Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, February 14, 2018: Ash Wednesday

The following sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Ash Wednesday of 2018. Audio of this sermon can be found here.

Texts: Isaiah 58:1-12  +  Psalm 51:1-17  +  Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Almost exactly two years ago on an Ash Wednesday like today, I made the walk from my former parish to the home of a young couple in our community who’d just given birth to their first child. It had been a tumultuous year for them, as this young mother’s own father had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of liver cancer midway through the pregnancy. At a time when life is already measured in weeks and trimesters, she and her family were marking the passage of time along two fragile timelines — the number of days until their child would be born and the number of days until their father would die.

51WdThjOnNL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_The cancer moved quickly, and the grandfather left this world weeks before the grandchild entered it. She was brought home from the hospital on Ash Wednesday,  so I made my customary visit with the family carrying two familiar things: a book of blessings by the Irish poet, priest and philosopher, John O’Donohue, and a small ceramic saucer filled with black ashes.

O’Donohue’s blessing for when a child comes into the world is one of my favorites, and I love to share it with families in those early days when the miracle of life is still keenly felt, before a sense of routine ordinariness has set back in. It goes like this:

As I enter my new family, may they be delighted / at how their kindness comes into blossom. / Unknown to me and them, may I be exactly the one / to restore in their forlorn places new vitality and promise. / May the hearts of others hear again the music / in the lost echoes of their neglected wonder.

If my destiny is sheltered, may the grace of this privilege / reach and bless the other infants who are destined for torn places. / If my destiny is bleak, may I find in myself / a secret stillness and tranquility beneath the turmoil.

May my eyes never lose sight of why I have come here, / that I never be claimed by the falsity of fear or eat the bread of bitterness. / In everything I do, think, feel, and say, / may I allow the light of the world I am leaving / to shine through and carry me home.

Ash-Wednesday-Cross-450x450After reciting the blessing over this newborn child I asked about the ashes, wondering how they would respond to this sign of our inescapable mortality only two days into their daughter’s life. “Do you want her to receive the ashes?” I asked. “Yes,” they nodded. “It seems right.” So we prayed together, asking God to use these ashes to remind us of our mortality, not so that we might live our lives terrified of death, but so that we would be encouraged to wring every drop of joy out of the gifts of the lives that God has given us. “Anna,” I said, “our God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” and “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” I made the sign of the cross on her tiny forehead with dark ashes in the place where soon after she was washed with water and anointed with oil.

Death and life are always this close together, whether we can bear to acknowledge it or not. I hear Ash Wednesday’s dusty reminder very differently this year than I have in years past, as I know many of you do as well. When we are young, or healthy, or very busy, these words may jolt us in a very different way than when we are old, or sick, or moving slowly enough to observe what time does to a tree or a tulip over the course of a year. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

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My parents’ wedding blessing for me and Kerry, rendered beautifully in watercolor by the Rev. Megan Clausen.

On the day of our wedding, my parents offered Kerry and I a blessing of their own organized around four hard-won truths from their marriage: 1.) Life is full of wonder and miracles, 2.) life is often hard, 3.) relationships are messy and complicated, and 4.) life is short and precious. For our first anniversary I asked Megan Clausen, a recent graduate of this institution who came here from the same congregation in Des Moines, Iowa in which I also grew up, to set their words over one of her beautiful watercolors. The result hangs in our living room to remind us of that blessing every day, so that I cannot read the words “Life is short and precious” without also seeing the brilliant oranges flowing next to the rainy grays and the starry blues she painted.

Whether it’s “remember that you are dust …” or “life is short and precious,” the message is the same. You are alive and that is a gift. Live like you know it. Spend your days and weeks giving birth to the life you long to live. Spend your seasons building the world God calls us to inhabit. Spend your lives like they mean something, because they do. Because you are someone’s beloved child, you are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14), you are chosen, a royal priesthood, a holy community, God’s own people (1 Pet. 2:9).

This great love is the fuel that feeds the fire of Isaiah’s holy anger at the world’s injustice, not guilt or shame, but love set loose in public to name the harms that follow from all our chasing after things that rust and decay. Our world, which so quickly assigns human qualities to commodities while treating people like objects to be bought and sold, is diabolical in its efforts to get us to willingly spend the most basic currency we have — our lives — investing in the very things that tear us apart. Then the moment comes (and it comes more than once) when you realize that the things you’ve been chasing aren’t really life at all, and the moments you have left are precious and few. You come face to face with your regret and wish you had spent your days differently.

In that moment, as in every moment, God is waiting for us. It is not too late. “Then you shall call, and God will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, ‘Here I am.’” (Isa. 58:9) Here I am.

Beloved community, we have arrived once again at this day which comes to us with the same regularity that brings new life to the tree, fresh flowers from the bulb. This is the start of the season that ends with our resurrection. It is not too late, it is never too late, to treasure each day of your life, to invest yourselves in the people and places that matter, to bless the world and our God who made it with the lives you have been given. It is never too late to live like you are really alive, which somehow is easier to do when you remember that you too are dust, and to dust you shall return.

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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, March 2, 2014: Transfiguration of Our Lord

Texts:  Exodus 24:12-18  +  Psalm 99  +  2 Peter 1:16-21  +  Matthew 17:1-9

I wish I could pretend that each Sunday I preach I climb into the pulpit with an equal measure of certainty about my insight into scripture and my convictions about what I have found there, but the truth is I don’t. There are simply weeks when the mixture of life, time and my own faith — which is being worked out day by day, just like yours — don’t feel quite up to the task. This, as you might gather, is one of those weeks.

My mom emailed me a couple of days ago, “the presiding bishop’s article in The Lutheran on the Transfiguration was really helpful to me.”  So I followed up on that lead. Bishop Eaton writes,

“The Transfiguration is a strange story — the mountain, the light, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, the utterly confounded disciples, the voice of God. How do we make sense of this supernatural event? What does the Transfiguration of our Lord have to do with us? I confess that I couldn’t figure it out. So, when serving in the parish, I scheduled Youth Sunday on Transfiguration Sunday, thereby successfully avoiding preaching about it for years.” (1)

Gee, thanks.  We’re about five kids short and six years shy of being able to pull that off, but a good suggestion nonetheless.  Bishop Eaton goes on, however, to reflect on the relationship between what happens on the mountaintop and what follows afterwards. On the mountain, Jesus shines with the glory of God. Down below, Jesus makes his way to the cross. The two are inseparable, the glory of God and the cross.

We’ve been singing “glory to God” as the canticle of praise at the beginning of worship for the last three months, since the beginning of Advent. The gloria comes, as the note in the margin of your bulletin indicates, from the story in the gospel of Luke of the arrival of the angels at the scene of Christ’s birth who sing, “glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom God favors” (Lk. 2:14). But Matthew’s gospel, which we’re reading throughout this year, the angels appear at night not in the fields, but in a dream, as Jesus’ father Joseph is visited by an angel who tells him, “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us’” (Mt. 1:23).

Immediately after that story, we learn that a star has appeared in the sky, a pinprick of light in the dark, leading wise men from distant nations to the place where Jesus was born. This season of Epiphany began with the glory of God shining brightly in the night, and just a hint of the cross as well. The God who is with us in Christ Jesus is not just with us, but is a light to the nations. Something small, something provincial and tribal, has to die to make room for the glory of God who came into the world for the sake of the whole world, and not just the people and places we know and care for.

Then Jesus met John at the river Jordan, where he was baptized by a man who could not believe that his Lord would consent to be blessed by someone as human as that wilderness prophet. “I need to be baptized by you,” John says, “and do you come to me?” Of course, that’s exactly what Jesus, the Immanuel, does.  God comes to us. God is with us. We sang “glory to God” on that day, the Baptism of Our Lord, to acknowledge the grace of that event, that God comes to us, even when we think it ought to be the other way around. And something had to die in that river, under those waters, namely John’s conviction (and ours) that the righteousness of God is only for the righteous.

As we continued to journey through the season of Epiphany, Jesus moved from Nazareth to Galilee, where he would meet and call his disciples. The gospel of Matthew quotes a bit of the prophet Isaiah here,

“On the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (Mt. 4:15-16).

The glory of God called the disciples — Peter and Andrew, James and John — away from work they knew and people they loved to follow Jesus on the path to a confrontation with power that would lead to a very public and very painful death. The glory of God and the cross.

Then we settled into the real meat of this season of Epiphany as Jesus came to the mountain again, this time to deliver the Sermon on the Mount. Here the glory of God was made manifest as Jesus, doing his best impersonation of Moses, delivered a new law from the mountaintop in the form of the Beatitudes. Blessed are just about everyone you’d think was far from blessed, theirs is the kingdom of God. The glory of God shining through in a reversal of fortune that meant death to all our expectations about who and what is valued in the commonwealth of God.

As I’ve just sketched out, so far this year we’ve been traveling with Jesus pretty sequentially through the gospel of Matthew, accompanying the disciples as they gradually come to understand that God really is with us in the person of Jesus, who they come to know as the Christ. Today, however, the lectionary rips us out of that continuity and shows us a scene close to the end, after the time for teaching parables and healing miracles has ended and Jesus prepares to die.

As I stand here in the pulpit, having already confessed to you that I’m not always ready to be here, that I’m not always ready to preach, that my own faith is fragile and bends under the weight of so much expectation, I discover that this may be exactly how the disciples are feeling as well.

By this point in the story Peter has already confessed that Jesus is the Christ, but almost immediately thereafter he’s been rebuked by Jesus who says to him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mt. 16:23). Why? Because Peter had the temerity to confront Jesus about his public profession that he would be killed by the authorities, but would rise on the third day. It’s all becoming a little too real, the cost of discipleship a little too high, as Jesus declares, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt. 16:24).

Six days later, six days after Jesus has made it clear that God’s glory is going to be revealed most clearly in his death, Jesus returns to the mountain.  On those heights those who follow Jesus see him with Moses and Elijah, shining with the glory of God, and they just want to stop, to freeze this moment and live in it forever.

Episcopal priest and educator Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz, founder of the Episcopal School of Los Angeles, writes,

“The moment of transfiguration is that point at which God says to the world and to each of us that there is nothing we can do to prepare for or stand in the way of joy or sorrow. We cannot build God a monument, and we cannot keep God safe.” (2)

And I realize that this is exactly what has me afraid to preach sometimes, that I’m trying to make for God a monument of words, that I’m trying to keep God safe with stories and explanations that will make it easier for you to bring God up in the places where you work and mix with this world that is always denying that glory has anything to do with death.

But it does.  Glory has everything to do with death. Not just the little deaths, the practice deaths, we’ve watched along the way: the death of our prejudices, the death of our insecurities, the death of our certainties, the death of our expectations. But big death, the one with the capital D.

Jesus’ death is the sign of God’s ultimate solidarity with the suffering of creation. Jesus’ death is the proof that God is not distant, but is with us.

icu handsThis morning I am praying for a friend who is with his family at his mother’s bedside in the ICU, keeping watch as she straddles the line between life and death. Many of us know the anxiety and even the terror of that vigil, but we also know by faith that God is present at the bedside with that family.

This morning I am praying with the family of Lois Valbracht, a family friend who died this week at the age of 98, whose father-in-law was pastor here at St. Luke’s for a quarter century, and whose husband was the pastor of my childhood church in Des Moines, Iowa. She herself — as a mother, a musician, a writer — shared a faith that inspired those who knew her right up to the very end. Many of us know from our own lives how grief at a moment like this can still be transfigured by gratitude at the way God is revealed in a life lived by faith.

This morning I am praying with you, some of you caring for parents whose fragile lives are in precarious places; some of you weighed down by the grief of a parent or a spouse or a child or a friend who died too soon; some of you living with illnesses in your own bodies, approaching your own deaths. The word of hope from the mountaintop is that God is not distant, but with you.

Life is full of makeshift pulpits, moments in a conversation when you are called to coalesce your faith into words that can carry the meaning of God’s glory in the face of death. Just like I do, I know that you sometimes struggle to find words to share the faith that is in you; faith that sometimes stumbles, as it did for Jesus’ own disciples who heard the voice declare, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” and who fell to the ground in fear.

At moments like that, at moments like this, what comfort there is in knowing that it is not we who have to make our way to God, but God who makes a way to us.  As they trembled on the ground, overcome by awe and fear at the reality and the presence of God, Jesus came and touched them, saying “Get up and do not be afraid” (Mt. 17:7).

Patrick Wilson, a Presbyterian pastor in Williamsburg, Virginia writes,

“Some would say that God is much too much to be contained within the walls of a church. Of course they are right. Some would remind us that God is so great that neither the earth below not the heavens above can hold God. Certainly we must agree with them. God is certainly so great that God can never be contained in something as small as a crumb of bread or a sip of wine. We nod our heads, yes; but we must hasten to add: furthermore, God is so great, so majestic, so glorious, that God deigns come to us in a crumb of bread and a sip of wine, just as much of God as a hand can hold.” (3)

On the mountaintop God’s glory is revealed in a body preparing to die. A body like ours, transfigured by a love and a grace that will not abandon us, no matter where our life takes us, not even the cross. That is why we sing “glory to God” and “alleluia!”

Amen.

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(1) “From a Cross, a Dazzling Light,” by Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. The Lutheran, March, 2014.

(2) “Pastoral Perspective, Matthew 17:1-9” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

(3) “Homiletical Perspective, Matthew 17:1-9” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

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