Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, May 2, 2021: Fifth Sunday of Easter

This sermon was preached at Grace Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Evanston, Illinois. I was the guest preacher that morning at the congregation where my husband and I are members while our pastor was on vacation.

Texts: Acts 8:26-40 / John 15:1-8

I began my current call as Pastor to the Community and Director of Worship at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) in the fall of 2017. 2017, as some of you may remember, was the 500th anniversary of the year that Martin Luther nailed his arguments with the church in Rome to the doors of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, kicking off what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation. It was an interesting time to be joining a Lutheran seminary, as I was immediately thrust into plans for celebrating the this momentous anniversary that included a series of guest preachers and heightened festival worship throughout the fall semester. The sermon I remember most clearly was delivered by the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, who preached on the text from Acts that we’ve just read.

The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III (L), the Rev. Dr. Linda Thomas (C), and me (R).

Although he was preaching to a multiethnic crowd, Pastor Moss was quite aware that he was also preaching at a seminary of the ELCA — a denomination now almost infamously identified by the Pew Research Center as the Whitest denomination in the United States. Our denomination. He wasn’t assigned his text for the day, as we have been, he selected this one with care and for a purpose: to show us how implicit bias creeps into even our reading of scripture. 

The story from Acts centers on a life-changing moment between two people on a wilderness road: Philip the Evangelist, one of the seven chosen to care for the poor in Jerusalem; and an Ethiopian eunuch, described as a “court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.” The scripture at this point is sharing detail after detail, each packed with meaning about the context for this encounter and foregrounding the social location of these two people. Even Philip’s name tells us an important detail about his relationship to the rest of the early church. Philip is a Greek name and this character makes his first appearance two chapters earlier in the book of Acts in the context of an ethnic dispute in the church in which the Hellenists (the Greek-speaking Jews) bring forward a complaint against the Hebrews (the Hebrew-speaking Jews), charging that the widows among the Hellenists were being neglected in the daily distribution of food (the diakonia). When the apostle Paul writes to the church in Galatia, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28-29) he is likely speaking to this tension within the church over cultural differences that are disrupting the unity of their identity in Christ.

So, even before Philip enters the scene with the Ethiopian eunuch, we should understand that he was a leader in a community that already knew something about how ethnicity (Jew or Greek), economy (slave or free), and gender (male and female) impact our sense of belonging. Then he meets a person whose ethnicity (Ethiopian), wealth (court official and treasurer), and gender (a eunuch, in some sense neither male nor female, we might even say non-binary) pose implicit questions about whether and how the gospel of Jesus might apply. 

But friends, it gets even messier. Although this eunuch is called an “Ethiopian,” they are also named as a court official of the Candace, “queen of the Ethiopians.” This term “Candace” was applied to all of the female rulers or consorts of the kingdom of Kush, which occupied the land that today we would call Sudan, the nation to the south of Egypt, but not as far south as Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Greek word used to describe the eunuch in the book of Acts is “aithiops,” which gets translated into English as “Ethiopian.” We hear it as a political or national identity, but the word aithiops was used in the Greek-speaking, or Hellenistic, world to refer to black-skinned people in general. So, instead of referring to this character as the Ethiopian eunuch, we could perhaps just as accurately refer to them as the African eunuch, or the black eunuch.

It was on this point that Pastor Moss wanted to linger and warn us in that season of reformation not to let our own racial biases get in the way of our understanding of the text. Because there is a whole history of interpretation of this story, two thousand years long, that is concerned with the religious identity of the African eunuch, the black eunuch. And in that long history, the central question is: was this person a Jew or a Gentile? All the way back in the second century, Irenaeus (the Greek bishop of Lyon in modern day France) argued that the African eunuch was most likely a Jew. This view continued on into the present as a sort of minority report, and was also held by the Rev. Dr. Charles Francis Potter, an American and a Unitarian pastor and theologian in the early 20th century who famously supported the theory of evolution over and against the fundamentalist doctrine of creationism in a series of public debates and advised Clarence Darrow in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 in which the state of Tennessee put a high school teacher on trial for teaching evolution in a public school.

But the majority opinion on the matter of the eunuch, beginning with Eusebius in the 3rd and 4th centuries, up to and including Martin Luther in the 16th century, was that the eunuch must have been a Gentile because that person was Ethiopian, which, as we now know, really means because they were African or black-skinned. But, Pastor Moss asked, don’t we remember that as far back as the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in 1 Kings 10, the nation of Israel had a connection with Africa (ironically, the nation of Sheba did include the lands that now include Somalia, Eritrea, and — you guessed it — Ethiopia). Ethiopian tradition holds that King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba had a child, Menelik, who founded a Jewish (then Christian) dynasty that lasted for nearly three thousand years. 

So, when the text says, the [African eunuch] “had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home,” why are some of us so quick to imagine and interpret this story as one about how the early church welcomed outsiders, even black-skinned Africans, as full members? Or, put slightly differently, given our painfully human tendency to categorize ourselves into “us” and “them” in just about every way imaginable, which character in this story do we think about as being most like “us” and which character do we imagine standing in for “them,” and why? Both Philip and the eunuch were quite possibly Jewish. Philip was part of a community, the early church, that was trying to live out a social ethic of redistributed wealth (Acts 4:32), but already struggling to do that with much success because of divisions over language and culture. The eunuch was quite likely financially well-off. They, after all, were a court official and riding along a wilderness road in a chariot, while Philip was walking. Research by the African-American historian and classicist, Frank M. Snowden Jr., demonstrates that most of the Africans encountered in Rome and throughout antiquity were not slaves or subordinates, as so many Western minds have immediately imagined, but were warriors and statesmen and mercenaries, co-existing in that ancient political and economic world without racial prejudice.

Still, the African eunuch may have had some understanding about what it was like to be both an insider and an outsider — not because they were African, but because they were a eunuch. The 23rd chapter of the book of Deuteronomy is dedicated to listing all those sorts of people who are excluded from worshipping God with the assembly and begins, “no one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” It goes on from there to say, “those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” (Deut. 23:1-2). From there a whole string of peoples, or we might say, a whole catalogue of ethnicities, are denied a place in the assembly.

Later though, the prophet Isaiah offers a counter-narrative of hope for all the outcasts and excluded peoples, writing

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from God’s people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to God, to love the name of the Lord, and to be God’s servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant — these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

(Isaiah 56:3-8)

This is the scroll, the prophetic voice, that the eunuch is reading when Philip appears in the story. And what if, rather than trying to make this a story about an insider like Philip making room for an outsider like the African eunuch, we imagine that the angel of the Lord who told Philip to hit the road and the Spirit that told Philip to go talk to this high-ranking court official knew that both of them needed to be reminded that the God who raised Jesus from the dead was building a house of prayer for all peoples, and all languages, and all cultures, and all genders, and all bodies. That the God who made the world and looked at it and called it good said the same thing when looking upon people getting overlooked in the redistribution of wealth, people who were poor and hungry, as well as people who wondered if bodies like theirs were welcome in the assembly, eunuchs and kids born outside of marriage or with the wrong family and kin, or who came from the wrong people, or the wrong cities, or the wrong nations. 

Philip asks the black eunuch, “do you understand what you are reading?” But all I can think this morning is, do we? How different is this story of ethnic tensions and gender anxieties and wealth disparities from our own stories? If the African eunuch, who was excluded from the assembly for failing to be “man enough” to belong among the good religious people, could meet us along our own road and hear the stories of Black trans people being murdered and receiving no justice, would they feel some sense of kinship and understanding? If Philip, a Greek speaking Jew in a Roman world, caught in the borderland between exclusion and belonging, could meet us along our own road and hear the stories of 13 year-old Adam Toledo or 22 year-old Anthony Alvarez, shot and killed by the police, would he feel some sense of kinship and understanding?

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe this generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

(Isa. 53:7-8)

The modern commitment to racial profiling is so deep and so engrained. We can’t even read the scriptures without imposing our racial categories and biases on the stories of those who have gone before us in faith. 

Yet, looks what happens when the eunuch and Philip step across the lines that divide them and meet each other on the holy ground of God’s living word, revealed through the prophets and enfleshed in the person of Jesus, also humiliated, also rejected by the religious leaders, also murdered by authorities, also mourned in the streets by his mother and his friends, also laid in a grave — but then raised to new life, escaping the grave, appearing to his friends — on the road and in their homes and by the water. This is the story I imagine Philip told the eunuch and I think they wept together when he did. I think they wept for all the people they had known and loved and lost. And I think they wept for themselves, for all the misunderstandings and public humiliations they had endured. And I think they wept for joy, because they finally knew in that part of their souls that knows the truth when we hear it that they were made for something more, that they were loved with a fierceness that was stronger than any hatred they had faced, because in the words of Isaiah they heard the wisdom of God and the voice of Jesus and the sound of freedom. 

And then, faces glistening with tears of lament and tears of joy, they came upon some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And, read closely, Philip doesn’t have to say a word because they already knew the answer: nothing — “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39) 

After the eunuch is baptized Philip immediately moves on, traveling to Azotus (near Tel Aviv in modern Israel) and the African eunuch continues the journey home and, as far as we know, they never encounter one another again. But, oh, how powerful that one brief encounter was, for both of them!

Dear church, we have been injured so often and for so long by one tragic incident of profiling after another, of children and parents and joggers and motorists and on and on and on whose lives have been cut short by racial bias paired with state violence in the wider context of a nation flooded with guns. We have been trained to expect these brief encounters at the boundaries of difference to be inevitably marred by violence. 

This is a story of the opposite. This is a story of a time when people who’d been taught to believe they had nothing in common with one another encountered each other on the holy ground of God’s liberating promises and their fulfillment in the reign of Christ, into whom we — dear church — have been baptized. In those waters our deepest, truest selves have been revealed. Our differences, our cultures, our languages, our bodies — they matter. Our lives are sacred and holy, each of them. We are children of God, all of us. This, too, is our heritage and we can train ourselves to live more and more deeply into this story instead of the one the world keeps trying to teach us.

Very soon we will leave this sanctuary — physical or virtual — and we will get on with our day. We will head out onto wilderness roads of all types. As we go, I invite you to listen for the Spirit, for the sound of the genuine, for the part of your soul that knows the truth when you hear it — calling you to cross the street and enter the conversation with the person or the peoples you have been conditioned to avoid, or mistrust, or exclude, and to listen to the questions they are asking about the world and their place in it. It is there, in those questions and that discomfort that we will find our common future.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Saturday, November 21, 2020: The Ordination of the Rev. Morgan Elizabeth Gates

This sermon was preached remotely from Chicago, Illinois via Zoom on Saturday, November 21, 2020 for the ordination of the Rev. Morgan Elizabeth Gates, which took place at Peace Lutheran Church in College Station, Texas. Pr. Gates is a 2020 graduate of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC).

Text: John 15:1-17 / To view the video of this sermon being preached, click here.

Grace and peace to you from God, the vine grower, and our Lord Jesus Christ, the vine. Amen.

Greetings to all who are gathered, near and far, as we gather to worship God, giving thanks for all that God is bringing to life in us, in the church, in the world, and especially in our dear sibling, Morgan Elizabeth Gates, who has responded to God’s call on her life and has been growing into the shape of her baptism. We have come together today from many places — I am coming to you from my home on the north side of Chicago — to witness a bit of pruning, more commonly called ordination. The life that Morgan has been pursuing, her growth over time, is now being shaped in a very specific way so that it can continue to bear fruit.

Half a lifetime ago, for one of their wedding anniversaries, my sister gave my parents a trellis in the shape of an arch. Dad installed the trellis inside a gap in the tall hedge of bushes that separated our back yard from what we called the “outback” — a piece of land behind our house, beyond the backyard, that was not really a lawn so much as a bit of reclaimed prairie along the outskirts of the west side of Des Moines. To me, the trellis added a bit of romance to my parents’ back yard. It added some structure to the boundary between the cultivated and the wild. It was a great backdrop for family photos.

When I think about ministry — and, by this I don’t just mean the ministry of Word and Sacrament that Morgan is being ordained into today, or even the rostered ministry of pastors and deacons in the church, but the church’s ministry, the witness of the baptized — I imagine the trellis, providing shape and structure and support to fruit bearing branches, but not their actual life. If I may, an illustration:

Exhibit A: this basil plant that’s been growing in my window since the early days of the pandemic back in March. I will admit that this plant is one of a number of experiments I have conducted over the last nine months to keep my home from feeling like a holding cell — along with sourdough bread, home haircuts, the guitar, and athletic leisurewear. This plant came as part of a windowsill herb garden kit by a small store here in Chicago, so it also felt like a way to support local business from the safety of my living room. It’s a hydroponic grow kit: just a glass jar, a perforated metal cone to suspend the soil mixture in water, and then small packets of seeds to grow basil, cilantro, mint, etc.

In the early days of the pandemic, when we weren’t yet accustomed to the numbing sameness of each day, I discovered the simple joy of watching a thing grow. I’d also brought some plants home from my office at the seminary — plants that had always struggled to thrive under the fluorescent light in my office — and by the end of the first month working from home I’d transformed the dining room into a miniature greenhouse. All I had to do was keep a spray bottle nearby and mist the soil mixture, and the warmth of the sun would do the rest. Day by day I watched with unmerited pride as the seeds I’d tucked into the soil began to sprout and grow. I marveled at the miracle of biochemistry, how a seed contained all the information it needed in every cell of its being to turn soil, water, air and sunlight into root and stem and leaf. I didn’t have to teach it a single thing. It was made to grow, which is another way of saying it is alive.

In a lecture on growth titled, “Disciplines of the Spirit” delivered at Boston University in the fall of 1960, Howard Thurman shared the following insight on the relationship of growth to patience. He said,

“Sometimes I think that perhaps the most distinguishing thing, one of the most distinguishing things between God and the human spirit is that God knows how to wait. How to sit it out and watch the slow crawling manifestation of the potential of the organism. And [humanity] does not know this.

So one of the things, one of the results of the discipline of growth is to learn patience. Now, patience may be merely an escape into inactivity. It may be the result of fear, laziness, all kinds of things. Well, I’m not talking about that kind of patience.

I’m talking about the patience that represents the time interval after the desire has manifested itself and the way in which the individual must assess and reassess [their] environment in order that [they] may know what the chances are for the fulfillment of [their] desire or [their] wish.”

This was the unexpected lesson of those early pandemic days, which became an endless exercise in patience. Each day I opened my laptop. I answered the emails. I made the phone calls. I participated in the Zoom meetings. Each day I would stand up, brew my coffee, wander over the window, spritz the soil and see that, without any coaching from me at all, the plant was growing. Life was alive.

Eventually these viney stems had grown nearly the entire height of the window, so I decided to harvest the leaves and make some pesto. Once I got going with my pruning, I went a little overboard. Within minutes, I’d removed almost all the leaves from the plant, my fingers fragrant with their oils. I made the pesto. I tossed it with pasta and cherry tomatoes and grated parmesan cheese. It was excellent. I considered whether the windowsill herb garden had run its course, whether it might be time to retire the hydroponic jar with its inverted scaffolding, its conical upside-down trellis. But I didn’t have the heart. This plant and I had been cohabitating in my humble little abode for so long, I wasn’t ready to see it go. We’d been abiding in my habitat. So I filled the jar with water and set it back in the windowsill, patiently waiting to see if these vines could repeat the miracle of growth. And they did.

So much of ministry, in my experience, has been making the decision to abide with one another and then to be patient with one another. I remember an older woman in the church where I served my first call pulling me aside after church one Sunday seven years into my ministry there to tell me something about the community. She began, “You haven’t been here very long yet, but maybe you’ve begun to notice…” This was something of a revelation to me. I’d moved around a lot as a young adult, leaving home for college and then moving every few years for work or graduate school or internship. At the end of my fourth year in that first call I had to talk myself out of looking for a new job mostly because I’d lost the sense of what it felt like to stay put in any one place for that long. So to hear that after seven years I still hadn’t been around that long in some people’s eyes was a wake up call. We live in an increasingly mobile and transient world. The older you get the more experiences you’ve had of friends and colleagues and even lovers leaving you, moving on to pursue new opportunities. Then come the years when the departures are more final. We get more practice than we ever wanted saying our final goodbyes to the people who have been the most important to us. Sometimes we don’t even get to say goodbye.

This passage from John’s gospel with all the talk of vines and branches comes from a larger unit known as the farewell discourse which takes place on the night before Jesus’ death. He knows that he will be killed and he is planting the seeds of understanding now so that later his disciples will be able to make sense of what has happened. “This is my commandment,” he says, “that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Then, later, “you did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Parent will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

There are times when being faithful to the ministry God has put before you will feel like laying down your life. Again, I’m not just talking about pastoral ministry or diaconal ministry. I’m not just talking to Morgan. There are times when being faithful to the covenant of baptism feels like laying down our lives. In his letter to the church in Rome, the apostle Paul puts it like this, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Parent, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4) Faithful ministry by any of us and all of us will involve decisions in which our individual wants and needs must be put aside in order to care for the needs of others. Parents know this. Spouses know this. Good leaders know this. Jesus, who once prayed, “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Mt. 26:39) knew this. Good pastors know this and, Morgan, I think you know this too. 

There is a pruning taking place today, a careful cultivation of your life which truthfully acknowledges that, in order to produce the fruit that is needed, there are some paths to growth that will need to be nurtured and others that will be cut short. It is the cost of discipleship and I am here to tell you that it is well worth paying because, in the end, the cost of discipleship is not so different from the price of love. It is the act of choosing to dwell with, abide with, minister to, to love and be loved by the people and places to which God sends us. It is not easy, it does not always feel good, but it is the path that leads to joy — real joy, deep joy, abiding joy. I can tell you this with confidence because I have walked this path, I have sometime stumbled down this path, I have sometimes cursed this path or doubted it, but I have surely loved it and been loved by it in return.

Morgan, people of God, I have said these things to you so that God’s joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. As we prepare now to hear you make your promises, to hear the echo of your baptismal covenant again this day, we are drawing close, raising our hands around you, marveling at how God has kept you close to the vine, waiting to taste the fruit of your ministry. 

Let all God’s people say amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Preached for chapel worship at LSTC on Wednesday, November 4, 2020 – the day after Election Day.

Texts: Revelation 7:9-17 / Ps. 34:1-10, 22 / 1 John 3:1-3 / Matthew 5:1-12

View this sermon, posted to the LSTC YouTube channel.

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It’s been almost a week since I deleted the social media apps on my phone. At some point I finally realized that my 6am doom-scrolling was not only a miserable way to begin my day, but that it was actually impacting my mental health. I was learning nothing new from the breathless barrage of think pieces about the election, but I was exhausting my overloaded nervous system with headlines and takeaways that kept my body awash in adrenaline with nowhere to flee and no one to fight. I faced a similar decision once again last night, choosing to break my quadrennial tradition of staying awake through the long hours of the night to wait for an announcement of the projected winner in the presidential election, or at least the determination that no winner could yet be declared. Instead, as it became clear that we would not know for another day or longer, I took myself to bed and prayed for the gift of sleep.

In place of all the panic inducing media, I have been attempting to meditate for a few minutes each day, to order my thoughts and to return to myself. Sitting a few days ago, listening to a guided meditation, I was invited to reflect on the divine qualities of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity by inviting the memory of someone who has loved me unconditionally to come to mind. Then I was asked to imagine that person speaking to me, addressing me with the following:

“May you be caring towards your own body and mind.”

“May you see your own limits compassionately.”

“May joy fill and nourish you, always.”

“May you be open to the true nature of life.”

Sitting in silence, imagining my mother’s voice speaking words of blessing and hope, I could feel my body come alive, my heart expand, my mind shaking off its fears, and my soul reaching forward. Addressed by the memory of love, things seemed possible that only minutes before had seemed unlikely at best.

This is how I imagine the crowd might have received Jesus’s words of blessing, his beatitudes, as he began the sermon on the mount. For much of my life I have heard the beatitudes as a sort of index of salvation, a catalogue of the qualities I would need to develop in order to find favor with God. It didn’t matter that I was raised with and confirmed into a clear knowledge of salvation by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9), because I was also being formed in a parallel process by the world’s catechism of competition and consumerism, self-reliance and scarcity. I knew that God was good, and I feared that I was not good enough.

It has taken time, years really of listening to people’s stories, for me to not only understand but to really trust that I am not alone in my fears and self-doubts. The world has not hurt us all in the same way, nor to the same extent, but we have all been wounded. Some have been taught to hate themselves, and some have been taught that hate is the price of belonging. Some have been taught to expect nothing but sorrow, and others that grief is an unacceptable weakness. Some have been taught to make themselves small, and others to align themselves with greatness. Our wounds, these patterns and habits, we inherited them so early that it was easy enough to confuse them with our very selves. They function as prisons and, sometimes, we collude with them by confusing them with the deepest truth about ourselves, becoming collaborators with our own oppression.

Each of the gospels chooses its own way to present the beginning of Jesus’s ministry that says something about how it understands Jesus. Mark begins with an exorcism. Luke with a sermon before the hometown crowd. John with the miracle at Cana. In the gospel of Matthew, the sermon on the mount is presented as the summary of what Jesus has been teaching as he moved throughout Galilee. It functions as a sort of inaugural address. Matthew’s Jesus comes to us in the form of a teacher. Like Moses descending Mount Sinai with the life-giving law, Jesus calls the disciples and addresses the crowd as an instructor in righteousness. So, as any good teacher knows, you have to meet the students where they are and build on what they’ve already been taught. This means that, for Jesus, the first lesson is to address head on their miseducation on the topic of their value as human beings and where they stand in God’s economy.

When Jesus calls out the categories of blessing, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek …” he isn’t presenting the ruler by which the crowd will be measured. He is describing the people in front of him. The crowds that “followed [Jesus] from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (Mt. 4:25) were hungering and thirsting for righteousness. They were the poor and the persecuted, the meek and the mourners. They might have been familiar with the text of Psalm 70, and they were certainly familiar with the lament it voices,

“But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God!

You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay!” (Ps. 70:5)

And so, here is where I want to pause and return to the reality of the moment we are living in as we gather for worship this morning. It is the day after the election and there is no clear outcome yet. We are waiting. But we are not just waiting for the votes to be counted. We are waiting for justice. We are waiting for an end to the hatred and division that have ripped our neighborhoods and our nation apart. We are waiting for families separated at the border to be reunited. We are waiting for an end to police brutality directed at and the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people. We are waiting for a real response to the all-encompassing crisis of climate change. We are waiting for the basic pre-conditions of an abundant life: clean water, housing, and healthcare to stop being treated as luxury commodities and to be redistributed as the birthright of all God’s children. We are waiting for the dismantling of nuclear armaments that have not gone away, even if we’ve stopped talking about them. We are waiting for homes free from domestic violence and workplaces free from harassment. We are waiting for that day when the sacred reality queer people’s relationships, and trans and non-binary people’s lives, are not up for debate in our churches or our courthouses. We are waiting for an end to the diseases and health conditions that do not impact us all equally. We are waiting for the end of COVID. We are waiting and waiting and waiting and we don’t know how much longer we can wait! 

O Lord, do not delay!

(breathe)

“May you be caring towards your own body and mind.”

“May you see your own limits compassionately.”

“May joy fill and nourish you, always.”

“May you be open to the true nature of life.”

(breathe)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the commonwealth of heaven.”

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will perceive God.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the commonwealth of heaven.”

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven …”

Blessed are you.

Blessed are you.

Blessed are you.

Imagine it now. Form the picture in your mind. See the face. Hear the voice speaking to you from the heart of God’s love. Blessed are you. Feel your heart open. Let your body unclench. Shake the fears from your mind. Yearn your soul towards its future.

Jesus, the teacher, has many lessons to teach and many assignments to give. Later on he will tell them about the power of small things, seeds and yeast and mustard trees. Later on they will learn what happens when you plant this gospel in the ground. But today, while the crowds have gathered ‘round and the whole world is waiting, Jesus blesses those who would follow him with words of compassion and lovingkindness and patience and joy

Finally, a post-script on joy:

We are trying to do many things, perhaps too many things, with today’s worship service. It is not only the day after the election, but it is also the day on which we are observing All Saints Day. Very shortly we will read aloud as a part of the prayers of the people the names of those who have died in the last year. Here at LSTC we are grieving the deaths of the Rev. Dr. Cheryl Stewart Pero and the Rev. Paul Landahl, losses that evoke the memory of other saints from this community who now rest in God’s power and presence. These names represent the smallest fraction of those whose lives have now ended. Some welcomed their deaths at the end of long lives lived well. Nevertheless, they are missed. Some had their lives stolen from them by act of violence, the acute violences of murder and abuse and the chronic violences of oppression and neglect. This year we are especially mindful of all the lives that were taken by the COVID pandemic, losses which in some cases might have been preventable. We are not only mourning, but we are raging.

In the context of that grief and anger, joy may feel out of place. Take for example the hymn that will send us out at the close of worship this morning, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Given all that we are suffering right now, how can we take part in singing a song whose joy can barely be contained by its Dixieland melody? 

Let me suggest, however, that joy is a revolutionary act, precisely at moments like this. Joy is written into the creeds that accompany the act of baptism, the declaration that though Jesus was “born under Pontius Pilate, suffered death and was buried” that “on the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God” and that we are those who “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world yet to come.” Joy is our rebellion against every voice that would teach us to sit down and shut up. Joy is the shape of the pruning hook for which we traded our spears. Joy is the sound of shackles falling from our feet. Joy is our soul’s response to the voice of Jesus, speaking from the heart of God, calling us blessed.

Amen.

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