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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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God's Gift a Theft
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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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 7, 2016: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Genesis 15:1-6  +  Psalm 33:12-22  +  Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16  +  Luke 12:32-40

maxresdefaultThe world is full of heroes. That’s true every week, but this week they’ve really been on display. Yusra Mardini, the 18-year-old Syrian refugee who, together with her sister, pushed a boat carrying twenty people through the sea for three hours, saving their lives and is now competing in the Olympics under the Olympic banner. Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan (himself a hero), Pakistani immigrants who came to the United States seeking opportunity for their family and ended up at the center of national politics for the last two weeks following Khizr’s impassioned speech denouncing the rhetoric of racism and islamophobia infecting our nation’s political life.

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Khizr and Ghazala Khan at the Democratic National Convention

A young refugee and two immigrants thrust onto the international stage because of who they are and what they have done — but also, I think, because we are hungry for stories of heroism right now. We are weary and battered by a season in our life together filled with stories of police violence and political cowardice. We are soul-sick from watching the weekly polls tell us how cynical and skeptical we have become about the possibility of meaningful change.  We, who have so much, wrestle with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Then we hear the story of Yusra Mardini jumping out of her boat and literally pitting her body’s strength against the relentlessness of the sea. We watch an unknown Muslim man stand up before the entire nation and proclaim his love for a country that has not loved him and his family half as well, but for which he and his wife gave their son.

“They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, God has prepared a city for them.” (Heb. 11:13-16)

The Letter to the Hebrews is full of memorable turns of phrase from the description of faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1) to the “great cloud of witnesses” (12:1) that surround us. If the verses I’ve just read are less familiar, they’re no less full of poetry and power. In fact, I almost named the sermon series that begins today and will continue through the month of August, “A Better Country,” but decided that at this point in the presidential campaign it would be heard too narrowly as a focus on electoral politics, when what the author is really talking about is more akin to what Parker Palmer has termed “courage” in his book “Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.” 

Parker dedicated that book to Christina Taylor Green, the 10 year-old girl who was shot and killed five years ago in the same event at which Congresswoman “Gabby” Giffords of Arizona was also shot; and to Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, better known as the “four little girls” who died in the racist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights movement fifty-three years ago. In his dedication, he writes,

“When we forget that politics is about weaving a fabric of compassion and justice on which everyone can depend, the first to suffer are the most vulnerable among us — our children, the elderly, the mentally ill, the poor, and the homeless. As they suffer, so does the integrity of our democracy.”

That’s what draws me to the image of “a better country,” and what also ultimately moved me to title this series, “Sight Unseen” — because what we are laboring for is ultimately something we have yet to see: a homeland here on this earth of which all people are equally residents, equally citizens, equally honored and cared for, “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (Heb. 11:16a)

But it is exhausting, longing and laboring for this country to come into view. It is tempting to look back at the lands we have known and to convince ourselves that the world as it is is sufficient or, at least, the best we can hope for. Then we hear Yusra’s story, and we imagine her muscles freezing up in the cold sea as she pushes her fellow refugees toward that better country, the one she has never seen. Then we hear Khizr and Ghazala Khan, and see Khizr brandishing his pocket edition of the United States Constitution in the face of calls to ban an entire religious community from entering this nation, and we imagine the faith it must take to hold fast to promises made but not yet kept.

That is the heart of the Letter to the Hebrews, it is a letter to people who have not yet seen the promises of God fulfilled, who wonder if they will ever be kept. It is a word of encouragement to worn down people, a reminder that we have only come this far by faith. It is a roll call of the saints, the heroes, the ones like Abraham and Sarah, Yusra, Khizr and Ghazala, who left behind all they had known and fixed their eyes on the stars to guide them into a future filled with hope. It is a call to faith in things we have only hoped for, and conviction in sights as yet unseen (11:1).

And now, if you’ll let me, I want to make this all a bit more personal and talk for just a few moments about us as a congregation in light of this word from scripture. There is so much in this Letter to the Hebrews that makes me think of the journey we’ve been on for the last ten years. The setting out without knowing entirely where we’d end up. The power of procreation at a late age manifested as a congregation made up of elderly people who saw wave after wave of young adults and even younger children begin to fill in the empty pews. The promise of a future filled with hope set alongside the constant exhortation to never give up. There’s so much in this letter that feels familiar to me when I think of the distance we have come. I’m tempted to place our story in the background, as one more example among many, a word of encouragement for other congregations, other communities of faith preparing to leave behind the known past for the promised future.

But this letter is still for us. This letter is calling out to us from history, urging us to cast our lot fully with the “strangers and foreigners on the earth” (Heb. 11:13). To, as Jesus puts it, “sell your possessions, and give alms” and “make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven.” (Lk. 12:33)

There is a convergence of conversations and actions happening in our congregation and in the communities that surround us that I believe is about to set us on a new course just as adventurous as the one we have been on these last ten years. Having already sold our chief possession, the building that had housed us for a century, we are now considering anew what it means for us to “give alms.” For the last six months the Council has been deliberating with one another about the practical, ethical, and theological implications of the fact that we have gone, in a very short time, from being rich in land and poor in cash to being practically itinerant but carrying with us an enormous amount of money. Over the last few months the Social Justice committee has joined this conversation, sharing with the Council their intention to move us from a more shallow monthly focus on benevolent giving to a strategy of 6-month campaigns designed to deepen our engagement with partner organizations working in our community to build that better country, the one none of us has ever fully seen.

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We are beginning with Center for Changing Lives, an organization that grew out of Humboldt Park Social Services, which itself grew out of Humboldt Park United Methodist Church, a member of the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance just two blocks north of us here on Mozart St.  Center for Changing Lives provides financial coaching and employment assistance to families and individuals in our neighborhood struggling to make it in today’s economy. As we learn more about their work and are shaped by it we’ll not only be looking for ways to enhance their mission, but will benefit directly ourselves from their “Just Financials” curriculum, a powerful tool for helping us develop a shared vocabulary for connecting our values as Christian people to our actions with regard to our wealth, taking Jesus’ encouragement to “sell your possessions and give alms” seriously enough to really ask how our relationship to God is shaping our relationship to what we earn and what we own.

But stewardship of wealth is only one aspect of our vocation as baptized people. As we enter this new phase of our life together we will be talking more openly, not only in worship but in small groups with one another, about the ways we choose to steward the gifts of our lives. Whether at work or at home, with family or friends, how do we live out our baptisms? How do we live into that vocation, so that our whole life reflects our relationship to the God of life and love and liberation? We’ll be listening for signs of the Holy Spirit’s work in each other, deepening our capacities for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).

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Pr. Bruce Ray standing in the center of the labyrinth at the Kimball Avenue Church “urban oasis” at last month’s LSEA summer garden party.

Which means that we’ll be telling each other stories. From the testimonies that have been a growing part of our Sunday morning worship to the sorts of story-telling we saw at the ecumenical alliance’s Garden Party last month at which members of our separate congregations told stories about how they had come to Chicago, stories of migration from Honduras and Puerto Rico and Latvia. Stories filled with the kinds of quiet heroism that brought Yusra Mardini and the Khans to the international stage. Stories that we come to realize populate all our pasts, if we would only take the time to listen.

So we will. We will listen to each other’s stories, in and out of worship, within this congregation and beyond its glass windows. We will listen, and we will grow. We will be experimenting with adding services this fall, not simply because those of us who are already here are feeling a little bit cramped, but because we know there are others in our neighborhood and across our city who are longing for a glimpse of that better country, that city God is already preparing for those who face the future by faith. We will plan for growth and we will embrace it because we are inheritors of the same promise made to Abraham and Sarah, that their descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky. Those descendants, who are Jewish and Christian and Muslim, whose rich diversity points us beyond Abraham and Sarah to all of humanity, are our people and we are theirs in ways we know to be true even if we have never seen it lived out perfectly. But we see that future coming from a distance and we welcome it (Heb. 11:13).

Amen.

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