Sermon: Sunday, May 8, 2016: Seventh Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 16:16-34  +  Psalm 97  +  Revelation 22:12-21  +  John 17:20-26

A while back, before we’d moved into this temporary space, before the listening campaign a few summers back, before the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance, around the time of the Boulevard Bash (our five year foray into the world of Chicago’s summer street festivals), we were tossing the phrase “One Logan Square” around a lot. It was our response to another phrase we were hearing in the neighborhood more often, the “two Logan Squares” idea. People would say, “there are two Logan Squares — there’s the small corner grocery stores and then there’s the new food co-op” and you were supposed to know what that meant. “There’s Taqueria Moran and then there’s the Boiler Room” and you were supposed to know what that meant.


Drawings of the Mega Mall redevelopment.

“There’s the Mega Mall on Milwaukee and there’s the Target on Logan Boulevard near Elston.” But you can’t really say that anymore, because the Mega Mall’s been closed for a year and is about to be turned into luxury apartments with a high end grocery store on the ground level. And people are talking about the “two Logan Squares” less and less. Nevertheless, on the night before his death, Jesus’ final prayer was “that they may become completely one” in the kind of love shared between the Father and the Son. (John 17:23)

God, it’s Mother’s Day, and John’s gospel gives us “Father” language. What to do? I read commentaries that tried to paste the two together by labeling the divine desire for unity as a portrait of motherly love and I thought, “no, thank you, we’ll pass on that stereotype.” There are plenty of mothers who sow disunity in their families, and there are plenty of fathers who long to see their children reconciled. For that matter, there are plenty of childless people who do both. But if the idealized trait is to long for unity in the human family, let’s not limit our projection of that trait onto the feminine divine, let’s say that we are all made in the image and likeness of a God whose desire for unity is imprinted onto every single one of us. And that, for better or for worse, is all I’m going to try to say about Mother’s Day, in this sermon.

But I’m still stuck on the idea of the “two Logan Squares,” which seems emblematic of the sort of divisions we see deepening throughout our world. You hear it echoing in coded talk about the “North Side” and the “South Side” in Chicago. You definitely hear it in the political rhetoric bleeding electric ink into the onslaught of emails and news articles filling my inbox.


The new mayor of London, Sadiq Khan

Even at a moment when we’re celebrating the election of a Muslim of Pakistani descent as mayor of London, the press is quick to label this as a historic moment in “the West.” This is how we insist on seeing ourselves, always it seems, as an “us” and a “them.”

Paul and Silas run into it as they continue their ministry in Philippi, which is introduced in the story as “a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony.” (Acts 16:12) This is where Lydia and her household become followers of Jesus, which commentaries always point out makes her the first “European” convert, assuming that’s something we ought to know. But we don’t know anything about the slave girl in the story that follows, except that she “had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.” (v.16) Not even her name.

Once again Acts gives us a story rich in detail but light in exposition, forcing us to fill in the blanks ourselves. For instance, this spirit-possessed slave girl is making her owners a great deal of money, from which we might assume that her divinations were accurate enough that they generated new and repeat business. She was a slave and she was a powerful fortune teller. She was someone’s property, but she was also profoundly gifted. Gifted enough that when she sees Paul and Silas, she immediately sees them for who they are. “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” (v.17)

It takes one to know one, as they say, and in this case it is a slave girl who can see that these men are also slaves. Of course, that’s not how the angry slave owners identify them after Paul releases the girl from her possession. Once they are no longer able to make their money off the girl she disappears from the story altogether and the scene shifts to Paul and Silas being dragged before the authorities where the race-baiting begins.

“These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” (v.20-21)


Its what the Freedom Riders were called when they rode the buses down to Birmingham and Montgomery and Jackson. It’s what the Christian Peacekeeper Teams heard when they went into Colombia, Chiapas, and the West Bank. “Outside agitators” who don’t belong here. Getting involved in business they have no part in. We heard it after we rallied at Lathrop Homes on Palm Sunday in the CHA’s press release, which stated,

“it is important to remember that these plans were crafted with full input from the community (my emphasis added), who were part of the decision making process and worked with CHA, the alderman, advocates, longtime affordable housing developers and other stakeholders to make decisions about the shared vision for the future of their community.”

ct-lathrop-homes-redevelopment-protest-video-20160321But, aren’t we part of “the community?” And wasn’t the Lathrop Leadership Team that helped organize the event part of “the community?” Or, as Sojourner Truth put it to the women’s convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, “Ain’t I a woman?”

After they are beaten with rods and thrown in jail. After they spend the night praying and singing hymns to the other prisoners. After the earth shakes and the jail cells are broken open. After the jailor nearly commits suicide out of fear for what will happen when it is discovered that he has lost all his prisoners. After Paul and Silas choose to stay put, even after they were free to walk away. Then the magistrates try to clean up the problem, dismissing the charges and hoping it will all go away. But Paul and Silas stay put until the authorities agree to meet with them in public, saying, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now they are going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not!” (v.37) He might just as well have said, “and ain’t I a Roman?”

But not in our either/or imaginations. He couldn’t be a Roman and a Jew any more than Sojourner Truth could be Black and a Woman too, or Sadiq Khan can be both Muslim and the mayor of London, or the jailor could be both complicit oppressor and liberated in baptismal waters, or we can be both gentrifiers and housing activists.

Our either/or tendencies run so deep. Even as the book of Revelation crescendos to its climactic conclusion, inviting everyone to “come,” it repeats the old divisions. The cosmic Christ can be both the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, the root of Jesse’s tree and the descendent of David (Rev. 22:12,13,16); but we are either those whose robes have been washed (in the blood of the Lamb), or we are “dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” (v.15) When, of course, we’re both. Both liberated and still captive to patterns of sin that harm ourselves and others. Simul justus et peccator. Both righteous and sinners. But even our lectionary plays the either/or game, cutting the troubling verses out of the assigned reading for this morning so that we wouldn’t have to be bothered by the presence of those disturbing voices in our scripture, that evidence that we are always struggling with who to let in, with how much of ourselves to invite into the presence of the holy.

As the new life first discovered at the empty tomb pivots toward the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we are being reminded over and over again that resurrection always goes hand in hand with reconciliation, that the Holy Spirit cannot bear segregation. That there is no East and West, just the planet. No North or South, just Chicago. No Black or Woman, no Muslim or Briton, just humanity. Just one Logan Square. And the minute we think we’ve named the last of the lines that still divide us, we discover there are lines that remain unnamed.

Who is that unnamed slave girl in our midst today, whose labor is exploited, who tells the truth about what is really going on, whose story gets lost the minute the main character — someone with power and privilege — shows up?

To her, and to you,

“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come,’

And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (Rev. 22:17)

Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.


Sermon: Sunday, May 26, 2013: The Holy Trinity

Texts:  Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31  +  Psalm 8  +  Romans 5:1-5  +  John 16:12-15

The "Shield of the Trinity" or "Scutum Fidei" diagram of traditional Western Christian symbolism.

The “Shield of the Trinity” or “Scutum Fidei” diagram of traditional Western Christian symbolism.

Preaching on the Sunday the church commemorates as the festival of the Holy Trinity is full of traps for the preacher, or so I am told.  “Don’t preach doctrine,” I’m advised.  No one wants to hear a sermon on doctrine, especially the doctrine of the Trinity.  It’s a mystery.”  And, the best advice of all: “No flowcharts.”  So, it is with some trepidation that I have ascended into the pulpit this morning to preach, and worse, to preach about the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Holy Trinity is, indeed, a mystery.  But it’s not a mystery the way the pyramids are a mystery, or the way the huge statues on Easter Island are a mystery.  We use the word “mystery” to describe those immense, incredible works of humanity precisely as an invitation for someone to solve the mystery.  Calling something a mystery almost immediately draws us into the role of detective.  Like the old story of the sword in the stone, we approach a mystery wondering if we will be the one to finally release it from its trap.

Or, the other option I suppose, we allow the word “mystery” to scare us away.  “The Holy Trinity?  Don’t bother giving it a second thought, it’s a mystery…”  But that’s not the kind of mystery it is either.  In fact, in the realm of Christianity to say something is a mystery is to say that we are called to spend our lives asking questions of it, probing it for wisdom, being shaped by its knots — but not to solve it.

So, with some humility, let’s spend just a short bit of time on this festival of the Holy Trinity considering its mystery.

To begin, as Christians we are the inheritors of a beautiful and ancient tradition of thinking and speaking about God that comes to us from our Jewish sisters and brothers.

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God.  The Lord is One. (Deut. 6:4)

Shema Yisrael at the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem

Shema Yisrael at the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem

This is the shema, which we read in the 6th chapter of Deuteronomy, the 4th verse, a statement of faith that, for Jews, is about as close to a creed as they get.  It is the basis for what we have come to call monotheism, the belief that there is only one God.  That God is not one among many.

This inheritance is the entry into the mystery.  Not a clue.  Not a piece of evidence.  But a doorway.  We belong to a community with a long and beautiful tradition that has known in its blood that there is only one God.  So whatever the Trinity is, it is not three Gods, but one.

But we who are Christians are also a family marked by a very special relationship to God through the revelation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth: a living human being who was born, who lived as a teacher of the love of God, who spoke the truth to those in power, who was crucified for confronting the authorities of his day, who was raised from the dead (another mystery of the faith), and who assured us that God would send an Advocate to guide us in truth and continue to instruct us in the paths and promises of God.

Jesus spoke during his lifetime about his relationship to God as being like that of a son to a father, but he muddied the waters a bit there. He said cryptic things that we’ve been reading for the last few weeks.  Things like, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father;” (John 14:9) or “I am in the Father and the Father is in me;” (John 14:10) or, this week, “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine” (John 16:14)

Jesus is the second person, the second stopping point, in contemplating the mystery of the Holy Trinity.  Jesus exists as both God and human, giving humanity new access to divinity — and the other way around.  And all this talk about glorification, well… it’s a mystery!  But, as is so often the case with scripture and the words of Jesus, it appears to have something to do with teaching us to see the world as God sees it, not as we do.

When I hear the word “glorify” I tend to think of lifting someone or something up with praise and adoration.  If I’m glorifying you, then I’m assuming the position of a lowly one so as to draw attention to you, the elevated one.  But in Jesus, God is glorified, God is lifted up.  And, Jesus says, God will glorify him, God will lift him up.

Glorification, in the realm of God, becomes something altogether different — not the elevation of one over another by acts of praise; but, instead, the mutual sharing of life together, the revelation that our life is shared in and with each other by acts of love and self-giving.  Part of the mystery of God in Christ Jesus is the radical reorienting of reality that brings God down to earth, that lifts humanity up to heaven, that gives us a shared body to which we all belong.

The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity whom we celebrated last Sunday at the festival of Pentecost, is that Advocate, the presence of God with us that was promised by Christ.  The Holy Spirit is the point in the mystery of the Trinity that breaks open the relationship of God to Jesus and makes that relationship available to each and every one of us.

Here the mystery gets even thicker.  Consider this, that for the first three centuries of the Christian church there was widespread disagreement about the nature of this Holy Spirit.  Was it God?  Was it of the same substance as God?  Was it equal with the Father and the Son?  Those questions weren’t decided formally until the Council of Nicea (from which we get the Nicene Creed) in the year 325.  And, of course, as it is with most decisions in church, the fact that the council voted on it didn’t settle the issue for everyone involved.  People continued to struggle to understand the meaning of the Holy Spirit.

This is a wonderful illustration of the words of Jesus from today’s gospel.  There he says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (John 16:12).  Remember, Jesus is speaking these words at the Last Supper.  They haven’t yet seen him crucified, or raised from the dead, or appearing among them in the locked room.  They aren’t ready yet to understand, much less trust in the mystery of the Holy Spirit.  But centuries later the church was able to look back at all that had happened, all that had been said and taught, as well as their own experience of how God was alive with them, through each other, in the Church and they were able to say something new about God’s unity in community.

Living here on the other side of the resurrection, having experienced the power of God through the church, the child of the Holy Spirit, we are in a position to trust in the mystery of the Holy Trinity — not to understand it, not to solve it, but to trust in it.

The Holy Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev, using the theme of the "Hospitality of Abraham." The three angels symbolize the Trinity, which is rarely depicted directly in Orthodox art.

The Holy Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev, using the theme of the “Hospitality of Abraham.” The three angels symbolize the Trinity, which is rarely depicted directly in Orthodox art.

If we go back to the ancient Hebrew assertion that the Lord is God, the Lord is One, and we pair that with the word from the book of Genesis that gives us these words from God, “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” (Gen. 1:26) then we arrive at one of the many teaching moments of the mystery of the Trinity.  We trust, as a matter of faith, that our God is one.  That’s what we’ve been taught since we were children.  We don’t have three gods, we have God: the three-in one and one-in-three.  And we’ve been taught that we are created in the image of God.  But what does that mean?  Am I three-in-one?  Are you one-in-three?

The power of a mystery of faith doesn’t come from how we untie its knots, but how it unties ours.  Here the mystery of the Holy Trinity addresses one of our most basic errors: that we think we exist alone, in solitary.  That we can be human all on our own, without relationship to anyone else.  That’s certainly how we structure our society.  We create the expectation that each person be able to care for themselves in a very narrow way, economically, and we penalize and humiliate you if that is not possible.  But we don’t do such a good job of noticing all the ways we are interdependent upon one another for things that can’t be measured with dollars: safety, belonging, friendship, wisdom, respect and love.  These things, just as necessary for life, can only come from community.  We cannot live, we cannot be human, alone.  We can only do it together.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu talks about this concept using and word found in the Zulu or Xhosa languages, ubuntu, which means (roughly translated), “people are people through other people.”  We aren’t fully human alone, we are only fully human together.  And the mystery of the Holy Trinity is ready to teach us this: that we are created in the image of a God whose own life takes place in community.  We are made in community just as God exists in community; and we belong to the one body of Christ, just as God is one.

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God.  The Lord is One.

The essence of a mystery, the way we use the word in church, is not to unravel it but to dwell within it.  To let it unravel you, and then bind you back up.  This is just one more way, I suppose, that we are created in God’s image: that we, too, are mysteries.  Each of us many in one, and one among many.  We do not need to be solved, only loved, and that is the gift that the Holy Trinity wants to offer us: the open door to life lived in the communion of God who creates, redeems and sustains us; God who surrounds, accompanies and empowers us; God around us, toward us, through us; God our parent, our sibling, our family.  God in all, for all, forever.




Sermon: Sunday, July 8, 2012: “A Game of Thrones; Act 2, Scene 1 — Flesh & Bone”

Texts:  2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 and Psalm 48  •   2 Corinthians 12:2-10  •   Mark 6:1-13

(Preached at Episcopal Church of the Advent, Logan Square, on the annual occasion of our ecumenical summer worship service.)

In the name of Christ, our sovereign.  Amen.

It’s good to be together this morning.  Our congregations have been sharing mission and ministry for decades now, gathering at least twice a year for worship at the peak of summer near Independence Day, then again in late November near Thanksgiving.  Always around these two national holidays.

Ecumenical ministry and worship is something we all pretty much take for granted these days, but that wasn’t always the case.  My mother, who was raised in Boston as an Irish Catholic during the Kennedy years, remembers hearing that the Lutherans were stockpiling bombs in their church basements.  Lutherans were, in many parts of the country, synonymous with Germans, and in the post-WWII-era there was still plenty of suspicion and hostility against Germans floating around.  This is why so many American flags popped up in Lutheran sanctuaries in the 1940s and 50s.

No, these days denominational difference — at least within the mainline Protestant church — is mostly treated as a matter of preference, not of substance.  Decades of full communion agreements between Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists and others have followed, not coincidentally, the assimilation of many ethnic immigrant communities into the fabric of national life.  So, if for this reason alone, the fact that we gather around the 4th of July and Thanksgiving Day actually follows a certain logic.

As we were planning for this morning’s worship, I shared with Father Peter that St. Luke’s is in the middle of a preaching series this summer and asked if I might continue it here with you today.  The Revised Common Lectionary provides two tracks of readings during the season of ordinary time after Pentecost — the thematic readings and the semi-continuous ones.  The thematic series, which you’ve been following here at Advent, pairs the Old Testament reading with the Gospel reading so that the former intentionally prefigures or reinforces the latter.  The semi-continuous series, which we’ve been following at St. Luke’s, disconnects the Old Testament reading from the assigned Gospel reading.  Instead, each year, it follows one of the major narrative arcs from Hebrew scripture.  This year it traces out the story of the rise and fall of the nation of Israel and the house of David found in 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings.

It’s a story in three acts, and we’ve just come to the beginning of Act Two.  In the previous act, the people of God petitioned the prophet Samuel for a king.  God warns that this desire to be ruled will lead to all kinds of suffering, but relents and gives the people what they ask for.  Saul is anointed king over Israel, and things quickly fall apart.  The boy shepherd David is introduced as an unlikely underdog of a political opponent — yet, as the one chosen by God, his star rises without fail as Saul’s diminishes.  At the close of Act One, Saul and his son Jonathan lie dead on the battlefield and David is poised to become king.

During last week’s worship, St. Luke’s heard the song of lament David sang for his fallen king and his beloved Jonathan.  To move from that text to the one for this morning, in which Israel joins Judah in making David their king, is sort of misleading.  It’s a kind of amnesia, glossing over the painful past to lay the groundwork for a unified future.  You see, David didn’t immediately become king over all Israel and Judah immediately after Saul’s death.  For seven years Israel and Judah were locked in civil war, a battle between the houses of David and Saul.  While the southern tribes of Judah had moved immediately to make David their king, the northern tribes of Israel were ruled by Saul’s military commander, Abner, who used Saul’s weak-willed son, Ishbaal, as a puppet to take control of the north.

As we enter into the story this morning the tribes of Judah and Israel are weary of war and long to be united under a strong king.  They are ready to forget the past and begin building a future together.  The leaders of the tribes of Israel come to David in Hebron in the south, where he has been ruling until this point, and they appeal to him on the basis of their common ancestry.  “Look,” they say, “we are your bone and flesh.”

Don’t you wish we could remember that before we launch into our wars, civil and uncivil?  Whether we are at war other nations, are caught up in religious or corporate power struggles, or are simply fighting with our neighbors — even our friends and families — a time will come when the battle is over and we will be left to make peace and forge a new future, when we will have to look in the eyes of our former enemies and say, “look, we are your bone and flesh.”  Wouldn’t it go so much better for us all if we could remember that at the outset?

Within the family of Christianity, the ecumenical movement is a funny thing.  Again, we in the mainline Protestant church basically take it for granted that the schisms that ripped Europe apart in the 16th century are essentially resolved.  We forget that Luther was branded a heretic and that, for a time while he fled from Rome with a death sentence on his head, it was illegal for anyone in Germany to provide him with food or shelter.  Fifty years later, Pope Pius V declared Queen Elizabeth a heretic and “released all of her subjects from any allegiance to her and excommunicated any who obeyed her orders.”

The battles that divide the church have been bloody and, as in the time of David, these conflicts have always been about more than who carries the God-anointed truth — they are about nation building and ethnic identity.  Religion, nation, and ethnic tribe have always been inseparable elements of our collective stories.

In his commentary on this passage from 2 Samuel, Tony Cartledge — a Baptist scholar — writes,

“The kingdom of God, as represented by the community of faith, is far from united.  We make far more of our differences — even within individual denominations and churches — than we do of our common ties.  Our differences may be theological, methodological, ecclesiastical, or cultural.  Though we are bound by a common faith in Christ and by a common call to share Christ’s love, our tendency is to allow our differences to overshadow common cause.  Instead of celebrating diversity and allowing it to empower growth, we often fail to fellowship or work together with those whose gender, creed, culture, or worship style fall outside the lines we have drawn.”

However, we are living in a time of incredible transformation, a time in which the lines that divide us are being redrawn — some disappearing as others become more deeply etched.  In a recent article on the Huffington Post, David Lose, a professor of preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota asked if Christian denominations have a future.  He gives five reasons why he suspects denominations may have seen their day, including:

  1. How confusing denominations are in an increasingly non-Christian and religiously unaffiliated society.
  2. The relatively minor and difficult to communicate theological difference between Christian denominations.
  3. The inordinate expense of maintaining the same number of seminaries, publishing houses, and denominational organizations when there aren’t as many people to support them and those who remain have fewer means with which to do so.

But it’s the last two that I find most interesting in light of today’s story from 2 Samuel.  Lose writes,

4) Political differences outstripped theological ones decades ago. Let’s face it: progressive Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopal congregations have a lot more in common than do progressive and conservative congregations in the same tradition.  Differences over how to read the Bible, the nature of the atonement, and the character of God are far more important today than nuanced differences in polity or regarding the sacraments.

5) Denominational affiliation often represents the triumph of ethnic and cultural loyalties over theological convictions.  While denominations may have initially arisen over theological differences, they were soon co-opted be the political realities of their sponsoring state.  Little wonder, then, that ethnic and cultural identity is closely tied to denominational affiliation.  Those in the club, after all, talk not simply of Presbyterians and Lutherans but Scotch Presbyterians and Swedish or German Lutherans [and I might add Irish Catholics and Mayflower Anglicans].  This has always made it difficult to reach beyond one’s ethnic enclave because interested seekers, even if they were attracted to, for instance, Lutheran theology, had to accept it in the form of German chorales or Swedish traditions.  Moreover, as ethnic culture has declined as an important identity-maker, so also has religious affiliation — after all, for many folks, if Lutheranism isn’t about Santa Lucia, what is it about?  And if they’ve stopped going to the Santa Lucia festival, why bother with church?

Dear people of St. Luke’s and Church of the Advent, these are actually very important questions for us to be wrestling with — and, most likely, we should be wrestling with them together.  As congregations who both once boasted of membership rolls far more robust than we presently enjoy; who are both experiencing some measure of revitalization and new growth; and who find ourselves increasingly surrounded by a society apathetic, or even hostile, to our presence; we must learn from the lessons of our past.  Those we mistrust, those we resent, those we even perhaps envy, will one day be sitting with us at the end of a long, bloody, civil (or uncivil) war and one of us will be saying to the other, “look, we are your flesh and bone.”

Here’s how my mother became a Lutheran.  She ended up going to a small Lutheran liberal arts college in Fremont, Nebraska on a vocal scholarship where she met my dad (a Congregationalist).  When the choir went on its annual tour, they would perform in churches and before each concert they would have a brief prayer service and would take communion together.  Raised Catholic, my mother had been taught to refrain from taking the sacraments outside the Roman Catholic church.  Although she deeply loved the choir, being unable to share that meal felt like not really being a part of that community.  In the end, she took the communion and she joined the Lutheran church.

It hasn’t been too difficult for us to get together like this, twice a year, to share the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and to renew our long friendship.  I wonder though, who else might be invited? When we consider that religious difference has always been tied to national identity and ethnic tribe, who else belongs at the table with us when we break the bread of life and drink the cup of salvation?  Despite our differences, and the lines that divide us, there is something in us — I think it is most likely the image of God, like calling unto like — that draws us back together again.  One day we will all be looking at each other across the table saying, “look, we are your bone and flesh.”

Why not today?