Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sermon for the Feast Day of Martin Luther King, Jr. + January 14, 2018

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." 
Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." 
Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" 
Philip said to him, "Come and see."

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." And he said to him, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." 
- John 1:43-51, NRSV 

“Somebody told a lie one day.” 

These are the words that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached in a bunch of his addresses in the Summer of 1967.

Someone told a lie.

“They couched it in language,” he said.  

“They made everything Black ugly and evil. 

Look in your dictionaries and see the synonyms of the word Black. 
It’s always something degrading and low and sinister. 

Look at the word White, 
it’s always something pure, high and clean. 

Well I want to get the language right tonight,” said Dr. King said to applause. 

“I want to get the language so right that everyone here will cry out

‘Yes, I’m Black, I’m proud of it. 

I’m Black and I’m beautiful!”

What a thing to say when the world had been teaching
(it seemed like forever)
just the opposite:  
that Black is not beautiful,
that it is, rather, something to fear, 
that Black skin is something of which one ought to be ashamed. 

Never the less: 
“Black is beautiful!” 

I am beautiful! bellowed Dr. King to a world that mostly disagreed.

To a world that told him that he should be ashamed.  

I am beautiful. He continued to preach. 

Black is beautiful.  

Until one day some people finally started to believe it. 

Black is beautiful. 

Radical words in his day. 

Perhaps, sadly, still radical in ours. 

Nathaniel was no stranger to shame. 

He belonged to the “crowds,” the class of people in the Roman empire who made up 90% of the population, 
yet as a group only held 10% of the wealth. 

It is the “crowds” in the bible who gather around Jesus,
the ones who come to him to get fed because they don’t have any food.

And who come to him to get healed.  

Dirt poor, without steady work, 
holding no value or dignity in the eyes of the world.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” 
Nathanael asked. 

Not because he believed he was any better than the Nazarenes, 
but because he believed what the Romans had told him—no one from Bethsaida or Nazareth or Samaria or Capernaum could ever be expected to do anything worthwhile, 
could ever be expected to do or be anything good.

That’s why they’re not the governors and the kings. 

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? 

Nathanael asked this not because he believed he was any better, but because he came to believe it of himself—
he came to believe that he was just as worthless 
as he believed were the Nazarenes. 

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? 
The implied answer, was “No.” 

Judged, unsuccessful, poor, 
Nathaniel sat beneath the fig tree. 

Convinced he was anything but beautiful. 

Knowing no good could ever come out of him. 

Knowing, in the grand scheme of things, 
that his life certainly did not matter
to much of anyone at all. 


Perhaps the most controversial thing King preached in all of his years of ministry, the thing that ran beneath all of his campaigns for civil rights, for workers’ rights, for poor white people and poor people of all colors, 

was this—King, flawed though he was, affirmed that the lives of Black people, the lives of poor and working class of all colors, the lives of people from “___ hole countries...” 


Poor people do have dignity. Period. By virtue of having been created. 

No matter what. 

Black is beautiful. 

Black lives do matter (despite what other folks might say). No matter how mad or uncomfortable it makes some of us to hear. 

Poor people deserve every right and luxury and access to health 
(and today we say healthcare) 
as the rich. 

What a revolutionary idea! 

Not only did King believe this, 
but he believed in his heart of hearts that God believed this too. 

God believes that the lives of the oppressed matter. 

And until society repents and reforms and behaves as if it also believes the same thing, 
there’s a lot of work to be done.

And it is precisely people of faith who are called to do it.

Because people of faith, Christians particularly, should know, that it is those that God loves deeply that those in power tend to crucify. 

This, after all, is what they did to God the Child whose birth we celebrated just a couple of weeks ago.

Black is beautiful. Poor people have dignity. 
The lives of the oppressed matter so, so, so much—
they do to God
and they should to all of us,
especially those of us who claim to follow Christ,
whatever our color, whatever our creed.  

This is the thread that ran throughout Dr. Kings sermons and teachings. 

Fig Tree [Source]


In the first three chapters of the whole entire Bible, 
just three trees are mentioned by name. 

The first is the tree of life, beautiful, vibrant
flourishing at the center of all of creation. 

The second is the tree of knowledge of good of evil, the place where the humans met the snake. 

And the third is the fig tree, 

the tree from which Adam and Eve are said to have made a covering for themselves because they felt ashamed of who they were.

The fig tree was the tree from which Adam and Eve made a covering for themselves because they felt ashamed of who they were.


When Jesus called Nathaniel from underneath that fig tree, Jesus was calling Nathaniel away from all that had been imposed on him to give him shame. To keep him down. To keep him believing he was nothing, no good, worth-less than the rest of humanity; to keep him isolated and alone. 

When Jesus called Nathaniel from under that tree, Jesus was calling Nathaniel to reject the stories he had internalized and believed about himself and about the Nazarenes. 

And to embrace his full potentiality as one sent by God. 
A gift, God’s beloved, 

[This is actually what Nathaniel means!: Given by God, God’s gift! This is the name he had been given, and the name Jesus calls him again.]

Jesus calls Nathaniel from under the tree 
to live out and participate in the already here yet always still coming Reign of God. 

Call of Philip and Nathanael [Source]

Nathaniel. Beautiful. A gift from God. 

Who is Nathaniel? 

Nathaniel is a migrant to the US, called racial slurs by the president, called “illegal,” by congressmen, called suspicious by virtue of his skin color by neighbors, by neighborhood watches, and by the police. 

Nathaniel is the workers at 7-11’s in California and elsewhere, rounded up by I.C.E., targeted by policies meant to whiten US society by those who still hold that beauty is restricted to “whiteness” and everything else is “such a shame.” 

Nathaniel is a sweat shop worker in China or Bangladesh demonized by us when we are feeling low, “You are stealing by job,” we say to him. You, paid a dollar a day, are somehow the enemy of those of us who wish to be free… (?!) 

Nathaniel is those called white trash, portrayed as ignorant and drowning in drinks and drugs by hollywood and often by our politicians and professors, especially the liberal ones. Seen as a blight on our nation, rather than those, like the rest of us, who are deeply in need. 

Nathaniel is the Black teen, down the street as we speak, chest pushed hard, down against the hood of a squad, working up the courage to shout back “My life matters,” when the actions of those in every direction seem to signify “It certainly does not.” 

Nathaniel is each and every one of us. When we are bound by fear to hide under the cover of the fig tree, believing that those crowds are right, that we are “illegal,” that we are bad, that we do not deserve a voice, or dignity, or a job or even to eat!—that our lives certainly do not matter—because of who we are or where we are from. 

Nathaniel is each and every one of us. 

Under the fig tree. 

And, Jesus calls.

Jesus calls us to join with Phillip and Nathaniel, 
and Martha and Mary, 
and Rosa Parks and Dr. King. 

Jesus calls us to join our siblings in the struggle in every time and place, the cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints; 

to step in line with the long march toward freedom and dignity,

knowing that when we march with the poor and the oppressed, 
when we march as the poor and the oppressed, 
when we march for each other when our bodies seem to not really be able to take much marching anymore, 

that Jesus, God’s Love, is marching with us,

eyes on the prize, 

each and every step of the way. 

Jesus calls us from under our trees.

Are you listening? 


May God teach us again to grow in the Spirit, 
Love as Christ loves, 
and to participate in God’s liberating work of Justice and Peace. 


Thursday, January 11, 2018

God the Bird Who Changes Names + Sermon for Jesus' Baptism 2018

Flock of Molothrus ater and/or Molothrus aeneus; Silao, Guanajuato, Mexico.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
-Mark 1:1-11


He had a comb-over.

Thick glasses through which you could see him
always ready to crack a joke.

he always wore a whistle which bounced up and down on his belly when he laughed.

Whenever he saw me in the hallway,

he would always call me John.

(For those of you who don’t know: that’s not my name).

Mr. Keepers had been teaching at our high school for something like fifty years.

He was a living legend.

And at this point, honestly,
to command our respect,
he didn’t really need to remember our names.

Mr. Keepers had something much more valuable than those.

‘Cause Mr. Keepers had taught every aunt
and every uncle
I had ever had (on my Dad’s side).

He had taught them Gym!

He had been their wrestling coach.


He had even taught them driver’s education (before they cut him off).

And because he had taught
and yelled at
and put into detention every [male] member of my dad’s side of the family,

Mr. Keepers (evidently), by my time, had earned the right to call everyone with my last name
By my uncle's first name.


I, to Mr. Keepers,

was John.

And so would-be any Gaulke’s who would follow after me,
if they went to that high school,
and if they ran into Mr. Keepers in the hall.



Annoying as it was to all of us,
Mr. Keeper’s misnomers were still
just kind of funny.

Something you put up with from a teacher who’s been around for, like, 50 years. Right?

He wasn’t being malicious.

I’m pretty sure he didn’t even know he was doing it.

He was just being Uncle John’s coach.
Or Uncle Vic’s drivers’ ed. instructor..
Or my dad’s teacher for gym.

He was just being Mr. Keepers.

And whatever Mr. Keepers called us,
we weren’t bound to be my uncle.

We didn’t all become “John.”

Despite his re-naming of us, we were pretty free to become whoever it was were gonna come to be, in high school and beyond.


Yes, Mr. Keeper’s misnomers were kind of funny.


What do we do with all of those other names?

The ones handed to us by other folks who are, let’s say, less endearing?

Ones with a bit more sting than “John.”

What do we do with those names?

What do we do with the names that shame us? That lock us up through fear? Or Embarrassment? Or literally behind bars?

What do we do with the names that have come to define who we are when maybe we don’t really wanna be that person anymore? Or when we’re more than that name, but our name, it seems, is all that anyone else will ever see in us?

Names can become traps.

“Oh, she’s that social justice freak. Alway angry about something. I don’t think she even knows how to turn that stuff off, honestly.”

“He’s such a religious nut. Head in the clouds. No common sense. He must be hiding from something.”

“He’s an ex-con you know. I here he did all kinds of crazy things. I’m surprised they even let him come around this place. I heard he...”

“She had a messy divorce. Oh man. I won’t even tell you what people are saying about that.”

“She’s a S.L.U.T”

“...a B-word.”

“He an alcoholic.” “An addict.” “A bum.”
She’s “Crazy.” “Unstable.”

“Homeless.” “Ignorant.” “Dumb.”

Insert racial slur here _____.

She’s “The responsible one.”
He’s the screw up.

“Their an old dog who’ll never learn new tricks.”
“Set in their ways.”
“Out of his mind.”
“Too smart for his own good.”

To define us.

Sometimes, in moments of vulnerability,
We might even start to believe that we are the names we have been given. That they do define us.

That they are “who we are.”

Sometimes, in moments of deception,
We believe that to be “good” we should live up to our name!
Or be ashamed that it is what it is, that we have a bad name, that our name is mud.

Names can be traps.
And we can become stuck in them.


Since at least the third century,

There has been a tradition throughout Christendom,

That when a new Christian was baptized, often that person,
at baptism, would receive a new,
“Christian” name.

In the 4th or 5th century, it was common enough of a practice that St. John Chrysostom gave the church some practical advice. “Pick the name of good Christian!” he reprimanded parents who seemed to him not to be taking the rite seriously. “Pick a name of one who cared for the poor.” “Don’t just make grandpa happy by picking his name. What’s Christian about that? We all know you’re grandpa,” John taught.

Baptism isn’t about tickling egos Chrysostom reminded the Church.

But it is about being freed from the names that have come to define and confine us to new possibilities for what might yet be.

A new creation. A new name. New possibility.

A new embodiment in Christ.


Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany.

The three kings (the magi),
According to the Christian calendar,
they all showed up yesterday.
At the manger:
“He’s gonna be a king,” they say to his mom. Gold, frankincense, myrrh. The whole nine yards.
“The messiah!”
“He will restore… everything.”

Even the angels get into it. “The Prince of Peace!” “Immanuel!” And so on.

People really put their hopes in this kid.

And today, which in liturgical time is thirty years later--the church calendar moves very quickly--at the Jordan river, with the baptizer John,
people are filled with hope again.

Is this actually the lamb of God who comes to make us free?

To take away our sin?

Is this the one who is greater than John the Baptizer?

Is he the fulfillment of my every dream?

Who is this Jesus?

All of Jerusalem was talking.

“I heard he’s the Messiah. The one Herod was looking for.”

“He’s a Refugee.”
“A Nazarene--Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

“I think he’s  Unclean.”

“Isn’t he Mary’s son?”
“The Josephson kid?”
“Or so they say. That whole birth seems pretty mysterious to me.”

(They all had different theories),

Jesus was already hearing all of them.


But, wading in the water,
Before he is pushed out into the wilderness that will become his public ministry,
Jesus takes a moment to look up into the sky.

No lighting. No thunder.
But Jesus sees a bird.

And in this dove, Jesus sees God the Holy Spirit.

God the bird reminds him:

“Whatever is in any of those names.
The ones you have been called, beloved,
They do not define you.

You are not responsible for the magi’s expectations or even John’s.

You are my child, beloved. And in all that you are called, you are always above and beyond any label and any name.”

And so with this freedom from his name, and from all the names that would seek to confine and define him throughout his time on earth,

the beloved Child was ready to begin his mission and his call.


A name can be a trap.

No doubt each of us has been snagged and nicked and bruised by many traps.

Whatever we have been called, whatever we have called ourselves, beloved,

there is always a bird on the wire somewhere outside the window,

Somewhere outside the human mess, or in the midst of it,

There’s always a bird somewhere to remind us about God the Holy Spirit.

Reminding us that God calls us more and God calls us beyond the ways we have been defined, limited, or controlled.

God calls us Child. And God calls us God’s Beloved.

Regardless of the Magi, Regardless of Mr. Keepers,
regardless of every bully or politician or priest or ex- or so on and so forth.

Contrary to what racists, sexist, classist, homophobic, fatalist teachings and systems and ideologies would have us to believe.

Whatever we have been called, whatever we’ve called ourselves,

there is no limit, in Christ, to how we might yet be reformed,

And to where we still might go.

And so we remember each time we see a puddle or a bird
that each day we are made new.

And each day brings possibility to live as beloved,
to transgress all that would confine or oppress us,
and that every name, by grace, can be left in the river as we begin again and again and again.