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: Sunday, December 11, 2016: Third Sunday of Advent

Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10  +  Psalm 146:5-10  +  James 5:7-10  +  Matthew 11:2-11

I took a class in college called something like “Conceptual Physics,” but which we all called “Physics for Poets.”  It was a physics class without any math, mostly taken by English and other humanities majors in order to fulfill a distribution requirement in the sciences. We studied things like Newton’s law of universal gravitation and Einstein’s theory of special relativity using stick figures named Moe and Joe sketched out on the chalkboard by our professor, Dr. Kim.

I don’t really fancy myself a poet, though I try my hand occasionally, but the link between the science of the observable world and the theologies that connect my experience of the world to my knowledge of myself remains. Physics sometimes, unexpectedly, helps me understand religious concepts. For instance, hope.

Werner Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg

The German physicist Werner Heisenberg, a pioneer of quantum physics, published a paper in 1927 that described the unavoidable imprecision that enters when trying to plot both the position and momentum of an object.  He was thinking of unimaginably small objects, like electrons or photons I suppose, not soccer balls.  His idea, which we now call Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, says that the more closely you try to pin down where a thing is, the less accurately you can say how quickly it is moving, and (I think) what direction it is moving in.  Conversely, the more accurately you describe the velocity of a thing, the less accurately you can describe just exactly where the thing itself is.

Now, remember, Heisenberg was writing about quantum physics, laws of nature operating at an unseen level.  Fortunately for us, for most of our waking days, we do a pretty good job of determining where, how fast, and in what direction objects around us are moving (which is why we are able to play soccer). But when we begin asking questions about the inconceivably small, invisible and practically undetectable world around us, operating at the microscopic level, different rules apply.

So, and here’s another piece of physics for us to mull over, the harder you try to observe things at this level of existence, the more likely you are to actually alter what you are looking at.  This is called the “observer effect,” and if you’ve ever used a tire gauge to check the pressure in your tires, you already know what I’m talking about.  You know how this works, you unscrew the tiny cap to the inner tube of your tire and, as you apply the gauge to the tire, you hear the hiss of air being released.  You wanted to know the pressure in your tire, but the very act of measuring the pressure has changed the pressure itself.  In quantum mechanics the same thing happens.  In order to observe objects at the sub-atomic level, like an electron, we have to direct photons at it, which actually changes the path of the thing we’re trying to observe.  There is no neutral observer at this level of science – to watch is to participate.

A long time ago I picked up a habit from a dear friend of mine who has spent most of her life practicing the art of counseling and, in particular, counseling people around issues of oppression and its impact on their lives. She very intentionally greets people by asking, “what’s new and good?” I’m sure you’ve heard me repeat the greeting plenty of times myself.

This isn’t arbitrary on my part.  It’s not just another way of saying, “what’s up?”  Although I’m interested in knowing what’s persistently old and difficult, I often choose to begin small groups by asking “what’s new and good?” because I believe that choosing to focus, training yourself to observe, what is new and good in the world is a spiritual practice. Although each of us has a multitude of stories we could choose to tell about our lives, when we practice looking for the new and the good, we are choosing to find evidence that the past doesn’t define the future – that old hurts do not cut off the possibility of future healing, and that signs of that new life are already appearing.

As with any spiritual practice, choosing to look for what is new and good in the world is not easy and does not come naturally for most of us.  Like the painful throbbing of a stubbed toe, old injuries stick with us and demand our attention.  Chronic pain, ongoing illnesses and the injustice of oppressive systems that surround us make it difficult to concentrate on what is emerging and new, what is healing and hopeful.

The season of Advent is much longer and much harder than we often care to admit.  We say that it is the four weeks before Christmas, but in another sense, it is our whole lives.  We spend our whole lives waiting for the vision of the prophet Isaiah to come true,

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…

the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water…

and the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing”

The wildernesses in which we wander feel so arid, and maybe especially so during this season when the desire to create the perfect Christmas for our families and children is at odds with the struggles we face at work, at home, or as a nation.  Our country feels more divided than at any moment in recent memory. Isaiah’s promises feel far off, so far off that we doubt we will ever see them in our own life.

cwyenjqwqaey7woMartin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”   Justice, these days, can feel hard to find.  It can seem tiny in the face of personal tragedies and ongoing wars, almost microscopic.  We would like to know precisely where God’s justice is, and when it will arrive.  But theological physics seems to indicate that we cannot know precisely where God’s justice is and how quickly it is moving – only that it is on the way, and that our own search for the signs of God’s justice, in fact, changes the world we are trying to observe.

So, in this moment when racist organizations we once imagined to be on the fringes of society are gaining confidence and organizing themselves into a global movement, I am choosing to celebrate the news that the Army Corps of Engineers sided with the water protectors at Standing Rock. I am finding hope in images of military veterans kneeling before elders of the Lakota Sioux tribe, offering an apology for centuries of violent oppression and exploitation of Native peoples. As we listen to newly emboldened anti-immigrant rhetoric moving from the margin to the middle of American discourse, I am encouraged by the actions of states like California and sanctuary cities like Chicago that are putting mechanisms in place to resist mass deportations should the federal government move against our neighbors under the cover of paranoid fantasies and slanderous lies.

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Photo Credit: Josh Morgan for the Huffington Post

I am looking for what is new and good in the world.  I am perfecting my perceptions.  I am practicing hope, and I am waiting with patience for the fulfillment of God’s promises – knowing that as I look for evidence of God’s work in the world, I am drawn into that very work.

What are you looking at this Advent season?  What are you looking for?  How are you training yourself to seek and to find evidence of God’s movement in the world? I know it’s hard. I know that! The temptation to constantly rehash all that is old and wrong and broken is ever-present. But I also know that there are no neutral observers. To watch is to participate. It matters which stories we tell. It matters, the conversations we have. Do you say it’s all falling apart, or do you say the moment for radical transformation is finally upon us? It matters!

Stay awake, therefore, and watch for the coming of the Lord.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 27, 2016: First Sunday of Advent

Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5  +  Psalm 122  +  Romans 13:11-14  +  Matthew 24:36-44

You know the feeling, when you’re suddenly woken up in the middle of the night by an unexpected sound. The moment when half of your mind still sees the figures from the dream you were dreaming and the other half has flipped the switch on all your alarms. Your heart is beating, the adrenaline is rushing, your breath is held as you strain to listen for any further sound that might clarify what’s going on. Is that a creaking floorboard in the living room? Was it a dish slipping into a new position in the sink?

“Wake up!” you whisper, if there’s anyone to whisper to. “I heard something.”

I’ve lived through that moment dozens of times. I’m sure you have as well. I’m fortunate in that I can report that the sound has always turned out to be a dish, or a car door out on the street, or a cat knocking something off of the counter. Or maybe it was just the dream itself, interjecting a sound so real my sleeping mind could not tell the difference between the fiction in my head and the facts of the real world waiting on the other side of waking.

What a frightening comparison Jesus makes between the coming of the Son of Man and the violation of our homes by a thief as we sleep. No wonder we so often skim right past this image on our way to the concluding command: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Mt. 24:44) Like a major chord at the end of a melody in a minor key, we instinctively move to resolve the tension presented by this disturbing image.

So here I tread lightly, because I know that sometimes the sound that wakes us from sleep is real, the shattering of glass, the door forced open. Sometimes our homes are invaded and the things most precious to us are taken away and never recovered. That is not God, and it is not part of some divine plan that we suffer theft or violence to our homes or our bodies. When God gives the law to Moses humanity is commanded to neither covet nor steal, and not to kill. When these things happen they are a sign of the sinful brokenness of human community. Still, it is precisely because of the emotional power of this image, of a thief coming into our homes as we sleep, that Jesus uses it to shock us into reconsidering what we imagine God’s advent in the world will be like.

If the fullness of Christ’s reign were coming on my terms, I could pretty quickly sketch out some major changes to the world as it is. Recounts and election results would barely scratch the surface. I would take an eraser to the map of the world and be done with nations once and for all. I would see social goods like housing, education, and healthcare treated as human rights instead of commodities to be bartered in exchange for labor. I could go on, and you’ve heard me preach long enough that you could probably go on for me. Then you would have lists of your own, agendas you would set for God’s advent in the world.

The point is that God is not coming on my terms, or yours, and God’s arrival will not feel like the vindication of my personal or our collective grievances. Rather than coming to enforce my vision for the world as it ought to be, Jesus hints that if I knew the hour of his coming, I would stay up late and bar the doors against his entry — because the changes that are coming will feel to us like loss, not gain.

moral-inventory

So, let’s try a different exercise. Rather than making a list of all the projects you’ve been waiting for God to come home and get started on, let’s try this instead: let’s take an inventory of your life, a variation on the kind you might turn in to your insurance company so that they would know how much to reimburse you in case of a theft. Let your mind’s eye wander through your home, noticing the items you cherish. Not just the obvious ones, but the hidden ones. Is there anything there you’re attached to in unhealthy ways? Things that own you as much, if not more, than you own them? Bottles, pictures, pills? What hangs in your closet, what’s parked in your garage? Where were they made and by whom? What do you find in your cupboards or your refrigerator? How did those items get there? How far back can you trace their history from production to point-of-sale? How many hands, and whose, touched them on their way to your home? What do you know about those people’s lives?

Turn your gaze toward your calendar, the one on your phone, or in your day planner. The one you keep in your head. Who and what gets your time? Who and what doesn’t? What actually fills the spaces between the appointments marked in pen and pencil and pixels? Do the ways you spend your days match the story you tell about your life? Is there a relationship you imagine you still have time to mend? Is there a dream, a calling, you’d like to think you still have time to pursue?

Quickly scan the last dozen conversations you’ve had with family, friends or acquaintances. To what topics do you keep coming back? What complaints do you keep rehearsing? Who are you arguing with in your head, where no one can hear what you really want to say?

Pretty quickly we realize that we are holding on to all sorts of things that simply have to go if there is ever going to be room for something new to be born, in us and in the world. For some of us it is habits of consumption that feed an economy that is killing the planet. For others it is habits of addiction that are slowly killing our bodies and our relationships. For yet others it is habits of speech or habits of silence that keep us from acting on our deepest desires or most strongly held beliefs. For each and every one of us there are false stories about who we are and where we come from that hold us back from being fully, truly human — stories of White supremacy or internalized racism, gendered stories of dominance and deference, class stories of wealth and worth, sexual stories of normalcy and deviance, national stories of sovereignty and exceptionalism.

As the itemized list grows longer and more abstract, as our analysis gets broader and less precise, we realize that we don’t entirely understand how we got here, how we became who we have become, what’s ours and what is not. So we keep our heads down and preoccupy ourselves with “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,” (Mt. 24:38) laboring in our respective fields, working side-by-side, if not arm-in-arm, hoping we can get to the finish line without too much more being taken away from us.

Wake up!

You know what time it is. The very fact that you can make the list, that your soul intuits the things you suspect the Lord would take if Jesus broke into your life to make space for a new creation to begin again in you right now is all the evidence you need. This is why Paul can direct the church in Rome to “live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.” (Rom. 13:13) You may not know the hour of Lord’s coming in judgment and glory, but you know at least some of what would need to change if that hour was now. So live as though it is, and help move our broken present into God’s promised future.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Our Lutheran heritage has, at times, become so preoccupied with the heresy of “works righteousness” that we’ve stripped discipleship of any mandate to amend our lives. Let me say that in a slightly different way. In an effort to prove that we understand that it is God’s work in Christ Jesus that saves us, not we who save ourselves through our actions or beliefs, we have settled for doing very little at all and then called that a virtue. We each struggle with this in ways that are products of our history and particular to our nature. Some of us show incredible discipline in our personal lives and relationships, but struggle to connect our faith with the plight of the world in powerful ways. Others make heroic sacrifices for the sake of societal and systemic change, but are ruled by unchecked emotions, compulsions, and reactions.

As we begin a new year in the life of the church, and particularly as we move from the gospel of Luke to the gospel of Matthew, we will notice a renewed emphasis on the positive function of the law and calls to “righteousness,” which for Matthew signal a continuity between the newly emerging church and the Jewish tradition out of which it is being born. This means our faith comes to expression in actions, not just beliefs, opinions, and convictions. We beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. We study non-violence. We speak peace to our relatives and friends and we actively seek the good of our neighbors. We live honorably, avoiding the forms of excess that mock the poor and disrespect the gift of the bodies God has given us.

It is not easy, waking up, being woken up, staying awake. Even in moments like these most recent days, when the news rings out stories more alarming than any clock, still we long to get back to “normal.” To go back to bed. To hide in our dreams. But the time for that is behind us. Now is the moment for a new commitment, a new accountability, an active, costly discipleship that will take things from us we do not want to give up.

But in their place, friends. In their place, salvation. For our bodies and our lives. For our families and our friendships. For our neighborhoods, and the nations, and the planet. Salvation is coming, and is nearer to us now than it has ever been.

Get ready.

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