Sermons

A Pastoral Message on the Murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Countless Others

Content notice: The following message concerns the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other acts of violence against Black people in the United States. It was written with the community of students, staff, and faculty at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) in mind. I am sharing it publicly as part of the work I believe people of faith and goodwill are all called to at this moment: to offer a public witness in opposition to all the violent and murderous consequences of the racism on which the United States was built and has worked so hard to maintain.

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Beloved Community,

I am writing to you from a place of hurt and hopelessness, anger and confusion, in the wake of the latest in a series of homicides of Black people in Minneapolis, MN (George Floyd); Louisville, KY (Breonna Taylor); and Brunswick, GA (Ahmaud Arbery). These scattered sites remind us that this violence is not confined to any one place or region. Their common thread is the use of unchecked deadly force by police (active or retired) against Black people. This violence cannot be explained away as accidental or unfortunate, because it belongs to a pattern that can be seen all across the United States stretching back to its foundation. It continues because this nation allows it to continue and, specifically, because White people as a political majority allow it to continue.

There is so much that needs to be said and there are many teachers and preachers and leaders who are speaking out powerfully in their pulpits, on the news, across social media and in the streets. In this moment and in my role as pastor to this community, I want to say something focused on our relationships to one another as a school – a community of students, staff and faculty who have already been distanced from one another for weeks and are still struggling to find ways to stay connected in useful and meaningful ways. I’ll start with a short story from my own experience.

I was 25 years old in October, 1998 when Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Laramie, Wyoming, was beaten, tortured, and left to die on a fence post along a deserted rural road. This was well before the age of social media, so I found out what had happened on television along with everyone else. It was the middle of the day and I immediately left work so that I could be with other gay people to process our shock, anger, fear, and grief. When my parents reached out in an effort to console me, I told them I couldn’t speak to them, or to any straight people, yet. In those first raw moments, I could find no comfort outside of the community of people who shared my own experience – even from the people who had known me longest and loved me the most.

In a moment like this, when Black lives are snuffed out while camera phones capture and transmit the images across the world at the speed of light, we are all brought into one another’s presence virtually and immediately with no preparation or protection. Some among us need to withdraw, to be in the company of those who share their experience, to find safety and solace among those who do not need these tragedies to be unpacked and explained. Others are left reaching out, trying their best to say or do the right thing only to find their efforts unwelcome or inadequate to the needs of the moment. What is said is insufficient. What is left unsaid is negligent.

Holy scripture is filled with words of comfort and reassurance to people and communities under oppression and in exile. God speaks to the people through the prophet Isaiah with promises of protection and restoration,

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

(Isa. 43:1-2)

But those words can ring false and hollow in the face of unchecked evil and murderous power. So we join Jesus in recalling the words of the psalmist,

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”

(Psalm 22:1-2)

To members of our community of African descent, who carry the weight of daily uncertainty because of the color of your skin, I simply want to say what should go without saying: that your lives matter, that your experience is sacred and holy, that your truths are trustworthy, that your anger requires no apologies.

To other communities of color among us, who also face deadly racism every day, I want to add to the above what you already know to be true: your stories and experiences are not secondary or subordinate in this moment, your strength and your struggles are essential to any true movement for liberation, that you belong everywhere and anywhere you choose to make your home.

To those in our community who are White I want to say: I know that your hearts also break, that you may struggle with confusion and uncertainty about what to say or how to act, that you wrestle with feelings of guilt and defensiveness when confronted with reality of racism and its consequences, and that you are no less necessary in the work of dismantling racism. In fact, the opposite is true: we must use every bit of unearned power and privilege afforded us by this racist system to take it apart from the inside out.

The work of reformation is ongoing and is possible only by God’s power and through God’s grace. We are witnesses to that truth. May each of us, in all the ways we can, offer our testimonies to the living, loving, and liberating presence of God – the one who brings power and life to people and places left for dead.

In Christ,

Pastor Erik

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Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, August 28, 2019: LSTC Welcome Week

The following sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago during “Welcome Week,” the school’s new student orientation. Worship services this week centered on the sacraments, with this service emphasizing the eucharist. Audio of this sermon being delivered can be found here.

Texts: Isaiah 55:1-7  +  Psalm 63  +  1 Corinthians 11:17-26  +  Luke 22:14-23

Preachers, you ever have that sermon illustration in search of a sermon that you’ve been holding on to, waiting for the moment you can use it to clarify some bit of biblical or theological obscurity? I suspect we all have. Often the reason those illustrations struggle to find a home in one of our sermons is that, in order to make them fit, we have to do some little bit of violence to the text — either the text of the illustration, or the text they’re meant to illustrate, like Cinderella’s step-sisters trying to cram their feet into her shoes by lopping off their toes or parts of their heels. That’s not the sermon illustration I want to share, just a metaphorical warm-up.

The Muppet Movie poster

No, the sermon illustration I’ve been aching to use and — what the hell, let’s go for it — comes from deep within the heart of my childhood, from a source so early it is almost mythic in its significance. I’m talking about the seminal 1979 Jim Henson classic, The Muppet Movie. The reason it’s been on my mind, begging for airtime in a sermon, is that I got to see it outside earlier this month as part of this summer’s Millennium Park film series downtown with Dr. Wagner. We took a couple of lawn chairs, packed some melon balls and prosciutto, wine and cheese, and I promised her a movie simultaneously entertaining and saturated with rich theological meaning. In particular, I told her, you’ve got to watch for this scene in that back half of the movie set in the desert of the American West. It comes at a moment when all hope seems lost, when our heroes are worn down from their efforts to escape the nefarious Doc Hopper who’s been trying to get Kermit to abandon his dreams and take a self-hating job as the face of a chain of restaurants selling frog legs. The muppets are all camped out in the desert on a dark night around a small campfire under a bright moon when Gonzo — Gonzo! that weirdest of all the muppets — begins to sing:

This looks familiar, vaguely familiar.

Almost unreal, yet, it’s too soon to feel yet.

Close to my soul and yet so far away.

I’m going to go back there someday.

Sun rises, night falls, sometimes the sky calls.

Is that a song there, and do I belong there?

I’ve never been there, but I know the way.

I’m going to go back there someday.

This is a song of amazing depth, hiding out in a children’s movie, a song about the power of memory and imagination to help us bridge the distance between past, present, and future as a resource for enduring the profound anxieties of human life. “I’ve never been there, but I know the way. I’m going to go back there someday.”

We’re halfway through welcome week, a brief season in the cyclical life of the school during which we welcome into our community a new set of students who, in no time at all, will become a part of the fabric of our life together — so much so that, in a few short years it will feel as though they’ve always been here. But right now they are newly arrived, and they are trying to figure out how to fit the contents of the life they’ve known into the odd confines of this new place without damaging either of them. How to squeeze their particular set of cherished experiences and accumulated belongings into a new apartment, a new city, a new group of people, a new life.

Add to the list of all that’s new a new vocabulary, one of the many gifts of a seminary education. All the Greek words waiting to be learned, all the -ologies: theologies, soteriologies, epistemologies, eschatologies. Here’s a Greek word for you, not an -ology, but relevant to today’s texts: anamnesis. Anamnesis means something like “reminiscence.” As a philosophical concept, it’s first connected to Plato’s theory of knowledge (epistemology) in which he posits that human beings possess innate knowledge from before their birth and that learning is actually the process of rediscovering what we have already previously known. A few centuries later the concept gains new meaning as it gets picked up by the early Christians to refer to the “memorial sacrifice” at the heart of the eucharistic liturgy, the words we hear in both Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and Luke’s gospel account of the last supper when Jesus takes the loaf of bread, breaks it and distributes it to the community that has gathered around him, worn down and anxious about the dual powers of the Roman empire and the Temple establishment that have been chasing them, after Jesus has predicted his death on multiple occasions and hope seems thin. There, around that ancient imagined campfire, Jesus says, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

Friends, I have to confess to you that when I first selected these texts for today, I was drawn to the ugly parts of the story. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we catch the apostle in a full-on scold, “Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” The community has taken the love meal of Jesus and perverted its fundamental significance as a means of grace by repeating the same injustices that characterize the sinful state of our social existence. The church in Corinth has been showing up to worship, each bringing their own food and drink, and then not sharing all things in common, not distributing from each according to their means to each according to their need. Instead, Paul says, “when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.” The poor in their midst go hungry, repeating the patterns of humiliation experienced in the wider world and making the gospel of life and love and liberation into a lie.

Likewise, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus moves immediately from what we have come to know as the words of institution to observe that “the one who betrays me is with me, and their hand is on the table.” Understandably the disciples are alarmed to hear this, so they begin “to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.”

That dynamic also looks familiar, strangely familiar. It seems to be a part of our human nature that we not only routinely betray our own highest hopes and ideals, but that we cluster together and project our own fears, guilt, shame, and insecurity onto one another, asking who in this community it could be who would do this; who in this community has fallen short of the ideal; who has betrayed God’s preferred future with words or actions that are ignorant, or malicious, or violent, or oppressive. Who could it be? Not me, I hope. Let’s keep looking. Elsewhere.

This is what I am compulsively drawn to, what I think we are all perhaps drawn to, the obsessive memory of all that has hurt us and the repression of and forgetfulness about all that we have done to hurt others. But this is not what Jesus asks us to remember. Instead, in each of these stories which include truth-telling about the persistent nature of human sinfulness, about our own participation in the humiliating structures of injustice and our own betrayals of God’s beloved children, we are asked to remember God’s body broken for us, God’s life poured out for us. For us. For people like us. For forgetful people like us. For imperfect and scared and fearful and jealous and violent and hurting people like us. All of us. 

Anamnesis as Dangerous MemoryIn his book, Anamnesis as Dangerous Memory: Political and Liturgical Theology in Dialogue, Bruce Morrill contrasts anamnesis with another Greek word referring to memory, mnemosunon (mnay-MOS’-oo-non). Mnemosunon, as he describes it, refers to memories with “a certain intrinsic continuing, abiding permanency about them, unless and until they are deliberately destroyed or consumed or blotted out.” Anamnesis, on the other hand, refers to the recollection of things forgotten, carrying with it the connotation of renewal and return to what was once known. Like Plato’s idea that all learning is actually remembering.

The disruptive quality of anamnesis, the recovery of what has been lost, is what makes it dangerous to the established order and the status quo. Because it is disruptive to remember God’s abundance in a world of manufactured scarcity in which some go hungry while others hoard food and water and other forms of wealth. It is disruptive to remember God’s welcome in a world that spurns refugees, separates families, and cages children. It is disruptive to remember God’s love in a world that tells us who to love and how to hate. It is disruptive to remember God’s justice in a world that scapegoats individuals and whole communities while ignoring the structural violence that is the backdrop of our entire social lives. It is dangerous to tell the story of God’s salvation history to people who have lost hope, because they might believe it. It might change them. They might find common cause in one another. They might learn again what they have always known, that they were created in love, by love, for love. They might live their lives as if it were true, and then how would the world sell them its goods, its illusions, its rationalizations and justifications for all the harm we do to ourselves and others, all our betrayals of self and other.

In direct defiance of the death-dealing powers of this world, the church asserts that by means of our memory of what God has done in the past, we are joined to that work in the present and enter into the reality of God’s gracious reign which is both here and now and not yet. Anamnesis is the memory of the past that creates the conditions for a renewed present and different future — and, in a more technical, liturgical sense, it is the portion of the eucharistic prayer that comes after the words of institution. In this way, each time we eat this meal together and hear the words of Jesus, who commands us to do all this in remembrance of him, we then immediately do as we have been told, and we remember him, we tell the story of his living and teaching, his dying and rising, his promise to come again to save the world and set it free and this memory, like something we’ve always known but keep forgetting, propels us forward so that we can once again with confidence proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. All three tenses collapsed into one; the past, the present, and the future coming together to disrupt the sinful status quo of our lives and of the world. The chance to become new people and a new creation.

For those of you who are joining the seminary community this week, for whom this may be your first sharing of the Lord’s Supper in this place, it might feel as if you’re having this meal for the first time — but that’s almost certainly untrue. It’s far more likely that you have already had some experience of the Lord’s Supper that has fed you, pushed you or propelled you toward this moment. Now, here in this place, we will have some more of those moments together — there may be baptisms or baccalaureates, there may be funerals or other farewells. As we share our lives with one another, we are becoming a part of one another’s future memories.

That’s what Jesus seems to be saying as well in Luke’s gospel as he instructs the disciples in the use and the meaning of this meal. It’s as if he is already remembering the future, telling them that he won’t eat this meal again until they share this meal in the future; as though the very act of those who love him and follow him, sharing this meal with its command to remember, will bring Jesus into their future present, truly present and alive to them, and with them, and in them. In this way, we are all — every one of us — alive to each other forever. Our memory forming a solid bridge from the past to the present to the future.

There will surely be days ahead when you will feel betrayed by this community or members of it — perhaps there will be days when you will become aware of the ways that you have betrayed it, or the wider, more expansive body of Christ to which we belong. What will you do then? What can you do when you have been betrayed, when you have betrayed?

Jesus could have said, “Remember, you can’t trust anyone.” But he didn’t. Instead, he said this: my body, for you. My life, a covenant, a promise, with you and with all people. Remember that. 

That is the world I long to live in. A place I keep finding and forgetting. It is the memory of the possibility of that place that was promised to me when I was baptized and I am going to go back there someday. Today. Amen.

 

 

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Sermons

Sermon: Saturday, December 8, 2018: The Ordination of Allison Bengfort

The following sermon was preached at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago‘s Augustana Chapel on the occasion of the ordination of the Rev. Allison Bengfort, who was a student of mine when I was the pastor with St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square. Pastor Bengfort now serves St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Wilmette, IL.

Texts: Exodus 3:1-12  +  Psalm 46  +  Romans 12:1-18  +  Luke 4:16-21

IMG_1892A few weeks ago, just before Thanksgiving, my husband and I took our dog and headed west to Galena, a former mining town that’s now pretty much a resort area near the Mississippi River. We picked the lodge where we stayed because it was dog-friendly, and we didn’t want to have to board our puppy for the weekend, but the thing I was most looking forward to was the wood-burning fireplace in our room.

I love fire. Maybe it’s just that I like to be warm. During the winter when I was a boy, I would sit in front of the heating vents in the dining room with a blanket wrapped around me and pressed up to the wall to make a tent and trap all the hot air. If she was nice to me, I’d let my sister join me. But fires aren’t just about the warmth they give off. They are powerful. The process of combustion allows us to cook our food, heat our homes, power our cars, generate electricity. It also poses a threat, think of all the Christmas trees drying out near burning candles this season, or the wildfires in California that devastated the land, incinerating homes and leading to the loss of just over a hundred lives. Fire, by its very nature, consumes.

4.12.18 Particulate Matter From California Wildfires Linked to Cardiovascular and Cerebrovascular Events

As we settled into our room, I immediately set to work building a fire in the fireplace. I stacked the wood perfectly on the wrought iron hearth, nestling smaller pieces of wood near the bottom, just above the rolls of newspaper I’d tucked below the bars. Once I was satisfied that I’d done everything right, I struck a single match and quickly lit the kindling, blowing lightly at the base of the quickly spreading fire to fan the flames. “One match,” I bragged to my husband, as the fire began to roar. I cracked open a book and settled into the comfiest corner of the living room sofa. It didn’t take long for my eyes to grow heavy, and for me to fall asleep.

Napping in front of the fireplace is exactly what I’d wanted out of that weekend. I’d arrived at the lodge feeling drier than the wood stacked in the corner of the room. I was dried out by the effort to keep up with all the work on my various to do lists. I was dried out by a news cycle that continuously fanned the flames of my despair and anger at the world as it is. I was dried out by a season of grief that was burning through every reserve of strength in me. I was being consumed.

IMG_1975The thought, therefore, of presenting my body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, is somewhat terrifying. Because I have to confess to you all that there have been times in my ministry when I have done this, when I have placed my life on the altar of my calling and watched it burn. There have been weeks when I barely saw my husband. There have been seasons in which I read nothing for pleasure. There have been years that flew by in which my focus was so singularly on the health and well-being of the church, that my own health and well-being suffered. Studies on clergy health offer me only the consolation that I am not alone in these bad habits.

Perhaps it’s gauche to talk about clergy burnout on the day of Allison’s ordination, but I prefer to think that I am holding true to the promises I made in my ordination, not to offer false security or illusory hope. To pretend that there is not a fire burning in the church and in the world would be both. There is a fire burning, across the church. When I began my ministry in Chicago a little over a decade ago, there were approximately 220 congregations in our synod. I don’t have the precise number in front of me, but I believe we’re closer to 180 now. That’s a 20% decline a decade. It’s not just us, the ELCA. The Pew Research Center, which has been reporting for years on demographic shifts in religious identity and practice, places our experience in the broader context in which Christian affiliation, particularly among young adults, is declining and the number of those who do not identify with any organized religion, Christianity or otherwise, is on the rise. 

As this fire continues to burn, all sorts of things are being consumed, not just the cherished buildings that can no longer be maintained, but traditions that no longer speak to new generations and assumptions about where and how people will choose to spend their time and money. Here at the seminary, it can feel like we’re preparing class after class of smokejumpers, parachuting into ecclesiastical wildfires all across the religious landscape, to bring life-giving water to people and places that can no longer even name the ways in which they are parched.

66719It is with heart and mind singed by these relentless temperatures that I find myself once again transfixed by the image from Exodus of Moses standing before the burning bush. When Moses first sees it, he says, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”

Yes, this is the miracle I need, in every part of my life, to observe a living thing, burning but not consumed. Could it be true? Could it be true for our world and our nation? Could it be true for our church and its congregations? Could it be true for my life and my future? Can a thing burn and not be consumed?

In his blessing to me and Kerry on the day of our wedding, my father offered the following insight about the power of combustion. He said,

“On the farm where I was raised, my father’s arc welder did its work by bringing close — but always with a critical space between — two highly charged points. The energy, light, and heat is generated by the difference between the two. May you trust the arc of power that is created today as you draw together in this marriage.”

What an important reminder. The arc of power that allows the welder to sustain its flame is directly related to the space between the two points. The difference between them. This is what Paul seems to be saying when he reminds us that we have gifts that differ, even as we are part of one body. That is true in marriage as well as in the church, and it is the source of the power that fuels each of them. For the arc welder to work, the points must separate — but not too distant. It’s a delicate balancing act, respecting our differences while maintaining our common bond. 

We are living in a time commonly described as being polarized. A recent report titled “The Hidden Tribes of America” summarizes research confirming what most of us intuitively sense: that in our public life, 

“we have become a set of tribes, with different codes, values, and even facts. In our public debates, it seems that we no longer just disagree. We reject each other’s premises and doubt each other’s motives. We question each other’s character. We block our ears to diverse perspectives. At home, polarization is souring personal relationships, ruining Thanksgiving dinners, and driving families apart. We are experiencing these divisions in our workplaces, neighborhood groups, even our places of worship. In the media, pundits score points, mock opponents, and talk over each other. On the Internet, social media has become a hotbed of outrage, takedowns, and cruelty — often targeting total strangers.”

Compare that lived experience with the advice Paul offers to the church in Rome:

“I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned … Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” (Rom. 12:3,9-11)

Paul continues on with prescription for the fever heat that burns through our body politic: bless, rejoice, weep, associate, live peaceably with all.

Allison, you chose a set of texts for this day that speak plainly about God’s vision for a world liberated and restored: the liberation of the Israelites from Pharaoh, the proclamation of good news to the poor, release to the incarcerated, and freedom for the oppressed. What I want you to hear today is this: God’s dream for the world is not a job description for pastors, though this vision does appear in another set of sacramental vows.

When you were brought to the font, and each time we affirm our baptism, we remember and renew our promise to live among God’s faithful people, to receive the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for peace and justice in all the earth. We offer our lives as a sacrifice in service of God’s great love for the world, and we ask God to help and guide us. We all make these vows. All of us, together.

All of us, together. That is the only way this fire can burn bright enough to cast the hopelessness from our hearts, the only way this fire can burn hot enough to clear away the undergrowth and prepare the landscape for whatever seeds God is now planting for the future. All of us together, that is how we burn without being consumed. That is the good news already fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. All of us in, no one left out. 

There is power in fire, in the arc that spans the distance between people and tribes, between us and God. Today we pray for that power, that fire, to be poured out on Allison, to cover her without consuming her. We pray for the Holy Spirit to come, to warm our hearts, to bless this pastor, to restore the church, to flood the world.

Come, Holy Spirit, come!

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