Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, October 9, 2016: Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-15c  +  Psalm 111  +  2 Timothy 2:8-15  +  Luke 17:11-19

man-silhouetteThis man is revolting. He is rotten, inside and out. He is toxic, and whatever he’s got, it is spreading. It spreads from person to person, and if we’re not careful it will consume our whole nation. There is a place for folks like him, and it’s not among decent people. If it were up to me we’d send him somewhere we’d never have to see him again.

But somehow he’s still here. Despite the obvious rot, he is still treated as though he is a person of substance, a person deserving our attention and respect. Why is that? How is it that this man believes there to be one set of rules to govern the majority of people and a different set of rules that apply to him? Is it because he is wealthy? Is it because people are afraid of him, because of his history of combativeness? Is it because his exploits have made other people rich? Is it because he enjoys the favor of the ruling establishment, because he has the endorsement of the nation’s elites? Is that why he thinks he plays by different rules?

You know who I’m talking about, right? His reputation precedes him. He’s the kind of public figure who needs no more than a single name.

He is Naaman.

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By 1530 it had been more than a decade since Luther had presented his 95 theses and launched the Protestant Reformation. Families, cities, and nations were deeply divided and the rhetoric used by each side to describe the other was so inflammatory it might actually make us feel better about our present electoral embarrassments. Writing against the Roman papacy Luther once remarked,

“You are desperate, thorough arch-rascals, murderers, traitors, liars, the very scum of all the most evil people on earth. You are full of all the worst devils in hell — full, full, and so full that you can do nothing but vomit, throw, and blow out devils!”

And you thought “basket of deplorables” was rough? Luther had all the best words. Though Paul still advises us to avoid “wrangling” over them. (2 Tim. 2:14)

In 1530 the Lutherans were tasked with doing more than railing against all they did not agree with and could not support, but to make a positive statement of faith which became one of the most important documents of the entire Reformation, the Augsburg Confession. In it, Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and other early theologians of the Lutheran reform movement found new words to share the good news of the free gift of God’s love, justice, mercy, and liberation. Describing what we have come to know as the doctrine of justification, the Augsburg Confession says,

“It is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our own merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us.” (AC IV)

Later, because we have such a hard time believing that our standing before God has everything to do with God’s grace and nothing to do with our goodness, the Lutherans had to write an explanation and defense of all they’d written in the Augsburg Confession, so they expanded their explanation of justification:

“Reconciliation does not depend upon our merits. But if the forgiveness of sins depended upon our merits and reconciliation were by the law, it would be useless. For since we do not keep the law, it would also follow that the promise of reconciliation would never apply to us … For if the promise required the law and condition of our own merits, it would follow that the promise is useless since we never keep the law.” (Apol IV.42)

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Baptisms still take place in the River Jordan.

Still, God does not simply meet us where we are — God graciously changes us, though in practice it can feel like anything but a gift. For Naaman, change came in accepting that he was no better than any other of God’s own people. There was no special water reserved for people like him. There was no elite baptism. God’s love and God’s justice are strong enough that they do not fail to encompass even a narcissistic, belligerent fellow like Naaman; but God’s love and God’s justice do change Naaman who, in the end, takes his place among all God’s ordinary saints, proclaiming that there is no God in all the earth but the one who met Israel in the waters of liberation from slavery, who met them in the crossing of the Jordan as they entered into a promised land, the same God who meets us at the font.

If the story of Naaman is just a story about how God works through ordinary water to heal and restore people to fullness of life, I can accept it. It’s a miracle story from Hebrew scripture that prefigures the Christian sacrament of baptism, so let’s just sing “All Are Welcome” and continue feeling good about ourselves. And if the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is just a bit of Reformation history, passed down through the generations for confirmands to memorize, then I can manage it. It’s one more bit of theology in one more book on one more shelf to be referenced in one more sermon.

But this story and our history is more than that.

The story of Naaman is the voice of our ancestors telling us that there will always be rotten bullies spreading their illness, getting preferential treatment, enjoying the spoils of war and the approval of the nation. Still, God meets them in the water. The power of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is that it tells the truth about me. That too often I believe I have earned my place in this world when in reality my successes are the products of a wide set of factors, many of which I have no control over and for which I can claim no credit: my race, my gender, my class, my nationality.

Even more fundamentally, the doctrine of justification reminds me that I am not a good person. I am filled with anger at others but minimize my own failures. I set goals and intentions for myself that I am not able to keep. I delight in the public embarrassments of those I consider hypocrites and pray that my own hypocrisies will remain hidden. I judge people. I judge them over important things and over petty things. But if I stood before God’s judgment, as I do, as we all do, I would come up lacking. When we stand before God’s judgment, we come up lacking. We are rotten. And still, God meets us in the water.

reformation500-enOur stories and our histories, our confessions and our doctrines, are not abstractions for us to agree or disagree with, they are our attempts to describe reality as we have experienced it in our skin. As we begin this 4-week series looking at the legacy of the Lutheran Reformation at the start of the global observance of its 500th anniversary, we are reminded that our history as a movement within Christianity includes the fact that we were born at a moment no less political, no less violent, no less corrupt, no less horrifying than the one we’re currently in. This week’s outrageous statements shock us, but they should not surprise us. Honestly, we’ve all heard worse. The depth of the divide in our nation scares us, but it should not defeat us. Our nation has been through worse, more than once, and so has the Church. If these recurring atrocities of human nature should convince us of anything, it is that human nature is inherently atrocious.

Therefore, it is a gift when we remember that Christ did not come to reward the righteous, but to save sinners. God did not come looking for perfection, but offering salvation. The Holy Spirit who breathed life into us as the first of many gifts comes to us over and over and over again to heal us, to justify us, to liberate us, to forgive us, to save us. What else can we say in response to such grace, such divine generosity, so many gifts, but “Thank you!”

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Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, August 10, 2016: Proper 14

FullSizeRenderText: Luke 12:32-40

The following sermon was preached at the midweek service held at the Lutheran Center in Chicago, during the week when the ELCA was gathered at its triennial Churchwide Assembly in New Orleans, LA.

Earlier this year the Administrative Assistant at St. Luke’s, the congregation I pastor, came home to find that the apartment she shares with her husband had been broken into and ransacked. As often happens in these sorts of home invasions, there were items of obvious worth that were left untouched and others of tremendous personal value that were taken. In her case, it was the theft of heirloom jewelry that had been passed down through generations of women in her family that was the hardest loss to accept.

As any of you who’ve had your homes or offices broken into know, it’s not only the objects that go missing which are stolen but your sense of safety and belonging as well. It’s hard to look forward to coming home at the end of the day after you’ve come home to find your apartment torn apart. It’s hard to lay your head down and rest when you know that strangers have been in your bedroom and touched your bed or gone through your drawers.

Yet this is the image the gospel of Luke uses to describe the imminent reign of God. “Know this,” Jesus says, “if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Lk. 12:39-40) It’s a very odd ending to a passage that begins with the reassuring promise that “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (12:32)

God's Gift a TheftWhen has God’s gift to you and your people — your family, your co-workers, your community — felt like a theft?

Before likening the coming of the Son of Man to a home intrusion, Jesus encourages those who wait on the Lord to do so like slaves waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet. I have no direct experience of slavery, so any analogy I make runs the risk of trivializing the metaphor, but the emotional sense I get from the scene Jesus describes is one in which those who are patiently waiting know that their master is somewhere else, with other people, enjoying a great feast and celebration, while they are not only patiently waiting, but working well past quitting time, into the late hours of the night.

Have you ever felt like that, like God took the party somewhere else and you were left to keep working, past your capacity, past your quitting point? Like you were waiting for a sense of holiness to return to your labor, to your vocation, but with no idea when or how that might happen?

These images for our experience of discipleship tell the truth about what it can often feel like to follow Jesus in the world. As though the reward for faithful service is having all you’ve known and cherished taken from you. As though the party has moved on, and you were left behind to clean up after hours.

This October I’ll be celebrating my tenth anniversary of ordination. I’m still in my first call, having served alongside the feisty and faithful people of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square through a decade of redevelopment ministry. Over the course of the last ten years we have grown from the seed of about a dozen tenacious elderly members holding on to a dream that their fortunes might one day be restored into a new family tree rooted in Christ with about a hundred people of all ages and many life experiences and rising to serve the many communities that make up the Logan Square neighborhood.

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The people of St. Luke’s on the day of leave-taking from their historic home. Reformation Sunday, 2015.

Though I’ve often been asked to share insights into how that growth happened, and I always try my best, I have to say that much of the time it has felt like it was simply God’s “good pleasure to give” us this foretaste of resurrection life. So much of what we tried failed. So much of what worked has been an utter surprise. And in the end, after so much hard work and hope that verged on hallucinations, we still sold our building — a beautiful, century-old, neo-Gothic urban cathedral on a quiet tree-lined street —  and traded it in for a little storefront chapel a mile to the south where we are surrounded by convenience stores and gas stations, where cars and buses are constantly driving by and pedestrians stop to stare through our window, wondering what a church is doing in a place like this.

We’re doing alright. In fact, we’re doing better than alright. Our summer attendance has barely dipped and we’re preparing to launch a second Sunday morning service in the fall. Yet, for many of the elders who bravely held on to their church in the face of long odds, it still feels like something has been stolen from them. Like someone broke into their home at some point over the last decade and took not the most obvious treasures, but the most personal ones. The font is still there. The table is still there. The gospel is still there. The Holy Spirit is still there. But the memories, the names and faces of people gone for decades but remembered as sitting in that pew, or wiping down that sink, or teaching in that classroom — those are harder to conjure up when the architecture that housed the memories is gone. God has given them a great gift, one that has sometimes felt like a theft. They come to worship, or they don’t, because it feels like the party is happening somewhere else with some other group of people, and they’ve been asked to keep working late into the night.

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St. Luke’s new storefront worship space on Armitage Ave. in Logan Square.

But just then Jesus provides yet another unexpected role reversal. Not only is the coming Son of Man like a thief that comes at night, but God is like the master of a household who comes home from a party in the middle of the night and instead of heading straight to bed notices those who have waited up, those who kept the lamps burning, those who put in the long hours, those who worked well past quitting time. Those who waited, and then waited some more. God is like the head of house who sees their hard labor and instead of treating them like slaves, fastens a belt and does their work for them, inviting them to come to the table and eat, to be waited upon and refreshed.

These convoluted, surprising reversals in Luke’s gospel tell the truth, at least as I’ve experienced it, about what it’s like to practice my baptism, to minister in and with the Church, to follow Jesus right now, this week, this decade, this moment of tremendous upheaval and change in religious identity and affiliation. It is labor that keeps us up well past the point when we wish we were asleep and yields gifts that feel like losses. Yet the Holy One of God is coming, and in fact is here with us. Yet the reign of God is present, and in fact is among us here and now. The church that has gone missing is being replaced by the Church which is God’s gift to us. An unexpected and unpredictable Church that invests itself completely in what the world considers lost causes, and invites all who labor to come to the table and eat.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Thursday, December 25, 2014: Nativity of Our Lord — Christmas Day

Texts: Isaiah 52:7-10  +  Psalm 98  +  Hebrews 1:1-4  +  John 1:1-14

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from god swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Gen. 1:1-5)

Those of you who have worshipped at St. Luke’s on Christmas morning may remember me sharing that I not-so-secretly prefer Christmas morning to Christmas Eve. There are plenty of reasons this is so, and I won’t inflict them all on you unless you ask, but the one I will share is that Christmas morning tells the story of God’s incarnation as a poem instead of a narrative. Christmas Eve is all about Joseph and Mary, angels and shepherds keeping watch in their fields by night. Christmas morning is,

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)

For the last few years it’s been my habit to share a bit of poetry on Christmas morning, in honor of the gospel of John’s deep love of metaphor and imagery. This year what struck me again is how my inclination to use poetry to interpret scripture is learned from John’s own gospel. Unlike the three gospels that precede it, John’s gospel doesn’t begin with a narrative about the historical figure of Jesus, but instead begins with a poetic reimagining of the story of creation — the first five verses of John echoing the first five verses of Genesis.

The symmetry is beautiful, from the repetition of the phrase “In the beginning” to the parallel themes of light and darkness and their separation. John’s gospel has gifted us with a prologue to the Jesus story to follow that makes extraordinary claims: that Jesus is the visible incarnation of the invisible God whose creative power brought into existence everything that is; that the teacher, whose words give meaning and order to our lives, is also the pre-existing Word who gives meaning and order to the cosmos.

This symbolic link between Jesus and Genesis has had a profound impact on Christian theology over the centuries. In the second century Irenaeus of Lyons, who was born in a part of what is now Turkey and who became the bishop of a part of what is now called France, explained the meaning and consequence of Jesus’ death and resurrection as such,

“[Christ] was in these last days, according to the time appointed by the Father, united to His own workmanship, inasmuch as He became a man liable to suffering … He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam — namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God — that we might recover in Christ Jesus.” For Irenaeus, the divine Word becomes human flesh in order that our humanity might become divine; or, in his own words, “[he] became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”

That is a noble sentiment, though so often difficult to imagine as being within the realm of possibility. Our lives are hard, some so much more than others, and if all we had to account for was our daily struggle it would still be difficult to understand our lives as divine. But there is more to account for. There is our hard-heartedness. There is our pettiness of spirit. There is our persistent sense of entitlement. There is our refusal to forgive. There is our hatred of those who challenge us. There is our greed that starves our neighbor. In short, there is our sin. How can we, who know ourselves too well, imagine our own lives as holy?

The point of the creation story, as I understand it, was for ancient Israel to assert that the world and everything in it are the product of a good and loving God, who called creation into being with an act of speech and not an act of war, as the creation myths of Israel’s neighbors suggested. By planting Jesus in the middle of that myth as the essence of that very world-making Word, John’s gospel reminds us that God is not at war with us. God’s heart is not like our heart. It is not petty or entitled, it is quick to forgive and filled with love. Hard as it may be to imagine that we are holy, that we are wrapped up in God’s divine life just as God is wrapped up in our human frailty, we can trust that it is true because it is God’s nature to make it true.

Which is another way to say that it is a gift to us, that it is pure grace, that we are being made new this Christmas along with the whole creation by the God who is always making all things new. Whatever stories you tell yourself about the kind of person you are, whatever immutable personal flaws or character defects you think define you, the poetry of Christmas morning says you are wrong. You are not all that you hide away in the dark. You are creations of the Word called into being by love. You shine with the light of God, which can never be extinguished in you or in this world.

Of all the gifts given and received this Christmas morning, let us give thanks for the gift of life and of the new life that is always being born in us by God’s grace, which will not be overcome.

Amen.

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