Sermons

Sermon: Saturday, December 8, 2018: The Ordination of Allison Bengfort

The following sermon was preached at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago‘s Augustana Chapel on the occasion of the ordination of the Rev. Allison Bengfort, who was a student of mine when I was the pastor with St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square. Pastor Bengfort now serves St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Wilmette, IL.

Texts: Exodus 3:1-12  +  Psalm 46  +  Romans 12:1-18  +  Luke 4:16-21

IMG_1892A few weeks ago, just before Thanksgiving, my husband and I took our dog and headed west to Galena, a former mining town that’s now pretty much a resort area near the Mississippi River. We picked the lodge where we stayed because it was dog-friendly, and we didn’t want to have to board our puppy for the weekend, but the thing I was most looking forward to was the wood-burning fireplace in our room.

I love fire. Maybe it’s just that I like to be warm. During the winter when I was a boy, I would sit in front of the heating vents in the dining room with a blanket wrapped around me and pressed up to the wall to make a tent and trap all the hot air. If she was nice to me, I’d let my sister join me. But fires aren’t just about the warmth they give off. They are powerful. The process of combustion allows us to cook our food, heat our homes, power our cars, generate electricity. It also poses a threat, think of all the Christmas trees drying out near burning candles this season, or the wildfires in California that devastated the land, incinerating homes and leading to the loss of just over a hundred lives. Fire, by its very nature, consumes.

4.12.18 Particulate Matter From California Wildfires Linked to Cardiovascular and Cerebrovascular Events

As we settled into our room, I immediately set to work building a fire in the fireplace. I stacked the wood perfectly on the wrought iron hearth, nestling smaller pieces of wood near the bottom, just above the rolls of newspaper I’d tucked below the bars. Once I was satisfied that I’d done everything right, I struck a single match and quickly lit the kindling, blowing lightly at the base of the quickly spreading fire to fan the flames. “One match,” I bragged to my husband, as the fire began to roar. I cracked open a book and settled into the comfiest corner of the living room sofa. It didn’t take long for my eyes to grow heavy, and for me to fall asleep.

Napping in front of the fireplace is exactly what I’d wanted out of that weekend. I’d arrived at the lodge feeling drier than the wood stacked in the corner of the room. I was dried out by the effort to keep up with all the work on my various to do lists. I was dried out by a news cycle that continuously fanned the flames of my despair and anger at the world as it is. I was dried out by a season of grief that was burning through every reserve of strength in me. I was being consumed.

IMG_1975The thought, therefore, of presenting my body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, is somewhat terrifying. Because I have to confess to you all that there have been times in my ministry when I have done this, when I have placed my life on the altar of my calling and watched it burn. There have been weeks when I barely saw my husband. There have been seasons in which I read nothing for pleasure. There have been years that flew by in which my focus was so singularly on the health and well-being of the church, that my own health and well-being suffered. Studies on clergy health offer me only the consolation that I am not alone in these bad habits.

Perhaps it’s gauche to talk about clergy burnout on the day of Allison’s ordination, but I prefer to think that I am holding true to the promises I made in my ordination, not to offer false security or illusory hope. To pretend that there is not a fire burning in the church and in the world would be both. There is a fire burning, across the church. When I began my ministry in Chicago a little over a decade ago, there were approximately 220 congregations in our synod. I don’t have the precise number in front of me, but I believe we’re closer to 180 now. That’s a 20% decline a decade. It’s not just us, the ELCA. The Pew Research Center, which has been reporting for years on demographic shifts in religious identity and practice, places our experience in the broader context in which Christian affiliation, particularly among young adults, is declining and the number of those who do not identify with any organized religion, Christianity or otherwise, is on the rise. 

As this fire continues to burn, all sorts of things are being consumed, not just the cherished buildings that can no longer be maintained, but traditions that no longer speak to new generations and assumptions about where and how people will choose to spend their time and money. Here at the seminary, it can feel like we’re preparing class after class of smokejumpers, parachuting into ecclesiastical wildfires all across the religious landscape, to bring life-giving water to people and places that can no longer even name the ways in which they are parched.

66719It is with heart and mind singed by these relentless temperatures that I find myself once again transfixed by the image from Exodus of Moses standing before the burning bush. When Moses first sees it, he says, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”

Yes, this is the miracle I need, in every part of my life, to observe a living thing, burning but not consumed. Could it be true? Could it be true for our world and our nation? Could it be true for our church and its congregations? Could it be true for my life and my future? Can a thing burn and not be consumed?

In his blessing to me and Kerry on the day of our wedding, my father offered the following insight about the power of combustion. He said,

“On the farm where I was raised, my father’s arc welder did its work by bringing close — but always with a critical space between — two highly charged points. The energy, light, and heat is generated by the difference between the two. May you trust the arc of power that is created today as you draw together in this marriage.”

What an important reminder. The arc of power that allows the welder to sustain its flame is directly related to the space between the two points. The difference between them. This is what Paul seems to be saying when he reminds us that we have gifts that differ, even as we are part of one body. That is true in marriage as well as in the church, and it is the source of the power that fuels each of them. For the arc welder to work, the points must separate — but not too distant. It’s a delicate balancing act, respecting our differences while maintaining our common bond. 

We are living in a time commonly described as being polarized. A recent report titled “The Hidden Tribes of America” summarizes research confirming what most of us intuitively sense: that in our public life, 

“we have become a set of tribes, with different codes, values, and even facts. In our public debates, it seems that we no longer just disagree. We reject each other’s premises and doubt each other’s motives. We question each other’s character. We block our ears to diverse perspectives. At home, polarization is souring personal relationships, ruining Thanksgiving dinners, and driving families apart. We are experiencing these divisions in our workplaces, neighborhood groups, even our places of worship. In the media, pundits score points, mock opponents, and talk over each other. On the Internet, social media has become a hotbed of outrage, takedowns, and cruelty — often targeting total strangers.”

Compare that lived experience with the advice Paul offers to the church in Rome:

“I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned … Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” (Rom. 12:3,9-11)

Paul continues on with prescription for the fever heat that burns through our body politic: bless, rejoice, weep, associate, live peaceably with all.

Allison, you chose a set of texts for this day that speak plainly about God’s vision for a world liberated and restored: the liberation of the Israelites from Pharaoh, the proclamation of good news to the poor, release to the incarcerated, and freedom for the oppressed. What I want you to hear today is this: God’s dream for the world is not a job description for pastors, though this vision does appear in another set of sacramental vows.

When you were brought to the font, and each time we affirm our baptism, we remember and renew our promise to live among God’s faithful people, to receive the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for peace and justice in all the earth. We offer our lives as a sacrifice in service of God’s great love for the world, and we ask God to help and guide us. We all make these vows. All of us, together.

All of us, together. That is the only way this fire can burn bright enough to cast the hopelessness from our hearts, the only way this fire can burn hot enough to clear away the undergrowth and prepare the landscape for whatever seeds God is now planting for the future. All of us together, that is how we burn without being consumed. That is the good news already fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. All of us in, no one left out. 

There is power in fire, in the arc that spans the distance between people and tribes, between us and God. Today we pray for that power, that fire, to be poured out on Allison, to cover her without consuming her. We pray for the Holy Spirit to come, to warm our hearts, to bless this pastor, to restore the church, to flood the world.

Come, Holy Spirit, come!

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Sermons

A Charge to the Ordinand, the Rev. Jessica Palys

The following “Charge to the Ordinand” was delivered at the Ordination of the Rev. Jessica Palys (UCC) at First Congregational Church, Crystal Lake, IL on Sunday, August 21, 2016. Pastor Palys had previously served as an intern at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square in 2012/’13. This charge drew on themes from Ruth 1:12-18, one of the scriptures read at the service of ordination.

Imagine how differently the Book of Ruth would read if, as they were heading back to Judah from the land of Moab after the death of her husband and sons Naomi had said to her daughters-in-law, “Ruth, Orpah, I am lost without you. You are my last chance at a future with hope. Do not abandon me now!” How do you suppose the story would have unfolded?

I can imagine Orpah doing exactly as she did, returning to Moab, but forever haunted by guilt over an impossible decision between caring for herself and caring for her mother-in-law. I can imagine Ruth doing the same thing, following Naomi back to Judah, but out of obligation, not choice. It’s hard to imagine her passionate declaration of loyalty — “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” — flowing off of guilt-tripped lips.

3165Jb7ar+L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_After years of hearing Kirsten Peachey talk about Peter Block and his book on community I finally sat down and read it and, she’s right, it’s really good! One thing he says about the power of community to transform lives is that it has to happen by invitation, never obligation.

“The distinction here,” he writes, “is between invitation and the more typical ways of achieving change: mandate and persuasion. The belief in mandate and persuasion triggers talk about how to change other people and how do we get those people on board, how do we make showing up a requirement, all of which are simply our desire to control others. What is distinct about an invitation is that it can be refused, at no cost to the one refusing.”

In the case of Ruth and Naomi the invitation is never explicitly made and, in fact, Naomi sets things up so that the easiest thing in the world would be for Ruth to walk away from the situation, yet it is precisely because she is free to say “no” that her “yes” actually becomes significant.

Jessica, the vocation of pastoral ministry is one of issuing invitation after invitation after invitation. You will invite people to offer their gifts and talents in worship. You will invite people to provide their vision and leadership to new projects and new campaigns that seem important, even urgently necessary. You will invite people to open their hearts and minds to ideas, to practices, to futures that they would never have dreamed of entertaining on their own. You will invite them into a new story about their lives characterized by grace, forgiveness, transformation, renewal, solidarity and new life — resurrection life.

Sometimes, they will say no, and it will take everything in your being to let their no be no. It will require a massive act of discipline to respect their right to hear your invitation, to consider well what it might mean for their congregation, for their neighborhood, for their family, for their lives, and to decide that they are not interested. You must let them — even when yes is obviously the right answer, even when no is acting against their self-interest as you see it.

When you asked me to provide the charge today at your ordination, I had to ask you how that goes in the United Church of Christ because, as you know, we Lutherans have a script for everything. Here’s a piece of our script that I love:

From 1st Peter: “Tend the flock of God that is in your charge, not under compulsion but willingly, not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. (1 Pet. 5:2-4)

What I love about this word from scripture is that it reminds us that before we can even consider the invitations we will offer to those we are called to serve, we must first give honest consideration to the invitation God has placed before us. We are called to tend to the needs of the people God has entrusted to our care “not under compulsion, but willingly.”

Though we so often hear clergy speak of their vocations as if they are the inevitable response to some kind of persistent and irresistible voice, in reality, God does not compel us. God never coerces or manipulates us into moving with God’s vision for a world both healed and liberated. Instead, scripture is filled with story after story of invitation after invitation. And often the story involves us saying no to God’s gracious reign. But our no is never the last word.

The gift of this day, the reason we have all gathered to surround you with our prayers and our presence, is to witness your “yes” to God’s invitation for your life — and to remind you in future days, the days that must surely come when you will question the wisdom of this decision, that you have made this decision freely and that you remain a free person; that you are a minister of the gospel of liberation and truth, which can only be received as a gift and never compelled.

So, Jessica, receive this charge:

Care for God’s people, bear their burdens,

and do not betray their confidence.

So discipline yourself in life and teaching that you preserve the truth,

giving no occasion for false security or illusory hope.

Witness faithfully in word and deed to all people.

Give and receive comfort as you serve within the church.

And be of good courage, for God has called you —

and you have said yes to this call —

and your labor in the Lord will not be in vain.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, August 10, 2016: Proper 14

FullSizeRenderText: Luke 12:32-40

The following sermon was preached at the midweek service held at the Lutheran Center in Chicago, during the week when the ELCA was gathered at its triennial Churchwide Assembly in New Orleans, LA.

Earlier this year the Administrative Assistant at St. Luke’s, the congregation I pastor, came home to find that the apartment she shares with her husband had been broken into and ransacked. As often happens in these sorts of home invasions, there were items of obvious worth that were left untouched and others of tremendous personal value that were taken. In her case, it was the theft of heirloom jewelry that had been passed down through generations of women in her family that was the hardest loss to accept.

As any of you who’ve had your homes or offices broken into know, it’s not only the objects that go missing which are stolen but your sense of safety and belonging as well. It’s hard to look forward to coming home at the end of the day after you’ve come home to find your apartment torn apart. It’s hard to lay your head down and rest when you know that strangers have been in your bedroom and touched your bed or gone through your drawers.

Yet this is the image the gospel of Luke uses to describe the imminent reign of God. “Know this,” Jesus says, “if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Lk. 12:39-40) It’s a very odd ending to a passage that begins with the reassuring promise that “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (12:32)

God's Gift a TheftWhen has God’s gift to you and your people — your family, your co-workers, your community — felt like a theft?

Before likening the coming of the Son of Man to a home intrusion, Jesus encourages those who wait on the Lord to do so like slaves waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet. I have no direct experience of slavery, so any analogy I make runs the risk of trivializing the metaphor, but the emotional sense I get from the scene Jesus describes is one in which those who are patiently waiting know that their master is somewhere else, with other people, enjoying a great feast and celebration, while they are not only patiently waiting, but working well past quitting time, into the late hours of the night.

Have you ever felt like that, like God took the party somewhere else and you were left to keep working, past your capacity, past your quitting point? Like you were waiting for a sense of holiness to return to your labor, to your vocation, but with no idea when or how that might happen?

These images for our experience of discipleship tell the truth about what it can often feel like to follow Jesus in the world. As though the reward for faithful service is having all you’ve known and cherished taken from you. As though the party has moved on, and you were left behind to clean up after hours.

This October I’ll be celebrating my tenth anniversary of ordination. I’m still in my first call, having served alongside the feisty and faithful people of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square through a decade of redevelopment ministry. Over the course of the last ten years we have grown from the seed of about a dozen tenacious elderly members holding on to a dream that their fortunes might one day be restored into a new family tree rooted in Christ with about a hundred people of all ages and many life experiences and rising to serve the many communities that make up the Logan Square neighborhood.

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The people of St. Luke’s on the day of leave-taking from their historic home. Reformation Sunday, 2015.

Though I’ve often been asked to share insights into how that growth happened, and I always try my best, I have to say that much of the time it has felt like it was simply God’s “good pleasure to give” us this foretaste of resurrection life. So much of what we tried failed. So much of what worked has been an utter surprise. And in the end, after so much hard work and hope that verged on hallucinations, we still sold our building — a beautiful, century-old, neo-Gothic urban cathedral on a quiet tree-lined street —  and traded it in for a little storefront chapel a mile to the south where we are surrounded by convenience stores and gas stations, where cars and buses are constantly driving by and pedestrians stop to stare through our window, wondering what a church is doing in a place like this.

We’re doing alright. In fact, we’re doing better than alright. Our summer attendance has barely dipped and we’re preparing to launch a second Sunday morning service in the fall. Yet, for many of the elders who bravely held on to their church in the face of long odds, it still feels like something has been stolen from them. Like someone broke into their home at some point over the last decade and took not the most obvious treasures, but the most personal ones. The font is still there. The table is still there. The gospel is still there. The Holy Spirit is still there. But the memories, the names and faces of people gone for decades but remembered as sitting in that pew, or wiping down that sink, or teaching in that classroom — those are harder to conjure up when the architecture that housed the memories is gone. God has given them a great gift, one that has sometimes felt like a theft. They come to worship, or they don’t, because it feels like the party is happening somewhere else with some other group of people, and they’ve been asked to keep working late into the night.

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St. Luke’s new storefront worship space on Armitage Ave. in Logan Square.

But just then Jesus provides yet another unexpected role reversal. Not only is the coming Son of Man like a thief that comes at night, but God is like the master of a household who comes home from a party in the middle of the night and instead of heading straight to bed notices those who have waited up, those who kept the lamps burning, those who put in the long hours, those who worked well past quitting time. Those who waited, and then waited some more. God is like the head of house who sees their hard labor and instead of treating them like slaves, fastens a belt and does their work for them, inviting them to come to the table and eat, to be waited upon and refreshed.

These convoluted, surprising reversals in Luke’s gospel tell the truth, at least as I’ve experienced it, about what it’s like to practice my baptism, to minister in and with the Church, to follow Jesus right now, this week, this decade, this moment of tremendous upheaval and change in religious identity and affiliation. It is labor that keeps us up well past the point when we wish we were asleep and yields gifts that feel like losses. Yet the Holy One of God is coming, and in fact is here with us. Yet the reign of God is present, and in fact is among us here and now. The church that has gone missing is being replaced by the Church which is God’s gift to us. An unexpected and unpredictable Church that invests itself completely in what the world considers lost causes, and invites all who labor to come to the table and eat.

Amen.

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