Sermons

Sermon: Saturday, December 1, 2018: The Ordination of Erin Coleman Branchaud

The following sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) on the occasion of the ordination of the Rev. Erin Coleman Branchaud to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). I served as Pastor Erin’s internship supervisor at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square for the 2016/’17 academic year, where she now serves as the called and installed pastor.

Texts: Ezekiel 2:8-3:4  +  Psalm 113  +  1 Corinthians 11:17-26  +  Luke 1:39-55

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Goddaughter Kai, with her Ninong Erik.

A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving our god-daughter, Kai, and her moms flew in from New York to visit Kerry and I here in Chicago. Since her internal clock was still set to East Coast time, Kai would wake up extra early each morning and sneak into our bedroom to ask me if I was ready to come up and read with her. I’d mumble yes, and then turn back over in bed. If I was lucky, this bought me another ten minutes before she’d return. “Ninong (the Tagalog word for godfather), you said you’d come read with me!”

61y6jpnp7mlChildren’s literature has gotten edgier since I was Kai’s age, I think. I remember books like “The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree” and the Clifford the Big Red Dog books. By contrast, Kai kept handing me books like “I Dissent,” an illustrated biography of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and “She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World.” Each of these unabashedly political and progressive books had catch phrases that Kai relished saying over and over as we turned the pages. “I dissent!” and “She persisted!” have never sounded quite so sweet as when a girl of nearly seven is curled up in your lap shouting them with the kind of exuberance generally saved for ice cream and puppies.

It isn’t hard to guess the motives directing the selection of books Kai is consuming at this impressionable young age. As a mixed heritage, Filipina girl with two moms, Kai is going to encounter some heart-breaking ugliness in this world. It’s not a matter of if, but when, as a recent text message exchange with one of her moms foreshadowed.

“This morning your god-daughter asked ‘Who has it harder, women or Black people?” the first text read. Then the second, “I asked her what she thinks the answer is. She said, ‘just tell me, mama!’” I replied, “Did you say, ‘Black Women?’” (it’s never too early to teach them about intersectionality). The reply came back, “Of course!”

“Who has it harder?” is one of the questions floating in the background of nearly all the texts that Erin has selected for us to chew on this morning. When the psalmist imagines the LORD bending down to raise the weak from the dust and the poor from the mire, they are using poetry to describe structural oppression. When Paul chastises the community in Corinth for the ways that their worship simply repeats the patterns of humiliation that poorer members were already experiencing elsewhere in their lives, he is indicting not only their failure as a church, but the arrangement of power in the ancient world.

There is no more beautiful text, however, that at once holds together the pain of the world as it is with undying hope for the world as it will be than this gospel passage from Luke in which we hear Mary’s song, the magnificat. “You have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places. You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty.” 

These ancient, holy words testify to the enduring reality of lament, mourning and anguish that humanity has suffered across all of time, the persistence of inequality and oppression, and yet also ring out with hope for the future rooted in the memory of all that God has done in the past and faith that God will continue to be true to God’s promises in the future.

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Pastor Erin Coleman Branchaud being installed as the pastor with St Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square.

It is the perfect text for this day, as we gather on the eve of Advent, at the cusp of a new year as the church reckons time, a new beginning, and as we prepare to lay hands on Erin Nicole Coleman Branchaud, to consecrate her for the ministry of word and sacrament as a pastor in Christ’s church. It is perfect because it captures both the challenge and the joy of Christian life for all who are baptized, the challenge of honestly naming who has it harder in a world that consistently confuses privilege with merit, and the joy of proclaiming the liberating power and presence of the God who is always coming into the world to bring new life to people and places left for dead.

Notice that I did not say this text captures both the challenge and joy of Christian life just for clergy, but for all who are baptized. There is a real temptation on days like today to hear the scriptures that have been selected as specifically directed at the person being ordained, when their original intent was to form and feed communities of faithful resistance to empire and the death-dealing powers of the world. The role of clergy within the church is not to carry out that work alone, on behalf of the congregation, but as the Augsburg Confession states, “that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel.” 

That is to be your role, Erin, as you carry out your ministry among God’s people as their pastor — to rightly preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. This is no small or simple task. Just listen to how the apostle Paul sets up the words of institution that we are so used to hearing each time we take part in the Lord’s Supper. It’s not enough for Paul to simply pass along to the church what he had first received from those who’d taught him, the story of how Jesus blessed and broke bread and wine with his disciples. No, first he has to tell the truth about what he has seen and heard in the world and in the church. First he has to draw out the practical and public, material and ethical consequences of the Lord’s Supper. First he has to underscore God’s solidarity with all the hungry, suffering people of the earth. Only then does the significance of this meal make any sense. Only then do the words, “for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” make any sense. To preach the gospel and administer the sacraments requires you to spend your life telling the truth about the reality of sin in this aching world. Only then can we clearly recognize our need for God’s liberating grace.

This is the meaning of this strange image from Ezekiel, who eats the scroll covered with words of woe, of lamentation and mourning, front and back. These are the words God needs spoken to God’s people. Not words of false security or illusory hope, but trustworthy words about the ways that we are all being harmed by this world, and even the ways that we are participating in that harm.

Erin, you have the gifts required for this calling. I know you told me not to talk about you, just to preach the gospel, but I have to say this to you today. You have a gift for telling the truth in ways that set people free. You possess a hard won courage that enables you to speak directly to people about where and how the world is broken in ways that invite commitment and resolve rather than passivity and despair. You are a preacher of the gospel. In your mouth, God’s word is as sweet as honey. 

And, if I may also take a moment of personal privilege — which I may, because you asked me to preach today — you are, as you know, being called to pastor a community that neither needs nor expects you to do this work alone. In the community of St. Luke’s you have found people who want to sing God’s song with you, who are eager to be part of God’s powerful, transformative, world-changing mission. Like Mary, they believed in what God could accomplish through them when such faith seemed foolish. Not only will they appreciate your gifts, they will be patient with your weaknesses. You can trust them with all that is messy and unresolved in your heart. I should know.

That’s why, the moment the news reached my ears that you and St. Luke’s had chosen each other, my heart leaped for joy! You are going to be a blessing to one another, and in your ministry together you will bless the world. 

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, November 28, 2018: RCL Texts for the Wednesday following Reign of Christ

The following sermon was preached in LSTC’s Augustana Chapel on the Wednesday following the festival of the Reign of Christ. Audio of the sermon can be found here.

Texts: Ezekiel 30:20-26  +  Psalm 76  +  John 16:25-33

I love Jesus. I love Jesus, and I long for the reign of Christ.

Earlier this week, as I listened to Samantha preaching that brilliant sermon on the texts for the festival of the Reign of Christ, as I listened to Doc’s exquisite improvisation on the Canticle of the Turning, I’m not ashamed to admit that I didn’t get all the way through the hymn without crying. 

“From the halls of pow’r to the fortress tow’r, not a stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your justice tears ev’ry tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn; there are tables spread, every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.” (Canticle of the Turning)

Yes! Yes, I want to live in that world!

Yes! I long for the day when the hungry poor are fed first from the table of abundance.

Yes! I can even name my family’s self-interest in seeing that world come sooner, rather than later. I know that in that world, my sister will have access to work and housing with dignity, my family will have health care without conditions, my husband will be reunited with his incarcerated brother, and I will be able to walk arm in arm with my beloved without the fear of violence hanging over our heads. Yes! I want to live in that world — Come, Lord Jesus, come!

But I don’t think I’m ready to give up my Amazon Prime account.

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Maybe you’ve heard. Despite the company’s recent move to raise the entry-level wage for its U.S. workers to $15 per hour, Amazon workers worldwide continue to protest the low wages and horrible conditions under which they are required to work. In cities across Europe last week, Amazon workers went on strike. It was barely a story here in the United States.

I’m not trying to make this sermon into an exposé on labor rights for Amazon workers, though that’s a worthy topic for further investigation, because to spend too much time here is to invite you to focus too narrowly on whether or not you can justify the Amazon Prime account that you may or may not have. The point I’m making is that I don’t think I’m ready to give the account that I most certainly do have up.

Or, to be frank, I must confess that I am often more motivated by narrow self-interest and fear of scarcity than I am by care for my neighbor and trust in God’s abundance.

In this morning’s reading from the gospel of John, Jesus nears the end of his lengthy farewell discourse with words that are unexpectedly troubling. After a ministry filled with allegories and cryptic sayings, Jesus now speaks plainly, “I came from Abba God and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and going to Abba God.” (John 16:28) If that’s not plain speech, I don’t know what is. The cat is out of the bag. Jesus is the messiah, the one sent by God as the ultimate sign of God’s love for all creation.

In response the disciples say, “Yes! Now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.”

Yes, this is what we’ve been waiting for! 

Yes, we know! 

Yes, we believe!

It would seem that the whole gospel has been building toward this moment, this declaration of belief in Jesus by those who followed him. But Jesus immediately casts doubt on their belief.

“Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to their home, and you will leave me alone.” (John 16:32)

It is more than anticlimactic. It is disturbing. The disciples’ profession of belief is not convincing to Jesus, who rightly predicts that they will not keep faith with him in the moment of his passion which has now arrived. That they will scatter when confronted with the consequences of their association with Jesus.

This is not the first time that the word “scatter” has appeared in John’s gospel. It appears one other time, back in the 10th chapter, when Jesus was still using figures of speech. There he says, 

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away — and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” (John 10:11-12)

As Jesus approaches his eschatological hour, this previous figure of speech haunts the scene. The wolf is coming with death in its jaws, and the disciples will soon scatter, like both the hired hands and the sheep.

And, of course, the language of scattering goes even further back in Hebrew scripture. We hear it in Genesis in the famous story of the Tower of Babel. There, in a time preceding history, “the whole earth had one language and the same words.” In a bid to protect themselves from the divine imperative to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, humanity adopts an “us first” isolationist stance toward the future, preferring to build a tower and establish a uniformity of identity rather than participate in the unfolding diversity of human community. In response, God scatters them abroad “over the face of the whole earth.”

600px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_ProjectWhen read in light of the Babylonian exile, the story of the Tower of Babel has been interpreted as representative of Jerusalem, scattered in captivity. This theme is especially prominent in Ezekiel, as in the passage assigned for today, where God promises to scatter the Egyptians among the nations (Ezek. 30:23,26) in language very similar to the story of Babel. A few chapters later, in the 34th chapter of Ezekiel, the language of scattering reappears in a prophesy against the shepherds of Israel that offers a stark contrast to Jesus’ image of the Good Shepherd:

“Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts … My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” (Ezek. 34:2b-6)

This is the world as it is. The weak left to struggle, the sick left to die, the injured left to suffer, the straying and the lost left alone. This is the world I was born into, yes, and that I have had a hand in maintaining. This is the world that is required if I want to continue to enjoy cheap gas and cheap clothes and cheap airfares and cheap food and cheap labor. This is a world that cheapens life itself. It is the world that my Amazon Prime account creates and requires, and I’m still not sure I’m ready to give it up.

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Dr. Gail O’Day

In her article “Preaching as an Act of Friendship: Plain Speaking as a Sign of the Kingdom” Dr. Gail O’Day, who was my faculty advisor at Emory University and who died earlier this fall, offers a context that helps make sense of Jesus’ stinging words to the disciples following their statement of belief. She writes,

“In their quick and easy assent to his words, [Jesus] recognizes the behavior of a flatterer instead of that of a friend. Jesus’ rebuke suggests that he suspects the disciples are saying what they think Jesus wants to hear, not what they really believe. To prove they are flatterers and not friends, Jesus links their false words with what seems to be a much more serious offense, their abandonment of him at his hour.”

This is what I want to avoid. Being a flatterer. Saying one thing in my sermon and living another truth with my life. What does it mean for me to say, “Jesus is Lord!” or “Come, Jesus, come!” when my life actively demonstrates my half-hearted allegiances and my scattered loyalties? When I abandon my espoused values the moment they become inconvenient? When I denounce the political rhetoric of “America first” nationalism, but continue to pursue a “me first” consumerism?

What it means is that I am human, which is to say that I am a sinner, just like you. My best efforts are inadequate, and my worst mistakes are tragic. And ironically, while my knowledge of my failures often leaves me feeling painfully isolated, it is actually proof of my membership in the human family.

Jesus knows that his followers will abandon him, that they will scatter before the consequences of their association with him. Just as we do. Yet, even as he is abandoned, Jesus remains a part of the divine community which is the inner life of God. “I am not alone,” he says, “because Abba God is with me.” This is the same God whom Jesus assures us loves us, is accessible to us, shelters us, calls to us, forgives us, encourages us, saves us.

“I have said this to you,” Jesus explains, “so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution,” he acknowledges. “But take courage; I have conquered the world!” It’s precisely the kind of thing a good shepherd might say, or a good friend, the kind willing to lay down their lives for you, the kind who will keep loving you through all your fears and betrayals. The kind who will gather up the scattered fragments of your life and call you home to yourself. Peace, take courage, I’ve got this.

Have I told you how much I love Jesus, and long for the reign of Christ?

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Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, September 19, 2018

This sermon was preached for daily worship at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) in Augustana Chapel. To hear the audio file of this sermon being preached, click here.

Texts: Isa. 10:12-20  +  Psalm 119:169-176  +  John 7:25-36

The trial of Jason Van Dyke, the police officer who shot and killed Laquan McDonald four years ago here in Chicago, began this week. For those of us who have lived here in Chicago for some time, or who have been following the story of endemic police violence against black and brown bodies nationally, the details of this case are very old news. But for those here today who may be new to this country, or perhaps just awakening to this issue, the details in brief are these:

Laquan McDonald was born on September 25, 1997. If he were still alive, he would be celebrating his 21st birthday next week. But he is not alive because, on the night of October 20, 2014 he was fatally shot by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. Police had been called to investigate reports of a person breaking into vehicles at a trucking yard at 41st Street and Kildare, which is about 11 miles from here. You could get there in 20 minutes by car, just off the Stevenson Expressway, north of Midway Airport.

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Jason Van Dyke (L) and Laquan McDonald (R)

When officers confronted Laquan, he used a knife with a 3-inch blade to slice the tire of a patrol car and damage the windshield. Initial reports by the police department said that he lunged at Officer Jason Van Dyke, forcing him to shoot Laquan in self-defense. This was the accepted story for almost a year, until video taken by a police car dashboard camera was released, clearly showing that 17 year-old Laquan was walking away from the police officers when he was shot, 16 times in 15 seconds.

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(L-R) Former Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and former State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

The tale of how that dashboard video got released is a story all its own, and it’s a story worth taking the time to learn. It involves a $5 million payout to Laquan’s family that wasn’t settled until the day after Mayor Rahm Emanuel secured re-election to his second term, and continued protests that built into a movement calling for the resignation of the city’s top officials. Eventually police superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired, and Cook County’s State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez lost her bid for re-election. There is even speculation that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term is connected to the timing of this trial coming just as Chicago’s mayoral race is heating up.

Chicago Public Radio has created a podcast titled 16 Shots that goes deep into the facts surrounding Laquan’s death, and explores how the police killing of this one young man set off a series of events that led to the United States Department of Justice conducting a civil rights investigation that resulted in a public report in which the Chicago Police Department was described as having a culture of “excessive violence,” a “culture in which officers expect to use force and never be carefully scrutinized about the propriety of that use,” especially when used against minorities, an assessment supported by the fact that Chicago Police are 14 times more likely to use force against young black men than against their white counterparts.

But I worry that I’m getting off track here, because I’m supposed to be talking about Jesus.

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The Rev. Marshall Hatch, Sr.

Right, so I was listening to the podcast, 16 Shots, and was struck by the fact that of all the places the journalists might have chosen to begin their reporting on this story, they began with a clip of an interview with the Rev. Marshall Hatch, Sr., pastor of New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, who — along with other black clergy from Chicago’s south and west sides — was called into the mayor’s office and asked for support in quelling the rising tensions immediately after the video footage of Laquan’s killing was released. These clergy were told in no uncertain terms that if they did not help out, they should not expect support from city hall when they came with requests of their own. In that same meeting, Pastor Hatch learned that Laquan had been raised in foster care from the age of three, bounced from home to home, diagnosed with learning disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorder rooted in the brutality and trauma of growing up on the streets. Reflecting theologically on these facts, Pastor Hatch told the reporter,

“That’s when I knew we had moved into a real spiritual realm with this piece … and as a pastor, to me, that’s divine poetry. ‘Cuz he’s a throwaway person if ever there was one. That would have to be the one that God would have to put in the center, the name that somebody else thinks is worth throwing away. And it was pretty explosive after that, as the ministers kind of said, ‘Look, we’re not making any guarantees. It’s not our job to go and tamp down a situation that you guys have created.’”

That would have to be the one that God would have to put in the center, the name that somebody else thinks is worth throwing away.

Are we talking about Jesus yet?

This past Sunday, the Church throughout the world gathered for worship and many heard the excerpt from the eighth chapter of Mark’s gospel, in which Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and follows this up with, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers him, “You are the Messiah.”

The daily lectionary selects passages that support our reflection on the meaning of the Sunday texts, setting them in conversation with other biblical voices so that we can more readily perceive the conversation that’s going on within scripture about questions like these. So, today we hear a related conversation taking place in the gospel of John, as “some of the people of Jerusalem” speculate about Jesus’ identity, wondering with one another whether or not the authorities have actually determined that Jesus is, in fact, the messiah.

This passage is the only time where “the people of Jerusalem” appear as a group in John’s gospel. They seem to be different from “the crowds” that Jesus has been addressing, who may be pilgrims to Jerusalem, there for the Festival of Booths. Because, in the verses immediately preceding this passage, Jesus says to the crowd, “Did not Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why are you looking for an opportunity to kill me?” And the crowd replies, “You have a demon! Who is trying to kill you?” Jesus perceives correctly that his movement is setting him in opposition to the reigning power structures, and that he is a man marked for death. The crowds, less schooled in the politics of Jerusalem, doubt Jesus. “The people of Jerusalem,” however, know how power works in Jerusalem. They understood how the religious authorities operated when it came to exposing false messiahs, so they knew that Jesus’ life was most definitely at risk. 

They say, “Isn’t this the one they want to kill?” because they know that’s how the system works, to eliminate all voices of dissent. “And here he is, speaking freely, and they have nothing to say to him! Can it be true that the authorities have made up their minds that this is the Messiah?”

So here we have finally returned to the question from Mark’s gospel, the question that ties these readings together this week, the question that Jesus puts to his disciples, and to us, “Who do you say that I am?” It is a question that forces us to examine our expectations of God, who God is and how God moves in time and space. Is God a divine conqueror, the sovereign of a heavenly empire? Is God an ineffable wisdom,  the truest of realities hiding in plain sight? Is God a righteous avenger, upending worlds and effecting regime change? Who is God, and how does God show up in the world?

We all have our explicit and implicit expectations about who God is, and how God will show up in our worlds. The people of Jerusalem say, “Yet we all know where this fellow comes from, but when the Messiah comes, no one will know that one’s origins.”

The story begins working in irony at this point, because the people of Jerusalem have named their expectation for God’s messiah, that that one will have unknown origins. Jesus cannot be the messiah, because they know exactly where he is from, Nazareth in Galilee, not Bethlehem — at least, not in John’s gospel — the expected site for a messiah in the Davidic model of warrior kings. The irony is that Jesus actually does meet their expectations, his origins are unknown to them, because he has been sent by “the One who is true.” He is, to use John’s earlier words, “the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [The Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through [the Word], and without [the Word] not one thing came into being. What has come into being in [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:1-4)

So here is John’s answer to the conversation Jesus started in Mark. “Who do you say that I am, John?” And John replies, “You are the Word. You are the life that is the light of all people. The light that shines in the darkness, that has not been overcome. You are the Word that became flesh and lived among us.”

This is why the people of Jerusalem cannot recognize Jesus as the messiah at first, because they cannot conceive that God would take on human flesh in time and space, in history and in politics, in the dying mess of human relations and the decay of human bodies. In children shot down in the street and hung from crosses.

That would have to be the one that God would have to put in the center, the name that somebody else thinks is worth throwing away.

“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of humanity, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

In this way, John’s gospel responds to Mark, asking a new question of those looking for a messiah. John poses from the very first chapter, “And who do you say that you are? Who do you think you are? Could you be children of God? Could we all be children of God?”

This is the question we grapple with. Our desire to deny that name, child of God, to those we hate, those who oppress us. Our habit of denying that name to ourselves, in our own self-hatred and self-doubt. The evidence of history, the way that all our hate of self and other has laid the foundation for systems of violence that seem eternal. Yet, the gospel truth is that the Word of God, shining in darkness, has not been overcome and, one day, it shall be that same Word that overcomes.

That is who we say Jesus is: the Word, co-eternal with God, the Word that creates, the Word that overcomes. The Word that somebody else thinks is worth throwing away. That is the truth we bear in our hearts and on our lips, even in moments when it seems that truth and justice themselves are on trial. 

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