Sermon: Sunday, July 31, 2016: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23  +  Psalm 49:1-12  +  Colossians 3:1-11  +  Luke 12:13-21

In some divine comedy of coincidences, we received the following notice slipped under the door at our home at the beginning of this past week:

North Park Manor Apts Tenants: This letter is to inform you that after July 31st, any personal belongings such as bikes, ladders, tables, cabinets, exercise equipment, etc. that are outside the storage lockers will be thrown out. Please store all of your belongings inside the storage locker. If you don’t have a storage locker, please remove your belongings from all basement areas. We will not be responsible for any damages or lost belongings. If any questions, please call Robert at (xxx) xxx-xxxx. Thank you for your cooperation!

After leaving the notice on the dining room table for Kerry to see I began ruminating on the notice, thinking to myself, “What are we going to do? We’ve got a tiny one bedroom apartment and our storage locker is already completely full. What are we supposed to do with our two bikes, the spare dinette from before Kerry moved in, and his big leather man-chair in the basement?” As I began imagining how we might rearrange the living room to make space for some of our stored belongings to make their way back upstairs I observed some part of my mind rehearsing a fresh new round of one of its favorite conversations, “Why We Need to Move.” Now, alongside classic arguments like, “we’ve run out of space in the kitchen,” and “there’s no room for my books,” I could hear my soul practicing its newest complaint, “we have no place to store our bikes!”

To be clear, we haven’t ridden our bikes all summer. And, by “all summer,” I mean the last three years. In fact, for one of our date nights a few months back we decided to rent Divvy bikes and cycle to a BBQ joint in Andersonville. When the Divvy station one block over from our home was out of order, we ended up walking to two different Divvy stations before we found two bikes to ride — all of which seemed easier than getting our bikes out of storage and inflating their flat tires. I got the used dinette set off Craigslist about twelve years ago when I bought my first condo in Atlanta and when Kerry moved in I tried to sell it, but nobody on the world wide web saw the kitsch retro charm of my Jetsons red Formica diner set. IMG_2412Kerry’s brown leather chair is (no offense dear) a version of the same brown leather chair that practically every guy buys when he gets his own place — proven by the fact that when he moved in we couldn’t decide whose brown leather chair to keep, his or mine, so we put one on each side of the living room facing each other like silent duelists until the pleather began to strip off of mine because I left it baking under the window’s sunlight without remembering to periodically condition its fine synthetic fabric.

The point being: I’m nothing at all like the rich man in Jesus’ parable and neither are you, I’m sure. Even so, as we cleaned out the closet in our apartment to make room for the bikes, we had to look at each of the items we were storing there and decide if we really needed to hold on to it. We somehow managed to do this without any of the practical wisdom of 978-1-60774-730-7Marie Kondo’s best-selling book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” I wonder if she addresses what you are supposed to do with her book after you’ve read it. I have piles of books on the floor of the living room that Kerry says I should pack away in boxes for the library I will one day install in the office of the home we will one day own which will not only have three bedrooms (enough for us and children and guests!) but also an office, so that our dining room table can finally stop multitasking all day long and just really focus on holding up our food and an occasional centerpiece of fresh cut flowers.

It’s at about this point that I actually am wishing I had a copy of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” or more to the point, hat I had some external reference point for knowing how much is too much. When I look around and see how other people in my immediate circle of friends live, our little 1BD/1BA apartment seems almost monastic. I literally had a bigger apartment my junior year of college. This is not upward mobility. Then I extend my frame of reference a little further and perceive that there are families much larger than mine living in similar spaces. I remember the shanty towns of corrugated steel and dirt floors in Soweto, South Africa a decade after the fall of apartheid. I see the tent villages under the overpass at Lake Shore Drive and Lawrence, the old men camping in the viaduct. Isn’t there a rule to let me know how much is too much?


The tent village of homeless people living under the overpass at Lake Shore Drive & Lawrence Avenue on Chicago’s north side.

The relationship between people and their possessions is a central theme in Luke’s gospel, and our wrestling with this relationship is at the heart of our Christian faith. Even before he was born, Jesus’ mother Mary sang her hope that in the coming reign of God the rich would be sent away empty (Lk 1:52-53). Jesus picked up that theme in his Sermon on the Plain, in the section we remember as the Beatitudes in which he pronounced a word of woe on those who are rich and have already received their comfort (Lk 6:24). In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus holds out little hope that the wealthy will ever heed the words of the prophets, much less the cries of the poor (Lk 16:31). When the rich ruler asks what must be done to inherit eternal life Jesus tells him to sell all he owns, give the money to the poor, and then come follow him (Lk 18:22). If a rule is what we’re after, the problem may not be that scripture doesn’t give us one, but that we don’t like the one it gives us.

Then again perhaps, given the number of times Jesus does offer a very direct suggestion about how we should dispose of our wealth, it is significant that instead of offering a rule, in this case, he offers a question. The story of the rich man and his barn comes in response to someone in the crowd, who is neither labeled rich nor poor, asking Jesus to weigh in on a legal matter — the division of a family inheritance. In his reply, Jesus begins with a question (“who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”) and then ends his parable with a question (“The things you have prepared, whose will they be?”). The fact that Jesus offers questions instead of condemnations, to me, is a sign of hope. Jesus recognizes that it is difficult work, trying to live an ethical life in an ethically anemic world. Rather than simply setting a guideline on what percentage of the family inheritance should go to each party, Jesus asks questions that force his followers to examine their own lives.

When God chastises the rich fool in the parable, asking “whose will they be?” we are all brought face to face with our own mortality. Someday, we will all die. Something will happen to all those things we have collected over the course of a lifetime. Who will receive them? Will it be your family members? Will it be your friends? Will it be the institutions and organizations that supported you while you were alive? Will it be the causes you cared about? What do your wishes for the riches that were entrusted to you in life say about who you considered a part of your family? Did you treat them as such while you were alive? Will the way you share your wealth in death reflect the way you shared your love in life?

If only it was as simple as a guideline, a set percentage, a clear rule. Instead, we are called to the lifelong work of continuously asking ourselves, “who is my neighbor?” “Who is my family?” “Where did my inheritance come from — all these things, this money, this privilege come from?” “How much of what I have is truly mine, and how much was passed along to me because of my relationships with others who look like me, talk like me, eat like me, worship like me?” “How much of what I have will eventually go to people who look like me, talk like me, eat like me, worship like me?” “How does my relationship with the things that fill my home, that fill my time, reflect my relationship with God, whose face is shown to me in the faces of my neighbors, near and far?”


These are hard questions, questions we need help answering. Toward that end, members of our social justice committee have begun conversations with Center for Changing Lives — a local non-profit here in Logan Square that “partners with those held back by lack of resource and economic opportunity in order to uncover possibilities, overcome barriers, and realize their potential.” By early fall we hope to have a series of workshops on the calendar from their “Just Financials” curriculum that is already being used in other congregations here in Chicago as a focus for equipping members to become more intentional in their use of the gifts God has given to each of us. This is an especially important moment in the life of our congregation for us to be talking together about how we connect our faith to our actions when it comes to wealth and prosperity, as we now sit on $1.4 million dollars from the sale of our former property and ask new questions about how we will be church together for the sake of the world here in Logan Square. What sort of witness might we make with the riches God has entrusted to us that would speak powerfully to our fundamental belief in our deep interconnectedness? How do our actions reveal our faith in the God who breaks down the divisions we put up in order to call us all home to each other?

The action required of disciples here and now, as always, is more than a reorientation toward our possessions. What Jesus calls for from those who will follow him is the hard work of constantly checking our myths and stories about who our people are, who our neighbors are, who our family is. It is the work of perceiving with new eyes a world in which we all already belong to each other. With those eyes, in that world, the new creation, how do we make sense of the ways we have chosen to share or to withhold what God has first given us, our inheritance?



Sermon: Sunday, September 7, 2014: Forest Sunday, Season of Creation

Texts: Genesis 2:4b-22  +  Psalm 139:13-16  +  Acts 17:22-28  +  John 3:1-16

GivingTreeIt’s been 50 years since the publication of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree back in 1964.  How many of you have read it?  Did you know that Shel Silverstein grew up here in Logan Square?  Went to high school at Roosevelt, attended the University of Illinois.

The Giving Tree had a hard time making it to print.  Publishers thought it was too sad for kids and too simple for adults. Fifty years later it remains something of an enigma. Some people see in the story a parable about a mother’s self-sacrificing love for her child. Some see a story of narcissistic consumption. Some have called it a story of friendship, others a parable of Christ’s love. One reviewer called it a sado-masochistic fairy tale in which abuse is elevated to a virtue.

As we enter into the Season of Creation once again this year, a season in which we are encouraged to read scripture with a hermeneutic of creation or through the lens of God’s pronouncement at the end of each day that all that was made was “good,” I’m inclined to give the story a more straight forward reading as the tale of humanity and its relationship to trees.

The very fact that we might be inclined to read the story as an allegory for human relationships with one another, mother to child or friend to friend, shows how disconnected we have become from our sense of intimate interdependence with all of the rest of creation. The book of Genesis describes humanity and trees as coming from the same place,

Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being … Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food… (Gen. 2:7,9)

Like twins born of the same mother, humanity and the trees (which seem to stand in for all plant life) are fashioned from the same stuff. Furthermore, the author of this creation myth imagines that man was placed in the garden “to till and keep it.” (Gen. 2:15)  This sounds a little different than the creation myth that precedes this one, in which humanity is given dominion over the earth. Perhaps that’s why we give that other story precedence. Perhaps we prefer the idea of dominion over the more modest proposal that we simply take our place within creation as caregivers.


Shel seemed to retain that memory of common origins. At the beginning of his book the boy and the tree take delight in one another’s company. They play with one another, rest with one another, love one another. Anyone who uses these features as evidence of some deeper allegory really ought to spend more time watching children play outside. If you have, then you know that it’s perfectly normal to observe children taking deep delight in a tree, even loving one.

As the boy grows older, he loses interest in his first love and becomes preoccupied with other concerns. He needs to earn a living, so he takes the tree’s fruit.  He needs to build a house, so he takes the tree’s branches. Then, somewhere in the middle of his life, he finds that he has become deeply unhappy and he wants to escape, so he takes the tree’s trunk and builds a boat to get away. Stripped to a stump the tree is as unhappy as the boy.

McLaren_WeMakeTheRoadByWalking_smIn his new book We Make the Road by Walking, Brian McLaren discusses the tangled roots at the heart of our environmental crisis. He reminds us that billions of dollars are spent every year making us unhappy, which is the first step in getting us to spend our money on the solutions being proposed. “Wish you had a brighter smile? Ask your dentist about Zoom teeth whitening!” Well, I didn’t realize I wanted a brighter smile, but now that you mention it… Over and over again, in a million little ways, we’re being told to find fault with ourselves and to spend our time and our money chasing after the new and improved.

But it’s not just our pocketbooks or our time with family that takes the hit when we spend long hours slaving away as we sell those apples to buy that house, or that boat. It’s the forests, and the land, and the air, and the oceans that suffer right along with us. There is no way to address the environmental crisis in which we now find ourselves without addressing the addictive and exhausting cycles of mass consumption that degrade not only our souls but the planet as well.

I should say, by way of a plug for some of our fall programming, that McLaren also believes that one of the great gifts of our Christian faith is that it offers us practices, daily and weekly and seasonal and annual disciplines, that are meant to re-humanize us, to fortify us in the face of so many destructive messages that push us toward consumption as the answer to all our problems. If that’s a conversation you’d like to dive into more deeply, I can offer you two options.  One is to join the adult forum for the next six weeks from 9am to 10am, where we’ll be using a series of short video clips based on Brian’s book to structure our conversations about Christian faith, practice and identity. The other is to head to the bulletin board in the back of the sanctuary after worship and sign up to be part of a small group that will be reading We Make the Road by Walking together. But more on that later…

I suppose I read The Giving Tree as both descriptive and cautionary. To the extent that it describes humanity’s relationship with trees and the rest of God’s creation pretty accurately, it is descriptive.  Like partners in a crumbling marriage, we have grown apart from the rest of God’s creation which we were given to love and to cherish, to honor and respect. But it’s a children’s book as well, which suggests that Shel was aware that a new generation might make a new choice. That the boys and girls we seat on our laps as we flip the pages might notice how sad that man grew to be, how lonely he looked as he sat slumped over on his amputated friend’s stump. That our children are strong enough and sophisticated enough to handle a story that doesn’t resolve neatly. That its haunting images might linger with them, they way they’ve lingered with you and me for fifty years now. That we might remember how much we have loved the trees in our back yard, on the trail, in the forests, around the world. That we might repent of our rampant consumption and return to our roots, that place where we remember that we and all the rest of God’s creation come from the same ground.

It’s been a number of years now since our friend Sally Levin had her funeral service here at St. Luke’s. I thought of her as I read Paul’s words to the Athenians from Acts,

The God who made the world and everything in it, [the one] who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is [God] served by human hands, as though [God] needed anything, since [God] gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. (Acts 17:24-25)

As her body gave way to the pancreatic cancer within her, Sally and I talked about how she would have wished that her funeral could have taken place outside, among the trees, where she loved to spend her days. She knew that the God who made her and loved her wasn’t locked behind the doors of the church, but in and throughout everything that grows up from the ground. She believed there was nothing we could build that could improve on what the Creator had already planted. Even as her body released its hold on life, her mind was already being renewed. She had a sense of that second birth that Jesus was trying to describe to Nicodemus, the being born that happens after we have grown old.

Since we could not hold her funeral outdoors, we decided to bring the trees inside, and as her friends entered the sanctuary on the day of her funeral they processed carrying fallen branches from the trees all around this neighborhood where she had raised her children, the same neighborhood where Shel Silverstein grew up. Who knows? Maybe even the same trees they had both loved.

As we move through this season of creation; as we chart the journey of creation, alienation, passion and new creation that is our story as Christians; as we reconnect and reconcile with our siblings — the forests, the land, the wilderness, and the rivers — we are invited to open our hearts and minds to the Holy Spirit, which is always reaching out, working its tendrils into the spaces between our past and our future to renew and restore us here and now.



Sermon: Sunday, October 13, 2013: Fall Ember Day / Stewardship Sunday

Texts:  Deuteronomy 26:1-11  +  Psalm 67  +  2 Corinthians 9:6-15  +  Luke 12:13-21

Pr. Erik, most likely on the day of his baptism, ca. 1973.

Pr. Erik, most likely on the day of his baptism, ca. 1973.

A couple weeks ago, for my birthday, my parents gave me one of the best gifts I’ve received in my whole life. It took them weeks, maybe months, to prepare. They started by going through all the old family photo albums and they picked out not just the best, but the quintessential photos of me from all the eras of my first forty years of life. The pictures we go back to over and over again when we tell the story of who I am and how I came to be this person.

The photo of my pregnant, glowing mother. The picture of my parents holding me on the day of my baptism. The first day of school. The day we met my sister. The day we buried the ashes of the family dog. The day I was ordained. My life in pictures.

They collected all these paradigmatic moments, almost two hundred of them, and they digitized them. Slowly, one by one, Dad took the hard copies to a store with a scanner and turned these heirloom images into image files he could then crop and color correct. They put all these memories on a tiny USB drive the size of my thumb, and they presented them to me along with a digital picture frame. Together we sat, as a family, and remembered all that we’ve come through to arrive at this moment.

For a guy like me who was, admittedly, getting a little neurotic about turning forty it was the perfect tonic. The gratitude I felt at having lived the kind of life that could produce these images, memories of loving and being loved, memories of struggle and success, easily crowded out my nascent mid-life crisis. Whatever griefs or misgivings I have about entering the second half of life must contend with the reality of these images. I have been richly blessed.

A week later, I received a second set of images that have similarly been a source of blessing for all of us. Many of you have seen Christa’s husband, Jason, taking photographs of us in worship for the past month or so. He’s also been showing up at the pantry, at the community dinners, at the Saturday morning chorus rehearsals and at some of our events out in the neighborhood — our community service day weeding in the paseo prairie garden at the El stop, the candlelight prayer vigil for Syria a few weeks back. Over three hundred digital photographs showed up in a shared file a week ago today for us to use on our website, in our publications, to tell our story.

On Friday I began posting these photographs in albums on the church’s Facebook page. Within twenty-four hours over three thousand people had looked at one or more of those photographs. That’s more than ten times the average number of hits we get for any other kind of post, proving the saying true: a picture is worth a thousand words.

It occurs to me that a well taken photograph, shared at the right time, is a kind of testimony. It tells a story. Speaking to the Israelites as they prepared to enter the promised land, Moses did not have the benefit of a camera, so he had to use a thousand words to paint them a picture of what they had been through together. He needed to encapsulate centuries of shared oppression and liberation into a single story that could be repeated over and over again as the foundation for a shared identity. He taught them to remember this:

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me. (Deut. 26:5b-10a)

To this day, if you are privileged to sit with Jewish friends and family at the Passover seder, you will hear that story offered up as a collective memory of God’s goodness and faithfulness.

Memory produces gratitude that takes form in the offering back of what God has first given us, all that we have and all that we are, with emphasis on the word “we.” Notice how Moses teaches the people to remember their story as a collective one: When the Egyptians treated us harshly… we cried to the Lord.  The Lord brought us out of Egypt… and brought us into this place.

Contrast that emphasis on a shared history and a common destiny with the voice of the rich man in the parable Jesus shared in response to a question about inheritance.

The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry. (Luke 12:16b-19)

We know that Jesus didn’t have an issue with eating, drinking, or merriment. In fact, earlier in Luke’s gospel Jesus contrasts himself with John the Baptist saying, “John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Luke 7:33-34)

Jesus presents this rich man not as a warning against gluttony, but against greed. He’d been asked by someone in the crowd that followed him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Moses begins his speech to the Israelites, “when you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance…” Both teachers are addressing the question of what we are to do with what has first been given to us, but the person who questions Jesus seems to have forgotten what he would have learned from Moses in the synagogue, that what God provides, God provides for all. The one questioning Jesus wants the inheritance to be divided so that he can take what is his and be done with the rest. Answering him Jesus tells a story about a man so self-absorbed that he even talks to himself (“And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul…’”)

We are at the beginning now of our annual fall stewardship campaign, that time of the year when we take stock of all that we have been given, and offer our first fruits back to God in the form of gifts that support the work of the church. I’ll say more on that in just a minute, but I can’t help but notice the painful irony in the timing of this parable of a rich man talking to himself on the eve of his own death.

Here we are, almost two weeks into a federal government shutdown that has cost American workers billions in lost wages, and cut off access to necessary civil services and benefits. Watching the elected leadership of this country respond to this crisis has been like witnessing a living parable of wealthy people talking to themselves. Worse still, this crisis finds its origins in a controversy over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, legislation intended to extend the benefits and blessings of our nation’s wealth in the form of health insurance for many of those who previously were left unprotected against sudden illness or injury. It is hard not to hear the voice of the rich man from Jesus’ parable being played out in this debate, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grains and goods…”

As we enter into this year’s Stewardship campaign, I know that many of you have already received a letter from the Stewardship committee at your home. I am so grateful for their work, and I know you are too. Together with the finance committee and the whole Council, the stewardship committee has set a goal for our household giving this coming year of $80,000. That’s almost four times what we were able to collect just a few short years ago, but still less than half of our annual operating budget. Because of your generosity, we continue to make good progress on our redevelopment goals, but we still have a long way to go. Thank you for the careful, prayerful ways that each of you supports this ministry we share together of listening to and caring for one another: the hungry and the weary and the world.

If you haven’t received a letter in the mail yet, I’d encourage you to take a look at the Stewardship committee’s kick-off announcement toward the back of your bulletin. There you’ll find the verse from John’s gospel selected as the theme for this year’s campaign: “Look around you and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.” (John 4:35)

Food being given away at Elijah's Pantry.

Food being given away at Elijah’s Pantry.

In the coming weeks, you’ll be hearing testimonies from members of St. Luke’s sharing how their own experience with God has been shaped by our collective experiences of faith, and what that common identity might mean for us all here and now. These individual stories help us all to form an image of who we are becoming together.

When I look at the photos that Jason gave us, when I see what he saw through the lens of his camera, I am so proud. Images of bags filled with groceries. Images of round tables surrounded by people and heavy laden with food. Circles of people singing their prayers by candlelight. St. Luke’s, you are people who remember our story, our Christian story, the story of a God who came among us as bread for the hungry and wine for the weary.

We have been richly blessed. As we continue to come into the future that the Lord our God is giving us as an inheritance, I thank God for your vision and your generosity. I thank God for the first fruits of time, wisdom and wealth that you share with this community. I thank God for your perseverance, your hope, and your great faithfulness. I thank God for you.

Come, let us celebrate all the bounty that the Lord our God has given to us and to our house.