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.”

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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.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, January 28, 2018: RIC Sunday / 4th Sunday after Epiphany

The following sermon was preached at First Lutheran Church of the Trinity (ELCA) in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago, IL on Sunday, January 28, 2018 for the annual observance of Reconciling in Christ (RIC) Sunday.

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Texts: Deut. 18:15-20  +  Ps. 111  +  1 Cor. 8:1-13  +  Mk. 1:21-28

Good morning, beloved people of God; and thank you, Pastor Tom, for inviting me to join you for worship on this Reconciling in Christ (RIC) Sunday. You are a congregation that enjoys a strong reputation in our synod for your commitment to issues of justice and your care for one another and your neighbors, so when I got the invitation to preach among you this morning I didn’t really take any time to consider the invitation at all. I just said yes.

I also said yes because, up until relatively recently, I was a parish pastor as well — serving a very small church up in Logan Square, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square, where I was preaching just about every Sunday (at least until we got an intern, which allowed me to sit with the congregation and be fed by someone else’s preaching from time to time). It’s so good to hear the gospel preached by a variety of voices, because we each bring a diversity of perspectives and unique histories to how we share the story of God’s total and unconditional love for each and every one of us. About six months ago, my call to St. Luke’s ended and I began a new call as Pastor to the Community and Director of Worship at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC), which means that I now get to hear a great deal of other people’s preaching … and that I do a good deal less preaching myself. That felt like a vacation for the first two or three months, then I started to itch for the opportunity to preach in the local parish again — because you, dear ones, are the church, you are precious in God’s sight and the world needs you, now as always, to bear the good news of the gospel in a land filled with ancient hatreds, emboldened prejudices, and rising violence.

So let me wrap up all these warming up words with one more thing: a thank you on behalf of the seminary. For many years you have served as a site for field education, welcoming 2nd year seminarians and interns into your community so that they can learn the arts and rhythms of ministry. I’ve known some of the students that have passed through this community and you should not be surprised to hear that they speak about you with so much love and pride when they share the story of First Lutheran Church of the Trinity. You’ve been good for them and, I think, they’ve been good for you. In this, we see once again a small reminder of the greater truth that we are all in this together, each working in the corner of the world where our histories and our relationships give us the power to speak and act with authority to heal the world and its peoples and to liberate one another from all the powers that bind us.

We don’t really know each other, so you might be wondering why Pastor Tom invited me to worship with you on this morning when throughout the Lutheran church many congregations are focusing on the experience of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and other sexual or gender minorities (which I will from now on refer to, rather clumsily and incompletely, as LGBTQ people and communities) and the church’s painful history and on-going need to be reconciled with the LGBTQ people in our parishes and out in the world who have, for most of history and in most places, heard nothing that sounds like good news from the church. The reason why Pastor Tom likely thought I’d be a good person to speak to this history is that I have been involved in the movement for the full participation of LGBTQ people in the life and ministry of the ELCA for many years.

Like many of you, I was raised in the church. In fact, my father worked for the church as a parish musician for forty years, and I grew up spending two to three nights a week at church for one reason or another. It was my second home and my extended family. So, when I told my dad at the age of 14 that I thought that maybe God was calling me to ministry, he said what I would hope we tell all our children. He said, “Yes, Erik. I know God is calling you to ministry, because God is calling us all to ministry. That’s what it means to be baptized.”

He was right, of course. This is what we Lutherans means when we speak of the “priesthood of all believers.” We mean that, in our baptism, each and every one of us has been called and commissioned to be part of God’s movement for healing, justice, love and liberation in the world. Every single one of us. At a time when the church was focused on concentrating power into the hands and voices of just a few, the clergy, Luther taught that clergy were no more and no less essential to God’s mission than anyone else. We are all called to ministry, each of our ministries being necessary and essential to the world. We are called to be parents and children, teachers and bakers, artists and builders, lovers and friends, because the world needs all of these things, and more. And some of us are called to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments; to proclaim the news of God’s reconciling love, to welcome people at the font and feed them at the table, as a sign that God calls all of us to be reconciled, to welcome one another into the circle of community, and to share all that we have so that all might have enough. It’s just one calling among many. And it was the one I sensed God calling me to.

But not too long after that conversation with my father, I began to sense something else. I began to sense that I wasn’t entirely like other boys my age, that I didn’t see what they saw when they looked at our female classmates. That I didn’t want what they wanted, not in the same way. But it was the 1980s, y’all. And I was in Iowa. So, about the only thing I was hearing about gay people was that they were all getting sick and dying. There were no gay teachers, or gay preachers, or gay politicians, or gay talk-show hosts — no one to show me a reflection of who I might be becoming. I had to figure that out for myself. I’ve sometimes said that it wasn’t so much that I was hiding my truth from the world in the closet, as much as the world was hiding my truth from me in the closet. I was looking for something I couldn’t quite even name, and all the adults who might have helped me out just watched as I stumbled through my childhood trying to name a thing no one wanted to talk about.

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Pastor Erik, far right (front), with classmates from Macalester College at the 1993 “March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual Liberation” (lack of inclusion of trans people not my own).

It wasn’t until I got to college and met other young adults who were also LGBTQ that I began to realize that my experience wasn’t unique, that I belonged to a community that has been finding ways to flourish in the cracks between the spaces where other people live for centuries. We have been whispering our names, signaling to each other through our songs, sculpting our lives out of the scraps left behind when respectability leaves the table. It was exhilarating and it was terrifying, because it meant leaving so much behind — like my dream of being a pastor in the church. Because I quickly learned that God did not want me in the church. At least that’s what the church said.

But I knew differently, and this is purely a gift from God, that I have always known and never doubted that I belong to God, I was created by God, I am loved by God just as I am. It may the only thing I know for sure, but I know it and I always have. I knew it as a child and I’ve never forgotten it. The only thing time has done to this knowledge is to convince me that what is true for me is equally as true for every one and everything else in all of creation. So I know that you, each and every one of you, belong to God. You were created by God, and you are loved by God, just as you are. I know this for sure.

Meanwhile, I still needed a job, and I found a way to use the gifts God had given me in work that felt almost, but not quite, like what I’d imagined being a pastor might be like. I taught junior high for a year. I worked with homeless and street kids in Minneapolis. I was an advocate with children witnessing and experiencing violence in their homes and in their relationships. My kids were refugees from northern Africa, they were kids tossed out of their homes for being queer or trans, they were kids whose moms were staying in shelters, they were hustlers and they were awesome and I loved them. I loved my work and I loved the people I worked with. But I wasn’t happy, because I wasn’t doing the thing God had put in me to do.

So eventually, in 1999, ten years before the ELCA would change its policies and begin to make room for openly LGBTQ people to serve the church as pastors and deacons, I entered candidacy and went to seminary. My only rule with myself was “don’t lie and don’t hide.” I fully expected to get kicked out at some point, which I did, but I could no longer live with the pain and frustration of being the one to hold myself back from the life God wanted to live through me. If the church was going to reject me, so be it — but I was no longer going to do their dirty work for them by disqualifying myself before I’d even begun.

And this is where, finally, I come to the scriptures assigned for this day. Let’s go back to the Hebrew bible passage from the book of Deuteronomy. Here, Moses is giving the people of Israel instruction on how they will live together as a community in the promised land of freedom after he is gone. He tells them “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your people … into whose mouth I will put my words, and that person will tell (the people) all that I command. If any person will not listen to the words which my prophet speaks in my Name, I myself will call that person to answer for this. But if a prophet presumes to speak in my Name a message that I have not commanded to be spoken, or speaks in the name of other gods — that prophet will die.” (Deut. 18:15-20)

How does this passage relate to my story or to our lives? Who is the prophet sent by God following after Moses to share God’s Word with the people? To whom is this scripture referring? Is it Jesus? Or is it … me?

Whoa. I just went there. It’s such a ridiculous, audacious claim to make, but let’s just check it out for a minute. I’ll tell you why I’m led to wonder if I am a prophet sent by God: because people have straight up asked me. When I went through candidacy in the ELCA, a member of the committee said to me, “Surely you know this church’s policies, and yet here you are — clearly living your life in opposition to the teachings and the policies of this church. So, why would you think that the rules would change for you? What do you think you are? Some kind of prophet?”

You know, I’d never considered that question before. It had never even entered my mind to wonder what it meant that I could acknowledge the world as it is, and yet still imagine the world as it could be — even with so much scripture and tradition and policy and procedure standing in the way. I only knew the truth about me and about you, that we belong to God, that we were created by God, and that we are loved by God, just as we are. Those were the things that could not bend in me. Everything else seemed amendable.

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Pr. Erik at the 2005 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, inviting voting members to ask him about his story.

So I said to the person questioning me, “It’s not for me to say, whether I’m a prophet or not. Someday we’ll all be looking back, and if gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and queer people have found a new freedom and a new place in the church and in the world, then some people will say that this was a prophetic stand. And, if not, then I suppose I’ll be labelled a heretic, and I’ll be in good company. But only the future knows the difference between prophets and heretics.”

And, you know, I would tell you that I have no idea where those words came from, or the courage to say them in that moment, but that would be a lie. Because I knew, even as I was saying them, that those words were the Holy Spirit speaking in me. Because I was telling the truth about my life, not lying and not hiding. And that truth is what I think Jesus was referring to when he said to the people who followed him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32) Furthermore, I don’t think we’re supposed to run away from the word “prophet,” as if it were somehow thinking too highly of ourselves to imagine that each of us might have an important role to play in the revealing of God’s preferred future for this world, especially when the present is so painfully broken. After all, are we not Easter people? Do we not live our lives in light of the resurrection? Do we not remember Peter’s sermon that first Pentecost day, when he quoted the prophet Joel, saying,

“In those last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your [children] shall prophesy, your youth shall see visions, and your elders shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, people of all genders, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18)

So, who was God talking about when God said to Moses that God would lift up prophets like him to lead the people into the future? Am I wrong to say that it’s me? No! No more wrong than for me to say that it is you — which I will now say:

You are the prophets anointed by God to lead God’s people into the future! When did this anointing take place? In your baptism! Don’t you remember, “Child of God, you have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit.” Those are the words the church spoke over you as you were washed with water and anointed with oil. Who are the people God has called you to lead? All people, all of us together. Everyone in, no one left out.

On this RIC Sunday, as I stand in your pulpit — a called and ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — speaking to you, a congregation with a story of your own to tell about how God brings new life to people and places left for dead, I don’t need to tell you why it’s important to welcome people of all sexual orientations and gender identities into the church. You’ve already done that, and frankly we were always here. What I came here today to remind you of is this:

You are God’s own beloved. You were made by God, and you are loved by God. Just as you are. As is everybody else. Everything else is amendable. So, when you look out at the world as it is, lying to us all about who we are and how deeply we belong to each other, what needs to change?

And who will be the one to say it?

Will it be you?

By what authority?

Who do you think you are?

A community full of prophets?

To me, the answer is a clear as the waters in which you were baptized.

Yes, you are.

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Messages

Resolved: A New Year

IMG_0048There it is, sitting open on the dining room table. The 2018 planner, with its blank pages and silent promise that this may be the year when I finally … what? What is it that I hope will slip in and replace this sense of fragile, tentative expectation?

I wonder if it might be accountability.

New Year’s Day creates a moment for reflection on the patterns and habits that, over time, shape our lives into whatever they are. From the Earth’s point of view, it’s just another day, another twenty-four hour rotation. From the sun’s point of view, it’s the end of one earthly cosmic circuit and the beginning of a new one. Our planet’s steady wobble creates the periodic rhythm of seasons that help us track the course of each year, reminding us that we, too, will grow up, bear fruit, shed our leaves, and eventually rest with our ancestors in the ground.

Having firmly entered middle age, I’m newly aware that my life is not infinite. My time feels measured in ways both mysterious and urgent. I want to make something of myself, to use the time given to me wisely and powerfully, to make a difference, to leave something of value behind. I sense that there is another iteration of me lying just under the surface of my present life better equipped to meet the challenges of this broken and tragic world, and my blank planner is the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible commitment to become that person.

This is the sentiment that gives rise to the ritual of making resolutions, and today is the day for doing just that. Yet, having lived through a few New Year’s Days already, we are all a bit suspicious and weary of resolutions. We remember too easily our stalled efforts and abandoned commitments. Perhaps we compensate by setting our sights just a little lower with each passing year, or by abandoning the ritual of making resolutions altogether. While that may be acceptable in a specific sense (we can surely make allowances for those who refuse to follow the crowd), what would it mean to live a life devoid of goals? What happens when we abandon any sense of agency to set and pursue a direction for our lives, our families and communities?

My suspicion is that the the sense of futility that haunts our efforts at reform is directly connected to the spirituality of individualism and the myth of willpower that props it up. As an undergraduate psychology major, I remember being surprised to discover that “willpower” was not a readily verifiable aspect of human personality. If willpower is measured by the ability to make significant changes in one’s life, then it runs counter to all the evidence that the single most important factor in making real and lasting change is the support of another human being to whom we make ourselves accountable. In one memorable study, a pool of heart attack survivors whose lives depended on their ability to make major changes to their diet and exercise regimens were split into two groups for observation. The first group was given clear information about the changes needed to improve health and prolong life. The second group was given the same information, and was also supported in identifying and recruiting another person to whom they would be accountable for making these changes. The results were dramatic. A year later, those who’d been given nothing but information had not made the necessary changes to their lives. Those who’d established relationships of accountability had made real gains toward recovering their health. Though willpower failed, relationships prevailed.

What does this teach us about what is needed in this present moment, in which it seems the whole world has suffered a heart attack? A moment in which the necessity of change is a matter of existential survival for the planet, and a test of moral credibility for institutions like the church that have for too long been silent about, and therefore complicit with, the unjust arrangements of power that have kept great swaths of humanity shackled in poverty and dependent upon untrustworthy actors. It teaches us that we need more than information. I believe it suggests that the time has come once again, as it does each and every morning, for us to make new resolutions — but now to make them together.

This is what I appreciate about community organizing. It begins with the assumption that we are all longing for change in our lives and in the life of the world around us. Furthermore, it does not blame us for failing to effect these changes on our own. Instead, it correctly diagnoses the issue — we lack the power to make these changes alone and, therefore, need one another. Where the spirituality of individualism with its myth of willpower blames and mocks us for what we fail to accomplish by ourselves, the spirituality of organizing assumes that we were always intended to arrive at God’s preferred future together. Therefore, it offers a process by which we can do so through deep investment in one another’s lives, solidarity with one another’s dreams, and collective action for the common good.

This is also why I find worship so nourishing. In worship I am reminded that my life is not my own, that we all belong to one another. I regularly name the ways that my life fails to conform to the image of God within me, and hear a word of forgiveness that frees me from self-hatred and useless guilt so that I can resume the work of building the beloved community of God here and now with other, similarly liberated people. Over and over again I am reminded that I exist as part of “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” (1 Peter 2:9) All of us in this together.

Science backs up what we intuit from our participation in worship as well. In his work on gratitude and self-control, Northeastern University professor David DeSteno has found that where individual strategies of change (let’s call them attempts at “willpower”) create body damaging side effects connected to the release of stress hormones, the intentional cultivation of gratitude in relationship to one another seems to generate higher levels of self-control while lowering blood pressure and reducing anxiety and depression. Our ability to act together may, in fact, be what saves our lives.

The lesson I take from these findings is this: that the sense of urgency I feel on this particular day of the year to do something new, something better, something effective, powerful and lasting will quickly dissipate unless I find a way to do it with others. This means the resolutions I make need to make space for the resolutions you may be making as well, which means we each need to hear one another’s stories of resolve. I need you to understand what I am trying to do with my “one wild and precious life” (to quote Mary Oliver), and I need to understand the same from you. These goals won’t make much sense unless we understand the paths that led each of us from our various pasts to this fresh moment in which, once again, everything is possible.

So let this be one of the handful of commitments we make today: to share our resolutions with each other, and then to ask the other,

“Why are you making this resolution?”

“What is at stake for you in this commitment?”

“What will happen if you fail to make this change?”

And, most importantly of all, “How can I help you keep this resolution?”

Happy New Year,

Pastor Erik Christensen

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3:17-18)

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