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.


Testimony: A Reflection on Weeping & Worship

At an earlier moment in my life, when I was learning the art of counseling, I remember being taught that laughter and tears often serve as signs that we’re getting close to our truth. I appreciated learning that. In an odd way, it took pressure off of either act — whether I was laughing or crying, I became more curious about what truth those emotions were pointing me toward.

If you were in worship this past Sunday you saw me weeping at the altar. Depending on where you were sitting yourself and what you could see, that might have made more or less sense to you. I want to tell you what I saw and why it moved me to tears.

The texts for this past Sunday were full of visions: Peter sees a sheet descending from heaven filled with “unclean” animals, which he comes to understand as a sign that God is breaking down the dividing walls we erect to hold each other at bay. John of Patmos, author of the book of Revelation, describes a vision in which a new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem come down from heaven and hears a voice declare, “See, the home of God is among mortals.” (Rev. 21:3)

Attempting to make sense of these scriptures with the children, I asked them if they’ve ever had guests come to stay with them in their home. They talked about play dates and babysitters and grandparents who’ve come for shorter and longer stays. We wondered if God might be like that, not walled off behind a distant future, but making a home with us here and now.

As we sang the psalmody, one of our first time guests caught my eye. I’d never seen her before and only interacted with her briefly to welcome her when she came through the door right before worship. She was a middle-aged African-American woman and she seemed to me to be living with developmental delays, like my sister. I remember hoping that she would feel comfortable. Once we began to sing I watched as she turned in her seat to focus her attention on those of you playing instruments. Soon she was clapping her hands and swaying in time to the music, fully engaged and delighted by our worship.

Later, as Jossy led the Prayers of the People, I watched as our guest mimicked Jossy, lifting her arms in prayer. With each petition she took one step closer to the ambo (the stand from which I preach and the lessons are read) until, at the end, she was nearly face to face with Jossy, who never lost her composure as she continued to lead our prayers. Finally, the woman laid her arms across the front of the ambo and rested her head on her arms, gazing up at Jossy with a look of open-hearted gentleness.

When we passed the peace, you could feel the charge in the air. After a moving testimony by Gretchen Burch on the power of listening and presence to transform a brief encounter between her father and her husband into an opportunity for healing, followed by those prayers, there was an extra energy to the way you greeted one another, sharing hugs and handshakes. I had to almost yell to be heard over you, and you showed no sign of wanting to return to your seats.

Then we began the service of the table and once again the mood shifted from almost raucous to quietly reverent. I was offering prayer over the elements at the altar when it happened. I remember looking at the words on the page,

“We thank you for Jesus, in whom you have made your home among us and loved us as you would have us love…”

Then I looked up and saw our guest seated in the front row, while everyone else was standing. It took me a second to understand what was going on, but I soon realized that she was taking the ring off of her finger and slipping it onto Cynthia’s finger. Immediately I remembered the parable of the prodigal:

“Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (Luke 15:22-24)

Immediately I was flooded with a sense of understanding and almost unbearable humility. How often have I stood behind the altar imagining myself to be the host of this ritual, our sanctuary as the home with doors flung open? But it was this woman putting the ring on our fingers, revealing us to be the guests, the prodigals, the wanderers, and this ordinary feast as our heavenly homecoming. A new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem, here and now. “See, the home of God is among mortals.”

I wonder if this is something like what Peter felt, when he saw images from familiar scripture broken open and understood in a new way, on a new level, in his gut and his heart, and not just his head. All I know is that I could barely breathe, much less speak. All I could do is weep as I felt the truth of the gospel pour over me.

And you held me just as you had held the visitor among us during the prayers, with open hearts and soft eyes and steady attention. One of you called out, “take your time” and another “we’re with you, Pastor.” Jossy laid her hands on my shoulders and took up the work of praying so that it was not just the elements being blessed, but me as well.

Eventually I caught my breath and could continue,

“…and loved us as you would have us love; in whom you are preparing a new heaven and earth, where all will drink from your spring of the water of life.”

Then we ate and celebrated God’s home among us.

Afterwards you were so kind, checking in to make sure I was okay. Some of you seemed to intuit exactly what had been going on. It reminded me of the explanation of glossolalia my dad had given me when I was young. He told me that when the Spirit moves one to speak in tongues, another is sometimes gifted with a word of translation. It felt, to me, like that kind of experience — the Holy Spirit overflowing my ability to wrap words around it, and you translating what was seen and heard into words of love and compassion.

That is the truth to which my tears were pointing. That God is love, and makes a home among us here and now. It wasn’t any more true this past Sunday than it is on any other given Sunday. I just perceived clearly for a moment a truth that on most days is so much harder to see and to remember. We are all that guest, and she is us, and together we are being made new.


A Prayer for Selling

God, here is our prayer.

That we will make decisions about this building

that reflect what we’ve learned and lived in this building.

That we will remember how, in the beginning,

you moved over the great nothing and brought something into being.

That you made people for community, not loneliness,

and that you asked us to exercise good stewardship over all that you made.

That you made promise after promise to us,

and even when we were faithless, you remained faithful.

That you brought us out of the narrow place

into a land where we could practice the hard work of freedom.

That you raised up prophets and judges in each generation,

leaders who shared the right word at the right time.

That you showed patience and forbearance

when we coveted the success and prosperity of those all around us.

That you made a house for us,

and not the other way around.

That you were always present in all our struggles for power and security

calling us to prioritize the needs of the poor and the most vulnerable.

That you accompanied us during our long exile,

the generation in which there was no future in sight.

That you made a home for us in the wilderness,

encouraging us to seek the good of the city.

That you fed us with songs of praise and lament,

words of wisdom and the assurance that there is a season for all things.

That you worked through the powers of this world

to give us a new beginning and put us to work rebuilding the community.

That you chose ordinary people like us

to do an extraordinary thing like this.

That you called us away from the things we have known,

to build a world we’ve not yet seen.

That you showed us your power in acts of feeding and healing,

and the riches of life with you by giving yourself away freely.

That you ate with sinners and outcasts,

and welcomed everyone at your table.

That you raised people and places left for dead to new life so that

death could frighten us no longer and the impossible might seem achievable.

That you appeared to people filled with fears and doubts,

and let your wounds be evidence of our healing.

That you promised to be with us, to advocate for us,

even as you sent us to be a sign of your presence to the lost and the lonely.

That you spoke your word of truth and life in every language

so that no one could own you and all land would be holy.

That you challenged our expectations for the future

by recalling to us our past.

Remembering who you have been, we trust that

you will be with us as we continue to become ourselves.

As we prepare to leave this building in search of a new place to call home,

we watch for signs of your movement in us, for us, and through us.

Now, we pray, give us the wisdom to make decisions we will be proud to share,

as we continue to tell the story of your presence in all our histories.