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Unbound: An Easter Sermon for 2020

April 12, 2020

“Unbound”

Sermon for an Easter Sunday Under Quarantine

April 12, 2020

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We began the Lenten season with a theme of Wilderness.

Little did we know just how far into the Wilderness we’d go. 

By the third week of Lent, we were “sheltered in place.”

Some of us were told to work from home – which has had its own set of unique challenges.

Some of us, though, had to keep going into our places of work to do essential services, and now those jobs are now much riskier than they used to be. 

Some of us were told not to work, and now that steady paycheck isn’t as reliable as it used to be.

Students and teachers are trying to do online learning. If you don’t have a student or a teacher in your house, you might not know what that’s like. As someone who lives with a teacher and has talked to a lot of students this week, let me say: It’s hard.

And then there are those of us who are just lonely in ways we’ve never been before. I’ve gotten more calls from people who just want to talk than I’ve ever gotten.

Some of us are adjusting to this new reality quickly and some of us are really struggling and some of us are somewhere in between. And some of us probably go through all three of those feelings in a single day.

All of us are living in a world in which a heavy cloud now hangs over everything.

This year… we are… not so far from those first witnesses of the Resurrection. 

They were not getting ready to go to church dressed up in lilies. They weren’t wearing their Easter best. They weren’t getting ready to sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” or “He Lives, He Lives.”

Nope. They were living in a world where things were not turning out how they’d hoped.

Imagine how the women must have felt as they went to the tomb that first Easter morning.

Their hearts were heavy.

Danger was all around.

Maybe they did wear some kind of face mask – not because of infectious disease, but because the dead man was a political prisoner, and they were putting themselves at risk just being there.

And yet: There they were.

And their very presence there at the tomb tells me that the Resurrection was already happening.

Something in their hearts woke them up that morning. Some fire had been lit within them. 

And though the cloud still hung heavy over their world, something… new… was happening… that would change… everything.

Last night we had our Easter Vigil online. We did it as a Zoom call, and then it was broadcast to the world as part of this 60-hour livestream on YouTube. The 3-day livestream was full of creatives and artists and pastors and congregations and musicians and storytellers from across the country. And here was St. Mark’s, taking our place among them. 

As part of the Vigil, we tell the story of the Fiery Furnace. 

You can find this year’s telling of the Fiery Furnace story here:

And because I was editing video all week to tell that story, I really got to know the story of the Fiery Furnace well. And I noticed something in the story that I never noticed before. We tell that story at the Vigil almost every year, but I noticed something new this year. 

When King Nebuchadnezzar sees the four men in the Fiery Furnace, he says, “I thought we put three men, “bound” into the furnace.”

“But I see four men, “unbound,” walking in the middle of the fire.”

The men in the fiery furnace are “unbound” and walking in the middle of the fire.

A few weeks ago, Lazarus was “unbound” and set free.

And if you read the Easter gospel according to John, you will see that the disciples look in the tomb, and it isn’t just empty but there is something left behind, this important little detail. They saw the “linen wrappings lying there.” 

The wrappings that once bound Jesus bind him no longer.

He is “unbound.” 

And in him, in our baptism into his death and resurrection, we, too, are “unbound.”

Now I don’t mean to suggest that I am lifting the quarantine. As your pastor, I will tell you: It is an act of faith in our medical professionals and an act of care for yourself and your neighbors to stay home, and when you have to go out, to wear a mask and protect yourself and others. 

God does not give Christians immunity to the coronavirus; we live in the same real world as everybody else.

But that’s just it. 

When Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego are in the fiery furnace, the fire still burns around them. The reality is still there.

But as they walk in the midst of it, they are no longer bound.

And that, dear family of God, is what Easter is all about.

Not everything being fixed all at once. God’s work to bring about the kingdom continues, even today. Easter isn’t about putting out the fire. We’ll get there, but not just yet.

No, Easter is about walking in the midst of the fire unbound to fear and all its friends. 

Tell your neighbor, “Jesus is” “unbound.” 

Tell your neighbor, “I am” “unbound.” 

This is what Easter is about.

Not everything being set right all at once.

But walking in the middle of the fire unbound, that our very lives might testify to a Resurrection reality that shines even in a clouded world.

Easter is about faith and hope and love rising in our hearts and in our world, unbinding us and setting us free to live in a new way.

What do I mean?

I mean, this week I saw people making masks for each other and picking up groceries for each other. They were unbound to help their neighbor.

I saw people sending texts and video messages and making calls and checking in on each other. They were unbound to care for each other.

This week I saw people organizing for detention reform and rent relief. They were unbound to organize for a better world.

This week, I saw people doing creative things online I’ve never seen before, changing their method to meet the new means. I saw evolution in real time. I saw people unbound to let their light shine.

And I saw my own kids playing outside – keeping their distance from neighbors, waving but keeping their distance, but outside, nevertheless, unbound by the usual routine to let their imaginations run wild. In their boredom they performed entire acts from Frozen I and II. They were unbound to live in a new way.

There was a phenomenal blog post going around this week that said, look at the postcards from the new reality dawning.

“A carless Los Angeles has clear blue skies as pollution has simply stopped. In a quiet New York, you can hear the birds chirp in the middle of Madison Avenue. Coyotes have been spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge.”

The world is not yet set right, but the first day of the week is dawning. To callback to the story Chris read to the girls at our Vigil, the dove has come back to ark with a sprig of green in its beak: “after the flood all the colors came out.” Rainbows only show when it’s still a little cloudy.

Family of God, this Easter, we know the mix of fear and great joy that those first women witnesses to the resurrection felt. There are no pastel celebrations to smother our mixed feelings, the fear is right there next to our great joy, just like it was for those first disciples.

But with fear and great joy in their hearts, they took off running, unbound, to live as free people once more.

Today, for Easter, our Lenten devotional book from A Sanctified Art (sanctifiedart.com) featured this poem on Wilderness, written by Sarah Are, and I wanted to read it for you as we begin this Easter homily. The title of the poem is this: “The Wilderness is the Birthplace of Joy.” She begins,

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I used to know the wilderness only as pain;

A land without food, a land without water.

But you rained down manna

And even water flows in your desert.

I used to think the wilderness was total isolation – 

But the Israelites had each other,

And you had the stars in the sky.

So when I thought the wilderness must be time wasted – 

Forty years of circles.

Forty years of wondering.

But then I realized, each step is a step,

And maybe there’s growth in that.

So then I concluded that the wilderness must be lonely spaces – 

The woman and her well,

The blind man and his gate,

Martha and her kitchen,

Peter and his fire.

But then you showed up in each of those places,

To each of those faces.

So now I wonder – 

What if the wilderness is the birthplace of creation? 

What if the wilderness is where call begins?

What if the wilderness is where joy is birthed?

What if, between the dirt and the sky

And that wide orange horizon,

The wilderness is where we find you?

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On this Easter Day unlike any other, I pray the Risen Jesus finds you in this wilderness. And I pray that Jesus unbinds you – unbinds us all – and sets us free.

Amen.

A House of Prayer for All Peoples. Again.

April 29, 2018

“A House of Prayer for All Peoples. Again.”

Fifth Sunday of Easter

April 29, 2018

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The word transcend means “beyond the range or grasp.” God’s love is transcendent. God’s love goes beyond what we have named before, beyond where we have been before.

For example, in 1952, the pastor of St. Mark’s wrote a letter to the congregation. At the time, St. Mark’s was thinking through what it meant to be a church where all are welcome, and the issue on the table was race. Were all races welcome? In 1950s America this was a serious question. It’s still a serious question.

And in that midst of that conversation, the pastor of St. Mark’s used today’s story from Acts about the Ethiopian eunuch to talk about race. In 1952 the pastor of St. Mark’s wrote these words:

We are confronted with the same problem that confronted the early apostles. The Jews had long thought themselves to be a superior race. Even highly esteemed Gentile proselyte converts to Judaism did not have full privileges. It was hard for them to accept literally at once the full meaning of “Go into all the world and make disciples.”

In the midst of this, the Holy Spirit prompted Philip to go down nigh into Gaza, in a desert place where he came upon the Ethiopian eunuch who was reading from the prophet Isaiah. Phillip explained this prophecy to the puzzled Ethiopian as pertaining to Christ, and coming to an oasis where there was water, the eunuch asked to be baptized.

Are we not to be like Philip? Is this not what God intends? Are we not here for just such a time and opportunity as this? If we are to do so and do so successfully – we must overcome any anti inter-racial prejudices and any aversions to people of another race. In time we shall discover that this is not difficult, that they are souls as precious in the sight of the Lord as are we.

The words of the pastor of St. Mark’s in 1952.

Today, this Sunday, we have this same Scripture before us. And I wonder if God is again speaking to us through this Scripture, calling us to think about who needs to be welcomed. I wonder if it is time to preach the second half of that sermon.

You see, in our story from Acts chapter 8, the person Philip encounters is not only Ethiopian. He is also what this ancient text calls a eunuch.

In the ancient world, the word eunuch referred to one who does not fall into the either/or categories of male and female, one does not fit into the binary boxes of the dominant culture.

Today we might call the eunuch queer, or transgender.

Whatever word we use, because this gender minority person did not fit in those boxes, they were discriminated against, thought of as less than. They could even be killed simply because of their gender identity.

They were especially treated differently at the temple.

Look, for example, at how this story is told.

Acts tells us that this African-descent, non-binary-gendered person had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home.

We are told that this person comes to Jerusalem to worship, but not that they actually worship. All we are told is that this person went there for a purpose, but then quickly turned back for home.

It is not out of the question that they are returning home because they were turned away at the temple.

Why would the Ethiopian eunuch be turned away at the temple?

Well, the Scriptures are a great conversation among the faithful, a great tapestry of the story of salvation. Ignore the tapestry and pull out only one thread, and you might get stuck.

In this case, you might get stuck on a passage from Deuteronomy, chapter 23 verse 1, which says that “no one who is a eunuch shall be admitted to the temple of the Lord.”

And yet, in that same Bible we have Isaiah, chapter 56, which says that all will be welcome on the mountain of the Lord, including, Isaiah says, “the immigrant and the eunuch.” Isaiah 56 continues: “My house, the Lord says, shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

How can the same Scriptures say that eunuchs should be turned away and that eunuchs should be welcomed?

I imagine that’s what this gender-minority person was thinking as they were on their way home, sitting in their chariot, reading the prophet Isaiah.

It’s at that moment that the transcendent Spirit of God shows up. Not in thunder and lightening, but in Philip.

The Spirit nudges Philip and says “hey, go talk to him.” And you know Philip’s thinking, oh, man, this is gonna be awkward. But the Spirit’s like, I live in awkward. Awkward is where all the interesting stuff happens.

So Philip chases him down and engages him in conversation. And at first Philip just listens, asking him gentle questions and hearing his story.

And it’s only when the eunuch asks him that Philip starts to tell him about the Jesus that Philip knows.

A Jesus who knows rejection and humiliation.

A Jesus who knows what it means to be silenced.

A Jesus who, on the cross, opened his arms to all. Not some. But all.

A Jesus whose love was vindicated on Easter.

A Jesus whose resurrection changes everything.

The word transcend means “beyond the range or grasp.” God’s love is transcendent. God’s love goes beyond what we have thought of before, beyond what have named before, beyond what where we have been before.

And there are times when God’s transcendent, Easter love calls us to push beyond where we have been, to push beyond our comfortable circles and our comfortable words.

St. Mark’s, we know this. In the 1950s, we became a church for all races at a time when that was a controversial thing to do. This congregation looked around at its neighborhood and said, Our world is changing. There is something happening in our world the feels new to us. What should we do?

It looks like we’ve got three options:

One, we can stick our head in the sand and just care for the people who are here now.

Two, we can pack up and move to a place where the people are more like us.

Or three, we can do something else: We can throw open our doors and try to be a church for all peoples.

Of course, they had to take some time to think about it and pray about it, together, as a community.

But thanks be to God that all those years ago this church did decide to become a church for all peoples.

And after this church made that decision, this church put a sign outside on this very corner in the heart of Los Angeles that said: “All Races Welcome.”

And because of that sign, the first African American families joined St. Mark’s. And then a Japanese pastor led St. Mark’s. And then Latino families joined the St. Mark’s. And then Belizean families joined St. Mark’s, and now your children and grandchildren are growing up in the church. Because of that sign all those years ago, today my own daughters are growing up in a church that declares itself a house of prayer for all peoples.

St. Mark’s, what is the bold, specific welcoming sign that we can put up today?

Is it not the rainbow flag that declares all relationships welcome? All love welcome?

Over the last six months, we have been discussing this very question.

We started last November in our weekly Bible Study, studying it and talking about it.

In January, it was lifted up by the council at our visioning retreat as an area worthy of attention, and this was affirmed by the congregation at our annual meeting.

In February, at least a dozen of you signed up to support a working group on this initiative.

In March, we presented a homemade movie on this topic at the New City Parish Good Friday service.

Along the way, our college students have been leading the charge, challenging me to stop dragging my feet. But there has been strong and bold support for radical welcome from our elders, too.

I know that we are not all of the same mind – and that was also true of the early Christians.

If you read the entire New Testament, you see a people wrestling mightily about who’s in and who’s out. That question has never been easy. The early Christians wrestled with whether to let Gentiles into the fold. Ethiopian eunuchs? That was so far outside of what those early Christians were thinking that the Spirit had to literally spirit Philip into today’s story. It’s a radical story, and that’s part of why it’s in Scripture – not because it says something obvious, but because it challenges us.

As we are challenged by the Spirit, we should continue to speak and listen respectfully to one another about where we are. But it’s time we did just that. It’s time we tackled this.

In the weeks to come, a working group at St. Mark’s will present to you an expanded welcome statement.

The statement will be specific. After all, that sign back in 1952 didn’t say “All Are Welcome.” The sign said “All Races Welcome,” because that was the uncomfortable division that needed to be named in 1952.

Today, we still need to say “All Races Welcome” – today as much as ever. We have spoken about race from this pulpit, and we will continue to do so. The gospel compels us.

But today the gospel might also compel us to say boldly and clearly: “All Gender Identities and All Sexual Orientations Are Welcome.”

In the end, it. will. be. up. to. you. how best to live your faith as individuals, and as a community, just as it was up to this congregation in 1952.

I can preach, but we all must decide the faith we practice.

But I believe this congregation has a very special DNA, one I have encountered in few other places. Every congregation has its strengths, but I believe one of ours is a heritage of boldly proclaiming in every generation that those who are rejected are welcome here.

In Acts chapter 8, the resurrection changes everything: for the Ethiopian eunuch, and for Philip, too.

That same resurrection is still changing everything today.

Look, St. Mark’s.

Here is water. Here is the Word.

What is to prevent us from entering the waters of new life, the waters that change everything, and becoming, once more, a bold and courageous house of prayer for all peoples today?

Are we not all a part of God’s body?

Hymn of the Day: “I Need You To Survive” by Hezekiah Walker

I Woke Up Like This, or First Sunday After Beychella

April 24, 2018

“I Woke Up Like This, or First Sunday After Beychella”

Fourth Sunday of Easter

April 22, 2018

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“By what power or by what name did you do this?”

In our reading from Acts, this is the question that is asked by the authorities, the rulers, the elders, the scribes assembled in Jerusalem, along with all the famous people who are named, Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family, this is the question they ask of the prisoners Peter and John.

“By what power or by what name did you do this?”

Peter and John have just taken a bent-over man and raised him up. This man could not walk, but now he is jumping up and leaping and dancing and praising God. The one who was down is now dancing.

“By what power or by what name did you do this?”

I’ve been thinking about power a lot this week. I’ve been thinking about power and that feeling of not having any. By what power?

It’s that feeling when we come up against an illness, a diagnosis that we can’t control, like when your child has a heart condition and you can’t change it. By what power?

It’s that feeling when two men are arrested at a Starbucks not for bothering anybody but just for existing in that space. By what power?

It’s that feeling when you come up against an institution that you want to change but it’s harder than you thought it would be. By what power?

It’s that feeling when you’re just tired and you don’t know how to keep going. By what power?

Power comes in many forms, and sometimes the power we reach for isn’t quite strong enough.

We had someone come out to look at the lights in this room, to help us figure out how to get them all lit again. And he told us, well, it can be done, but it’s going to be a challenge. The system that lights this room is a very old system; they don’t make it anymore. There are very few people who know how to work on it. And part of the problem is that it is a very low voltage system. There isn’t much power.

Sometimes, when the world gets dark, a deeper power is needed.

A superpower. A subtle power. Not that subtle, though.

Something like… this.

(Play video of Beyoncé’s Coachella rendition of “Lift Every Voice.”)

Y’all haters corny with that illuminati mess…

I went to Coachella last week, or I should say, Beychella. I mean, Nile Rodgers and CHIC were good. Cardi B was good. Eminem – you know I love Slim Shady. But B!

Ok – it’s right about now some of you are wondering, um, I came for some Jesus today… We’re gonna get there. I promise you. Stick with me just a moment here, and we’re gonna get there.

I mean, she sang “Lift Every Voice,” y’all! Everyone else going crazy for “Single Ladies;” Pastor Matt’s going crazy for “Lift Every Voice!!!!”

Beyoncé could have just performed her brilliant pop music, and in the words of the Jewish Passover, dayenu, it would have been enough. Enough, at least, to satisfy the entertainment needs of the Coachellaheads. But she didn’t do that. In these dimly-lit times, she reached for a deeper power.

As the show opened, the cameras focused in on a lone female snare drummer with a fierce facial expression. As she began her drum roll, the pyramid of spotlights retracted to reveal a pyramid of bleachers filled with an marching band.

No, not just any marching band, this was an HBCU marching band. We have graduates of HBCUs in this church, do we not? When I saw that band, Beyoncé isn’t just performing by herself, she’s bringing the culture. She’s bringing the power of God that is incarnate in a particular people.

This was theology at its highest level. “Lift Every Voice,” was placed after my favorite Beyoncé song, “Freedom,” and it led into “Formation.” Think about that for a minute. From Freedom to Formation.

That is the movement of a Lutheran Christian. We are set free in Christ to form the kind of the world we want to live in. And the way we get there is to Lift Every Voice. Beginning with your own.

Beyoncé’s mom said this extraordinary thing about her daughter’s performance. She said,

“I told Beyoncé that I was afraid that the predominately white audience at Coachella [an audience that included Pastor Matt, a predominately white pastor] would be confused by all of the black culture and Black college culture because it was something that they might not get.”

And then Ms. Tina said,

“But her brave response to me was this: She said, “I have worked very hard to get to the point where I have a true voice and at this point in my life and my career I have a responsibility to do what’s best for the world and not what is most popular. She said that her hope is that after the show young people would research this culture and see how cool it is, and young people black and white would listen to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and see how amazing the words are for us all and bridge the gap.”

In our story from Acts, when the ruling family is confronted with this power they don’t recognize, they are confused and anxious. This is not the power they are used to. They are used to the people setting aside who God has made them to be in order to fit into the boxes the powerful have made for them.

They are not used to the deeper power.

They are not used to the power of the people when they are filled with the Holy Spirit and not fearing any man.

They are not used to the power of the people when they live as the people the Creator has created them to be.

They are not used to the power of the people who have been raised from the dead.

The stone that was rejected by you has become the cornerstone.

In our gospel reading, Jesus says, I am the good shepherd.

Now, I know that we have heard this image of the good shepherd so many times that sometimes we have lost sight of its power. So please, join me in looking at this with fresh eyes.

The shepherd is not an image of one the world sees as powerful. If you were looking for a conventional image of power, you might have gone with King or Gladiator. Shepherd… is not what I would have gone with.

You might as well be wearing a hoodie and daisy dukes.

But Jesus is calling back to an old, old song, a song even older than “Lift Every Voice.” He is calling back an old, old song his people used to sing. Maybe you know it.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For you are with me;
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.

There are going to be times when we walk in the valley of the shadow. There are going to be times when it feels like we are powerless. There are going to be times when it feels like we have lost.

And it’s in those moments that we’ve got to reach for the deeper power, the power of the one flock, the power of the one shepherd, the power that restores our soul and revives us again.

There was a moment in the performance that I didn’t understand until much later. It was not quite half way through, when the marching band left for a moment. And in its place were people laying down, as if dead.

And then one by one, as the Sasha shepherd passed them, they rose up, dancing. Like the bent-over man in the book of Acts today, they went from down to dancing.

And the song that was playing, the song that was playing featured this line that I knew before but will forever understand in a new way. When the dead men rose up dancing, the shepherd sang this line:

I woke up like this.

Ain’t that about an Easter theme.

By the power of the one who lay down his life like this (point to the cross),

and woke up like this (point to the people).

Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution

March 25, 2018

“Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”

Palm to Passion Sunday

March 25, 2018

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From the march… to the cross.

Yesterday Chris and I took the girls to their first protest march, the March for Our Lives, which was, appropriately enough, led by kids just a little older than them. Teenagers. Students. The next generation.

That morning NPR interviewed elder activists, those who had been a part of movements for change in the 1960s, and asked them what advice they had for these young people.

One elder activist, Denise Oliver-Velez, was a member of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords in the 1960s. She said, “My only advice to them is that it is a long struggle,” and that they should “not be discouraged by setbacks.”

Every movement for change, every movement that calls us and our communities and our world to rebirth, is a long struggle. And there are setbacks. There is a cost to discipleship.

That is what we learn today. Holy Week begins in the streets, with the people chanting their marching chants, “Hosanna! Save Us! Hosanna! Save us!” And Jesus leads them, marching in defiance of the powers that be, marching in defiance of the emperor. And it feels good, as any peaceful parade for a better world does, it fills us with possibility and hope.

But the setbacks come, in one brutal blow after another, a long walk through the valley of the shadow of death, a long walk, a long walk to freedom.

Throughout this season of Lent, we’ve been spending time in conversation with the final speeches and sermons and writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., someone who knew a little something about seeing his way through setbacks.

And on Palm Sunday, March 31, 1968, fifty years ago this Sunday, Dr. King preached his last Sunday sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. The title of his sermon was “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.”

“One of liabilities of life,” said Dr. King, “is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”

In today’s gospel, a great revolution is taking place, a great revolution that will change everything.

This revolution begins not with swords and shields, not with guns and bombs. This revolution begins on a Thursday at a table with food and drink for all, this revolution begins on a Thursday with water for washing and a new word: Love one another as I have loved you.

This revolution continues through setbacks, through a setback that should have finished off the movement: The death of its leader.

And yet this revolution is not over. Not today. Not ever.

As the revolution takes place, Jesus asks his disciples to do one thing: Remain awake. Remain awake through this revolution!

A great revolution is taking place. Will it take place in you? Stay woke and see!

But it is hard, it is hard to stay focused, hard to stay committed, hard to stay woke when the road is so long. Just ask Sierra and Maya. They slept through most of yesterday’s march. Out cold, while the world was changing around them.

But… they were still there. And the change we seek, the change we will see, the change we will be, will be for their sleeping bodies, too.

As you hear the old, old, story today, the story of Jesus’ long walk to freedom, take the words of Jesus to heart: Remain awake. Stay woke!

And if you can’t? Like Sierra and Maya, if you can’t?

Know this: The love poured out today is still poured out for you.

For you. For me. For the whole world, that we might pass through the waters of change and reach the promised land.

Amen.

The Fierce Urgency of Now

February 15, 2018

“The Fierce Urgency of Now”

Ash Wednesday

February 14, 2018

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Turn to your neighbor a moment and tell them:

“Neighbor,” (Neighbor)

“Oh, neighbor,” (Oh, neighbor)

“We are not now” (We are not now)

“what we shall be,” (what we shall be)

“but we are on the way.” (but we are on the way.)

Good afternoon.

I bring greetings from the congregation I serve, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, on the corner of Vermont and 36th Place, just across the street from campus.

On Sunday afternoon, I got a phone call telling me that a longtime member of our community, a longtime resident of this neighborhood, had died. Her name was Heidi McDaniel.

Heidi hadn’t been to church in a few years, owing to her health, but in my early years at St. Mark’s, Heidi was there twice a week, serving meals to hungry and homeless neighbors.

This was always a puzzle to me, because for so much of my life, my faith was shaped by books and beliefs and theoretical theology, while her faith… it took on flesh and blood; her faith was concerned with food and drink, hunger and hospitality.

Ash Wednesday marks the door to the Christian season of Lent, a time when we enter more deeply into what it means to live as flesh and blood creatures on this earth, people with stomachs and skin, people with a mind and a soul, but with a body and a beating heart, too.

In the early church, Lent was a time of intense preparation for baptisms at Easter.

Lent was a time to enter so deeply into life that you were immersed in the waters of it, immersed so deeply you left an old, self-focused way of life behind and found new life in community with other flesh and blood people, and there was no other way to describe the change but death… and resurrection.

For many Christians today, Lent continues to be a time of finding our way back to the heart of our flesh and blood faith.

Of course, this doesn’t happen all at once. It takes time. Forty days in the ark, forty years in the wilderness, forty weeks for new life to be brought from conception to birth.

The reformer Martin Luther once wrote these words that could apply well to Lent. Luther said,

We are not now what we shall be,

but we are on the way.

The process is not yet finished,

but is actively going on.

This is not the goal but it is the right road.

At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle,

but everything is being cleansed.

(Pour water into the font.)

But be careful. For while this is good news, it comes with a cost.

The spring of 2018 marks fifty years since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, was killed while in Memphis to stand with striking sanitation workers.

King knew that the Christian life was not a disembodied spirituality but a radical invitation into life in the here and now. He was fond of saying what could be taken as an Ash Wednesday gospel. King spoke to an America as divided as we are and King said,

“We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”

In the ashes, we are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.

Now is the time to number our days.

Now is the time for our faith to take on flesh and blood.

Now is the time for our fasting to be a hunger for justice.

Now is the time for our alms to be a making of peace.

Now is the time for our prayer to be the song of grateful hearts.

“Now,” Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians, “now is the acceptable time.”

“Now,” said the prophet Joel, “is the time to return to the Lord your God.”

“Now,” said the prophet King, “is the time to rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world.

“Now is the time to begin.”

Amen

Pink

October 15, 2017

19th Sunday After Pentecost

Worship in Pink Sunday

October 15, 2017

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Last week, I was telling someone that we would be having a Worship in Pink Sunday for Breast Cancer Awareness. Without hesitation this person, a complete stranger, nodded and told me, “I’m a survivor.”

It’s amazing how often this happens. How many survivors are in this room today?

How many of us know someone who is a survivor?

How many of us know someone who lost the earthly battle? Yes. They now dance in triumph like Miriam on the other side of the sea.

While doing research for today, I came across the “Ten Commandments of Breast Cancer,” written by a blogger named Jackie Fox. Just like the original Ten Commandments are given as guidance in the wilderness, these Ten Commandments are given for the disorienting wilderness time that comes after your diagnosis.

The “Ten Commandments of Breast Cancer,” according to this blogger, are these:

  1. Thou shalt give thyself time to think.
  2. Thou shalt not judge thy neighbor’s treatment or reconstruction choices or attitude toward their diagnosis.
  3. Thou shalt honor they own feelings.
  4. Thou shalt love thyself as the neighbor.
  5. Thou shalt not beat thyself up.
  6. Thou shalt allow others to help you.
  7. Thou shalt not bear false witness against science.
  8. Thou shalt ask thy doctors questions.
  9. Thou shalt seize the day.
  10. Thou shalt remember you are more then your cancer.

I think it’s helpful to hear those even if you haven’t been diagnosed yourself, for we need to know how to take care of ourselves and each other when the wilderness hits.

That’s what the original Ten Commandments were about, too: How to survive in the wilderness.

Sometimes the Ten Commandments are about taking care of yourself.

Take the Third Commandment: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” Yet I still see people bragging about how hard they work with hashtags like “no days off.” No days off? In the eyes of the Ten Commandments, that’s as bad as committing adultery. Of course, to make taking a Sabbath possible, we need living wages and humane economies; otherwise, following this commandment becomes a privilege for the few.

Sometimes the Ten Commandments are about taking care of others.

Take, for example, the Fifth Commandment: “You shall not murder.” Now, you might think you haven’t killed anyone. But hear what Martin Luther says about this commandment in the Small Catechism: The Fifth Commandment: You shall not murder. What does this mean? We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.

According to Martin Luther, if you’re not helping and supporting your neighbor in their time of need, you’re as good as murdering them. We are responsible for our neighbors in their time of need. In their time of diagnosis.

I have heard that many healthy young people are not buying into the Obamacare heath insurance markets because they don’t think they need health insurance. When things are going well, we feel that way about the Commandments, too. But when things are not going well… when the wilderness hits… we need their guidance more than ever.

It was a year ago this October that we were getting ready for our girls to be born. And as we waited and prepared, I remember wanting to raise my girls right, and that meant teaching them that they did not need to fit into any kind of gender-conforming box that people would try to put them in.

For example, I wanted them to know that even though they were girls, they could wear whatever color they wanted to. Even though the baby stuff industry insisted that boys have to wear blue and girls have to wear pink, I thought that was nonsense. My favorite color is red and I only wear blue when I’m rooting for the Chicago Cubs. If I can wear red instead of blue, my girls are going to know that they can wear whatever color they want to.

So we’re going to get them started on the right foot. I told everyone who wanted to buy them baby clothes that my girls were not going to wear pink. Let the word ring forth: No pink!

Well. My mother had three sons and thirty years later had two grandsons and now, after five boys, here were the first girls to be born into the Keadle family in two generations. My mother had been waiting a very long time to buy some ruffly, girly, princessy pink clothes!

I clarified my position. Look, Mom, you can buy some pink, just not all pink. I want my girls to know that they don’t have to fit inside some stupid gender-conforming box. They can be doctors and lawyers and artists and writers – they can even be president!

I believed that last one so much that on the second day of their lives I woke up early. It was election day, and I was headed to the ballot box to vote in the burning hope that my newborn girls would grow up under a smart, accomplished, hardworking woman as their president.

Of course, I thought this was a foregone conclusion. The other candidate had been caught on tape bragging about abusing women, and I knew America would not be ok with that.

My privilege was showing that day. I was a man who had never experienced what life is like every day for women in America.

This week we heard the news about Harvey Weinstein and the abuse he perpetrated against women for over twenty years. But the more we learned about it, the more we learned that the abuse wasn’t done by one person. That’s too easy.

There was a system involved, a whole infrastructure of people, who supported it, who made excuses for it, who knew about it but did nothing to stop it.

And according to Martin Luther’s explanation of the Fifth Commandment, we who do nothing, we who make excuses, we who write off violence against women as “boys will be boys” or “she had it coming” are just as responsible as those who actively perpetrate crimes.

I wear my pink shoes today because I know that there are things girls face that I will never face. Breast cancer. Casual misogyny. Expectations of worldly beauty and a willingness to work in the kitchen that nobody expects me to have.

I wear my pink shoes today for my grandmother, a breast cancer survivor twice over; Sierra June bears her name. I wear pink for the generations of women who continue to teach me about life and how to live it; many of you are in this room.

I wear my pink shoes today because some days I lead, and some days I follow. Today I follow you, survivors who asked if we could have a pink Sunday. Today I follow you. Today we all do.

Near the end of his life, at one of the lowest points in his life, in one of the stormiest nights of his wilderness, Moses talked to God. And he said, God, I want to see your face. I need to see your face. With everything going wrong in the world, with everything going wrong in my world, I need to know that you are here.

And God said, Moses, you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.

But I will do something for you, Moses. I will put you in the cleft of a rock. I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back.”

Why God’s back?

Some readers of the ancient Scriptures believe that Moses could only see God’s back and not God’s face because the back is what you see when someone is leading you.

God’s back is what we see when God is leading us, God’s back shining like a pillar of fire, a pillar of cloud, a cloud of witnesses that burns today with a fiery pink hue.

You are that cloud of witnesses robed in pink, leading us on like a cosmic women’s march, shining a light on the places we need to go, the things we need to see, the ways we need to stand up, speak out, and live boldly through every kind of wilderness.

May the anointing we receive today anoint us to live so boldly.

May we be strengthened and filled with God’s grace, that we may know the healing, reforming, transforming power of the Spirit.

I still believe that my girls should be able to wear whatever color they want to, from Fire Engine Red to Chicago Cubbie Blue. If they switch to Dodger Blue, Daddy’s gonna have to bite his tongue… because it will still be true:

My girls can wear whatever color they want to wear.

Including pink.

(The sermon ended here, with me walking away and cue-ing up this video.)

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.