Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Preached for chapel worship at LSTC on Wednesday, November 4, 2020 – the day after Election Day.

Texts: Revelation 7:9-17 / Ps. 34:1-10, 22 / 1 John 3:1-3 / Matthew 5:1-12

View this sermon, posted to the LSTC YouTube channel.

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It’s been almost a week since I deleted the social media apps on my phone. At some point I finally realized that my 6am doom-scrolling was not only a miserable way to begin my day, but that it was actually impacting my mental health. I was learning nothing new from the breathless barrage of think pieces about the election, but I was exhausting my overloaded nervous system with headlines and takeaways that kept my body awash in adrenaline with nowhere to flee and no one to fight. I faced a similar decision once again last night, choosing to break my quadrennial tradition of staying awake through the long hours of the night to wait for an announcement of the projected winner in the presidential election, or at least the determination that no winner could yet be declared. Instead, as it became clear that we would not know for another day or longer, I took myself to bed and prayed for the gift of sleep.

In place of all the panic inducing media, I have been attempting to meditate for a few minutes each day, to order my thoughts and to return to myself. Sitting a few days ago, listening to a guided meditation, I was invited to reflect on the divine qualities of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity by inviting the memory of someone who has loved me unconditionally to come to mind. Then I was asked to imagine that person speaking to me, addressing me with the following:

“May you be caring towards your own body and mind.”

“May you see your own limits compassionately.”

“May joy fill and nourish you, always.”

“May you be open to the true nature of life.”

Sitting in silence, imagining my mother’s voice speaking words of blessing and hope, I could feel my body come alive, my heart expand, my mind shaking off its fears, and my soul reaching forward. Addressed by the memory of love, things seemed possible that only minutes before had seemed unlikely at best.

This is how I imagine the crowd might have received Jesus’s words of blessing, his beatitudes, as he began the sermon on the mount. For much of my life I have heard the beatitudes as a sort of index of salvation, a catalogue of the qualities I would need to develop in order to find favor with God. It didn’t matter that I was raised with and confirmed into a clear knowledge of salvation by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9), because I was also being formed in a parallel process by the world’s catechism of competition and consumerism, self-reliance and scarcity. I knew that God was good, and I feared that I was not good enough.

It has taken time, years really of listening to people’s stories, for me to not only understand but to really trust that I am not alone in my fears and self-doubts. The world has not hurt us all in the same way, nor to the same extent, but we have all been wounded. Some have been taught to hate themselves, and some have been taught that hate is the price of belonging. Some have been taught to expect nothing but sorrow, and others that grief is an unacceptable weakness. Some have been taught to make themselves small, and others to align themselves with greatness. Our wounds, these patterns and habits, we inherited them so early that it was easy enough to confuse them with our very selves. They function as prisons and, sometimes, we collude with them by confusing them with the deepest truth about ourselves, becoming collaborators with our own oppression.

Each of the gospels chooses its own way to present the beginning of Jesus’s ministry that says something about how it understands Jesus. Mark begins with an exorcism. Luke with a sermon before the hometown crowd. John with the miracle at Cana. In the gospel of Matthew, the sermon on the mount is presented as the summary of what Jesus has been teaching as he moved throughout Galilee. It functions as a sort of inaugural address. Matthew’s Jesus comes to us in the form of a teacher. Like Moses descending Mount Sinai with the life-giving law, Jesus calls the disciples and addresses the crowd as an instructor in righteousness. So, as any good teacher knows, you have to meet the students where they are and build on what they’ve already been taught. This means that, for Jesus, the first lesson is to address head on their miseducation on the topic of their value as human beings and where they stand in God’s economy.

When Jesus calls out the categories of blessing, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek …” he isn’t presenting the ruler by which the crowd will be measured. He is describing the people in front of him. The crowds that “followed [Jesus] from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (Mt. 4:25) were hungering and thirsting for righteousness. They were the poor and the persecuted, the meek and the mourners. They might have been familiar with the text of Psalm 70, and they were certainly familiar with the lament it voices,

“But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God!

You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay!” (Ps. 70:5)

And so, here is where I want to pause and return to the reality of the moment we are living in as we gather for worship this morning. It is the day after the election and there is no clear outcome yet. We are waiting. But we are not just waiting for the votes to be counted. We are waiting for justice. We are waiting for an end to the hatred and division that have ripped our neighborhoods and our nation apart. We are waiting for families separated at the border to be reunited. We are waiting for an end to police brutality directed at and the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people. We are waiting for a real response to the all-encompassing crisis of climate change. We are waiting for the basic pre-conditions of an abundant life: clean water, housing, and healthcare to stop being treated as luxury commodities and to be redistributed as the birthright of all God’s children. We are waiting for the dismantling of nuclear armaments that have not gone away, even if we’ve stopped talking about them. We are waiting for homes free from domestic violence and workplaces free from harassment. We are waiting for that day when the sacred reality queer people’s relationships, and trans and non-binary people’s lives, are not up for debate in our churches or our courthouses. We are waiting for an end to the diseases and health conditions that do not impact us all equally. We are waiting for the end of COVID. We are waiting and waiting and waiting and we don’t know how much longer we can wait! 

O Lord, do not delay!

(breathe)

“May you be caring towards your own body and mind.”

“May you see your own limits compassionately.”

“May joy fill and nourish you, always.”

“May you be open to the true nature of life.”

(breathe)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the commonwealth of heaven.”

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will perceive God.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the commonwealth of heaven.”

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven …”

Blessed are you.

Blessed are you.

Blessed are you.

Imagine it now. Form the picture in your mind. See the face. Hear the voice speaking to you from the heart of God’s love. Blessed are you. Feel your heart open. Let your body unclench. Shake the fears from your mind. Yearn your soul towards its future.

Jesus, the teacher, has many lessons to teach and many assignments to give. Later on he will tell them about the power of small things, seeds and yeast and mustard trees. Later on they will learn what happens when you plant this gospel in the ground. But today, while the crowds have gathered ‘round and the whole world is waiting, Jesus blesses those who would follow him with words of compassion and lovingkindness and patience and joy

Finally, a post-script on joy:

We are trying to do many things, perhaps too many things, with today’s worship service. It is not only the day after the election, but it is also the day on which we are observing All Saints Day. Very shortly we will read aloud as a part of the prayers of the people the names of those who have died in the last year. Here at LSTC we are grieving the deaths of the Rev. Dr. Cheryl Stewart Pero and the Rev. Paul Landahl, losses that evoke the memory of other saints from this community who now rest in God’s power and presence. These names represent the smallest fraction of those whose lives have now ended. Some welcomed their deaths at the end of long lives lived well. Nevertheless, they are missed. Some had their lives stolen from them by act of violence, the acute violences of murder and abuse and the chronic violences of oppression and neglect. This year we are especially mindful of all the lives that were taken by the COVID pandemic, losses which in some cases might have been preventable. We are not only mourning, but we are raging.

In the context of that grief and anger, joy may feel out of place. Take for example the hymn that will send us out at the close of worship this morning, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Given all that we are suffering right now, how can we take part in singing a song whose joy can barely be contained by its Dixieland melody? 

Let me suggest, however, that joy is a revolutionary act, precisely at moments like this. Joy is written into the creeds that accompany the act of baptism, the declaration that though Jesus was “born under Pontius Pilate, suffered death and was buried” that “on the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God” and that we are those who “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world yet to come.” Joy is our rebellion against every voice that would teach us to sit down and shut up. Joy is the shape of the pruning hook for which we traded our spears. Joy is the sound of shackles falling from our feet. Joy is our soul’s response to the voice of Jesus, speaking from the heart of God, calling us blessed.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 1, 2015: All Saints Sunday

Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9  +  Psalm 24  +  Revelation 21:1-6a  +  John 11:32-44

I think I have cried more in the last two weeks than I have in the last two years. Two weeks ago was the Sunday before our last Sunday in the old sanctuary. It was the Sunday we welcomed new members into our congregation; the Sunday we recognized Betty and Kay for their years of service to St. Luke’s; it was the Sunday Callie and Megan offered their stirring testimony to the ways our life together has strengthened and equipped them to live out their faith during times of radical change and deep loss. IMG_0158As I stood in the back of the sanctuary singing the final verse of the sending hymn it suddenly hit me that we’d just finished our last “ordinary” service in that space. The following week, last week, was an extraordinary service: there were dozens of visitors and guests on hand to assist with our leave-taking, special music planned and prepared for the day, rites to help us release those spaces where we’d heard the word, felt the water, tasted the meal. It was extraordinary in every sense of the word, but the previous week had been extraordinary in its own way because it marked the end of our ordinary pattern of gathering for worship together in that space — and I only realized that after it was already over. That was the beginning of the tears.

I cried that afternoon, after everyone had left the building, and then I cried pretty much every day of the week leading up to our final service. I would be reading the lyrics of the beautiful piece the choir sang,

“we are not yet what we shall be … but we are moving toward it, the process is not yet finished. This is not the end, but this is the road”

and I would break into tears. I would be packing my office and run across a picture or a news clipping or a binder filled with minutes from some Council meeting almost a decade ago, and suddenly I would be flooded with memories of all the late nights, all the arguments, all the victories, all the moments of deepening friendship and trust built in that place, and I would begin to weep.

Looking back, our departure from the building that had been this congregation’s home for over a century was stunningly fast. We’d been talking about it for a few years, but once the decision was made the time from listing to sale to moving out was unbelievably short. Still, there were so many decisions to be made and so much work to be done that there was no time to linger with feelings. I had a brief period of melancholy right after the building sold, but then we were all focused on crossing items off our many, many to-do lists.

Last Sunday we got to the finish line and we said our goodbyes so gracefully, so lovingly. I was so proud of you, of us. We did a very hard thing, and we did it well.

IMG_0111The moving trucks came the very next day and Gretchen and I watched as everything you’d spent the last three months packing was whisked away in just a few hours. Anything that wasn’t taken was hauled away as junk, and by Monday night the building was almost completely empty. It looked rough, like a strong wind had blown through the halls, leaving scuff marks and packing tape and leaves sucked in from the street. It looked like the emergency room of a hospital after the crisis has passed and the doctors and nurses have left, but before the custodians come in to clean. It looked like there had been a struggle between life and death.

Tuesday afternoon the cleaners came. They dusted the pews, they swept and mopped all the floors. They took their time with it. I thought of that woman who’d knelt at Jesus’ feet anointing them with oil before he died. Something lovely before the grave. Then they left, and I was alone in the building.

IMG_0140With the final walkthrough scheduled for 9am the next morning, this was my last chance to say goodbye to our home. I took my time with it, walking through each room and remembering the stories you’d told me over the years that filled those spaces. The Sunday School classes you have taught. The high school dances back in the old loft. The spaghetti suppers in the hall. I stood in the Lesher Lounge, emptied of all its furniture and remembered that board room table so many of us have spent long nights sitting around, wondering where the money would come from. I passed through the offices, hearing your voices again as you told me you were getting married, going through a divorce, leaving for school, worried about your children, searching for work, grieving the death of your loved ones, questioning your faith, and I wept.

IMG_0174Then I walked down those back stairs from my office to the sanctuary. It was night by then so I turned on the lights and listened to my footsteps echoing through that cavernous room. I climbed up in the pulpit one last time, feeling grateful that I got to learn how to be a preacher in that place. I laid my hands on the altar and remembered the deep honor it had been to preside at the Lord’s Supper in that sanctuary, to get to sing in a room that sang along with us. In the quiet dark I chanted the liturgy one last time, “The Lord be with you…” and listened to my voice echo back to me.

IMG_0169I sat down in the cathedral chair where I’ve sat for the last nine years and spent the next forty minutes in prayer. When my thoughts finally turned to plans for this morning’s worship, I knew I’d begun to move on and that it was time to go. Walking one last time down that center aisle, I saw you in your usual places. There’s Bev, in the pew behind the piano so she can get to it quickly. There’s Katie near the aisle. Hope is three pews in on the left; Charles and Marco used to sit in front of her. Dea and Betty across the aisle to the right, with Bill and Judi just behind them. A couple rows back is where Ben and Heather used to sit, with Scott and Kenneth toward the side aisle. Closer to the back Justine has slipped in next to Christa and Kerry, who’s ready to slip out. Behind them in the back corner are Pat and Dorothea, and on the very back pew — the one with the little brass placard designating it for the “men of the usher board” — are Iván and Victoria and Níco, or Cathy and Alex along with Soli, Isaiah and Hanna. Standing inside the frame of the back door I look down and see Eugene sitting there, and I check reflexively to see if there are offering plates for the ushers. Then I cry some more.

Our lives are filled with spaces where the living and the dead, the present and the absent, meet. At this time of year in particular we are sensitive to the grief of loved ones who will not be with us for Thanksgiving or for Christmas. Some are removed from us by distance or by conflict, others have died and their absence is as real as the person sitting next to us. We are people filled with tears, people with so many reasons to weep. Even if her words aren’t our own, we understand the sentiment, the pathos, behind Mary’s painful accusation, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

So often when we speak of God, we speak of life. We focus on the miracle stories where Jesus heals the blind and raises the dead. It creates in our imaginations a false parallelism between good and evil, life and death. Death itself, however, is not evil or a sign of God’s absence. Death is the price of living, it is an integral part of the gift of life. God, who creates all that is out of nothing, is not confined by death. Instead, in Jesus, God demonstrates a passionate solidarity with all the pain and mess of life and death. God does not skip over the hard parts, the heartbroken parts, or the painful parts. God does not avoid the questions grief asks. God can take the anguish and the anger behind all our “whys.” Why does everything change? Why did we have to leave? Why have things turned out so differently than we planned? I was going to be buried there. We were going to be married. He was going to be a grandfather. Lord, if you had been here …

Jesus’ response to Mary’s hard words is not to take them away from her, but to join her in her grief. The translation we’re given is far too tepid, “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” keeping Jesus somehow stately in the middle of this moment of suffering. The Greek suggests something more like, “he churned with anger and anguish.” In Jesus, God has an entirely human response to the death of his friend Lazarus. He is distraught, and he weeps.

Even when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, it is not a repudiation of death. Jesus does not put an end to dying. Scripture doesn’t suggest that Lazarus won’t go on to die again. Jesus himself explains that this sign is intended to stir belief. Instead of denying death, this sign is intended to demonstrate that our God is the God of the living and the dead. That there is no state of being, neither life nor death, that can separate us from the power and presence of God. Having raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus will next go to his own grave. Death is not to be feared, but grief is real and must be embraced. So Jesus weeps.

IMG_0218Friends, we have been working very hard for a very long time. Now we have arrived at the first of what may be a series of interim locations on the way to whatever our future holds. There will be new challenges in the new year, because that’s simply what it means to be alive. We are constantly being changed. But now it is time for a season of rest. Now is the time to turn towards one another and weep with those who weep, to rejoice with those who rejoice. Now is the moment when our memory and our imagination come together so that we can still see the faces, remember the names, hear the stories. Now is the time to worship God, who holds our past in trust and prepares our futures with hope. God, who does not abandon us in times of sorrow, but joins us in weeping, and gently wipes away our tears.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 2, 2014: All Saints Sunday

Texts:  Revelation 7:9-17  +  Psalm 34:1-10, 22  +  1 John 3:1-3  +  Matthew 5:1-12

I keep icons in my office of the saints that inspire me. I have one of RLHENHenri Nouwen, the Dutch priest who wrote beautifully about the connection between spirituality and social justice and who lived in community with adults with developmental delays. I have one of RLSTBSteve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist who said “Black is beautiful” and who reminded all of us who live with oppression on a daily basis that the first step to liberation is to “begin to look upon yourself as a human being.” I have one of RLHRMHarvey Milk, the gay activist and San Francisco politician who didn’t enter the public arena until after he’d turned forty, and who paved the way for wider social acceptance of LGBTQ people long before anything like the modern movement existed by speaking into the enforced silence of the closet and insisting that “you gotta give them hope.”

These particular icons were painted by robertRobert Lentz, a Franciscan friar who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, a northern neighborhood in the Washington, D.C. metro area who studied traditional Byzantine iconography in a Greek Orthodox monastery, but whose own passion is depicting the ordinary and unacknowledged saints whose lives are not always recognized as holy. In his collection of saints there are images of RLCCZCesar Chavez and RLDRDDorothy Day, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mother Jones, Albert Einstein and Mohandas Gandhi. None of these people have ever been “canonized,” or recognized RLECSRLMOJas saints, by the Roman Catholic church to which Lentz belongs, not all of them are even Christians, but taken together they help me imagine the “great multitude that no one could RLABERLMOGcount, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” described in the passage we heard read from Revelation this morning (7:9).

I also keep photographs in my office of Kerry, and my parents and sister, and close friends who have accompanied me through life. These are my personal saints on my private altar, my reminder that all life is holy and that my life is holy too. I’m sure you do the same, whether they be school photos stuck to your refrigerator with magnets, framed portraits hung on your walls, old prints organized into albums, or pictures taken with your phone and posted to Facebook. It’s almost instinctive how we surround ourselves with images of the people, past and present, who remind us of who we are and who we want to become.Christmas, 2009 014

In a world before smartphones and Polaroids, before even photography, the most accessible way to preserve an image of a person wasn’t with a camera but with words. Families passed favorite stories, paradigmatic tales, of one another down through the generations as they gathered around tables for sumptuous meals, or as they worked side by side in the fields. Just as with photographs, we could see our family resemblance to one another in the attitudes and actions taken by our ancestors in similar situations.

It’s interesting to think about the Beatitudes as photographs of a kind, word pictures crafted so succinctly that you could memorize them like a poem and carry them with you the way I used to keep senior pictures taken in high school in my wallet to keep faraway friends near to me, the way we whip out our phones to share pictures of our children, or nieces and nephews, or students.

To the crowds of people who’d followed him, hoping for a word of teaching that would put his acts of healing and liberation into a form they could carry with them wherever they went, Jesus said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

What pictures come to your mind when you hear the names of those Jesus calls blessed?

Is there a face from your past or present that represents “the poor in spirit”?

Who in your life is the one who mourns?

Do you have a picture in your mind of “the meek”?

Do you keep company with “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”?

Do you have a story to tell about the person in your life who has shown mercy?

Do you know anyone who is “pure of heart”?

Is there a name or a face that defines for you what it means to be a peacemaker?

Can you identify with those who are persecuted for their attempts to live a righteous life?

Do you have a story from your own life when your commitment to a life of discipleship has evoked harsh words and condemnation?

We surround ourselves with these images from our past and our present, names and faces of people who have lived by faith in the hope of a new heaven and a new earth, of a resurrected life, where the blessings of God would be shared equitably among all people. They sit not only on our desks, but next to us in these pews, all around us in this neighborhood. We have welcomed them into our congregation at the font, as we did this past year with Deacon Adams and Isaiah Swanson. We have given thanks for the witness of their lives at the time of their death, as we have this past year with Ramon Nieves, Lila Voss, Louise Ambuel, Andy Miller, Ernesto Garcia, and now our brother ST_LUKES_PORTRAIT_Select-0144Eugene Walawski. We have shared dinner with them, family style, around tables blessed by homemade food. We have met them at the Logan Square monument to cry out for peace, to mourn the murder of a homeless man, to march for affordable housing. We have danced with them on the Boulevard under late summer skies, and we will celebrate with them once again on that final day when we all gather before the throne worshipping God and giving thanks for the blessings of this life, “singing, Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Rev. 7:12)

Brothers and sisters, we are all saints of God, we are all wearing the white robes of our baptism, we are all inheritors of God’s vision where the people of God are a blessing to those who are poor in body or spirit, those who are meek or who mourn; where the promises made at this font to work for justice and peace throughout the world are honored together so that the peacemakers and the activists and the persecuted and the outcasts are never alone, but always surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses of saints and martyrs of every time and place and also by us, here and now.

We, who are still in the middle of the great ordeal, have been given to each other as a blessing. Look at each other. Memorize the faces you see here. Learn to look upon the face of your neighbor as though you were seeing their image through the light of these votives, as though each person you encountered was among God’s elect. Carry these faces with you wherever you go, knowing that God’s face is revealed among us.

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)

Amen.

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