Messages

Message: A Week of Historic Joy and Lament

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

How do we even begin to name the torrent of emotions that have washed over us this week, even on this single day?

Like many of you, Kerry and I have sat in our living room, glued to our televisions, receiving news of new terrorist attacks across Europe and North Africa, watching the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney at Mother Emanuel AMC in Charleston, and finally hearing the words we’ve waited a lifetime to hear from the Supreme Court of the United States: the constitution grants same gender couples the right to marry.

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

Earlier this week our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, called on the congregations of the ELCA to commit this Sunday’s worship service to public lament of the murder of those killed at Mother Emanuel AMC last week when a white terrorist entered the church and murdered a group of our sisters and brothers engaged in bible study and prayer. In her letter to the ELCA, Bishop Eaton wrote,

Mother Emanuel AME’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was a graduate of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, as was the Rev. Daniel Simmons, associate pastor at Mother Emanuel. The suspected shooter is a member of an ELCA congregation. All of a sudden and for all of us, this is an intensely personal tragedy. One of our own is alleged to have shot and killed two who adopted us as their own.

Bishop Eaton goes on to name this horrific event a direct consequence of our historic and ongoing sin of racism.

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Plaintiff Jim Obergefell

In his first comments on the steps of the Supreme Court, Jim Obergefell — one of the plaintiffs in the marriage equality case — made it a point to say that this step forward for human and civil rights does not preclude the possibility of steps back for others and named the horror of last week’s killings in Charleston as evidence of this. He called on the nation to continue working against the scourge of racism even as he celebrated today’s historic ruling for LGBTQ equality and civil rights.

For that reason, when we gather as a congregation this coming Sunday we will be lamenting the ongoing loss of brothers and sisters to gun violence and racism, even as we are strengthened and encouraged by the promise of the gospel: that in Christ we are a new creation. As we live in the tension of the already and the not yet, we will offer thanks for signs of that inevitable future in which the indelible image of God imprinted on each of our souls is made visible by the way we live with and love one another.

Then, many of us will join the Pride festival pouring through the streets of Chicago as our city joins others around the country in celebrating the new freedom and dignity enjoyed by LGBTQ people, which ennobles our common humanity.

Rejoicing in the Lord always,

Pastor Erik

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 11, 2013: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Isaiah 1:1,10-20  +  Psalm 50:1-8,22-23  +  Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16  +  Luke 12:32-40

The four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.

The four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.

Fifty years ago next month, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had the tragic occasion to deliver a eulogy at the funeral service for three of the four little girls killed in the bombing of 16th St. Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963.  In his speech, which is remembered by history as “Eulogy for the Martyred Children,” King spoke of the redemptive power in the blood of those murdered children.  He said,

“God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. The holy Scripture says, ‘A little child shall lead them.’ The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood. These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilled blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.”

That was fifty years ago, and this morning I want us to ask ourselves if, indeed, the innocent blood of those four little girls has caused the South, the North, and the whole of these United States to come to terms with its conscience.

Trayvon Martin w/ hoodieIn an article titled, “Why White Evangelical Churches Don’t Wear Hoodies,” published last Friday on the Huffington Post’s religion blog, the Rev. Mae Elisa Cannon, an Evangelical Covenant pastor and graduate of North Park Theological Seminary just three miles north of here, writes,

“Over the past few weeks, Black churches across the United States grieved and lamented the Zimmerman verdict of ‘not guilty.’ … Many churches of color and others joined in solidarity with Trayvon Martin by wearing their hoodies to worship. Church services addressed concerns of race, the legal system, gun violence, and issues of justice within communities of color.

On the other hand, the vast majority of white Evangelical churches haven’t been talking about the Trayvon Martin case on Sunday mornings. Besides a brief mention and perhaps a prayer the focal point of the Sunday sermon hasn’t been about racial injustice…”

A little further in her article, Cannon describes the reaction Lisa Sharon Harper had to the Zimmerman verdict.  Harper is an African American evangelical who works for Sojourners, a national Evangelical organization working on  racial and social justice, peacemaking, and environmental stewardship.

“Devoted to the Scriptures, Harper takes to heart the words of Isaiah, ‘Learn to do right; seek justice.’ (Isa. 1:17).  In a recent interview, she described her response upon learning the news of the verdict: ‘Shocked. Absolutely shocked … I went to sleep that night feeling numb. I slept hard that night. Then, as soon as I woke up the next morning, I started crying. Weeping. It hit me. The reality of the moment really hit me.’”

Fifty years after the nation was jolted out of its racist slumber by the deaths of four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama we find ourselves divided once more by profoundly different reactions to the death of an African American child.  Jurors in Florida, a state with laws that make it possible for a person to kill another person if they feel threatened, to “stand their ground,” struggled to determine whose hands were stained with Trayvon Martin’s blood.

The book of Isaiah opens with the prophet Isaiah speaking as if he were prosecuting a case in a different kind of courtroom, the heavenly court:

“Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me … What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; … When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” (Isa. 1:2,11a,12,15)

The issue of accountability is as complex today as it was for the people of Israel in the time of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry.  Imagine how confusing Isaiah’s righteous anger would have sounded to the average Israelite, the kind of person who rose early, worked hard all day long, paid his taxes and made his offerings at the Temple.

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats … bringing incense is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation — I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.” (Isa. 1:11,13-14)

It’s easy enough for us, reading through the text from a safe distance, to join with Isaiah in denouncing the hypocrisy of his time, of rulers and peoples who gather to worship God with their lips but not with their lives. From the perspective of that everyday Israelite, however, it’s not so easy to understand what is being asked for.

Those people, like Ryan and Gina who have brought their daughter, Chiara, for the appointed festival of baptism, were simply trying to live their lives with some sense of reverence for God in light of a tradition that was passed down generation after generation.  Those people’s offerings in the temple, like Chiara’s baptism this morning, were a way of keeping faith with the traditions that had shaped the identity not only of those individuals, but of a community, of an entire nation.

Like the ancient Israelites, we have words and actions we perform as signs of commitment to the God who calls people out of slavery; who brings people into lands of abundance; who restores the exiled; who heals the sick and comforts the dying; who brings new life to people and places left for dead.  We have even incorporated Isaiah’s critique of empty religion into our own rituals, so that as Chiara was baptized this morning we asked her parents to promise before God and before the whole Church that they would raise Chiara to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.

But doesn’t Isaiah’s spirit push back against our sense of satisfaction? After all, so many baptized people in the world, so many promises made in sanctuaries just like these, and still so many eulogies being preached at so many funerals.

In describing the difference in perception that shapes the radically different response to public events like the Zimmerman verdict by White communities and communities of color, Mae Elise Cannon cites the work of Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, authors of Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.

“Emerson and Smith describe the findings of thousands of phone interviews and hundreds of face-to-face interviews they conducted for their sociological study. In general, the found, White evangelicals view the world through the paradigm of rugged individualism, relationships, and anti-structuralism.  Black evangelicals also view the world through a lens of rugged individualism and relationships, but they are not anti-structural.  Rather, they understand the impact of systems and structures on whole people groups.”

In this regard, I think the historic Black church, and communities of color in general, may be better situated to understand the voice of the prophet Isaiah, who is not, really, addressing the people of Israel as individuals, but as a community, as a nation.

The difficulty of a ruling like the one in the George Zimmerman trial is that the jurors were able to find him innocent under the law, even though we know that individual jurors felt certain that he was guilty in some obvious sense.  That he was culpable for the death of Trayvon Martin, even if he was not held accountable.

It is that gap, the gap between culpability and accountability, through which the stain of a single death spreads out to mark the community around it.  It is the tragic gaps in our systems of justice, in our laws, in our public policy, in our sentencing guidelines, in our penal system — systems none of us own individually, but all of us own together — that leave us praying with blood-soaked hands.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be leaving for Pittsburgh for the 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.  At this assembly, our denomination will be debating whether or not to adopt a social statement on Criminal Justice that has been in the works for six years now.  Some of you took part in our own study of an early draft of the proposed social statement a couple of years ago.  The proposed social statement, in its current form, makes the following basic points:

  • The ELCA is prompted to speak and to act because so many cries of suffering and despair emerge from the criminal justice system — from victims, the incarcerated, their families, communities, those wrongly convicted, those who work in the system — and have not been heard.
  • Drawing from Holy Scripture, this church holds up a vision of God’s justice that is wondrously richer and deeper than human imitations and yet is a mirror in which justice in this world, God’s world, must always be assessed.
  • A fundamental transformation of mindset about criminal justice is required that challenges the logic of equating more punitive measures with more just ones. Individuals must be held accountable, but every person in the criminal justice system deserves to be seen and treated as a member of human communities, created in the image of God and worthy of appropriate and compassionate response.
  • Because mass incarceration causes significant harms, both personal and social, the ELCA strongly urges those who make and administer correctional policies to take all appropriate measures to limit the use of incarceration as a sanction for criminal offenses.  Toward that end, this statement identifies three specific paths: pursue alternatives to incarceration, reform sentencing laws and policies, and closely scrutinize national drug policy.
  • Four other imperatives also require vigorous action from policy makers: the criminal justice system must acknowledge the disparities, and address the implicit and explicit racism that persists within; it must recognize the special needs of juvenile offenders; it must also stop the privatization of prison facilities; and finally, it must foster the full reintegration of ex-offenders into community.

(from the ELCA’s “The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries. A Proposed Social Statement on Criminal Justice. Brief Overview”)

It was Dr. King’s hope, and the prayer of every parent and person of conscience who gathered to mourn the loss of those four little girls, that those “tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color.”  Dr. King suggested that our nobility derives from how we act rather than how we look, and in this judgment he echoes the judgment of the prophet Isaiah, who said,

“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isa. 1:16-17)

I would ask you to pray for our church, the ELCA, as we gather in assembly this coming week.  Pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us in all wisdom, so that the divisions that characterize our nation might be set aside for the sake of a probing, prayerful, and prophetic statement from the church God has called to the world God has created, and loves, and is laboring to restore.  Pray that the spilled blood of too many children might find a voice in our assembly, so that their deaths might not be in vain. Pray, most of all, that at the end of all our debates and our voting that the church’s action would be more than words, more than one more burdensome solemn assembly.  That whatever social statements we pass would find their ultimate expression in the lives we lead and the actions we take as a community gathered and sent for the sake of the world.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen.

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Messages

2012 Annual Report: Pastor’s Report

Pastor’s Report to the Congregation for 2012

Submitted by Pastor Erik Christensen

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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 (www.elca.org/25) 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 (www.elca.org/LIFT).  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

 

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