Sermon: Sunday, August 25, 2013: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Jeremiah 1:4-10  +  Psalm 71:1-6  +  Hebrews 12:18-29  +  Luke 13:10-17

Do you remember the last day of … whatever?  Summer camp.  High School.  A mission trip.  The last day after something intense and formative and life-changing.

For three years after seminary I worked on the staff of a summer program down in Atlanta at my alma mater, Emory University, we called YTI — the Youth Theological Initiative.  Some of you recognize the name of the program because, about four years ago, we sent Lynda Deacon down to Atlanta for a month to participate.

YTI takes young people, high school students going into their junior and senior years, and puts them in classrooms with graduate students in theology, scripture and ethics with the explicit goal of equipping these young people to become public theologians.  They take courses that study the relationship between Christian faith and non-violence, Christian faith and environmental crisis, Christian faith and religious pluralism.  YTI is not vacation bible school or the church camp in the woods with a craft cabin, like the one I grew up with in Iowa (and loved).  It is a school for prophets.  It is a place where young people get treated like the theological subjects, not objects, that they are.  Youth are expected to leave YTI as voices that will lead the church and society in confronting some of the most pressing challenges of our day.

hssp13-goodbye-01Which brings me back to the last day.  On the last day of YTI we, the staff, stand outside the dorms with our students, our summer scholars, who each arrived a little bit scared of what the coming month would bring, but now are a little bit scared of what the future may hold.  They’d come to YTI with their expectations that we would teach them something, but they were leaving with our expectations that they would do something with what they’d learned. So they waited in front of the dorms  with their suitcases packed for a parent to arrive, or a shuttle to take them to the airport, and when the last moment came they hugged each other, and they cried, and then they went back out into the world.

One of those scholars, Liz Theoharris from the summer of 1993, went on to found The Poverty Initiative a decade later, a program affiliated with Union Seminary in New York City.  Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a “Freedom Church for the Poor,” the Poverty Initiative seeks to empower poor leaders and the organizations that support them.  The idea came from a gap Liz saw in her work as a Christian and an activist.  At protests and prayer vigils, religious people regularly came together for social justice, but with very little ability to speak theologically about why they were there.  “I found myself at Union Seminary,” she says, “realizing my call to do social justice was a religious one, and yet saw that most churches weren’t really equipped to do the kind of work that we were called to do as religious leaders.”

Laura McCandlish, from the summer of 1997, went on to become a journalist who covers the food justice movement from her home in Oregon.  At YTI’s recent 20th year reunion last month, Laura led a panel discussion on how communities of faith are vital contributors to the food justice movement, whether by planting community gardens or opening their kitchens for end-of-season processing, for cooking classes, or as commercial kitchens for local entrepreneurs or disenfranchised neighbors.  Her reporting has focused on the intersection of immigration, labor and food, like one recent article on an effort to help migrant workers establish their own berry farm, and an ecumenical program to turn leftover berries gleaned from the harvest into low-sugar jellies for local food pantries.

Jamaya Powell went to YTI last summer, in 2012, expecting “a boring Jesus camp.”  Instead her life was changed, as she writes in a recent issue of VOX, a publication written by and for Atlanta-area teenagers.  She spent her month at YTI in a course that explored hip-hop music and culture as theological dialogue and visited local agencies fighting poverty, homelessness and sex trafficking.  She left wondering what she as a young person and a Christian could do to help remedy the situation.

All of these young people, young adults, some of whom are even approaching middle age now, came to the school for prophets at YTI in Atlanta unsure of their place in the church and in the world, unsure of their voice.  Like the prophet Jeremiah they were ready to say, “Ah Lord God!  Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  But God answered them just as God answered Jeremiah, and each of us,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” (Jer. 1:7-8)

This morning I taught our children the next line of the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  We played follow the leader up and down the central aisle and all around the edges of the sanctuary.  I tried to help them understand that the only way God can lead us into, or out of, temptation is if we are already following.  The question that raises, the one that’s a bit too abstract for them but not for us, is — does God actually lead us into trouble?  In the prayer Jesus taught us we are instructed to ask God to lead us not into temptation, but to deliver us from evil.

“Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’” (Jer. 1:9-10)

That is a terrifying message for anyone to deliver, much less a young person like Jeremiah.  Yet, how often young people lead the way.  From the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the Civil Right Movement to the Young Lions of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.  From the youth who powered the Arab Spring to the students at Kelvyn Park High School’s social justice academy here in Logan Square.  How often it has been the case that young people carry forward God’s commission to speak truth to power, following God’s call both into and out of danger.

But it is not just the young whom God calls to bear God’s fiery word.  Over and over, time and time again God uses what is small, what is weak, what is unlikely, what is overlooked to challenge what is too big to fail, to strong to fall.  God uses the young and the old, the poor and the ridiculed.

Surely God can use us.

All summer long we have been at our summer school for prophets.  Now the seasons are changing.  Children go back to school tomorrow.  Classes start up at the university, at the seminary.  Summer sports leagues are over and the new rhythms of fall are upon us.  But we have learned something this summer that will stay with us.  We have been students at the feet of the prophets, and now we are being sent out into a world in need of reformation as much as any world has ever been.

As you wait with your bags packed for the future to come and get you, as you look back on all you have seen and heard, how have you been changed?  As you think about the expectations you bring to worship each week — that you will be comforted, that you will be challenged, that you will be fed — what expectations do you sense God has for you as you leave this place?  As you stand at the threshold of a new season, of a new world, what are the words God has put into your mouth?

Do not be afraid of them.




Sermon: Sunday, February 24, 2013: Second Sunday of Lent

Texts:  Genesis 15:1-12,17-18  +  Psalm 27  +  Philippians 3:17–4:1  +  Luke 13:31-35

If you were here last week, you’ll remember that I’ve fashioned myself a professor of sorts for these Sundays in Lent leaning into Holy Week and the Three Days that precede the festival of the resurrection at Easter.  This morning I want to tell you the name of the course in which you’ve unwillingly enrolled.  It is “Mystagogy 101: Christian Initiation.”

Mystagogy is probably an unfamiliar word, so let’s work our way into it with a word that may be a little bit more familiar to at the least the teachers in the room, and that word is pedagogy.  If you’ve taken any coursework in education, or spent much time in schools, then you know that pedagogy is the study of how to teach.  The word itself, though, teaches us something more.  The “peda” in pedagogy is the same root as the “ped” in pediatrician.  It refers to children.  The “gogy” in pedagogy comes from the Greek for “to lead.”  So “pedagogy” literally means, “to lead the child.”  Learning how to teach is learning how to lead young people into maturity.

Mystagogy, then, is also about leading — but rather than leading youth into maturity, it is about leading people into mystery.  Mystery, here, is not being used in the sense of a good crime novel or police procedural on television.  Mystery here is being used, again, in the ancient Greek sense, in which a mystery was understood as the beliefs, rites and rituals that were only made known to the initiated.  Mystagogy is about leading people into their initiation — and for those already initiated, leading them deeper into the meaning of what it means to belong to a mystery.

Lent is mystagogy.  Lent is the season of the church that, for millennia, has been used as a time of preparation for the central rite of Christian initiation, which is baptism.  And, since I’ve imagined this to be a course, I’m going to ask you once again to open your textbooks — in this case, the red hymnals in the back of the pew.  Turn to page 227, which is the beginning of the rite of Holy Baptism, the rite of Christian initiation.

Last week we looked at the three renunciations that precede the confession of faith, and we reflected on how these three renunciations reflected Jesus’ own renunciation of the devil in the wilderness.  This morning we’re looking at the presentation for baptism, and here on page 227 you can see that there are two options provided (though many more exist).  Here’s what our Lutheran worship book offers by way of presentation:

“God, who is rich in mercy and love, gives us a new birth into a living hope through the sacrament of baptism.  By water and the Word, God delivers us from sin and death and raises us to new life in Jesus Christ.  We are united with all the baptized in the one body of Christ, anointed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and joined in God’s mission for the life of the world.”


“In baptism our gracious heavenly Father frees us from sin and death by joining us to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are born children of a fallen humanity; by water and the Holy Spirit we are reborn children of God and made members of the church, the body of Christ.  Living with Christ and in the communion of saints, we grow in faith, love, and obedience to the will of God.”

A little over a decade ago, one of my best friends from childhood — a young woman who’d grown up in the church with me — had just given birth to her firstborn child.  People in her family were asking when the baptism was going to be, but she was really struggling with idea of having her son baptized.  “People tell me I have to have him baptized to remove the stain of original sin,” she said.  “But I look at my son and I don’t see sin, I see perfection.  He hasn’t done anything wrong!  Why does he need to be baptized?”

That’s a mother talking, with the kind of fierce love that parents have for their children.  We hear Jesus speaking with that same, fierce, motherly love in this morning’s gospel as he grieves for the city of Jerusalem.  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Lk. 13:34)

I’ve been to Jerusalem, as have some of you.  In Hebrew the name Jerusalem means “City of Peace.”  Jerusalem is a city, yet like all cities it struggles with violence and crime.  Jerusalem is also a city of walls standing in the middle of a nation divided by walls.  Walls built to separate people from one another in response to generations of violence and occupation.  Walls of fear become walls of stone.

beit-jala-house-483Traveling in Israel a decade ago I encountered a woman while visiting the village of Beit Jala, a small community of Palestinians about six miles south of Jerusalem, near Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.  I was standing with a group of my classmates as our guide shared with us that the homes we were looking at had been shot at by Israeli military forces all through the night earlier that month.  I could see the damage done by the shells in the sides of the homes, where concrete had been blown off in chunks.  As we stood there, this woman emerged from her home and approached us.  After we identified ourselves as Christians from the United States, she told us her story.  She said,

“They shot at our village all through the night.  Bullets flew through our windows, so I took my children in my arms and we hid under the bed.  None of us slept at all.  In the morning my son asked me, “why do they hate us?”  And I tried to explain that they did not hate us, but that they were scared.  That long ago their people were shot at and killed as well.  How can he understand?  Will there ever be peace?”

That mother’s anguish gave me the answer to my friend’s questions about sin and baptism.  To say that we are born children of a fallen humanity isn’t to say that there is some indelible sin etched onto our souls that can only be removed when we become Christians by virtue of our baptism.  It is to say that a child born in Beit Jala, or Jerusalem, or Humboldt Park, or Hyde Park has no say in the type of world they are entering.  They are coming into a world already characterized by fear, and violence, and walls.  They are coming into a world characterized by sin, the state of human separation from God and from one another.

Here is a bit of mystery.  Baptism does not free us from sin by separating us from each other.  Baptism does not do its work by setting us apart from those who aren’t like us, those who aren’t baptized, those who aren’t Christian.  Baptism does its work by uniting us.  Baptism leads us out of our narrow concern with family, tribe and nation, and makes us members of something deeper, wider, more expansive than we can imagine.

The apostle Paul says, “our citizenship is in heaven.” (Phil 3:20)   The psalmist says, “if my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.” (Ps 27:10)  God speaks to a childless Abram who looks at the future through the eyes of despair and says, “look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” (Gen 15:5)

Hen&ChicksHere’s something I recently learned about chickens.  A hen has no issue with laying her eggs in another hen’s nest, and will sometimes move eggs from other nests into her own.  Some hens even share nests, and will end up sitting on top of each other to make sure those eggs are doubly cared for.

What an image for God, who could really care less what nest you come from, who only wants to be sure you are safe, and warm, and loved.

Mystagogy is about leading people into their initiation — and for those already initiated, leading them deeper into the meaning of what it means to belong to a mystery.  This morning, as Jesus gathers us in like chicks under wing, we learn that part of what it means to belong to this mystery is that we belong to each other and to God.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and may the peace that passes all understanding be yours today and every day.




Sermon: Sunday, October 28, 2012: Reformation Sunday

Texts:  Jeremiah 31:31-34  +  Psalm 46  +  Romans 3:19-28  +  John 8:31-36

Welcome to the 495th edition of Reformation Sunday!  In the church in which I grew up, Reformation Sunday was kind of a big deal.  It was the day when we confirmed groups of ninth graders who’d spent two or three years in Wednesday night confirmation classes.  It was a morning for pulling out all the stops on the organ and hiring extra string and brass players.  It was a day for preaching doctrine, talking about justification by grace through faith, and congratulating ourselves on being Lutherans.  A lot has changed.

To get a sense for how much has changed, it might actually be worthwhile to look not at the Reformation Sundays of our youth, or even of the last century, but at the day we’re actually commemorating — October 31, 1517.  On that day, Martin Luther — the Roman Catholic priest, monk and reformer from whom we take our name as Lutherans — wrote a letter to his bishop protesting what was, at that time, a common practice in the church, the sale of indulgences.

Indulgences were a sort of spiritual equivalent to the synthetic collateralized debt obligations, and other such risky financial securities, that contributed to the market crisis of the last decade.  In essence, the church claimed to own the rights to God’s grace and forgiveness, and had sent agents out across Europe to sell these financial instruments, indulgences, to anyone feeling anxious about their salvation or a loved one’s.  The living could even purchase indulgences for the dead, so that a son or daughter might buy an indulgence on behalf of their departed parents to get them released from purgatory and moving on to heaven.

It was a sham, making a commodity out of God’s free gifts of grace and life, but when Luther wrote to his bishop he wasn’t intending to break away from the church and launch a global reform movement.  He was a professor of theology with a doctorate in Bible who was challenging the church on the basis of scripture and tradition, asking the church to consider its conduct and to be renewed.  It was Luther’s colleague, Philipp Melanchthon, who — 30 years later — told the story of Luther nailing his 95 theses, or arguments, on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg.

There’s a lot more history to be told here, and some of you already know it.  I was at a party last night and met a man who — once he learned that I was a Lutheran pastor — proceeded to summarize all the major plot points of the most recent movie about Martin Luther along with the personal research he’d done into the man, and he didn’t identify as much of a church goer.  There’s a really rich biography here, of a man tormented by doubt, motivated by intellectual integrity, and liberated by grace — but Luther’s life is not the substance of the Reformation.  The Reformation is, essentially, about the church.

To talk about the church is to talk about something much older than even the near-500 year old tradition we share as Lutherans.  It’s even older than the two thousand-year old tradition we share as Christians.  Talk about the church is rooted in a language that predates the life of Jesus, a Greek word, ecclesia, from which we get ecclesiology, or the study of the church.

Earlier this week, Joe Scarry, Rachel Bickel and I heard a presentation on ecclesiology from Bob Sitze, who lives out in Wheaton and, for twenty years worked for the ELCA in hunger education.  We were at a two and a half day training on community organizing as a tool for congregational development, and Bob was laying the foundation for our conference by challenging us to remember what the church actually is.  In its original use (almost 500 years before the time of Jesus), the Greek word ecclesia, that we’ve come to translate as “church,” actually referred to the group of citizens who were called out of their homes to conduct public affairs — to vote on legislation, to decide whether or not to go to war, to do the work required by the greater society.  Bob challenged us, as faith-rooted community organizers, to think about what it might mean that the early church adopted for itself a very secular word that evoked images of people being called out of the comforts of their private dwelling places to take action on behalf of the whole for the sake of the common good.

So, one of the first Reformations to take place occurred when the early church took a word from secular society and civil government and applied it to the life of faith.  Living together in light of what they’d seen and heard from Jesus of Nazareth, who’d lived under and died while confronting empire, the early church imagined a new kind of society — one where the benefits of citizenship were extended to all who were baptized, a citizenship determined not by who your parents were, or how much money you had, or whether or not you spoke the right language … in fact, not by anything you did, but by what God did when God created you in love and claimed you as God’s own.  Citizenship open to everyone.

This new Christian ecclesia, these new citizens — called out from their private dwelling places to take action on behalf of the whole for the sake of the common good — were radicals from the start.  Writing near the end of the second century, the north African lawyer and priest, Tertullian of Carthage, described the radically different nature of the community called out of the comforts of home for the sake of the common good that was the Christian community.  He writes,

The tried men of our elders preside over us, obtaining that honour not by purchase but by established character.  There is no buying and selling of any sort in the things of God.  Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money as of a religion that has its price.  These gifts are… not spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines or banished to the islands or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession.  But it is mainly the deeds of love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us.  See, they say, how they love one another, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred.  See, they say about us, how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves would sooner kill. (From “The Apology of Tertullian,” AD 197)

Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas who grew up Lutheran in Jamestown, North Dakota, has studied the rise of the early church.  He suggests that Christianity grew as rapidly as it did during the first three centuries because it proposed such a radical alternative to the values of empire.  It treated women far better than the pagan religions.  He argues that Christianity’s adoption by the Roman Empire actually weakened the faithfulness of the religion by bringing in large numbers of people who did not share the passion or zeal for an alternative way of living that characterized the church Tertullian described.  Stark writes,

Christianity served as a revitalization movement that arose in response to the misery chaos, fear, and brutality of life in the urban Greco-Roman world… Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent problems.  To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachment.  To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family.  To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity.  And to cities faced with epidemics, fire, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services… For what they brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities more tolerable.”  (Rodney Stark, “The Rise of Christianity.”  Princeton University Press, 1996, p. 161)

Do you hear in the words of Tertullian and the studies of Rodney Stark the echoes of the ancient meaning of that word, ecclesia — those called out of the comforts of their private homes to take action on behalf of the whole for the sake of the common good?  Do you hear how the early church was redefining what it meant to be a citizen, a member of society, in light of the grace of God they’d found in their baptism?

I know that not all of you are Lutherans by background or upbringing, so I’m going to share something with you that you might not know if you don’t come out of a Lutheran upbringing.  It’s actually pretty uncommon to talk so much about taking action on Reformation Sunday.  You see, part of what Martin Luther was reacting so powerfully against was the idea that salvation was something that could be earned, even bought.  Martin Luther, whose powerful recovery of our biblical inheritance reminds us that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, fought hard against any notion that we are responsible for our own salvation.  That, Luther taught, is God’s work, already accomplished in Christ Jesus.  In baptism we are saved and set free.

This means, if you are sitting in your pew right now wondering if you belong here, if you are good enough to come to this communion rail, to eat this bread and drink from this cup, you can stop worrying.  This ecclesia, this church, this gathering of people drawn out from their homes to take action on behalf of the whole for the sake of the common good, is not made up of good people — it is made up of God’s people.  Ordinary people, made extraordinary not by what any one of us or all of us together has done, but by what God has done in us, and for us, and through us.

This baptism that we keep talking about isn’t reserved for the good people, or the right people, or the successful people, or the smart people.  It’s open to all people.  It’s not a choice that we make, like some other action that we have to take, but it is a sign of God’s choice and God’s action.  God chooses you.  God is reaching out to you.  You are already welcome in this church, among these people, at this font, around this table.

The actions we take, the organizing we do, the ministries we carry out, are not some modern indulgence, a form of payment for the grace and forgiveness we have already received.  They are an expression of the love of God we have seen in Christ Jesus, which — when called out of the home and into the public realm — looks like justice and mercy and compassion and self-sacrifice.

This Reformation Sunday, and every Sunday, we are challenged to re-examine what we think the church is.  When we wake up on Sunday morning, and on every morning, and leave behind the privacy of our homes, we are called by our baptisms to work on behalf of the whole for the sake of the common good.  We are not working for our salvations, which are already in the bag.  We are working on the side of love to revitalize cities and restore creation.  By the grace of God, we are being reformed, every day.