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, July 23, 2017: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Romans 8:12-25

Just to get our blood flowing, let’s stretch our bodies a bit by raising our hands if any of the following apply to ourselves. This isn’t going to be one of those on the spot confessions that you later are made to feel dumb for having participated in. I just want folks to get a sense for the things we have in common. The topic is debt.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a mortgage.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a car.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a credit card.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a student loan.

Raise your hand if you carry medical debt.

Raise your hand if you carry personal debt to a friend or family member.

We are very indebted people, carrying heavy debt burdens. According to one recent report, “debt is a way of life for Americans, with overall U.S. household debt increasing by 11% in the past decade. Today, the average household with credit card debt has balances totaling $16,425, and the average household with any kind of debt owes $135,924, including mortgages.” For those households where there is student debt, the average amount being carried is just over $50,000. For those households making payments on a car loan, the average balance on that debt is almost $30,000.

While there’s no one reason why each of us are carrying so much debt — we do, after all, each make our own decisions — there are some broad economic trends which affect us all. The cost of living has, on average, increased more quickly than our household income. While median income has grown by 28% over the last fifteen years, the cost of living has gone up 30%. Medical costs have increased by 57% and food and beverage prices by 36%. It is exactly as Hope has been reminding us week after week, prices are going up and up and up!

When the cost of living increases, debt increases. Despite stereotypes of careless spending on easy credit, the reality for many families is that credit is how they cover the difference between what may come in over a month and what it takes to feed, clothe, and care for themselves and their children. Minimum wage work leaves millions of people living from paycheck to paycheck, with credit as one of their only safety nets. Pursuing an education in order to get higher paying work comes with its own dangers. Student loan debt has increased by 186% in the last decade as the long recession forced people out of work and back to school.

It’s no wonder then, that we tend to think of debt as bad. We are so heavy laden with the kinds of debt that constrain our freedom and crush our spirits that it’s difficult to think of debt in positive terms. We’ve heard of “good debt” and “bad debt” in the economic realm and it has, perhaps, guided our choices. In today’s portion of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he also talks about debt — good debt and bad debt — though we have to go back, parse his sentence, and read between the lines, to understand what he’s saying.

“So then, [siblings], we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Rom. 8:12-13)

The beginning of this sentence is clear: we are debtors. Then Paul sets up an opposition he never quite finishes, leaving us to infer the ending. “We are debtors, not to the flesh,” but … to something else, something being contrasted with the flesh, which turns out to be the Spirit.

However, our relationship to the Spirit is so radically different from our relationship to what Paul is calling “the flesh” that we can barely understand it in terms of debt as we know it, because it is the exact opposite of how we have experienced debt in the rest of our lives. Paul says that the Spirit of God makes us children of God. That the Spirit of God is the spirit of adoption. It is a spirit that increases our connectedness, that strengthens the bonds that tie us together. Paul contrasts this with the spirit of slavery, evoking once again the image of God’s people liberated from the bondage of Egypt through the waters of the sea.

This begins to make sense, at least to me. There are definitely forms of debt that feel infused with the spirit of slavery; debt that pushes me down and traps me in place; debt that makes me feel like an anonymous cog in a global machine that is extracting life out of me to create wealth and prosperity for a class of people I’ll never meet.

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Then I consider how my own life benefits from the condition of debt between nations that keeps the wealth flowing up from impoverished continents to supply me with cheap(er) food and oil and clothing, and I see that I am living higher up on the pyramid; that I am someone’s Pharaoh, part of a class of people they will never meet. This way of ordering life strips human flesh of the divine image and treats people like objects to be used and discarded. If we live according to the broken logic of this broken system, we will die.

There is this other kind of debt, however, that does not kill us. Instead, it’s the exact opposite, it sets us free from “bondage to decay.” It is the debt I inherited in baptism, when I crossed through the waters that led me to freedom.

Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be; / let that grace now like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee. / Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love. / Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above.

There is a form of debt that we take on whenever we are loved, which is a debt we can never repay — not because it weakens us or traps us in a dependent state — but because love is not for sale. Love breaks down the market forces that turn everything and everyone into a commodity. By love we adopt one another into our families, into our hearts. We invest without concern for return on investment, so that when love’s dividends are finally paid we are glad to immediately give them away, reinvesting them in one another.

Raise your hand if a parent, or a family member, or a teacher, or a friend, or a partner, or a spouse, or a child ever loved you in a way that made you more human, more free, more alive.

Then you are a debtor to grace, which is love’s currency.

I have a dream for St. Luke’s — which I guess I now have to say is my dream for the whole church — that we would continue to grow and become a powerful church that transforms lives and changes the world. By powerful I don’t mean the kind of power shaped like a pyramid, where each of us uses those below us to try and get higher up ourselves. I mean the power that comes when we look at our neighbors, every single one of them, and see children of God, joint heirs with Christ of a love that liberates us from the forces that deal death to our flesh and to our spirits. The power that comes from being members of a family more numerous than the stars in the sky, a family spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south (Gen. 28:14).

Imagine all those siblings. Hear their groaning cries. The whole creation is laboring to be transformed, to be changed, to be saved. That work, which Paul describes as “suffering with Christ so that we may also be glorified with Christ,” is love’s debt. It is the work we do not in order to be loved, but because we have already been given the first fruits of God’s love — we have been given each other. That alone is cause for hope.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, May 17, 2015: Seventh Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 1:15-17,21-26  +  Psalm 1  +  1 John 5:9-13  +  John 17:6-19

In the name of Jesus — who has ascended into heaven, and yet is with us still.

The scriptures we hear this morning sketch out the circumference of an unusual circle, a bubble in time, an interim time of watching and waiting for the victory of the resurrection to come to completion in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The texts come from different authors, each of whom is reflecting on the meaning of the crucifixion from a different vantage point, after the fact, offering their own testimony to the growing communities of believers spreading across the known world during the time of the Roman Empire.

First we heard from the Acts of the Apostles, a scene set after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, but before Pentecost. In the sweep of the story that begins with the gospel of Luke and continues through the book of Acts, this passage feels awkward as it interrupts the drama of the crucifixion and resurrection and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and then his ascension into heaven and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, creating the church and flinging the apostles out into the world. This scene, of the apostles gathered together for prayer and discernment, feels totally anticlimactic. If we were making a movie and trying to get it in under two hours, the editors would surely leave this scene on the cutting room floor. Who needs this fragment of the story, where those who were called to follow Jesus — who have heard him teach, who have seen him heal, who have grown from twelve to seventy and been sent out in pairs to work miracles in the world, who followed him to Jerusalem, who witnessed his death, who encountered him on the road to Emmaus, who touched the body of their resurrected Lord, who saw him ascend into heaven — now sit in the upper room in Jerusalem praying and waiting?

Well, I think we need it. Very specifically, I think we here at St. Luke’s need these stories, each tracing the perimeter of a moment between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is the moment in which we are living.

We, too, have been on quite a journey together, each of us following our own calling into this community — some raised here, some transplanted from other congregations, some following friends or spouses, some following a question in their soul that would not be quiet until it found an answer — we have listened to and learned from one another, we have hurt and been healed by one another, we have grown from twelve to seventy and then more, we have experienced our power to affect and influence the world when we witness together in public to what we have tasted and seen of God in Christ Jesus, we have had our own moment of shock as we realized that our story would not move from glory to glory without its own encounter with the cross, we have felt the crushing weight of endings that feel like death, we have walked side by side wondering what all our ministry meant and if it was all over — only to discover God still present with us when we gather at God’s table, we have been convinced of the victory of the resurrection and have proclaimed Christ risen indeed (alleluia!) … and now we feel a bit like the believers who watched Jesus ascend into heaven, who’d heard the promises of God’s ongoing presence through the power of the Spirit, but had little more to do than wait.

We’ve been waiting. A lot. Ever since we voted back in January to list our property for sale, we’ve been waiting to find out what would happen next. Waiting while a small group selected a broker. Waiting to hear if there would be any interest in the building. Waiting to find out if prospective buyers might keep the building a house of worship, or might keep the structure and repurpose it to meet the needs of underserved communities in our neighborhood — low-income families, or seniors looking for affordable elder care, or if something entirely new might come into being at this site. Waiting to hear where we might go in the interim. Waiting to hear who will come with us. It’s a lot of waiting, and it’s not easy. We can understand why impatient editors might want to skip this scene for the sake of advancing the plot, but that wouldn’t be true to how we experience real life, in which moments of high drama are accompanied by long periods of waiting.

The early church was expert at waiting, and much of the literature of the New Testament is explicitly addressed to the experience of waiting.  The author of First John, a letter commonly dated near the end of the first century, declares “Children, it is the last hour!” (1 John 2:18) approximately seventy years after Jesus’ ascension. During that long period of waiting, the writer encourages the people to love one another as God has first loved us. As we’ve read through this letter over the past few weeks we’ve heard the call to love fearlessly (4:18) and been reminded that we love God best by loving one another as God’s children (5:1). Now as the letter draws to a close, the writer proclaims that the world as we know it is being conquered in a way we would never have imagined and can barely believe, through faith in a crucified messiah.

“This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with water only but with the water and the blood.” (5:6) Water and the blood stand in here as substitutes for baptism and crucifixion, the writer reminding us that the same Jesus who rose from the waters of the Jordan River and was announced as God’s own beloved was the same one who willingly laid down his life in an encounter with empire as a sign of God’s unyielding solidarity with creation’s suffering. “Not with water only, but with water and the blood” is First John’s way of reminding us during this period of waiting that God does not remake the world in the ways that the world would see and label as success, but instead remakes the world through acts of humility, self-giving, and abiding love.

“And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (5:11-12) This isn’t about believing the right things, or saying the right words, or having the right answers. This is the writer’s own testimony, the thing on he would stake his own life, and which he offers to us as a gift: the only life worth having, the only life that will last, is the life that comes when we stop trying to conquer and colonize one another, and learn to love one another as fearlessly as we have been loved.

This is Jesus’ own prayer, offered on the night before his death, as we hear it once again this morning. “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11) As he looks toward his own crucifixion, Jesus is already seeing past the ascension to a time when the community of faith will be gathered in his name, and he prays for their unity. “Let them be one as we are one.”

The unity for which Jesus prayed isn’t a given. It takes work, so it takes time. It sometimes looks fairly mundane next to the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the ascension. In the book of Acts, the work of unity looks oddly like one of our annual congregational meetings, as the assembly realizes that there is a leadership gap that needs to be filled and so sets out to select a replacement for the apostle who’d betrayed them and was now dead.

The list of qualifications for leadership seems to have been pretty straight-forward: you had to have been a witness to the story of Jesus from the time of his baptism by John to the time of his ascension and, apparently, you had to be a man … which confirms what Jesus himself said before he offered his prayer in Gethsemene, “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 truth.” (John 16:12-13a)

Photo credit: Jason Creps Photography

Photo credit: Jason Creps Photography

In our own period of waiting, it can feel frustrating to have witnessed so much growth and vitality, so much resurrection as a community, only to find ourselves waiting once again for the Holy Spirit to set us on fire and send us out. The lesson this day offers to us, however, is that there is still work to be done during times of waiting. We are to continue to gather for prayer and discernment; we are to attend to the question of leadership, realizing that there are always others in our midst who have the gifts required for the present moment; and we are to commit ourselves to practices of love for one another, costly love that sets aside power for the sake of unity, and prepares us so that we are still together when the Holy Spirit at last blows through us again.

Amen.

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