Sermon: Wednesday, August 10, 2016: Proper 14

FullSizeRenderText: Luke 12:32-40

The following sermon was preached at the midweek service held at the Lutheran Center in Chicago, during the week when the ELCA was gathered at its triennial Churchwide Assembly in New Orleans, LA.

Earlier this year the Administrative Assistant at St. Luke’s, the congregation I pastor, came home to find that the apartment she shares with her husband had been broken into and ransacked. As often happens in these sorts of home invasions, there were items of obvious worth that were left untouched and others of tremendous personal value that were taken. In her case, it was the theft of heirloom jewelry that had been passed down through generations of women in her family that was the hardest loss to accept.

As any of you who’ve had your homes or offices broken into know, it’s not only the objects that go missing which are stolen but your sense of safety and belonging as well. It’s hard to look forward to coming home at the end of the day after you’ve come home to find your apartment torn apart. It’s hard to lay your head down and rest when you know that strangers have been in your bedroom and touched your bed or gone through your drawers.

Yet this is the image the gospel of Luke uses to describe the imminent reign of God. “Know this,” Jesus says, “if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Lk. 12:39-40) It’s a very odd ending to a passage that begins with the reassuring promise that “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (12:32)

God's Gift a TheftWhen has God’s gift to you and your people — your family, your co-workers, your community — felt like a theft?

Before likening the coming of the Son of Man to a home intrusion, Jesus encourages those who wait on the Lord to do so like slaves waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet. I have no direct experience of slavery, so any analogy I make runs the risk of trivializing the metaphor, but the emotional sense I get from the scene Jesus describes is one in which those who are patiently waiting know that their master is somewhere else, with other people, enjoying a great feast and celebration, while they are not only patiently waiting, but working well past quitting time, into the late hours of the night.

Have you ever felt like that, like God took the party somewhere else and you were left to keep working, past your capacity, past your quitting point? Like you were waiting for a sense of holiness to return to your labor, to your vocation, but with no idea when or how that might happen?

These images for our experience of discipleship tell the truth about what it can often feel like to follow Jesus in the world. As though the reward for faithful service is having all you’ve known and cherished taken from you. As though the party has moved on, and you were left behind to clean up after hours.

This October I’ll be celebrating my tenth anniversary of ordination. I’m still in my first call, having served alongside the feisty and faithful people of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square through a decade of redevelopment ministry. Over the course of the last ten years we have grown from the seed of about a dozen tenacious elderly members holding on to a dream that their fortunes might one day be restored into a new family tree rooted in Christ with about a hundred people of all ages and many life experiences and rising to serve the many communities that make up the Logan Square neighborhood.


The people of St. Luke’s on the day of leave-taking from their historic home. Reformation Sunday, 2015.

Though I’ve often been asked to share insights into how that growth happened, and I always try my best, I have to say that much of the time it has felt like it was simply God’s “good pleasure to give” us this foretaste of resurrection life. So much of what we tried failed. So much of what worked has been an utter surprise. And in the end, after so much hard work and hope that verged on hallucinations, we still sold our building — a beautiful, century-old, neo-Gothic urban cathedral on a quiet tree-lined street —  and traded it in for a little storefront chapel a mile to the south where we are surrounded by convenience stores and gas stations, where cars and buses are constantly driving by and pedestrians stop to stare through our window, wondering what a church is doing in a place like this.

We’re doing alright. In fact, we’re doing better than alright. Our summer attendance has barely dipped and we’re preparing to launch a second Sunday morning service in the fall. Yet, for many of the elders who bravely held on to their church in the face of long odds, it still feels like something has been stolen from them. Like someone broke into their home at some point over the last decade and took not the most obvious treasures, but the most personal ones. The font is still there. The table is still there. The gospel is still there. The Holy Spirit is still there. But the memories, the names and faces of people gone for decades but remembered as sitting in that pew, or wiping down that sink, or teaching in that classroom — those are harder to conjure up when the architecture that housed the memories is gone. God has given them a great gift, one that has sometimes felt like a theft. They come to worship, or they don’t, because it feels like the party is happening somewhere else with some other group of people, and they’ve been asked to keep working late into the night.


St. Luke’s new storefront worship space on Armitage Ave. in Logan Square.

But just then Jesus provides yet another unexpected role reversal. Not only is the coming Son of Man like a thief that comes at night, but God is like the master of a household who comes home from a party in the middle of the night and instead of heading straight to bed notices those who have waited up, those who kept the lamps burning, those who put in the long hours, those who worked well past quitting time. Those who waited, and then waited some more. God is like the head of house who sees their hard labor and instead of treating them like slaves, fastens a belt and does their work for them, inviting them to come to the table and eat, to be waited upon and refreshed.

These convoluted, surprising reversals in Luke’s gospel tell the truth, at least as I’ve experienced it, about what it’s like to practice my baptism, to minister in and with the Church, to follow Jesus right now, this week, this decade, this moment of tremendous upheaval and change in religious identity and affiliation. It is labor that keeps us up well past the point when we wish we were asleep and yields gifts that feel like losses. Yet the Holy One of God is coming, and in fact is here with us. Yet the reign of God is present, and in fact is among us here and now. The church that has gone missing is being replaced by the Church which is God’s gift to us. An unexpected and unpredictable Church that invests itself completely in what the world considers lost causes, and invites all who labor to come to the table and eat.



Sermon: Sunday, July 19, 2015: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a  +  Psalm 89:20-37  +  Ephesians 2:11-22  +  Mark 6:30-34,53-56

When we left Jesus and the disciples two weeks ago he’d just sent them out in pairs to extend the work of healing the sick and casting out demons that had built him such a following. You’ll remember that after calming a storm, exorcising a spirit, healing a woman who’d been hemorrhaging for years, and bringing a girl back from death, Jesus returned to his hometown and was so limited by the prejudices and expectations of the people who had known him the longest that he could barely accomplish anything there. So he sent his followers out together, traveling light, and they were astonished at the miracles of healing and liberation they were able to accomplish.

This morning we hear that, upon their return, Jesus invites the disciples away to a deserted place so that they can rest. Doesn’t that sound lovely? A deserted place for resting after a season filled with such hard work. I want that for us.

Mark’s gospel says that the disciples were so busy with the great multitudes of people coming and going that they barely had time to stop and eat with one another. So he puts them in a boat and together they find that place of rest. I want that for us as well, that place of rest.

St. Luke's sanctuaryFor a long, long time this has been that place. Our sanctuary is filled with symbols and our worship with practices that echo story after story from scripture. For over a century St. Luke’s has gathered in this room that, like so many other Christian sanctuaries, is shaped like a great boat. When we are in this room we are back in the ark, being carried safely over the waters to new life (Gen. 7-8), we are the disciples sheltered from the storm (Mark 4:35-41), and carried to a deserted place so that we can rest and eat with one another (Mark 6:30-32).

That rest is so important because we are working so hard, every day, to do the work God in Christ Jesus has sent us to do. When we work to set food on the table, we are feeding the hungry. When we wipe the noses and change the diapers, we are healing the sick. When we listen to the complaints of our colleagues and cooperate to create workplace conditions that are fair, we are casting out demons. When we sit with those who are dying, when we tend to those who are ill, when we visit those who are in detention in southern Illinois or along our southern border. When we call our sponsor, or take the call from the person who’s only got a week of sobriety under her belt. And most of the time we do all of this and so much more without thinking too hard about it. We have the faith that is in us, the story of God’s action in our own lives, and the willingness to offer whatever time and resources we can muster in the moment. We are traveling light through each day, and somehow God multiplies what we have to offer into exactly what is needed.

At the end of each day however, we need rest. And at the end of each week, we need to gather in the boat and withdraw to someplace quiet where we can be fed and renewed. For many of us in this room, the church has been that place.

In a world in which so much is changing so rapidly, it is understandable that we long for some things to remain the same.  The kids are growing up so fast — one day they’re learning how to read and the next they’re asking you to teach them how to drive. Our workplace culture is not what it used to be. Gone, for the most part, are the days of lifelong employment with a single company that treats its workers like family.  The neighborhoods in Chicago change just about as often as the weather anymore, with money and real estate development moving as fast as a summer rainstorm.  Confederate-flag-Rainbow-flagOur nation embraces new norms around gender and marriage, and watches as symbols of racism are finally removed from state buildings even as the violence they represent remains deeply entrenched.  Countries once treated as enemies have become allies, and then enemies again. Nothing stays the same. But at least our church, won’t it still be there for us?

After fighting a series of wars with neighboring tribes and then internally in a civil conflict that split the people of Israel, King David brings Israel and Judah together and consolidates his power by establishing his throne in Jerusalem. As he does so he decides to build a temple so that God will have a home as stable and enduring and grandiose as David imagines his reign will be. God has something else in mind.

“I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle,” says the LORD our God, reminding the people of Israel that it was they who had demanded a king, and they who had gone to war, and now they who sought to plant God in a single place and domesticate God like the sheep they kept in their fields. But how do you build a house for the creator of heaven and earth? How do you domesticate the very God who raises up shepherds to lead the people? The answer is, you don’t.

mza_2137192613341920086.600x600-75This past week, as the Council reviewed the offers we’d received for our building, we looked at the terms and finally selected a buyer, New Community Covenant Church, a congregation that has been working and worshipping in this neighborhood for over a decade now.  In their offer, New Community proposed a set of terms, some of which we accepted (such as the price) and some of which we negotiated (like the moving date).

There’s a negotiation going on between God and King David as well.  Though God shares David’s desire to strengthen and reaffirm the relationship between God and God’s people, there are terms that still need to be worked out.  David wants to build God a house and keep God stationary.  God wants David to remember that it is God who has been acting throughout history to give the people a future, and that it will be God who provides a house for Israel and not the other way around. God gestures to the future, and says that the house that will last will be formed will not be made of cedar but of people who will be knit together into one body and shepherded by a ruler whose reign will never end.

The same is true for us.  Although we may desire a relationship with God that comes with the promise that nothing will change, that is not the God we worship. We worship the God who creates something out of nothing. We follow the God of the tent and the tabernacle, a God who is at work in history, always moving from the center to the margin. We are members of a nation that began when God called Abraham to leave his home and set out for lands he’d never seen. We are descended from those who were liberated from the captivity of comfort and learned to be free by wandering in the wilderness. We are a part of the generation that has returned from exile to rebuild the church. We are the ones Christ called to leave our nets and follow. We are members of the body that finds new life on the other side of every death. We are God’s own people (Eph. 1:14).

At the beginning of his most famous work, his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo writes, “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” It is God who is calling us to risk becoming new people in a new place; and God who will go with us when we leave this beautiful sanctuary in search of new places and new ways to worship the One whose presence is unchanging; and it is God who is the far shore, the deserted place, where our hearts will ultimately find rest.



Sermon: Sunday, February 1, 2015: Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Deuteronomy 18:15-20  +  Psalm 111  +  1 Corinthians 8:1-13  +  Mark 1:21-28

Paul writes “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1) and Jesus enters the synagogue where he teaches “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22) Read side-by-side, these two passages give me a bit of pause as a preacher, a member of a guild that strives to teach for transformation but all too often ends up confusing knowledge with authority.

It’s striking to me that after calling Peter and Andrew, James and John, Jesus heads to the synagogue to teach. So often we imagine Jesus teaching on the mount, or on the plain, or as they walked, or over dinner, even at the cross. So little of Jesus’ ministry is spent in the synagogue, so it struck me as significant that in Mark’s gospel Jesus begins there. The reaction of the assembly is instructive however. After he finishes teaching, the people are astonished at how different his presence is among them. He is said to teach “with authority, not as the scribes.”

At first this is frustrating to read. Jesus teaches with authority, but Mark doesn’t bother to tell us what Jesus said, what passage of scripture he chose to read, what application he made between their shared Jewish heritage and the present moment. Whatever knowledge Jesus imparted, it was apparently not the most significant aspect of his ministry in the synagogue that morning. Instead of telling us what Jesus said, Mark narrates an encounter between Jesus and a member of the community described as having “an unclean spirit” (v.23).

As Jesus finishes his teaching this man cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

“What have you to do with us?” It’s a slippery question. Who is the man referring to? Later in Mark’s gospel Jesus will speak to a Geresene man possessed by a demon who identifies itself as “legion, for we are many,” (5:9) but this is not that encounter. Perhaps this event foreshadows that later one, and we hear the unclean spirit referring to itself as “us.” As I imagine the scene however, I place the man in the middle of the assembly gesturing to the people all around him as he heckles Jesus, “what have you to do with us?” It’s the sort of manipulation that playground bullies learn early on, to speak as though they represent a great many others. It’s the voice of “everyone knows” or “people are saying.” It’s the voice that inflates itself by claiming to stand for the majority.

“What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?”

Ah ha! Now the real fear is exposed. First the unclean spirit questions what Jesus has to do with this community, this assembly; then it tries to incite a panic, “have you come to destroy us?” I suppose you could answer that question either way. On the one hand, the unclean spirit is right, Jesus has come to destroy the present arrangement of things. People and their families, synagogues and cities, powers and principalities will be upended and the world will not be left the same as it was. On the other hand, Jesus has not come to destroy but to heal, to liberate, to restore. Jesus is not the force of destruction, but God’s answer to the destruction of this world. The unclean spirit accurately names Jesus as the Holy One of God, before whom the status quo cannot stand, which is rightly threatening to most people, including us.

When Jesus arrives, things change. Jesus came to the seashore, and soon the disciples were leaving their nets and learning to fish for people. Jesus comes to the synagogue and the spirit that has taken up residence there has to go. Jesus liberates people from habits of life and patterns of accommodation that hold the status quo in place. I think this is what the people in the synagogue mean when they ask, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority!” They recognize that Jesus is more than an interesting lecture, a warm sentiment, or a well-constructed sermon but that in him the word is embodied, that intention is joined to action in a way that will not allow the present arrangement of power to remain unchallenged.

You can imagine how energizing this liberation movement could be to people and communities held under the thumb of empire. In fact, we know that within a few decades the apostle Paul was writing to the congregation in Corinth, for whom the knowledge of their freedom in Christ had taken on a rough edge, whose embrace of their liberated status had run rough shod over others in their community who were still coming to grips with the implications of the unfolding revolution.

At that time animals were still being sacrificed to a variety of gods worshipped throughout the empire. Choice cuts of meat might be burned on an altar, then served in a meal, while the remainder of the animal was sold to the meat market and then re-sold to whoever might purchase it. If you were being especially conscientious in your religious practice and trying to avoid eating meat dedicated to other gods, it could be very difficult. In response some Christians avoided eating meat altogether. Others, however, ate meat freely arguing that since there is no god but God, that meat dedicated to those idols was truly dedicated to nothing, and that there was nothing to fear from eating it. Apparently their disregard for the concerns of those who were being diligent in avoiding such meat was creating conflict in the congregation, so Paul steps in to reframe the debate.

The issue, he contends, isn’t whether or not it’s right or wrong to eat the meat. The issue is how you treat your neighbor who is earnestly struggling to live out their faith with integrity. The knowledge that there is no god but God may free you in principle, but if in your freedom you injure your brother or sister who shares your faith but not your knowledge, then what good has it done you or them? It’s not that knowledge is bad, it’s that it is secondary to love. When knowledge serves love, then the community is built up. When knowledge serves itself, then divisions creep in and take hold.

The injunction to keep love at the center of our life together as Christian people can be terribly inefficient. It is often much quicker to dispense with love and rely on knowledge alone. The knowledge of who is right and who is wrong, who stands with us and who stands against us, who is our ally and who is our enemy, is the world’s standard operating procedure for getting things done. Cut the issue and count the votes. Secure the win. We see it in our national politics, in our corporate boardrooms, in our community organizing, and sometimes in our congregations as well. It is outcomes at the expense of process, creating winners and losers constantly vying to gain or regain their power.

Knowledge without love seeks status. Knowledge with love seeks service. Perhaps this helps to explain why Jesus commands the unclean spirit to be quiet, not to reveal his identity, as he will command the leper he heals later in this chapter, or the disciples after he asks them who they believe him to be. Jesus is not seeking status, he is not concerned with whether or not people show him the appropriate level of respect. He has come to serve the creation by giving himself away in acts of love for the sake of healing, liberation and restoration.

At the river Jordan a spirit descended on Jesus like a dove, demonstrating a solidarity between Jesus and God, a solidarity we are invited to enter into as well. There are other spirits in this world however, spirits that puff up rather than build up, spirits that divide and conquer. In our baptisms we are asked to renounce those spirits and give ourselves to the Holy One of God who has come to set us free from anything that would separate us from one another and the God who created us in love.

What might it mean for us to renounce that unclean spirit, to exorcise it from our relationships to one another here in this congregation, from our dealings with those we disagree with at work or at home, from our politics — both local and national? What would it look like to use the freedom we have been granted by the gospel to meet those around us where they’re at, rather than to judge them for where they as yet are not? What are the conditions that make transformation possible? In my life knowledge has never been enough. It has always been love that has made me brave enough to believe that something new was possible.

In the name of Jesus. God’s love made visible.