Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Thanks and have fun being the Body

An Advocacy Sermon for Ascension Day, 2010
for Luther Memorial Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington

About a year ago an organization called 826 published a collection of letters written by kids to the president. They called the collection: Thanks And Have Fun Running the Country: Kids’ Letters to President Obama.

The subjects covered in these letters are comprehensive and offer the president advice on everything from what kind of pet he ought to get for his family to detailed suggestions for changing the tax structure. For example:

Dear President Obama,

You are just like a big me, because I am from Chicago and I am biracial and have curly hair. I live in Seattle now, but I’m still from Chicago.

How do you feel about being president?

My advice for you and your family is be yourself and you will change the world. If I were president, I would try and make the world a better place.


Avante Price, age 7


Dear President Obama,

My name is Eli. I’m ten years old. I live in Seattle, Washington. I am the oldest child in my family. I have one sister named Mahala. I have two dogs named Maggie and Roger. My favorite series of books is Harry Potter. It’s the best series in the world!

Now that you’ve heard about me, I want to give you ideas about how to make our country prosper.
I need to bring up a huge problem, the economy! I have a chain of events that you could trigger to lower the economy. First, get a green design company to design a new environmentally safe piece of technology. Then, create new jobs to install the new piece of technology. Finally, from the new jobs people will have more money, there will be less homeless people, which will end in a better economy.

I am very lucky to be writing to you like this. I hope you enjoyed my idea for a better country. It was very enjoyable writing to you like this, President Obama.

Yours truly,

Eli, age 10


Dear Obama,

I like you because you won. We saw you on TV. I hope I am your friend.


Edwin, age 6

Los Angeles

When I read these letters again last week, I was floored by what these kids had to say. In these letters you see their clear-eyed sense of what is broken in the world, their hope in the possibilities of the future, and, maybe most of all, their boldness in seeking to make friends with another person, even if that person happened to be the president of the United States. It is truly amazing.

And yet as I marveled at these things, my heart sank, because the spirit of these letters is so different from the more, shall we say, “adult” rhetoric that is being hurled about in the public square these days.

Some of the things that have been spoken over megaphones recently have been so awful they are not repeatable in polite pulpits. We hear them at rallies and on television sets, over the airwaves and over the Internet, in statements from elected officials including even, yes, from time to time, from the president himself as a new election season swings into high gear.

Of course I am speaking about the extreme poles of the political landscape, but none of us are immune from such things. We catch the same disease whenever we say things that went maybe a bit too far into personal attack. And we show the same symptoms whenever we have just kept silent when a word of truth, a word of peace, a word of love needed to be spoken to a person – even, yes, to an elected official – who needed to hear it.

Of course, we don’t mean to be this way. We often think we have good reason for either digging our trenches or staying out of the fray. A mighty fortress is our God, right? A sword – or a shield – victorious? That’s how the hymn goes, isn’t it?

But what if we humans have, by some horrible mistake, misjudged things? What if, instead of building a fortress around ourselves with a sword or a shield, what if we are actually building ourselves prisons, and locking ourselves inside their cells? What if we have jailed ourselves?

Today we remember when Jesus prayed for the apostles he had chosen and prepared them for mission in the world. In carrying out that mission, they would face consequences. When Paul and Silas, two apostles of the early church, carried out their mission in the world, they were thrown into jail for it.

Most of us don’t often face this problem in twenty-first century America – though, from time to time, our mission does get us into trouble with the powers that be. But we are no strangers to being held back by chains of other sorts. Too often, for us, they are chains we have made for ourselves – and chains we have made for others, too. We are jailers and prisoners at the very same time.

What a mess. Is there any hope for a people like us?

Three little words provide the answer.

Christ is Risen.
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Christ is risen indeed, from the earth to cross, from the cross to the grave, from the grave to sky, so we lift his name on high.

But there is more. For having risen, Christ now lifts our names on high, praying on our behalf, interceding on our behalf, acting on our behalf. On this Ascension Day, we remember when Christ rose not to escape the earth but pray, to intercede, to act on its behalf. On this Ascension Day, we remember when Christ became our advocate.

Because of what our advocate has done, we are freed from our prison cells, free to go and do likewise, free to go and free others from the cells they have built for themselves and for the cells we have put them in. The prisons of our world are many and varied.

Some are shackled by hunger and poverty. Others cannot shake the chains of unaffordable housing or healthcare. Many are behind the bars of a broken justice system. In faraway countries and on our own Gulf Coast there are those who find their freedom threatened by changes in the environment brought about by unsustainable practices. There are young people who yearn for quality and equality in education. And there are those, even in our day, who still struggle for civil and human rights.

The chains are many. But Christ’s advocates are many, too, and they are making the love of the Risen Christ known in the world by speaking up for justice and peace, for freedom and for risen life, for the neighborhood and for all the earth. Christ is clothing his people with power from on high. The same power that raised Christ from the dead is being placed on us to go and do likewise in the world, to go and do God’s liberating work with our hands.

In my internship at the Lutheran Public Policy Office of Washington State, I have seen God’s people doing God’s work with their hands in so many different ways.

In congregations across the state, I have seen God’s people fold their hands and pray on behalf of those who are imprisoned by injustice.

In congregations across this city, I have seen God’s people lift up their hands to hold signs and banners at marches and rallies.

And in congregations across this synod including, yes, at Synod Assembly this past weekend, I have seen God’s people take into their hands a pencil and a piece of paper and write letters to representatives, to senators, to the governor of Washington State, and even, sometimes, to the President of the United States.

Through writing letters, through marching at rallies, through praying on behalf of others, God’s people, God’s witnessing, serving, advocating people, are not looking up toward heaven for a Christ in the clouds. For we have heard the words from Ephesians, and we know that Christ is here working through us, his body in the world.

Come to the table. Receive the body. Become the body.

In Jesus’ name,

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Our Quilted Future

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Mother’s Day, and Lutheran World Relief (Quilts) Sunday, 2010
For St John United Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington

Dear friends in Christ, it is still the season of Easter. Therefore:

Christ is Risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

A prayer before preaching. This prayer is one I heard from Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he prayed it in an interview on public radio this week. I know it’s an old prayer, a traditional one, but I’ll always hear Archbishop Tutu’s voice when I hear it. Let us pray.

Come holy spirit, fill the hearts of they faithful people, and kindle in them the fire of thy love. Send forth thy spirit and they shall be made, and thou shalt renew the face of the earth. Amen.

I had a friend in town last weekend. When he arrived, he told me he had never seen mountains.

He had never seen mountains! I said, “Oh-ho! Well, my friend, you have come to the right place. This is one of the best places in the country to see mountains. You can stand in one spot, look to the west and see mountains, the Olympics, a jagged earthen fence between the Sound and the ocean. Then you can turn around, look to the east, and see more mountains, the Cascades, dotting the landscape from here up to Canada and down to Northern California. Then you can look to the south, and there’s the biggest mountain I’ve ever seen, the greatest of the Cascades, Tahoma, Mount Rainier! Seriously, dude. You want to see mountains? This is the place.”

But do you all remember what the weather was like last weekend?

We never did see any mountains.

Late on Saturday we took a ferry ride across the sound, and at one point I pointed west and I said, “Look! You can kind of almost see a shadow of the mountains, behind the clouds there!” He said, “Yeah… I guess I can kind of see it… sure.” He couldn’t see it. My friend came to Seattle, a place surrounded by mountains, and he went back home never saw having seen one.

Sometimes it is difficult to see what lies on the horizon.

One of my spiritual companions, Bono of U2, has a phrase for the kind of faith required to live into what God is doing even when we can’t always see it from day to day. Bono calls this kind of faith “vision over visibility.” Vision over visibility. Holding on to the vision of God’s future even when our ability see that vision becomes obscured.

In our reading from Revelation today, John of Patmos is given a vision of God’s future for all creation. Visibility had become obscured in his world, and so he needed a vision to keep him moving forward. And on one holy day long ago, he saw it: God renewing the face of the earth! A river of healing flowing through his city, washing away all the brokenness. A great tree growing up beside it, with plenty of life-giving fruit for all of God’s hungry people.

If John were writing in our day, God might have taken him to the top of Mount Rainier and given him a telescope to look down on Phinney Avenue, right down on this neighborhood around Woodland Park Zoo, and John would see the new creation coming alive in our neighborhood, a wild western river of healing and a big Red Cedar Tree with so much fruit there wouldn’t be any need for a soup kitchen anymore. “High heaven’s kingdom come on earth,” in the words of Wendell Berry.

On some holy day long ago, the author of Revelation could see it. No more hurting, whether from surface wounds or deeper ones. No more hunger, whether for bread or for more than bread.

But some days it’s difficult to see the vision of God’s future. Grey clouds move in, obscuring the glorious mountains beyond, with their green trees and wet snows. Some days a fog comes in so thick that from up here on the Ridge I can barely see the waters of the Sound.

Of course, those are just weather patterns. Fog dissipates, clouds break up and move on. What’s worse is when our visibility is obscured by painful events that make it hard to see God’s vision of a brighter tomorrow. Life can dis-illusion us, un-vision us, take away the vision that just yesterday we really believed was possible.

I think of the oil spill on the Gulf Coast. I think of racial profiling and discrimination not only in the Southwest but across the country. I think of the people in our neighborhood who are still dealing with the aftermath of buildings burned down in last fall’s devastating arson fires. And this week, I think of Sam Malkandi deported, and of a family torn apart. The visibility of God’s future can grow dim very quickly.

Jesus knew this was going to be a problem. In our reading from the gospel of John, Jesus is speaking to his disciples about a time when the memory of the resurrection will fade and the vision of God’s coming future will seem to be too far off. Jesus will eventually leave – in a physical sense, at least. And the new creation will seem further and further away.

But God has more than two ways of being with us. In this passage Jesus begins to prepare us for Pentecost, preparing us for the arrival of the one who will remind us of the vision when the visibility gets bad, who will make sure we’ll remember that Mount Rainier and the Olympics and the Cascades are still there even when clouds roll in, who will make sure we remember that the path into a brighter future is still there, even when the lights grow dim.

Maybe that’s why the Spirit is so often referred to with feminine pronouns. God has no human gender, of course, but if we are to use human concepts to make sense out of God, we might do well to use the image of a mom to imagine the Spirit’s work.

Moms can bandage our skin when we fall down and scrape a knee. They can bandage our hearts when they are broken by hurt feelings or a horrible injustice. They hold out a hand when the lights grow dim.

Our mothers – and all those who are like mothers to us: grandmothers, aunts, neighbors, friends, mentors, fathers, and yes, even sometimes kids when one day they become mothers of a different sort caring for their own mothers– these mothers of all kinds show us how the Holy Spirit works.

And at its best, this is what the church does, too. It’s no coincidence, after all, that our brothers and sisters in other Christian traditions refer to a “Mother Church.” The church is propelled out into the neighborhood, to remind the world that God is here, working for a brighter tomorrow. Through our hands, God feeds and shelters people. Through our hands, God nurtures the gardens of creation. Through our hands, God moves the clouds aside to show us the vision of a future we can’t always see.

And through our hands, God is making that future vision a visible reality. That vision becomes visible, for example, in the quilts that our Fabric Fantasy group has been making and sending. Pieces of cloth have been sewn together into blankets, and then they have been sent abroad, to faraway places. And in that very sending, a new sewing takes place. God sews the fabric of the world, connecting people across continents, mending the brokenness and making the vision – making us – whole again. Through quilts like these, God is making us one, so that what happens to others there affects us here, and vice versa. God is making us one, so that there is no separation between us and them – no borders, only a common thread. God is making us one people on our way to a common future.

Hear again this passage from Revelation:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

God is producing leaves for the healing of the nations. Do you want to know what one of these leaves of healing looks like? I have one to show you.

(Ask the a few people to help display one of the quilt for all to see.)

This is but one sign of what God is doing. Each of us here has our own pieces of different-colored cloth within us, our own creative gifts God has given us for the purpose of being added to cosmic tapestry. Come now to the table, that God might knit us together.

Let us pray again the prayer of Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

Come holy spirit, fill the hearts of thy faithful people, and kindle in them the fire of thy love. Send forth thy spirit and they shall be made, and thou shalt renew the face of the earth. Amen.