Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, May 25, 2014: Sixth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 17:22-31  +  Psalm 66:8-20  +  1 Peter 3:13-22  +  John 14:15-21

It’s Memorial Day weekend, as we all know, a national holiday originally established to honor the memory of those soldiers who died in the Civil War, but whose purpose has expanded over time to commemorate all Americans who have died while in military service. It’s also a holiday with a connection to our own neighborhood that some of you may know, but which was news to me as I was studying this week in preparation for this sermon.

Statue of General John A. Logan, Grant Park, Chicago

Statue of General John A. Logan, Grant Park, Chicago

There are many stories about how the Memorial Day holiday came to be a national holiday. One central figure in those stories is General John Logan, who was born in Jackson County, Illinois, fought in the Mexican-American War and the American Civil War and went on to serve in both the Illinois and the United States House of Representatives. Logan Square was named for him, and a statue of General Logan atop his horse stands in Grant Park just off East 9th Street.

According to legend, the idea for Memorial Day came from a pharmacist in New York who, in the summer of 1865 as the Civil War was drawing to a close, thought it would be a good idea for communities to remember those soldiers who would not be coming home from the war.  He shared the idea with General John Murray, who, the following May, gathered the surviving veterans of Waterloo, New York to march to the local cemeteries where they decorated the graves of their fallen comrades. When General Murray later shared the story of this commemoration with General John Logan, he issued an order calling for a national observance.

A century later in 1966, as President Lyndon Johnson signed a presidential proclamation naming Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day, this is the story that was told. The reality, however, is that all kinds of similar observances were taking place in the north and in the south during and immediately after the end of the Civil War. All throughout the war, women gathered at the graves of fallen husbands and sons, decorating them so that their sacrifices would not be forgotten. The first widely publicized post-war public commemoration of those who’d died in the war took place in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865 at which nearly ten thousand people, most of them newly freed African Americans, gathered to lay flowers on the graves and to commemorate the lives of the hundreds of Union soldiers who had died there as prisoners of war.  The event was reported on as far north as New York, where it appeared in the New York Times. Historian David Blight of Yale University writes,

“This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.” (Blight, David W., Lecture: “To Appomattox and Beyond,”  oyc.yale.edu)

What seems most important to me is not who celebrated Memorial Day first, but the fact that it happened in so many places, on both sides of the line between north and south, and eventually in ways that honored the lives of all who’d died, whether they’d been defeated or were victorious in their cause. The human impulse was to gather together to remember their sacrifice, and to make meaning of it so that future generations would know how the world was made new.

Something similar is happening, I think, in the passages assigned for our worship this morning.  Though these passages come from a series of readings that are used around the world and therefore take no notice of national holidays, they nevertheless also look back from the vantage point of the Easter resurrection to make sense of the power of a life given in service to God and God’s creation so that future generations would know how the world was made new.

In the Acts the Apostles Paul stands before a crowd of Gentiles in Athens, Greece and declares to them that the God of creation, the One who made heaven and earth, could not be bound to either their temples or their philosophies.  He says, “The God who made the world and everything in it, [God] who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands” (Acts 17:24) and “we ought not think that [God] is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals” (Acts 17:29). God is not a construct of masonry or the mind, so God cannot be tied to a temple or a theology. Instead, Paul says, “in [God] we live and move and have our being … for we too are [God’s] offspring” (Acts 17:28).

Pastor Erik with his mother, Linda Christensen, ca. 1974

Pastor Erik with his mother, Linda Christensen, ca. 1974

A couple of weeks ago my mom sent me a homemade card with a photograph she’d found in a drawer of her in her 20s holding me, probably just under one year old, completely relaxed and asleep in her arms. It’s a great picture, one that helps me to understand the point that Paul is making to the Athenians. As my mother’s offspring, what was most important was not the house we lived in, or my ideas about who she was, but the fact that I could rest in her arms knowing that I was completely safe and known and loved. That relationship, which began with an act of creation, predates my consciousness.  I did not create that relationship, it created me. My relationship to my mother moved with me from one house to the next, even after I left her house to strike out on my own. My relationship to my mother grew as my ideas about her changed with each passing year, because relationships are dynamic and not fixed. My mother is not God, but resting in her arms in a moment before memory I was already learning something about how God holds me, and you, as we journey through our lives.

This, Paul tells the Athenians, is how God relates to each of us — through a living faith that survives the destruction of every temple, and the death of every idea. Knowing how in love we are with our ideas and our edifices, Paul says,

“God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent, because [God] has fixed a day on which [God] will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom [God] has appointed, and of this [God] has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31)

God has appointed a day, a Memorial Day of sorts, on which all people will come to understand the righteousness of God through the sacrifice of a life that changed the world.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGathering decades after his death, the community of John’s gospel told the story of Jesus’ life and remembered that on the night before he died he told them “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (John 14:18). By describing his coming death as act that will leave them feeling orphaned, Jesus takes on the role of their parent. In fact, in the verses just before these Jesus is sitting at the table of the last supper and the disciple whom he loved is described as resting on him. Artists have often depicted this disciple with his head on Jesus’ lap, the way I lay in my own mother’s arms, full of trust and love.

This is the truth about grief that seems particularly useful to name today, as we commemorate Memorial Day. Whether we have lost our parents or our spouses or our children, whether we’ve lost close friends or professional colleagues, the experience of losing someone to death can stir up in us the memory of other losses or the fear of coming losses. Each death, in its own way, can feel like an act of abandonment as we, who are still living, lose the ability to see, and speak to, and touch the ones we’ve known and loved. We feel orphaned.

Speaking with the voice of a parent, Jesus not only promises not to leave his followers orphaned, he promises to ask the Father to send another Advocate to be with us forever. The imagery in these few verses is so rich that it will take us the next few weeks to sort through them all. The fact that Jesus describes the Advocate as the Spirit of truth anticipates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit which we will celebrate more fully on Pentecost in two weeks.  The overlapping language of Jesus speaking as a parent, and to a parent, to send a spirit that will assure us all that we are in Christ, and Christ is in God and in us as well anticipates the festival of the Holy Trinity that follows immediately after Pentecost.

event-05-memorial-day-2002-golden-gate-national-cemetery-1300-sneath-lane-san-bruno-graves-1Remembering Paul’s admonishment that God will not be bound to our ideas about God, we can set aside our questions about these mysteries for the moment to focus on how God in Christ Jesus cares for those who are grieving, as many will be this weekend as they gather near the graves of loved ones who have died in our country’s on-going wars, or who remember other losses just as painful if less public.

Jesus says that God will send another Advocate, to be with us forever.  This provides at least two insights into how God cares for the grieving.  The first part of this promise is that God will send another Advocate, which requires us to acknowledge that, in Jesus, God has already sent us an Advocate. This means that we have already seen how an advocate of God lives and moves and exists in the world. In Jesus we have seen how God heals the sick, feeds the hungry, gives hope to the poor, and organizes the people. In Jesus we have seen how God’s mercy and God’s justice are intertwined. The second part of this promise is that the next Advocate, which is the Spirit of truth, will be with us forever. This is only possible because the Holy Spirit, which is God’s promised Advocate, makes a home inside each one of us, which leads Jesus to say, “on that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20).

God cares for the grieving by giving us to one another. Ours are the ears that listen to the cries of the grieving. Ours are the hands that prepare the food dropped off at the home of those who mourn. Ours are the knees that kneel next to the grave. Ours are the arms that hold the child of God who cannot stand alone. Ours are the hearts that break open and refuse to stay hardened. Ours are the lives that testify to the God of creation, of all things seen and unseen, that look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

This Memorial Day, as we give thanks for the witness of so many who have given the last measure of their lives for the cause of freedom, we remember that the Advocate for our freedom and the freedom of every living person and all of creation is not dead, but is alive in us forever. Sent by the Spirit of truth to a broken, grieving world we offer the testimony of our lives so that future generations will know how the world was made new.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, May 26, 2013: The Holy Trinity

Texts:  Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31  +  Psalm 8  +  Romans 5:1-5  +  John 16:12-15

The "Shield of the Trinity" or "Scutum Fidei" diagram of traditional Western Christian symbolism.

The “Shield of the Trinity” or “Scutum Fidei” diagram of traditional Western Christian symbolism.

Preaching on the Sunday the church commemorates as the festival of the Holy Trinity is full of traps for the preacher, or so I am told.  “Don’t preach doctrine,” I’m advised.  No one wants to hear a sermon on doctrine, especially the doctrine of the Trinity.  It’s a mystery.”  And, the best advice of all: “No flowcharts.”  So, it is with some trepidation that I have ascended into the pulpit this morning to preach, and worse, to preach about the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Holy Trinity is, indeed, a mystery.  But it’s not a mystery the way the pyramids are a mystery, or the way the huge statues on Easter Island are a mystery.  We use the word “mystery” to describe those immense, incredible works of humanity precisely as an invitation for someone to solve the mystery.  Calling something a mystery almost immediately draws us into the role of detective.  Like the old story of the sword in the stone, we approach a mystery wondering if we will be the one to finally release it from its trap.

Or, the other option I suppose, we allow the word “mystery” to scare us away.  “The Holy Trinity?  Don’t bother giving it a second thought, it’s a mystery…”  But that’s not the kind of mystery it is either.  In fact, in the realm of Christianity to say something is a mystery is to say that we are called to spend our lives asking questions of it, probing it for wisdom, being shaped by its knots — but not to solve it.

So, with some humility, let’s spend just a short bit of time on this festival of the Holy Trinity considering its mystery.

To begin, as Christians we are the inheritors of a beautiful and ancient tradition of thinking and speaking about God that comes to us from our Jewish sisters and brothers.

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God.  The Lord is One. (Deut. 6:4)

Shema Yisrael at the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem

Shema Yisrael at the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem

This is the shema, which we read in the 6th chapter of Deuteronomy, the 4th verse, a statement of faith that, for Jews, is about as close to a creed as they get.  It is the basis for what we have come to call monotheism, the belief that there is only one God.  That God is not one among many.

This inheritance is the entry into the mystery.  Not a clue.  Not a piece of evidence.  But a doorway.  We belong to a community with a long and beautiful tradition that has known in its blood that there is only one God.  So whatever the Trinity is, it is not three Gods, but one.

But we who are Christians are also a family marked by a very special relationship to God through the revelation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth: a living human being who was born, who lived as a teacher of the love of God, who spoke the truth to those in power, who was crucified for confronting the authorities of his day, who was raised from the dead (another mystery of the faith), and who assured us that God would send an Advocate to guide us in truth and continue to instruct us in the paths and promises of God.

Jesus spoke during his lifetime about his relationship to God as being like that of a son to a father, but he muddied the waters a bit there. He said cryptic things that we’ve been reading for the last few weeks.  Things like, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father;” (John 14:9) or “I am in the Father and the Father is in me;” (John 14:10) or, this week, “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine” (John 16:14)

Jesus is the second person, the second stopping point, in contemplating the mystery of the Holy Trinity.  Jesus exists as both God and human, giving humanity new access to divinity — and the other way around.  And all this talk about glorification, well… it’s a mystery!  But, as is so often the case with scripture and the words of Jesus, it appears to have something to do with teaching us to see the world as God sees it, not as we do.

When I hear the word “glorify” I tend to think of lifting someone or something up with praise and adoration.  If I’m glorifying you, then I’m assuming the position of a lowly one so as to draw attention to you, the elevated one.  But in Jesus, God is glorified, God is lifted up.  And, Jesus says, God will glorify him, God will lift him up.

Glorification, in the realm of God, becomes something altogether different — not the elevation of one over another by acts of praise; but, instead, the mutual sharing of life together, the revelation that our life is shared in and with each other by acts of love and self-giving.  Part of the mystery of God in Christ Jesus is the radical reorienting of reality that brings God down to earth, that lifts humanity up to heaven, that gives us a shared body to which we all belong.

The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity whom we celebrated last Sunday at the festival of Pentecost, is that Advocate, the presence of God with us that was promised by Christ.  The Holy Spirit is the point in the mystery of the Trinity that breaks open the relationship of God to Jesus and makes that relationship available to each and every one of us.

Here the mystery gets even thicker.  Consider this, that for the first three centuries of the Christian church there was widespread disagreement about the nature of this Holy Spirit.  Was it God?  Was it of the same substance as God?  Was it equal with the Father and the Son?  Those questions weren’t decided formally until the Council of Nicea (from which we get the Nicene Creed) in the year 325.  And, of course, as it is with most decisions in church, the fact that the council voted on it didn’t settle the issue for everyone involved.  People continued to struggle to understand the meaning of the Holy Spirit.

This is a wonderful illustration of the words of Jesus from today’s gospel.  There he says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (John 16:12).  Remember, Jesus is speaking these words at the Last Supper.  They haven’t yet seen him crucified, or raised from the dead, or appearing among them in the locked room.  They aren’t ready yet to understand, much less trust in the mystery of the Holy Spirit.  But centuries later the church was able to look back at all that had happened, all that had been said and taught, as well as their own experience of how God was alive with them, through each other, in the Church and they were able to say something new about God’s unity in community.

Living here on the other side of the resurrection, having experienced the power of God through the church, the child of the Holy Spirit, we are in a position to trust in the mystery of the Holy Trinity — not to understand it, not to solve it, but to trust in it.

The Holy Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev, using the theme of the "Hospitality of Abraham." The three angels symbolize the Trinity, which is rarely depicted directly in Orthodox art.

The Holy Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev, using the theme of the “Hospitality of Abraham.” The three angels symbolize the Trinity, which is rarely depicted directly in Orthodox art.

If we go back to the ancient Hebrew assertion that the Lord is God, the Lord is One, and we pair that with the word from the book of Genesis that gives us these words from God, “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” (Gen. 1:26) then we arrive at one of the many teaching moments of the mystery of the Trinity.  We trust, as a matter of faith, that our God is one.  That’s what we’ve been taught since we were children.  We don’t have three gods, we have God: the three-in one and one-in-three.  And we’ve been taught that we are created in the image of God.  But what does that mean?  Am I three-in-one?  Are you one-in-three?

The power of a mystery of faith doesn’t come from how we untie its knots, but how it unties ours.  Here the mystery of the Holy Trinity addresses one of our most basic errors: that we think we exist alone, in solitary.  That we can be human all on our own, without relationship to anyone else.  That’s certainly how we structure our society.  We create the expectation that each person be able to care for themselves in a very narrow way, economically, and we penalize and humiliate you if that is not possible.  But we don’t do such a good job of noticing all the ways we are interdependent upon one another for things that can’t be measured with dollars: safety, belonging, friendship, wisdom, respect and love.  These things, just as necessary for life, can only come from community.  We cannot live, we cannot be human, alone.  We can only do it together.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu talks about this concept using and word found in the Zulu or Xhosa languages, ubuntu, which means (roughly translated), “people are people through other people.”  We aren’t fully human alone, we are only fully human together.  And the mystery of the Holy Trinity is ready to teach us this: that we are created in the image of a God whose own life takes place in community.  We are made in community just as God exists in community; and we belong to the one body of Christ, just as God is one.

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God.  The Lord is One.

The essence of a mystery, the way we use the word in church, is not to unravel it but to dwell within it.  To let it unravel you, and then bind you back up.  This is just one more way, I suppose, that we are created in God’s image: that we, too, are mysteries.  Each of us many in one, and one among many.  We do not need to be solved, only loved, and that is the gift that the Holy Trinity wants to offer us: the open door to life lived in the communion of God who creates, redeems and sustains us; God who surrounds, accompanies and empowers us; God around us, toward us, through us; God our parent, our sibling, our family.  God in all, for all, forever.

Amen.

 

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, May 19, 2013: Day of Pentecost

Texts: Acts 2:1-21  +  Psalm 104:24-34,35b  +  Romans 8:14-17  +  John 14:8-17,25-27

My god-daughter, Katie Russell, gives her testimony at Vanderbilt Divinity School's baccalaureate service.

My god-daughter, Katie Russell, gives her testimony at Vanderbilt Divinity School’s baccalaureate service.

A little over a week ago, Kerry and I were in Nashville, Tennessee to see my eldest god-daughter, Katie Russell, graduate from seminary at Vanderbilt Divinity School.  You can imagine that for a preacher and pastor like myself, there’s a special pride in watching your godchild graduate from seminary.

The night before the actual graduation, at the baccalaureate service, I got the added pleasure of hearing Katie give her testimony before her colleagues and her faculty.  She was one of a handful of students invited to do so at this closing worship service for a cohort of newly minted pastors who were preparing to be sent out into the world.

As she opened her remarks she used a phrase that was repeated over and over during the weekend.  Referring to her soon-to-be alma mater she said, “here at the School of the Prophets we learned…” School of the Prophets, I soon learned, wasn’t just a compliment being paid by a student to her teachers, or a preacherly turn of phrase, it is part of that school’s self-concept.  Just as so many schools have Latin mottos (the University of Chicago’s is Crescat scientia; vita excolatur or “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched;”  Harvard’s is more simply veritas, or “truth”), the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University names itself in its foundational documents dating back to the 1870s a Schola Prophetarum, a school of prophets.

It’s a name the school takes seriously.  Its mission statement names as one of the school’s primary goals that they will “prepare leaders who will be agents of social justice” who will be “forceful representatives of the faith and effective agents in working for a more just and human society that will help to alleviate the ills besetting individuals and groups.”  The graduation program had a full-page description of the Divinity School’s commitments that explicitly state its opposition to racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, poverty, militarism and the destruction of the environment.

Still, there was something jarring about hearing a group of people refer to themselves so boldly as the “School of the Prophets.”  Maybe its my midwestern upbringing, but it just felt like bragging.  How could they be so bold?  Who died and named them prophets?

Well, as it turns out, Jesus did.

Growing up I thought a prophet was like a fortune-teller, a kind of biblical palm reader who could see the future.  It probably wasn’t until seminary that I myself was asked to really thoroughly read the prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures, what we sometimes call the “Old” Testament.  The prophets of the bible sometimes spoke of future things, but just as often spoke to the present moment.  What made them prophets wasn’t that they told the future, but that they told the truth.  God’s truth.

Jesus — the one who lived, and died, and is rising in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit — says to his disciples shortly before his crucifixion,

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:15-17,25-26)

And, indeed, Jesus is a man of his word.  Throughout these fifty days since Easter morning we have been hearing the stories of the Acts of the Apostles.  We’ve been recalling to ourselves the legacy of a church born in the moment when the Holy Spirit was poured out on those first followers of Jesus, huddled together for safety in the face of a scary world, but filled with power and purpose and sent out for the sake of restoration of God’s good creation.

God’s Holy Spirit fills the church, just as Jesus said it would, and when it does, Peter, their first preacher, remembers the words of another prophet, Joel, who said,

“In those last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…” (Acts 2:17a-b)

In that moment of the church’s birth, Peter acts as a prophet, telling God’s truth that the last days are here.  The new heaven and the new earth are breaking into the ones we have known for too long.  Salvation is for here and now.  It has already begun, and we who are flesh, we who are sons and daughters and heirs with Christ to the fortunes of God’s love are called to act, like the apostles.

Looking back at the Vanderbilt graduation, I can see that I was mistaken.  Or, I wasn’t hearing that phrase, “school of the prophets,” correctly.  My midwestern aversion to pretense was bristling against the notion that these people were calling themselves prophets, when all they were really claiming to be was a school.  Because, you see, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have all been made prophets.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are all called to speak God’s truth to a world burdened by lies.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are all called to dream incredible dreams and given eyes to see a vision of a future reality breaking into the present moment, a vision that makes these “the last days.”

As prophets, all of us, we need schools and churches and so many other places where we can learn about the legacy of which we are inheritors.  We need Sunday School teachers and small group leaders, seminarians and people to lead the adult education hour.  We need parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and godparents who will teach us and shape us as we grow into our prophetic callings.  We need community organizers and event planners to call us to action and to put us to use.  We need faithful servants who fill grocery bags and glean the leftover food waiting in fields both near and far.

Icon of the prophet Amos.

Icon of the prophet Amos.

This is our school of the prophets, one of many God has built in the world, made of living stones.  We are its faculty and we are its students.  As we move out of the season of Easter and into the long summer of “ordinary time,” we’ll actually be reading the stories of the Hebrew prophetsElijah and Elisha, Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah.  We’ll remember how God’s people have been called to tell God’s truth to every age, as we live into our own prophetic calling to act.

This call, the call to action, is daunting to be sure, but we are kept in the promise that we will be filled with the power and the presence of the one who has made us prophets: Jesus, God’s Beloved, rising in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit.

As we commence upon this journey, some of us joining this congregation today, others saying goodbye, all of us being sent for a greater purpose, I want to offer you these words — often attributed to Oscar Romero, but believe to have been written by the Roman Catholic bishop Kenneth Untener of Detroit:

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a small fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about: We plant the seeds that will one day grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing  that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects  far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense  of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it well. It may be incomplete but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

Amen.

 

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