Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The following sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in advance of a day of service, expertly facilitated by Chicago Cares, as part of our annual “Welcome (Back) Week” (new student orientation).

Texts: Jeremiah 29:4-14  +  Psalm 111  +  John 4:27-42

Here’s a story about a time I just didn’t understand what was really going on.

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It was the late-90s, about twenty years ago, and I was in my mid-twenties. I was living in Minneapolis, Minnesota and working as a case manager for youth and young adults experiencing homelessness in a federally subsidized public housing project. Most of my clients were no more than three or four years younger than me, but the fact that I held a college degree and could pay my own rent somehow qualified me to provide support and guidance to the people in my case load.

Federal dollars meant federal regulations and federal oversight, and part of my job was to make sure we stayed in compliance with those regulations so that we didn’t lose those dollars. So, when I realized that the eighteen year-old with the corner apartment on the first floor was sneaking his buddies in through the window after midnight and allowing them to crash on his floor overnight, I wrote him up and explained that if he kept this up he was putting his housing at risk.

But that didn’t stop him. At least once a week I’d hear loud noises coming from his unit and discover unauthorized guests asleep on his couch after visiting hours, or I’d spot them dropping from his window to the sidewalk as I was leaving work at the end of an overnight shift.

Realizing that write ups weren’t having any impact at all, and not wanting to have to be the one to issue him an eviction, I pleaded with my client to explain to me why he was putting his housing at risk — when he’d waited so long to get into this program and start rebuilding his life after years on the street.

He told me, “look, you don’t understand. When you’re a kid on the street, you find a new family — people who look after you, that you look after too. If you’ve got food, you share it. If you find a place to crash, you let them in. Without your crew, you’d never survive on your own. So, I know you think I’m being an idiot, but this is my family and I owe them. I owe them everything.”

I felt foolish. In my role as a case manager I’d been set up to accept that the rules of the game, as they’d been established by the government, were the first and last word on what was acceptable behavior for young people transitioning off the streets. Of course, from the point of view of young people experiencing homelessness, these rules were just one more hoop to jump through, one more set of competing and contradictory forces pulling their lives in opposite directions. I’d spent weeks thinking about this young man as an isolated individual, holding him to a standard of adulthood rooted in values of individualism and autonomy that work really well for capitalism, but not so well for human beings with their many and varied needs. And the whole time I’d been thinking about him and his path to independence, he’d been thinking about his family, the other runaway, homeless and street-dependent youth on whom he relied for his life far more than he relied on me.

I just didn’t understand what was really going on.

But a strange thing happens when I begin to tell you a story about a time when I didn’t understand what was really going on. By framing the story through my experience of unknowing followed by discovery, another story gets told as well, a story that hides behind the words of the first. That second story might be titled something like, “this is a story about a time when I finally realized what’s really going on.”

This is the story about the time I when I finally realized the harsh realities under which homeless youth live their lives. This is the story of when I finally realized that there are different rules for people who can’t maintain a middle class lifestyle. This is the story of how I got woke to the nature of privilege. This is a story that demonstrates that I actually do know what’s going on.

Both stories getting told at once.

It seems to me that something similar is happening in the portion of scripture from John’s gospel. It begins with the tail end of a much longer and extraordinary conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman who meet at a well and defy all manner of social conventions in their exchange. A Jew and a Samaritan. An unmarried man and a woman who’d been married several times. As the scene opens, the disciples have just returned from a trip to pick up supplies to find Jesus speaking to someone whose life experience was, in all likelihood, a complete mystery to them. John says, “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you speaking with her?’” (John 4:27)

It’s interesting to speculate about why the disciples were silent in the face of this exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. The gospel doesn’t spell it out for certain, leaving preachers and readers all sorts of room to guess.

But since we’re here at a seminary, and classes are about to begin, I’m led to wonder if the disciples didn’t want to risk being wrong in front of the rest of the class. They’d returned from their mission to find their teacher teaching someone else, and she seemed to be a far more capable student than most of them had proven to be most of the time. She, an outsider among outsiders, had uncovered Jesus’ identity as the messiah. While the disciples were out picking up lunch, she’d become an apostle and had already begun evangelizing her community. She had joined God’s mission without any help whatsoever from the disciples, because God had reached out to her directly. Later, when she returns with the Samaritans from her city, all that is left for the disciples to do is to enter into her labor, her work among her people, accompanying Jesus as he continues his sojourn with the Samaritans over the next few days. 

So, in a sense, John’s gospel tells its story much in the same way that I told my story by telling two stories at once. There is the story of the Samaritan woman who engages directly with Jesus, is transformed in the process, and immediately joins God’s mission in the world by sharing her story with the people in her immediate community; and there is the story of the disciples, who do not immediately understand what’s going on, and remain silent in the face of their ignorance and confusion. And we, the readers and hearers of this gospel story, perceiving the contrast between these two examples, are tempted to consider ourselves woke to the dynamics at play in this intercultural exchange.

We, too, are disciples — the scriptures seem to imply — except we understand what’s really going on.

The problem with this way of hearing the story is that is assumes that we, the listeners, are always the subjects. It is a way of reading that works very well in the context of colonialism and empire, because it continually re-centers the reader as the disciple who understands what’s really going on, and therefore as the one with the knowledge and authority required of those who lead. After all, that’s why we’re all here, right? To learn what we need to learn in order to secure positions of leadership in the church, in the academy, in the world?

In her book Misunderstanding Stories: Toward a Postcolonial Pastoral Theology,” Methodist theologian Melinda McGarrah Sharp writes,

“Misunderstanding and understanding are not so much achievements as they are moments in a lifelong process. Both moments of misunderstanding and rarer moments of understanding must be acknowledged. Understanding across differences is more challenging than misunderstanding because [understanding] involves a willingness to recognize one’s complicity in [misunderstanding].”

For me, this means that I never, ultimately, understood what was going on with the young man at the end of the hall — I had a moment of understanding in which it became clear to me that he lived, and moved, and had his being in a much wider network of relationships than I could even perceive. That in the story of what was going on in his apartment, I wasn’t even really a central character. I was, perhaps, more like the disciples who been sent off on a practical, somewhat administrative errand; while he was demonstrating love and fidelity by laying down his well-being for his friends. From the perspective of his friends, who were not my clients, but who had a safe, warm place to sleep because of the risks he took, I was barely a part of the story at all. And my ability to understand this at all was occasioned by my complicity in the original misunderstanding that arose when I used the power delegated to me through a variety of intermediaries, but originating with the state, to exert influence over a situation I barely understood at all.

And me knowing this does not mean that I have achieved any true depth of understanding, just that I have experienced for a moment a glimmer of insight into the lived experience of another human being and the communities to which they belong. I have perceived, I have once again been reminded, that God is constantly at work in the world, carrying on conversations with and converting the hearts and minds of people whose lives look very little like mine, at least from the outside. 

Our task — whether we are meeting one another in the classroom and beginning to form opinions about each other, or we are entering a congregation and seeing how power and authority work, or we are representing the seminary out in the community through a day of service and encountering people whose lived experience does not match our own — is to remember that long before we encountered that person, place, or community, God was already present there. God was already active in those lives. God is already carrying on a conversation with each of them, just as God is carrying on a conversation with each of us, treating each of our lives and all of our lives as worthy subjects of divine love and liberation.

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Messages

A Eulogy for my Mother

These are the words I offered tonight, Friday, August 3rd, 2018 at the wake celebrating my mother’s life on the eve of her funeral.

IMG_0351.jpgWhen I was a young adult and had been paying my own rent for a year or two, it occurred to me that if I were to lose either or both of my parents, I would be alright. After all, I had a job and was paying my own bills, and that was all there really was to being an adult, right?

A few failures and heartbreaks later, I realized just how wrong I’d been. Being an adult is so much more than knowing how to take care of yourself. It is also knowing how to care for others and the world we share, and making the decision to do so over and over again, even when it isn’t easy. This is one of the many things I learned from my mother.

A decade or so later I’d begun to worry about what it would feel like to lose my mother. In times of stress or moments of victory, she was the person I wanted to share my successes and failures with. She was always delighted to hear from me. She supported all my endeavors. She shared my vision. She would say things to me like, “I want more of your voice in the world.” With her loving-kindness and devoted attention, my mother held a mirror up to my life that reflected back the best of who I could be, and did not dwell on my obvious shortcomings. Driving home after a week with Mom and Dad over the holidays, Kerry would sometimes need to remind me that I wasn’t entirely the person my mom thought I was.

None of us are entirely the person we wish we could be, but we all need people who decide to keep showing us the best of what we still might be. For me, that person was my mother and I now know that she was that person for many of you as well.

Many people mistook this quality of my mother’s for sweetness or naiveté. It was not. Mom had lived through enough in her lifetime that she had every right to be jaded. No one could have blamed her if she’d decided to lower her expectations for the world. She could be petty or jealous or insecure or angry like any of us. What we experienced as her reflexive instinct for love and loyalty wasn’t some miraculous gift. It was a quality she cultivated, practiced, and chose, over and over again.

One of the elements of Mom’s personality that made this possible was her humility. She was a working-class, Irish Catholic girl born in Boston the 1940s. School didn’t come easy. She didn’t grow up hearing how smart she was and, as a result, she always assumed she had something to learn from everyone she met. People sensed this about her, that she wasn’t condescending to them or looking down her nose at them. She knew what it was to be underestimated, and as a result she had a special love for those the world counts out.

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She ended up with two children who numbered among those the world counts out. A gay son and a developmentally delayed daughter. And heaven help you if you ever came for one of her children. Then you saw how tough she could be. But still, Mom’s toughness wasn’t what the world calls tough. Mom’s toughness was a refusal to remain silent about the violence carried out against the bodies and souls of children, children from all walks of life, vulnerable children like her own children, vulnerable like she had also been. Mom’s toughness was a doubling down on the power of relationships. She would enter the fray equipped with pictures of me and Tara and say, “I’ve heard what you say about gay people,” or “I understand you intend to cut funding to people living with disabilities and chronic illnesses,” and then “I’d like to tell you about my family.” Mom refused to return violence for violence. Instead, Mom opted for the love that does not give up on anyone, even those who have given up on you, or those who have given up on themselves.

Mom did not give up. Even when she learned that she had Stage 4 ovarian cancer, she chose to continue living, each day of her life a decision to be fully alive on her own terms. One of the first things she told us after she got diagnosed was that she didn’t want people to talk about “fighting” cancer, or “beating” cancer. She said, “my body is not a battlefield” and “if this is how I die, it will not be a failure.” She actively pursued healing and health. Even in her last days of life as she lay upon her deathbed, we marveled at how she extended her arms and legs, stretching her aching body like a dancer preparing to take the stage.

IMG_1184.jpgIt’s only been three days, and already I miss her so much. I miss the feeling of her arms around me, giving the hugs only your mom knows how to give. And I miss her voice. It’s been years since I’ve heard her voice at full strength, a voice that was at once pure in tone and full of emotion. Even as she grew weak, the music in my mother remained strong. She would go for walks in the morning, and by afternoon I’d have a voicemail or text message with an audio file of a song that had come to her as she traveled the paths around our home. She was made of music. The world needs more of her voice.

Thankfully, the world is full of people she taught to sing: infants and children in Kindermusik, fellow choir members, labyrinth walkers, Spirations sisters, neighbors and strangers, family and friends. Her song, her voice, is in us. We can cultivate it. We can practice it. We can choose it again and again. It is love, stronger than death. 

We love you, Mom.

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Sermons

Sermon: Monday, April 30, 2018: Texts for the 5th Sunday after Easter

Text: Acts 8:26-40

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Pastor Erik with the (future) Rev. Leah Fowler doing street outreach in his signature summer clerical shirt that earned him the nickname “Baby Blue Priest.”

I spent the summer after my first year of seminary doing street outreach with runaway, homeless, and street-dependent youth in Atlanta in neighborhoods like Little Five Points, Midtown, the Old Fourth Ward, and downtown; but this phone call that I got on my very first cell phone (a flip phone) from an anxious mother didn’t come until the summer was over and I was back in school the fall of my middler year. I was walking back to my car after a morning of classes when the phone rang. Those were the days when I still picked up for unknown numbers. I answered expecting it to be someone from school, instead it was a woman who immediately asked who I was.

I told her my name, Erik, and wondered if she might have the wrong number. She said she’d gotten this number off a business card she found in her son’s bedroom. The card had my name and phone number and the name of my summer project, “Street Chaplains.” She wanted to know what it meant, street chaplain, and what I’d been speaking to her son about. I wish I could have taken a page from the recently terminated Congressional chaplain and replied, “hospital chaplains pray about health. Congressional chaplains pray about Congress. Street chaplains pray about the streets.”

But, the truth was, I had no idea what I’d said to her son. I’d spoken to hundreds of people over the course of the summer. I’d trained a handful of my classmates in the basics of safe, ethical outreach, work I’d done before going to seminary. Together we’d gone out in pairs, day after hot summer day, talking to every young person we found. We’d ask them if they had a safe place to sleep, or if they knew someone who didn’t. We handed out these business cards dozens of times every hour, and every once in a while we got to have a meaningful conversation with a young person experiencing homelessness. I didn’t always get people’s names, and I rarely remembered the ones I did get. So I really had no way of connecting this caller with a memory of her child.

The easier thing to do would have been to explain all this quickly and get off the phone. The summer was over, after all. The project was finished, the final report written and turned in. The subject of this conversation was in my past. To reopen the topic would be to make space for a detour on my way to the day I’d planned for myself. Except this woman had my number, and I still had the phone and this call.

I could hear something in her voice, a question she wanted to ask and an answer she didn’t want to hear. So I asked if her child was alright. She said, “I think he’s gay,” and I could tell from her voice that this thought brought her no joy. 

I remember wondering what my duty was in that moment. Did she deserve to know that she was speaking to a gay man? Should I make that clear so that she could decide how much she wanted to say, or not to say? But I didn’t. Instead I told her that I’d met lots of LGBTQIA+ (well, I probably said “gay and lesbian”) kids out on the streets, kids who’d run away from home or been kicked out. Youth who’d been humiliated. Youth who’d been denied justice. Youth led to the slaughter. I didn’t say that last part, that’s from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. And, because the business card said “chaplain” on it, she felt free to ask me; more than that, she wanted to know what I thought the bible had to say on the topic of gay and lesbian people (though I’m sure she said “homosexuals”). So, like Philip, I was invited to help interpret scripture.

graffitti artI do remember one of the people I met that summer. I’d been outreaching in the Little Five points neighborhood on a scorching hot day. I was wearing cargo shorts, a baby blue short-sleeved clerical shirt and collar, and carrying an over the shoulder bag in which I’d packed business cards, bottles of water, a social services referral guide, condoms, etc. and I’d just purchased a soft serve ice cream cone to cool me down. Then I spotted this boy, almost a young man, no more than seventeen. He was tall, thin, white, all angles. I made it a practice to talk to anyone who looked twenty or younger, but he’d seen me scoping him out and he spoke first. Spinning on his heel to confront me at a stoplight that had just turned red, he unleashed the kind of fierce fury that’s hard for anyone over twenty to sustain. He came at me hard.

“What are you looking at, preacher man?” I told him my name, explained what I was doing, and asked if he had a safe place to sleep. “People like you are the reason I don’t. ‘Hate the sin, love the sinner.’ That’s what the priest told my parents. So Dad showed me ‘tough love’ by kicking me out and telling me not to come home until I’d manned up. So excuse me if I don’t give a shit.”  By now the ice cream had melted and was dripping down over my fist, but I couldn’t find anything useful to say. The boy just kept going, delivering his final blow, “Is your church ready for this homosexual?” My next words were pathetic and inadequate to the wounds this child had just revealed. I’ve never forgotten him, or his question.

As for this mother waiting on the phone for me to speak, I honestly don’t remember what I said next. I just know that the passages I might have quoted and the interpretations I would have given were not what she was expecting. I likely told the story from Acts 10 in which Cornelius calls for Peter, who then has the vision of the sheet being lowered from heaven, filled with unclean animals, and the divine voice that challenges Peter’s received theology and established practice, saying “What God has called clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10:15) Or maybe I quoted Romans 8:38, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We spoke for fifteen minutes, twenty at the most. When it was over, she didn’t ask to meet me or request to be baptized. I wouldn’t even say she left the conversation rejoicing over the good news I’d shared. All I know is that, like Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, I never heard from her again.

In the book of Acts, the Samaritan mission (under the leadership of Philip, whose saint day is observed tomorrow) signals the beginning of the spread of the gospel beyond the boundaries of traditional Judaism. For that reason, this story has served as an entry point for a number of communities that have historically been marginalized by the kinds of Christianity practiced by the dominant culture. When the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss came here to preach last fall, to kick off our commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this was the passage he selected for preaching, reminding us that this African figure has been misrepresented and aspects of his history and identity erased down through the centuries; the presumption that he was an outsider on the basis of his African identity a willful forgetfulness that Israelite religion had made its way to Africa as far back as King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and that this Ethiopian eunuch is not identified in the text as a Gentile God-fearer, but simply as one “who had come to Jerusalem to worship.” He could just as easily have been a Jew attempting to worship at the temple. The very fact that later audiences, that White audiences, felt the need to imagine him as an outsider on the basis of his national identity, with its roots in Africa, speaks to modern racial ideas and not the worldview of the scripture itself.

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The Rev. Dr. James Cone (1936-2018)

This morning I can’t help but think that these insights owe a great debt to one of the most powerful theological voices of our generation, who died over the weekend. The Rev. Dr. James Cone, author of books that shaped a generation of teachers and leaders in the church and in society: Black Theology and Black Power, God of the Oppressed, The Cross and the Lynching Tree; teacher and mentor and guide. A man whose work reflected a holy anger at the disenfranchisement of black lives and disfigurement of black bodies, but will also be remembered for the warmth of his smile and the joy in his laughter. A fully human being, who we can imagine might have heard the desperation in the Ethiopian eunuch’s voice when he read aloud, “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 his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth” and then asked, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Because, at this point in the story, the Ethiopian eunuch does not know about Jesus, so we can only assume that he hears something in this account from Isaiah that reminds him of his own suffering, which reminds us of our own suffering, which is why this figure has remained central to the theological imaginations of all who suffer and therefore to liberation theology as well. I imagine Dr. Cone stepping into that chariot with Philip and the eunuch and teaching us once again that,

Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism … The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God’s own condition. This is the essence of the biblical revelation. By electing Israelite slaves as the people of God and by becoming the Oppressed One in Jesus Christ, the human race is made to understand that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering … Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity. (A Black Theology of Liberation, pp. 63-64)

What lesbian and gay, bi and trans, queer and intersex, non-binary folk and anyone else whose sexual or gender identity is not normalized by culture have seen in the Ethiopian eunuch is one who would have been excluded from the temple, Jewish or not, on the basis of his sexual or gender identity. As a castrated man, he was not allowed access to the temple under Deuteronomic law, he was a gender outlaw, scarred and defective, impure and subject to stereotypes. But the prophet Isaiah announces that God will “recover the remnant that is left of my people … from Ethiopia” (Isa. 11:11) and that “eunuchs who keep [the] sabbath” will be welcomed home and will receive “a name better than sons and daughters.” (Isa. 56:4-5) What is at stake for the Ethiopian eunuch, and for many queer exegetes, is not the authority of scripture but its interpretation. Is God the one who authorizes the exclusion from the temple, or the one who gathers the remnant and welcomes the despised and the rejected home? That is the kind of question that requires a guide, an exegete, a theologian. That is the kind of question that, depending how it’s answered, can either end a life or save one.

Black liberation theology set the table for the ever-expanding host of liberation theologies that have followed. My ability to find myself in this text owes a debt of gratitude to the work of James Cone and others who have helped me to know at the core of my being that at the very place where the world turns its back on me, God is with me, God is for me, God is on my side because God sides with the oppressed. And that, likewise, at any place where I would use the name of God to contribute to or continue the oppression of others, that is not true Christianity. It is White Christianity, it is straight Christianity, it is middle-class Christianity, it is respectability-politics Christianity, it is colonial Christianity, and therefore it is not Christianity. You and I, who have been baptized, have drowned to those lies. We rise from these waters as the children of God and joint heirs with Christ of a freedom that cannot be taken away from us. We are fully human. We are alive.

As we prepare to take our leave of one another near the end of another rich, full and difficult school year, pay attention to those who share the road with you. Listen for the phone call that threatens to take you off the path you’d set for yourself. Be prepared to give an account of the faith that is in you, in you, knowing that the right word at the right time can save a life. 

Good theology saves lives.

Amen.

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