Sermon: Sunday, January 17, 2016: 2nd Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Isaiah 62:1-5  +  Psalm 36:5-10  +  1 Corinthians 12:1-11  +  John 2:1-11

This morning we’re beginning a series of three testimonies by members of the congregation loosely organized around the theme “Refugees, Immigrants, Aliens and Foreigners,” that takes the Epiphany theme of God’s light to the nations and intentionally flips the script so that we don’t always imagine that it is we ourselves who bear the light of Christ as we move out into the world — but that we also have experiences to share with one another about what it has felt like to be the foreigners, the strangers, the sojourners whom God has reached out to through others.

It’s also the end of series of three scenes from scripture that encompass the festival of Epiphany: the visit of the magi, the baptism of our Lord and, finally today, the wedding at Cana. Each of these stories is told as a way of unfolding the meaning of God’s revelation in the person of Jesus. He is the infant sovereign whom other nations come to bow before. He is the beloved child of God, revealed in the waters of the river Jordan. He is the miracle worker who gladdens the feast, bringing joy at long last.

There’s one other series of three mixed in with the rest, a less symbolic one that owes its length to other features of the liturgical calendar. This year, beginning this morning, we read three consecutive passages from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that make up the 12th and 13th chapters. It’s helpful to note that while the lectionary generally assigns readings from the epistles intended to deepen our interpretation of the gospel passage, for these three weeks during the Time after Epiphany the passages stand independent of the gospel. I share this with you because I’ll be preaching on First Corinthians for the next three weeks, and so that your overworked subconscious minds can take a rest from trying to force a correspondence. There are, I’m sure, points of theological and poetic resonance between Paul’s meditation on the gifts of the spirit and John’s story of the wedding at Cana … but I’m not looking for them.

I’ve actually been eager to get to these chapters of First Corinthians for a while, since last fall even. As we prepared to take leave of our historic home, we all were filled with questions about what might come next for our community. Who would we be, who would we become, once we were no longer defined by the parameters of the building that had shaped our life together for over a century? Which of the gifts God has planted in us were actually planted in that soil, and which could be transported and repotted? How would we order our life together to reflect our sense of God’s vision for this congregation, and for the wider community in which we’re situated? How would we align our assets with our values?

But we needed a rest. After months and years of difficult conversations and hard work, we needed a break from one-on-ones and straw polls and town halls. We needed to let our minds and our spirits catch up with what our bodies were already experiencing as the nights stretched out to their absolute longest. We needed to rest in worship that assured us that God, Emmanuel, is with us; that there is light that is not overcome; that God’s dwelling place is among God’s people, wherever they are.

Now we are coming to the end of that rest. It has been almost three months since we moved into this first interim location, and already for many people it is beginning to feel quite comfortable (which is a great relief), but this is not our permanent home. This is more like a laboratory for those who think like scientists, or a practice room for those who’ve studied music. This is our black box theatre for those who dabbled in drama. This is a place to study and learn, like a high school or a college — a place you invest in and even come to love, always knowing that one day you will leave.

Those metaphors of lab rooms, practice rooms and experimental theatre may be more readily relatable for younger members of the congregation, recent graduates, of which St. Luke’s enjoys a larger share than is usual for Lutheran congregations where the median age of churchgoers is 58. This, the presence of so many young adults, is a great gift for so many reasons, but for one reason in particular: young adults are at a stage in life during which it is completely natural, even essential, to be asking the question we all spend the rest of our lives trying to answer: what’s next?

After years of having parents or other caring adults on hand to wake us up, drive us to school, stock the refrigerator, and listen to our stories: what’s next? After years of classwork, hundreds of books read, tests taken, papers written: what’s next? After internships and externships, practicums and placements, what’s next? As the poet Mary Oliver puts it in her poem “The Summer Day” — “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

It’s the question that irritates graduates and those about to graduate with its frequency, even as it makes them sweat with uncertainty. It is the question of purpose that requires each of us to take stock of our gifts and aptitudes and then to make a public declaration about what we intend to do with them. Only the truly audacious or the foolish say too much, because what might happen if we put it out there for the world to hear that we aim to write the great American novel, or finally find the cure, or take public office, or right the enduring wrong … and then fail? Or worse yet, what if we simply don’t know?

I wonder sometimes if we don’t treat our churches, our congregations, like little schools because we don’t want to face another graduation. We don’t know how we would answer the question, if anyone were to ask, “what is it you plan to do with the wild and precious community you have created here?” So instead we imagine it to be school without end. Faith formation without Christian vocation.

At the time when Paul was writing to the community in Corinth, they were struggling with great conflict and deep divisions in the congregation, so his words were intended to remind them that though they each were significantly different from each other, the source of their different gifts is the same God and the purpose of those gifts is the common good (1 Cor. 12:7). We are blessed in that, for now, we aren’t struggling with the same struggles as the Corinthians. There is a spirit of hard won unity, confidence and pride in our congregation that is, itself, a gift of the Spirit.

But, like all gifts, that one comes with its own difficulties. It is too easy, when things are going well, to make the preservation of that experience the highest concern. Whether it be fear of falling back into a more difficult past, or anxiety about an unknown future, the instinct to preserve what we have is one of the greatest impediments to establishing a vision for mission, a direction for the future. The value of our relationships here can’t be hoarded, it has to be spent on projects that are worthy of our faith and costly in their commitments.

So, as I said, I’ve been itching for this conversation to begin, and it is almost time. We have put major projects to rest, and now there are new conversations to be had. For a while I’ve been imagining that this year would be a year of strategic planning — though I’ve been told that term feels too corporate. So, let me suggest another one which is rooted in scripture and the sacraments: vocational discernment.

In our baptism, each of us is called into lives of Christian discipleship for the sake of the common good. Baptism also creates a new, “corporate” reality, in which we come to realize that our lives are lived together, not in isolation. This means we work out the answers to Mary Oliver’s question together. “What is it you plan to do…” becomes “what is is we plan to do” with these gifts of life, and friendship, the gospel of freedom of liberation, and the means of grace?

Now is not the time to mumble some half-shaped answer about life after graduation. Now is the time for a clear-eyed assessment of the gifts God has given into our care for the sake of the common good and bold action taken together.



Message: For the Good of All …

To the people of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square,

Professional portrait 2013As we prepare to gather this Sunday following worship to review the offers we’ve received for our building, I want to share with you how proud I am to belong to the community we are becoming together.

Throughout this process you have spoken honestly and with great vulnerability about what our building means and has meant to you. You have shared what makes St. Luke’s distinctive as a community, and what you hope we do not lose in the middle of so many transitions. You have listened with open minds and open hearts to members whose thoughts and feelings do not match your own. You have made space to hear the fears and anxieties of people inside and outside our congregation who do not know how our decisions will affect their futures. You have done all this so patiently, so gracefully, so lovingly, showing a depth of respect and care for one another.  You have modeled what it means to bear one another’s burdens in a spirit of gentleness (Gal. 6:1).

Now we will gather again, to review different offers and weigh the impact of each possible decision on our congregation and the surrounding neighborhood. We will assess how different choices might reflect our core values as Christians and witness to the self-giving love of Jesus.

I want to encourage all of you to make every effort to be present for this Sunday’s meeting. Even if you feel you’ve already heard all that will be said. Even if you feel you’ve already said all you need to say. The value of this gathering is found not only in the content of our opinions, but in our presence with and for one another. To the person for whom this meeting is painful and scary, your presence may be a sign that they do not suffer alone. To the person who has spent countless hours planning, meeting, strategizing, and preparing, your presence may be a show of support and an expression of gratitude. We are not simply making one more decision, we are making all of these decisions together.

So, I look forward to seeing you this Sunday for worship, the work of the people and our witness to the world.

In Christ,

Pastor Erik

“So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (Gal. 6:9-10)


Sermon: Sunday, August 3, 2014: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Genesis 32:22-31  +  Psalm 17:1-7,15  +  Romans 9:1-5  +  Matthew 14:13-21

bigstockphoto_red_name_tag_2108230-300x226“What is your name?”

“What is your name?” is the question the divine figure asks Jacob at the end of a long night of wrestling by the river.  On its own it’s not a very remarkable question. In fact aside from, perhaps, “how are you?” it’s got to be one of the most frequently asked questions and the one we’re readiest to answer. “Hi, I’m Erik, what’s your name?”

The question is odd though, since it’s being asked by a figure that Jacob later identifies with God when he says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” (Gen. 32:30) We must assume that God knows Jacob’s name, and that God’s question is intentional. So, why is God asking Jacob for his name?

The question comes at the end of an incredible struggle, not just that night but throughout his life.  Jacob, you may remember, had a twin brother, Esau. Born together, but separated by their interests, their assets and their inheritances, Jacob and Esau had a troubled relationship as brothers. Early on, Jacob shows his envy of his brother’s birthright as the eldest son, a birthright Esau treats lightly, trading it for a bowl of lentil soup.

Later Jacob conspires with his mother, Rebekah, to trick his father into bestowing the blessing intended for Esau onto himself.  Disguising himself as his brother, Jacob approaches Father Isaac, who has become nearly blind in his old age.  “Who are you, my son?” Isaac asks.  “I am Esau, your firstborn,” Jacob replies. After a few rounds of this questioning, Isaac grants Jacob the blessing intended for Esau.

On one level we admire Jacob. He is clever, he is tenacious, he is goal-oriented and directed. He goes after what he wants and writes his own story. He is what we have been taught to be. On the other hand, what a tragic figure. He is the younger brother always living in the shadow of his older brother. He is the insecure son, wishing his father would do for him what he has promised to do for another. Furthermore, Jacob’s identity crisis creates new problems. Fleeing from his Esau’s vengeance, Jacob spends years away from his family among his uncle’s people, where he is on the receiving end of the same kind of trickery that got him into this predicament.

Finally Jacob is ready to be reconciled with his brother, to bring an end to a lifetime of struggle. So he sends word to Esau that he is coming to meet him along with all his wives and children and servants and wealth, a sign that he’s done well for himself. Word comes back that Esau is coming to meet him as well, and that he’s brought four hundred men along with him. It sounds like trouble, but who can be sure? They’ve been competing with one another their whole lives, a struggle that’s been leading to this moment. Will it be a moment of conflict, or a moment of reconciliation? No one knows.

So when Jacob encounters the divine figure in the night by the banks of the river Jabbok, he has already been wrestling for a very long time with the question of his identity. Who is he trying to be? Has he learned anything from his lifelong struggle with jealousy? Has he outgrown his habit of taking whatever he wants, regardless of the cost? Is he ready to live the life God has in store for him, to receive the blessing God wants to give to him? Has he come to grips with who he is? Does he know his own name?

God’s question to Jacob, “what is your name?” is what makes this story so powerful and so accessible to people of every time and place. Who among us doesn’t struggle with trying to understand who we are and why we do the things we do? Who hasn’t looked back over their lives and seen how the desire to be someone else, to live someone else’s life, has destroyed the happiness or the future with which God was trying to bless us? We all know what it’s like to look in the mirror, to see the image of our own face looking back at us, eyes red from crying, skin etched with the map of the years, and wonder who that is looking back at us. Or we will.

What is your name?

logan-square-s-preeminentIt’s a question we get asked not only as people, but as neighborhoods, as nations. Residents at the Milshire Hotel, organizing in the face of eviction notices; the community at Lathrop Homes, calling attention to the millions of dollars and hundreds of housing vouchers being hoarded by the CHA; the swell of working class neighbors whose affordable rental housing is quickly disappearing from Logan Square, are all asking their neighbors, “what is your name?”  Families in Gaza, fleeing the rubble of bombed out homes and hospitals are calling out to the world as it watches, “what is your name?”  Children leaving lives of danger and desperation are showing up along our southern border, climbing fences and crossing rivers and as we struggle next to those waters, God is asking us, “what is your name?”

It’s a question we have been asking ourselves as well, as a congregation, for many years.  We, who came into this world like fraternal twins during an era when congregations were being birthed at the same time all over this city, we might look around and see other congregations that are thriving in ways that make us long for easier times, that might make us wish we’d been granted a different blessing, that we had a different identity, that we were living some other congregation’s life.  I know I feel that way sometimes.  I grew up in a large Lutheran church with hundreds of members, multiple pastors, a youth program that drew children and families in from miles away, and enough money to put staff time into a wide range of ministries, local and global.  I know what it’s like to wish for someone else’s blessings, and so do you.

Some of you are of an age that you remember when the church was something your parents and other adults provided for you, when church — like school — was a program designed to mold and nurture you, to meet your needs. You may be longing for the blessings of a church that manages itself, that can get by without you, but will still be here when you drop in.

Others of you remember very different days here at St. Luke’s, when the pews were fuller and families were more settled. Times when you knew everybody’s names, and they knew yours, and you had relationships that went back decades. When everyone knew the same songs, and loved the same food, and cherished the same traditions. You may be longing for the blessings of a church that can preserve the treasures of the past in spite of all that’s changing in the present.

I spent the last two days with your Church Council and the members of the Strategic Listening Team as they read through and discussed all the feedback and stories they gleaned from each of you through the last three months of interviews about your experience of St. Luke’s. Here’s what I want you to know: you have an incredible Church Council that cares very much about you and your families, that wants to preserve this congregation’s legacy even as it shapes its future. Many of you already know this, because you have taken a turn or two on Council, and you know how hard, but also how rewarding, that work can be. They have heard your calls for improved ministry to children and families, they have heard the need for small groups and social gatherings that make it easier for newcomers to find a home in the congregation, they have heard your concerns about the state of our property and your questions about how much longer we can sustain it. They are wrestling, and wrestling, and wrestling — so much so that it feels like they’ve been wrestling all night long, holding on for a blessing. As they continue to work, as they listen to your input and invite your participation in plotting the course for our shared future, the question before them is the same question God put to Jacob:

What is your name?

Who are we?  Not “who do we wish we were?” Not even “who do we think we ought to be?”  But, “who are we?” What is our name? What is our identity? We see the blessings God has prepared for our brothers and sisters elsewhere, we may even covet them, but God has a blessing in store for us as well — a blessing that is already present among us, like loaves and fishes, a blessing that is more than enough for the future into which God is calling us.

The next day, after wrestling with God all night long, a struggle that left Jacob with a limp for the rest of his days, he went out to meet his brother and see what the future held. In the distance he could see Esau and the four hundred men advancing on him, but once they were close enough to see each other face to face, Esau ran to met Jacob and fell into his arms and together they wept for all that had passed between them. Jacob blessed Esau, saying, “please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” (Gen. 33:11)

Friends, that is the spirit in which we will find our blessings.  When we can look at ourselves in the mirror, accept ourselves for who we are and who God created us to be, when we can stop coveting the blessings of our brothers and sisters and can instead count the blessings God has already given each one of us; when, out of gratitude we can release all we may have been hiding or hoarding for the sake of those in need, those who are all — in the final analysis — our sisters and brothers, then there will be enough to care for the whole world and more.