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Choose Love

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Sunday, June  19, 2016
Proper 7C / Luke 8:26-39

Many of the stories from Luke’s gospel that we have heard in the past few weeks and that we will hear throughout the summer are stories of healing.  But this Sunday’s is perhaps the most challenging of the bunch. Because rather than naming a health concern – for example, the centurion who was ill,[1] the man who has died,[2] or the man who has been beaten by robbers and left on the side of the road[3] - today’s text instead, labels the underlying condition as “demon possession.”  And while the core message of healing is Good News, the ways in which this passage has been used by some in the church has been dangerously violent.
For example, Bert Farias, revivalist and founder of Holy Fire Ministries, proclaimed in a recent sermon that “Homosexuality is actually a demon spirit. It is such a putrid-smelling demon that other demons don’t even like to hang around it.”[4]  He then uses this morning’s Gospel message to explain that when Jesus sends the demons into the herd of swine, “the pigs didn’t want them, so they ran down a steep hill and were drowned in the sea [because] pigs have more sense than some humans. . . the pigs would rather die than be possessed with demons.”[5]  Most preachers do not use such offensive language – at least not publically – when speaking about the LGBTQI community; however, the logic behind the “pray away the gay” and the “love the sinner and hate the sin” movements are not much different than the messed up logic being used by Bert Farias.  And our church has been complicit in this message as well.  Today we must ask for forgiveness and healing and we must be clear that we have been wrong.
So, I want to be clear this morning.  “Sexuality and gender identity are not things that possess us, rather . . . [they are] integral parts of who we are.”[6]  The LGBTQI community of which I am a proud member is not possessed by some gay-demon.  We are not ill with a homosexual virus.  And we do not need to be cured of our love for another human being.  What we are, is susceptible to the same demonic forces that every human being in our society falls prey to – demonic forces like racism, Islamophobia, homophobia.  Those are the demons we need to ask Jesus to cast out.  Those are the systemic ailments of our time that we must offer up to God’s healing grace.   As a UCC pastor wrote in his blog this week, if we are looking for our place in this reading from Luke’s gospel, we need to be clear:  We are not Jesus, speaking to the demons. We are the townspeople, too afraid to invite Jesus to stay with us and work healing among us; too afraid to admit [that] we, too, might be possessed.”[7]
This week has been an emotionally raw week for members of the LGBTQI community.  Gatherings have been a mixture of tears, anger, and loneliness.  The attacks at Pulse, a popular gay venue in Orlando, Florida a week ago this morning, shook us to our core.  Because it amplified something that we already deal with on a daily basis – FEAR.  Perhaps the two most well-known events up until last Sunday that have led the gay community to this place of fear are Stonewall and the brutal murder of Matthew Shepherd.
  • On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village and the rioting and violence which ensued lasted for three days. 
  • On October 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally attacked and tied to a fence in a field outside of Laramie, Wyoming and left to die. On October 12, Matt succumbed to his wounds in a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado.  Matt was gay.
But it is not only the LGBTQI community who are hurting.  Last Sunday’s incidents have been painful for our Muslim brothers and sisters as well because once again the actions of an individual are being placed on the community as a whole suggesting that if one Muslim carried out this crime, then all Muslims must be to blame. 
Last Sunday’s incidents have also been painful for our brothers and sisters of color because it was Latino night at Pulse and most of the victims were Hispanic.  And this weekend, of course, marks the one year anniversary of the murders of nine worshippers at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. 
Between that event and last Sundays, we have a trifecta of demons with which to contend homophobia, Islamophobia, and racism.  And Jesus stands among us demanding the unclean spirits to come out of us.  And you and I have a choice – we, like the townspeople in Luke’s gospel, can choose to live with our great fear or we can be like the one who is healed and proclaim throughout the city how much the love of Jesus has done for us.  Because love trumps fear every time.  Love always wins.  How might we proclaim this love? What are some concrete steps we might take?
  • Some members of our congregation are taking steps – literally – right now as they participate in the YWCA’s Annual Race Against Hate.  This race honors the legacy of Ricky Byrdsong, former Northwestern University Men’s Basketball Coach who was murdered by a white supremacist in 1999. It is a race that brings together thousands of people to run and walk in unity against racial hatred and violence.  And it is a race that raises much needed funds to further the mission of the YWCA Evanston/North Shore particularly in their efforts in the areas of racial justice and violence prevention. 

What else can we do?
  • Many of us can donate blood.  Gay and bi men and trans women are unscientifically yet legally prohibited from donating blood; but many of us can do so on their behalf. Lifesource locations around the Chicagoland area – including the one in Evanston – are sending blood to Orlando, Florida to help those injured last Sunday.[8] 
  • We can speak out. Be vocal about our position of inclusion and affirmation – be vocal about our baptismal commitment to strive for justice and peace among all people and our promise to respect the dignity of every human being. 
  •  We can reach out to our LGBTQI neighbors and to our Muslim neighbors and ask how they are doing.  Let them know you support them and that you care.  
  •  And finally, next Sunday, June 26, you can join the Diocese of Chicago and march in Chicago’s Gay Pride Parade.  As event coordinator, Matthew Zaradich writes, “this is an amazing opportunity to deliver our message of hope in Christ, of complete love and acceptance in God, and of changing the world through the Holy Spirit. . . to show our Church on the affirming side of inclusive love.”[9]
Let us not be like the townspeople in Luke’s gospel, cowering in fear; let us instead open ourselves to the healing love of Christ; and let us be that healing love of Christ in a world that so desperately yearns for it.  In the name of all that is Holy, I beg of you choose Love. For love always wins.

[1] Luke 7:1-10
[2] Luke 7:11-17
[3] Luke 10:25-37

[4] Bert M. Farias, “The Raw, Naked Truth About Homosexuality,” The Flaming Herald, July 22, 2014 accessed on June 17, 2016,

[5] Ibid.
[6]An Open Letter to Preachers,” Sermonizing: Musings of a Would-be Theologian, June 15, 2016 accessed on June 17, 2016.
[7] Ibid.
[8] To find a Lifesource donor center near you, visit
[9] Matty Zaradich, “Pride Parade – March with the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago”, Facebook event accessed June 17, 2016.


Paul to the Church in Galatia, "Don't Be Jerks!"

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Second Sunday after Pentecost
Galatians 1:1-12

Imagine this is what you heard when you came to church on Sunday morning!  I’m not sure how long I’d continue attending that church!  I mean, after all, most of us are already pretty hard on ourselves and after a long week at work or at school the last thing we want on a Sunday morning is to have someone yelling at us reminding us of all the ways in which we are not living up to expectations.
Having read today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Church in Galatia shortly after viewing the Honest Preacher video clip, I thought, “wow!” This is exactly how Paul is in this letter.  And, my next thought was, “Thank goodness for Jesus because if we all we had was this letter from Paul. . . I’m not sure Christianity would be with us anymore!” Paul’s letter begins more or less like his other letters --- In the letter to Rome: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ. . .  Grace to you and peace. . .”[2]. In the letters to Corinth: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus. . . Grace to you and peace. . .”[3].   In the letter to Ephesus: “Paul, can apostle of Christ Jesus. . . Grace to you and peace. . .”[4]  Well, you get the idea. Nothing too bizarre here in the letter to Galatia: “Paul an apostle. . . Grace to you and peace. . .” All of Paul’s other letters then go on to give thanks for the community to which he writes. But, here, to the community of Jesus followers in Galatia, there is none of that.  Just, “It’s me Paul. Grace to you and peace.  Hey, you guys. Sometimes you are bad. You are real jerks. Don’t be bad. Or, as Paul actually puts it, “I am astonished!”[5] 
Whenever a text doesn’t follow the expected formula – in the case of Paul – Greetings, Peace, Thank you – it tells me, we need to pay close attention.  What has Paul so riled up that all of his homiletics training and all of his pastoral care training from seminary is left by the wayside as he just lays in to the community in Galatia?  Whatever it is, we best pay attention. 
Paul is known to have planted many Christian communities.  Pastor Gregory Ledbetter refers to him as a “midwife.”[6] He plants the seed of the Church, prays that God will water and grow that seed to fullness of faith, and checks in from time to time with a letter of encouragement or correction.  This is the way things were in Galatia.  But, since Paul’s work in Galatia, other missionaries have come into town and they are telling the community that Paul’s theology and Paul’s instructions on how to be a follower of Jesus are incomplete.  For Paul, the Gentiles (that is, the non-Jewish followers of Jesus) did not need to follow Jewish law and Jewish customs in order to be a faithful follower of Jesus.  However, the missionaries who came after him – Jewish followers of Jesus – felt this was incorrect and were teaching the Gentiles in Galatia that the gospel they had received was incomplete, that in order to actually be a follower of Jesus and to reap the salvific benefits of that, one needed to eat kosher, be circumcised, attend the synagogue on Jewish holidays, and so forth. So Paul is mad! Not only does he believe that these missionaries are teaching “a different gospel – not that there is another gospel” but he is feeling personally attacked – his credibility is on the line.  (Mind you, this is not necessarily a good reason to lose one’s cool; but, there we are).
So what is it that Paul is saying that differs so greatly from the message of the other missionaries?  In the first place, Paul does not think the Jewish Christians are “doing faith” wrong by continuing their traditional practices. In fact, Paul might argue that Jews should, in fact, continue those Jewish customs because he understands that those practices are what connect them to their heritage, their world view, their values.  For Jewish followers of Jesus, Paul understood that being a follower of Jesus was a particular way of being Jewish – not a new religion.  After all, Paul is a Jewish follower of Jesus.
By the same token, Paul does not think that the Gentile converts are “doing faith” in a better or more pure way than the Jewish followers.  It’s just that, for Gentiles to “pick up” Jewish customs is (a) not authentic to who they are and (b) not necessary to be a follower of Jesus.  As theologian Wendy Farley writes, Paul believed and taught that “Christ is a doorway through which anyone can enter at any time, not because belief is a new [human] ‘work’ or Christianity a new ‘law’” but because, “the gospel is the unbearably good news that divine love anticipates us, surrounds us, [and] precedes us; anything that serves as an obstacle to our awareness of this love is ‘accursed’.”[7]  “Jewish customs are consistent with faith; Gentile prophecy is consistent in faith. But limiting divine grace to these or anything else is not consistent with faith. Love makes one a Christian.  That’s it. Just the love of Christ.
The point for Paul – and the reason he is SO angry about what is happening in Galatia – is that, contrary to what the Jewish Christian missionaries are teaching, “one’s status and condition do not need to be altered in order to be invited into divine love.”  This is why later in the letter to Galatia, Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[8]  The gospel does not depend on our behavior. It does not depend on our words.  It does not depend on our lot or condition in life.  The gospel, in short, does not depend on us.  Rather, the gospel is wholly dependent on God’s love revealed through his Son, Jesus Christ.  Paul’s teaching in Galatia is not “gospel-light” – it is not a partial gospel - it is Gospel. It is Good News.
And as it is good news for the church in Galatia and in Corinth, it is good news in Ephesus and in Rome and right here in Evanston, Illinois, it is good news because it has the power “to set us free from the present evil age,”[9] an age marked by our fascination with and chasing after the false gospels – “not that there is another gospel” – the false gospels of “power, might, prestige, and hierarchical authorities.”[10]   My brothers and sisters in Christ, the love of God through Jesus Christ sets us free.  But each day the choice is ours – just as it was for the Galatians – will we choose our loyalty to the “familiar and stabilizing structures” of human origin or will we choose “the priority of the gospel”[11] as “received through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”[12]  If we choose the former, we will continue to chase after status and power in society, seeking an ephemeral salvation that is wholly dependent on human behaviors – some of which are in our control and most of which are out of our hands.  But, if we choose the later – the Gospel of Jesus Christ – we will know ourselves in the light of divine love. Right where we are. Right as we are.  In any circumstance, in any time.  A divine love that anticipates us, surrounds us and precedes us as it invites us to believe the Good News that we are God’s beloved children.  We already are God’s beloved children.  You don’t need to do anything.  Just accept this Good News.

[1] “The Honest Preacher,” Friend Dog Studios, May 23, 2016 accessed here on May 28, 2016.
[2] Romans 1:1-7.
[3] 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; 2 Corinthians 1:1-2.
[4] Ephesians 1:1-2.
[5] Galatians 1:1-3, 6.
[6] Gregory H. Ledbetter, “Homiletical Perspective: Galatians 1:1-12,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
[7] Wendy Farley, “Theological Perspective: Galatians 1:1-12,” Feasting on the Word.
[8] Galatians 3:28.
[9] Galatians 1:4.
[10] Farley.
[11] Farley.
[12] Galatians 1:12b.


Practicing Letting God . . .

An Easter Sermon
March 27, 2016

A stirring tale, a familiar tale, an epic tale, even a fairy tale.  Any of these adjectives would seem more fitting a response to the news that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women come running back to share with the apostles --- Jesus is risen!!!!  But instead we get this --- “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them" (Luke 24:11).  Wow! Talk about taking the wind out of somebody’s sails. 
And yet, can you blame the disciples?  After all that has happened, even if what the women had to say were true, what difference could it possibly make now?  After all, they had their chance to take over Jerusalem – isn’t that what the triumphant procession was all about – the palm branches, the cloaks strewn about the ground, the loud shouts of Hosanna!  That was supposed to be the take-over of the Roman Empire!  Or so at least some of the disciples had thought.  The opportunity came and went.  At the Mount of Olives, when the chief priests, the officers of the temple police and the elders come for Jesus, Peter takes out his sword and strikes and instead of seizing the opportunity to wage war, Jesus shouts out “No more of this!” and even heals the man Peter has wounded.  So, when the women return from the empty tomb with their news, can you really blame the apostles?  It’s not necessarily that they don’t believe the women – though, Peter does go running back to see for himself (Luke 24:12).  It’s that the message the women is pointless, it’s too late.  We had our chance. It’s over now.  Even if Jesus is risen, it is but an idle tale. 
Earlier this week, our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry shared his Easter message and in it he talked about fairy tales. He said, “I actually love fairy tales . . . there [is] something good about them, a way of confronting what [is] tough in life with genuine hope.”[1] And sometimes I wonder if you and I, when we hear the Easter story – when we hear the women come back from the tomb and tell us what they’ve seen and what they’ve heard – I wonder if we hear it as some sort of fairy tale - a nice message of hope for a challenging time?  But what I really fear is that not only do we hear it as a fairy tale but that we, like the apostles in Luke’s gospel, consider it to be an idle tale – a story that has no real point in the here and the now.  A story that can make no difference in our lives. 
So this morning, I want to invite you to suspend any disbelief, to let go of any lingering doubts and just imagine what it might mean for your life if the story were true.  What would it mean for your life if the tomb were empty and Jesus was raised from the dead?  What fears could you let go of?  What false idols could you release?  What could you dare to share with others? 
Many of us meditated throughout the days of Lent and Holy Week using reflections in Scott Stoner’s book, Living Well through Lent: Letting Go with All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind.  As its title suggests, the reflections were all about unburdening, letting go – of our comfort zones,[2] letting go – of all the shoulds that weigh us down[3] and deprive us of living out of grace and love,[4] letting go – of control,[5] letting go – of the “tyranny of perfectionism,”[6] letting go – of worries that “strangle our emotional, spiritual, relational, and physical wellness.”[7] 
This practice of letting go was all about today!  Because Jesus is Risen!  And because of that Truth, we can let go of our fears, our brokenness, our anxieties, our whatever-it-is-that-holds-us-back – we can let it all go.  Because, my brothers and sisters in Christ, this is not an idle tale.  Today is when “we celebrate and affirm that resurrection is real” and that death and hurt and brokenness do not now and never will have the final word.[8] 
Today is when we declare that God’s Love triumphs!  And here’s something to consider.  Letting go – takes practice – lots of practice, every day.  That may come as no surprise – after all, I bet each of us can think of something we’ve spent time worrying about or trying to control in just the past 24 hours! But here’s the bit that may come as a surprise – letting resurrection love into our lives – letting the Truth of God’s triumphant love into our lives - takes practice too.  That is why throughout the Season of Easter we being our worship by giving thanks to God for the water of baptism “that sustains life” and gives us “the gift of new life in Jesus Christ.” And we pray that God will “Shower us with God’s Spirit, and renew our lives with God’s forgiveness, grace, and love.”[9] 
The Truth of the Resurrection takes practice – a daily practice of renouncing and letting go of all that weighs us down and a daily practice of letting God enter our lives to renew us through the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; to renew us as we persevere in resisting evil; to renew us as we proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to renew us as we seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; to renew us as we strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
The Truth of the Resurrection is that God’s love wins!  Let go as you let the waters of your baptism refresh you once again, renew you yet again.  Accept the Good News. Practice the Good News!  And proclaim the Good News - - - Love wins! God's love wins! Alleluia!

[1] Michael Curry, “Easter 2016 Message,” March 23, 2016 available online
[2] Scott Stoner, “Letting Go of Our Comfort Zones,” Living Well through Lent 2016 – Letting Go with All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind, (Milwaukee, WI: Living Compass, 2016), February 12, 2016, 15.
[3] Stoner, “Letting Go of Shoulds,” February 22, 2016, 29.
[4] Stoner, “Letting Go with All Your Strength,” February 25, 2016, 32.
[5] Stoner, “Letting Go of Control,” February 29, 2016, 39.
[6] Stoner, “Letting Go of Perfectionism,” March 7, 2016, 49.
[7] Stoner, “Letting Go of Worry,” March 14, 2016, 59.
[8] Stoner, “Letting Come,” March 27, 2016, 77.
[9] “Thanksgiving for Baptism,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 97.