Abandoned Treasures and Marvelous Things: A Sermon for Proper29C, 2019

I follow an Italian social media account called Tesori Abbandonati(Abandoned Treasures). It posts photos of abandoned buildings, mostly churches, palaces, and the like from across Italy. There are similar projects in the US—for example a few years ago, photos of abandoned churches and theatres in Detroit were making the rounds.

Seeing such photos bring up all sorts of emotions. In the case of Italy, when many of the buildings are centuries old, I’m inclined to marvel at the passing of time, the fact that a church or palace from the seventeenth century lacks the architectural or historical significance that would warrant its preservation. In the case of cities like Detroit, different emotions come to the fore—sadness about the decline of a once-great American city, the loss of manufacturing, the racial inequalities that contributed and continue to contribute to the economic despair in many urban centers. Continue reading

God, have mercy on me, a sinner: A Sermon for Proper 25C, 2019

 

A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray. So begins the little parable that we hear today in the gospel reading. The temple was the center of Palestinian Jewish life in the first century. It was where necessary sacrifices were made; it was where pilgrims came from all over the Roman Empire to celebrate the great festivals of the Jewish year. It was also the nexus between Roman imperial power and the institutions of Judaism, especially the priestly caste. Continue reading

All the Lazaruses in our doorways: A Sermon for Proper 21C, 2019

You’ve all seen the sight as you come to church on Sunday mornings or if you’re downtown at the Overture Center for a concert, or out at dinner at a nice restaurant. As you walk down the sidewalk, you are confronted by panhandlers or see homeless people sitting on the benches. If it’s night, there are people sleeping in doorways or alleys. Whether there are more people experiencing homelessness now than in previous years, the perception that it is a growing problem certainly is real. In a meeting on Friday, Alder Mike Verveer, the alder for this district, said that he has fielded more phone calls and emails, had more conversations with constituents about homelessness this summer than at any previous time in his 24-year tenure on the City Council. Continue reading

Serving debt, serving wealth, serving God: A Sermon for Proper 20C, 2019

Debt. We all have at least a passing familiarity with it. Most of us have in the past, or currently have, socially and morally respectable debt like a mortgage. Many of us have other forms of debt—credit card debt, the loans we owe on our vehicles. Some of us have experience with more crushing forms of it—student loans, for example, which have skyrocketed and put many millennials in difficult circumstances. Then there is medical debt, which in too many cases can lead to bankruptcy.

Even if we don’t have direct experience with the sort of debt that can only lead to bankruptcy, it’s very likely that we know people who are deeply affected by it, in many cases through no fault of their own, except perhaps by deciding to get a college education or going to grad or professional school, or having the bad luck of becoming seriously ill. The amounts are mind-boggling: Forbes recently estimated that there is more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, owed by some 45 million people. Meanwhile, it’s estimated that more than 1 in 4 Americans struggled to pay a recent medical bill. Continue reading

Jesus invites us to the messianic banquet, not the Taste of Madison: A Sermon for Proper 17C, 2019

Outside our doors today one of Madison’s most beloved and popular cultural rituals is taking place. It’s one many of us will be participating in as well, as we make our pilgrimage around the square and sample the various foods on offer. Few of us stop to think about what such rituals mean or signify; for most, if not all of us, the Taste of Madison, like other events such as Art Fair on the Square are fun. In this case, we get to sample food from restaurants we might not otherwise visit, or try new things, or purchase selections that remind us of other times and places—funnel cakes evoking memories of long-ago county fairs.

But such events also reinforce and inscribe our identities—in this case first and foremost as consumers, and they reinforce our place in the capitalist system. There are those vendors who are new or are trying to make a small business succeed as they pursue the fading American dream. There are also the cooks and servers who are working for vendors and likely receiving little more than the minimum wage. And the diversity—the ethnic cuisines that are adapted to mainstream American taste buds, or are being appropriated and monetized by others. Continue reading

The Word of God is like fire: A Sermon for Proper 15C

How many of us, when we’re travelling and making small talk with strangers, or visiting with family out of state, or connecting with friends we grew up with and haven’t seen for several decades, how many of us avoid mentioning certain topics? With whom do we talk about politics, or the news of the day in casual conversation. Even a discussion about the weather can lead to heated conflict. We live in a divided nation, a divided state, a divided community.

Many of us have experienced such division within our own families. In the weeks before Thanksgiving, for example, there are advice columns and essays about how to talk to your relatives who have different political views. Continue reading

Puffs of wind and resurrection hope: A Sermon for Proper 13C, 2019

El Paso. 20 killed, at least 26 wounded, but perhaps more because some of the wounded may have fled the scene fearing that if they sought medical attention they would be deported.

Gilroy Garlic Festival. 3 victims killed, 12 injured. In both cases the perpetrators were white supremacists bent on ridding the US of immigrants and people of color.

Dayton, OH. If you haven’t heard the news this morning, another mass shooting late last night. 9 dead, 16 injured.

These are just the latest in a long list of mass shootings; by some estimates 249 in 2019 alone. We are numb with grief; many of us outraged, angered by the fact that common-sense measures on gun control are blocked by craven politicians beholden to the money from the NRA.

While details on the shooter in Dayton remain sketchy, we know the motives behind the tragedies in El Paso and Gilroy. The shooters were white supremacists, racists, emboldened by a society in which such views have become widespread and unchallenged in the media. Were they Muslims, the full power of law enforcement would be marshaled against them; but as we’ve seen repeatedly, too many of those who wear uniforms in police forces and military share the views, if not the willingness to act on them publicly, of the shooters.

There are no words that can offer comfort; no thoughts and prayers that can ease our mind. The shocking reality of the violence; its seemingly endless recurrence, and the racism and hate that lie behind so much of it lay bare the moral rot in our nation, just as the unwillingness of politicians to address the carnage in any meaningful way, does the same. And we also need to look inside ourselves, to interrogate our deepest emotions and most deeply-held beliefs, to ask whether deep in our hearts we too shelter some of the same hatred and fear that unchecked and stoked lead to such heinous acts.

No words… I would like to stop now for a few minutes; to allow us silently to reflect on the events of the past 24 hours and the last week, to pray for the victims, to pray for our nation, and to listen to ourselves, to our emotions….

 

Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

No doubt it was overwhelming for many of you to sit in silence just now. The horrific violence, the deaths of so many, the hate that we see reflected so intensely in social media, at rallies, and in the acts of shooters as in Gilroy and El Paso. We feel impotent, angry, fearful. And we wonder, where is God in all this? We wonder too, how as Christians are we called to respond and to be faithful to our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ?

Hard questions without easy answers.

Our readings, the Psalm, the excerpts from Ecclesiastes, and the gospel all touch on death and on our legacies. From Ecclesiastes: “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?”

From the Psalm:

For we see that the wise die also;
like the dull and stupid they perish *
and leave their wealth to those who come after them.

 

The gospel reading, first a dispute over an inheritance and then the parable of the foolish rich man, who stores up all of his grain so that he can “eat, drink, and be merry.”

I wonder how many of us are like that rich fool. We lead our lives, go to work, accumulate possessions, plan for retirement; look forward to the time, be it tomorrow or ten years from now when we can relax and take it easy.

I wonder how many of us are like that rich man. Do you notice how he thinks?

He’s faced with a problem. For whatever reason, hard work? Favorable weather? He has a bountiful harvest unlike any he’s had before. What will he do with all that grain? And so he says, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

How many times in those few sentences does the word “I” appear? Here is a man blessed with abundance who thinks only of himself. What might he do with that abundance? Share it with the laborers who did all the work, even invite them to a celebration of the bountiful harvest? No, he thinks only of himself.

One could say the same thing of the writer of Ecclesiastes. In our reading, we hear the word “I” repeatedly and when he speaks of others, he speaks only of whether they deserve what he leaves behind, because who knows whether they will be wise or foolish. His response? All is vanity, literally, a puff of wind.

In fact, the rich man’s words, “eat, drink, and be merry” come from Ecclesiastes (8:15):

“So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.”

It’s advice we might like to take, especially on days like today when the news is particularly disheartening. It’s advice we might like to take, to enjoy ourselves, and ignore the suffering and injustice and all the evils in the world. We might like to close ourselves off from all of it, to claim it’s not our problem or there’s nothing we can do about it, that the occasional “thoughts and prayers” in response to radical evil and horrific violence is enough.

Now, I’m not about to disparage eating, drinking, and being merry. I’m as fond of celebrations as anyone. I love good food, fine wine, and don’t ask me how much dancing I’ve done this summer.

But all is not vanity and a puff of wind.

We are followers of Jesus Christ, who was crucified because he preached release to the captive, good news to the poor, because he challenged injustice and oppression, because he turned over the tables of money-changers and proclaimed love of enemies.

We are followers of Jesus Christ, whose life and ministry was vindicated by his resurrection—evidence to us that God is working new things in this world, defeating evil and calling us to imitate Jesus by loving our neighbors, proclaiming good news to the poor and release to the captive.

We are followers of Jesus Christ, and as Paul writes in Colossians, whatever we might want for ourselves, whatever goals we might have, whoever we are, we are being remade in Christ, our selves are being transformed, made new creations, “according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

In Christ, may we be remade and renewed, that we lay aside our differences, our anger and despair. Living in the power and hope of resurrection, may we follow him in loving our enemies, proclaiming the good news, and challenging the rising tide of hate and violence that surrounds us.