Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, April 22, 2018: Fourth Sunday in Easter

The following sermon was preached at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Hinsdale, IL in connection with their “Renewing Redeemer” capital campaign.

Texts: Acts 4:5-12  +  Psalm 23  +  1 John 3:16-24  +  John 10:11-18

Grace and peace be with you in the name of God’s beloved, Jesus the Christ, risen from the dead. Alleluia!

I am so happy to be with you this morning as we continue to worship in the joy of the Easter season, to rejoice in God’s power to bring new life to people and places left for dead. In my call as Pastor to the Community and Director of Worship at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago I am given opportunities to proclaim this divine reality on a daily basis, especially right about how as our students wonder how they will ever get through to the end of the semester (which ends in three weeks) alive.

So, before I really begin and on behalf of not only LSTC but also the wider church, let me also thank you for your partnership in the ministry we share of preparing a new generation of rostered leaders for church and society. You have been a training ground for former students like Pastor Marcus Lohrmann who, along with his wife the Rev. Bekki Lohrmann, now serves the church at Holden Village in Washington state. In this way we are reminded that we are all connected to each other, we abide with one another, in ways we cannot always see and do not always remember.

PADS-1

When Pastor Katie invited me to preach this morning, it was with the “Renewing Redeemer” capital campaign in mind, and specifically to encourage you as you “imagine Renewing Redeemer for those in need.” She shared with me the good work you have been doing in partnership with DuPage PADS, and let me know that one of the goals of the capital campaign was to modernize your facilities so that you can more hospitably host people and families experiencing homelessness. I was so glad to hear that as, before entering seminary, I’d worked with runaway, homeless, and street-dependent youth in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and in a number of cities along the eastern seaboard as an outreach counselor and community organizer. In fact, one of the things that drove me to seminary nearly twenty years ago was my concern that the church was too absent in the lives of youth and families who did not conform to the culture and customs that govern most of our congregations. I wanted to know what the church had to say to those who were living with their backs to the wall — more than that, I wanted to know how what the church said was connected to what the church was willing to do.

37330027166_e95151188b_kThis is why I am so glad to know that part of your capital campaign is directed toward upgrades to — of all things — your restroom facilities. No joke! As someone who has spent time with homeless kids on the street, I can say from first hand experience how important accessible bathrooms are! Not just accessible in the sense of being accessible to people of different physical abilities (though that is obviously important) or accessible in the sense of being open to the public (though that is also critical), but accessible in the sense of being constructed, maintained, and operated in such a way that it is clear that not only the basic needs but also the basic dignity of the people who will use these facilities has been considered.

GCFD_WrapperPrior to my current call to the seminary in Hyde Park, I served as the pastor with St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square on Chicago’s north side. The building we occupied for most of my time there was a massive, neo-Gothic cathedral style edifice built in phases between 1900 and 1954. In its prime, it was home to hundreds of families and daily programming. By the time I arrived in 2006 it had dwindled considerably after the neighborhood fell on hard times. Still, the stalwart members of St. Luke’s continued to love and serve their neighbors, mainly through the ministry of Elijah’s Pantry, a hunger ministry carried out in conjunction with the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Twice a week, every week, hundreds of hungry people would come through our doors for groceries they relied on to feed their families. Some were taking these groceries home to cook. Others had no homes, and were taking them to the squats where they slept under the interstate or the alleys where they spent their days.

1000255126-showers_01This meant that our bathrooms were not only bathrooms, they were make-shift showers and places for people to rinse out their underwear and their socks. It also meant that we went through toilet paper at an alarmingly fast rate. So fast that it seemed obvious to anyone paying attention that rolls of toilet paper were being taken by our guests. Understandably, this was frustrating to the pantry volunteers who didn’t enjoy being called into the bathroom every hour to replace the toilet paper. Which meant that I, also, heard more about toilet paper and toilets that I’d ever cared to — which might also be how you’re feeling right about now. If so, I understand, but bear with me.

One day, after being approached by a volunteer yet again with complaints about missing toilet paper, I finally snapped. In a moment of frustration I climbed up on my soap box and said something to the effect of,

“I am so sick of hearing about toilet paper! I don’t ever need to hear another conversation about the state of our bathrooms. As long as I’ve been here, people have been complaining to me about the embarrassing state of our bathrooms. Lots of people use our bathrooms. Lots of homeless and hungry people use our bathrooms. People take baths in our sinks. People steal our toilet paper. What am I supposed to do about that? Honestly, if money is so tight that people are choosing between buying food and buying toilet paper, I hope they’re buying the food. I can’t get mad at someone for doing what they have to do to make sure they can clean up after themselves! What can I say? I am no toilet expert. The Bible doesn’t have lots of practical advice to offer about toilets, so your idea is as good as mine.”

This, however, was not the end of it. In an effort to have a better answer than the one that had spilled out to this volunteer, I ended up doing a little research in preparation for a sermon on the topic of toilets which, to this day, remains one of the most read and shared of all the sermons I’ve posted online. Go figure.

That’s how I came across an essay entitled, “Learning from the Loo,” in which American sociologist Harvey Molotch writes,

“Whatever the setting or scale of the problem, we have in the toilet an instrument and institution that both reflects how people and societies operate and also reinforces the existing pattern. Precisely because the toilet operates somewhat in hiding, those who plan, manage, and control its use often act on their own, without a public to which they must provide detailed and explicit accounts of what they are doing. The toilet thus operates irresponsibly. Compared to other artifacts, arrangements, and patterns of usage, it thus resists change — however unjust, damaging, or inefficient things may be.”

To speak plainly, this means that the condition of our restrooms both means something and does something. What it means is related to difference and how we view people whose life circumstances are different from our own. The accommodations we expect for ourselves as opposed to the ones we make available to others. What it does is actually maintain and reinforce our prejudices about those differences. The person who has to use public restrooms because they don’t have access to any others isn’t invited into a meditation on class, poverty, and human dignity. They are experiencing classism, power and indignity. Whether that is what we intend or not is beside the point.

This is why it’s actually quite important that you have given careful thought to the facilities you currently provide to guests who come to Redeemer through the PADS ministry, and even more important that you are imagining the difference it will make once you have made the necessary improvements so that these guests — who are actually more than guests, who in fact are fellow bearers of the image of God, and our siblings in the wider human family — can experience within these walls, the house of God, the kind of homecoming and hospitality they both desperately need and ought to expect.

logo-chicagocares

At the seminary right now, we are in the process of establishing a new partnership with Chicago Cares, an organization you may know works to support people across the Chicagoland area looking to make a difference in the lives of their neighbors through the act of volunteering. As I met last week with their Chief Program Officer, Ellen Ray, she shared something that seems relevant to what we’re talking about this morning. She said, “often people get involved in volunteering because they want to make a measurable impact. But after they’ve served a few times at a food pantry, or a homeless shelter, or an after-school program, they start to ask why so many are hungry, or homeless, or unattended. They begin to move from charity to advocacy.”

In the well-known passage from John in which Jesus names himself the good shepherd, he draws a distinction between the shepherd and the hired hand. The hired hand, whose relationship to the sheep is transactional instead of personal, cannot be counted upon when real danger comes creeping around the flock. The shepherd however, the one who knows each sheep by name, lays down their life for the sheep.

Here is my hope and prayer for you, Redeemer: that this capital campaign does all that you hope it will, and more. That in making the necessary and overdue improvements to your facility for the sake of your ministry with and among your neighbors in need, you will deepen your capacity for ministry that is more than transactional, but is truly relational. That in making the improvements you desire for this house of God, you will create a home in which those who are homeless experience a sense of the spaciousness and hospitality the world too often denies them. That you will find yourself drawn ever more deeply into one another’s lives, in truth and in action, which is simply another way of saying in love.

With thanks for your ministry, and all the ministry that is to come.

Amen.

Standard
Sermons

Sermon: Friday, March 30, 2018: Good Friday

The following sermon was preached at St. Columbanus Church in the Park Manor neighborhood of Chicago for their annual “Seven Last Words” service on Good Friday, 2018. This sermon takes as its word from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

C5cyJQxWgAA4V0n

Photograph of the altar cross at St. Columbanus Church, Park Manor, Chicago.

“From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:45-46)

It is the unavoidable question of all who suffer. “Why?” 

“Why is this happening to me?” 

“What have we done to deserve this?”

“When will this end?”

“How can people act like everything is normal, when they know what’s going on?”

“Who will put a stop to this?”

“Where is God?”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Of all the last words uttered by Jesus, this one seems to me the most human so far. I wish I could say that I’ve found the faith to forgive those who offend me but, on that count, I’m a work in progress. I cannot begin to comprehend how Christ, nailed to a tree, could speak of paradise. When I try to imagine my mother and my friends forced to watch me die, I’m left speechless by the pain it would cause them. But to ask “why, God, why?” — that, I can understand, and I trust that you can too.

“Why, God, why?” is the prayer whispered at night after the lights are off and there is no one there to see you cry. “Why, God, why?” is the wail that rises from parents whose children have died. “Why, God, why?” is the honest inquiry of the young, the bitter accusation of the betrayed, it is the burden of those who believe that there is a God in the face of all evidence to the contrary. “Why, God, why — why this? Why here? Why now? Why us?”

“Why have you forsaken me?”

What was Jesus thinking as he cried out from the cross? It’s a fair question as, apparently, the crowd did not know what to make of his last words either. When they gathered to watch the crucifixions taking place that day and heard his tortured question, they mistakenly assumed that Jesus was calling out for Elijah, the prophet of old whose appearance it was believed would signal the dawn of a new age. They were not there when Elijah had, in fact, appeared with Moses alongside Jesus on the mountaintop, so they did not know that in Jesus the new age had already begun. How would they? Everything in their world had taught them to believe that change came through violence. They were gathered, after all, around a collection of crosses watching the Empire put an innocent man to death. If there was going to be a miracle that day, it would be Elijah returning on his fiery chariot to rescue Jesus from the cross and defeat the Romans the way God had defeated the armies of Pharaoh when Moses parted the Red Sea.

But Elijah does not appear. Instead Jesus calls out again, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and then breathes his last. Actually, the English here may be a little misleading. In Greek, Matthew’s gospel says that Jesus “aphēken to pneuma,gives up his spirit” or, as one translation puts it, “yielded up the ghost.” The point is, it’s not a passive action on Jesus’ part. He doesn’t cry out to an absent God, and then just run out of breath. In this last word from the cross, Jesus cries out to God and then actively gives up his spirit, or perhaps releases it in such a way that we must now wonder where it has gone.

It’s that moment, the moment between his final word and his final breath, that will not let me go. Why has Jesus chosen these words, knowing they will be the last ones his mother, his friends, his community will hear?

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s not a question that comes without an answer. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is the beginning of a song. It is the first verse of the 22nd psalm. It is a fragment of music the children of Israel had been singing for centuries. They knew it by heart. It goes like this,

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.

Yet you are holy,

enthroned on the praises of Israel.

In you our ancestors trusted;

they trusted, and you delivered them.

To you they cried, and were saved;

in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

For [God] did not despise or abhor 

the affliction of the afflicted;

[God] did not hide [God’s] face from me,

but heard when I cried to [God].

Future generations will be told about the Lord,

and proclaim [God’s] deliverance to a people yet unborn,

saying that [God] has done it. (Ps. 22:1-5, 24, 30b-31)

You see, Jesus knew his history well enough to know that empires rise and empires fall, that God’s people in every age have suffered and been punished unfairly for sins that were not their own, but that in the long arc of God’s salvation history displacement was met with a promised land, deportation was met with a return home, despair was met with a new hope, and dry bones breathed again. Jesus was raised on the songs of Israel, so Jesus knew his history. He could surrender his spirit because he was not surrendering it to Empire, he was surrendering his life to God’s own unstoppable purposes. He knew that all his preaching, all his teaching and his miracles had led to this moment, this call and response, this fragment of music sung from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Which he could recall from memory, because he knew that those who followed him would hear the rest of the song, 

“for [God] did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; 

[God] did not [God’s] his face from me, but [God] heard when I cried…”

It’s like, if I were to begin singing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” … “Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

Or if I were to sing, “Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus.” … “steal away, steal away home. I ain’t got long to stay here.”

Or, if I were to sing, “Sometime I feel like a motherless child. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child…” Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home. A long way from home.

This is why we surround these words with music, because when life strips us of our ability to make sense of the world as it is, it is music that bears our faith back to us. Which is why we have to say thank you to the St. Columbanus Choir and these incredible soloists for giving us the words to sing about those things that so often leave us speechless.

But even if we were to remain quiet, creation itself would sing its own response to Jesus’ song from the cross. Elsewhere in the bible Jesus says that even if his own disciples were to remain quiet, the very stones would cry out — and at the hour of his death, they do. As Jesus gives up the ghost, Matthew says “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” (Matt. 27:51-52)

These signs point to the power of God at work through the cross. Instead of rescuing Jesus from the cross, God remains with Jesus on the cross so that we might know, truly and deeply, that God has not abandoned us to the crosses we each bear. God is not absent at the hour of Jesus’ death any more than God is absent at the hour of our death, or any of the hours that come before it. 

Jesus’ question does not go unanswered. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is not the final word. It is the call that awaits our response. It is the song that set the very earth to singing. It is the verse that precedes the chorus sung by all the saints, living and dead. It is the story that proclaims God’s deliverance to a people yet unborn, the promise to our children and our grandchildren, saying that God has done it!

Standard
Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, February 14, 2018: Ash Wednesday

The following sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Ash Wednesday of 2018. Audio of this sermon can be found here.

Texts: Isaiah 58:1-12  +  Psalm 51:1-17  +  Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Almost exactly two years ago on an Ash Wednesday like today, I made the walk from my former parish to the home of a young couple in our community who’d just given birth to their first child. It had been a tumultuous year for them, as this young mother’s own father had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of liver cancer midway through the pregnancy. At a time when life is already measured in weeks and trimesters, she and her family were marking the passage of time along two fragile timelines — the number of days until their child would be born and the number of days until their father would die.

51WdThjOnNL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_The cancer moved quickly, and the grandfather left this world weeks before the grandchild entered it. She was brought home from the hospital on Ash Wednesday,  so I made my customary visit with the family carrying two familiar things: a book of blessings by the Irish poet, priest and philosopher, John O’Donohue, and a small ceramic saucer filled with black ashes.

O’Donohue’s blessing for when a child comes into the world is one of my favorites, and I love to share it with families in those early days when the miracle of life is still keenly felt, before a sense of routine ordinariness has set back in. It goes like this:

As I enter my new family, may they be delighted / at how their kindness comes into blossom. / Unknown to me and them, may I be exactly the one / to restore in their forlorn places new vitality and promise. / May the hearts of others hear again the music / in the lost echoes of their neglected wonder.

If my destiny is sheltered, may the grace of this privilege / reach and bless the other infants who are destined for torn places. / If my destiny is bleak, may I find in myself / a secret stillness and tranquility beneath the turmoil.

May my eyes never lose sight of why I have come here, / that I never be claimed by the falsity of fear or eat the bread of bitterness. / In everything I do, think, feel, and say, / may I allow the light of the world I am leaving / to shine through and carry me home.

Ash-Wednesday-Cross-450x450After reciting the blessing over this newborn child I asked about the ashes, wondering how they would respond to this sign of our inescapable mortality only two days into their daughter’s life. “Do you want her to receive the ashes?” I asked. “Yes,” they nodded. “It seems right.” So we prayed together, asking God to use these ashes to remind us of our mortality, not so that we might live our lives terrified of death, but so that we would be encouraged to wring every drop of joy out of the gifts of the lives that God has given us. “Anna,” I said, “our God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” and “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” I made the sign of the cross on her tiny forehead with dark ashes in the place where soon after she was washed with water and anointed with oil.

Death and life are always this close together, whether we can bear to acknowledge it or not. I hear Ash Wednesday’s dusty reminder very differently this year than I have in years past, as I know many of you do as well. When we are young, or healthy, or very busy, these words may jolt us in a very different way than when we are old, or sick, or moving slowly enough to observe what time does to a tree or a tulip over the course of a year. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

IMG_0751

My parents’ wedding blessing for me and Kerry, rendered beautifully in watercolor by the Rev. Megan Clausen.

On the day of our wedding, my parents offered Kerry and I a blessing of their own organized around four hard-won truths from their marriage: 1.) Life is full of wonder and miracles, 2.) life is often hard, 3.) relationships are messy and complicated, and 4.) life is short and precious. For our first anniversary I asked Megan Clausen, a recent graduate of this institution who came here from the same congregation in Des Moines, Iowa in which I also grew up, to set their words over one of her beautiful watercolors. The result hangs in our living room to remind us of that blessing every day, so that I cannot read the words “Life is short and precious” without also seeing the brilliant oranges flowing next to the rainy grays and the starry blues she painted.

Whether it’s “remember that you are dust …” or “life is short and precious,” the message is the same. You are alive and that is a gift. Live like you know it. Spend your days and weeks giving birth to the life you long to live. Spend your seasons building the world God calls us to inhabit. Spend your lives like they mean something, because they do. Because you are someone’s beloved child, you are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14), you are chosen, a royal priesthood, a holy community, God’s own people (1 Pet. 2:9).

This great love is the fuel that feeds the fire of Isaiah’s holy anger at the world’s injustice, not guilt or shame, but love set loose in public to name the harms that follow from all our chasing after things that rust and decay. Our world, which so quickly assigns human qualities to commodities while treating people like objects to be bought and sold, is diabolical in its efforts to get us to willingly spend the most basic currency we have — our lives — investing in the very things that tear us apart. Then the moment comes (and it comes more than once) when you realize that the things you’ve been chasing aren’t really life at all, and the moments you have left are precious and few. You come face to face with your regret and wish you had spent your days differently.

In that moment, as in every moment, God is waiting for us. It is not too late. “Then you shall call, and God will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, ‘Here I am.’” (Isa. 58:9) Here I am.

Beloved community, we have arrived once again at this day which comes to us with the same regularity that brings new life to the tree, fresh flowers from the bulb. This is the start of the season that ends with our resurrection. It is not too late, it is never too late, to treasure each day of your life, to invest yourselves in the people and places that matter, to bless the world and our God who made it with the lives you have been given. It is never too late to live like you are really alive, which somehow is easier to do when you remember that you too are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Standard