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: Sunday, May 25, 2014: Sixth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 17:22-31  +  Psalm 66:8-20  +  1 Peter 3:13-22  +  John 14:15-21

It’s Memorial Day weekend, as we all know, a national holiday originally established to honor the memory of those soldiers who died in the Civil War, but whose purpose has expanded over time to commemorate all Americans who have died while in military service. It’s also a holiday with a connection to our own neighborhood that some of you may know, but which was news to me as I was studying this week in preparation for this sermon.

Statue of General John A. Logan, Grant Park, Chicago

Statue of General John A. Logan, Grant Park, Chicago

There are many stories about how the Memorial Day holiday came to be a national holiday. One central figure in those stories is General John Logan, who was born in Jackson County, Illinois, fought in the Mexican-American War and the American Civil War and went on to serve in both the Illinois and the United States House of Representatives. Logan Square was named for him, and a statue of General Logan atop his horse stands in Grant Park just off East 9th Street.

According to legend, the idea for Memorial Day came from a pharmacist in New York who, in the summer of 1865 as the Civil War was drawing to a close, thought it would be a good idea for communities to remember those soldiers who would not be coming home from the war.  He shared the idea with General John Murray, who, the following May, gathered the surviving veterans of Waterloo, New York to march to the local cemeteries where they decorated the graves of their fallen comrades. When General Murray later shared the story of this commemoration with General John Logan, he issued an order calling for a national observance.

A century later in 1966, as President Lyndon Johnson signed a presidential proclamation naming Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day, this is the story that was told. The reality, however, is that all kinds of similar observances were taking place in the north and in the south during and immediately after the end of the Civil War. All throughout the war, women gathered at the graves of fallen husbands and sons, decorating them so that their sacrifices would not be forgotten. The first widely publicized post-war public commemoration of those who’d died in the war took place in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865 at which nearly ten thousand people, most of them newly freed African Americans, gathered to lay flowers on the graves and to commemorate the lives of the hundreds of Union soldiers who had died there as prisoners of war.  The event was reported on as far north as New York, where it appeared in the New York Times. Historian David Blight of Yale University writes,

“This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.” (Blight, David W., Lecture: “To Appomattox and Beyond,”  oyc.yale.edu)

What seems most important to me is not who celebrated Memorial Day first, but the fact that it happened in so many places, on both sides of the line between north and south, and eventually in ways that honored the lives of all who’d died, whether they’d been defeated or were victorious in their cause. The human impulse was to gather together to remember their sacrifice, and to make meaning of it so that future generations would know how the world was made new.

Something similar is happening, I think, in the passages assigned for our worship this morning.  Though these passages come from a series of readings that are used around the world and therefore take no notice of national holidays, they nevertheless also look back from the vantage point of the Easter resurrection to make sense of the power of a life given in service to God and God’s creation so that future generations would know how the world was made new.

In the Acts the Apostles Paul stands before a crowd of Gentiles in Athens, Greece and declares to them that the God of creation, the One who made heaven and earth, could not be bound to either their temples or their philosophies.  He says, “The God who made the world and everything in it, [God] who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands” (Acts 17:24) and “we ought not think that [God] is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals” (Acts 17:29). God is not a construct of masonry or the mind, so God cannot be tied to a temple or a theology. Instead, Paul says, “in [God] we live and move and have our being … for we too are [God’s] offspring” (Acts 17:28).

Pastor Erik with his mother, Linda Christensen, ca. 1974

Pastor Erik with his mother, Linda Christensen, ca. 1974

A couple of weeks ago my mom sent me a homemade card with a photograph she’d found in a drawer of her in her 20s holding me, probably just under one year old, completely relaxed and asleep in her arms. It’s a great picture, one that helps me to understand the point that Paul is making to the Athenians. As my mother’s offspring, what was most important was not the house we lived in, or my ideas about who she was, but the fact that I could rest in her arms knowing that I was completely safe and known and loved. That relationship, which began with an act of creation, predates my consciousness.  I did not create that relationship, it created me. My relationship to my mother moved with me from one house to the next, even after I left her house to strike out on my own. My relationship to my mother grew as my ideas about her changed with each passing year, because relationships are dynamic and not fixed. My mother is not God, but resting in her arms in a moment before memory I was already learning something about how God holds me, and you, as we journey through our lives.

This, Paul tells the Athenians, is how God relates to each of us — through a living faith that survives the destruction of every temple, and the death of every idea. Knowing how in love we are with our ideas and our edifices, Paul says,

“God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent, because [God] has fixed a day on which [God] will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom [God] has appointed, and of this [God] has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31)

God has appointed a day, a Memorial Day of sorts, on which all people will come to understand the righteousness of God through the sacrifice of a life that changed the world.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGathering decades after his death, the community of John’s gospel told the story of Jesus’ life and remembered that on the night before he died he told them “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (John 14:18). By describing his coming death as act that will leave them feeling orphaned, Jesus takes on the role of their parent. In fact, in the verses just before these Jesus is sitting at the table of the last supper and the disciple whom he loved is described as resting on him. Artists have often depicted this disciple with his head on Jesus’ lap, the way I lay in my own mother’s arms, full of trust and love.

This is the truth about grief that seems particularly useful to name today, as we commemorate Memorial Day. Whether we have lost our parents or our spouses or our children, whether we’ve lost close friends or professional colleagues, the experience of losing someone to death can stir up in us the memory of other losses or the fear of coming losses. Each death, in its own way, can feel like an act of abandonment as we, who are still living, lose the ability to see, and speak to, and touch the ones we’ve known and loved. We feel orphaned.

Speaking with the voice of a parent, Jesus not only promises not to leave his followers orphaned, he promises to ask the Father to send another Advocate to be with us forever. The imagery in these few verses is so rich that it will take us the next few weeks to sort through them all. The fact that Jesus describes the Advocate as the Spirit of truth anticipates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit which we will celebrate more fully on Pentecost in two weeks.  The overlapping language of Jesus speaking as a parent, and to a parent, to send a spirit that will assure us all that we are in Christ, and Christ is in God and in us as well anticipates the festival of the Holy Trinity that follows immediately after Pentecost.

event-05-memorial-day-2002-golden-gate-national-cemetery-1300-sneath-lane-san-bruno-graves-1Remembering Paul’s admonishment that God will not be bound to our ideas about God, we can set aside our questions about these mysteries for the moment to focus on how God in Christ Jesus cares for those who are grieving, as many will be this weekend as they gather near the graves of loved ones who have died in our country’s on-going wars, or who remember other losses just as painful if less public.

Jesus says that God will send another Advocate, to be with us forever.  This provides at least two insights into how God cares for the grieving.  The first part of this promise is that God will send another Advocate, which requires us to acknowledge that, in Jesus, God has already sent us an Advocate. This means that we have already seen how an advocate of God lives and moves and exists in the world. In Jesus we have seen how God heals the sick, feeds the hungry, gives hope to the poor, and organizes the people. In Jesus we have seen how God’s mercy and God’s justice are intertwined. The second part of this promise is that the next Advocate, which is the Spirit of truth, will be with us forever. This is only possible because the Holy Spirit, which is God’s promised Advocate, makes a home inside each one of us, which leads Jesus to say, “on that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20).

God cares for the grieving by giving us to one another. Ours are the ears that listen to the cries of the grieving. Ours are the hands that prepare the food dropped off at the home of those who mourn. Ours are the knees that kneel next to the grave. Ours are the arms that hold the child of God who cannot stand alone. Ours are the hearts that break open and refuse to stay hardened. Ours are the lives that testify to the God of creation, of all things seen and unseen, that look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

This Memorial Day, as we give thanks for the witness of so many who have given the last measure of their lives for the cause of freedom, we remember that the Advocate for our freedom and the freedom of every living person and all of creation is not dead, but is alive in us forever. Sent by the Spirit of truth to a broken, grieving world we offer the testimony of our lives so that future generations will know how the world was made new.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 4, 2012: All Saints Sunday

Texts:  Isaiah 25:6-9 and Psalm 24  •  Revelation 21:1-6a  •   John 11:32-44

Forty years ago this month, Marlo Thomas and “friends” released an illustrated book and album titled, “Free to be… You and Me.”  Aimed at reinforcing children’s beliefs that each can become most fully themselves, whoever they are, no matter their gender, ethnicity or background, it’s exactly the kind of book I would’ve expected my parents to read to me.  Astonishingly, I arrived at college in the early-90s having never heard of it.

It wasn’t until I joined the men’s a cappella ensemble on campus and we learned the song sung by Rosey Grier, “It’s Alright to Cry.”  Grier, who’d been a defensive tackle for the LA Rams and the New York Giants was something of a giant himself at 6’5”.  After leaving professional sports he was, briefly, a body guard for Robert Kennedy during the 1968 Presidential campaign and was present on the day of his assassination, wresting the gun from the shooter.  A big part of Grier’s public persona, however, derived from the way he played against the stereotypes of what a large, athletic, black athlete ought to be.  Around the same time he recorded “It’s Alright to Cry” he also published a book, “Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men.”  His autobiography was titled, “Rosey, an Autobiography: The Gentle Giant.”

Forty years later, on the other side of “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche” and other cultural responses to increasing flexibility in gender roles, we might suspect that telling men, or women for that matter, that it’s alright to cry would be no big deal.  Surely, in our therapeutic, talk-show saturated, catharsis-oriented media culture we’ve all figured out that it’s alright to cry.  We cry at Hallmark commercials.  We cry at romantic comedies.  We cry all the time, right?

Then there’s a week like this last one, when life’s storms break along the coastline of our lives, leaving us powerless.  When Hurricane Sandy hit the Jersey Shore just  south of Atlantic City and blew up through New York City and the five boroughs, it brought ample opportunities for tears as it claimed the lives of over a hundred people in the United States alone and left an estimated $50 billion in damages.  Yet, in our shock, it wasn’t immediately clear that we knew how to feel.  For days, Mayor Bloomberg reassured registrants for the New York City Marathon that the race would go on, that things would be restored to normal.

In the privacy of our homes, in darkened movie theaters, we know it’s alright to cry.  In public, however, we still too often treat death as something to be hidden and grief as something to be managed.  Life, like the race, goes on regardless of the emotions swelling subcutaneously, crashing against our hearts and flooding our throats.

The gospel reading assigned for All Saints Sunday is drenched with emotions.  Mary, the sister of Lazarus, weeps.   Jesus, despite the best efforts of translators to deny it, is angry.  Like many English translations of the scriptures, the one we read this morning translates the Greek embrimaomai as “greatly disturbed.”  “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed.”  And later, “Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.”  Embrimaomai, which the translators have rendered “greatly disturbed,” literally translates as “to be moved with anger” or even, “to snort with anger.”  As it turns out, we are just as uncomfortable with Jesus anger as we are with our own tears.  So, translators and friends and coworkers try to help us out by covering those feelings up, by giving us “space” to grieve in private, by glossing over our anger at the power of death to disrupt life.

One of the reasons I think we cover Jesus’ anger up with the euphemism “greatly disturbed” is that we’re unsure who he’s angry at.  Some translators have suggested that he is angry at Mary and Martha’s disbelief.  Others have wondered if he’s angry that this intensely private moment has been made public.  Still others have suggested that Jesus’ anger is at those who are already preparing to hand him over to the Roman authorities.  If any of these are the best reading, then it easier to understand why we’d want to downgrade Jesus’ anger to a deep disturbance, because if Jesus’ anger is reserved for people’s ordinary and predictable responses to death, then we have to wonder if Jesus would be angry with us.  If Mary and Martha’s understandable grief at the loss of their third sibling was cause for Jesus’ anger, then what room is there for us to grieve the death of our own sisters and brothers?  If the natural desire to have this private grief acknowledged in public is the cause of Jesus anger, then how can we even gather on a day like today, All Saints Day, to mourn our dead even as we give thanks for their lives?

The reading I find most compelling is that Jesus is angry with death itself.  Read in the context of the verses that precede the ones we read this morning, it is clear that Jesus has delayed coming to Bethany, where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived, precisely so that he could demonstrate his power over death.  For him to be angry at the very people who are suffering on account of his delay would be a cruel judgement.  Likewise, in the Gospel of John, Jesus has no difficulty naming a lack of faith when it occurs, so the fact that he says nothing to condemn the onlookers for faithlessness might suggest that this was not his concern.

Instead, everything about this scene reads like a showdown, like a boxing match between opponents.  On the one side, a death so complete the body has already begun to decay.  On the other side, a contender against the powers of death.  The match looks unbalanced, surely this is not a fair fight.  Like a boxer in the ring, Jesus is not simply greatly disturbed, he is moved, his is snorting with anger at death, the foe.

This makes more sense to me, especially in light of the passage from Revelation and the one from Isaiah, passages that reassure me that God is not waiting to gather us up and away from this earth, but that the new heaven and the new earth are coming down to meet us where we are.  That God comes to us in the midst of our suffering, and grief, and tears, and does not shame us but, instead, sets a table before us overflowing with rich foods and choice wines, and consoles us.  Wipes away our tears, but not our feelings.

Of course, All Saints Sunday is about more than our feelings, more than our tears.  It is about the promise that when God enters the ring in the form of Jesus, that death is defeated and resurrected life is won for all of creation.  There are big truths and big doctrines to be named and proclaimed: that we are all saints; that the candle lit at our baptism and the candles that will one day be lit in our memories and placed on altars such as these cast the same light; that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness, who call to us across time and space encouraging us as we run this race.  But many of those doctrines and themes and big ideas arise from other scriptures read in other years.  The scriptures assigned for this year’s All Saints Sunday are filled with tears, they affirm the grief-drenched cries of sisters and brothers and the snorting anger of family and friends — and they promise us that death does not have the final word.  There is a new heaven and a new earth coming to meet us, here, in this life and in whatever lies beyond this life.

So, in the spirit of Jesus, who did not cover over his anger; and Rosey, who was man enough to cry; I want to share with you the song I learned back in college:

It’s All Right to Cry (from Free to Be… You and Me; as sung by Rosey Grier)

It’s all right to cry / crying gets the sad out of you / It’s all right to cry / it might make you feel better. (C – Dm7 – G – G/ C – Dm7 – G – C)

Raindrops from your eyes / Washing all the mad out of you / Raindrops from your eyes / It’s gonna make you feel better. (C – Dm7 – G – G/ C – Dm7 – G – C)

It’s all right to feel things / though the feelings may be strange / feelings are such real things / and they change and change and change. (Am – Em / F – C / Am – Em / F – F – G)

It’s all right to know / feelings come and feelings go / It’s all right to cry / It might make you feel better. (C – Dm7 – G – G/ C – Dm7 – G – C)

Amen.

 

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