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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Sermons

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

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

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Beloved Community,

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Isa. 43:1-2)

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

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

(Psalm 22:1-2)

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

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

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

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

In Christ,

Pastor Erik

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Sermons

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

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

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

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

The Muppet Movie poster

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

This looks familiar, vaguely familiar.

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

Close to my soul and yet so far away.

I’m going to go back there someday.

Sun rises, night falls, sometimes the sky calls.

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

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

I’m going to go back there someday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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