Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, February 14, 2018: Ash Wednesday

The following sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Ash Wednesday of 2018. Audio of this sermon can be found here.

Texts: Isaiah 58:1-12  +  Psalm 51:1-17  +  Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Almost exactly two years ago on an Ash Wednesday like today, I made the walk from my former parish to the home of a young couple in our community who’d just given birth to their first child. It had been a tumultuous year for them, as this young mother’s own father had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of liver cancer midway through the pregnancy. At a time when life is already measured in weeks and trimesters, she and her family were marking the passage of time along two fragile timelines — the number of days until their child would be born and the number of days until their father would die.

51WdThjOnNL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_The cancer moved quickly, and the grandfather left this world weeks before the grandchild entered it. She was brought home from the hospital on Ash Wednesday,  so I made my customary visit with the family carrying two familiar things: a book of blessings by the Irish poet, priest and philosopher, John O’Donohue, and a small ceramic saucer filled with black ashes.

O’Donohue’s blessing for when a child comes into the world is one of my favorites, and I love to share it with families in those early days when the miracle of life is still keenly felt, before a sense of routine ordinariness has set back in. It goes like this:

As I enter my new family, may they be delighted / at how their kindness comes into blossom. / Unknown to me and them, may I be exactly the one / to restore in their forlorn places new vitality and promise. / May the hearts of others hear again the music / in the lost echoes of their neglected wonder.

If my destiny is sheltered, may the grace of this privilege / reach and bless the other infants who are destined for torn places. / If my destiny is bleak, may I find in myself / a secret stillness and tranquility beneath the turmoil.

May my eyes never lose sight of why I have come here, / that I never be claimed by the falsity of fear or eat the bread of bitterness. / In everything I do, think, feel, and say, / may I allow the light of the world I am leaving / to shine through and carry me home.

Ash-Wednesday-Cross-450x450After reciting the blessing over this newborn child I asked about the ashes, wondering how they would respond to this sign of our inescapable mortality only two days into their daughter’s life. “Do you want her to receive the ashes?” I asked. “Yes,” they nodded. “It seems right.” So we prayed together, asking God to use these ashes to remind us of our mortality, not so that we might live our lives terrified of death, but so that we would be encouraged to wring every drop of joy out of the gifts of the lives that God has given us. “Anna,” I said, “our God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” and “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” I made the sign of the cross on her tiny forehead with dark ashes in the place where soon after she was washed with water and anointed with oil.

Death and life are always this close together, whether we can bear to acknowledge it or not. I hear Ash Wednesday’s dusty reminder very differently this year than I have in years past, as I know many of you do as well. When we are young, or healthy, or very busy, these words may jolt us in a very different way than when we are old, or sick, or moving slowly enough to observe what time does to a tree or a tulip over the course of a year. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

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My parents’ wedding blessing for me and Kerry, rendered beautifully in watercolor by the Rev. Megan Clausen.

On the day of our wedding, my parents offered Kerry and I a blessing of their own organized around four hard-won truths from their marriage: 1.) Life is full of wonder and miracles, 2.) life is often hard, 3.) relationships are messy and complicated, and 4.) life is short and precious. For our first anniversary I asked Megan Clausen, a recent graduate of this institution who came here from the same congregation in Des Moines, Iowa in which I also grew up, to set their words over one of her beautiful watercolors. The result hangs in our living room to remind us of that blessing every day, so that I cannot read the words “Life is short and precious” without also seeing the brilliant oranges flowing next to the rainy grays and the starry blues she painted.

Whether it’s “remember that you are dust …” or “life is short and precious,” the message is the same. You are alive and that is a gift. Live like you know it. Spend your days and weeks giving birth to the life you long to live. Spend your seasons building the world God calls us to inhabit. Spend your lives like they mean something, because they do. Because you are someone’s beloved child, you are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14), you are chosen, a royal priesthood, a holy community, God’s own people (1 Pet. 2:9).

This great love is the fuel that feeds the fire of Isaiah’s holy anger at the world’s injustice, not guilt or shame, but love set loose in public to name the harms that follow from all our chasing after things that rust and decay. Our world, which so quickly assigns human qualities to commodities while treating people like objects to be bought and sold, is diabolical in its efforts to get us to willingly spend the most basic currency we have — our lives — investing in the very things that tear us apart. Then the moment comes (and it comes more than once) when you realize that the things you’ve been chasing aren’t really life at all, and the moments you have left are precious and few. You come face to face with your regret and wish you had spent your days differently.

In that moment, as in every moment, God is waiting for us. It is not too late. “Then you shall call, and God will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, ‘Here I am.’” (Isa. 58:9) Here I am.

Beloved community, we have arrived once again at this day which comes to us with the same regularity that brings new life to the tree, fresh flowers from the bulb. This is the start of the season that ends with our resurrection. It is not too late, it is never too late, to treasure each day of your life, to invest yourselves in the people and places that matter, to bless the world and our God who made it with the lives you have been given. It is never too late to live like you are really alive, which somehow is easier to do when you remember that you too are dust, and to dust you shall return.

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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, March 12, 2017: Second Sunday in Lent

Texts: Genesis 12:1-4a  +  Psalm 121  +  Romans 4:1-5, 13-17  +  John 3:1-17

 

Pádraig

Pádraig Ó Tuama

“You are the place I stand on the day when my feet are sore.” That’s the English translation for an old Irish saying I recently heard on an episode of “OnBeing,” offered by Pádraig Ó Tuama — poet, theologian, and leader of the Corrymeela community in Northern Ireland. Founded in the 1960s to promote peace and reconciliation during “the Troubles,” that period of violent ethnic and religious conflict in Ireland, today Corrymeela continues to welcome guests from around the world who long for reconciliation with neighbors and fellow citizens in moments when such peace seems hopelessly naïve; moments like the one so many of us feel we ourselves are trapped inside as a nation, when it’s not just our feet that are sore from so many marches, but our hearts and our souls.

“You are the place I stand on the day when my feet are sore.” It’s awfully romantic, don’t you think? The kind of sentiment that seems more at home in a do-it-yourself wedding vow than in a sermon on the doctrine of salvation. But let me ask you this: what do you think a sermon on the doctrine of salvation ought to sound like? Should it be terribly complicated? Should there be lots of Greek and Hebrew words rendered into alternate English translations? Should there be rules, clearly laid out; structures of belief to be agreed with (or not)? What were you taught about “salvation,” and how, and who taught you? Is it the reward for a life well lived? Is it conditional, reserved for only a few? Is it a gift bestowed on the righteous, or the product of their efforts? Are there people who are most certainly saved? Are there people who most certainly are not?

 

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Study for “Nicodemus Visiting Jesus” by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1899)

 

These questions lead us down late-night roads with no lamp posts. If we follow them too far, we can get lost in the dark and may struggle to find our way back. That seems to have been the case with Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night with questions about the new life that comes by water and the spirit in the reign of God. He was a religious person who’d given plenty of thought to questions of who was chosen, who was saved, and what that all meant. Jesus, however, wanted to talk instead about love.

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:14-17)

It’s not hard to see how we worked our way back around to legalism all over again. It’s right there in the text, “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It seems clear: the key to eternal life is belief in Jesus. Slow down though, and keep asking those questions. What is belief? And, what is eternal life? And, if God is not interested in condemning the world, then why such an oddly specific criterion for salvation as belief in a pretty unbelievable story?

Here’s the prerequisite Greek word study, in case that happened to be on your checklist earlier. When we think about salvation, we often get stuck worrying about what we have to believe in order to be saved — because of this very verse and how it’s been explained. But the verb in Greek which we translate into “believe” in English doesn’t mean “to give credence to a belief or an idea.” Instead, it’s the verb form of the noun (pistis) which means, “faith.” English doesn’t have a verb form of the noun “faith.” We can either say “have faith” — which is a problem because it implies that faith is an object we can possess — or we have to find another verb that comes close to the idea of “faith-ing.” So we’ve said “believe,” though we might just as well have said, “trust.”

It makes more sense when you imagine the kind of conversation in which one person might say to another in a moment of tension, or decision, “I need you to believe in me.” What are they saying? That they need you to agree that they exist? Or that they need you to trust them, to remember something about your shared past, your history, your relationship.

This is what Jesus finally tells Nicodemus, who has gotten lost in the dark, in his questions about being “born again.” Jesus points to the evidence of a loving God, a God who is trustworthy, a God who brought the people through the wilderness, a God who stayed faithful through the exodus and the exile, a God who brought them into a new land and worked with them as they fell into each and every trap that comes with the the problem of being a nation. Salvation is not our reward for having the right answers to the wrong questions. Salvation is God’s work, God’s nature, God’s love.

Why doesn’t that ever feel like enough of an answer? Why do we insist on turning God’s love into a prize rather than accepting it as a gift, a birthright even? How would our lives change if we knew in every cell of our bodies that God is for us? That God longs to be the place we stand on the days when our feet are sore, so much so that God created all the soil and all the earth, so that there is no place we can go where we are not standing in God’s presence. Even when God sends us out from the places we have called home, even when God sets before us challenges that call us into moments and relationships that feel alienating. We are always standing in the loving presence of God.

If we are always already in the presence of God, and we believe — we trust — that God’s love for us is real and true, then what else do we need to experience this thing Jesus calls “eternal life”? What is missing from this picture that is so bad it has us all longing for salvation?

The question the Irish had to face wasn’t whether or not God could love the Catholics and the Protestants. The question was, could they love each other? The question is always: can we love each other? Can the left love the center and the right? Can the winners love the losers, and vice versa. Can we love our enemies? Because, where there is no love, we might as well call it hell, wouldn’t you say?

So, as we continue the practice of holding silence after the sermon for reflections, both spoken and silent, I invite you to consider the following questions as starting points for a conversation with your own spirit that may last well beyond this morning’s worship. If you feel so led, you might offer a few words about where these questions are taking you this morning:

How has love saved you?

Or

How could love save us?

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