Sermon: Saturday, March 26, 2016: The Easter Vigil

Texts: Genesis 1:1–2:4a  +  Genesis 7:1-5,11-18;8:6-18;9:8-13  +  Exodus 14:10-31;15:20-21  +  Isaiah 55:1-11  +  Ezekiel 37:1-14  +  Daniel 3:1-29  +  Romans 6:3-11  +  John 20:1-18

This sermon was preached by Pastor Erik Christensen at the ecumenical worship service held by St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square and Iglesia Episcopal de Nuestra Señora de las Americas at the Easter Vigil (3/26/2016).

If there’s any movie in recent memory that’s lived up to the high ideals of my youth, it was last year’s relaunch of the Star Wars franchise with Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  I’m just old enough to remember when the original Star Wars movies came out, but still young enough that they entered my imagination as a child, forming me for life.

Do you remember the words that scrolled up from the bottom of the screen in the opening scene back in 1977?


Episode IV: A New Hope

What a brilliant way to begin a story! “Episode IV” — not at the beginning, but somewhere in the middle, we are joining a story already in progress. “A New Hope,” communicates so much. Old hopes have been dashed, times are tough, the people aren’t sure what will happen next, but just wait, help is on the way! All of that, communicated with incredible efficiency in just five words: “Episode Four: A New Hope.”

We have not been quite so efficient tonight. Instead of five words, we’ve told seven stories, and read part of a letter. Nevertheless, the effect is intended to be quite similar. This is the night! For two thousand years Christian people have gathered on this night, are gathered right now, all around the world: lighting fires, telling stories, singing alleluias, and baptizing new sisters and brothers into the faith — welcoming them into a story already in progress. Here’s what we know so far:

This world, everything in it, me and you, we were created by God. Not as an experiment. Not as a test. We were created by love, from love, for love. When God was creating the world, God looked at everything God had created and called it good. This is the first story of salvation. We are saved by the reality that underneath the other stories that have been laid on us, underneath the thoughtless jokes and stupid stereotypes and the bigoted rhetoric floating around in the world, the word God uses to describe us, the name God chooses to call us is “good.” That is the truest thing about you. That God loves you and calls you good. If you forget everything else and just remember that you and everyone you run into over the course of the day is God’s favorite person; that every patch of land you walk on is God’s favorite place to be; that all the people and places the world writes off are exactly the people and places God delights in most, then it’s enough. There is salvation in that story.

But, while that would have been enough, God gives us more. Because we also have a story that says that God recognizes all the ways that the other stories that get told about us hurt us, twist us, deform us, embitter us, warp us into something hard, something violent and cruel. So we tell a story about waters so deep, so profound, that they wash away all the ways we are killing ourselves and each other, and replace those habits with a covenant between God and the whole creation that says “never again.” Never again do you need to worry that God cannot forgive you. Never again do you need to worry that God will deal harshly with you. Never again do you need to worry that God will not save room for you in God’s heart. A story of new life on the other side of waters that made the world and everyone in it new, of wood that carried us across the gap between our past and our future. There is salvation in that story.

And, while that would have been enough, God gives us even more. Because we also have a story that tells us that even after the flood, even after we are washed in the water, there are ways that our cruelty and self-centeredness re-emerge. Ways that consolidate power and concentrate wealth. Ways that transform the sin that is working in each of us into an empire that is working against all of us. So we get the story of Moses and Pharaoh, and God’s liberation that parts waters and sets us free. A story that tells the truth, that sometimes we look back at the ways the world enslaves us with nostalgia for the past. We’d grown comfortable with our own oppression. We’d gotten used to those lies. We’d learned to live with those shackles. But God will not settle for slavery. God wants us free, and will lead us into the movement for freedom that was not over when the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, but continues in us each time we march, together, for human dignity and justice in our world, in our time. There is salvation in that story.

And if it had stopped there, it would have been enough, but God gives us even more. God sends the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel to instruct us on what this liberated, water-washed life will require from us. Isaiah tells the hungry poor to come to the waters, to invest themselves in a way of life that we cannot put a price on; to stop wasting our lives working to prop up the same system that keeps us down. The prophets imagine a world where the things that are needed for life aren’t hoarded, but are shared as freely as the rain that falls from the sky. Water as the sign that life is not earned, but received, as a gift.

Ezekiel prepares us for the truth that this water-washed life will not be easy, that the empire will strike back, that our struggles will sometimes leave us tired, worn out, defeated, left for dead. That sometimes the covenant written in water will seem to have evaporated completely, that we will feel dry, brittle, fragile, useless. That faith will feel like foolishness, and hope like a child’s dream.

That will be the moment when God’s power is made known in our weakness. When God’s covenant will prove stronger than our confidence. When the Holy Spirit will be poured out on us like a river in the desert. When strength will return to our bodies, and joy to our hearts, and alleluias to our lips, not because of what we have done, but because of what God can do, and has done, and will do again! There is salvation in that story.

And it would have been enough, but God gives us another story, a story about testimony, about speaking truth to power. A moment of foreshadowing when three young adults stand before the face of empire, like Jesus stood before Pilate, and are thrown into a fire so hot no water could withstand it. Because we face that moment every day, as we choose between the values of empire and the reign of God; and because sometimes we are called to testify to our faith in the God of abundant love and ongoing liberation in ways that put us at odds with those who have invested themselves in the myths of scarcity and control. Sometimes we will be thrown in the fire. Sometimes we will be nailed to the cross. And if not us, then our neighbors, and we will have to decide if we bend the knee or make a stand. The story tells us that when we stand, God stands with us. That no fire can withstand this water. There is salvation in this story.

Jesus knew all these stories, because they were his stories. The legends of Israel’s salvation were to him what Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope was to a generation of us — stories that acknowledged the epic struggle in which we are always engaged. In his ministry he took those stories and adapted them, interpreted them, retold them so that anyone who was really listening could tell that these were stories about them and their lives, just like they are stories about us and our lives.

So, when the empire demanded that Jesus cease and desist, that he back away from his solidarity with all the suffering people of the earth, he knew that his hour had come. Would he bend the knee, or would he stand? Was the choice real? Without a doubt. But, to anyone who knew the story, the end was already clear. He had been baptized at the Jordan by John. He heard the voice of the Creator calling him Beloved. He knew who he was in a way the empire could never call into question. So he stood in the fire and he hung on the cross and God stood with him, because it is in the nature of God to stand with all who being crucified by this world. There is salvation in that story.

And if it ended there it would have been enough, to know that God stands with those the world is killing. But God gave us more, because as the story goes, on the third day after his death they came to his tomb and discovered that he was not there. First Mary, then others of the disciples, came to the tomb to see what had happened to the body of their Lord. In fact, as the story goes, he was there, but Mary mistook him for a gardener. As if the graveyard was a garden, like the one at the dawn of creation, and Jesus had been there all along. “Do not hold on to me,” he said, “but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17)

That’s how Jesus saw them. That’s how Jesus sees us. As sisters and brothers, members of the same family, children of the same God. That’s what we say happens to us when we are dipped, dunked and drenched in these storied waters. We become members of one another in ways even death cannot tear apart.

There is salvation in this story, the story of Jesus, which is our story. And this is the night when we invite new sisters and brothers to join us in telling this story with our whole lives. This is the night when we proclaim that “God, who is rich in mercy and love, gives us a new birth into a living hope through the sacrament of baptism.” A story, your story, already in progress. A story of salvation. A new hope.



Sermon: Saturday, April 4, 2015: The Resurrection of Our Lord — The Vigil of Easter

Texts: Genesis 1:1–2:4a  +  Exodus 14:10-31;15:20-21  +  Isaiah 55:1-11  +  Daniel 3:1-29  +  Romans 6:3-11  +  John 20:1-18

JFK_Assassination2It was a Friday in November, 1963 when the nation found out that their president, John F. Kennedy had been killed. News of his assassination spread quickly as televisions in lunchrooms and living rooms flickered on to share minute by minute coverage of the events taking place in Dallas. All across the country people dropped whatever they were doing and waited for any bit of news that might make sense of this shocking tragedy.

Leonard Bernstein, the famous Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, was in meetings that afternoon when the news came to him that Kennedy was dead. The two men were friends, and Bernstein was a frequent guest at the White House. So it was perhaps not unexpected that Bernstein was approached the following day, Saturday, by CBS to create a memorial program that would air the following day, a Sunday. Bernstein accepted and worked quickly to select the music.

The obvious choice would have been a requiem, and many orchestras across the country did just that. Bernstein, however, went a different route. On Sunday, November 24, just days after the president’s assassination, Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic and the Schola Cantorum of New York in a nationally televised memorial featuring Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. Speaking the following evening at a fundraiser for the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York, Bernstein explained his decision.

“There were those who asked: Why the Resurrection Symphony, with its visionary concept of hope and triumph over worldly pain, instead of a Requiem, or the customary Funeral March […]? Why indeed? We played the Mahler symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him. In spite of our shock, our shame, and our despair at the diminution of [humanity] that follows from this death, we must somehow gather strength for the increase of [humanity], strength to go on striving for those goals he cherished.”

Near the end of his remarks he said this,

“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

brooks-circular-thumbLarge-v3This story came back to me after my dad shared David Brooks’s column from yesterday’s edition of the New York Times (04/03/2015) titled, On Conquering Fear.” In it Brooks reflects on the power of art to rouse us from the apathy and skepticism that are the byproducts of living in a constant state of terror and learned helplessness. He begins by offering a commentary on the story of the Exodus read in Jewish homes on Passover, the ending of which we’ve already heard tonight (Ex. 14:10-31;15:20-21). He writes,

Storytelling becomes central to conquering fear. It’s a way of naming and making sense of fear and imagining different routes out. Storytellers expand the consciousness, waken the sleeping self and give their hearers the words and motifs to use for themselves. Jews tell the story of the Exodus each generation to understand the fears they feel at that moment. Stories create new ways of seeing, which lead to new ways of feeling and thinking.

That is what we’ve been doing here tonight. Telling the old stories of salvation inherited from our Jewish sisters and brothers, stories of God’s hand in history creating us in love, liberating us from oppression, providing abundantly despite our fear of scarcity, accompanying us through the times of trial.

These are the stories the followers of Jesus knew by heart, the stories they’d heard passed down from generation to generation in oral traditions and songs and plays and dances and dramas. These stories were in their blood.

These were the stories that Jesus himself drew on as he gathered women and men around him to dream of a world made new, a world in which the hard lines between empire and colony, master and slave, man and woman, Greek and Jew were softened, blurred, obliterated. Stories that reminded us that in the beginning we were all made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26).

These were the stories the disciples would have heard echoing in the miracle of loaves and fishes multiplied until all were fed. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isa. 55:1)

These were the stories the followers of Jesus might have remembered as he was led away by the Roman guard to be tried by Pontus Pilate. “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him.” (Dan. 3:28)

jesus-crucifixion-1127718-galleryThen the news came on a Friday that the man they’d loved, and trusted, and followed, was dead.  He wasn’t just dead, he’d been killed, and not quietly, not out of sight, but on a cross on a hill, in plain view for everyone to see.  The message was clear: be afraid. Do not be fooled by this dreamer. The world as it is is the world as it ought to be. The empire rules and you are its subjects. Obey and live. Rise up and die.

Rome thought that would be the end of it. That the people would mourn, perhaps even riot, but they knew how to deal with that. That’s what crosses were for. What they were not expecting was Gustav Mahler’s second symphony, the Resurrection symphony.  They were not expecting the insurrection only artists can lead, the kind that begins with a story and ends with a new creation.  Somehow, somewhere, on that Saturday between the cross and the triumph of the empty tomb God, the artist who spoke creation into being with a word, whose image and likeness is imprinted on every soul, moved once again over the waters. The story spread quickly. The cross on which the teacher hung was as empty as the grave in which they laid him. The empire is unmasked! Death, where is your power now?

These are the storied waters by which we baptize, and tonight we celebrate with our brother Ryan who has responded to the call of the Holy Spirit to come and die. To come and die to the numbing death of conformity to a culture of violence. To come and die to the wasting death of complicity with a culture of scarcity. To come and die to the corrupting death of privilege in a culture of supremacy. To come and die to the tragic death of waste in a culture of consumption and degradation. Ryan has heard the call to die to all that is killing us, and to rise with Christ, the firstborn of a new creation. So we celebrate with him, and his family, and his beloved, Rachel, and with the whole church, the rebirth of a new disciple, a new storyteller, a new artist in the commonwealth of God, the anti-empire, the reign that has no end.

Sisters and brothers, there are so many reasons to weep. From the senseless massacre of human lives in Garissa, Kenya to the racialized violence that plagues our streets and swells our prisons. The sources of our grief are always before us, terrorizing us, numbing us into submission to a nightmare passing as reality. What we need is a story, a song, a symphony to rouse us to life. Jesus said to the weeping woman, to Mary whom he loved, “do not hold on to me … but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’  Mary went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’” (John 20:17)  So I say to you: do not hold on to this story, this life-giving work of art, but go and tell anyone who will listen that you have seen the Lord, who is not dead, as they claim, but alive and being born again and again in you and me, in these waters and all who emerge from them.

This will be our reply to the cross: to proclaim the gospel more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.


Credit where it’s due goes to the Leonard Bernstein Office’s website for details shared in this sermon.


Sermon: Sunday, February 17, 2013: First Sunday of Lent

Texts:  Deuteronomy 26: 1-11  +  Psalm 91:1-2,9-16  +  Romans 10:8b-13  +  Luke 4:1-13

Good morning students, and welcome to your Lenten study hall.  My name is Erik Christensen and I will be your instructor for the next five weeks as we explore the ministry of Jesus in preparation for the great Three Days leading up to the festival of Easter.  The required reading for this class is the gospel of Luke, though there are select passages from the gospel of John that are recommended as well.  You can find these texts in most any bookstore, or in the bibles in the pew-back in front of you.  You can also find them online and in a variety of translations for both print and eReader formats.  There are no quizzes or papers in this class.  There will be one final, administered with water, and you will all pass.  Although there is no such thing as extra credit, you will earn brownie points if you can name the theological doctrine by which we all pass this course on the strength of another’s merits.

There really is a part of me that would still love to teach college or grad school.  Mostly so I could use that tone of voice (“Good morning students…”).  Looking for a season of the church year best suited to the living out of my professorial fantasies, Lent was the obvious choice.  Throughout its long and storied history, the season of Lent has been used as a time for the education and formation of people preparing to be baptized at the Easter Vigil.  As the church moved out of the first century and into a period of persecution, many found it difficult to remain true to the promises they’d made at the time of their baptisms — promises that we ourselves have made, or that were made on our behalf by parents and sponsors when we were children.  Christians facing political persecution in the form of imprisonment or even death would sometimes turn their back on the community of the baptized.  Lent was a time when those who had left the church could return, using these forty days as a period of repentance for sin and renewal in faith.

In the modern era, we recall and observe both meanings of this ancient season:

baptized_we_live_coverThis is a time of preparation for baptism. In fact, this year we are celebrating with Jessica Castro and her children Jessie, Angel and Lilly their decision to be baptized at the Easter Vigil.  In preparation for that event, Jessica Palys and I are meeting with the family for an hour each week before worship and studying together, using Dan Erlander’s short, wonderful, illustrated text “Baptized We Live: Lutheranism as a Way of Life.”  

And this is a time for each of us who are already baptized to be reflecting on the ways that we may have capitulated to the pressures of the world that tempt us to turn away from the promises made at baptism. Individually and collectively we use this season of Lent to repent for the ways we have broken or betrayed the solidarity with all God’s people that is the gift of baptism, and we renew our faith and our promises to be co-workers with all of creation in God’s in-breaking reign.

The stories we hear this morning, on this first Sunday of Lent, fit the theme of identity and temptation quite perfectly.  We are, perhaps, most familiar with the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness — first with bread, then with political power, and finally with the promise of divinity, even immortality.

These temptations come at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and they remind me of the three renunciations we make at the beginning of the baptismal rite before we are washed in these waters and initiated into the mission and ministry of Christ.  We ask,

  • Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
  • Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
  • Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?

To each of these questions the candidate responds, “I renounce them,” mirroring Jesus’ own renunciation of Satan’s tempting offers.

Last month I spent the better part of a week down in Atlanta, Georgia.  I was there by invitation from the Worship staff from the Churchwide offices of the ELCA to be part of a team of clergy who worked together on crafting new language for contemporary Christian worship.  In that process one of my assignments was actually to find new words for these ancient baptismal renunciations.

south_park_satanRecognizing that many of us are unfamiliar, even uncomfortable, with the use of the name “Satan” — surrounded by depictions of a red-fleshed bully wielding a pitchfork on South Park or various horror movie renditions of “the Devil,” I had to try and find new words that more accurately reflected ancient views of what we are called to renounce in our baptism.

In the gospel of Luke, the devil tempts Jesus with offers that expand in their scope. The first temptation is bread.  We may not think too much of bread, but if that’s true, then it’s probably a sign that we have enough of it, or enough money to never have to worry about where our next meal is coming from.  Of the world’s 6.7 billion people, almost 1 billion go hungry each day — that’s about 14% of the world’s community that prays “give us this day our daily bread” with an urgency we may simply never understand.

For these people, a person who could have made bread out of rocks would have been a magician — but a person who became bread for the whole world would have been a savior.

The second temptation is political power.  The devils tells Jesus, “to you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.”  There’s some sly humor in Luke’s gospel at this point, I think.  The devil is asserting that politics are the devil’s playground, and who among us hasn’t thought the same at some point in our lives, or even in the last week? In a world of back-room deals, the devil is offering Jesus the sweetest deal of them all.  But Jesus renounces the devil’s claim over politics, and in doing so I think he ennobles the political work of the church, our calling to use all the tools available to us to shape the world so that it more fully reflects God’s peace, mercy, justice and love.  In a world where politics too quickly becomes a synonym for division, the baptized people of God recall Paul’s words to the Romans, “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”

In a world in which political leaders living nations away controlled the lives of millions of people, a person who ruled the nations would have been a hero — but a person who prioritized people over power would have been a savior.

The final temptation is cosmic in scope.  The devil tempts Jesus with the promise of divine protection.  He says, “if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here for it is written, ‘God will command the angels concerning you, to protect you.’”  It is the promise of eternal life.  If you are the child of God, then nothing can hurt you, nothing can kill you.  That is the devil’s tempting lie.  But Jesus will be the one who shows us the breadth and the depth of God’s solidarity with all the suffering world.  A love so deep that it will not pass over death, but will enter it just as fully as each of us someday must.

In a world dominated by death, a person who escaped death would have been a legend — but a person who embraced death so that each of us could live more fully, less fearfully, would have been a savior.

So we, when we are baptized, follow in the footsteps of our savior, renouncing the devil’s empty offers in favor of a new life lived in solidarity with all the world’s people: the hungry, the oppressed, the weak and the dying.

As I looked for new words to communicate these ancient ideas, I tried to think about the range of situations in which people are baptized and how I would speak to each.  In one case, I imagined a worship service where those being baptized were old enough to answer for themselves, but still young enough that the traditional language would be far beyond their daily vocabulary.  I tried to find words that children could say with honesty and integrity.  This is what I came up with, and as we close this first lesson in our Lenten study hall I’m going to ask you to respond to these questions — if you feel comfortable doing so — with the words “I say no to them.”  As we finish, I’ll ask you to join me in reciting the Apostle’s Creed — remembering those words by which we were each baptized.  To make that easier, how about we each open our hymnals to page 229 in the front.

Friends, as you get ready to be baptized, I’m going to ask you to say no to the things that hurt you and to say yes to God.  Some of our words will be short and simple, and some will be long and complicated, but all will tell the story of God’s love for you and for the whole world.

Do you say no to hate, no to violence, no to greed and no to everything else that is the opposite of God’s peace, mercy, justice and love?

Response: I say no to them.

Do you say no to rules, no to habits, no to traditions, no to prejudices that go against God’s hopes and dreams for the world?

Response: I say no to them.

Do you say no to the things you do but shouldn’t, no to the temptation to do nothing when action is needed, no to everything that pulls you away from God?

Response: I say no to them.

Saying no to sin, and all that hurts us and God’s creation, I ask you now to say yes to God with the words used by Christians at their baptisms since the very earliest days of the Church.

Do you believe in God the Father?

I believe in God, the Father almighty,

creator of heaven and earth.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died, and was buried;

he descended to the dead.

On the third day he rose again;

he ascended into heaven,

and is seated at the right hand of the Father,

and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting.