Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 18, 2017: 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Romans 5:1-8

 

Louie C.K., star of 'Louie' arrives at the FX Network series premiere of 'Wilfred' and season two launch of 'Louie' in Hollywood

Louis C.K.

The comedian Louis C.K. has a bit in one of his stand-up routines in which he points out the reality of Christian cultural dominance.

 

“I always tell my kids, ‘There are many religions in the world and they’re all equal, but the Christians are the main one.’ That’s what I tell them. ‘The Christians won. They’re the winners, so act accordingly. Congratulate Christians when you meet them, because they won the world.’

And it’s true. It’s true! We love to tell ourselves, ‘Every religion is exactly…’ No, no they’re not. The Christians won everything, a long time ago. If you don’t believe me, let me ask you a question: what year is it?”

He goes on from there to illustrate the point, imagining a conversation between a couple of grown adults back in the year 3. How do they explain that? Or people living before the “common era,” what we used to call “B.C.” in an effort to acknowledge that not everyone makes the same confessional claims about the human being named Jesus that Christians recognize as the Child of God and Lord of Creation. So now, instead of referring to things which occurred before his birth as “B.C.” we say that they happened “B.C.E.” before the common era. Which, instead of forcing a non-Christian to publicly order time according to someone’s else’s religion, now allows them to simply acknowledge that time is most commonly ordered by someone else’s religion, though not their own, if they should even happen to be religious.

For the next ten weeks we’re going to be focusing very intentionally on the book of Romans — which, in its own odd way, requires us to unwind this way of thinking about time. Like those imagined adults trying to talk about their age at the dawn of the common era, Romans is a piece of religious literature that is trying to talk about religious identity before the labels we use today were being applied. Unlike some books of the bible, the scholarly consensus is quite firm, not only about the fact that this letter is authentically Pauline, but even about the date it was written. The common assumption is that this letter can be dated to somewhere in the mid to late 50s, which places it twenty-plus years after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

So try to hold on to that. This letter from Paul to the church in Rome, a letter that will repeatedly refer to the tensions between Jews who confess Jesus as the messiah and Jews who do not and Gentiles who name Jesus as Lord and Gentiles who do not, this letter knows nothing about what we would call “Christianity.” There is no “Holy Roman Catholic Church” here. There’s not even an inkling of what a Protestant might someday be. There is the Jewish people, the people of Israel, living under Roman rule in a religiously pluralistic world in which the empire doesn’t really much care who or what you worship as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the empire’s insatiable appetite for growth and domination. Back in Jerusalem there is a small, but growing, community of Jews who believe that the long-expected messiah who would come to liberate them from Rome the way Moses liberated the people from Pharaoh had come in the most shocking way imaginable: as a countryside prophet who’d faced off against the empire and been killed for it. This Jesus, they said, God raised up from the dead and now sits at God’s right hand.

And as the community of Jewish believers in Jerusalem focused on sharing this message with other Jews, Paul — a scholar of Jewish law and one-time persecutor of the followers of Jesus — has been radicalized. Not only has he gone from persecuting the followers of Jesus to joining them, he has become an apostle to the Gentiles preaching that Jesus had come to liberate not only the nation of Israel, but all of humanity, and even all of creation!

That improbable message, delivered by that unlikely person, is the one that Louis C.K. says “wins.” And from the very beginning, it is a message that has to deal with race.

Now, in saying that, I’m intentionally blurring the very lines of history that I was just trying to tidy up. Because, to say that the gospel message preached by Paul had to deal with race is to invoke a concept that means something very specific today; something loaded with a legacy of violent power relations in much the same way that our way of keeping time globally by tracking “the year of our Lord” comes with a legacy of violent colonialism blessed by a church that Paul could never have imagined.

What Paul would have had no trouble imagining was the deep suspicion and hostility that existed between Jews and Gentiles. It is the same suspicion and hostility that exists anywhere between communities that are scapegoated and targeted by the regime in power and those who benefit from that same regime. It’s not that Jews and Gentiles didn’t have dealings with each other out in the marketplace. Not that Jews and Gentiles didn’t know each other’s names and exchange sincere and friendly words. It’s not even that there could be no friendship between Jews and Gentiles, or even love that crossed lines and produced children. It’s that Jews carried the memories of centuries of occupation and oppression, of being targeted and scapegoated.

In fact, in the decade just prior to Paul’s letter to the Romans, the Roman emperor Claudius had expelled all the Jews from Rome, as had happened twenty years earlier, when Jesus himself would have been a young adult, before the start of his public ministry. Jews knew that the regime in power only tolerated them so long as they remembered their place. So long as they didn’t make any moves to grow their base, or change their situation in life. It’s no wonder then that Paul spent plenty of time in prison, because his ministry was about building community — which is to say, building power — across racial lines.

Paul’s letter to the Romans explicitly addresses the barely buried lines that divide this multicultural church. The letter, which can be divided into four parts, begins by spelling out exactly what observant Jews would have thought of the Gentiles in their midst, a kind of racial profiling. Then, Paul flips the script on them, accusing them of hypocrisy for being guilty of all the same vices they abhorred in their neighbors. Their hypocrisy stinks all the more, Paul presses, because though guilty of the same offenses, they believe themselves to be superior to those they hate because of their racial and religious heritage. This, Paul deconstructs, returning to the story of Abraham their ancestor and reimagining the terms by which Abraham is to be remembered as righteous — not as the father to a nation, but as a human being trusting entirely in God’s righteousness. Ethnic pride is replaced with radical trust that God is working through history for the redemption of everyone and everything that God has made. Thus we are justified by faith, apart from any works prescribed by the law. (Rom. 3:28)

This is how we arrive at the passage from Romans read this morning, which is the beginning of the second full section of the letter. Already Paul has named the ethnic tensions in the room. Already he has invoked the long legacy of animus and prejudice. No one needs to spell out the reasons why it is hard for Jews and Gentiles to just “get along.”

You know what I mean? You hear what I’m saying?

 

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Philando Castile’s mother, Valerie, reacts to the not guilty verdict.

Think of the anti-Muslim demonstrations here in Chicago this past week. Think of the families and colleagues of the politicians who were the target of the gunman in Washington, D.C. Think of Philando Castile’s mother raging at the nation that robbed her of her son and denied him justice in death. Think of all these people and their stories, their lives, their hopes, their anger, their anguish. Who are you in this story? Who are you in this story that repeats generation after generation, this story of people sitting in a room, divided by their shared history, longing for a future better than their past?

 

Those stories were seated side by side in a room somewhere in Rome in the mid to late 50s: stories of ancient oppression and violent colonization, stories of radical conversion and unlikely community, stories of power being built across lines meant to divide. But the tension is simmering, just under the surface, the way it always is. Then someone stands up and reads a letter to the congregation from a faraway teacher and the part you hear with fresh ears is this:

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:1-5)

This is the promise of God, as reliable as the grace that comes to us by faith, that in this community of people divided by history but united by love, we do not have to remain quiet about what harms us! We do not have to pretend that we are all “alright” when the world is doing everything it can to exploit us and pit us against each other. We do not have to blame ourselves for the pain we are living with any more than we need to blame each other for the violent legacies we have inherited. Instead we can boast in our sufferings. We can tell the truth about how this present age has harmed us because our faith rests in the God who is bringing to birth a new creation. We can see the agonizing spasms of this present moment as the prelude to something new and better.

We can boast in our sufferings because we know that what we can share with one another has the power to build us up instead of tear us down. What we can share with each other produces endurance. What we can share with each other produces character, which is to say that it changes us. It takes the raw clay out of which we are made and molds us into something new. We are being transformed by one another’s suffering. We are bearing one another’s burdens. We are saying and doing things that feel outside our comfort zone. We are taking bigger risks for the sake of a bigger community, a wider sense of clan, an expanding vision of humanity in which none of us can claim superiority over another on the basis of the identities we inherited but never asked for.

This character, the character that is forming each of us and all of us together, is the source of our hope. It is no naive, amnesiac hope. It is the hope that remembers all we have suffered, all we have overcome, all that God has brought us through. It is the trust that God will do it again, and again, and again. That God is not done with us until we understand that “us” means all of us. That is the hope that does not disappoint.

It is a hope born of love, which is the subject of this letter.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 4, 2017: Day of Pentecost

Texts: Acts 2:1-21  +  Psalm 104:24-34,35b  +  1 Cor. 12:3b-13  +  John 20:19-23

You can imagine that it must have already been a somewhat terrifying moment. All the believers were together, numbering about a hundred and twenty (which, as a point of comparison, is about how many people we have here at St. Luke’s if everyone from both services were to show up at once), when some kind of divine event took place. “There came a sound like the rush of a violent wind,” is how it’s described, and it was audible not only to the crowd of believers gathered inside the house but to those outside their gathering place as well.

Rather than move away from the sound, a crowd begins to gather around the place where Jesus’ followers had been staying. This gathering crowd was already diverse, as the scripture reminds us that “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” In other words, the Galilean disciples of Jesus were now surrounded by a mob of immigrants.

What was going on in this house church to attract and hold the attention of these foreigners? Following that first sound, the holy storm that blew through the house, came a second sound — the sound of all these Galileans suddenly speaking in tongues. Not in that holy and mysterious language of the Spirit that the apostle Paul called glossolalia, but in the actual languages native to the group of immigrants that had gathered in Jerusalem from across the known world, so that each of them heard these followers of Jesus telling the story of God’s acts of power in their own mother tongue.

Finally, in case all this wasn’t already odd enough, Peter stands up to address the growing crowd of native-born Judeans and foreign-born immigrants living in Jerusalem with words that are not entirely comforting, by quoting the Israelite prophet Joel — who himself spoke in the voice of God:

“In those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Acts 2:18b-21)

Everything about the scene is chaotic. The sudden rush of the Spirit is described in terms that make it sound as though a tornado broke loose in a house. A growing crowd of multinationals. A bizarre miracle of translation. A ancient prophesy of ecological horror. A promise of universal salvation.

Nothing in our waking lives could prepare us for such an event. If it were to happen here, now, that we all fell out in a mass act of Pentecostal testimony so disruptive it summoned all our neighbors to gather outside our door, it’s hard to imagine that the natural next step would be for one of us to get up and begin speaking about the end of the world as the prelude to a promise of salvation. The only relevant experience we have, or at least I have, for making sense of this story is the experience of dreaming.

In a dream we are prepared for images to come at us in ways that defy logic and order, for settings to shift suddenly, for the laws of physics to be disregarded. Yet somehow, within the world of the dream, these impossible things can be observed and even understood. Their stories can be remembered and brought back to the waking world as a kind of message from our subconscious, speaking to us with a symbolic language crafted from our daily lived experience.

What then might this bizarre scene, which some have come to describe as the “birth of the church,” reveal when handled like a dream?

The first thing we notice is that the story begins with two actions: one on the part of the people and one emanating from the heavens. The people assemble and the Spirit comes. Not that the one forces the other, that the people can summon the Spirit simply by coming together, but that the Spirit acts once the people have left their private homes and joined together in public.

The second thing we notice is that the Spirit immediately acts to disrupt the homogeneity of Jesus’ followers. Rather than acting on the crowd, equipping the immigrants to understand what the disciples were saying, the Spirit acts on the church, equipping it to share its story in ways none of those followers of Jesus had been raised to do. They were making new sounds, speaking new languages, telling the story of God’s power in a way that made that very power obvious to anyone listening.

The third thing we might notice is that Peter relates this miracle of communication and comprehension to a prophesy of destruction — as if to say that the new community coming into being will feel to some like the end of the world.

That feels particularly important to say this morning, as we are waking up to the details of yet another attack on the people of London, which killed six and wounded nearly fifty. In a week in which multiple attacks were carried out in Afghanistan that left a hundred people dead and another five hundred badly wounded. In a news cycle dominated globally by despair for the environment, and locally by disappointment and outrage at the city’s failure of nerve to reform our system of law enforcement.

In the dream logic of Pentecost, these signs of destruction in the heavens and on earth are the beginning of the end. But it is not the earth that is coming to an end, or human life upon the earth. It is our way of being, our destructive patterns of relating to one another, that are finally coming to an end.

I know it doesn’t feel like it. I know it seems like things are getting worse. In reality, however, it seems to me that part of what is happening is that ancient wounds, intergenerational traumas, barely-buried prejudices, cultural addictions to unsustainable consumption, are boiling over — being exposed to the light.

Pentecost is the culminating moment of the season of Easter. It is the moment when the power of Christ’s resurrection and ascension ripples out beyond the boundaries of any single life, or even any single community of believers, or nation of people. Pentecost is the memory of God’s promise to never again to destroy the world with water — it is the “fire next time.” (2 Pet. 3:7)

 

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“Fire Dreaming” by Australian artist Ronnie Tjampitjinpa

 

 

But what is destroyed in this fire is the pretense that any of us are better than any other, that any of us are more deserving than any other, that any people are more chosen than any other, that any nation is more favored than any other. What is burned away in this fire are the lines that divide us — and without those lines the world as it is cannot go on.

So this fire ends the world as we know it, and in its place something new is already growing up among us. That something new is God’s dream for the world. We are its dreamers. When we gather the Spirit gathers with us, giving us new sounds and new songs, new words to describe God’s power at work in us, and for us, and through us.

May the sound of our gathering draw others to us. May the Spirit at work in us change the way we think and speak. May God’s dream for the world become our dream as well. May the whole world be made new.

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Messages

LSEA Awarded “Community of the Cross” Award by the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

The following remarks were offered by the Rev. Erik Christensen on behalf of the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance (LSEA) on the occassion of being awarded the “Community of the Cross” award by the faculty of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) at their commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 21, 2017.


Thank you, President Nieman, and thank you to the faculty of LSTC for bestowing the “Community of the Cross” award on the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance in recognition of our efforts to live out the call of the gospel for the sake of our neighbors, to witness publicly to God’s liberating power and proclaim the repentance and forgiveness that is our mutual inheritance in Christ Jesus. (Luke 24:47-48)

It is an honor to receive this award, particularly on a day when we are celebrating the commencement of a next chapter in the ministries that will be led by those graduating today — ministries of Word and Sacrament, Word and Service; ministries of scholarship and education, of justice and advocacy; baptismal vocations, all, and all needed in our world, which is so terribly wounded and divided.

I would like to share just a few words about how the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance came into being, in the hope that this story might somehow serve today’s graduates.

Like many Chicago neighborhoods, Logan Square is a community divided along deeply entrenched lines. It is divided by race and class, by income and ethnicity. It is divided between those who have lived there for generations and whose families are being pushed out, and those who have recently arrived and are trying to make a new home for themselves. It is divided by language and immigration status, and by the prejudices and presumptions people make about one another on the basis of their skin tones and names and accents.

Sadly, it is also divided by religious identity, and nowhere is that division seen more clearly than in the great chasms between the various congregations who all name themselves Christians.

When the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance was being formed just over seven years ago, it was not because our congregations had a desire to worship together. In fact, I think we all suspect that if the initial invitation had been to come together for worship, we might never have gathered at all. Of all the things that divide the body of Christ (and, for that matter, the ELCA), our habit of mistaking comfort for culture and preference for praxis has got to be one of the most embarrassing. So worship, which we might assume — or at least hope — would serve as the starting point for our ecumenical witness, is often times in reality its greatest barrier.

Instead, what drew us together was our commonly held vision for the neighborhood we shared, for the people of our separate congregations who were living side-by-side, and our conviction that faith in Jesus Christ calls us to leave our sanctuaries and join the struggles taking place in our streets — not as a demonstration of self-righteousness, but as an act of solidarity, an acknowledgement of our shared humanity, and an outpouring of love which (to quote the Rev. Dr. Cornel West) when made public, looks like justice.

So, over the years, whether our work has been directed toward the scandal of the $480 million dollars of federal housing funds the city of Chicago is sitting on as it flips public housing land into market rate developments; or the loopholes in Chicago’s Welcoming City ordinance that allow the police to co-operate with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in detaining and deporting members of our communities; or calling for a new police contract that makes it possible for us to hold the Chicago Police Department accountable for its deeds and misdeeds as we labor for civilian oversight over those charged with protecting and serving Black and Brown lives to the same standard and with the same care White people take for granted; this work is rooted in love — love for one another made possible by the love we have first known from God through Christ Jesus.

And here’s the thing that gives me such hope. As we have done this work together, it has been our experience that the lesser issues of comfort and preference have largely resolved themselves, and the more important issues of culture and praxis have become for us opportunities to know each other in new and important ways, so that now we are glad to worship together and, in fact we look forward to it, because we have gotten a foretaste of the feast to come and we therefore cannot wait to join each other at the banquet.

May the ministries inaugurated on this day prove as great a blessing to each of you as our joint ministry has been to each of us. May you find common cause with the people of those other dwelling places where God’s people gather. May your labor for justice come from the place of love. We’ll be watching for you at the banquet.

Thank you.

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