Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, May 14, 2017: Fifth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 7:55-60  +  Psalm 31:1-5,15-16  +  1 Peter 2:2-10  +  John 14:1-14

14444841_10207054154008081_1208522860883102604_oEarlier this week at our monthly staff meeting we acknowledged that it was the last meeting that Luke, who has been our Diaconal Intern for the last nine months, would be attending. So we took some time to reflect back to Luke the gifts we see in him, and to share some words of thanks for his ministry with us. Then we indulged ourselves with a long lunch at the Chicago Diner up on Milwaukee Ave. Luke’s internship ends three week from now, on Pentecost Sunday, and he will continue to be connected to St. Luke’s as a member, so there’s no need to rush to say your own goodbyes — but it got me thinking about the importance of saying our goodbyes well.

13415460_10208747706786711_4355805716510276263_oLater this morning we’ll be saying goodbye to Ray Pickett and Liz Muñoz, who are leaving Chicago and heading west to Berkeley, California at the end of the month. After we’ve had the chance to share the Lord’s Supper once again, we’ll gather with them in a circle of song to bless them on their journey. As we were preparing for that sending earlier in the week, I remembered of all the many times we gathered in the old church building in the center aisle and laid hands on members of our community who were preparing to leave us. How important it can be to have a chance to offer one another words and signs that call to mind who we have been to each other, what it has meant, and how we will carry that forward.

That’s what Jesus is doing as he speaks to his friends and followers in this morning’s gospel text. This passage comes from a section of the gospel of John known as the Farewell Discourse, and comes immediately following Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet which we remembered in our worship on Maundy Thursday just over a month ago now. So, to hear these words rightly, we need to allow ourselves to return to that place of vulnerability as the disciples gathered with Jesus for a last supper before his death. We need to remember how afraid they were, the tension in the room as Jesus spoke about his betrayal by one of their own and forecasted Peter’s own impending denials. It was the moment when everything they’d experienced together seemed on the verge of falling apart, when all their hopes and dreams for the future seemed lost. In those last hours together, Jesus spoke to them about a way of being, a manner of life, in which they would remain together forever, no matter what else might happen.

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:3-4)

In the church’s wisdom, we read portions of the Farewell Discourse during the season of Easter, after the story of the resurrection has been told. We’re nearly forty days into the fifty day season of Easter, so the Alleluia’s joyous return has lost just a little of its sparkling edge and we’ve had a few weeks to wonder what we mean when we declare together that “Christ is risen indeed!” By placing this reading a month after Easter, the lectionary anticipates some of the struggles we face, living as we do after the resurrection. We read these words of farewell after we have lived through the drama of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Vigil of Easter and Easter morning the way one might go back and re-read a parting letter from a parent or a grandparent years later, listening for how their last words might make sense of our lives now that we have had a little more time to grow into ourselves.

That’s what I hear in Jesus’ final words to the disciples. Reassurance that they will be alright, that they have what they need, that they know the way. Thomas doubts this, on behalf of us all, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Philip asks for one more sign for reassurance, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” In his responses to each of them, Jesus does nothing more than point them toward their memories of all that they have already seen. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” means nothing unless you have already walked with Jesus, as Thomas has, and as we have. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” makes no sense unless spoken to people who have seen Jesus, as Philip has, as we have.

As the community grapples with their terror on the eve of Jesus’ death, he instructs them to remember — remember who he is, remember where they have been, remember what they have seen, remember what he said and did. Later, as they face new terrors, as Stephen did on the day of his martyrdom, as the psalmist imagines in Psalm 31 where it is written, “My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors” (Ps. 31:15) they look back. In these moments we can imagine that the early church searched its memory for some word of Jesus’s that might hold them with integrity as they stood in times of trial. In those moments, the living memory of their Lord found new expression in their own acts of faithfulness. Stephen offers a testimony so powerful and so challenging to the powers of the world as it is that they have him stoned to death, but even as he dies he prays for their redemption, reflecting the imprint of Jesus’ death on his own life.

We, who look back in time to the witness of Christ’s death and resurrection, look at the future with new eyes. That moment has become, for us, the cornerstone to a new construction of reality so that now we become signs of a dawning future; of a chosen race, which is the human race; a holy vocation for each and every person; a new nation beyond borders; God’s own people, all of us. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” (1 Pet. 2:9-10) This is the power of the resurrection. We, the church, become what we remember.

tumblr_m6yrn48fnZ1rnc3y3o1_1280Joy Harjo, a Native-American poet of the Muscogee Nation who turned 65 this past week, offers us this poem, titled “Remember”

Remember the sky that you were born under,

know each of the stars’ stories.

Remember the moon, know who she is.

Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the

strongest point of time. Remember sundown

and the giving away to night.

Remember your birth, how your mother struggled

to give you form and breath. You are evidence of

her life, and her mother’s, and hers.

Remember your father. He is your life, also.

Remember the earth whose skin you are:

red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth

brown earth, we are earth.

Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their

tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,

listen to them. They are alive poems.

Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the

origin of this universe.

Remember you are all people and all people

are you.

Remember you are this universe and this

universe is you.

Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.

Remember language comes from this.

Remember the dance language is, that life is.

Remember.

I think this is what we mean when we say goodbye to one another. Remember me. Remember us. Remember what this has been. Remember the reality in which you and me, then and now and yet to come, are all part of an indivisible whole, a reality deeper than right and wrong, a reality that reconciles sin and debt and trespass with forgiveness and rebirth. Remember birth. Remember death. Remember the birth beyond death. Remember who you come from and you will know the way, you will know the truth, you will know the life. You will know where you are going.

Remember.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, April 30, 2017: Third Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 2:14a, 36-41  +  Ps. 116:1-4, 12-19  +  1 Pet. 1:17-23  +  Luke 24:13-35

There’s a weekly conversation that happens online, on Twitter in fact (if you can believe it), which those who take part in call #SlateSpeak. It happens on Thursday nights at 8pm Central Time, lasts exactly an hour, and those who participate regularly often profess that it has become an expression of the church that brings them life. It takes the shape of questions cast out into the ether and responded to by people around the world in the form of testimonies 140-characters long.

This past week the convener of the conversation asked, “Where do you find hope?” I was laying in bed as I read the question, my foot propped up on a couple of pillows as I nursed my broken toe. Perhaps because I’ve found walking to be so frustrating this past week, I was quick to reply, “When feeling hopeless, I start by asking how long it’s been since I went for a walk. My thoughts change when my body is moving. #SlateSpeak.”


It’s true. Some of my most profound self-discoveries have taken place on long walks. I was on such a walk with my dad at the age of 14 when I first said out loud that I felt a call to be a pastor. It was on another such walk, alone at midnight walking the streets of San Jose, Costa Rica when I first came out to myself. There has always been something about walking, about the sensation of movement in my body, that moves my thoughts as well. When I am feeling lonely or hopeless, a walk is almost guaranteed to remind me that I am not alone, that I have a future with hope. That God is with me.

The walk to Emmaus is the story of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to a couple of disciples who were feeling hopeless about their future. Coming alongside them as they walked, Jesus asks, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” The story says “they stood still, looking sad.”

“Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place in these days?” Cleopas answers. The way the question is written suggests some tone in the voice. It’s the kind of question that barely hides a statement. We hear this kind of question all the time these days: “Did you hear what happened last week?” or “Can you believe what’s happening now?” or simply, “What’s next?”

Jesus models some good active listening skills. Rather than jump right into a lecture, Jesus makes room for the source of the pair’s frustration and pain to be expressed. They summarize all that has happened — the prophetic ministry of Jesus betrayed by the Temple authorities and handed over to the Roman occupiers, “but we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

Then, a disruptive post-script to the story, an ending that upset the usual heartbreak of state executions. “Moreover … [some women] told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

Have you taken this walk? Does your spirit know the road that runs between loss and hope? Is there a place in your body that remembers what it feels like when the rhythm of your feet keeps disturbing the pat answers that keep your expectations modest, your sights set low? What part of your life, what part of our world, needs you to go on such a walk?

Our sister Callie Mabry went for one of those walks yesterday out in Washington, D.C. with at least two hundred thousand others at the People’s Climate March because, despite all evidence to the contrary, she has hope that the earth’s climate can be resurrected from the cross on which we’ve hung it.


Can’t you just hear the conversations that went on as those hundreds of thousands marched, praying with their feet? “You know they say we’ve already passed the tipping point. Even if we somehow, miraculously, could change course on our consumption of fossil fuels, the damage is done. We’re already dead. We just haven’t found out yet.” Then, “but I’ve heard that some are saying the tide is turning. People around the world are demanding change. There’s a new consensus emerging. We can do this!”

There’s another one of these walks coming up in just a few weeks right here, close to home. People are gathering for a long walk to the state capital in Springfield to take on the state budget crisis that has been going on for over two years now, and has left a trail of broken lives and broken promises along the side of the road. “You know we can’t get anything done in this state with the Governor and the legislature locked into their power struggle. No one cares about the people getting hurt the worst by this travesty of a government.” Then, “but I’ve heard that people haven’t given up hope. People across the state are demanding change. The conversation is changing. I think we can do this!”


Walking alongside them, listening to their loud despair and their faint hope, Jesus begins to remind them of the long story of God’s activity among and for the people. He starts with the prophets and works his way forward from there. By the time they get where they’re going, the pair of disciples is feeling nourished and encouraged by his words. They invite their fellow traveler to break bread with them, and as they do so they realize Jesus has been with them all along. As their eyes are opened, they exclaim, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, opening the scriptures to us?”

I’m not embarrassed to say that this happens to me all the time. No matter how sad the state of the world, or my life, I return to the scriptures week after week looking for some clue to how I will preach among you and I find the words my own soul needs to hear. This week my heart burned within me when I heard Peter say in his own Pentecost sermon, “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls […] Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” It is the message that leads directly to baptism, the sign of repentance for our participation in this unjust world, and renewal by the gift of the Holy Spirit so that we might live fully into the renunciations we shouted (or where shouted over us) at the font:

Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that deny God?

I renounce them!

Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?


I renounce them!

Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?

I renounce them!

Those are the cries that make possible all the other cries, and chants, and songs we sing as we make our own journey to Emmaus, as we pray with our feet, as we march, as we travel the long highway that runs between loss and hope. As we take that trip together we find the truth in the disciples’ words, “The Lord has risen indeed!”

This all happened on the road. So, what walk do you need to take, and where will you find hope?

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, April 23, 2017: Second Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 2:14a, 22-32  +  Ps. 16  +  1 Pet. 1:3-9  + John 20:19-31

If you’ve been around the church for a while, then you likely know that Thomas gets a bad rap. Peter, despite his frequent bluster and unflattering denials, is nicknamed “the Rock” because Jesus says of him, “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” James and John are called the “sons of thunder,” continuing a trend of apostles who sound like pro-wrestlers. Levi “the tax collector” is remembered for his work. But, Thomas, well … you know what he’s called, right?

Doubting Thomas, remembered forever as such because John’s gospel remembers him for saying, “Unless I see the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 

“The Doubt of St. Thomas” by artist He Qi


It’s only in the gospel of John that we get to know anything about Thomas. In the other three he just shows up in the lists of the disciples who followed Jesus. In John he appears three times. We heard the story in which he makes his first appearance three weeks ago, before Palm Sunday, when we heard the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. You might remember how at the beginning of that story Jesus decides that they must return to Judea to visit Mary, Martha, and Lazarus — who had fallen ill. The disciples are hesitant because the religious authorities in Judea had tried to stone Jesus to death, but Thomas backs Jesus up, saying “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)

Later, as he prepares them for his imminent death, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” (14:1) Then he goes on to tell the disciples that he is going ahead of them to prepare a place for them, and that they “know the way to the place [he] is going.” But Thomas says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (v. 5) This sets Jesus up to deliver his famous line, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

This is a bold claim, left hanging in the air. If you have seen Jesus, you have seen the one who sent him. You have seen God.

If we were to describe Thomas’ character arc through just these first two appearances then, we would have the picture of a disciple brave enough to follow his teacher into death, but still trying to understand what that death will mean. He can see that Jesus is leading them toward conflict, and it seems inevitable that this conflict will end tragically. Still, Thomas is ready to follow Jesus wherever he would lead them even when the way is dangerous or unknown. For this I would rather call him “Brave Thomas” or “Loyal Thomas.”

But his character arc isn’t done yet. 

In his final appearance, which we’ve heard today, Thomas is absent when Jesus first appeared to the disciples. The way the scene is described, it seems that the followers of Jesus are hiding behind locked doors, afraid that they will be rounded up to face a death like Jesus’s. But not Thomas. He is not hiding with them. His earlier words ring out now, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” The way I imagine it, Thomas is not interested in hiding from the law. He knew what they were headed for, and he was ready to follow Jesus to the end. 

We don’t know where Thomas was as the other disciples were hiding, but I imagine him wandering the streets of Jerusalem, lost, remembering all that Jesus had said to him and trying to make sense of what it had all meant. “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

What could he have meant by that? What Thomas had seen was Jesus dying on a cross, tortured by the state, abandoned by his friends. Jesus, who’d claimed to be the visible face of the invisible God, had been put to death. How could this be true, and what did it mean — not only for those who’d followed him, but for the world that had longed to be set free?

I imagine Thomas was haunted by the cross, remembering the nails that had pierced Jesus’ hands and the spear that had entered his side. Knowing that Jesus was not the only one Rome had crucified, not the first and not the last. Aware that he, too, might one day soon be crucified for his association with a man thought to be a rebel and an insurrectionist. None of this had been a surprise to Thomas, who’d guessed early on that following this Jesus would lead to his death.

So why, then, had he followed him? Why did he stay close to Jesus, when he knew the path they were on was leading to a death? I have to think that it was because in Jesus’ life Thomas saw an alternative to the world around him. In Jesus’ life, Thomas saw the sick healed, the possessed liberated, and the dead brought back to life. In Jesus’ life, Thomas saw a new and larger vision for his own life, a dignity and meaning beyond whatever work he’d left behind to follow Jesus. In Jesus’ life, Thomas had seen what it might mean for him to be truly alive. Having experienced that, the thought of going back to any other way of living was no life at all. Not even the cross was strong enough to scare Thomas away from pursuing that new life he’d known. Which is why he wasn’t hiding in the locked room with the other disciples. He was out in the world, looking for the way, the truth, and the life that he’d known in Jesus.

A week later, when Jesus once again joins the disciples, Thomas is with them. Now, the risen Jesus addresses Thomas directly, inviting him to touch the wounds that have not disappeared. This is the same Jesus that had hung on the cross. This is the one who had promised to go ahead of Thomas to prepare a place for him. This is the same one who had said, “From now on you do know [God] and have seen [God].” And what Thomas says in response to the risen Christ is, “My Lord and my God!”

The cross which stood in the center of our assembly on Good Friday, looms over this story as well. For Thomas, and for all of us, the resurrection does not erase the horror of the crucifixion. The empire that crucified Jesus on a Friday, crucified someone else on Saturday, and Sunday, and still crucifies us every day. Thomas could not hide from that fact, nor did he want to. He wanted to follow in a way of life that did not lie about death, but also did not bow down to it. He wanted to know that the one who’d called him to follow had not abandoned him. As he touched those wounds in his hands, in his side, he now knew that there was nowhere that he might go that Jesus would not go, had not gone, and that God therefore had also been. 

In Christ Jesus it was God upon the cross, not hiding from the pain and horror of our lives, but touching the pain, holding the pain, believing our pain and fear and facing it with us, and in us, and for us. Transforming our fears and doubts into solace and comfort that we are never alone.

Jesus turns from Thomas to speak to us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And Peter, who’d denied Jesus at the moment of his death and who must have been in that locked room when Jesus appeared to Thomas, speaks to us as well, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”

As Easter people this is our task: to bear witness to all the ways that God has brought new life to people and places left for dead; to testify to the wounds that God has touched in us, that we have touched in God, and that have been healed; to declare that we who have seen Jesus have seen God and that we will keep following Jesus — not only to death, but beyond it.

Amen.

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