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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Sermons

Sermon: Saturday, December 1, 2018: The Ordination of Erin Coleman Branchaud

The following sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) on the occasion of the ordination of the Rev. Erin Coleman Branchaud to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). I served as Pastor Erin’s internship supervisor at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square for the 2016/’17 academic year, where she now serves as the called and installed pastor.

Texts: Ezekiel 2:8-3:4  +  Psalm 113  +  1 Corinthians 11:17-26  +  Luke 1:39-55

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Goddaughter Kai, with her Ninong Erik.

A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving our god-daughter, Kai, and her moms flew in from New York to visit Kerry and I here in Chicago. Since her internal clock was still set to East Coast time, Kai would wake up extra early each morning and sneak into our bedroom to ask me if I was ready to come up and read with her. I’d mumble yes, and then turn back over in bed. If I was lucky, this bought me another ten minutes before she’d return. “Ninong (the Tagalog word for godfather), you said you’d come read with me!”

61y6jpnp7mlChildren’s literature has gotten edgier since I was Kai’s age, I think. I remember books like “The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree” and the Clifford the Big Red Dog books. By contrast, Kai kept handing me books like “I Dissent,” an illustrated biography of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and “She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World.” Each of these unabashedly political and progressive books had catch phrases that Kai relished saying over and over as we turned the pages. “I dissent!” and “She persisted!” have never sounded quite so sweet as when a girl of nearly seven is curled up in your lap shouting them with the kind of exuberance generally saved for ice cream and puppies.

It isn’t hard to guess the motives directing the selection of books Kai is consuming at this impressionable young age. As a mixed heritage, Filipina girl with two moms, Kai is going to encounter some heart-breaking ugliness in this world. It’s not a matter of if, but when, as a recent text message exchange with one of her moms foreshadowed.

“This morning your god-daughter asked ‘Who has it harder, women or Black people?” the first text read. Then the second, “I asked her what she thinks the answer is. She said, ‘just tell me, mama!’” I replied, “Did you say, ‘Black Women?’” (it’s never too early to teach them about intersectionality). The reply came back, “Of course!”

“Who has it harder?” is one of the questions floating in the background of nearly all the texts that Erin has selected for us to chew on this morning. When the psalmist imagines the LORD bending down to raise the weak from the dust and the poor from the mire, they are using poetry to describe structural oppression. When Paul chastises the community in Corinth for the ways that their worship simply repeats the patterns of humiliation that poorer members were already experiencing elsewhere in their lives, he is indicting not only their failure as a church, but the arrangement of power in the ancient world.

There is no more beautiful text, however, that at once holds together the pain of the world as it is with undying hope for the world as it will be than this gospel passage from Luke in which we hear Mary’s song, the magnificat. “You have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places. You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty.” 

These ancient, holy words testify to the enduring reality of lament, mourning and anguish that humanity has suffered across all of time, the persistence of inequality and oppression, and yet also ring out with hope for the future rooted in the memory of all that God has done in the past and faith that God will continue to be true to God’s promises in the future.

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Pastor Erin Coleman Branchaud being installed as the pastor with St Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square.

It is the perfect text for this day, as we gather on the eve of Advent, at the cusp of a new year as the church reckons time, a new beginning, and as we prepare to lay hands on Erin Nicole Coleman Branchaud, to consecrate her for the ministry of word and sacrament as a pastor in Christ’s church. It is perfect because it captures both the challenge and the joy of Christian life for all who are baptized, the challenge of honestly naming who has it harder in a world that consistently confuses privilege with merit, and the joy of proclaiming the liberating power and presence of the God who is always coming into the world to bring new life to people and places left for dead.

Notice that I did not say this text captures both the challenge and joy of Christian life just for clergy, but for all who are baptized. There is a real temptation on days like today to hear the scriptures that have been selected as specifically directed at the person being ordained, when their original intent was to form and feed communities of faithful resistance to empire and the death-dealing powers of the world. The role of clergy within the church is not to carry out that work alone, on behalf of the congregation, but as the Augsburg Confession states, “that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel.” 

That is to be your role, Erin, as you carry out your ministry among God’s people as their pastor — to rightly preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. This is no small or simple task. Just listen to how the apostle Paul sets up the words of institution that we are so used to hearing each time we take part in the Lord’s Supper. It’s not enough for Paul to simply pass along to the church what he had first received from those who’d taught him, the story of how Jesus blessed and broke bread and wine with his disciples. No, first he has to tell the truth about what he has seen and heard in the world and in the church. First he has to draw out the practical and public, material and ethical consequences of the Lord’s Supper. First he has to underscore God’s solidarity with all the hungry, suffering people of the earth. Only then does the significance of this meal make any sense. Only then do the words, “for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” make any sense. To preach the gospel and administer the sacraments requires you to spend your life telling the truth about the reality of sin in this aching world. Only then can we clearly recognize our need for God’s liberating grace.

This is the meaning of this strange image from Ezekiel, who eats the scroll covered with words of woe, of lamentation and mourning, front and back. These are the words God needs spoken to God’s people. Not words of false security or illusory hope, but trustworthy words about the ways that we are all being harmed by this world, and even the ways that we are participating in that harm.

Erin, you have the gifts required for this calling. I know you told me not to talk about you, just to preach the gospel, but I have to say this to you today. You have a gift for telling the truth in ways that set people free. You possess a hard won courage that enables you to speak directly to people about where and how the world is broken in ways that invite commitment and resolve rather than passivity and despair. You are a preacher of the gospel. In your mouth, God’s word is as sweet as honey. 

And, if I may also take a moment of personal privilege — which I may, because you asked me to preach today — you are, as you know, being called to pastor a community that neither needs nor expects you to do this work alone. In the community of St. Luke’s you have found people who want to sing God’s song with you, who are eager to be part of God’s powerful, transformative, world-changing mission. Like Mary, they believed in what God could accomplish through them when such faith seemed foolish. Not only will they appreciate your gifts, they will be patient with your weaknesses. You can trust them with all that is messy and unresolved in your heart. I should know.

That’s why, the moment the news reached my ears that you and St. Luke’s had chosen each other, my heart leaped for joy! You are going to be a blessing to one another, and in your ministry together you will bless the world. 

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, November 28, 2018: RCL Texts for the Wednesday following Reign of Christ

The following sermon was preached in LSTC’s Augustana Chapel on the Wednesday following the festival of the Reign of Christ. Audio of the sermon can be found here.

Texts: Ezekiel 30:20-26  +  Psalm 76  +  John 16:25-33

I love Jesus. I love Jesus, and I long for the reign of Christ.

Earlier this week, as I listened to Samantha preaching that brilliant sermon on the texts for the festival of the Reign of Christ, as I listened to Doc’s exquisite improvisation on the Canticle of the Turning, I’m not ashamed to admit that I didn’t get all the way through the hymn without crying. 

“From the halls of pow’r to the fortress tow’r, not a stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your justice tears ev’ry tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn; there are tables spread, every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.” (Canticle of the Turning)

Yes! Yes, I want to live in that world!

Yes! I long for the day when the hungry poor are fed first from the table of abundance.

Yes! I can even name my family’s self-interest in seeing that world come sooner, rather than later. I know that in that world, my sister will have access to work and housing with dignity, my family will have health care without conditions, my husband will be reunited with his incarcerated brother, and I will be able to walk arm in arm with my beloved without the fear of violence hanging over our heads. Yes! I want to live in that world — Come, Lord Jesus, come!

But I don’t think I’m ready to give up my Amazon Prime account.

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Maybe you’ve heard. Despite the company’s recent move to raise the entry-level wage for its U.S. workers to $15 per hour, Amazon workers worldwide continue to protest the low wages and horrible conditions under which they are required to work. In cities across Europe last week, Amazon workers went on strike. It was barely a story here in the United States.

I’m not trying to make this sermon into an exposé on labor rights for Amazon workers, though that’s a worthy topic for further investigation, because to spend too much time here is to invite you to focus too narrowly on whether or not you can justify the Amazon Prime account that you may or may not have. The point I’m making is that I don’t think I’m ready to give the account that I most certainly do have up.

Or, to be frank, I must confess that I am often more motivated by narrow self-interest and fear of scarcity than I am by care for my neighbor and trust in God’s abundance.

In this morning’s reading from the gospel of John, Jesus nears the end of his lengthy farewell discourse with words that are unexpectedly troubling. After a ministry filled with allegories and cryptic sayings, Jesus now speaks plainly, “I came from Abba God and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and going to Abba God.” (John 16:28) If that’s not plain speech, I don’t know what is. The cat is out of the bag. Jesus is the messiah, the one sent by God as the ultimate sign of God’s love for all creation.

In response the disciples say, “Yes! Now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.”

Yes, this is what we’ve been waiting for! 

Yes, we know! 

Yes, we believe!

It would seem that the whole gospel has been building toward this moment, this declaration of belief in Jesus by those who followed him. But Jesus immediately casts doubt on their belief.

“Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to their home, and you will leave me alone.” (John 16:32)

It is more than anticlimactic. It is disturbing. The disciples’ profession of belief is not convincing to Jesus, who rightly predicts that they will not keep faith with him in the moment of his passion which has now arrived. That they will scatter when confronted with the consequences of their association with Jesus.

This is not the first time that the word “scatter” has appeared in John’s gospel. It appears one other time, back in the 10th chapter, when Jesus was still using figures of speech. There he says, 

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away — and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” (John 10:11-12)

As Jesus approaches his eschatological hour, this previous figure of speech haunts the scene. The wolf is coming with death in its jaws, and the disciples will soon scatter, like both the hired hands and the sheep.

And, of course, the language of scattering goes even further back in Hebrew scripture. We hear it in Genesis in the famous story of the Tower of Babel. There, in a time preceding history, “the whole earth had one language and the same words.” In a bid to protect themselves from the divine imperative to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, humanity adopts an “us first” isolationist stance toward the future, preferring to build a tower and establish a uniformity of identity rather than participate in the unfolding diversity of human community. In response, God scatters them abroad “over the face of the whole earth.”

600px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_ProjectWhen read in light of the Babylonian exile, the story of the Tower of Babel has been interpreted as representative of Jerusalem, scattered in captivity. This theme is especially prominent in Ezekiel, as in the passage assigned for today, where God promises to scatter the Egyptians among the nations (Ezek. 30:23,26) in language very similar to the story of Babel. A few chapters later, in the 34th chapter of Ezekiel, the language of scattering reappears in a prophesy against the shepherds of Israel that offers a stark contrast to Jesus’ image of the Good Shepherd:

“Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts … My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” (Ezek. 34:2b-6)

This is the world as it is. The weak left to struggle, the sick left to die, the injured left to suffer, the straying and the lost left alone. This is the world I was born into, yes, and that I have had a hand in maintaining. This is the world that is required if I want to continue to enjoy cheap gas and cheap clothes and cheap airfares and cheap food and cheap labor. This is a world that cheapens life itself. It is the world that my Amazon Prime account creates and requires, and I’m still not sure I’m ready to give it up.

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Dr. Gail O’Day

In her article “Preaching as an Act of Friendship: Plain Speaking as a Sign of the Kingdom” Dr. Gail O’Day, who was my faculty advisor at Emory University and who died earlier this fall, offers a context that helps make sense of Jesus’ stinging words to the disciples following their statement of belief. She writes,

“In their quick and easy assent to his words, [Jesus] recognizes the behavior of a flatterer instead of that of a friend. Jesus’ rebuke suggests that he suspects the disciples are saying what they think Jesus wants to hear, not what they really believe. To prove they are flatterers and not friends, Jesus links their false words with what seems to be a much more serious offense, their abandonment of him at his hour.”

This is what I want to avoid. Being a flatterer. Saying one thing in my sermon and living another truth with my life. What does it mean for me to say, “Jesus is Lord!” or “Come, Jesus, come!” when my life actively demonstrates my half-hearted allegiances and my scattered loyalties? When I abandon my espoused values the moment they become inconvenient? When I denounce the political rhetoric of “America first” nationalism, but continue to pursue a “me first” consumerism?

What it means is that I am human, which is to say that I am a sinner, just like you. My best efforts are inadequate, and my worst mistakes are tragic. And ironically, while my knowledge of my failures often leaves me feeling painfully isolated, it is actually proof of my membership in the human family.

Jesus knows that his followers will abandon him, that they will scatter before the consequences of their association with him. Just as we do. Yet, even as he is abandoned, Jesus remains a part of the divine community which is the inner life of God. “I am not alone,” he says, “because Abba God is with me.” This is the same God whom Jesus assures us loves us, is accessible to us, shelters us, calls to us, forgives us, encourages us, saves us.

“I have said this to you,” Jesus explains, “so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution,” he acknowledges. “But take courage; I have conquered the world!” It’s precisely the kind of thing a good shepherd might say, or a good friend, the kind willing to lay down their lives for you, the kind who will keep loving you through all your fears and betrayals. The kind who will gather up the scattered fragments of your life and call you home to yourself. Peace, take courage, I’ve got this.

Have I told you how much I love Jesus, and long for the reign of Christ?

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