Sermon: Sunday, January 4, 2015: Epiphany of the Lord (transferred)

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6  +  Psalm 72:1-7,10-14  +  Ephesians 3:1-12  +  Matthew 2:1-12

A few years ago on one of his trips to Chicago to hang out with me and Kerry, we took my dad to the Adler Planetarium. I hadn’t been to a planetarium since childhood, and didn’t know entirely what to expect aside from a memory of a darkened auditorium and an old-fashioned globe casting pin-prick maps of constellations in the sky against the inside of a half-dome. What we found instead was a state-of-the-art museum dedicated to educating the public about humanity’s explorations into space and time.

_DSC5778One exhibit in particular has stuck in my mind. It was a 3D film about the birth of the universe, the so-called big bang, and the rapid expansion that has followed ever since. Using images taken from deep in space by the Hubble telescope, the film gave me a glimmer of understanding of the size and scope of the known universe. It showed a small section of the night sky as we see it here in Chicago and zoomed in reveal a region of spacetime containing hundreds of thousands of galaxies and millions of stars all racing away from the center of the universe as it continues to expand at an unimaginable rate. As the film returned to the familiar first-person perspective of a person standing on the shore of Lake Michigan staring up into the night sky I felt myself awed and unsettled. The universe is vast and unknowable, and we are smaller than specks of dust on a tiny planet circling a single sun in a galaxy that is but one among billions.

The night sky we look at is virtually the same as the sky our ancestors looked at two thousand years ago, but our perspective is radically different. They lived with a cosmology that imagined the world to be flat, with waters held back beyond the sky by a dome high in heavens and resting upon other waters deep below and around the earth. They thought the stars were finite and fixed, and that they narrated the exploits of humanity’s course throughout the ages. Essentially, their world was much smaller than ours. The answers they proposed solved problems whose very premises no longer make sense to us, who now implicitly trust in a universe defined by laws of gravity and relativity articulated over the last few centuries and built into every facet of our lives from satellite-assisted global navigation systems to precision time-keeping. Our ancestors would barely recognize us as members of the same species, and when we consider what that means we find them and their stories equally as foreign.

We, then, are like the wise men from the East described in Matthew’s gospel who arrive at the scene of Jesus’ birth using foreign technology and alien religious practices to make their way to the vast and limitless God who takes on particularity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, born at a moment in history, in space and time. We have to slow ourselves down a bit to hear it, since the story has become so familiar after two thousand years, but to its first audience the story of foreigners following a star in the heavens was not a story about following traditions, but breaking them. To us, the wise men and their star are figures carved in alabaster in the crèche making their way toward the manger year after year, printed on calendars and surrounded by legends. To the first-century Jews who were Matthew’s audience, they were foreigners who did not know Israel’s stories, Israel’s prophets, Israel’s God. When they arrive, they do not do as Mary does in Luke’s gospel, they do not quote Israel’s scripture to interpret Israel’s present. Instead they rely on a foreign and foreclosed source of knowledge: the stars. Moses taught,

When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. No one shall be found among you who … practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur … (Deut. 18:9-10)

And the prophet Isaiah dismissed the power of wisdom found outside Israel’s traditions, saying,

You are wearied with your many consultations; let those who study the heavens stand up and save you, those who gaze at the stars, and at each new moon predict what shall befall you. See, they are like stubble, the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame. No coal for warming themselves is this, no fire to sit before! (Isa. 47:13-14)

So it comes as a surprise when Matthew, whose gospel is so thoroughly oriented toward Jewish tradition and who presents Jesus as a new kind of Moses, introduces these three wise foreigners who make their way toward this incarnation of God by means of their own native wisdom and traditions.

For centuries the church has told this story as one of triumph, to say that from his very birth people of every nation flocked to Jesus as the definitive incarnation of God in human history. Indeed, there is a theme established by this story in Matthew that will be developed throughout that gospel where those closest to Jesus fail to recognize who he is as those outside the community, and even demons, immediately recognize him as the Son of God.  From there it was only a small leap for the church to begin to imagine itself as the Holy Family, as Mary and Joseph receiving the gifts and recognition of outsiders from around the known world who were coming to faith in God through Christ Jesus. In this mode, we often heard this story preached and taught as one about evangelism, that God welcomes into God’s house people from every nation, bringing every kind of gift.

I think we’re living in a different era however. As the church struggles with the birthing pangs that are delivering it into a new station in society, ushering it into a world where it is established not at the center of mass culture but on its margins, this story takes on a new significance for all of us as we see ourselves in the role of the wise people from different and distant lands, feeling our way forward with sources of knowledge and revelation previously discounted, even disrespected, but now seen to be powerfully accurate in guiding us toward God’s manifestation in this day and age.

We experience this as people who trust and rely on the insights of science to teach us about the nature of the observable world and our history within it. We generally take for granted what previous generations found blasphemous: that the earth is much, much older than the stories passed down by our various religious traditions; that humanity emerged as a species through a process of evolution that connects us to all other life on the planet; that the earth is not the center of the universe and does not exist for the sake of humanity alone. In this, we are like wise people from the east, feeling our way toward God even as we lean on and learn from sources of wisdom and knowledge that challenge and sometimes contradict received traditions.

We experience this as people who go to work each day with people of different religious identities, and who claim no religious identity at all; as people who are related by blood, adoption, marriage and affection to people from around the world and people who live in and among us with different ethnic and cultural traditions. We have worked alongside, dined with, listened to, learned from, and loved people whose vision of God is not only different, but often irreconcilable with our own. Yet we continue to navigate toward a shared future by sharing our stories and listening to each other’s, knowing that truth is not only found in our history and experience, but outside it as well.

It is in light of this rich diversity and unexpected openness that I hear Paul’s words to the Ephesians,

This grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Eph. 3:8b-10)

What I hear today with fresh ears is Paul’s hope and vision that the church would participate in revealing the rich variety, the rich diversity, of the wisdom of God. Note that he does not say that he was tasked with bringing the boundless riches of Christ to the Gentiles, but that he was charged with bringing the news of the boundless riches of Christ, as if to say that he is sharing news of what already is true — that the wisdom of God in its rich variety is found among all peoples and nations.

What a different church we might be if we imagined ourselves not as the star’s destination, but as the wise travelers feeling our way forward together, guided by light coming to us from the far reaches of space and time and governed by laws that have governed us all even before we could name them or know them. A church on the lookout for God’s wisdom shining throughout creation, among our neighbors, our enemies, even ourselves. A church on the margins speaking to the rulers and authorities about what can be learned when we stop hungering to live at the center.

That church, that society of diversity, that rich variety is coming into view in our lifetimes. It is a revelation, an epiphany, a manifestation of God among us challenging our most basic ideas about membership, citizenship, identity and belonging. It is a place we are finding together, which will demand all our gifts and talents, and which will take us down roads none of us have ever walked before.

Thanks be to God!



Sermon: Sunday, June 1, 2014: Seventh Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 1:6-14  +  Psalm 68:1-10,32-35  +  1 Peter 4:12-14;5:6-11  +  John 17:1-11

Happy Anniversary, St. Luke’s!

On this very day, June 1, 1900 St. Luke’s was established as a congregation of the General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America, one of the many predecessor bodies that over time merged into what is now the ELCA.

The church history prepared for St. Luke’s centennial celebrations back in 2000 tells the story this way:

“The history of St. Luke’s Church began on Easter Sunday, April 22, 1898, when a Sunday School conducted by St. Peter’s Church held its first session in a vacant store located at the corner of Diversey and Washtenaw Avenues [which today is where the JFK crosses over Diversey, just north of Brentano School]. Lars Undem and J. Paulsen were in charge.

In November, 1899, M. Edmund Haberland, a student at the Chicago Lutheran Seminary in Lakeview (located on the spot where Wrigley Field now stands), was called to develop a church in the area. He was still a student of the seminary and had only a limited about of time to devote to his work. But by persistent perseverance the work gradually grew and the confidence of the community was gained.

On Christmas Eve, December 24, 1899 the first Christmas service was held… In March, 1900 the mission moved into an empty store room near the corner of Rockwell and Diversey Avenues [over by what is now the Green Exchange]. The first session in this new location was held April 1, 1900, and the last session January 6, 1901 when the congregation moved into the new chapel.”

Charter members of St. Luke's, #1-11

Charter members of St. Luke’s, #1-11

The church’s founding charter was signed by Pastor Haberland and his wife, Verna; Louis and Sara Mueller; Andrew and Hannah Gusterine; August and Caroline Johnson; Wilhelmina and Andrew Lindblad; and Lars Undem — one of the adult Sunday School teachers from St. Peter’s that had kicked the whole thing off. That’s five couples and a single guy who, with the help of the wider church, went from a Sunday School class in a store front to the three-story church building that stands behind this sanctuary in just a couple of years. It’s amazing to think what just a handful of people were able to do together by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I wonder what those early days were like.  We know so little about these charter members.  They’d been connected to another congregation, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. They’d been active in an adult program of Christian Education together. Their pastor was a young man still in seminary. What made them want to start a new church together?

We can only guess, but there are clues scattered throughout the parish register.  The neighborhood was full of congregations like Norwegian Lutheran Church (the Minnekirken) that still stands on the square, and other congregations that worshipped in Swedish or German.  But this community founded itself as St. Luke’s English Evangelical Lutheran Church. Today the word “English” in this neighborhood might sound exclusionary, but in 1900 it signaled an openness to the children of immigrants from different parts of the world who spoke different languages and ate different foods, who had different traditions and customs. St. Luke’s picked a name that said, no matter which country your family originally came from, you are welcome here. This guess is supported by the names in the parish register: German names, like Haberland and Mueller; Scandinavian names, like Lindblad and Undem; Scotch-English names like Johnson.

Parish Record, St. Luke's English Evangelical Lutheran Church, ca. 1900.

Parish Record, St. Luke’s English Evangelical Lutheran Church, ca. 1900.

Apparently this openness to the diversity of the neighborhood was attractive to others, who quickly began to join the parish.  The congregation grew from eleven to twenty in the first year, adding 31 people overall in the first year and a half. But not everyone stuck around. Early on, at least four members decided to go back to St. Peter’s, including Lars, the only single guy on the charter. We might speculate about why that was, but who can say for certain. It’s hard to be the one person in a small group who’s different from everyone else. The bachelor in a group of couples. The parents in a room full of childless young adults. Don’t be fooled, it’s hard work building community across lines of difference.

There are about ten others whom the records indicate were “excluded by Council” within the first two years.  Some of the entries say, “excluded by Council by request,” and others do not. Again, who can say what this means for sure, it might indicate that people who signed up early drifted away without giving anyone a reason, leaving it to the Council to decide that they were no longer interested. Or, it may be that there were disagreements about the direction the congregation was taking that resulted in a more active act of exclusion by the lay leaders. Who knows?

There were certainly enough reasons for people to be coming and going. Folks who’d grown up in stable big steeple churches were in for something different, coming to a storefront on Diversey for Sunday School, devotions and prayer. A young pastor, not even fully trained, might have drawn younger families into the church, but alienated people who had decades of life experience on him and his wife. Then there was the challenge of generating the will and raising the funds to move not once, but twice, from Washtenaw to Rockwell and then finally to Francisco. Building a church, creating a community, takes a lot of hard work. Not everyone was up for it.

I wonder how those early dozens would have heard the passage we read from First Peter, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:12-13). Obviously we have to be careful not to equate every suffering and struggle of our own with a sharing in Christ’s sufferings.  Just because something is difficult does not mean it is a holy undertaking.  Christ’s sufferings are the ones he willingly chose to take on so that the world as it is might be transformed into the world as God intended it to be. So, to the extent that the matriarchs and patriarchs of St. Luke’s understood that their struggle to create a place for people of all nationalities to gather around the means of grace, the table and the font and the Word of God, so that they could be strengthened in their faith and equipped to participate in God’s mission to restore the whole creation, their struggle might be remembered as a sharing in Christ’s sufferings.

As they faced hard decisions together about whether their little adult forum could be something more, about whether or not this young seminarian had what it took to lead and care for them, about whether or not they could raise the money to build a chapel, about what language they would use in worship — their parents’ or their neighbors’, I wonder how they might have heard these words from the gospel of John, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11).

So many questions in front of them with no proof that any of their decisions would be the right ones, only faith that the God who had brought their families to these shores from many different places was the same God who spoke through Jesus to the disciples saying, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Although, those words probably weren’t much comfort to the original disciples. Recall that their original question to Jesus had been, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).  Those disciples had already been together a long time, they’d journeyed with Jesus through the course of his earthly ministry. They’d seen him heal the sick and cast out demons. They’d seen him confront the powers and principalities of this world. They’d seen him killed, but they’d also seen him raised from the dead. They’d seen all they needed to see to be convinced that God was in Jesus, and Jesus was in God, and that Jesus was with them, so they dared to hope that Jesus would do for them what they had been hoping for all along — that Jesus would finally restore things to they way they used to be, that he would restore the kingdom of Israel to its glory days.

That is the temptation we face on Anniversary Sunday, especially this year, isn’t it?

We too have seen God at work in this place. We too have stayed steady in our ministry to the sick, to those battling the demons of addiction and depression. We too have watched as the power of the Holy Spirit breathed new life into our dry bones, raising this church from a condition everyone around us expected would lead to death. We’ve seen all we need to see to be convinced that God is with us, and God is for us. So, as we gather this morning, this season, this moment in the life of our community after Easter, after the resurrection, we — like the original disciples — are drawn to ask, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore” things to the way they used to be, they way we remember them, or have chosen to remember them.

And Jesus, full of the power and glory of the resurrection, does not tell them what they want to hear. He says, “it is not for you to know the times or periods that [God] has set … but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:7-8).  You will give your testimony to the power of God at work among you, and in the world, and you will carry this story out with you to all the ends of the earth. Out. Forward. Not back.

And with those final words, Jesus ascends into heaven leaving the disciples wondering how, in fact, they were going to do any of that. Two men in white robes, maybe angels, maybe messengers, maybe just two baptized people dressed in the garments of their faith, finally shook them out of their wondering and asked, “why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly — and mysteriously — as he left” (Acts 1:11, The Message)

Not knowing what else to do, “Peter and John, James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James … together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:13-14) went home to Jerusalem and got together and prayed. That was the first act of the Acts of the Apostles who went on to build the church. They got together and prayed.

Which, come to think about it was the first act of the founders of St. Luke’s, they got together at Washtenaw and Diversey and they prayed.  Then they moved to a new site, and they prayed and worshipped some more.  Then they moved to yet another new site, and they prayed and worshipped some more. And then, sounding an awful lot like the early church, they gave what they had for the sake of this new community they were building, and soon they had a place to gather with their neighbors, people from many lands with many languages.

Peter writes, “Discipline yourselves, keep alert … and after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to eternal glory through Jesus Christ, will fulfill, restore, strengthen and establish you. To God be the power forever and ever! Amen” (1 Pet. 5:8,10-11).


2012 Annual Report: Pastor’s Report

Pastor’s Report to the Congregation for 2012

Submitted by Pastor Erik Christensen


In 2013 our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), will be celebrating its 25th anniversary.  Formed in 1988 as the merger of its predecessor bodies — the American Lutheran Church (ALC), the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC) — the newly established ELCA was more than just an association of congregations, it was the coming together of a rich variety of cultures.  The ELCA brought together the liturgically formal, organizationally-centralized, and ecumenically-oriented LCA with the Midwestern, congregational piety of the ALC and the reforming character of the AELC.

The ELCA’s webpage ( for our 25th anniversary celebrations states,

In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul writes, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

We are a church that is deeply rooted — and always being made new.  Our roots are in Scripture, tradition and the Lutheran Confessions, as well as in the vibrant communities and rich histories of our congregations. These roots are an ongoing source of nourishment, enabling us to be a church that is resilient, always reforming and guided by the Holy Spirit.

Reading that description of our life together as a church, I was struck by a couple of things:

First, it was gratifying to see that the language we’ve been using throughout the fall during our stewardship campaign, Deeply Rooted — Branching Out, was also being used throughout the church as a metaphor for the ways we are living into the future together (  We are, as congregations, but also as a denomination, always living in the tension between who we have been and who we are becoming — a tension that is never resolved, but faced anew in every generation.

Second, I noticed something in our denomination’s framing of this 25th anniversary that gave me renewed courage and hope for the future.  As we enter our 7th year of redevelopment, it can sometimes feel like we are playing catch up with the rest of the church.  As though, somehow, other congregations have managed to keep up with the pace of change while we have, somehow, fallen behind.  As I read Paul’s words to the Corinthians though, I am reminded that the process of redevelopment is really something to which all people, all congregations, all denominations, and the whole church is being called, always and eternally.  Because we are in Christ, we are always becoming new!

So, I look back on 2012 through that insight — that, in Christ, we are always being made new.  As you read the ministry reports submitted by the Education & Faith Formation, the Social Justice and the Worship committees, you’ll detect that same theme.  Over and over our lay leaders report, “the past year was a reboot,” or “after reconstituting ourselves…”  Acting Council Chair Scott Shippy concludes the introduction to his report, “it should not be surprising that a new way of being St. Luke’s is needed.”

A new way of being — of being St. Luke’s, of being Lutheran, of being Christian — is needed.  A new way of being is always needed, and by faith the Church’s confession has always been, “In Christ… everything has become new!”

Like the ELCA, St. Luke’s renewal has brought together a rich variety of cultures.  Among us you can find lifelong Lutherans and people only recently come to faith; we count among our numbers people steeped in the words and sounds of Lutheran liturgies from green hymnals and blue hymnals and red hymnals, and we are a to people who didn’t grow up with books in their hands at all, but instead sang songs by memory and by heart, passed down from their parents and grandparents.  We are a community of readers and thinkers, planners and organizers, singers and writers, listeners and prayer-warriors.  We are artists. We are people who have lived in this neighborhood all our lives and people just passing through.  We are young and old.  We are single and partnered.  We are Latino and Anglo, Native and colonizers, Black and White, gay and straight, bisexual and transgendered. We are people with homes.  We are people who have known homelessness.  We are able-bodied, healing from wounds, and in recovery from addictions.  We are newly born, we are nearing death and, by our baptism, we are all headed for new life.

We are being made new!

Surrounded by so rich a diversity, arriving each Sunday to discover that we are once again not the same community that we were the week before, we have a special calling as a congregation at this time to look up from our books and look around our sanctuary.  We need to always be noticing who has just arrived.  We need to be intentionally welcoming the visitor, inviting the newcomer for coffee and conversation, or a play date with our kids, or dinner in our homes.

We need to become comfortable telling the story of how God is moving in our lives, and we need to continue to create opportunities — through bible studies, through service opportunities, through small groups, through worship — for people to experience the real and transformative power of God’s love for them, and in them, and through them for the sake of the world.

This is work none of us can do alone.  We need the skills and passions, the gifts and graces of each and every person in our community.  We have been blessed by an extraordinarily committed group of lay leaders whose mission is to equip the whole congregation for lives of loving service.

As we embark on this new year, our 7th year of redevelopment, our 25th as a denomination, our 113th as a congregation, we draw our courage from the witness of God’s saints, ordinary people like us, who in every generation were transformed by the power of their baptism, made new creations by the power of Christ.  Through them God healed and transformed the world.  Through us, God continues to act.

With thanksgiving for God’s power at work in us, always making us new,

Pastor Erik Christensen