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The Heart of the Matter

February 12, 2017

“The Heart of the Matter”

Matthew 5:21-37

Second Sunday of Black History Month

Sixth Sunday After Epiphany

February 12, 2017

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July 9, 1893. Chicago, Illinois.

James Cornish is stabbed in the chest. His friends rush him to the hospital, but the hospital won’t admit him because he is black.

But one of them has heard of this one hospital that is not segregated, on the South Side, over by Washington Park. Maybe they could go there?

So they do. And they rush him in – but this is 1893. Internal bleeding of the heart? Nobody can treat that. It’s never been one before. Nobody has ever successfully operated on the heart.

They call Dr. Williams.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams.

Dr. Williams, who was not allowed to work in Chicago hospitals because he was black.

Dr. Williams, who founded Provident Hospital as a place where all people were welcome.

Dr. Williams, who when he sees the condition of Mr. Cornish… does not turn away.

He pushes past what anyone has done before. He performs the first heart operation… ever.

James Cornish, stab wound to the chest, lives… another twenty years.

In today’s gospel reading, Part Three of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus looks at this small group of disciples who have climbed the mountain together, this small group of disciples trying to catch their breath from the week that’s passed, and he looks at them, and he says…

Ok…we’ve talked about the blessings for those the world doesn’t see as blessed…

we’ve talked about being salt in a bland world and light in a clouded world…

but I don’t know.

I don’t know if we’ve gotten to the core,

the molten core of this mountain just yet,

the moral core of what matters just yet.

So let’s go farther. Let’s go deeper.

He says, I see you. I see that you feel that there’s something wrong. That something is off. That something’s not right. Something’s not right in the world – and something not right in you, either.

And Jesus says, you’re right, there is something wrong. But before I can give you the treatment, I have to give you the diagnosis.

I told the story a couple of week ago of the time my dad went into the doctor for a routine physical and they wouldn’t let him leave. They had him do a stress test and they discovered that he had blockages in his heart, and he needed to have surgery on his heart as soon as possible.

Well, Jesus has done a stress test on us, and he’s got the diagnosis: It’s a heart problem.

There’s a blockage in the heart of the world, and a blockage in the heart of each of us.

1 John 4:18 says that perfect love casts out fear – which suggests that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear.

Fear of the other. Fear of those who are different from us. Fear of those of other nationalities or religions or sexual orientations or even just fear of different opinions, liberals afraid of conservatives, conservatives afraid of liberals,

or even just fear of being vulnerable, fear of getting hurt, fear of putting ourselves out there, fear of what might happen if we were to really be ourselves, if we were to really be who God made us to be.

And so we… don’t. We let our hearts constrict. We fill our arteries with the plaque of panic, the fats of fright, the cholesterol of consternation, and it affects our whole selves.

Jesus has done the echocardiogram and he can see the problem: there’s problem in the heart.

It’s not just the moral laws that you follow or don’t follow. It’s the constricted heart that beats beneath our chest, the constricted heart of our individual selves, the constricted heart of our increasingly unhealthy nation.

And unfortunately… you can’t do heart surgery on yourself.

I mean, unless you’re Iron Man, but I don’t see Tony Stark in this room.

As Jesus says, you cannot change one hair on your head. You don’t need a moral dermatologist, or an intellectual neurologist, you need a divine cardiologist.

Fortunately, I know a guy.

Today, God looks like Daniel Hale Williams. Today, God is a heart surgeon.

In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people from the mountain, “See, I have set before you today, life and death” and in the operating room of your baptism, God says, “No, No!” to the way of death and “Yes, Yes!” to the way of life and the life-giving power of love.

In the operating room of the baptism waters, God looks at us whose hearts have given out from weariness and cynicism and God says, Get the moral defibrillator. We’ve got to shock this heart back to life with the power of love.

In the waters of our baptism, God performs open heart surgery. It’s a triple bypass, a Holy Trinity

God goes in and he bypasses the first fear-blocked artery with a new artery, the artery of the God the Father, that creative spark and opens up a new challen so that creativity might flow.

God goes in and he bypasses the first fear-blocked artery with a new artery, the artery of the God the Son, and opens up a new channel for the red blood cells of redemption might flow.

God goes in he bypasses the first fear-blocked artery with a new artery, the artery of God the Holy Spirit, and opens up a new channel for the sustaining platelets of love (Platelets of love? Really, pastor? Platelets, they congeal so that our skin comes together and reconciles and heals – Platelets of love, yeah, I’m going with it!), so that the sustaining platelets of love might flow.

When he came home from his open heart surgery, my dad said, “I didn’t even know I was sick before. I felt bad all the time, but I just thought that was normal. I thought that’s how you were supposed to feel. I didn’t know you could feel better.”

This present reality that we’re living is not normal. God has something much better in mind.

But to get there, God’s going to need a lot more EMT’s.

Emergency Mercy Technicians.

See, we have a lot of broken hearts in the world, broken hearts with broken relationships and broken hopes, blocked by the buildup of fear.

We’ve got to break down the buildup of fear so we can live. We’ve got to restart the moral pulse of the world in which we live.

In the words of Rev. William Barber, architect of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays advocacy movement, as Rev. Barber says, we are called to be moral defibrillators for this world.

We are called to take that defibrillator of grace and that defibrillator of mercy and rub them together and yell “stat” – stat! – and shock this world with the power of love!

We’ve got to place them on the body of our neighborhood, the body of our nation, the body of our world, and shock this world with the power of love!

Like the call and response of a song, we respond in kind to the gift of love that God has given us and we proclaim: No, I renounce the temptation of hate. Yes, I choose the power of love.

Well, Jesus got up on that mountaintop to proclaim this message.

What’s the mountaintop today?

It is the internet.

Man, last week I asked y’all to post and text and everything else, but I didn’t think you’d actually do it. That was awesome!

Do you know how many people who couldn’t make it that morning knew – because of you! – that the Spirit of God was present and active and alive and doing something new in the gathered community?

I mean, what did that take, 10 seconds? And the impact was powerful.

So let’s do it again. Sermon on the Mount; sermon on the social media.

Today text a friend, post on Facebook, tweet like POTUS, with these words: I choose love.

Or if you really want to be creative – hand your phone to the person next to you.

Have them take a picture of you with your hands in the shape of a heart.

Post that picture with this caption:

I choose love. 

We choose love because, as Dr. King said, “hatred is too great a burden to bear.”

We choose love because it’s the only thing that casts out the fear that reigns over us.

We choose love because God first loved us.

When nothing else could help,

love lifted us,

that we might lift one another

with the power of love.

Amen.

#decolonizeTheochella

October 25, 2016

Holden Evening Prayer at Theoasis

October 24, 2016

Texts: 1 Samuel 2:1-10; 1 Peter 4:12-19

“#decolonizeTheochella”

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Fun fact: Theoasis is actually not the only theological conference in this area. There is another one. It’s called Coachella, a.k.a. the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, and it takes place every spring. Last year a couple of us Lutheran rostered leaders, namely, Rustin Comer, Caleb Crainer, Kevin Sumner-Eisenbraun and I attended this conference, along with 100,000 of our closest…ecumenical friends. Our keynote speakers were Ice Cube, Sia, Axl Rose, and Mavis Staples, among with many others. It was an eclectic mix of theological ideas.

The biggest difference between Coachella and Theoasis, or Theochella, is probably the clothing. I’m not talking about the tank tops, which I only wear at Coachella – kind of like how I only wear an alb at worship.

No, even more than tank tops, what struck me is that instead of clerical collars and Old Lutheran t-shirts, the most distinctive garments at Coachella are the bandanas that people wear to cover their faces, especially their nose and mouth. Pastor Caleb wondered if this was because we were all going to stage an old-timey bank robbery, but no.

It was because of the hot, dry, wind storms that would blow through the festival, knocking down the shelters of tents and tarps, whipping up the dust of the ground, and literally choking us with the stuff of which we are made.

That’s one way to interpret the storms blowing throughout the world we live in. Our nation’s original sins of racism and sexism have risen to the front page once more, and the thick dust of grief and anguish, anger and rage, frustration and shame, resistance – and resistance to resistance – are no longer willing to, like dust, be swept under the rug, but have risen to where we can all see them.

I serve a multi-ethnic, mostly African-Caribbean descent congregation, and for the last I don’t know how many Sundays, I’ve struggled with what to say about the latest instance of state violence against the black community.

I have undocumented immigrant children in my confirmation class whose future is uncertain; they have their baptismal certificate but lack citizenship papers.

And I’m only here preaching with you today, pulling a sermon together as quickly as I could, because my bishop is on his way to Standing Rock in North Dakota to be present with protestors standing up against another land grab of Native American soil.

Sometimes we treat these winds of conflict as if they’re some sudden madness we can’t explain, some inexplicable weather pattern that has come out of nowhere.

So I confess that I found words of the epistle today a refreshing breath of keep-it-100 air.

“Beloved,” the artist formerly known as Peter writes, “do not be surprised at the fiery trial that has come among you. These are not strange happenings.”

These are not strange happenings. These winds have been blowing for a long time. It’s just that now more of us are feeling it, and reaching for the bandana.

Will it be a bandana to protect ourselves? Or will it be a different kind of garment, a baptismal bandana that keeps in the midst of the storm to see it through together to the end?

For that is where the artist formerly known as Peter finds hope.

He finds hope, not in the unjust suffering of the innocent, but in the fact that in the midst of the suffering, something is coming to an end. A whole order of things is coming to an end in order to for something new to be born.

There’s a change taking place, a great shift. Call it a rummage sale, call it a trial by fire, call it a reformation, call it a baptism, call it a death and a resurrection, but whatever you call it, don’t sleep on this moment.

In the midst of the storm, something is happening. The questions, my friends – to remix the Noel Laureate – the questions are blowing in the wind. The Spirit of God is on the move.

Last weekend, a multiracial coalition of Lutherans gathered in Chicago for the first in-person mass meeting of a movement called #decolonizeLutheranism. They expected maybe 50 people; over 200 showed up. Over 200 showed up hungry to figure out how the Lutheran church can move in the direction of the church of Acts and Revelation, a church not just of Northern European ethnicity, but how the Lutheran church can more and more be a church of every tribe and nation.

Now, I know that we’re on the bleeding edge of this change out here on the West Coast, in Southern California. Amen? (Amen!)

Our synods are some of the most diverse in the entire ELCA.

And yet. I look around this room and I see mostly people who look light me.

Which means that we’ve got work to do. Amen? (Amen!)

I won’t pretend to have all the answers. But the questions give me hope, the questions that have been flying across social media like a Santa Ana wind, rising up like dust in the form of hashtags and Twitter handles, like a new printing press for a new Reformation, new theses posted on a new door.

Martin Luther talked about sin as the self turned in on the self. Martin Luther King, Jr talked about this sin writ large, a whole society turned in on itself in a spiral of violence.

But if grace can reverse this, then the spirited winds of change can turn around the windmill, then they can spiral out from our hearts into our action in the world in larger and larger circles, rising like a song on the wind.

“The time has come,” writes the artist formerly known as Peter, “for judgment to begin with the household of God. It begins,” he writes, “it begins with us.”

You see, our salvation doesn’t rely on preserving the old order, on keeping this day going. Our salvation comes when we let go and let night fall in order for a new day to dawn.

Night falls and the day rises at Coachella three times. I told you it was theological. But what draws me out there again and again, is that in the midst of the dust storms there is music of every genre. There are songs of every kind rising on the wind.

This year the highlight for me was the guest appearance of Kendrick Lamar and his rendition of his song “Alright.”

I won’t try to rap it for you – you’re welcome – but if you haven’t heard the song, think a modern-day Magnificat, a remix of Mary’s Song for a new day, just like Mary’s song was a remix of Hannah’s song for a new day, Hannah’s song that was just read for us tonight.

It’s a different beat, but the it’s the same song, a song of justice rising on the dusty wind like incense before our God.

A new song is rising on the wind, rising like incense before us, its mighty 808s shaking the foundations, threatening to cast the mighty down from our thrones, and daring to uplift those whose heads are bowed. It’s calling us to new ventures of which we cannot see the ending, and if we let it, if we let night fall, then we just might find the faith to go out into that new day with good courage, in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Living Faith

October 2, 2016

“Living Faith”

Central American and Caribbean Heritage Festival

Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost

October 2, 2016

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A couple of Easter Sundays ago, I was talking with Ms. Marva and Ms. Astra after church, and they were saying, “Pastor, when you go to Belize…” and I said, when I go to Belize? Don’t you mean if I go to Belize? And they said, no, when you go, pasta. When you go.

And so we went. And one day, while we were there, we headed west out of Belize City on Goldson Highway toward Burrell Boom, stopping briefly at Flowers Bank, continuing on until we finally pulled off the side of the road at Bermudian Landing and hiked into the jungle, past the croaking howler monkeys, to a clearing where we saw it:

A lone towering mahogany tree.

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus tells his disciples, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

So I started to wonder: If it takes a mustard seed to uproot a mulberry tree, how much faith would it take to uproot a mahogany tree?

I was talking to our music director Joe Williams about this question, and after I tried to draw an equivalence between a mulberry tree and a mahogany tree, he gave me a Joe Williams chuckle – you know the one – and said,

“Pastor, you’re not uprooting a mahogany tree.”

A mahogany tree is huge and towering, its roots go deep and wide, its wood is durable and strong. Mahogany trees are so small thing. They are no small thing.

That’s probably good for my metaphor. Because the problems we face in 2016 are no small thing, either.

Another week, another police shooting. Alfred Olango in El Cajon, California.

The words of Habbakuk seem devastatingly appropriate. Habakkuk, too, faced the ancient equivalent of violence on a cell phone video camera, shoved in his face again and again until he cried out, “O Lord, how long? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. The law becomes slack; justice never prevails. Why do you make me see all this trouble? Why do you make us talk about it again? How long, O Lord, shall I cry, Violence!?”

There’s a lot we don’t understand, but we can be clear about one thing: The roots of Habakkuk’s violence and ours are deep. This is no surprise volunteer weed in the garden; some sudden madness we can’t explain. The roots of this violence go deep into our history.

I won’t talk about all that history in one sermon – for that you’d want to take one of Chris’s classes at LACC – but I want to talk about one moment in history that’s relevant for this day. This year, the Southwest California Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. Now what the heck is that?

In 1493, only a few decades before Martin Luther ignited the Reformation, Pope Alexander VI issued a Papal Bull that gave Europe control over the Americas; it’s become known as the Doctrine of Discovery, and it gave Europeans a faithful reason for colonization. Not just moving into the neighborhood, but saying now that we’re here, you have to be like us. It implied that in order to be Christian, you have to be European; in order to be fully human, it said, you have to European. That’s what this false doctrine said.

When the disciples came to Jesus and begged him to increase their faith, he said, No. You don’t understand. Increasing the size of your faith, the size of your community, the size of your congregation, the size of your rallies and marches, the size of your bank account: That’s not going to cut it. The whole system needs to be uprooted out of violence and replanted in love.

But how?

From prison an incarcerated Paul writes to a young person, Timothy, Timothy from the youth group, Timothy from the Confirmation class, Timothy, a young man who sees what’s going on, feels fired up about it, but doesn’t know what to do. First of all, Paul writes, don’t let anyone put you down because you, Timothy, are young. And here Paul tells Timothy why.

There is something that lives within you, Timothy. There is something that burns within you, whether you know it yet or not.

We call it faith.

The same faith, Paul writes, that burned inside your mother.

The same faith, Paul writes, that burned inside your grandmother.

The same faith that burned inside your indigenous ancestors, as the ships landed on their soil.

The same faith that burned inside your African ancestors, as they came across the waters.

The same faith that burned inside your European ancestors, seeking a better life for their children.

The same faith that was kindled by the power of God who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace, a grace that was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.

You want to uproot a mahogany tree out of evil? You don’t need any magic powers.

All you need is the faith of your fathers, the faith of your mothers, a living faith.

And you already have it within you.

It lives in you!

Wait, let me say that a different way. Norris, how would I say that in Kriol? It live in a yu?

Tell your neighbor, “Neighbor, fait live in a yu! It live in a yu!”

It was given to you when you were replanted in the waters of a community of faith, warm like a Caribbean sea, warm with the fire of faith. And planted in those waters, everything began to change.

Martin Luther talked about sin as the self turned in the self. Martin Luther King, Jr talked about this sin writ large, a whole society turned in on itself in a spiral of violence.

But if love reverses this and redeems us, then love can spiral out from our hearts into our action in the world in larger and larger circles.

Across the country, a multiracial coalition of young Lutherans have begun a movement called #decolonizeLutheranism. And we’re a part of that, dear people, because we’ve been decolonizing Lutheranism for a very long time.

Here at St. Mark’s, we were first decolonized, uprooted and replanted, when we desegregated back in the 1950s, and said, we’re going to be a church for all nations, and like a tree planted by the waters, our values shall not be moved.

But they shall not stay here either. That spiral of justice and peace goes out from here into the neighborhood, goes out from here to the UNIDAD coalition and the Don’t Waste LA coalition, it goes out to New City Parish, including Chapel of Peace, where we’ll worship next week, it goes out to El Camino Pines and Luther Glen and yes, even to Universal Studios and Disneyland, that spiral of justice and peace goes out from here to Detroit and to New Orleans and to Houston and to all the places that we send our faithful people to share the gospel that belongs to every tribe and every nation.

Today we bless new council members and a new confirmation class. Both of these groups are not here to go through the motions, they are here to lead us in the uprooting of our world out of violence and the replanting of our world in love. Be creative and courageous as you begin this new journey together, for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but a spirit of power and of love.

It’s no accident Jesus tells a topsy-turvy story after the one about uprooting and replanting. He looks at the system of slavery and domination and flips it on its head. Jesus tells a story of one who has been kept from the table being called forth with these words:

“Come here at once, and take your place at the table!”

That’s what we do when we go out. And that’s what we do right here at home today.

After the prophet Habakkuk cries out to the Lord, he hears the Lord’s response.

God says to “Write the vision.”

And I have to imagine that God didn’t just want us to write the vision with words,

but to write the vision with food and drink and music and culture,

because faith comes not just through doctrines and creeds

but through flesh and blood.

So write the vision.

Write it with Barbara’s milk cakes,

Write it with Vilda’s ceviche,

Write it with Elba’s pupusas,

Write it with Astra’s dancing,

Write it with punta and soca,

Write it with dukunu and stew chicken,

Write it with beans & rice and rice & beans – they’re two different things!

Write it with homemade t-shirts and facepaint,

Write it with flags and marches,

Write the vision and make it plain.

Make it plain so the world can see it and hear it and smell it and taste it and feel it in our bones.

For there is still a vision for the appointed time;

it speaks of the end, and does not lie.

Something is coming to an end –

But something new is being born.

If it seems to tarry, wait for it;

it will surely come, it will not delay.

Justice delayed is justice denied

And God’s new world will not be denied.

It is the world spoken of in the book of Revelation,

a world that takes the form of a city,

a city with a great towering tree in the middle of it,

a towering tree not of injustice but of life,

a tree of life right in the middle of the city of angels,

a tree of life with food for all,

and leaves that heal the nations.

With the faith of our fathers,

With the faith of our mothers,

we shall write the vision once more.

Amen.

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

September 4, 2016

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

September 4, 2016

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A few weeks ago, the R&B artist Frank Ocean released his latest album, Blond/e. Like so many releases from Beyonce to the St. Mark’s Musical Gathering, the album was a surprise drop, appearing without warning to the immediate excitement of enthusiastic fans.

I am one of those fans. What I appreciate about Frank Ocean is that, like David Bowie or Prince before him, he doesn’t care what anyone thinks. He makes art on his own sweet time that refuses to fit into genre categories or gender binaries. He is who he is.

There’s even a track on the new album called “Be Yourself.” In the long tradition of skits on hip-hop albums, this is a voice mail message from a mother telling her son,

Don’t try to be someone else

Be yourself and know that that’s good enough

Don’t try to be someone else.

Don’t try to be like someone else.

Don’t try to act like someone else.

Be yourself.

You can take that as cliché… except that it feels so much like something we so desperately need to hear, again and again, like water for a dehydrated soul.

Sometimes the systems in which we live and work and study actively encourage us not to be ourselves or speak our truth.

They tell people to stand for a national anthem before a football game or look a certain way while doing Olympic gymnastics or conform to any number of unholy rules.

This week our own Magally published a blog post highlighting the situation at Pretoria High School in South Africa, where black students were prohibited from wearing their hair naturally. They were told not to be themselves, but to be someone else’s idea of who they should be.

The girls at this school have protested, and the rules have been suspended, for now, but it’s the tip of the iceberg. For a personal reflection, I encourage you to read Magally’s full post at justmagally.com, where she writes a thoughtful and moving reflection on the issue.

As she highlights in her piece, even unspoken rules can tell us how to be, can tell us that the way we are is not good enough.

Sometimes I wonder whether this is what sin is: the tragic buildup of plaque around our souls that tells us that we have to do this or that, eat this apple, gain this knowledge, look this way, be better than this person or those people, in order earn the approval of others, in order to earn the love of God.

But Martin Luther’s insight was that we don’t earn God’s love. God loves us first. Not after we earn it, not after we prove ourselves, but first, beginning when God, like a potter, began to form us and make us, in every shape and size, color and hue, language and lilt.

On Track 139 of his Greatest Hits, a.k.a. the Psalms, David sings to his God in a style I can only imagine as Frank Ocean-esque, these words:

For you yourself created my inmost parts;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I will thank you because I am marvelously made;

your works are wonderful, and I know it well.

God loves us first and forever, from the moment of creation through now.

Justification comes by grace, and if sanctification means anything, then it must also mean this: Letting go of all that prevents us from knowing who we are and whose we are.

Today in our other Scripture reading, our gospel reading, Jesus tells us that we must give up everything to follow him.

Sometimes we read one Scripture in light of another, Scripture interpreting Scripture, and reading Luke 14 in light of Psalm 139, I can’t help wondering if part of what Jesus is calling us to give up, if at least one of the possessions that we must let go of, is all that stuff that keeps us from being who we were created to be.

It’s like dry brush that builds up over time and is ripe for a fire. And sometimes you’ve got to clear that brush away so that you can get back to being who God made you to be.

Next week, for God’s Work Our Hands Sunday, we are going to do just that. We’re going to work together with officers in the USC Department of Public Safety and youth from the LA Conservation Corps to clear brush from the empty lot next door.

As many of you remember, the lot formerly held the Mary MacLeod Bethune Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library system, but they moved Ms. Bethune’s library south, and now the land next door to us has sat empty for years.

And as it’s sat empty, it’s been slowly building up dry brush from the pine trees overhead, until a few weeks ago, when there was a small brush fire that took the LA Fire Department a long time to put out. And so in order to prevent another fire, we’ve been invited to help clear that dry tinder, to clear the mess right here in our neighborhood.

This is the work of discipleship. This is the way of following Jesus. To clear away the mess that keeps us from being who we were lovingly created to be. To clear away the mess that keeps the world from being what it was lovingly created to be.

This is discipleship: to clear away everything that keeps us from knowing that we are marvelously made.

Turn to your neighbor a moment and say

“Neighbor,

oh neighbor,

you are marvelously made.”

In Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Revelation,” O’Connor tells the tale of Ruby Turpin. Ruby is, in her own words, a “respectable, hardworking, church-going woman.”

Ruby thinks it’s her respectability that makes her beloved, until one day, there is a crack in her armor, and she begins to wonder whether God doesn’t actually care too much about that. In the midst of her existential crisis, she has this apocalyptic vision of people going up to heaven on the Last Day.

And to her great surprise, all the people she thought were unworthy are the ones leading the parade into the kingdom. And all the people like her – they’re not being left behind, but they are being changed. They have shocked and altered faces, because “even their virtues were being burned away.”

Someone asked me recently if we were a “come as you are church.” I said, yeah, “we’re a come as you are church.”

And then I paused, and spoke again.

“We’re a come as you are church, but we’re not a leave as you are church. You should come as you are, but I hope you leave a little closer to who you were made to be.”

Amen.

“I see you!”

June 12, 2016

Graduation Sunday

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

June 12, 2016

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It’s appropriate, I think, that we’re ending our three-part series on throwing shade by celebrating the accomplishments of our young people, as it’s these same young people who first taught me the meaning of “shade,” both by defining it for me and by giving me plenty of examples… and examples… and examples.

But really, I’ve learned so much from you guys, I feel like I’m graduating. For teaching me what it means to “throw shade” to explaining to me what that Fetty Wap song was really about – I had no idea, thank you so much – to teaching me how to earn rewards at Starbucks – here’s a tip, stop every time you go to El Camino Pines, and soon you, too, will earn that S’mores Frappucino, just like me. For all these lessons and so much more, I want to thank you, graduates. You’ve taught me so much.

Which is why I don’t know what I’m going to do without you. I know, not all of you are leaving, but Shakari and Skyler are. Even DJ is going away for the summer. We’re gonna miss you on those drums, DJ!

Yes, I know it’s a celebratory moment, but I can’t help but be all complicated about it, I can’t help feeling a swirl of emotions at graduations. I mean, there’s more than one thing going on here. It’s the end of one thing and the beginning of another.

And as you graduates begin new chapters, you’re going to find yourself in some new situations where you face some adversity, where there are some obstacles in your path, where you might feel out of place.

I was talking with Chris about this, and she said, “Oh, why don’t you tell them about your experience?” And I was like, what do you mean? And she was like, “You know, how hard you struggled in college.” And I was like, I struggled in college? And she was like, “Uh, yeah, remember? Your first year? How you were so homesick, and you weren’t sure if you liked the school, and your girlfriend dumped you, and…”

Chris is good at remembering things. And that’s good, because you’ve got to remember where you’ve been if you’re going to begin a new chapter. Beginning a new chapter in a new place is hard, whether that new place is kindergarten or first grade or middle school or high school or college or grad school or starting that new job.

It’s how our story from Luke begins today. People have gathered for a dinner party. They’ve received their invitations, their acceptance letters, and they’ve come to, Luke tells us, take their “place at the table.”

And among them is this woman, and she hasn’t just come to dinner, she’s brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She has brought her gifts to this table. Luke hasn’t mentioned anyone else’s gifts, just hers. She hasn’t come to this table empty-handed; she’s come with the gifts God has given her, ready to share them with the others at the table.

And yet. It’s like one of those nightmare scenarios where she’s just walked into class and everyone’s heads turned to look at her. Not to see her, just to look. They don’t say anything, they just think to themselves and they give her that look.

Now, pastor, I thought this sermon was going to have shade in it. How are you going to say they’re throwing shade if they don’t even say anything?

Yeah, you know how some people can throw shade with their eyes?

They can throw shade at you with just a look.

And that’s just what they do. And having been hit with that shade, this young woman starts to wonder if she really belongs there at that new table in that new place.

And Jesus… could have said a lot of things. And he does, he tells Simon a little story that says more than it says, classic Jesus, but Simon still doesn’t seem to get it, so Jesus says, Simon! Simon, I know you can give her that shady look. But what I want to know is:

“Do you see this woman? Do you see this woman?”

“I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment… She has shown great love.” Simon, do you see this woman? Do you see her?

And then Jesus turns to the woman, as he turns to every one of us and says these words. Well, he doesn’t say them out loud, he says them with a look.

You know some people can heal with their eyes? With just a look they can make you feel like everything’s gonna be ok? That’s what Jesus does here. But we’re going to say it out loud, we’re going to spell out what Jesus says with his look. Turn to your neighbor a moment and say it with me,

“Neighbor,” (neighbor), “child of God,” (child of God), “I see you!” (I see you!)

That’s what Jesus says to all of us. I see you.

On this day, he says it, first of all, to those who have supported these young people, who have anointed these young people with the ointment of their love each and every day.

Waking up at the crack of dawn to get the kids to school on time. Jesus says, I see you.

Staying up late to make sure they finish that homework. Jesus says, I see you.

Driving them all over for extracurricular activities. Jesus says, I see you.

Making sure that food is on the table. Jesus says, I see you.

Keeping them in line. Jesus says, I see you.

Showing up to cheer them on. Jesus says, I see you. I see you. I see you.

If you are a parent, aunt, uncle, part of the village this morning, I ask you to stand.

Graduates, Jesus asks us, “Do you see them? Do you see what your supporters have done?”

Well, if so, then turn to them and tell them:

“I see you. I see you!

And of course, dear graduates, your village is looking right back at you. Because on this day, we recognize your accomplishments, the journey you have made. We’ve done what we can to support you, but in the end, you’ve got to do your part, and carry that baton for the length of your relay race. And you have.

You have raised the bar. You have been academic achievers and community builders. You have been cheer captains and camp counselors. You have been leaders in your school, leaders in your community, leaders in your church. And Jesus says, I see you, too.

Elijah, pre-school graduate, when you help to pass out instruments on Sunday mornings –

Jesus says, I see you.

Sydney, kindergarten graduate, when you helped to harvest vegetables from our garden

on God’s Work Our Hands Sunday,

Jesus says, I see you.

Jacob, elementary school graduate, when you helped your pastor

survive the rides at Universal Studios,

Jesus says, I see you.

DJ, elementary school graduate, when you come in on a Sunday morning

and the first thing you say to me is, can I help today, pastor?

DJ, I want you to know, when you do that,

Jesus says, I see you. I see you.

You know, as we get older, it gets harder, but Jesus still sees us.

Sirenna, when you earn those grades that get you that pin and ribbon,

Jesus says, I see you.

when you are at school and you stand for peace when everyone else is fighting,

Jesus says, I see you.

when you are brave enough to go to a new school in the fall with courage and confidence,

Jesus says, I see you.

when you rock that purple hair,

Jesus says, I see you.

And my high school graduates. Do we have to? I don’t want to let them go.

Skyler, when you help your mom set up those amazing centerpieces for fellowship,

Jesus says, I see you.

when you volunteer at the Halloween Haunted Church and Thanksgiving Community Meal,

Jesus says, I see you.

when you are brave enough to go on a trip to the mountains

with the shade-throwing youth at this church,

Jesus says, I see you.

when you speak at the Martin Luther King, Jr, service in front of hundreds of people,

Jesus says, I see you.

when you earn a GPA high enough to stand and be recognized at graduation,

Jesus says, I see you.

when you set such an amazing example for your younger siblings,

Jesus says, I see you. I see you. I see you.

Shakari, when you volunteer to give blankets to the homeless for MLK Day,

Jesus says, I see you.

when you helped break ground at the first dig-in for our church community garden,

Jesus says, I see you.

when you led dance battles in Detroit because you know that’s how community is built,

with a dance battle,

Jesus says, I see you.

when you worry over your friends when they struggle,

Jesus says, I see you.

when you share your radiant personality with us on bike rides and lock-ins and Friday Fires,

and you help us “celebrate good times,”

Jesus says, I see you.

when you look out for the new kids, making sure that they are able to serve communion, too, because everybody deserves a place at the table,

Jesus says, I see you. I see you. I see you.

Dear graduates, each and every one of you, named aloud and named in our hearts,

for being the beloved children of God that you are,

Jesus says, I see you, I see you, I see you.

If you are a graduate today, would you stand?

Parents, village, congregation, Jesus asks us “Do you see these children of God? Do you see what they have done? Do you see them?” Well, then tell them:

“We see you. We see you!

Our story from Luke today ends with a coda, like one of those hidden scenes after the credits of an Avengers movie.

Luke tells us that Jesus “went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women: Mary, called Magdalene, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.”

Having received love, these women turned to share that love with others in word and deed.

In other words, to whom much is given much will be expected.

You see, not everyone you meet will know the love you have known.

And so it is your job, graduates, to share the love you’ve known with all those around you.

In a world that just experienced violence yet again in Florida last night,

we need you to share the love you’ve known.

When you see that student that looks like they feel out of place,

reach out to them.

When you see that classmate about to quit,

reach out to them.

When you see someone who needs to be not just looked at but seen,

you be the one to see them.

Go forth from here to be a blessing to others.

Take your gifts and share them with the world.

After all, you’ve come this far by faith.

Now let’s go on just a little bit farther.

Please stand as you are able as we sing “This Far By Faith.”

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Down Goes Death

June 6, 2016

Third Sunday After Pentecost

June 5, 2016

Luke 7:11-17

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‘I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me—black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.’

The words of Muhammed Ali: May he rest in peace.

We’ve been talking about shade lately, and in our discussions shade refers not only to the cooler temperatures and economic fortunes provided by the mahogany tree seen on the Belizean flag but also to the artfully crafted verbal arrows that surprise, shock, and subvert us, often – not always, but often – with some version of a truth we don’t want to hear.

Last week, I said if you wanted examples of what it means to throw shade, you might watch any episode of Empire. But really… Ali would put all the Lyons to shame.

I think we have a clip.

That’s just a taste; go home today and have some fun on YouTube looking up old Ali interviews. You won’t be disappointed!

The thing about what Ali did with shade, with trash-talking, is that it wasn’t just entertaining; it was also a way of getting attention from the powers that be who would rather ignore you and from the everyday people you want to pay attention.

It’s this kind of shade that Jesus throws, too, Jesus, a first-century Jew navigating between the occupying forces of the world’s reigning superpower and the unfaithful politics of his own religious establishment, this is the kind of shade that Jesus throws, too.

What’s harder: To proclaim “I am the greatest” or “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” Imagine that line of Jesus spoken not with the ponderous tones with which we normally hear it, but with Ali’s playful tone, spoken as a challenge from Jesus to all the would-be pretenders: The Roman Empire, the religious establishment, hunger, sickness, death itself.

If last week we imagined Jesus as part of the Lyon Dynasty, this week imagine him as Ali, a master of the strategic action and word, able to get the attention of the media or the government or the dominant culture with a well-placed phrase, a well-timed act of resistance, some well-aimed shade.

Last week, for example, Jesus not only healed the centurion’s sick man – won a boxing match with disease – but couldn’t help but throw some serious shade at the religious folk in the postgame interview. “Not even in Israel have I found such faith!”

He’d just healed not for an Israelite, not for someone of his own family, but for someone of another culture, a stranger – and at the very same time called out the religious folk for not doing the same. You see, in the ancient Scriptures there was a holy trinity of people the religious folks were supposed to look out for: Strangers, widows, and orphans. They were the most vulnerable, the most marginalized, the people not recognized. Strangers, widows, and orphans.

And now Jesus enters the city of Nain and encounters a widow. It’s important to understand that in the ancient world a widow was not only someone who grieved the loss of a loved one, but someone who had been stripped of her social safety net.

In the ancient patriarchal world, a woman was dependent upon the men in her life. When Luke tells us that the dead man was “his mother’s only son, and she was a widow,” you can feel her layers of security and stability being peeled away. No husband. No son. In the ancient world, including the city of Nain in which she lived, her sources of economic possibility were evaporating. She was about to be swept under the rug, pushed into the margins and forgotten.

It’s into this ring of reality that Jesus walks. If this was a fight, it wouldn’t be the Rumble in the Jungle or the Thrilla in Manilla, it would be the Pain at Nain.

Jesus walks in, raises her son to life, and gives him back to his mother.

Down goes death.

With the words, “Young man, I say to you: Rise!” Jesus has just thrown serious shade at death – and not only at death, but at all the deathly forces that threaten the widow. Jesus has just put death and all his friends on notice.

Get used to me.

And in the shade Jesus throws at death, everyone is able to flourish. You see, the young man wasn’t the only one who was raised that day.

The crowd that was previously silent and grieving now has a whole new spirit, a volatile mix of fear and possibility. Yes, the Scriptures tell us, even as they glorified God, fear seized them, and for good reason. Ali once said “If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough,” and the crowds that surround Jesus are now dreaming dreams and seeing visions of possibility big enough to scare them.

Just like the young man who was raised and given to his mother, they, too had been raised not for themselves, but for a world that needed them, and especially for the parts of the world the world won’t recognize. Who is that today?

Today we’re about to gather on the patio, under the shade of our canopy, our metal mahogany tree, to dream dreams for the summer.

I wonder if we’ll dream dreams big enough to scare us.

I wonder if we can be as bold as Ali, as bold as Jesus.

I wonder if we can hear again the words that were spoken not just for the benefit of the dead man but for all those who have lost hope in the possibilities, who have lost sight of what and who is around us, for all those who are in need of resurrection.

For even today the body of Christ on earth walks into the ring and speaks.

For even today, the body of Christ, the community of the baptized, reaches out to each of us and speaks the words embodied at our baptism, the words that raise us up and send us out into the world full of dreams big enough to scare us.

Dear people of God, dear body of Christ, turn to your neighbor and say:

Child of God…

I say to you…

Rise!

Amen.

The Wardrobe of God

August 24, 2015

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

August 23, 2015

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1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43

Ephesians 6:10-20

John 6:56-69

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This weekend, Chris and I received an invitation to an All White Party.

If you don’t know, a white party is not a party where you do white people things – I’ve been to those – no, it’s a party where you wear all white clothing.

Which means that after the initial “oooh, I’ve been invited to a party”- in the next moment I’m like, “I don’t have thing to wear!” I literally don’t own any white clothing. What am I gonna do?

Then I remembered – I remembered – that I received some guayaberas for Christmas last year from the church – thank you! – so I had my shirt covered. And then I realized that my brother had given me some white and gray Jordans for standing up at his wedding. Shirt and shoes: this is progress!

Now, um, if you haven’t noticed the pattern, basically I have nice clothes because people give them to me. I generally don’t go shopping for clothes unless it’s for, like, a Star Wars t-shirt or, you know, Chucks – basically I have the fashion sense of a 13 year old boy.

Anyway, long story short, I had to take a trip to the mall – not my favorite place – and get myself some white clothes.

But I did it, you guys, I did it – I found some white pants and a sweet white hat – gotta have the hat – and I was ready to party.

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It’s important to wear clothes appropriate to the task you’re engaged in. But sometimes it feels as if we don’t have what we need for the task at hand, be it clothing or resources or expertise or enough time.

The apostle Paul, writing from prison to the Ephesians, has this on his mind when he writes about a kind of clothing. It’s not a party he’s talking about suiting up for, though – it’s battle.

Put on, he says, the whole armor of God.

Fasten the belt of truth around your waist,

and put on the breastplate of righteousness.

As shoes for your feet:

Put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.

With all of these, take the shield of faith,

and the helmet of salvation,

and the sword of the Spirit,

which is the word of God.

I suppose that sounds less like what you’d wear to a party and more like what Tommy Trojan would wear when he’s going off to fight the Bruins or the Fighting Irish. But take another look, and you’ll see that Paul is not writing about anything you can forge with iron or buy in a shopping mall.

Paul is talking about something we already have. He writes as if we already have what we need; as if all we need to do is take up the armor that already lies at our feet.

This can be hard to believe. We face real challenges. But maybe there is a reality beyond what we can see. Or maybe not just beyond this reality, but within it, within the very flesh and blood we already inhabit, something far greater than we thought possible.

See, there’s this trajectory, this story arc that runs through the Scriptures.

In the beginning, God breathes into Adam and Eve, as if God’s Spirit, God’s breath dwells within them.

But over time people forget that. They start to forget where God can be found, they feel distant from God, much as we sometimes do. Kanye says ”I want to talk to God but I’m afraid ‘cause we ain’t spoke in so long…”

And by the time the Scriptures get to Solomon, we’ve started to feel so distant from God that we’re building brick-and-mortar houses for God, as if hoping that if we build God a house, God will show up there – and then hopefully stay there, and stay out of our non-God business. 

Of course, there’s a hint of something more in Solomon’s building of the temple – always a seed of something more in Scripture, even when things are going off the rails. “When a foreigner comes and prays here,” Solomon says, “hear that prayer, O God. Hear that prayer.” When people who are different from one another pray together – newcomers with old-timers, youth with elders, different tribes with different nations – then something holy happens, something God hears. Where true charity and love abide, God is dwelling there. God is dwelling there.

Even Solomon seems to get it: That the brick and mortar is simply a place for the people to gather, and it is when the people have gathered that God is dwelling there.

But still the story of Scripture continues and the people struggle to get it and so finally God decides to try a new strategy. God comes down and becomes one of us. God takes on a face so that we can see the face of God in every face we see.

God becomes incarnate and in so doing proclaims that these bodies we inhabit, our individual bodies and the community that is itself a body, they matter. These bodies matter, for the Spirit of God dwells within each and every one of them.

That is why Paul, writing from prison, speaks of armor, of clothing, of wardrobe. He knows the Spirit of God dwells within the flesh-and-blood bodies we inhabit, that while our struggle is not against these flesh-and-blood bodies, it is only within these flesh-and-blood bodies that we will engage the larger forces of that threaten the fullness of our lives. 

The author Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote a book called “Between the World and Me.” It takes the form of a letter written from a father to a son, in which the father urges the son to think about what it means to inhabit a body, a body with an identity, a body under threat, a body with a purpose.

It’s the same reason, I think, that Jesus gets so radical in these readings from John the last few weeks. It’s like he knows he’s pushing people’s buttons, but he does it anyway. He’s trying to get us to understand something very, very important.

About five hundred years ago, around the same time that Martin Luther was shaking things up in Germany, a woman who would later be known as St. Teresa of Avila was living in a convent in Spain, and she sought to shake things up, too. She sought to bring spirituality back to earth, and so she wrote these words:

Christ, she said, has no body but yours.

No hands, no feet on earth but yours.

Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet.

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours.

No hands, no feet on earth but yours.

Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now but yours.

Or, as Jesus, the one who gave his own body for us, put it: “Those who eat at this table abide in me, and I in them.”

We are the body of Christ, the place where God dwells, and so we must wear the clothes appropriate to the task we’ve been given. Your armor might look different from mine. It might be the clothes you wear to work or the uniform you wear to school; it might be your cheerleading outfit or your football jersey; it might be whatever you wear to do the work that God has called you to do. And sometimes, sometimes, the armor you put on to wage peace might take the form of a yellow t-shirt with your church’s name on it. 

So dear people of God, hear again the words of Paul for a new day: 

Take up the wardrobe of God. 

Fasten the work gloves of truth on your hands, 

and put on your yellow t-shirts of justice. 

As shoes for your feet, 

put on whatever color of Converse will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 

With all of these, take the sunblock of faith, 

and the snapback of salvation, 

and the dig-ready shovel of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 

which comes to break ground and bring forth new life,

a renewed humanity out of the dust of the earth,

out of Adam,

out of Eve,

out of me,

out of you.

Amen.