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, December 30, 2012: First Sunday after Christmas Day

Texts:  1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26  •

In his video commentary introducing the bible study series Manna and Mercy, Alan Storey, a Methodist pastor from South Africa, presents the story of another young pastor, Dave, and the lesson his son taught him about what happens when people lose their Jesus.  This young pastor recounts a day at the playground with his four-year old child:

Video Introduction to “Manna & Mercy”

So when my son was about four years old one day I said, “let’s go to the park.”  He asked, “can I bring my Bible?” I said, “sure.” So I put my books in a bag and he put his Bible in a bag and we came to the park.

I sat on a bench and read for a while, and he played with a little girl.  I looked up after about 30 minutes or so, and I saw that he was on top of the jungle gym and the little girl was down below, playing in the mulch.  He had his Bible in a tote bag, and he was aiming at her head through the bars of the gym.  He dropped it and it fell and hit her in the head, and she started wailing and her mom got up and came over and I got up and came over.  Her mom said, “oh, it’s OK, it’s just an accident.  I said “no, I saw what happened, it wasn’t an accident.”

So I called my son down and he came up to me, kind of sheepishly, and I said to him, “Leo, the Bible is an important book, and if you’re going to use it as a weapon and hurt people with it, then I’m not going to let you have it.  So I took his Bible and I put it in my bag.  He looked at me for a few minutes.  I could see the gears working in his head, and he twisted up his face in fury and said, “you can’t take God’s word away from me!”  And every parent, and every child… it was complete silence in the park.  Everyone was looking at us, and he gave me the worst tongue-lashing a four year old has ever given me.  He said, “you’re supposed to be a preacher!  You’re supposed to teach people about God, not take the Bible away from them!” and on and on.  So I said, “if you’re throwing a tantrum, we’re going to have to leave.”

So, as we were walking out of the park, this little ten year old boy was holding open the gate for us, and he was looking at us as we walked by, and Leo was shouting at me, “you wicked, wicked man!  You can’t keep me from learning about God!”  And the little boy was just looking at me, his eyes were as big as dinner plates, and thinking, “what kind of man is this, that would take the Bible away from a child?”

I think Leo and I both learned a lesson that day.  I hope that he learned that you’re not supposed to use the Bible as a weapon, and I learned that, when you tell people that, they get mad at you.

“You can’t take God’s word away from me!” the boy shouted.  Less than a week ago we gathered in this sanctuary on Christmas morning to celebrate the nativity of our Lord, the birth of the baby of Bethlehem, the Word made flesh.  We have been waiting so long for this child, this Word, this light shining in the darkness, so it’s completely understandable that we may have grown possessive of him.  It’s true, you can’t take God word away from God’s people, but that doesn’t mean you won’t lose your Jesus from time to time.

images-10I don’t remember the first time I noticed my Jesus was missing, but I remember one of them.  I was a year or two out of college, and I’d stopped going to church.  After I’d come out, I assumed that Jesus and the church didn’t have much good news for me and people like me in the LGBTQ communities.  Then I stumbled across a book by Robert Goss, a former Jesuit priest who’d earned a doctorate in Comparative Religion from Harvard University and was a member of ACT-UP and Queer Nation, both radical LGBTQ organizations who came to prominence at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the United States in the late 80s.  The book was titled, “Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto.”

Standing in the aisle of a gay bookstore in Boston, I thumbed through its pages wondering to myself, “what do these words even mean, ‘Christology’ and ‘liberation theology’ and why haven’t I ever heard them before?”  I’d spent my whole childhood in church.  I was sure I knew exactly who Jesus was.  He was the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, who died for my sins and the sins of the world.  He didn’t discriminate against women or Samaritans, he healed the sick, and he was often in trouble with the church.  But here was this book by a priest and a scholar who put Jesus’ name next to the names of radical and non-religious queer organizing communities mobilizing people with AIDS for power and change as if the two naturally belonged together.  I felt a little dizzy.  Where had my Jesus gone?

Have you ever lost your Jesus?  Can you recall how disorienting it was?  It happens all kinds of ways.  Sometimes, like with me, we lose our understanding of who he is.  We hear new interpretations of the meaning of his life and ministry, or his death and resurrection, and it feels like everything we’d been taught before has become untrustworthy.  Sometimes it’s our ability to feel his presence, his nearness, as we pray — once taken for granted, but now lost and confusing, even terrifying.  Sometimes we lose our Jesus because we’re simply surrounded by too many other voices, and we can’t hear Jesus above the din of so many other “content streams” — news, entertainment, the workplace, the marketplace, the streets.

Mary and Joseph had an annual holiday tradition not so different from the one many of us have just celebrated.  Each year at Passover they would travel in a group from Nazareth to Jerusalem.  Though the mode of transportation and the terrain were completely different, I suspect some features of holiday travel haven’t changed that much.  You pack and repack the donkey or the car.  You double-check to make sure you’ve remembered all the gifts for all the people you plan to see and stay with while you’re away from home.  You make sure there’s food for the road and toys or travel companions to keep you occupied throughout the journey.

It was on their way home, after the holiday, on a day like today, that they realized they hadn’t actually seen Jesus in a while.  They’d been so busy with the packing and the gifting and the eating, but when they stopped and took inventory, they realized they didn’t know where Jesus was.  They’d lost their Jesus.

Church people like to notice that when Jesus is found, he’s found in the church.  I think it’s good that we notice this, and I think it’s helpful for us to remind ourselves and one another that when your Jesus is lost, a good place to look is the church.  We’ve got the stories, and the histories, and the sacraments, and the small groups.  We work hard to foster as many meeting places as we can for each of us to encounter Jesus once again in the ways he reliably shows up: in the Word — read, preached and sung; and in the sacraments — touching our skin and filling our stomachs.

We should also note, though, that when Jesus is found in the church he is listening and asking questions.  The learned people of the temple, the ones who — like me, and maybe you as well — thought they already knew the whole story, are amazed at how his listening and his questions bring new ideas and understandings and possibilities to light.  This is a reminder to all of us, but particularly to those of us called to teach, that the Spirit needs our silence as well as our voices, so that questions can be asked and people can be listened to.

I think finding Jesus is a life-long process.  I don’t think we ever truly get there, or get it right.  When we start to think we’ve got Jesus nailed down, then we start to drop him on other people like that young boy on the playground.  Our answers and our understandings become leaden and freighted down with our own histories and hurts.  They can even injure those we try to share them with.

But losing Jesus is a life-long process too, and one I think we’re called to risk over and over again.  It was confusing and disorienting for me to discover that the Jesus I knew as a child had, somehow and somewhen, gotten mixed up with a community of HIV-positive radicals, even atheists!  I kept reading, finding more and more words I didn’t understand, until finally I had to call one of my childhood pastors and ask her to explain them to me.  She told me there was an entire field of religious studies concerned with the many ways people understand the meaning of Jesus, called “Christology,” a topic within the larger field of systematic theology.  She suggested that I might enjoy studying the topic more deeply, perhaps at a seminary.  I wasn’t ready to hear that quite yet, but a seed planted many years before got some fresh water that day.

We all need to lose our Jesus from time to time, even our religion.  I think Jesus knows that.  Perhaps it’s even why he wanders off from time to time, leaving our prayers unanswered, our spirits restless, our minds troubled, our hearts yearning.  Because in missing him, we begin the process of looking, and once we begin to look we are more open to what we may yet discover.

Amen.

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