Sermons

Sermon: Saturday, December 8, 2018: The Ordination of Allison Bengfort

The following sermon was preached at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago‘s Augustana Chapel on the occasion of the ordination of the Rev. Allison Bengfort, who was a student of mine when I was the pastor with St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square. Pastor Bengfort now serves St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Wilmette, IL.

Texts: Exodus 3:1-12  +  Psalm 46  +  Romans 12:1-18  +  Luke 4:16-21

IMG_1892A few weeks ago, just before Thanksgiving, my husband and I took our dog and headed west to Galena, a former mining town that’s now pretty much a resort area near the Mississippi River. We picked the lodge where we stayed because it was dog-friendly, and we didn’t want to have to board our puppy for the weekend, but the thing I was most looking forward to was the wood-burning fireplace in our room.

I love fire. Maybe it’s just that I like to be warm. During the winter when I was a boy, I would sit in front of the heating vents in the dining room with a blanket wrapped around me and pressed up to the wall to make a tent and trap all the hot air. If she was nice to me, I’d let my sister join me. But fires aren’t just about the warmth they give off. They are powerful. The process of combustion allows us to cook our food, heat our homes, power our cars, generate electricity. It also poses a threat, think of all the Christmas trees drying out near burning candles this season, or the wildfires in California that devastated the land, incinerating homes and leading to the loss of just over a hundred lives. Fire, by its very nature, consumes.

4.12.18 Particulate Matter From California Wildfires Linked to Cardiovascular and Cerebrovascular Events

As we settled into our room, I immediately set to work building a fire in the fireplace. I stacked the wood perfectly on the wrought iron hearth, nestling smaller pieces of wood near the bottom, just above the rolls of newspaper I’d tucked below the bars. Once I was satisfied that I’d done everything right, I struck a single match and quickly lit the kindling, blowing lightly at the base of the quickly spreading fire to fan the flames. “One match,” I bragged to my husband, as the fire began to roar. I cracked open a book and settled into the comfiest corner of the living room sofa. It didn’t take long for my eyes to grow heavy, and for me to fall asleep.

Napping in front of the fireplace is exactly what I’d wanted out of that weekend. I’d arrived at the lodge feeling drier than the wood stacked in the corner of the room. I was dried out by the effort to keep up with all the work on my various to do lists. I was dried out by a news cycle that continuously fanned the flames of my despair and anger at the world as it is. I was dried out by a season of grief that was burning through every reserve of strength in me. I was being consumed.

IMG_1975The thought, therefore, of presenting my body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, is somewhat terrifying. Because I have to confess to you all that there have been times in my ministry when I have done this, when I have placed my life on the altar of my calling and watched it burn. There have been weeks when I barely saw my husband. There have been seasons in which I read nothing for pleasure. There have been years that flew by in which my focus was so singularly on the health and well-being of the church, that my own health and well-being suffered. Studies on clergy health offer me only the consolation that I am not alone in these bad habits.

Perhaps it’s gauche to talk about clergy burnout on the day of Allison’s ordination, but I prefer to think that I am holding true to the promises I made in my ordination, not to offer false security or illusory hope. To pretend that there is not a fire burning in the church and in the world would be both. There is a fire burning, across the church. When I began my ministry in Chicago a little over a decade ago, there were approximately 220 congregations in our synod. I don’t have the precise number in front of me, but I believe we’re closer to 180 now. That’s a 20% decline a decade. It’s not just us, the ELCA. The Pew Research Center, which has been reporting for years on demographic shifts in religious identity and practice, places our experience in the broader context in which Christian affiliation, particularly among young adults, is declining and the number of those who do not identify with any organized religion, Christianity or otherwise, is on the rise. 

As this fire continues to burn, all sorts of things are being consumed, not just the cherished buildings that can no longer be maintained, but traditions that no longer speak to new generations and assumptions about where and how people will choose to spend their time and money. Here at the seminary, it can feel like we’re preparing class after class of smokejumpers, parachuting into ecclesiastical wildfires all across the religious landscape, to bring life-giving water to people and places that can no longer even name the ways in which they are parched.

66719It is with heart and mind singed by these relentless temperatures that I find myself once again transfixed by the image from Exodus of Moses standing before the burning bush. When Moses first sees it, he says, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”

Yes, this is the miracle I need, in every part of my life, to observe a living thing, burning but not consumed. Could it be true? Could it be true for our world and our nation? Could it be true for our church and its congregations? Could it be true for my life and my future? Can a thing burn and not be consumed?

In his blessing to me and Kerry on the day of our wedding, my father offered the following insight about the power of combustion. He said,

“On the farm where I was raised, my father’s arc welder did its work by bringing close — but always with a critical space between — two highly charged points. The energy, light, and heat is generated by the difference between the two. May you trust the arc of power that is created today as you draw together in this marriage.”

What an important reminder. The arc of power that allows the welder to sustain its flame is directly related to the space between the two points. The difference between them. This is what Paul seems to be saying when he reminds us that we have gifts that differ, even as we are part of one body. That is true in marriage as well as in the church, and it is the source of the power that fuels each of them. For the arc welder to work, the points must separate — but not too distant. It’s a delicate balancing act, respecting our differences while maintaining our common bond. 

We are living in a time commonly described as being polarized. A recent report titled “The Hidden Tribes of America” summarizes research confirming what most of us intuitively sense: that in our public life, 

“we have become a set of tribes, with different codes, values, and even facts. In our public debates, it seems that we no longer just disagree. We reject each other’s premises and doubt each other’s motives. We question each other’s character. We block our ears to diverse perspectives. At home, polarization is souring personal relationships, ruining Thanksgiving dinners, and driving families apart. We are experiencing these divisions in our workplaces, neighborhood groups, even our places of worship. In the media, pundits score points, mock opponents, and talk over each other. On the Internet, social media has become a hotbed of outrage, takedowns, and cruelty — often targeting total strangers.”

Compare that lived experience with the advice Paul offers to the church in Rome:

“I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned … Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” (Rom. 12:3,9-11)

Paul continues on with prescription for the fever heat that burns through our body politic: bless, rejoice, weep, associate, live peaceably with all.

Allison, you chose a set of texts for this day that speak plainly about God’s vision for a world liberated and restored: the liberation of the Israelites from Pharaoh, the proclamation of good news to the poor, release to the incarcerated, and freedom for the oppressed. What I want you to hear today is this: God’s dream for the world is not a job description for pastors, though this vision does appear in another set of sacramental vows.

When you were brought to the font, and each time we affirm our baptism, we remember and renew our promise to live among God’s faithful people, to receive the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for peace and justice in all the earth. We offer our lives as a sacrifice in service of God’s great love for the world, and we ask God to help and guide us. We all make these vows. All of us, together.

All of us, together. That is the only way this fire can burn bright enough to cast the hopelessness from our hearts, the only way this fire can burn hot enough to clear away the undergrowth and prepare the landscape for whatever seeds God is now planting for the future. All of us together, that is how we burn without being consumed. That is the good news already fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. All of us in, no one left out. 

There is power in fire, in the arc that spans the distance between people and tribes, between us and God. Today we pray for that power, that fire, to be poured out on Allison, to cover her without consuming her. We pray for the Holy Spirit to come, to warm our hearts, to bless this pastor, to restore the church, to flood the world.

Come, Holy Spirit, come!

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 2, 2013: Second Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 1 Kings 18:20-39  +  Psalm 96  +  Galatians 1:1-12  +  Luke 7:1-10

Have you ever wanted to call down fire?

I’m talking about God’s wrath.  God’s judgment.  Proof that God is God.  That the so-called way it is, is not the way it is supposed to be, and that there is a higher authority than any bureaucracy can produce, than any government can select, than any church can own.  That there is a God who cares about what happens to the world God created, and that we are going to be called to account for our management and mismanagement of God’s creation, our treatment and mistreatment of God’s people.

Have you ever looked at the world and wanted to call down fire?

I have, and recently at that.  Months and months of organizing for marriage equality in the State of Illinois, and in the end not even a vote?  Just silence from the Illinois House.  I wanted fire.  A fresh tally of victims to gun violence here in Chicago last Memorial Day weekend, six dead and eleven wounded, as nearby as Humboldt Park; and in response, the House breaks its silence to push forward a carry and conceal bill that would make it easier for people to walk the streets of our neighborhoods with deadly weapons?  I wanted fire.

And you have cried out for fire as well, I know.  You are battling bureaucracies that put children in harm’s way.  You are fighting for the rights of the weak, the poor, the hungry, the disabled.  You are watching as big business treats your co-workers and yourselves like cogs in a machine.  You are tending to the bodies and minds of the uninsured, and seeing the impacts of generational poverty on entire families.  You are calling for an end to war in a country obsessed with violence.  You are teaching in classrooms where children have gone without food, without support, without safety, and you are being told year after year to do more with less.

I can only imagine how badly and how often you must pray for God’s fire to come down and burn away the red tape, the apathy, the machine, the system, the guns, the drones, and all the wickedness of this world.

Today we begin a summer long series focusing on the prophets of Israel, and for this season we will be a School of the Prophets.  You may remember that two weeks ago it was Pentecost Sunday, and we heard these words from the book of Acts,

In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)

Then, last Sunday, as we celebrated the mystery of the Holy Trinity, we affirmed the Church’s faith that there is only one God, but who is known as and in community.  We heard from the gospel of John these words from Jesus,

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, [it] will guide you into all the truth; for [the Spirit] will not speak on [its] own, but will speak whatever [it] hears, and will declare to you the things that are to come. [The Spirit] will glorify me, because [it] will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that [God, our Parent] has is mine.  For this reason I said that [the Spirit] will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12-15)

In truth, ever since Easter we have been studying texts that make it clear to us that one of the meanings, one of the implications of Christ’s resurrection is that the Holy Spirit of God has been set free in the world; that the Spirit has a message for the world that needs a messenger; and that God’s messenger is the church, the baptized body of Christ in the world.  Jesus said, “the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:15) and “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” (John 14:12)

And then, like Elijah whom we meeting again for the first time this morning and who eventually is taken up into heaven in that chariot of fire, Jesus seems to withdraw from the story leaving its next chapter in our hands.  We are inheritors of a mission, a commission, and a message.  Living in the last days, in a Pentecostal epoch, we are now called to be prophets, and this is our school.

As we learn about our calling, our ministry as prophets, we can learn from the prophets of Israel, in whose tradition the Lord Jesus Christ stood, whose words and wisdom would have been his bread and butter as a young man in occupied Israel in the time of the Roman Empire.

Jesus obviously would have known the stories of Elijah, who lived in Israel during the reign of King Ahab, who ruled four generations after the reign of King Solomon.  King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, are remembered for bringing the worship of foreign gods back to Israel, in particular the god known as Baal.

It’s difficult to know what the actual religious beliefs and practices of the neighboring nations who worshipped Baal were, since most of the information we have comes from these biblical texts that aren’t concerned with religious pluralism and multiculturalism.  But I think we would be missing the point if we simply read this story as a warning about other religions.  What’s being contested here isn’t the number of followers each deity, Yahweh or Baal, can muster.  What is at stake is the worldview they represent within the story of Israel’s relationship with God.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes,

There is no doubt that in the Bible, an especially in this cluster of narratives, Baalism is heavily caricatured in Yahwistic representation.  Indeed, we have only the caricature so that the narrative is not, and does not intend to be, an evenhanded exposition.  The caricature that dominates Israel’s imagination is that Baalism is a socioreligious system rooted in the capacity to secure life for self by the manipulation and control of the gifts of the creator, by self-centered management that inevitably leads to an antineighbor ethic.  Thus it must not be thought that the contest concerns mere religious symbols or slogans; it is rather a deep and costly conflict between two contrasting perspectives on reality that are deeply rooted theologically and highly visible in the life and social practice of the community. (Brueggemann, Walter.  Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 2000. p. 219)

In other words, the problem with the worship of Baal isn’t that God’s honor is tarnished, or that God’s feelings are hurt, because people are worshipping some other god.  It is instead that, what the worship of Baal represents — at least in these stories — is a turning away from the ethical and moral character of the God of Israel, an ethic of care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger; and ethic that took form in these stories in the person of a king who had first been a shepherd, who cared for God’s people by bringing them together to love and care for one another.

The worship of Baal represents a different kind of governance which leads to a different kind of community and a different kind of world, one in which power is used to secure wealth for the wealthy, and the lives of the workers and the weak are considered the cost of doing business.  It is the kind of world Jesus knew everything about, growing up under Roman rule.  It is the kind of world we know everything about today, living in the heart of a global empire.

Elijah’s first prophetic action is to declare a drought.  This is more than an agricultural crisis, this is a sign that the nation has set itself again God.  In these ancient times, the king was understood to be the rain-maker, the one who assured wealth and prosperity by guiding the nation in accordance with God’s will for the people.  The absence of rain is a sign that God’s favor is absent from Ahab’s rule.  Rather than repenting, Ahab and Jezebel scour the nation looking for the prophet Elijah whose words of judgment are undermining their power and authority.  Finally, after three years of drought, the conflict has come to a head in the story we read this morning.  Elijah faces Ahab and challenges the prophets of Baal to a contest.  They will set offerings on altars to each of their respective gods, and they will see which offering is consumed by divine fire.

The beginning of the match tells us something important about what God through Elijah is really trying to achieve.  In the face of royal power and a legion of enemy priests, Elijah turns and speaks to the people, who are the actual objects of God’s concern.  He asks them, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?  If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21)

This simple question, buried at the beginning of a spectacle, is the heart of the matter.  The question always before God’s people is, in what god do you actually put your trust?  Is is the god of the paycheck or the inheritance that will really take care of you?  Is it the god of shrewd decisions and hard work that will provide for you and yours?  Is it the god of the right family or the right connections that will give you an advantage?  Is it the god of cynicism and low expectations that will protect you from the dangers of wanting more for your life?

Or is it the God known in community as community, who does not try to protect God’s own self from danger or harm, but is willing to endure every trial and humiliation to free the creation and its many peoples from patterns of life, systems of domination, that threaten to destroy us all?

Which god do you worship, and how?

Tellingly, the people do not say a word.  They are as silent as our lawmakers, waiting to see how the chips will fall.

Which gods do we worship?

Then the contests begin, and we begin to see the price paid for worshipping other gods.  As Elijah cracks jokes and taunts the priests of Baal (“Cry aloud!  Surely he is a god; either he is meditating or he is on a journey, or perhaps he must be awakened.”), they begin to mutilate themselves.  They injure themselves by cutting their flesh with swords and lances until they are covered in their own blood.

What price do we pay for chasing after the gods who cannot save us?  We pay with our own lives.  The paycheck ends. The inheritance is spent. Our decisions are exposed as dreams. Our bodies fail. Our families turn their backs on us. Our social networks are a mile wide and an inch deep. Our attempt to escape notice works, and we end up invisible in our own lives.  The gods we invent for ourselves can never save us, but we will spend our lives, we will pour out our lifeblood, chasing after them.

After Baal’s priests fail to summon their god, it’s Elijah’s turn.  Again, he gives his attention to the people, not the king, not the other priests.  He builds an altar for his sacrifice by placing twelve stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel on top of one another.  He reminds them of their history, that out of many peoples they were made one.  That out of many nations, they were made one nation.  That their strength came from the ways that they leaned on each other, built on each other, rested on each other.  Elijah creates a symbol of the underlying reality, that we the people together are the altar where God’s holiness appears.

Then Elijah drenches that altar, that sign of God’s people, three times with water — a baptism for that which is being offered to God, and assurance that what will happen next is no accident, no random spark falling on dry wood.

Finally, Elijah prays not for himself, but for the people he has been trying to reach. “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back” (1 Kings 18:37).  And the Lord God answers the words of that prayer by sending down fire to consume the offering, the wood, the altar, the earth and even the water.

When I am angry at the world, as I have been these last few days, I want to call down God’s fire to burn up the heartless bureaucrats, the cowardly legislators, the violent warmongers, the absent parents.  But God’s fire does not consume offerings made to absentee deities.  Instead, God’s fire comes to rest on the altar of God’s own people and takes what we are willing to offer, transforming those offerings into signs that God’s Spirit is still at work in the world, moving toward us and through us and out into the world for the sake of healing, and liberation, and mercy, and justice.

Rain and Fire

God’s flames, the ones that fell on God’s altar, the ones that raised Elijah to heaven in his chariot, the ones that appeared above the apostles’ heads that Pentecost morning are signs of God’s prophetic word, given to God’s prophets.  We pray for that fire each time we gather, not to destroy the forces that oppose us, but to kindle in us a passion to tell God’s truth to a world burdened by false gods.

Oh, God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire.

Amen.

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