Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, May 25, 2014: Sixth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 17:22-31  +  Psalm 66:8-20  +  1 Peter 3:13-22  +  John 14:15-21

It’s Memorial Day weekend, as we all know, a national holiday originally established to honor the memory of those soldiers who died in the Civil War, but whose purpose has expanded over time to commemorate all Americans who have died while in military service. It’s also a holiday with a connection to our own neighborhood that some of you may know, but which was news to me as I was studying this week in preparation for this sermon.

Statue of General John A. Logan, Grant Park, Chicago

Statue of General John A. Logan, Grant Park, Chicago

There are many stories about how the Memorial Day holiday came to be a national holiday. One central figure in those stories is General John Logan, who was born in Jackson County, Illinois, fought in the Mexican-American War and the American Civil War and went on to serve in both the Illinois and the United States House of Representatives. Logan Square was named for him, and a statue of General Logan atop his horse stands in Grant Park just off East 9th Street.

According to legend, the idea for Memorial Day came from a pharmacist in New York who, in the summer of 1865 as the Civil War was drawing to a close, thought it would be a good idea for communities to remember those soldiers who would not be coming home from the war.  He shared the idea with General John Murray, who, the following May, gathered the surviving veterans of Waterloo, New York to march to the local cemeteries where they decorated the graves of their fallen comrades. When General Murray later shared the story of this commemoration with General John Logan, he issued an order calling for a national observance.

A century later in 1966, as President Lyndon Johnson signed a presidential proclamation naming Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day, this is the story that was told. The reality, however, is that all kinds of similar observances were taking place in the north and in the south during and immediately after the end of the Civil War. All throughout the war, women gathered at the graves of fallen husbands and sons, decorating them so that their sacrifices would not be forgotten. The first widely publicized post-war public commemoration of those who’d died in the war took place in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865 at which nearly ten thousand people, most of them newly freed African Americans, gathered to lay flowers on the graves and to commemorate the lives of the hundreds of Union soldiers who had died there as prisoners of war.  The event was reported on as far north as New York, where it appeared in the New York Times. Historian David Blight of Yale University writes,

“This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.” (Blight, David W., Lecture: “To Appomattox and Beyond,”  oyc.yale.edu)

What seems most important to me is not who celebrated Memorial Day first, but the fact that it happened in so many places, on both sides of the line between north and south, and eventually in ways that honored the lives of all who’d died, whether they’d been defeated or were victorious in their cause. The human impulse was to gather together to remember their sacrifice, and to make meaning of it so that future generations would know how the world was made new.

Something similar is happening, I think, in the passages assigned for our worship this morning.  Though these passages come from a series of readings that are used around the world and therefore take no notice of national holidays, they nevertheless also look back from the vantage point of the Easter resurrection to make sense of the power of a life given in service to God and God’s creation so that future generations would know how the world was made new.

In the Acts the Apostles Paul stands before a crowd of Gentiles in Athens, Greece and declares to them that the God of creation, the One who made heaven and earth, could not be bound to either their temples or their philosophies.  He says, “The God who made the world and everything in it, [God] who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands” (Acts 17:24) and “we ought not think that [God] is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals” (Acts 17:29). God is not a construct of masonry or the mind, so God cannot be tied to a temple or a theology. Instead, Paul says, “in [God] we live and move and have our being … for we too are [God’s] offspring” (Acts 17:28).

Pastor Erik with his mother, Linda Christensen, ca. 1974

Pastor Erik with his mother, Linda Christensen, ca. 1974

A couple of weeks ago my mom sent me a homemade card with a photograph she’d found in a drawer of her in her 20s holding me, probably just under one year old, completely relaxed and asleep in her arms. It’s a great picture, one that helps me to understand the point that Paul is making to the Athenians. As my mother’s offspring, what was most important was not the house we lived in, or my ideas about who she was, but the fact that I could rest in her arms knowing that I was completely safe and known and loved. That relationship, which began with an act of creation, predates my consciousness.  I did not create that relationship, it created me. My relationship to my mother moved with me from one house to the next, even after I left her house to strike out on my own. My relationship to my mother grew as my ideas about her changed with each passing year, because relationships are dynamic and not fixed. My mother is not God, but resting in her arms in a moment before memory I was already learning something about how God holds me, and you, as we journey through our lives.

This, Paul tells the Athenians, is how God relates to each of us — through a living faith that survives the destruction of every temple, and the death of every idea. Knowing how in love we are with our ideas and our edifices, Paul says,

“God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent, because [God] has fixed a day on which [God] will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom [God] has appointed, and of this [God] has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31)

God has appointed a day, a Memorial Day of sorts, on which all people will come to understand the righteousness of God through the sacrifice of a life that changed the world.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGathering decades after his death, the community of John’s gospel told the story of Jesus’ life and remembered that on the night before he died he told them “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (John 14:18). By describing his coming death as act that will leave them feeling orphaned, Jesus takes on the role of their parent. In fact, in the verses just before these Jesus is sitting at the table of the last supper and the disciple whom he loved is described as resting on him. Artists have often depicted this disciple with his head on Jesus’ lap, the way I lay in my own mother’s arms, full of trust and love.

This is the truth about grief that seems particularly useful to name today, as we commemorate Memorial Day. Whether we have lost our parents or our spouses or our children, whether we’ve lost close friends or professional colleagues, the experience of losing someone to death can stir up in us the memory of other losses or the fear of coming losses. Each death, in its own way, can feel like an act of abandonment as we, who are still living, lose the ability to see, and speak to, and touch the ones we’ve known and loved. We feel orphaned.

Speaking with the voice of a parent, Jesus not only promises not to leave his followers orphaned, he promises to ask the Father to send another Advocate to be with us forever. The imagery in these few verses is so rich that it will take us the next few weeks to sort through them all. The fact that Jesus describes the Advocate as the Spirit of truth anticipates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit which we will celebrate more fully on Pentecost in two weeks.  The overlapping language of Jesus speaking as a parent, and to a parent, to send a spirit that will assure us all that we are in Christ, and Christ is in God and in us as well anticipates the festival of the Holy Trinity that follows immediately after Pentecost.

event-05-memorial-day-2002-golden-gate-national-cemetery-1300-sneath-lane-san-bruno-graves-1Remembering Paul’s admonishment that God will not be bound to our ideas about God, we can set aside our questions about these mysteries for the moment to focus on how God in Christ Jesus cares for those who are grieving, as many will be this weekend as they gather near the graves of loved ones who have died in our country’s on-going wars, or who remember other losses just as painful if less public.

Jesus says that God will send another Advocate, to be with us forever.  This provides at least two insights into how God cares for the grieving.  The first part of this promise is that God will send another Advocate, which requires us to acknowledge that, in Jesus, God has already sent us an Advocate. This means that we have already seen how an advocate of God lives and moves and exists in the world. In Jesus we have seen how God heals the sick, feeds the hungry, gives hope to the poor, and organizes the people. In Jesus we have seen how God’s mercy and God’s justice are intertwined. The second part of this promise is that the next Advocate, which is the Spirit of truth, will be with us forever. This is only possible because the Holy Spirit, which is God’s promised Advocate, makes a home inside each one of us, which leads Jesus to say, “on that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20).

God cares for the grieving by giving us to one another. Ours are the ears that listen to the cries of the grieving. Ours are the hands that prepare the food dropped off at the home of those who mourn. Ours are the knees that kneel next to the grave. Ours are the arms that hold the child of God who cannot stand alone. Ours are the hearts that break open and refuse to stay hardened. Ours are the lives that testify to the God of creation, of all things seen and unseen, that look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

This Memorial Day, as we give thanks for the witness of so many who have given the last measure of their lives for the cause of freedom, we remember that the Advocate for our freedom and the freedom of every living person and all of creation is not dead, but is alive in us forever. Sent by the Spirit of truth to a broken, grieving world we offer the testimony of our lives so that future generations will know how the world was made new.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, March 16, 2014: Second Sunday in Lent

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

We finished our second session in a six-week series in Adult Education titled “Making Sense of the Cross” this morning, focusing today on how each of the four gospels presents the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection a little differently (or a lot) because of the particular confession of faith each author was trying to make in response to the needs of very different communities.

For example the gospel of Matthew, from which we’ve been reading since the beginning of Advent, was very likely written to a community of believers who were mostly Jewish in their background and therefore more familiar with the sacred texts of Hebrew scripture which we often call the Old Testament. We see evidence of this in the number of times that the author offers an explanation for powerful events from Jesus’ life by saying something like, “this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled” (Matt. 26:56).

This morning we move from Matthew’s gospel to the gospel of John, from which we’ll be reading through the rest of the Sundays in Lent until Palm Sunday.  The gospel of John was written about twenty years later than Matthew to a different community facing very different circumstances.  Like Matthew’s gospel, John is believed to have been written to a community of Jewish believers, but ones who had experienced significant conflict with the rest of the Jewish community, perhaps having been removed from the synagogue for their conviction that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah.

You can often hear in both gospels subtle or outright hostility toward people labeled “the Jews,” though we should understand in both cases that the author and the intended audience were also Jews, at least by birth, and would have been treated as such by the rest of the Roman-occupied world.  The anger and conflict we hear behind the words of both gospels are less like the violent forms of anti-Semitism that led to pogroms across Europe and eventually the horrors of the Second World War (though passages from these scriptures were used to fuel those campaigns), and more like the kinds of conflicts that tear churches apart — conflict between family members who know each other only too well.

Nicodemus helping to take down Jesus' body from the cross, Michelangelo Pieta.

Nicodemus helping to take down Jesus’ body from the cross, Michelangelo Pieta.

So this morning we are introduced to a character with a name, Nicodemus, who is identified as “a leader of the Jews,” and you can almost hear the casting notes to the director of this drama: “pick someone to play this part who is a little too full of himself, make sure to dress him in fine robes and give him a prop — maybe glasses — to indicate his education. It will make his ignorance all the funnier.”

Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night, confessing that Jesus’ acts of power of signs of God’s presence and trying to understand what this means.  Jesus responds to his honest curiosity with a cryptic statement, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3).

If any of you come from one of the many “born again” traditions of Christianity, then this is probably a familiar passage of scripture.  Over the centuries it has been used to justify the practice of adult baptism as a response to Nicodemus’ question, “how can anyone be born after having grown old?” (3:4)  Our response as Lutherans to our sisters and brothers who ask, “have you been born again?” has never been very satisfying to them, since we understand the process somewhat differently.  We say, along with Martin Luther, “yes, I’m born again every morning as I rise to wash my face and remember that I was baptized.”  Our practice, and the theology that arises from it, is rooted less in Nicodemus’ question and more in Jesus’ answer: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5).

This conflict between Christians over who to baptize, how to baptize, and what age to baptize has, over the centuries, gotten quite heated.  In this modern day of laissez-faire religion and spirituality, in which individual choice and preference are valued above all else, it can be hard to understand that in previous times and, in some places, to this day there is deep disagreement over the meaning and practice of baptism — so deep that some Christians refuse to recognize each other as such if their baptism was not performed in the ways each considers acceptable.  This, ironically, is exactly the kind of intra-religious conflict that we overhear going on in Matthew and John’s gospels when they speak disparagingly of “the Jews.”  It is more like the way you might hear some Christians talking about others as “bible-bangers” or “fundamentalists.”

But what is even more ironic is that this kind of intra-religious conflict reveals a tendency in us all to lose sight of what Jesus is actually trying to communicate, which is that God is not in the business of taking sides in our self-righteousness projects. Rather, in Christ Jesus, God is showing us God’s love for the whole world, those we agree with and those we disagree with, our friends and our enemies, the “good” and the “evil.” All of us. Everyone.

This is the point Paul is making in his letter to the Romans.

If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void (Rom. 4:14).

In other words, when we turn our faith in God into a set of rules and practices about God that must be followed in order to get to God, then we have taken faith — which we might also call loving-trust or loving-reliance — out of the picture altogether and have turned grace into a scorecard.

This is what Jesus tells Nicodemus, who is still trying to figure how to be born from above. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13).  No one gets themselves into heaven. Faith is not a competition sport. Or a New Year’s resolution. Or a fitness routine. Or a self-help book. Or a retreat. Faith is not something that practice perfects. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”

Paul puts it this way,

But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness (Rom. 4:5).

We might put it like this:  God is not looking for evidence that you get it right, or even that you get it at all.  Remember that fruit from the Tree of Knowledge?  The food that left us thinking we knew the difference between good and evil?  The one God told us to stay away from?  Yeah, we’re back to that.  We get caught in the trap of thinking we know who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s good and who’s evil.  We get stuck in our fights between the good Christians and the bad ones. We start labeling one another “the fundamentalists,” “the conservatives,” “the old guard,” “the establishment,” just like Matthew and John called their sisters and brothers, “the Jews.”

Paul suggests that even the act of sorting out who has the right set of beliefs can itself become a kind of works righteousness. “Abraham believed God,” — not Abraham believed in God, but “Abraham believed God.”  It makes all the difference.  It is the difference between “Abraham held the right set of thoughts and ideas” and “Abraham trusted that God is faithful” — “and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3).

And all this talk of Abraham begins with a story that calls each of our allegiances to religion, nation, politics and land into question. God says to Abram (whose name has yet to be changed), “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:1).

The church, the nations that have emerged in the shadow of the church, and we ourselves have often been more interested in the second part of that story, the idea that we belong to a great nation — be that religious or secular — and that we exist as a blessing for others, a slippery slope that too often has led to all kinds of colonial disasters.  But what about the first part of that story, the deep faith that enabled Abraham to leave everyone and everything he knew behind: his country, his family, his good name.  Stripped down, almost as naked as Adam and Eve in the garden, left with only his trust that God was for him and would not forsake him.

Are we ready to take that trip? Honestly, I doubt it.  Like Nicodemus, we see the power of God at work in Jesus, but we trust in our own abilities, our own beliefs, to get us closer to God. Thankfully, God is taking a trip as well, crossing every barrier that divides heaven and earth to be with us, to be for us. “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 3:17).

Amen.

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