Sermons

Sermon: Saturday, December 8, 2018: The Ordination of Allison Bengfort

The following sermon was preached at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago‘s Augustana Chapel on the occasion of the ordination of the Rev. Allison Bengfort, who was a student of mine when I was the pastor with St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square. Pastor Bengfort now serves St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Wilmette, IL.

Texts: Exodus 3:1-12  +  Psalm 46  +  Romans 12:1-18  +  Luke 4:16-21

IMG_1892A few weeks ago, just before Thanksgiving, my husband and I took our dog and headed west to Galena, a former mining town that’s now pretty much a resort area near the Mississippi River. We picked the lodge where we stayed because it was dog-friendly, and we didn’t want to have to board our puppy for the weekend, but the thing I was most looking forward to was the wood-burning fireplace in our room.

I love fire. Maybe it’s just that I like to be warm. During the winter when I was a boy, I would sit in front of the heating vents in the dining room with a blanket wrapped around me and pressed up to the wall to make a tent and trap all the hot air. If she was nice to me, I’d let my sister join me. But fires aren’t just about the warmth they give off. They are powerful. The process of combustion allows us to cook our food, heat our homes, power our cars, generate electricity. It also poses a threat, think of all the Christmas trees drying out near burning candles this season, or the wildfires in California that devastated the land, incinerating homes and leading to the loss of just over a hundred lives. Fire, by its very nature, consumes.

4.12.18 Particulate Matter From California Wildfires Linked to Cardiovascular and Cerebrovascular Events

As we settled into our room, I immediately set to work building a fire in the fireplace. I stacked the wood perfectly on the wrought iron hearth, nestling smaller pieces of wood near the bottom, just above the rolls of newspaper I’d tucked below the bars. Once I was satisfied that I’d done everything right, I struck a single match and quickly lit the kindling, blowing lightly at the base of the quickly spreading fire to fan the flames. “One match,” I bragged to my husband, as the fire began to roar. I cracked open a book and settled into the comfiest corner of the living room sofa. It didn’t take long for my eyes to grow heavy, and for me to fall asleep.

Napping in front of the fireplace is exactly what I’d wanted out of that weekend. I’d arrived at the lodge feeling drier than the wood stacked in the corner of the room. I was dried out by the effort to keep up with all the work on my various to do lists. I was dried out by a news cycle that continuously fanned the flames of my despair and anger at the world as it is. I was dried out by a season of grief that was burning through every reserve of strength in me. I was being consumed.

IMG_1975The thought, therefore, of presenting my body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, is somewhat terrifying. Because I have to confess to you all that there have been times in my ministry when I have done this, when I have placed my life on the altar of my calling and watched it burn. There have been weeks when I barely saw my husband. There have been seasons in which I read nothing for pleasure. There have been years that flew by in which my focus was so singularly on the health and well-being of the church, that my own health and well-being suffered. Studies on clergy health offer me only the consolation that I am not alone in these bad habits.

Perhaps it’s gauche to talk about clergy burnout on the day of Allison’s ordination, but I prefer to think that I am holding true to the promises I made in my ordination, not to offer false security or illusory hope. To pretend that there is not a fire burning in the church and in the world would be both. There is a fire burning, across the church. When I began my ministry in Chicago a little over a decade ago, there were approximately 220 congregations in our synod. I don’t have the precise number in front of me, but I believe we’re closer to 180 now. That’s a 20% decline a decade. It’s not just us, the ELCA. The Pew Research Center, which has been reporting for years on demographic shifts in religious identity and practice, places our experience in the broader context in which Christian affiliation, particularly among young adults, is declining and the number of those who do not identify with any organized religion, Christianity or otherwise, is on the rise. 

As this fire continues to burn, all sorts of things are being consumed, not just the cherished buildings that can no longer be maintained, but traditions that no longer speak to new generations and assumptions about where and how people will choose to spend their time and money. Here at the seminary, it can feel like we’re preparing class after class of smokejumpers, parachuting into ecclesiastical wildfires all across the religious landscape, to bring life-giving water to people and places that can no longer even name the ways in which they are parched.

66719It is with heart and mind singed by these relentless temperatures that I find myself once again transfixed by the image from Exodus of Moses standing before the burning bush. When Moses first sees it, he says, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”

Yes, this is the miracle I need, in every part of my life, to observe a living thing, burning but not consumed. Could it be true? Could it be true for our world and our nation? Could it be true for our church and its congregations? Could it be true for my life and my future? Can a thing burn and not be consumed?

In his blessing to me and Kerry on the day of our wedding, my father offered the following insight about the power of combustion. He said,

“On the farm where I was raised, my father’s arc welder did its work by bringing close — but always with a critical space between — two highly charged points. The energy, light, and heat is generated by the difference between the two. May you trust the arc of power that is created today as you draw together in this marriage.”

What an important reminder. The arc of power that allows the welder to sustain its flame is directly related to the space between the two points. The difference between them. This is what Paul seems to be saying when he reminds us that we have gifts that differ, even as we are part of one body. That is true in marriage as well as in the church, and it is the source of the power that fuels each of them. For the arc welder to work, the points must separate — but not too distant. It’s a delicate balancing act, respecting our differences while maintaining our common bond. 

We are living in a time commonly described as being polarized. A recent report titled “The Hidden Tribes of America” summarizes research confirming what most of us intuitively sense: that in our public life, 

“we have become a set of tribes, with different codes, values, and even facts. In our public debates, it seems that we no longer just disagree. We reject each other’s premises and doubt each other’s motives. We question each other’s character. We block our ears to diverse perspectives. At home, polarization is souring personal relationships, ruining Thanksgiving dinners, and driving families apart. We are experiencing these divisions in our workplaces, neighborhood groups, even our places of worship. In the media, pundits score points, mock opponents, and talk over each other. On the Internet, social media has become a hotbed of outrage, takedowns, and cruelty — often targeting total strangers.”

Compare that lived experience with the advice Paul offers to the church in Rome:

“I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned … Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” (Rom. 12:3,9-11)

Paul continues on with prescription for the fever heat that burns through our body politic: bless, rejoice, weep, associate, live peaceably with all.

Allison, you chose a set of texts for this day that speak plainly about God’s vision for a world liberated and restored: the liberation of the Israelites from Pharaoh, the proclamation of good news to the poor, release to the incarcerated, and freedom for the oppressed. What I want you to hear today is this: God’s dream for the world is not a job description for pastors, though this vision does appear in another set of sacramental vows.

When you were brought to the font, and each time we affirm our baptism, we remember and renew our promise to live among God’s faithful people, to receive the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for peace and justice in all the earth. We offer our lives as a sacrifice in service of God’s great love for the world, and we ask God to help and guide us. We all make these vows. All of us, together.

All of us, together. That is the only way this fire can burn bright enough to cast the hopelessness from our hearts, the only way this fire can burn hot enough to clear away the undergrowth and prepare the landscape for whatever seeds God is now planting for the future. All of us together, that is how we burn without being consumed. That is the good news already fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. All of us in, no one left out. 

There is power in fire, in the arc that spans the distance between people and tribes, between us and God. Today we pray for that power, that fire, to be poured out on Allison, to cover her without consuming her. We pray for the Holy Spirit to come, to warm our hearts, to bless this pastor, to restore the church, to flood the world.

Come, Holy Spirit, come!

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Sermons, Uncategorized

Sermon: Sunday, January 8, 2017: Baptism of Our Lord

Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9  +  Psalm 29  +  Acts 10:34-43  +  Matthew 3:13-17

First words are significant, not only for babies but for adults as well.  First words create first impressions, which set the tone for new relationships.  When learning a new language one of the first things you’re taught is how to introduce yourself correctly — because we all know, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

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“Baptism of Jesus” by artist, He Qi

In today’s gospel reading we hear the first words spoken by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus comes to be baptized by John, who is scandalized by the idea that the one to whom he has been deferring in his ministry comes to the river and would defer to him.  John says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  Jesus replies, his first words, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:14-15).

Jesus speaks for the first time, and he speaks about righteousness.  Righteousness will be a major theme in Jesus’ teaching throughout this gospel, so it makes sense that Matthew’s gospel uses his first statement to establish this idea.  Right from the start, a question is introduced: what is righteousness?  On face value the word means “carrying out the revealed will of God, acting in accordance with moral or divine law.” We see that definition operating here, as Jesus will be revealed throughout his life as the one who carries out the will of God, and who reveals God’s will for all of creation.

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Baptism or Our Lord, detail, stained glass

It’s hard to use phrases like “God’s will” however, without introducing all sorts of other questions.  Questions like, “What is God’s will for all of creation?” and “What does it mean to act against or outside of God’s will?” and “What happens to those who act against God’s will?” which in turn often leads to, “Who are you to tell me what God’s will is?”  Discussions of God’s will get scary because they are so often paired with people claiming to speak for God, placing God on their side.  That kind of moralism can be terrifying.  Preaching in the wilderness about the righteousness of God, John the Baptist drew people to the River Jordan to be baptized after they’d confessed their sins (Mt. 3:6).  Baptism became for them a sign of being washed clean of their various failures.   And, having been made clean, they felt more comfortable looking around at all the “dirty” people of the world and calling them to righteousness.

One of my best friends from childhood is now married with three children.  Shortly after the birth of her first son, she confessed to me over a couple of beers that she didn’t plan to have him baptized.  “When I think of baptizing him, all I can think is that these people are judging my child.  That they think he’s tainted with some invisible stain.  That he’s already somehow a sinner, and that he needs to be baptized to be saved.  But I gave birth to him, and I look at him – even when he’s crying or making me miserable — and I don’t see a sinner.  I see my child and I’m filled with love.”

I have to admit that this made me sad.  Less so that her child wasn’t being baptized and more that, to her, baptism was evidence of the church’s judgment of her child.  That the church is a community of people who would only see her child the way she sees him, through the eyes of love, if he conformed to the church’s rites and rituals.  To see the church this way is to see a community not so much made righteous by the gift of baptism but made self-righteous by the assumption that they possessed something everyone else needed to come to them for. Sad, because baptism isn’t something that the church owns and dispenses at our own discretion.  It’s not our righteousness being shared with the unrighteous. It’s the righteousness of God being shared freely with the whole world.

In this morning’s reading from Acts we hear Peter preaching one of his great sermons as the meaning of his baptism becomes clearer to him.  In the chapters preceding this one Peter has come in contact with a Gentile named Cornelius and his family – people that Peter would not have eaten with, much less baptized, as a matter of religious law.  But Peter receives a vision from heaven along with the command, “what God has called clean, you must not call profane.”  In response, Peter baptizes Cornelius and his entire family and forever changes the church’s understanding of baptism.  No longer for the people of Israel only, for the ritually pure, for the insiders, Paul explains his actions beginning with the words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…”

baptismfontThis is the gift God offers to the world — and to you. Despite our preoccupation with who has more and who has less, baptism is the sign that God shows no partiality. The same rain that falls on the just and the unjust alike (Matt. 5:25) fills the lakes and streams that feed the fonts from which we baptize. When we bring our children to these fonts, we are offering them up as living sacrifices to a vision for the future in which we all belong to each other the way we already belong to God. When we come as adults to this font, we are making a public statement about our deep longings to participate in the reign of God, to live lives of righteousness and holiness that make us family with those the world denies and rejects.

The righteousness of God, which sounds like fire and brimstone to some of our ears, which sounds like judgment is, in fact, God’s mercy made tangible, given to us in ordinary things we can see and touch and eat and drink.  The righteousness of God is love and mercy opened wide for all to experience.  The righteousness of God brings an end to fears of not measuring up to other people’s expectations of what it means to be a good Christian, or a good parent, or a good spouse, or a good child.  The righteousness of God means setting all that aside and being made new – a new body that is all of us together, a new family that is the whole world.

Jesus enters the waters of baptism and receives the gifts of God, the blessing of the Holy Spirit, just like so many of us have — at the hands of imperfect people, people like John the Baptist (or even me !) — and that is, as Jesus says, proper.  It is proper that we receive the gifts of God from the hands of ordinary people, made holy by God.  That is the meaning of Jesus’ first words about righteousness.  He is saying something to us about how we are to see each other, the way God sees us, the way my friend sees her baby boy, like parents who are falling in love with their children.  With hearts that tender.

Jesus uses his first words to declare and describe the righteousness of God.  God rushes to the waters to hear these first words of the child, bursting with pride that the child has heard rightly, that the child understands the righteousness God has sent this child to give away.  God says to this child, and to you, and to me, “this is my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Two short months from now it will already be Lent and we, along with churches throughout the world, will walk with those preparing to be baptized at Easter. Today, as we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, it is my duty and my delight to offer this invitation to all who have not yet received the gift of baptism: May we baptize you? Not because you are any more dirty or fallen or prone to failure than the rest of us, but because you — like every human being — are beautiful and good and God’s. May we baptize you?

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, October 9, 2016: Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-15c  +  Psalm 111  +  2 Timothy 2:8-15  +  Luke 17:11-19

man-silhouetteThis man is revolting. He is rotten, inside and out. He is toxic, and whatever he’s got, it is spreading. It spreads from person to person, and if we’re not careful it will consume our whole nation. There is a place for folks like him, and it’s not among decent people. If it were up to me we’d send him somewhere we’d never have to see him again.

But somehow he’s still here. Despite the obvious rot, he is still treated as though he is a person of substance, a person deserving our attention and respect. Why is that? How is it that this man believes there to be one set of rules to govern the majority of people and a different set of rules that apply to him? Is it because he is wealthy? Is it because people are afraid of him, because of his history of combativeness? Is it because his exploits have made other people rich? Is it because he enjoys the favor of the ruling establishment, because he has the endorsement of the nation’s elites? Is that why he thinks he plays by different rules?

You know who I’m talking about, right? His reputation precedes him. He’s the kind of public figure who needs no more than a single name.

He is Naaman.

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By 1530 it had been more than a decade since Luther had presented his 95 theses and launched the Protestant Reformation. Families, cities, and nations were deeply divided and the rhetoric used by each side to describe the other was so inflammatory it might actually make us feel better about our present electoral embarrassments. Writing against the Roman papacy Luther once remarked,

“You are desperate, thorough arch-rascals, murderers, traitors, liars, the very scum of all the most evil people on earth. You are full of all the worst devils in hell — full, full, and so full that you can do nothing but vomit, throw, and blow out devils!”

And you thought “basket of deplorables” was rough? Luther had all the best words. Though Paul still advises us to avoid “wrangling” over them. (2 Tim. 2:14)

In 1530 the Lutherans were tasked with doing more than railing against all they did not agree with and could not support, but to make a positive statement of faith which became one of the most important documents of the entire Reformation, the Augsburg Confession. In it, Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and other early theologians of the Lutheran reform movement found new words to share the good news of the free gift of God’s love, justice, mercy, and liberation. Describing what we have come to know as the doctrine of justification, the Augsburg Confession says,

“It is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our own merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us.” (AC IV)

Later, because we have such a hard time believing that our standing before God has everything to do with God’s grace and nothing to do with our goodness, the Lutherans had to write an explanation and defense of all they’d written in the Augsburg Confession, so they expanded their explanation of justification:

“Reconciliation does not depend upon our merits. But if the forgiveness of sins depended upon our merits and reconciliation were by the law, it would be useless. For since we do not keep the law, it would also follow that the promise of reconciliation would never apply to us … For if the promise required the law and condition of our own merits, it would follow that the promise is useless since we never keep the law.” (Apol IV.42)

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Baptisms still take place in the River Jordan.

Still, God does not simply meet us where we are — God graciously changes us, though in practice it can feel like anything but a gift. For Naaman, change came in accepting that he was no better than any other of God’s own people. There was no special water reserved for people like him. There was no elite baptism. God’s love and God’s justice are strong enough that they do not fail to encompass even a narcissistic, belligerent fellow like Naaman; but God’s love and God’s justice do change Naaman who, in the end, takes his place among all God’s ordinary saints, proclaiming that there is no God in all the earth but the one who met Israel in the waters of liberation from slavery, who met them in the crossing of the Jordan as they entered into a promised land, the same God who meets us at the font.

If the story of Naaman is just a story about how God works through ordinary water to heal and restore people to fullness of life, I can accept it. It’s a miracle story from Hebrew scripture that prefigures the Christian sacrament of baptism, so let’s just sing “All Are Welcome” and continue feeling good about ourselves. And if the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is just a bit of Reformation history, passed down through the generations for confirmands to memorize, then I can manage it. It’s one more bit of theology in one more book on one more shelf to be referenced in one more sermon.

But this story and our history is more than that.

The story of Naaman is the voice of our ancestors telling us that there will always be rotten bullies spreading their illness, getting preferential treatment, enjoying the spoils of war and the approval of the nation. Still, God meets them in the water. The power of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is that it tells the truth about me. That too often I believe I have earned my place in this world when in reality my successes are the products of a wide set of factors, many of which I have no control over and for which I can claim no credit: my race, my gender, my class, my nationality.

Even more fundamentally, the doctrine of justification reminds me that I am not a good person. I am filled with anger at others but minimize my own failures. I set goals and intentions for myself that I am not able to keep. I delight in the public embarrassments of those I consider hypocrites and pray that my own hypocrisies will remain hidden. I judge people. I judge them over important things and over petty things. But if I stood before God’s judgment, as I do, as we all do, I would come up lacking. When we stand before God’s judgment, we come up lacking. We are rotten. And still, God meets us in the water.

reformation500-enOur stories and our histories, our confessions and our doctrines, are not abstractions for us to agree or disagree with, they are our attempts to describe reality as we have experienced it in our skin. As we begin this 4-week series looking at the legacy of the Lutheran Reformation at the start of the global observance of its 500th anniversary, we are reminded that our history as a movement within Christianity includes the fact that we were born at a moment no less political, no less violent, no less corrupt, no less horrifying than the one we’re currently in. This week’s outrageous statements shock us, but they should not surprise us. Honestly, we’ve all heard worse. The depth of the divide in our nation scares us, but it should not defeat us. Our nation has been through worse, more than once, and so has the Church. If these recurring atrocities of human nature should convince us of anything, it is that human nature is inherently atrocious.

Therefore, it is a gift when we remember that Christ did not come to reward the righteous, but to save sinners. God did not come looking for perfection, but offering salvation. The Holy Spirit who breathed life into us as the first of many gifts comes to us over and over and over again to heal us, to justify us, to liberate us, to forgive us, to save us. What else can we say in response to such grace, such divine generosity, so many gifts, but “Thank you!”

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