Monday, August 29, 2011

Sermon: "Stick it to Satan Sunday"

"Stick it to Satan Sunday"

Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Denver, CO
11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
28 August 2011

Texts: Jeremiah 15.15-21
Psalm 26.1-8
Romans 12.9-21
Matthew 16.21-28

"In whose interest is it to keep us all divided?" - Dr. Jeffrey Stout

-If there’s one thing Lutherans have always been good at, it’s sticking it to Satan. In baptism, the first vow we make is to “renounce the devil and all his empty promises.” Long before Motley Crue told us to “shout at the devil,” it was Martin Luther who first offered the famous advice to “mock the devil and he shall flee from you.” It is in this same Luther’s study that you can find, to this day, the ink stain on the wall where he reputedly threw a pot of ink to drive away his netherworldly nemesis. (Incidentally, I tried it out this week on a particularly satanic little squirrel that’s been eating the bagels in our kitchen. I missed too.) “Defy boldly,” and not “sin boldly,” was the constant refrain of Luther’s movement. And the more the Gospel was preached, he believed, the more the devil was defeated.

-So on the one hand, we who follow Christ in the tradition of the great Reformer should live for today’s Gospel, when Jesus delivers one of the great one-liners in all of history: “get thee behind me Satan!” If Jesus hadn’t said it, Lutherans would have had to invent it. We seriously wrestled this week with whether to call tonight’s worship “Stick it to Satan Sunday.” A Satan-shaped piñata may have been suggested. There is something powerful, even prophetic, and certainly cathartic, when human beings, made alive by the truth of the Gospel, can stare evil in the face, call a thing what it is, and defy its empty promises.

-Except, more often than not, we humans are not exactly experts at discerning demons. If we believe in the existence of the satanic at all, we are less likely to direct our ire towards a little red creature with horns, a tail and a pitchfork. No, we are, tragically, much better at seeing horns on other human beings, and in particular, those we experience as enemies. That’s something else Luther and his progeny, were ruthlessly skilled at. And this never ends well for either party. Just ask the Jews of Germany.

-Incidentally, this is the kind of luciferian logic that leads Peter to rebuke Jesus for revealing to his disciples that he will be crucified by the Romans. See, for many of the disciples, as well as the majority of the people of Israel, the Romans were the embodiment of the demonic. Just a few verses earlier when Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, he probably did so expecting that, soon and very soon, the Christ would stop wasting his miraculous power on healing peasants and gentiles, and would eventually get busy annihilating the oppressive reign of domination under which his people lived. Too often, many of us can admit to having been guilty of the same logic: our enemy is Satan, and God will surely take my side, to the misfortune of those we hate.

-Of course, Peter does not say all this directly. Because, obsessed with seeing Satan in others, its easy to become the deceiver we despise. In this case, Peter, the recent recipient of the keys to the kingdom, shows himself to be shackled by his fear. And if there’s anything that the real devil delights in, it is manipulating people who are afraid. See, when Peter says, “God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you!” what Peter is really saying is, “God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to me!” Because as Jesus makes explicit: “if any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”

-The kingdom of Satan is the network of domination systems in this world that seek to manipulate people’s fear of death and suffering by convincing brothers and sisters that they are in fact enemies. And so must compete with and destroy one another in order to remain safe. In rebuking Jesus, Peter shows himself to be possessed and thus manipulated by that same fear that so often also possesses and manipulates us. Fear of change. Fear of suffering. Fear of death. Which also leads us to treat other people as means to our own ends. Which tempts us to do violence for the sake of our own security. Which leads us to simply react and rebuke. Which twists us to see the world as a competition and a battlefield full of enemies. Which leads us to see the worst in others. Which leads us to doubt God at God’s Word.

-This is precisely the satanic system of slavery, the Babylonian mathematics of manipulation, that Christ came to defy and to overthrow. Not with armies and a holocaust. But with the Gospel, and a cross. Because Jesus refuses to be manipulated by fear. Because Jesus refuses to allow his enemies to remain his enemies. Jesus looks Peter in the eye, and says “get behind me Satan,” not because Jesus desires to eliminate Peter. But because he wants to liberate him. Because when Jesus says, “get behind me,” it is not an incineration of Peter’s life, but rather an invitation to return, to be reconciled, to let go of fear and be re-integrated into a life that can be called truly abundant. Because Jesus will not allow his friend to be manipulated into throwing out the resurrection with the baptismal bathwater of the cross.

-While the kingdom of the world seeks to create enemies who manipulate, react and rebuke one another out of fear of suffering and death, Christ’s cross has created a community in which enemies are re-created, reconciled, and re-integrated into communion with one another. Because as the kingdom ruled by the one who suffered death at the hands of his enemies rather than destroy or manipulate them, the people of the Gospel are those who have been shown that death is not the worst thing that can happen to us. We the church, gathered around the table of the one whose death has become the bread of life for all people, are those called to be agents of this kingdom, and so to take up our crosses with Jesus. With Jesus, to “defy boldly” the empty, manipulative promises of the powers and principalities who destroy life in their quest to avoid death. We are called to be those who, as Paul writes, “are not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” And the good of the cross is the ministry of reconciliation given to all those called to be agents of the new creation that God has fashioned out of the devil’s chaos.

-As agents of this new creation, the church is called to continue to “stick it to Satan.” Yet, we are called to do so, not out of the captivity of Peter, but rather, out of the freedom of Christ. As those who are called to take the risk of letting go of our fear of suffering and death, as those called to embrace the promise of resurrection, we are also those empowered by God to seek not only to not kill our enemies, but also to pursue their restoration and reintegration into the liberating reality of God’s grace.

-And we need not be Martin Luther King or Gandhi to do so. We need not be great saints like Mother Teresa. In fact, it is precisely in using people like us who are so very not saint-like, who are more like Martin Luther than MLK in our propensity to resort to violence in our words and in our thoughts, that God delights in defying the devil. Because while the satanic scoff at the folly of the cross, seeking to manipulate the broken beauty of the world to avoid the inevitability of death, the God of the Gospel delights in the cross’s foolishness, choosing to work with the beautiful broken things of the creation to proclaim the glory of the Gospel of resurrection. Because when we are all fearful people, when we are all manipulators, when we are all busted stuff and sinners, when we are all cross-shaped and cruciform – it is then that we have nothing to fight about. There are no enemies when there is nothing over which to compete. Grace is the great equalizer.

-Having been promised that death is not something to fear, but rather, the unavoidable first step on the path that leads to the new creation of the resurrection, we are invited into a strange new way of being in the world. While the world asks, “how can I manipulate others to keep myself safe?” we are invited to wonder, “how might this enemy, this struggle, this cross, this death, in fact be a source of friendship, of life, of growth, of newness, of surprise?” The Church is called to be the kind of people who, even while still fearful, manipulative sinners, nevertheless explores and experiments with the answers to this question, seeking reconciliation, restoration and re-integration, even as we view the world from the shadow of the cross that won reconciliation and restoration for us all.

-The Church is God’s ultimate weapon against the power of the satanic. Not a weapon as the world knows it. But as a shattered sword that has been fashioned into a ploughshare. As an abandoned military base transformed into a refugee camp for all sinners and saints. As the rotten wood of an old rifle fashioned into a guitar, singing the love songs of the Triune Troubadour. The devil is mocked most when God takes broken human beings who were once enemies, and gathers them together as friends. When God refuses to let enemies refuse each other. Whenever and wherever this happens, there can be said to be “Stick it to Satan Sunday.” So come, let us “defy boldly.” But let us be more bold in our love of Jesus Christ, and of the brothers and sisters to whom, today and every day, we extend a sign of the peace of the new creation. Amen.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Sermon: Let's Get Scandalous, or, "Take Up Your Cardboard Sign and Follow Me""

"Let's Get Scandalous, or, 'Take Up Your Cardboard Sign and Follow Me'"

Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Denver, CO
Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
14 August 2011

Texts: Isaiah 56.1, 6-8
Psalm 67.1-7
Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15.20-28

"Dear God, I'm trying hard to reach you
Dear God, I see your face in all I do
But sometimes, it's so hard to believe in you...

Why is the world ugly when you made it in your image?
And why is livin' life such a fight to the finish..."
-"Dear God 2.0" - The Roots feat. Monsters of Folk

-My old undergrad thesis advisor was fond of saying that “if people knew what was actually in the Bible, wild horses couldn’t keep them from reading it.” Parts of Scripture read more like a South Park script than sacred holy writ. Yet, as much as we Americans love a good scandal, nothing’s prepared us for where Matthew takes us in this week’s Gospel.

-Pick your poison: you’ve got the Jewish Jesus traveling in unclean Gentile territory. You’ve got the male Jesus talking to a woman. You’ve got the powerful Jesus denying deliverance to a demon-possessed daughter. And then, of course, there’s the matter of that racial slur, of the Son of God calling the pleading mother the modern day equivalent of “Charlie,” or “Towel-Head,” or "Spick." Pick your poison – it’s that really that offensive.

-Confronted with such a challenge, it is tempting to do what we are so used to doing in the face of scandal: paper it over. This week, I’ve read countless creative attempts to square the circle of this scandalous text. My favorite one proposes that, faced with the Canaanite woman, it is Jesus who learns the valuable lesson. As one prominent emergent leader puts it, “Jesus is converted and healed of his racism by the woman he calls Bitch.” While it may be a tough pill to swallow to believe Jesus, as human, can learn something new, its worth it for the comfort of know that Jesus is learning not be a racist - just like a seminary student at Iliff or a regular church-goer in a progressive emergent church! Learning to let go of prejudice. To embrace those on the margins. A Jesus just like us enlightened urban postmoderns! Hooray! Scandal removed. Next text please.

-Problem is, this version of the story just doesn’t get the facts straight. See, the people of Tyre and Sidon were not poor little puppies and ragamuffins, but wealthy sea-traders, merchants, and war profiteers off the Roman occupation of Palestine. Sort of the Halliburton of the Ancient Near East. They also had a documented history of murdering Jews en masse. So like other Gentiles in Matthew who approach Jesus for help, this woman is not as marginal as we’d like to think. For her to address a Jew, it’s a step down, not a step up.

-It's less like the comforting, sentimental image of the homeless guy with a cardboard sign begging the rich, white male executive in his Benz for spare change. More like the exec pulling his Benz over at the entrance ramp to I-25 in a rough neighborhood to ask a woman with a cardboard sign, “um, so, do you have some change I can borrow for gas? I’m empty.” And her response? “Sorry, rich man, you’re screwed.”

-See, I think that’s the scandal, the true outrage, the utterly terrifying part about this story. That sometimes, even in the face of our deepest, most desperate need, Jesus, can and sometimes does say, “no.” Jesus’ God does not look on our privileged status as Americans. Doesn’t look upon the riches of our theological imagination or our bank accounts. She does not look at how biblical or orthodox, or how radical or progressive our community is. There is absolutely nothing human beings have to offer to impress or manipulate this God. Like the woman, we are the privileged reduced to beggars. At the mercy of a God who can look us straight in the eye when we come to Him as beggars, and can say, “sorry. Not this time.”

-This “No” would be less terrifying if it didn’t come so damn often. And we’re not talking in response to the deluded prayers of frat boys hoping to pick up a date, or the whispered pleas that the policeman walking up to our window will overlook his radar gun in favor of my spotless record. We’re talking God’s NO to real prayers. Desperate prayers – prayers that dad will make it through this recent bout of health problems. Prayers that the dark clouds of depression and despair will lift. That employment will finally find us. That our marriage or family or job will not fall apart. That children will no longer go hungry, that the world will be healed of its demonic possession by the powers and principalities of sin, injustice, violence and death.

-There are few things more scandalous, more disturbing, more offensive to us than the apparent refusal of God to hear the agonized cries of a world resounding with the echo of God’s refusals. And so, rather than confront this pain, we find a tamer God we can live with. The progressive God, who asks us to fix the world’s problems for Her. Or the distant, watch-maker Deity, whose absent silence is just part of the design. Or, we simply stop seeking this God at all, and we walk away, refusing to carry on the conversation any longer. We settle for the silence we’ve come to expect.

-But the Gospel of this Canaanite Woman is that she doesn’t take God’s “no” for an answer. She refuses God’s refusal. For this woman knows that this is “the Son of David.” That when she begs for scraps, it is from the “Lord’s table.” That this God is the God spoken of by the Jews, Jews like Isaiah, who promised that along with the Outcasts of Israel, so too would people of all nations come to worship at the mountain of the Lord. Its as if this woman says, “wait a minute, are you the God the Jews told us about, or not? If you are who you say you are, Jesus, then you’d better not refuse me. Keep your promises!”

-In this response, filled not only with Gospel truth, good theology, and right worship, but also with impetuousness, defiance and even a little sarcasm, this Canaanite woman acts as the Jewiest of Jews. She is like Abraham, bargaining with God over Sodom and Gomorrah. Like Moses talking God down to repentance when he is ready to obliterate the obstinate Israelites in Exodus. Like Jonah, shaking his fist over forgiven Ninevah, declaring, “Bollucks! I just knew you were a merciful God!” Like Jesus, on the cross, crying out with the Psalmist’s words, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This mortal enemy of the Jewish people has learned from the outcasts, the descendents of immigrants and slaves, that the God of the Universe is not a vending machine giving out “Yeses” when fed the correct theological or ritual change. She has learned that this is a Living God, a God unlike any other in the world. That this God may say “no.” But that this No is also not the end of the conversation. It is rather its beginning.

-This woman teaches, not Jesus, but us, that relationship with God is a no-holds barred affair. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel until he gets his blessing, and so being named “Israel,” we who have been included by Christ’s cross into this conversation are invited to get in God’s face. To challenge this God when God seems to have foreclosed on God’s promises. As children of this God and of Her promises, as theologians of the cross and not of glory, we are called like the Canaanite woman to abandon our privileged entitlement and come before the God of beggars and bums with boldness, impetuousness, and even a bit of sass. We are called to rage against this God when He refuses. We are called to dance naked like David before Her when we experience the Yes of Her love. For this God desires mercy, not sacrifice; conversation, not cold calculations; relationship, not rationalizations. This God is not afraid of conflict, or of scandal, or of offensiveness. And as this God’s children, we shouldn’t be either. What is scandalous to the proper is the salvation of the desperate.

-Many of us are here at House because we’ve been made homeless by the wounds inflicted by churches who have settled prematurely for what they thought was God’s No. Our challenge is not to find “a church that speaks to us,” but rather, to become a church that truly “speaks with God.” Because with God, no should not always mean no. God’s Yes is far too brilliant. And the Church is the people willing to hold God accountable to the goodness we know She is capable of. Because we know God can tell a better story than this. And we can demand that He lives up to it.

-We’ve all been approached by homeless persons telling the same old sob story, seeking to manipulate our emotions with lies when all they really want is a couple of coins for beer. Its hard to feel good about giving in this situation. How surprising, then, when we see a cardboard sign that appeals to the best in us – not by BS’ing us, but by making us laugh! By telling us, not “Need money for food,” but “wife attacked by ninjas – need funds for karate lessons!” or “why lie? Need a cold beer!” Even in scandal, there is also room for playfulness, affection, and joy. May we be these kinds of beggars as we set down our privilege, pick up our cardboard, and follow Jesus. Life is too short, the world too needy, our God too great, not to be desperately scandalous before Her. Let us settle for nothing less.

(Signs were made by HFASS community members during Open Space following the sermon)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Sermon: "The Family's the Feast, the Church's the Miracle"

"The Family's the Feast, the Church's the Miracle"

Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Denver, CO
31 July 2011

Texts: Isaiah 55.1-5
Psalm 145.8-9, 14-21
Romans 9.1-5
Matthew 14.13-21

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will...

f it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well
-Leonard Cohen, "If It Be Your Will"

-It’s comforting to know that even Jesus had a crappy week here and there. Even before the whole Holy Week betrayal-torture-crucifixion thing. This week’s Gospel finds Jesus on the tail end of one such week from hell. After a frustrating run at the Parable Café, Jesus heads back to Nazareth for some hometown rejuvenation. But there, we are told, even his own family and friends took offense at him, so much so that he “could do no miracles there!” Not even mom’s kosher cooking can take the sting out of that.

-Then, the back-breaker. Jesus receives news that his very own cousin, John of Baptizing fame, has been beheaded by King Herod. It turns out that speaking the truth to power by calling out the ruling monarch for marrying his brother’s wife is not a sure-fire way to become a talking head on Fox News. The only place for such a prophetic head is on a silver platter. I cannot imagine Jesus not being shaken up. The writing is on the wall. This is what happens to prophets. We got your cousin. You are next.

-Its been a crappy week for Christ. And so he loads up his backpack, climbs in his boat, and sets sail for “a deserted place” for some well-deserved R&R. (Jesus was from Colorado). But no sooner does he reach the shore than is he greeted by people –five thousand men to be exact. Oh, and also women and children! I’ve never been a celebrity – hell, I don’t think I have even a fifth that many facebook friends! – but I do know that my day off is sacred. Like the disciples, I would be inclined to say, “Jesus, get rid of these people. Let’s take some me time.”

-And yet, St. Matthew tells us that when he saw the crowds, “he had compassion on them and cured their sick.” That evening, the people are getting hungry and the disciples are annoyed; yet Jesus seems jacked up, seems to be drawing energy from this needy crowd who has sought him out in the middle of nowhere without a mind to provisions or time. “Send them away?” he asks. “We’re just getting started!”

-Jesus came to the seashore, weary and grieving; Jesus comes to the end of the day, rejuvenated and renewed. Jesus began the week misunderstood and unable to work wonders; he comes to its close, preaching marathon revival meetings and once more doing his miracle-maker magic. So what changed?

-Too many of us have been taught to think of neediness as a burden, a weakness. We live in a world devoted to the pursuit of independence, power and control. We are too often made to feel ashamed for our own neediness. And in so doing, I wonder if we also close the door on discovering the depths of our true power.

-Not Jesus. You see, while I think certainly, the crowds came to be ministered to by Jesus, I’ve been thinking that maybe God also sent the crowds to minister to Jesus. Because like the crowds, Jesus experienced great need in this time of grief, disappointment, uncertainty and death. And from the beginning God’s response to the pain, the brokenness and the fallenness of His good creation has always been to gather a family.

-When the man was lonely in Eden, God created a family for him. When the first family ate of the forbidden fruit and creation descended into darkness, God called the family of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to be a witness to the nations of the original goodness of the world. And here, on this shore in the middle of nowhere, when Jesus’ earthly family had either rejected him or been killed, notice what God does. God sends Jesus an entire army of a family to come and be with him in his time of grief. To give Jesus the opportunity to minister to them, not in spite of, but out of the midst of his own seeming needfulness, his very real brokenness. And in the process, to give Jesus the bread he needs to persevere in his own journey into the uncertainty of the future. It is not good for the Man to be alone.

-Have you ever noticed that when you are struggling, when you feel hungry and weak and depleted, when you are grieving or in despair, that you are suddenly replenished and re-energized when someone comes alongside you and says, “yeah man, I’ve been there too?” When they share with you, not pat answers, rote Bible verses, or equations of easy optimism, but rather, when they show you their scars? I think this is what Matthew’s after when he notes that Jesus had “compassion” on the crowds, and I wonder if from this compassion flowed his healing – of others, and his own. For compassion means nothing more than, literally, “to suffer with.”

-This past week, God ministered to the brokenness in my life by gathering a family. Many of you know that my father had a massive stroke on Monday evening. You know this because within minutes of either Nadia’s or my sharing this terrible news with you, you responded by filling my inbox with prayers. Throughout the week, you shared stories of your own experiences with tragic illnesses and accidents. People I have never met before – strangers within the family of God – gathered at the seashore to meet me and my family as we climbed out of the boat. We were in need, looking for rest. And we found the open arms of the Church. You were both Christ and crowd to us, and in you, we discovered the true meaning of the communion of saints. Because in our need, God gave you to us. To suffer with us. To walk with us. To pray for us.

-I’ve hesitated whether to share with you the fact that on Monday night, we also experienced a miracle. When I got on the plane in Denver on Monday night, the last I heard was that my dad would either end up dead or vegetating in a nursing home. When I arrived at the hospital on Tuesday morning, my father was feeding himself breakfast, and a team of surgeons, doctors, and other miscellaneous experts was telling us that “there is no scientific explanation for how well he is doing.” I’ve hesitated to share this, because while I firmly believe in the reality of the miraculous and the supernatural, I’ve also struggled with the implications of this. Maybe its just because I’m a German Lutheran, and thus particularly adept at finding the brokenness in just about anything. But I also know that for every Keith Nickoloff, there are a million other fathers who don’t get to hug their son in the morning. For every five thousand fed, there are five million more who must watch their children starve to death in their arms. God can do miracles; why God doesn’t do more, I don’t know, and I probably never will.

-With extreme gratitude can come extreme outrage. I think that too is part of what it means to be part of God’s family. Miracles show us that we are a people of endless need, and we have no power, control, or independence apart from the provision and grace of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Miracles reveal that the family of God, the Church, are the people, the community, who learns what it means to be needy while not being in control. That knows the reality of abundance, without the luxury of guarantees. We are the crowds that come to Jesus in the middle of nowhere, parched, lonely, broken, grieving, starving, beggars one and all. Who say, “we have nothing to give you but our need for you. We do not always like our neediness. We do not always like your way of doing things. But we are hungry, and you are the Bread of Life” This is what it means to be the Church. We praise God together, we pray for one another, and we also ask these hard questions and lament. We are unafraid to be needy, and to need one another. Always together.

-I’d like to tell you one more story from my own crappy week. Like Jesus, I came to the end, weary and tired. My plane pulled into town, and I was ready to crash. Then a friend left me a message on my answering machine and said, “I know you are tired, but we’d really love you to be at the show tonight.” I ended up at the Stuart’s here – aka Shirley Delta Blow’s – variety drag show. During the course of the evening, Shirley herself told the delighted crowds about Rainbow Alley, a non-profit in Denver that provides shelter and guidance to LGBTQ youth. At one point, Shirley invited us to make an “It Gets Better” video to encourage queer youth to persevere in the face of persecution and pain. Breaking character and tearing up, she told the camera, “I don’t know who you are, but if you have not found a place that accepts and loves you, then come to Denver. We love you, and we will welcome you, and we will walk with you and give you a home.” While I am not gay, in my need, I heard myself being addressed by this message of invitation and hope. I needed to be with my family that night.

-The Kingdom of God is like a Drag Queen telling the broken that “it gets better.” That there is a family of God waiting for you.

-As the family of God, as the Church that is God’s witness to the Kingdom, it is we ourselves who are the miracle. I will never forget, nor cease to praise God, for the miracle of Monday night. But when I do, I will not be able to do so without also remembering the one hundred emails in my inbox. I will remember that, just as Jesus took the meager offerings of his disciples – five loaves and two fish – and blessed them, and broke them, and gave them to his disciples to feed the people who first fed him, so too, Christ took you, blessed you, broke you, and gave you to us, us to you, and all of us together, to be bread for the hungry world. That out of nothing but need, God has created a community of abundance, has filled this community with His Holy Spirit, and has deigned to call this community the Body of His Son Jesus Christ. This family, this church, this Eucharist, is God’s answer to the cries of protest, and the deepest longings, of a needy, broken humanity

-The Kingdom of God is not like this. This is the Kingdom – the family - of God. When you share the peace – when you share in the feast – give thanks for the miracle you are. Amen.