfect” here doesn’t mean to be morally right, as we so often characterize it. In fact, it has nothing to do with morality or sinless living. It means to be complete, to lack nothing necessary for completeness. To live with integrity, like we talked about last week. To let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No” be “No.”
To truly love is to be lacking nothing in completeness.

We live incomplete lives when we place restrictions on our love. You know what I’m talking about when I say “restrictions,” don’t you, Church? When we try and characterize “us” as “us” and “those others” as “them.” When we try and step in and do God’s job for God…thinking that we get to determine who’s “in” and who’s “out”… Who’s covered under the bounds God’s love and who is not…

At the end of our reading from First Corinthians, St. Paul gets at this. “Whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas…or the world…or life or death…or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ. And Christ belongs to God.”
All things belong to God, church.
You belong to God.

St. Paul uses this language of belonging to talk about ownership. You are God’s. All things are God’s. Your employment status does not own you. Your earning potential does not own you. Your depression or addiction or marital status or anything else does not own you.
You…are God’s.
But to take Paul’s words further I think is to get at what Jesus is talking about with this “love your enemies” thing. Because if I belong to God, and all things belong to God, then how I treat you depends on my answer to a fundamental question: Who do I think *you* belong to?

Does the person sitting next to you belong to God? What about your next door neighbor? Your co-workers? People of other faiths? People of no faith?
All things belong to God.
What about your enemies? What about people that don’t wish the best for you?

Who do I think you belong to? Who do you think they belong to?
How we answer this question is essential to how we understand ourselves in relationship with other people. If I belong to Christ and you belong to Christ and all belongs to God, that radically reorients how I treat you.
And here is where I think Jesus’ command to love your enemies makes us maybe more than a little uncomfortable. Because it sounds like foolishness.
But it is the way of the cross.

Jesus, even on the cross, did not shout curses at those acting on behalf of the empire, putting him to death. He cried out for forgiveness: “Forgive them, God, they don’t know what they are doing.” Jesus proclaims blessing to those he was executed alongside: “Today I tell you, you will be with me in paradise.”

A couple of chapters earlier in First Corinthians, Paul calls the way of the cross foolishness and a stumbling block. This word translated as “stumbling block,” it’s an interesting word. The Greek word is skandalon. Any guesses which word we get from skandalon?                     —– Scandal, right.

Living a life of discipleship, living a life that is cruciform, following the way of the cross is scandalous.
Loving your enemies, actively seeking the best for them, is certainly not easy, but it also isn’t very fair, is it? At least according to our Western ideals about fairness and justice.

And you’re right. It’s not fair. But fair is not for me to decide. Fair is not for any of us to decide.
We restrict our love. God does not. All things belong to God. God makes God’s sun rise on the evil and on the good. God sends God’s rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
God is absolutely and completely abundant and extravagant with God’s mercy, grace, and love, and quite honestly, most of us find that offensive.

And you’re right. Grace is offensive. It is a scandal. Because grace means that “they” don’t get what “they” deserve. But grace also means that I don’t get what I deserve. And thank God for that.
Thank God that I don’t get what I deserve, but instead God delights in lavishing me with mercy, grace, and love. Thank God that none of us get what we deserve, but instead God is pleased to shower all of God’s creation with the cleansing and refreshing rains of justice and mercy. Instead God delights in warming all of God’s creation with God’s sun of grace and love.

And if God doesn’t restrict God’s love, who are we to restrict ours?

The Christian life…the life of discipleship…is not easy, church. I’ll say it again, it will demand your life.
But by truly loving—by actively working and fighting for the best for—not just those who we agree with…or those who look like us…or think like we want them to think…or act in ways that we might not understand or agree with…we begin to live ever more closely to the heart of God.

“Who Is My Neighbor?”

Since I’ll be needing to do this regularly soon myself, I thought I’d get back into the habit of forming some thoughts for preaching this weekend.

The Revised Common Lectionary texts for this weekend:
Amos 7:7-17 + Psalm 82 + (or Deuteronomy 30:9-14 and Psalm 25:1-10) + Colossians 1:1-14 + Luke 10:25-37

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I don’t believe I could preach a sermon this weekend without explicitly naming Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. These two African-American men were murdered by law enforcement officers, one in Baton Rouge, LA and the other in a suburb of the Twin Cities in MN.

I don’t believe I could preach a sermon this weekend without explicitly saying their names, Alton and Philando, because in the Gospel reading for the day, Jesus tells a narrative about a man who was making his way from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked, stripped, beat, and left for dead.

Of course, the difference between the story Jesus tells and the horrific atrocities on repeat on our news feeds is that the man in Jesus’s story was left for dead, and Alton and Philando were shot until they were dead.

But the lawyer’s question in Luke 10:29 still resonates like a deafening indictment.

Who is my neighbor…?

 

altonandphilandoMost of the time, the church has seen itself as the Samaritan who stops and renders aid, or the innkeeper who takes care of the man after the Samaritan pays him. But Church, I have to be honest, I don’t believe we are either. See, when men like Alton and Philando, Eric and Michael, or babies like Trayvon and Tamir, are being murdered in our streets, we’ve been the priest and the Levite.
We pass by, unable to even glance down and see the blood that stains the ground. Unable to name our complicity in sacrificing these bodies on the altars of “Wait and see…” and “If he had done what he was told…”

 

Church, our response to the lawyer’s question makes all the difference. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that our response to this question will determine whether there is any hope for the future of the Church.

Our response to this question must be that Alton and Philando are our neighbors.
Unequivocally, our neighbors are those that our society seems hell-bent on destroying.
That society seems hell-bent on crucifying.

 

The prophet Amos has a word of warning for us. “There is a plumb line.”
God has set a plumb line in the midst of God’s people, and where God’s people live unjustly and without regard for the most oppressed and vulnerable in society, God will lay waste to their sanctuaries and make their cities desolate.

 

I pray, with Paul to the people in Colossae, that we, as people of God, bear fruit and grow in the knowledge of God. Because that will mean that we regard the Alton’s and Philando’s in our communities as God regards them.
As beloved children of God, infinitely precious, and immeasurably worthy.

 

Christ does not pass by on the side of the road. Christ doesn’t even stop to render aid.

Christ lies in the dirt. On the parking lot. In the car. On the street.

Christ lies stripped, beaten, bloody, broken, shot, murdered, executed.
Christ is crucified, again and again, while we struggle, and debate, and try to respond to the lawyer’s question.

Who is my neighbor?

 

Dream On!

* sermon preached for the finals of the James Kenneth Echols Prize for Excellence in Preaching at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on April 28, 2016 *

** You may also want to watch and hear this sermon preached. Here is that video. And here is the audio if you prefer to just listen. **

Text: Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

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I shot up! Throwing the covers off of me! Scrambling to climb out of bed! Stumbling toward the door! Tripping over my feet…!

It took me more than a few seconds before my brain was able to slow down and comprehend. Before I was finally coherent enough to realize that it was still dark in the room. Which meant it was still dark outside. Which meant it was still early. Which meant I was not, in fact, late. Which meant I had very nearly given myself a heart attack for nothing.

I looked at my clock. Yeah…I still had another hour before my alarm was set to go off.

Well, that’s one way to do it,” I thought to myself.

 

Have you ever woken up from a dream and felt it slipping away with each ticking second?
Or how about being jarred awake from a dream because it was so vivid, so visceral, that it actually, even if only momentarily, altered your reality?

I won’t pretend that I can explain the science behind our brains or what happens when we dream, but it’s a little unsettling to me that our brains are capable of producing such vivid visuals so as to actually come to bear on and alter the very fabric of our reality.

 

I think this vision of John of Patmos that we hear today is kind of like that second dream. John’s vision is so real, so vivid, so compelling that it pleads with us to read and understand it as reality, or at least a possible reality.

John paints a picture for us, using the brightest and richest hues, so as to stir our imagination that we might actually begin to believe that a new future is possible. Gleaming in glory, brighter than the sun and the moon, flowing with crystal water, plump and juicy fruit.

The lectionary today leaves out a fair amount of detail regarding the new Jerusalem itself, but the verses describing the city are so evocative, I think they’re important for us to hear. “The city is full of the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites. The wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. The city is fifteen hundred miles long by fifteen hundred miles wide.”

Are you starting to picture it?

Just in case, I invite you to close your eyes because right here is where John really starts painting: “The wall is one hundred forty-four cubits high. The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel: jasper, sapphire, agate, emerald, onyx, carnelian, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, chrysoprase, jacinth, and amethyst. And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.”

Can you see it?

tree of life

American Reformed theologian, Lewis Smedes, noted that one important element of hope is the ability to imagine a desired future. If we can’t picture this future, our desire for it won’t be nearly so fierce and our hope won’t be nearly so robust. So John casts a vision and paints this intense picture of the new Jerusalem to stir our imagination and, thus, our hope.

When I came to LSTC in 2012, the mission statement read, “LSTC forms visionary leaders to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.” Sometimes, I wonder if we, the leaders being formed, haven’t begun to lose that vision.
If you’re wondering if that’s true, consider how quick we are to vilify and dehumanize one another in the comments section, rather than to physically sit across from someone, face to face, vulnerable, and ask forgiveness for the ways in which my words and my actions have kept you from living and being anything less than the beloved child that God has created and intends.

Sometimes, it can certainly feel like the vision evades us.

And yet, our Scriptures beg us to recapture and recast that vision. In Proverbs we hear that, “People without a vision perish.” The prophet Habakkuk entreats that we “Write the vision, and make it plain on tablets. For there is still a vision for the appointed time. It does not lie.”

Our visions—our dreams—carry us. They drive us.

 

It was a dream that drove the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. That dream was justice. That dream was equality. That dream envisioned a long moral arc, but ultimately one that bent toward justice.

Our dreams inspire us to hope, dear friends. Doctor Jonas Salk, responsible for the polio vaccine, said, “Hope lies in dreams, in imagination, and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.” Hope is what allows us to stand courageously in the face of fear.

That hope is especially important in this day and age when we’re constantly being bombarded by messages of what and who to be afraid of. Terrorists, refugees, banks, the working poor, Republicans, Democrats, even Libertarians!
Does anyone even dare to turn on the news anymore?!?

We must stand resolutely against those fears, grasping onto hope with every ounce of our energy. Hope that was first announced to the world by faithful women, “HE. IS. RISEN!”

Indeed, it is in the waters of Baptism that we are claimed and charged with carrying the light of hope into the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to illumine the dark places. And it is in the meager meal of bread and wine, Christ’s very body and blood, that we are nourished and sent out to be the body of Christ in the world, to do this work of carrying and holding hope for one another.

 

The placement of this passage toward the end of the season of Easter, in such close proximity to the Pentecost event and the formation of the church, suggests that we might hear a vision for the church as part of John’s vision of the new Jerusalem.
Might we be inspired, dear friends, to hear that the church is not bound to depressing statistics, disappointing membership numbers, and decreasing bank accounts?
Might we be invited to hear the new Jerusalem as a metaphor for the church, being a mechanism and an agent for God’s restoration of the world?

This clarity of vision allows us to be open to what God is doing and gives us the courage and agency to join in God’s work of restoring and reconciling the world. Work that was begun in a single act of Resurrection; when God raised Christ to life, declaring that death no longer has dominion. Death is no longer the final word.

 

The central figure in John’s new Jerusalem is the Tree of Life. In this new heaven and new earth, all are fed and healed. Fruit from the Tree of Life is produced each month and the rifts between nations and peoples are repaired. John’s vision is inclusive. There are walls defining the city of God and gates facilitating entry and exit, but the gates are forever opened.

There is no temple in the new Jerusalem. God has made God’s dwelling in and among God’s people. God’s people exist in perfect union with God. And the new Jerusalem itself, this gleaming city, highlights the extent to which we are not only made to be in perfect union with God, but that we are also living in union with one another. As a vision for the church, John illustrates that part of this future reality is reflected in how we see ourselves as inextricably connected to each other; as Dr. King said, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

John’s vision of a hoped-for future in perfect union with God is inclusive, it’s ecological, it’s beautiful, and it is just.
It’s almost unimaginable.

And yet, we are implored to imagine such a future, for if we can’t, what hope do we have that our present reality could possibly begin to reflect John’s vision of the incredible future God has in store for us?

 

I think it’s significant that our Scripture comes from the closing chapters of Revelation, about as close to the end of the written Word of God as we get. John of Patmos stands in line with numerous great prophets of the Bible, and I think our Scripture begs us to interpret John’s vision in light of those prophets that came before him.
That is, in the new Jerusalem, the prophetic lineage culminates.

The lion and the lamb lie together, bonds of injustice are broken, captives are released from their prisons, swords are beaten into ploughshares, nations refuse to learn war, people are reconciled to one another, and the imperial reign is that of God’s perfect peace—Shalom.

 

That is the hoped-for future.
That is the vision.
That is the dream. May it alter the very fabric of our reality.

“It Could Have Been Me.”

“It could have been me…”

 

“It could have been been me in that club. You could be posting about me right now.”

 

“It could have been me.”

 

These very same words were posted by at least 5 of my friends yesterday after learning about the horrific massacre at an Orlando gay nightclub in the early hours of Sunday morning.

My dear friends—all part of the LGBTQQIP2A+ community—posted these words and the slowly-growing realization of the truth of their words crept over me and sunk itself deep into the pit of my stomach.
It’s a sickening feeling. Nauseating.

That this gunman targeted a gay club is of particular note.
pulseGay bars are different than any other club or bar in a variety of ways. (*Note*: Many that identify themselves in the LGBTQQIP2A+ community visit gay bars and clubs. “Gay bar” isn’t a limiting phrase, it’s a phrase used by the community to differentiate these places from any other club or bar.) But perhaps the most significant difference in a gay club or bar from any other is that they’re places of solidarity and refuge, as much as they’re places of dancing and hanging out.

Do you get it now? Are you starting to understand why so many in the LGBTQQIP2A+ community are so heartbroken…so sad…and so angry?

So many in this community are told by their families, by faith communities, and by society at large that their humanity is shameful and is not welcome. So gathering with and being around other people who share in and who affirm their humanity is a healing and restorative thing.

It’s also an act of resistance.
If society tells you that your personhood isn’t welcome, then gathering together to celebrate everything about that personhood is a defiant, disruptive show of solidarity against the status quo and against those groups of people who would devalue your personhood.

So not only did the gunman massacre 49 beautiful children of God, he also shattered the sense of safety, security, and home-ness that Pulse holds for the Orlando LGTBQQIP2A+ community, and that so many other gay bars and clubs hold for so many people across our country and around the world.

 

And I want to be clear here: those murdered and injured by the gunman are children of God. And they are beautiful. And they are known to God. And they are loved by God.
All people are made in God’s image. And God is madly in love with every single person in God’s creation.

God was killed Sunday morning inside Pulse.
And God weeps at this massacre of God’s beloved children.

Here is a list being updated of those that were murdered.
I invite you to join me in praying for them and for their families and those they loved and those who loved them.

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I find myself at a bit of a loss right now. I feel like my words, my prayers, my hugs, and my tears fail to do any measure of justice to the pain and hurt that so many of my dear friends are experiencing.
And yet, I will keep praying, keep speaking words of love, keep offering hugs of comfort, and keep shedding tears for our broken world.
And I offer this:

I am here for you.
I am here.
And I am for you.
I love you more than I have words to say.
I am with you.
I stand with you.
And I will fight with you.
I love you so much.

#IAmMcKinney

We all have thresholds.
Physical… Emotional…Financial…
In whatever arena, we all have a point at which things change irreversibly.

That point, for me, was last night.

See, last night I watched a cell phone video of a group of police officers round up teenagers like they were animals, and then I watched one of those officers force his knee into the back of one of those teenagers and repeatedly shove her face into the ground and continue to pin her to the ground by burying his knee into the small of her back.

I don’t know why I’m shocked. I mean, in recent months we’ve seen example after example of law enforcement officers using what I consider to be excessive force on people. Law enforcement officers, sworn to protect the public and uphold the law, manhandling, assaulting, shooting, and killing the very citizens they were sworn to protect…

One defense of these actions is that the officers are responding to a threat. Or that the officers feel endangered in these encounters.

And whether or not I think that’s true in all cases is not the point.

The point is this: This young woman was attending a swim party.
She was wearing a swimsuit and carrying a towel.
Her “crime” was walking near the officer.
And after being brutalized, she’s crying and asking for her mother.

What could possibly be threatening about that situation…..?

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And here’s why it matters to me: I grew up in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. I know McKinney. I have friends that live in McKinney. The setting of McKinney intersects with my own story in a way that Ferguson, Orlando, Cleveland, or Baltimore never did.

There’s something about knowing the area that’s being talked about in the news reports that makes the incident more pressing for me. When we can relegate the places where these things happen to the television or radio, we can justify forming our opinions at arm’s length in spheres of theoreticals and potentialities.

I’m confronted with an urgency in making my position clear on this because I Am McKinney.

It’s the area I grew up in and the area many of my friends and family still live. I know the Dallas/Ft. Worth area intimately, and in many ways, it still feels like a home to me.

And this is why I feel like I must say something.

The actions of this officer were unequivocally unreasonable. There is no reasonable threat posed to Officer Casebolt by this young woman. It is a gross display of excessive force and it sickens me.

And Officer Casebolt should absolutely be stripped of his badge and should be forbidden from ever working in law enforcement anywhere ever again. His actions are disgraceful and reprehensible.

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I stand in solidarity with my sisters and brothers in McKinney and the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex in calling for a swift response to this injustice.

#JusticeforMcKinneyTeens
#IAmMcKinney

Worst. Pyramid Scheme. Ever.

* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on March 1, 2015 *

Text: Matthew 20:1-16

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Let’s pray:

Make us humble, Holy One,
That we might receive your mercy as a gift,
Whether we are last, or first, or somewhere in between.
Amen.

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When I was in college, in my last semester, I had to take Microeconomics. Don’t ask me why I waited until my last semester to take a required course like Microeconomics. Suffice it to say that I struggled with it. Which is strange, I think, because I had no problem with Macro. Global economies, world monetary policy—that stuff makes sense to me, I got that. But when we start talking about economies of scale and elasticity, I get super-lost super-quickly.

Anyway, the whole semester I was scraping by, barely making it, not to mention that super-senioritis had set in big time—that’s right, I was on the 5-year plan, don’t judge. So, super-senioritis coupled with a pretty sizeable workload, do not for a pleasant final semester make.

So, like any responsible student would do, I went and talked with my professor with about a month left in the class, and for me, school. I wanted to know where I stood and where I needed to get to. He said, “Well, you’re really borderline. You definitely could have done more, but essentially you need to get an A on the final to pass my class.”

Crap… Welp…

So, I studied my butt off. I crammed as much information as I thought would fit into this rather large dome-piece, and I went and took the final. There was about a week or so lag time between the last day of classes and graduation, so a couple of days after my last class, my brilliant parents thought it would be wonderful to de-stress by taking a family roadtrip to visit relatives in Oklahoma. Not a bad idea, but the brilliance was in the idea that we would leave on the last day that final grades were to due and subsequently posted online.

You had to be logged-in on a computer in order to check grades, and obviously I was in a car. So I’m sitting in a car, headed north on I-35, texting my then girlfriend/now wife Tiffany, asking her to refresh the page, no joke, literally every 5 minutes to see if my Micro grade had been posted yet.

After an agonizing 2 and a half hours, after an endless stream of exasperated “No, not yet.” responses to my incessant questioning, finally I had my answer…

“You got a C-minus,” the text read.
“Whoa… Wait, for what? For the final or for the final grade?”
“Final grade,” Tiffany replied.

Immense. Relief.

“There isn’t a grade listed for the final exam, just a final grade,” she texted.

A C-minus. No final exam grade listed. My professor wanted me to know that I had only barely passed his class, and even then, I’m not exactly positive I did. Honestly, I probably didn’t get an A on that final, but sometimes being a super-senior set to graduate carries some perks along with it. Don’t let that be a lesson to you, kids.

I probably didn’t deserve to pass Microeconomics, but I was given a gift. A tremendous gift that ultimately prevented a ton of other potentially devastating outcomes for me.

Yes, life is not fair. And sometimes we benefit from that unfairness.

And other times, the unfairness is so glaringly obvious to us, that we can’t help but shout at the top of our lungs, “BUT IT’S NOT FAIR!”

No. No, it’s not. It’s just not fair.

And such is the kingdom of heaven as we heard today. In what, in my mind, is pretty much the worst pyramid scheme ever concocted, the landowner flips the order of the line, and then makes everyone equal by paying them all the same amount?!? I’m not sure I’d sign up for that. Usually the person at the top makes a cut of the money from the people under them and the people under them and the people under them, so on and so forth until eventually, in theory, they should be able to sit back and just earn residual income. Pretty sweet gig, right?

But this is not that.

This is a reversal of the power structures, the status quo, of the world we live in. A new reality in which those at the end of the line are at the front, and those at the beginning of the line must…well, the losers walk to the other end of the field, as we say.

But not only that… “I can deal with having to wait for my share,” we say, “but at least I’ll get what’s coming to me.”

But again, no, that’s not how it works.
In this vineyard, everyone gets the same wage, regardless of how long they worked.
“Hold on a second, you mean I’m getting paid the same amount as this schmuck who barely worked 2 hours, who barely broke a sweat?!? Outrageous! Ridiculous!”

And right there is where I want to pause for a moment…
Right here…in this moment of recognition.

I want you to pay attention to this moment of attention. Take notice of this noticing. Think about how you feel right at this very second…

I’ve been throwing this around in my brain for a few weeks at this point, and I’m not sure that it’s a fully-formed thought yet. But I think that this moment of noticing injustice is crucial to the work of justice. See, I think that the beginning of the work of justice is the noticing the existence of injustice. And not for ourselves, but for others. When we recognize that the world as it is is not the world as it should be, when we recognize that there are those that have and those that have not, and we question why that’s so, we’ve done something incredibly important. I cannot stress this enough. I really do think that this recognition is vital.

And Lent is a really good time for recognition. When we’re going through our spiritual house, taking stock of what is needful and what is not, we’re paying closer attention, noticing what had previously gone unseen, recognizing what often gets passed over or swept aside. This recognition forces us to look at our habits and make conscious efforts to amend them. Lent is a time of spiritual disciplines and practices. In the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, we commit ourselves to the discipline of Lent: of prayer and fasting, of self-reflection and repentance, of sacrificial giving and works of love. These are not done as exercises in depravation, they are meant to awaken us to a deeper reality, the reality of those without, the have-nots, and to realize that, in fact, we all come to God as have-nots. As Paul notes, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

We all are the workers hired at the end of the day…

Our parable today subordinates rewards to grace. We have been given a gift.
A tremendous gift.

Author and theologian Douglas Hare writes, “Yes, the sacrifices of the apostles and other followers of Jesus will be honored by God, but the reward will so far outstrip the sacrifice that it must be seen as nothing more than sheer grace. So, although some may feel that their long and costly service qualifies them for a higher rate of pay in the kingdom, all must humbly acknowledge that in fact they are like eleventh-hour workers. None deserves the glorious future that God has prepared for them.”

That’s an interesting word, I think…“Deserve”…

We say that a lot, don’t we? I deserve this. We say, “Treat yo’self,” right? But I mean, do we “deserve” anything at all? What is that we, we who only a week and a half ago heard “Mortal, you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” what is that we actually deserve?

Don’t we say that everything we have is a gift from God? Do we believe that? I mean, really. Think about this and try and answer it honestly for yourself: Do you truly believe that everything you have is a gift from God?

Maybe not…

But if that’s true…so what?

Well…maybe we are to consider the parable as an invitation. An invitation to participation in the worst pyramid scheme ever dreamed of. An invitation into a way of living that subjugates no one, but instead defies all the conventional rules of economics, seeking real, lasting justice for those for whom a daily wage is but a far-off and hoped-for reality. A pattern of life in the reign of God in which all come to the table at the very end of the day, hands and arms outstretched, deserving nothing, but all receiving the exact same, receiving grace upon grace from the one who offered himself for us.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.