Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, August 28, 2019: LSTC Welcome Week

The following sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago during “Welcome Week,” the school’s new student orientation. Worship services this week centered on the sacraments, with this service emphasizing the eucharist. Audio of this sermon being delivered can be found here.

Texts: Isaiah 55:1-7  +  Psalm 63  +  1 Corinthians 11:17-26  +  Luke 22:14-23

Preachers, you ever have that sermon illustration in search of a sermon that you’ve been holding on to, waiting for the moment you can use it to clarify some bit of biblical or theological obscurity? I suspect we all have. Often the reason those illustrations struggle to find a home in one of our sermons is that, in order to make them fit, we have to do some little bit of violence to the text — either the text of the illustration, or the text they’re meant to illustrate, like Cinderella’s step-sisters trying to cram their feet into her shoes by lopping off their toes or parts of their heels. That’s not the sermon illustration I want to share, just a metaphorical warm-up.

The Muppet Movie poster

No, the sermon illustration I’ve been aching to use and — what the hell, let’s go for it — comes from deep within the heart of my childhood, from a source so early it is almost mythic in its significance. I’m talking about the seminal 1979 Jim Henson classic, The Muppet Movie. The reason it’s been on my mind, begging for airtime in a sermon, is that I got to see it outside earlier this month as part of this summer’s Millennium Park film series downtown with Dr. Wagner. We took a couple of lawn chairs, packed some melon balls and prosciutto, wine and cheese, and I promised her a movie simultaneously entertaining and saturated with rich theological meaning. In particular, I told her, you’ve got to watch for this scene in that back half of the movie set in the desert of the American West. It comes at a moment when all hope seems lost, when our heroes are worn down from their efforts to escape the nefarious Doc Hopper who’s been trying to get Kermit to abandon his dreams and take a self-hating job as the face of a chain of restaurants selling frog legs. The muppets are all camped out in the desert on a dark night around a small campfire under a bright moon when Gonzo — Gonzo! that weirdest of all the muppets — begins to sing:

This looks familiar, vaguely familiar.

Almost unreal, yet, it’s too soon to feel yet.

Close to my soul and yet so far away.

I’m going to go back there someday.

Sun rises, night falls, sometimes the sky calls.

Is that a song there, and do I belong there?

I’ve never been there, but I know the way.

I’m going to go back there someday.

This is a song of amazing depth, hiding out in a children’s movie, a song about the power of memory and imagination to help us bridge the distance between past, present, and future as a resource for enduring the profound anxieties of human life. “I’ve never been there, but I know the way. I’m going to go back there someday.”

We’re halfway through welcome week, a brief season in the cyclical life of the school during which we welcome into our community a new set of students who, in no time at all, will become a part of the fabric of our life together — so much so that, in a few short years it will feel as though they’ve always been here. But right now they are newly arrived, and they are trying to figure out how to fit the contents of the life they’ve known into the odd confines of this new place without damaging either of them. How to squeeze their particular set of cherished experiences and accumulated belongings into a new apartment, a new city, a new group of people, a new life.

Add to the list of all that’s new a new vocabulary, one of the many gifts of a seminary education. All the Greek words waiting to be learned, all the -ologies: theologies, soteriologies, epistemologies, eschatologies. Here’s a Greek word for you, not an -ology, but relevant to today’s texts: anamnesis. Anamnesis means something like “reminiscence.” As a philosophical concept, it’s first connected to Plato’s theory of knowledge (epistemology) in which he posits that human beings possess innate knowledge from before their birth and that learning is actually the process of rediscovering what we have already previously known. A few centuries later the concept gains new meaning as it gets picked up by the early Christians to refer to the “memorial sacrifice” at the heart of the eucharistic liturgy, the words we hear in both Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and Luke’s gospel account of the last supper when Jesus takes the loaf of bread, breaks it and distributes it to the community that has gathered around him, worn down and anxious about the dual powers of the Roman empire and the Temple establishment that have been chasing them, after Jesus has predicted his death on multiple occasions and hope seems thin. There, around that ancient imagined campfire, Jesus says, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

Friends, I have to confess to you that when I first selected these texts for today, I was drawn to the ugly parts of the story. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we catch the apostle in a full-on scold, “Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” The community has taken the love meal of Jesus and perverted its fundamental significance as a means of grace by repeating the same injustices that characterize the sinful state of our social existence. The church in Corinth has been showing up to worship, each bringing their own food and drink, and then not sharing all things in common, not distributing from each according to their means to each according to their need. Instead, Paul says, “when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.” The poor in their midst go hungry, repeating the patterns of humiliation experienced in the wider world and making the gospel of life and love and liberation into a lie.

Likewise, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus moves immediately from what we have come to know as the words of institution to observe that “the one who betrays me is with me, and their hand is on the table.” Understandably the disciples are alarmed to hear this, so they begin “to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.”

That dynamic also looks familiar, strangely familiar. It seems to be a part of our human nature that we not only routinely betray our own highest hopes and ideals, but that we cluster together and project our own fears, guilt, shame, and insecurity onto one another, asking who in this community it could be who would do this; who in this community has fallen short of the ideal; who has betrayed God’s preferred future with words or actions that are ignorant, or malicious, or violent, or oppressive. Who could it be? Not me, I hope. Let’s keep looking. Elsewhere.

This is what I am compulsively drawn to, what I think we are all perhaps drawn to, the obsessive memory of all that has hurt us and the repression of and forgetfulness about all that we have done to hurt others. But this is not what Jesus asks us to remember. Instead, in each of these stories which include truth-telling about the persistent nature of human sinfulness, about our own participation in the humiliating structures of injustice and our own betrayals of God’s beloved children, we are asked to remember God’s body broken for us, God’s life poured out for us. For us. For people like us. For forgetful people like us. For imperfect and scared and fearful and jealous and violent and hurting people like us. All of us. 

Anamnesis as Dangerous MemoryIn his book, Anamnesis as Dangerous Memory: Political and Liturgical Theology in Dialogue, Bruce Morrill contrasts anamnesis with another Greek word referring to memory, mnemosunon (mnay-MOS’-oo-non). Mnemosunon, as he describes it, refers to memories with “a certain intrinsic continuing, abiding permanency about them, unless and until they are deliberately destroyed or consumed or blotted out.” Anamnesis, on the other hand, refers to the recollection of things forgotten, carrying with it the connotation of renewal and return to what was once known. Like Plato’s idea that all learning is actually remembering.

The disruptive quality of anamnesis, the recovery of what has been lost, is what makes it dangerous to the established order and the status quo. Because it is disruptive to remember God’s abundance in a world of manufactured scarcity in which some go hungry while others hoard food and water and other forms of wealth. It is disruptive to remember God’s welcome in a world that spurns refugees, separates families, and cages children. It is disruptive to remember God’s love in a world that tells us who to love and how to hate. It is disruptive to remember God’s justice in a world that scapegoats individuals and whole communities while ignoring the structural violence that is the backdrop of our entire social lives. It is dangerous to tell the story of God’s salvation history to people who have lost hope, because they might believe it. It might change them. They might find common cause in one another. They might learn again what they have always known, that they were created in love, by love, for love. They might live their lives as if it were true, and then how would the world sell them its goods, its illusions, its rationalizations and justifications for all the harm we do to ourselves and others, all our betrayals of self and other.

In direct defiance of the death-dealing powers of this world, the church asserts that by means of our memory of what God has done in the past, we are joined to that work in the present and enter into the reality of God’s gracious reign which is both here and now and not yet. Anamnesis is the memory of the past that creates the conditions for a renewed present and different future — and, in a more technical, liturgical sense, it is the portion of the eucharistic prayer that comes after the words of institution. In this way, each time we eat this meal together and hear the words of Jesus, who commands us to do all this in remembrance of him, we then immediately do as we have been told, and we remember him, we tell the story of his living and teaching, his dying and rising, his promise to come again to save the world and set it free and this memory, like something we’ve always known but keep forgetting, propels us forward so that we can once again with confidence proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. All three tenses collapsed into one; the past, the present, and the future coming together to disrupt the sinful status quo of our lives and of the world. The chance to become new people and a new creation.

For those of you who are joining the seminary community this week, for whom this may be your first sharing of the Lord’s Supper in this place, it might feel as if you’re having this meal for the first time — but that’s almost certainly untrue. It’s far more likely that you have already had some experience of the Lord’s Supper that has fed you, pushed you or propelled you toward this moment. Now, here in this place, we will have some more of those moments together — there may be baptisms or baccalaureates, there may be funerals or other farewells. As we share our lives with one another, we are becoming a part of one another’s future memories.

That’s what Jesus seems to be saying as well in Luke’s gospel as he instructs the disciples in the use and the meaning of this meal. It’s as if he is already remembering the future, telling them that he won’t eat this meal again until they share this meal in the future; as though the very act of those who love him and follow him, sharing this meal with its command to remember, will bring Jesus into their future present, truly present and alive to them, and with them, and in them. In this way, we are all — every one of us — alive to each other forever. Our memory forming a solid bridge from the past to the present to the future.

There will surely be days ahead when you will feel betrayed by this community or members of it — perhaps there will be days when you will become aware of the ways that you have betrayed it, or the wider, more expansive body of Christ to which we belong. What will you do then? What can you do when you have been betrayed, when you have betrayed?

Jesus could have said, “Remember, you can’t trust anyone.” But he didn’t. Instead, he said this: my body, for you. My life, a covenant, a promise, with you and with all people. Remember that. 

That is the world I long to live in. A place I keep finding and forgetting. It is the memory of the possibility of that place that was promised to me when I was baptized and I am going to go back there someday. Today. Amen.

 

 

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, September 10, 2017: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost — Leave-Taking and Farewell to St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square

Texts: Ezekiel 33:7-11  +  Psalm 119:33-40  +  Romans 13:8-14  +  Matthew 18:15-20

Before I headed off to seminary — the first time, almost twenty years ago — I reached out to all of my former pastors, people who’d known me since I was a child. I needed their help as I tried to understand what it might mean for me to set off on this path, when the ending was so unclear. I wanted to know if they thought I was making a mistake. After all, what was I hoping for, going to seminary as an openly gay man at a time when our church refused to ordain gay people?

AR-304059984.jpg&q=80&MaxW=550&MaxH=400&RCRadius=5Each of my pastors shared their own bits of wisdom with me, but one pastor’s response in particular sticks out to me as I stand here with you for the last time in my capacity as your pastor. Pastor Elton Richards of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Iowa, who’d known me during my high school years, told me to “keep singing.”

He’d always said kind things about my voice when I was younger. He’d ask, “How’s my favorite tenor doing?” He did the same with my mom, who has a beautiful soprano voice. So when he signed his letter to me, reflecting on my call to ministry, with the words “Keep singing,” I didn’t think much of it at first. It seemed like another way of saying, “I remember you. I see your gifts.” And even if that’s all he was saying, that would’ve been powerful enough. “I remember you. I see your gifts.”

I think about how powerful those words could have been to the people of St. Luke’s twelve years ago, just before we began this redevelopment. The handful of people who’d clung to the hope that their congregation might still have a future, when the rest of the church had all but given up on them. “I remember you. I see your gifts.”

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St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square; October, 2006

But, whether he meant more than that or not, Pastor Richard’s words to me have come to mean more than being seen and acknowledged. For me, “keep singing,” means something more than sharing my gifts, it means “be yourself.” It means, “tell the truth.” It means, “don’t stop now.” It means, “change is coming.”

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Photo of “The Baltic Way” (1989)

It wasn’t until I went to seminary — the first time — that I learned about the Singing Revolution, the term coined by the Estonian artist and activist, Heinz Valk, to describe the non-violent means by which the peoples of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia sought their freedom from the Soviet Union in the late 80s and early 90s. In one of the most famous of these actions, the Baltic Way, about two million people joined hands to form a human chain that stretched over four hundred miles, crossing the national borders of all three Baltic states. Together, they sang songs that expressed their hope for a new nation, a new future. Through a series of actions like this one, Estonia regained its independence without violence or bloodshed.

The text we’ve heard this morning from Romans is now, for me, forever a song. “You know what time it is, now is the moment to wake from sleep. Salvation is nearer to us now, is nearer now then when we first believed. The night is far gone, the day is near. You know what time it is, now is the moment to wake from sleep.” (Rom. 13:11-12) We’ve used this text as a sung gospel acclamation during the season of Advent for years, so that now, when I read those words and hear that tune, I also remember that season: Advent, a season that fills the long nights with songs about the coming light, about hope for a new tomorrow, about God’s faithfulness to God’s promises.

0225BACE-C31A-447F-B5F3-CF9241BD91D1Despite the great love I have for you, and the light that floods this room through these larger-than-life windows facing out onto the street, in many ways the world outside this sanctuary feels trapped in a long and lengthening night. There’s no way we can gather this morning for worship without naming the devastation that’s been taking place during this hurricane season. Harvey has been called “the worst disaster in Texas history.” At least seventy people died and recovery efforts will take years. Irma is breaking records for intensity and duration, and left a path of devastation across the Caribbean before landing in Florida yesterday. Hundreds of thousands of people have been advised to flee the storm in “one of the largest evacuations in American history.” All credible science tells us that the intensity and frequency of these storms is connected to climate change, and that we should plan to see this trend get worse as long as we continue to ignore the ecological crisis in which we are now living.

And, in some kind of societal equivalent to the devastation of the natural world, we also seem to be living in the eye of another storm of racism and nationalism, as politicians pour gasoline on the fires of racial resentment and white supremacy for short term personal gain at the expense of our common life as a nation. From the riots in Charlottesville to the rescinding of DACA protections for the Dreamers in our communities, we have every reason to think that this storm will continue to rage on as well, as long as we ignore the root causes of the human crisis we have created.

This is what God tells the prophet Ezekiel to announce to the nation: “Turn back, turn back, from your evil ways!” (Ezek. 33:11) That is our job as well, to keep singing, to keep telling the truth, to never give up, to herald the dawn while the night still feels long.

It feels almost ridiculous to try to connect the massive destruction being done to people and places by these raging forces of nature (both human and environmental) and the intimate moment we are sharing here, together, as we say goodbye to each other after eleven years of ministry. But it is not. Not at all.

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Kerry and Pastor Erik, Farewell Patio Party; September 4, 2017

On Monday night you all shared such kind words with me and Kerry about what our ministry together here at St. Luke’s has meant to each of you. Something Katie Baxter said has stuck with me all week. She said that I brought with me a gift for reminding St. Luke’s of its story, and telling it back to you over and over again. It meant so much for me to hear you say that, because that’s exactly what I was trying to do. It’s what all of us who preach are trying to do: to remind the church of who we are in light of who God is, to keep singing the song that started long before our verse began.

So let me do this with you one last time. Let me remind you of the part you play in the larger story, your verse in the cosmic song:

When I came to you, after a long journey of my own in which the odds seemed stacked against me, the church as it was did not recognize my ministry in this place. In the technical jargon that props up institutions, the pulpit at St. Luke’s was listed as “vacant” for the first few years of our work together.

What we did, as piece by piece we began to rebuild the foundations of this congregation, was to contribute one more story to a narrative that had already been forming for decades, a story that showed how God calls people from all walks of life, of every sexual orientation and gender identity, to lead God’s church. Our story, our success, was part of a great human chain that stretched across the church, sometimes quite literally across the floors of synod and churchwide assemblies, creating change out of nothing more than hope for the children coming up behind us, faith in the God of liberation, and the songs that kept us standing. We stood against that storm and it did not overcome us. It was we who overcame, and we shall overcome again and again until the whole human family is free.

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You are a part of that chain. We are a part of that much longer chain. The bonds between us. The love we’ve shared. The church we’ve built. The future we’ve imagined. None of that is going away. Everything we’ve been doing until now has just been part of the labor pains, one great push toward the delivery of the new creation.

Now is not the time to stop pushing. Now is the time to take a deep breath and look one another in the eye, to take hold of one another’s hands, to remember who we are and what we were made for. The sounds that come next may sound as much like a howl as a song, but they will carry the truth of this moment to ears that have been longing to know, waiting to hear if the church has anything to say, anything to sing, that makes any kind of difference in times like these. So the songs we sing next, wherever our journeys take us, had better not be confined to these small places. They need to be heard out in the world, in the streets, in the halls of power, at the voting booth, in the break room, over countless meals with family and friends and strangers.

As you set off on the next leg of your journey now, the path unclear but the destination absolutely certain, I have only hand-me-down words to offer. Thankfully, hand-me-down words are to a preacher what notes are to a composer — you’ve heard them all before, but they still have the power to move you. So I’ll leave you with some of the best words I’ve ever heard.

Keep singing.

Keep singing.

Keep singing.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, May 14, 2017: Fifth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 7:55-60  +  Psalm 31:1-5,15-16  +  1 Peter 2:2-10  +  John 14:1-14

14444841_10207054154008081_1208522860883102604_oEarlier this week at our monthly staff meeting we acknowledged that it was the last meeting that Luke, who has been our Diaconal Intern for the last nine months, would be attending. So we took some time to reflect back to Luke the gifts we see in him, and to share some words of thanks for his ministry with us. Then we indulged ourselves with a long lunch at the Chicago Diner up on Milwaukee Ave. Luke’s internship ends three week from now, on Pentecost Sunday, and he will continue to be connected to St. Luke’s as a member, so there’s no need to rush to say your own goodbyes — but it got me thinking about the importance of saying our goodbyes well.

13415460_10208747706786711_4355805716510276263_oLater this morning we’ll be saying goodbye to Ray Pickett and Liz Muñoz, who are leaving Chicago and heading west to Berkeley, California at the end of the month. After we’ve had the chance to share the Lord’s Supper once again, we’ll gather with them in a circle of song to bless them on their journey. As we were preparing for that sending earlier in the week, I remembered of all the many times we gathered in the old church building in the center aisle and laid hands on members of our community who were preparing to leave us. How important it can be to have a chance to offer one another words and signs that call to mind who we have been to each other, what it has meant, and how we will carry that forward.

That’s what Jesus is doing as he speaks to his friends and followers in this morning’s gospel text. This passage comes from a section of the gospel of John known as the Farewell Discourse, and comes immediately following Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet which we remembered in our worship on Maundy Thursday just over a month ago now. So, to hear these words rightly, we need to allow ourselves to return to that place of vulnerability as the disciples gathered with Jesus for a last supper before his death. We need to remember how afraid they were, the tension in the room as Jesus spoke about his betrayal by one of their own and forecasted Peter’s own impending denials. It was the moment when everything they’d experienced together seemed on the verge of falling apart, when all their hopes and dreams for the future seemed lost. In those last hours together, Jesus spoke to them about a way of being, a manner of life, in which they would remain together forever, no matter what else might happen.

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:3-4)

In the church’s wisdom, we read portions of the Farewell Discourse during the season of Easter, after the story of the resurrection has been told. We’re nearly forty days into the fifty day season of Easter, so the Alleluia’s joyous return has lost just a little of its sparkling edge and we’ve had a few weeks to wonder what we mean when we declare together that “Christ is risen indeed!” By placing this reading a month after Easter, the lectionary anticipates some of the struggles we face, living as we do after the resurrection. We read these words of farewell after we have lived through the drama of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Vigil of Easter and Easter morning the way one might go back and re-read a parting letter from a parent or a grandparent years later, listening for how their last words might make sense of our lives now that we have had a little more time to grow into ourselves.

That’s what I hear in Jesus’ final words to the disciples. Reassurance that they will be alright, that they have what they need, that they know the way. Thomas doubts this, on behalf of us all, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Philip asks for one more sign for reassurance, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” In his responses to each of them, Jesus does nothing more than point them toward their memories of all that they have already seen. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” means nothing unless you have already walked with Jesus, as Thomas has, and as we have. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” makes no sense unless spoken to people who have seen Jesus, as Philip has, as we have.

As the community grapples with their terror on the eve of Jesus’ death, he instructs them to remember — remember who he is, remember where they have been, remember what they have seen, remember what he said and did. Later, as they face new terrors, as Stephen did on the day of his martyrdom, as the psalmist imagines in Psalm 31 where it is written, “My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors” (Ps. 31:15) they look back. In these moments we can imagine that the early church searched its memory for some word of Jesus’s that might hold them with integrity as they stood in times of trial. In those moments, the living memory of their Lord found new expression in their own acts of faithfulness. Stephen offers a testimony so powerful and so challenging to the powers of the world as it is that they have him stoned to death, but even as he dies he prays for their redemption, reflecting the imprint of Jesus’ death on his own life.

We, who look back in time to the witness of Christ’s death and resurrection, look at the future with new eyes. That moment has become, for us, the cornerstone to a new construction of reality so that now we become signs of a dawning future; of a chosen race, which is the human race; a holy vocation for each and every person; a new nation beyond borders; God’s own people, all of us. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” (1 Pet. 2:9-10) This is the power of the resurrection. We, the church, become what we remember.

tumblr_m6yrn48fnZ1rnc3y3o1_1280Joy Harjo, a Native-American poet of the Muscogee Nation who turned 65 this past week, offers us this poem, titled “Remember”

Remember the sky that you were born under,

know each of the stars’ stories.

Remember the moon, know who she is.

Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the

strongest point of time. Remember sundown

and the giving away to night.

Remember your birth, how your mother struggled

to give you form and breath. You are evidence of

her life, and her mother’s, and hers.

Remember your father. He is your life, also.

Remember the earth whose skin you are:

red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth

brown earth, we are earth.

Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their

tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,

listen to them. They are alive poems.

Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the

origin of this universe.

Remember you are all people and all people

are you.

Remember you are this universe and this

universe is you.

Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.

Remember language comes from this.

Remember the dance language is, that life is.

Remember.

I think this is what we mean when we say goodbye to one another. Remember me. Remember us. Remember what this has been. Remember the reality in which you and me, then and now and yet to come, are all part of an indivisible whole, a reality deeper than right and wrong, a reality that reconciles sin and debt and trespass with forgiveness and rebirth. Remember birth. Remember death. Remember the birth beyond death. Remember who you come from and you will know the way, you will know the truth, you will know the life. You will know where you are going.

Remember.

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