Throughout the month of January, I traveled throughout the Eastern Mediterranean: to Israel/Palestine, Jordan, and Greece, visiting sites important to both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This trip was a dream of mine, and I am still processing much of what I saw: the Church of the Nativity in the midst of a walled-in Bethlehem, Golgotha, the Jordan River, the Dome of the Rock, and Ancient Corinth, just to name a few.
As people often are during pilgrimages, I was surprised to find that the holiness I sought was often found in the places between the sites. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I felt I learned the most about God from the people I encountered, for both the joy and pain I witnessed in my experiences with them: vendors who gave directions, strangers who helped us navigate buses and trains, teenage Israeli soldiers with machine guns on their arms, Bedouin children who sold tea in Petra, Palestinians who told us their stories of heartbreak and loss, and also of love of homeland, a longing for peace, and resiliency.
It is these images that I carried in my heart and mind as a I approached the texts for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, though the stories of my travels do not enter this sermon. While Luke’s Beatitudes take place on a level place and not on a mountain, as in Matthew, I thought of the beauty and serenity of the modern-day Mount of the Beatitudes, which overlooks the Sea of Galilee, and how the quiet prayerfulness of this place belies its proximity to state-sanctioned violence and poverty and hunger – suffering from which I was immune because of my blue American passport.
And I wondered: what does it mean to be a Christian today, and what does it mean to be an American Christian? And who would I be in the crowd Jesus addresses in this passage from Luke: one to whom he says “blessed”? Or “woe”?
These questions became the bedrock for my sermon at Resurrection Lutheran Church on February 17th. You can find both the text for that morning and my sermon text below.
It should strike us as absurd. Pilate is the Roman governor of Judea. He has a palace, he has cops and regents and the support of an entire Empire. Jesus, in the context of this passage, has just been abandoned by his only friends and supporters, arrested, subject to police brutality, and is now sitting helpless in front of one of the most powerful men in the Judea. Pilate holds all the power, something he would remind Jesus of only a few verses later, and yet he is asking Jesus about truth, and about who Jesus is.
And Pilate does not ask him, “do you claim that you are king of the Jews?” Pilate only asks him, “Are you king of the Jews?”
This short Gospel reading is missing most of its context. If we were to read it in context, we would know that Pilate is pacing back and forth between Jesus, the accused, and the people of Judea, who have demanded that Jesus be killed, though they have not specified what his crimes were. Imagine: the decisive governor of Judea, pacing between a mob and a lone, peaceful man, trying to figure out what to do with this accused man. If we read this passage in its context, we would also know that Jesus has already announced who he is; only a few short passages before this, Roman soldiers announce that they are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus answers, “I AM.” And everyone falls before him, bowing.
“Are you king of the Jews?” Pilate asks. But Jesus does not play his games. He has already said who he is, and king is never the title he has applied to himself.
In fact, when Pilate asks again whether Jesus is a king, Jesus only replies, “You say that I am a king,” but that he has come to this world to testify to the truth.
The truth? Pilate must have thought this was a bold claim, because he immediately asks, “What is truth?” Those who know the Gospel of John well may have the answer on the tip of their tongue. Before his arrest, Jesus announced “I am the way, the truth, and the light.”
We know the answer to Pilate’s question about truth, and yet still I can’t help by feel that we are Pilate. Like Pilate, we pace between Jesus and the things people are saying about Jesus, wondering what the truth is; we pace between the mobs of this world and the man hanging on the cross, wondering who to believe. We have been told who Jesus is, perhaps felt ourselves fall before the great I AM, and yet still we wonder what the truth about this curious person, Jesus of Nazareth, is. Or, perhaps, in an age where the words ‘fake news’ are so often used, we may pace between what we hear and what we know, wondering what is true, and then perhaps wondering what God has to do with the truth, anyway.
N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar, said that, “truth is what happens when humans use words to reflect God’s wise ordering of the world and so shine light into its dark corners, bringing judgment and mercy where it is badly needed.”
So, when we say that Jesus is the truth, we testify to the fact that Jesus, the powerless man who stood before Pilate, is the one who comes to shine light into our dark corners, to illumine where hearts break and death reigns high, to bring mercy and love and grace to those who need it so desperately.
But truth, as NT Wright defines it, is at odds with the Roman Empire. Empires, he says, can’t cope with the truth. He goes on to say that empires “make their own “truth,” creating “facts on the ground” in the depressingly normal way of violence and injustice.”
And this is certainly true of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire spread and dominated through the largest and fiercest military the world had ever seen, and they grew their territories through violence and force. They killed entire cities which resisted, salted the earth to remove people’s ability to live off the land, they exploited the natural environment wherever they went, and they created a system where the vast majority lived in squalor while the richest among them enjoyed luxury.
But they had their reasons. The Roman Empire functioned this way to keep chaos at bay, to maintain order. They valued the pax romana, the Roman Peace, wherein people could trade freely and people could live safer lives, if only the violence exported further away from Roman cities. They prided themselves on a prosperous economy, on a stable government. The Roman Empire emphasized its military force and exploited the land and its people because they believed that this was the best way to give people good lives.
In short, they believed that violence would be their savior.
And Jesus claimed the opposite.
Jesus, who came to testify to the truth, says that his kingdom is not from this world, because the kingdoms of our world are full of this myth of saving violence. Our kingdoms, whether they be the Roman Empire or the United States, claim that we can be prosperous and safe – we can find our salvation – if we simply rely on violence in whatever its form.
But Jesus tells us that this kingdom is not from our world, where violence is hailed as savior, but that his kingdom is over truth. And Pilate asks him, “what is truth?”
But Pilate could have known already, had he been listening. Jesus had been preaching and teaching publicly for three years by the time he was put on trial before Pilate. For three years he had been shining light on the dark places of our world and bringing mercy and healing to all whom he met. Jesus testified to the truth by healing the sick and dying, by raising Lazarus from death, by comforting the brokenhearted, by speaking to foreigners and teaching women, by feeding the hungry and witnessing to God’s light in the world.
Jesus had been testifying to the truth for years by proclaiming God’s love for the world, and by showing that this great love meant healing from our every ill, freedom from the captivity of injustice, and redemption for all creation.
And the Empire could not cope with this truth, and they crucified him.
Pilate paced back and forth between Jesus and his accusers, wondering which savior he might choose. And he chose violence.
So, Jesus is right. His kingdom is not from this world, it has no basis in saving violence. And Jesus never does claim to be a king. His only crown was made of thorns, and he had no throne – only a cross.
So, why then, do we even have Christ the King Sunday? Why is it we gather once a year, at the end of our church’s calendar, and proclaim Christ to be something that he never claimed for himself?
The answer lies in the origin of this feast day. You see, unlike Advent or Lent or Easter, which are all ancient parts of our church calendar, Christ the King Sunday is only 93 years old. It was declared a holy day in the Roman Catholic Church in the year 1925, as a political response to the rise of fascism in Europe, and especially in Italy.
That same year that Christ the King Sunday was given a place in the Roman Catholic Church’s calendar, Mussolini had declared himself dictator over Italy. And he believed vehemently in the myth of saving violence. His “Black Shirts,” the fascist party of Italy, claimed that it would resurrect Italy to the former glory of the Roman Empire through violence and domination.
And the Church Universal felt the need to remind the world that Christians do not count our allegiance with the Empires of this world, and that our salvation comes not from violence. Rather, we follow a different way. The Truth, over which Christ reigns, is where we count our allegiance. It is in Christ, not violence, that we find our salvation. And it is through God’s love, not weapons and fists, that we will find the redemption of the entire world.
Today, we may find ourselves like Pilate in so many ways. We may wonder what the Truth is, and we may scurry between who Jesus says he is and who the world says he is, wondering what is to be believed. We may wonder who our real savior is – Jesus or the violent ways of Empire.
And like Pilate, we rely on the violence of an Empire to secure our own safety and economic prosperity and comfort. We may not be the ones who hold the weapons, but we rely on the US military, now the largest the world has ever known, and police and private prisons and factories which rely on child labor and detainment centers for immigrant children for the kind of lifestyle we live here in Lakeview. Like Pilate, we have outsourced the violence we rely on for our lives, and like Pilate, we can find ways to make this violence into our savior.
But the difference between a Christian and Pilate is that Pilate chose Empire. As he paced between his two options, between the mob and Jesus, he decided that violence was his savior after all. And we, as Christians, claim that Christ is the true king. As Christians, we proclaim that we have chosen a different way that the one that our empire has laid out for us. As Christians, we hold fast to the faith that love is a greater savior than violence, and love will always have the final say.
Christ the King Sunday marks the end of this year’s church calendar. Next week, we will begin the season of Advent, where we wait with bated breath for the birth of Jesus. It is fitting that we celebrate Christ the King just one week before we remember the beginning of his earthly life. Because nothing can tell us more about the kind of sovereign Christ is than to see that he entered this world as a helpless, fragile infant, born with all the limitations of our frail flesh, born helpless and hunted by the Roman Empire. And all this, only to be Immanuel, God with us. It is this Jesus of Nazareth, laying in a manger, that we proclaim God, and it is this Kingdom of God, where violence has no foothold, to which we belong. Amen.
An expanded version of my EPA testimony on the Affordable Clean Energy Rule was published on LSTC’s blog, called We Talk, We Listen. In it, I talk about the connections which exist between urban Chicago and rural East Tennessee, namely, pollution and poverty. You can find it here.
If you would like to speak out against the insidious Affordable Clean Energy Rule, don’t forget to submit your own written testimony online by October 31st, 2018. Faith in Place has a form to help you.
My first at the church I currently serve at – Resurrection Lutheran Church in Lakeview, Chicago – fell on October 7th, 2018. My supervisor and I scheduled it by date, not by lectionary, and unbeknownst to me, I received a doozy of a text: Jesus’s teaching on divorce.
It happened to fall the same week as the Kavanaugh hearings, at the very height of the #MeToo movement, but the text revealed itself to me as an opportunity for discussion about the dignity of women’s lives and against violence against women, wherever it exists.
The text for the Sunday was Mark 10:1-16. The text for the sermon can be read below, under the “read more” link.
Yesterday, I was one of many people who attended an EPA hearing on the so-called Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which would deregulate coal-powered plants and cause the deaths of the over one-thousand Americans every year. You can read more about it here. Shamefully, this was the only public hearing on this proposed rule in the entire country. Reuters provided some limited coverage of the hearing from the morning.
In my five-minute testimony, I told the story of two boys who died on my pediatric unit during my time as a chaplain here in Chicago, and I discuss how their deaths are related to the suffering of many people in my home of East Tennessee. The EPA’s estimates on the amount of death and disease caused by this rule point to the fact that lack of regard for the environment invariably impacts the poor and disenfranchised disproportionately.
Listen to my testimony below, and submit your own written testimony online by October 31st, 2018 here.
My name is Robin Lovett-Owen, and I am a candidate to become a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
As part of the ordination process, I spent this summer as a chaplain at a hospital here in Chicago, where I was assigned to two pediatric units. As a children’s chaplain, I saw young people of all ages with a variety of grave illnesses, from the tiniest, premature babies recovering from open-heart surgery to twenty-something year-olds suffering from childhood cancers. In my time as a chaplain, I only witnessed the deaths of two children. Both died of asthma attacks.
I want to tell you about these two children. I’ve changed their names in this testimony.
The first was a teenage boy named Alexander, but his family called him Xander. He suffered a major asthma attack, which ultimately led to brain death. He was on my unit for nearly a week before life-sustaining care was ended. In the days leading up to his death, I learned so much about this boy. He was a star athlete and always had friends around him. He was always making others smile and laugh. His mother told me about how Xander would spend time with the kids no one else wanted to be around and how he would bring home abandoned animals, like baby birds or lost dogs. He had a big heart.
The second boy was only eight, and his name was Trey. He had special needs and was non-verbal at baseline. Though he didn’t use words, his parents told me Trey was expressive and happy and playful. He loved Sponge Bob; he loved to play with his sisters, who adored him. Trey was surrounded by love and tenderness because he was full of love and tenderness.
Xander and Trey were very different from each other in life, but their deaths have so much in common – both with each other’s and with 3,600 Americans every year who die of asthma attacks. As I am sure you already know, asthma rates differ for people of different classes and ethnicities – poor people and people of color are more likely to die of asthma. Xander and Trey fit this demographic, as they were both young black boys from the Chicago area. And while these two children remain foremost in my memory because of their deaths, I had dozens of children on my unit who were hospitalized because of severe asthma, most of whom were poor, most of whom were black or Latino.
The disparate rates of asthma depending on where you live, your class, and your race reflect the reality that asthma is not a tragic happenstance – asthma is a manmade disease. It is created by our collective lack of regard for the natural environment and our leniency with pollution. Xander and Trey didn’t die randomly – we could have prevented their deaths.
So, when I read the Affordable Clean Energy rule, my stomach sank. By your own estimates at the EPA, these deregulations will cost 1,400 lives annually, result in up to 15,000 new cases of upper-respiratory disease, and exacerbate asthma for tens of thousands of people. It’s hard to imagine what those numbers mean when you read them from the comfort of your desk; it’s all too easy to imagine what they mean when you’ve met and mourned children like Xander and Trey.
The ACE is a calculated effort to determine how many lives coal is worth. This inhumane calculation is not new to me. I was born and raised in Tennessee, and East Tennessee is my home. Appalachia, known blithely as “coal country” to most people, is close to my heart. Lung disease stemming from coal pollution is common in Appalachia, and it costs our very lives. I am standing before you today as an Appalachian person, telling you that coal is not in our interests. Like children and their families in Chicago, our interest is be healthy and for our air and water to be clean. Coal is not in the interests of Appalachia.
The deaths of black children in Chicagoland may seem like a far cry from the deaths of white coal miners and their families in Appalachia, but they point to the same truth: the true cost of polluting our air is the deaths of the most vulnerable people in our country, whether they be children of color in urban areas or workers in the hollers of the Smokey Mountains. The ACE will cause more deaths like Xander’s and Trey’s, and these same deregulations will cause more intense suffering in Appalachia. The ACE fails the least of these among us.
The cost of coal is far too high, no matter how cheap it gets, no matter how many jobs it creates. We must move away from this deadly and dirty source of energy if we claim to care for the lives of the poor and disenfranchised in our midst. I am asking you today, as a Christian religious leader and a Tennessean, to reject the Affordable Clean Energy Plan.
Thank you for your time.
This was the first sermon I preached beyond the purview of my little campus ministry. It was given at St. James Episcopal Church in Knoxville, Tennessee on June 20th, 2017 at the second annual Pridemass – a service held especially for the LGBTQ community in Knoxville. I was so nervous – and so excited! But, above all, I fell in love with preaching when I gave this sermon.
Before I say anything, I need to let you know something important, something you need to know: God loves you, exactly as you are. There is nothing you can do to remove God’s perfect love, and nothing you can do to earn it. God loves you simply because you are. If you leave here remembering nothing else, remember that the triune God loves you endlessly.
Alright, sermon over. (laughter)
I have to confess that when I hear Jesus’s words in the Gospels, I often feel as if those words are combative, harsh, or against me. I am trying to change this perspective, because I think it’s an incorrect way to under God’s Word.
It’s not that I don’t think Jesus was ever angry; after all, the man flipped tables in the temple. Instead, I’m trying to know when Jesus is speaking words of comfort to me, because even when the Prince of Peace is speaking to soothe my soul, I tend to think he is speaking to castigate me.
This tendency, I think, comes from worldly messages about Jesus, rather than Jesus’s message about Jesus. I skip straight to thinking that Jesus is speaking against me because I’m not educated enough, or not faithful enough, or not Christian enough, or not male enough, or not straight enough, or not gender conforming enough. Simply put, I think Jesus is speaking against me when I find myself being those things that I’m told Christian leaders can’t be – queer, a woman, what have you.
Today’s Gospel lesson is a perfect example. “I did not come to bring peace but a sword. I came to separate mother from daughter and father from son.” On first bluff, it sounds, to me as if Jesus is giving free range to those followers of his who would rather use this passage to excuse their abandonment of their own LGBTQ children, or to try to justify deeply unjust wars.
But, in truth, this passage is a message of hope for those of us who have been rejected by our families. These are words of comfort and peace, and just a little context can make this clear. So, let’s talk about this Gospel.
This passage comes from a longer section of Jesus’s advice to his apostles before he sent them out into the world. It turns out that Jesus’s apostles are not what we’ve been told. Paintings of the apostles tend to show older men, and men exclusively – forget that image. In reality, Jesus was something of a youth pastor; from the Gospels, we know that his apostles were still living at home when Jesus called them, that only Peter was married, and that none of them were old enough to pay taxes except Peter. In short, they were teenagers, not old men. We also know that women were counted among the apostles, because when the Gospels record Jesus’s words to them, he also addresses women – like in today’s Gospel when he talks about daughters and mothers. We also know that women were considered apostles because Paul, in his letters, addresses specific women with the title of apostle. So, instead of imagining burly old men when you think of the apostles, think of a group of teenagers, both male and female. Think more Breakfast Club, and less Old Man and the Sea. (laughter)
Not only were they a coed group of teenagers, but they were a counter-cultural coed group of teenagers. They ran away from their homes, left their families behind, and joined a radical group that preached vastly different values from what their society taught. And, to be frank, this sounds kinda gay to me.
Now, hear me out. I don’t think that leaving your family to join a counter-cultural group is a necessary part of an LGBTQ experience, but it is undeniable that this is a common experience for LGBTQ people – so common that we have a name for it. We call these groups our chosen families.
Chosen families have a long history in LGBTQ communities. Because we are so often rejected by the families we were born into, we have often created our own group of people to rely on. We discover our families in bars, in social groups, in theater troupes, on athletic teams, online, and – yes – even in churches and youth groups. Their origins and practices vary, but they have some things in common: chosen families are those that you can rely on to celebrate when things go well, to mourn your losses, and to suffer when you suffer. A chosen family will see the you that you try to hide and love even those parts buried the deepest down; they will also see who God has called you to be, and push you to that sacred call. These special groups have been a mode of survival for LGBTQ people for many decades, and also the form of family that Jesus and the apostles recognized and formed together.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is not advocating for war and the abandonment of family members, but is instead offering us a new way to think about family, because our way of thinking about family is flawed.
In our flawed, deeply human way, family is merely those who we were born or married into. They are those who are related to us by blood, and therefore those who look like us or talk like us or think or worship like us. And, if those who look, speak, act, think, and worship like us are those we call family, we are doomed to commit the sins of xenophobia and racism. We are doomed to tribalism.
Jesus, though, tells his apostles – both male and female – to think of family in a radical, new way. Family is no longer defined as those who are like us, but by those who follow the Way – that is, those who live life striving for love, compassion, justice, and mercy in the name of Christ, who is the embodiment of these things. It’s not about the family you’re born into, Christ urges us, but about our chosen families.
Rather than Jesus towering above the apostles, and using threatening language about swords and abandonment, imagine this: Jesus’s teenage apostles surround him. One of them mentions that she misses her family and all of its comforts- her sisters, her home, her mother’s cooking – and that she is upset because her family will no longer speak to her, even though she is certain she is living the life she is supposed to be living. Maybe this young teenage apostle is uncomfortable living in such a strange new way, often with people she was previously told to stay away from. Jesus sits next to her and offers to her advice that would one day be written down in Matthew’s Gospel. He says, “You know, I didn’t come to bring together nuclear families, but a sword to break the bonds that bind you. I came to free you from those who do not understand you as a child of God; I came so that you can recognize family in all sorts of people, even those you used to consider foes. Anyone who cannot accept you as you are, called by me, can get in line. Anyone who sees the things you’re striving for will be rewarded.” In this Gospel, Christ speaks nothing but peace and encouragement to people who were not at all unlike you and me.
So much of the hardships people face for being LGBTQ are based in anxiety about how we fit into our society’s family structures. Think about our cultural ideal of family: a dominate man and a submissive woman with two and a half children surrounded by a white picket fence. Quiet, and patriotic, and white.
LGBTQ families cannot and do not fit into this ideal. Some of us are not white. Some of us are not middle or upperclass. Many of us will not marry someone of the opposite gender. Many of us will never birthe our own children. Some of us are neither of the genders mentioned. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have families, or even children, but only that our culture does not always understand our families and their lack of understanding leads to our pain.
Abandonment of LGBTQ youth, denial of the ability to adopt or marry, barring us from full participation in churches, denial of resources for gender transition, and terror in the form of violence against us are all examples of ways that LGBTQ people are denied the ability to participate fully, freely, and robustly in family life.
There is good news and hope, though. Though people at large may not understand our families, God does. God knows us, better than we know ourselves, and loves us more than we can fathom – exactly as we are. As queer as we come. And when we love one another as near to Christ’s perfect love for us, we are fulfilling God’s biggest commandment; our families fulfill God’s commandments for us. Our love, our families, our marriages, our friends, our life partners, our authentic gender expression, our sex – it is all sacred in the eyes of the Lord.
In Christ, we are all freed from the trappings of this world, including our culture’s limited understanding of how a family might look. We are free to love and be loved, to know others and to be known. We are known and we are loved. We are free as the children of God.
This freedom and love given to us as children of God and to our families and relationships empowers and enlivens us to become instruments of peace and justice. We are empowered to change the society that disregards and misunderstands us and others. This is a blessing from God that stirs us into action not only for our own freedom, but of the liberation of people everywhere.
Rabbi Joshua Heschel, a Jewish leader in the American Civil Rights Movement and a theologian, said that “Any god who is mine but not yours, who is concerned with me but not you, is an idol.” God is concerned with each of God’s children, straight or gay, cis or trans, black or white, Christian or not. And we, as people of God, ought to be concerned with justice for each of God’s children.
I knew from the moment I was asked to preach that I needed to preach on the sacred bonds of LGBT families. This was before the verdict on the killing of Philando Castile or the killing of Charleena Lyles. Both of these people were killed in front of their families; both were killed in front of children. Their deaths were not only assaults against them, but against their families and against black families everywhere, and I would be remiss to disregard this injustice here, tonight. We must realize that it is not only LGBTQ families who are under siege – it is anyone whose family does not fit our culture’s ideal of family.
I debated whether or not to talk about racial justice in this sermon; I thought some people here might resent that they came for a celebration of LGBTQ people only to hear me preach about something that may, on its face, seem unrelated. But, in truth, LGBTQ people cannot be free from homophobia and transphobia so long as white supremacy clouds our notion of who is good and who is bad, whose family is worthy and whose family is deviant. LGBTQ people are not the only ones whose families are hurt or even destroyed by our society’s limited disregard for families who do not look like one white man and white woman and their two and a half children. People of color, including the straight ones, find their families broken and devalued by the exact same forces in our society that devalue LGBTQ families. As long as the image of family is a white suburban straight couple and their children, none of us can be free.
We are not here to celebrate the world as it is, but instead to celebrate God’s perfect love for us, and the perfect freedom, justice, and peace in the life of the world to come.
And we, God’s children, can be harbingers of that life to come. Amen.