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Testimony: A Reflection on Weeping & Worship

At an earlier moment in my life, when I was learning the art of counseling, I remember being taught that laughter and tears often serve as signs that we’re getting close to our truth. I appreciated learning that. In an odd way, it took pressure off of either act — whether I was laughing or crying, I became more curious about what truth those emotions were pointing me toward.

If you were in worship this past Sunday you saw me weeping at the altar. Depending on where you were sitting yourself and what you could see, that might have made more or less sense to you. I want to tell you what I saw and why it moved me to tears.

The texts for this past Sunday were full of visions: Peter sees a sheet descending from heaven filled with “unclean” animals, which he comes to understand as a sign that God is breaking down the dividing walls we erect to hold each other at bay. John of Patmos, author of the book of Revelation, describes a vision in which a new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem come down from heaven and hears a voice declare, “See, the home of God is among mortals.” (Rev. 21:3)

Attempting to make sense of these scriptures with the children, I asked them if they’ve ever had guests come to stay with them in their home. They talked about play dates and babysitters and grandparents who’ve come for shorter and longer stays. We wondered if God might be like that, not walled off behind a distant future, but making a home with us here and now.

As we sang the psalmody, one of our first time guests caught my eye. I’d never seen her before and only interacted with her briefly to welcome her when she came through the door right before worship. She was a middle-aged African-American woman and she seemed to me to be living with developmental delays, like my sister. I remember hoping that she would feel comfortable. Once we began to sing I watched as she turned in her seat to focus her attention on those of you playing instruments. Soon she was clapping her hands and swaying in time to the music, fully engaged and delighted by our worship.

Later, as Jossy led the Prayers of the People, I watched as our guest mimicked Jossy, lifting her arms in prayer. With each petition she took one step closer to the ambo (the stand from which I preach and the lessons are read) until, at the end, she was nearly face to face with Jossy, who never lost her composure as she continued to lead our prayers. Finally, the woman laid her arms across the front of the ambo and rested her head on her arms, gazing up at Jossy with a look of open-hearted gentleness.

When we passed the peace, you could feel the charge in the air. After a moving testimony by Gretchen Burch on the power of listening and presence to transform a brief encounter between her father and her husband into an opportunity for healing, followed by those prayers, there was an extra energy to the way you greeted one another, sharing hugs and handshakes. I had to almost yell to be heard over you, and you showed no sign of wanting to return to your seats.

Then we began the service of the table and once again the mood shifted from almost raucous to quietly reverent. I was offering prayer over the elements at the altar when it happened. I remember looking at the words on the page,

“We thank you for Jesus, in whom you have made your home among us and loved us as you would have us love…”

Then I looked up and saw our guest seated in the front row, while everyone else was standing. It took me a second to understand what was going on, but I soon realized that she was taking the ring off of her finger and slipping it onto Cynthia’s finger. Immediately I remembered the parable of the prodigal:

“Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (Luke 15:22-24)

Immediately I was flooded with a sense of understanding and almost unbearable humility. How often have I stood behind the altar imagining myself to be the host of this ritual, our sanctuary as the home with doors flung open? But it was this woman putting the ring on our fingers, revealing us to be the guests, the prodigals, the wanderers, and this ordinary feast as our heavenly homecoming. A new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem, here and now. “See, the home of God is among mortals.”

I wonder if this is something like what Peter felt, when he saw images from familiar scripture broken open and understood in a new way, on a new level, in his gut and his heart, and not just his head. All I know is that I could barely breathe, much less speak. All I could do is weep as I felt the truth of the gospel pour over me.

And you held me just as you had held the visitor among us during the prayers, with open hearts and soft eyes and steady attention. One of you called out, “take your time” and another “we’re with you, Pastor.” Jossy laid her hands on my shoulders and took up the work of praying so that it was not just the elements being blessed, but me as well.

Eventually I caught my breath and could continue,

“…and loved us as you would have us love; in whom you are preparing a new heaven and earth, where all will drink from your spring of the water of life.”

Then we ate and celebrated God’s home among us.

Afterwards you were so kind, checking in to make sure I was okay. Some of you seemed to intuit exactly what had been going on. It reminded me of the explanation of glossolalia my dad had given me when I was young. He told me that when the Spirit moves one to speak in tongues, another is sometimes gifted with a word of translation. It felt, to me, like that kind of experience — the Holy Spirit overflowing my ability to wrap words around it, and you translating what was seen and heard into words of love and compassion.

That is the truth to which my tears were pointing. That God is love, and makes a home among us here and now. It wasn’t any more true this past Sunday than it is on any other given Sunday. I just perceived clearly for a moment a truth that on most days is so much harder to see and to remember. We are all that guest, and she is us, and together we are being made new.

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Messages

A Prayer for Selling

God, here is our prayer.

That we will make decisions about this building

that reflect what we’ve learned and lived in this building.

That we will remember how, in the beginning,

you moved over the great nothing and brought something into being.

That you made people for community, not loneliness,

and that you asked us to exercise good stewardship over all that you made.

That you made promise after promise to us,

and even when we were faithless, you remained faithful.

That you brought us out of the narrow place

into a land where we could practice the hard work of freedom.

That you raised up prophets and judges in each generation,

leaders who shared the right word at the right time.

That you showed patience and forbearance

when we coveted the success and prosperity of those all around us.

That you made a house for us,

and not the other way around.

That you were always present in all our struggles for power and security

calling us to prioritize the needs of the poor and the most vulnerable.

That you accompanied us during our long exile,

the generation in which there was no future in sight.

That you made a home for us in the wilderness,

encouraging us to seek the good of the city.

That you fed us with songs of praise and lament,

words of wisdom and the assurance that there is a season for all things.

That you worked through the powers of this world

to give us a new beginning and put us to work rebuilding the community.

That you chose ordinary people like us

to do an extraordinary thing like this.

That you called us away from the things we have known,

to build a world we’ve not yet seen.

That you showed us your power in acts of feeding and healing,

and the riches of life with you by giving yourself away freely.

That you ate with sinners and outcasts,

and welcomed everyone at your table.

That you raised people and places left for dead to new life so that

death could frighten us no longer and the impossible might seem achievable.

That you appeared to people filled with fears and doubts,

and let your wounds be evidence of our healing.

That you promised to be with us, to advocate for us,

even as you sent us to be a sign of your presence to the lost and the lonely.

That you spoke your word of truth and life in every language

so that no one could own you and all land would be holy.

That you challenged our expectations for the future

by recalling to us our past.

Remembering who you have been, we trust that

you will be with us as we continue to become ourselves.

As we prepare to leave this building in search of a new place to call home,

we watch for signs of your movement in us, for us, and through us.

Now, we pray, give us the wisdom to make decisions we will be proud to share,

as we continue to tell the story of your presence in all our histories.

Amen.

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Messages

Message: For the Good of All …

To the people of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square,

Professional portrait 2013As we prepare to gather this Sunday following worship to review the offers we’ve received for our building, I want to share with you how proud I am to belong to the community we are becoming together.

Throughout this process you have spoken honestly and with great vulnerability about what our building means and has meant to you. You have shared what makes St. Luke’s distinctive as a community, and what you hope we do not lose in the middle of so many transitions. You have listened with open minds and open hearts to members whose thoughts and feelings do not match your own. You have made space to hear the fears and anxieties of people inside and outside our congregation who do not know how our decisions will affect their futures. You have done all this so patiently, so gracefully, so lovingly, showing a depth of respect and care for one another.  You have modeled what it means to bear one another’s burdens in a spirit of gentleness (Gal. 6:1).

Now we will gather again, to review different offers and weigh the impact of each possible decision on our congregation and the surrounding neighborhood. We will assess how different choices might reflect our core values as Christians and witness to the self-giving love of Jesus.

I want to encourage all of you to make every effort to be present for this Sunday’s meeting. Even if you feel you’ve already heard all that will be said. Even if you feel you’ve already said all you need to say. The value of this gathering is found not only in the content of our opinions, but in our presence with and for one another. To the person for whom this meeting is painful and scary, your presence may be a sign that they do not suffer alone. To the person who has spent countless hours planning, meeting, strategizing, and preparing, your presence may be a show of support and an expression of gratitude. We are not simply making one more decision, we are making all of these decisions together.

So, I look forward to seeing you this Sunday for worship, the work of the people and our witness to the world.

In Christ,

Pastor Erik

“So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (Gal. 6:9-10)

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