Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 16, 2015: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Proverbs 9:1-6  +  Psalm 34:9-14  +  Ephesians 5:15-20  +  John 6:51-58

I  had some pretty great meals this past week.

20120515-sausage-city-lula-cafes-breakfast-sausage-4On Monday I got to sit down for lunch with a young adult friend who recently graduated from college in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. After a year of Skyping with each other every few weeks he is now in the process of relocating to Chicago and we had the luxury of a two hour meal, face to face. It was fascinating to me how different it felt to talk to him with a plate of food in front of me than it had looking at the screen of my laptop. Before there was a pressure for one of us to be talking at all times, since we were nothing more than two-dimensional faces staring at each other. Now there were thoughtful pauses as we chewed on our meals, considering what the other had said.

post_display_cropped_open-uri20121120-20751-5ohfjfOn Friday morning I had breakfast with one of my dearest friends who also got married this summer. It was the first time we’d been alone since our weddings, so there was lots of reflecting back on the highlights and the surprises of our respective ceremonies. We struggled with what to order from a menu filled with too many good choices, and in the end decided to share a sweet and savory split: an order of cinnamon roll french toast and a plate of tofu scramble with feta and pesto and summer vegetables. We moved from talk of weddings to more general talk of work and home, talk about our friends and colleagues, as we reached across the table to dip a bite of our bread in the puddles of molten cream on each other’s plates. At one point, as I looked at my friend, I was struck by how many times we’d done this. How many meals we’d shared, how many challenges we’d tackled, how much life we’d lived together. As I tried to share with her all the memories pooling up in my mind, I got choked up. She was the only person I’d known when I moved to Chicago almost a decade ago, and now we were practically family. There weren’t really words for it, so we just kept eating our sweet and savory split as I wiped the tears from my eyes.

sausage_and_peppers_779_fThere were other extraordinary meals. The sandwiches and cream sodas that accompanied the slow work of listening and reconciliation in a relationship that had been stretched and stressed. The coffee I drank while listening to a colleague describe her hopes and fears for the global ministry of our church and her passion for the young adults she works with. The salsiccia and roasted peppers I consumed as Kerry and I got the report from a friend just back from a gospel music conference that had been profoundly healing. The last minute Friday night backyard dinner with friends collapsing around a table pulled up from the basement and draped with a cloth before being weighted with offerings from each of our kitchens and stories from each of our lives that were more than we could ever fully consume. All in one week.

pavlovdog1Relationships go better with food. Maybe it’s like Pavlov and his dog, that experiment with the food and the bell, where the dog was trained to associate the sound of the bell with the imminent arrival of food. Maybe it’s as simple as that, that we all have to eat, and so we end up eating together, and over time we come to associate food with togetherness. This seems to be the case with Jesus as he continues his post-prandial conversation with the crowd he’s already fed with loaves and fishes. The English translation we’ve grown up on is actually a little thin. The Greek is much meatier. What Jesus really says is something like, “Those who chew on my flesh and drink my blood have the life that lasts and I will stand them up on the last day.” The words John’s gospel uses aren’t ethereal or ephemeral, they’re visceral and embodied. They’re the stuff of incarnation. They echo back to the very first words of this gospel, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…” (John 1:14)

John’s gospel is the last and the latest of the four canonical gospels to be written, so there’s lots of scholarly conversation about how much it reflects the worship practices of the early church. It’s certainly hard to read these passages in worship and not think of the Lord’s Supper that’s still yet to come, but I want to avoid making that leap too soon. picXJM4ubOnce we start talking about Holy Communion it’s so easy to reduce it to a set of beliefs about Holy Communion. We’ve got two thousand years of disputes over beliefs about the sacrament, which is really not the same thing as the sacrament itself.

Jesus has a similar struggle with the crowd. He has already fed them, he has already saved them from their hunger, and they want to argue with him about their religious identity and beliefs: “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness.” (6:31) As the conversation deepens, Jesus responds to their certainties about the past with a fierce urgency in the present that points to a new future. Look at how often he repeats the words “eat” and “live” or “life” or “living” over and over in just these seven short verses: “living bread,” “whoever eats,” “live forever,” “life of the world,” “eat the flesh,” “eternal life,” “the living Father,” “I live,” “whoever eats me will live,” and “the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Food Fighters jul6The gospel of John at this point bears less resemblance to any of the celebrity chefs glutting our televisions with their highly specialized and technical approaches to food, and more of a resemblance to my mother at any dinner party she has ever thrown, “Eat! Eat! Can I get you some more of anything? Are you sure you won’t have a second helping? Or a third, or a fourth?” There’s always more food, and there’s nothing you could do to make her happier than to eat it.

Jesus also wants to get away from the highly specialized, technical approaches to religious identity and life together. He’s less interested in what your ancestors ate in the wilderness than in what will sustain you right here and right now. He wants you to eat, eat! Feast on the God who is not content to remain a Word, but insists on flesh.  Dine on the one who promises to be powerfully, truly present whenever the meal is shared because God dwells in our own flesh and makes our own lives sacred so that all our eating and all our gathering is holy communion.

Years ago, after a horrible break up, one of the most painful things I had to get used to was eating alone. I read all the advice about taking yourself out on dates, and I treated myself to some pretty terrific meals, but what I was longing for wasn’t amazing food but abundant life.

a Freshman Eating AloneThere are lots of ways we end up eating alone. Sometimes it begins as a relief, the kids have finally moved out and there’s a little peace and quiet. Other times it results from an unconscious neglect — we fill our days with too much work and grab food on the go, forgoing the opportunity to create holy communion with our friends or families to get just a little more work done. And, of course, some of us are only too aware of our solitude, having lived on after loved ones died, or became ill, or moved away.

The world is starving for the kind of love that will move beyond its ideas about love in order to actually embody it. The kind of love that will relinquish its prejudices about people in poverty in order to actually eat with them.  The kind of love that will surrender its judgment about its neighbors in order to invite them over for dinner. The kind of love brave enough to trade certainties for possibilities. The name we have been given for that kind of love is God, the face we have been given for that kind of love is Jesus, and the story we have been given to tell is that words are not enough, only flesh will do.

So bring your flesh to this table, your sacred bodies, your scared bodies and your scarred bodies. Bring your heartache and your loneliness, bring your joy and your thanksgiving, bring your passion and your craving, bring your memories of all those you’ve loved and miss, bring your hopes for those who’ve just been born, bring your whole self — not just your idea of yourself but your body, your flesh to meet the God who abides in flesh and bread and wine and you, who longs for you to eat, eat! And live.

Amen.

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Messages

Message: For the Good of All …

To the people of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square,

Professional portrait 2013As we prepare to gather this Sunday following worship to review the offers we’ve received for our building, I want to share with you how proud I am to belong to the community we are becoming together.

Throughout this process you have spoken honestly and with great vulnerability about what our building means and has meant to you. You have shared what makes St. Luke’s distinctive as a community, and what you hope we do not lose in the middle of so many transitions. You have listened with open minds and open hearts to members whose thoughts and feelings do not match your own. You have made space to hear the fears and anxieties of people inside and outside our congregation who do not know how our decisions will affect their futures. You have done all this so patiently, so gracefully, so lovingly, showing a depth of respect and care for one another.  You have modeled what it means to bear one another’s burdens in a spirit of gentleness (Gal. 6:1).

Now we will gather again, to review different offers and weigh the impact of each possible decision on our congregation and the surrounding neighborhood. We will assess how different choices might reflect our core values as Christians and witness to the self-giving love of Jesus.

I want to encourage all of you to make every effort to be present for this Sunday’s meeting. Even if you feel you’ve already heard all that will be said. Even if you feel you’ve already said all you need to say. The value of this gathering is found not only in the content of our opinions, but in our presence with and for one another. To the person for whom this meeting is painful and scary, your presence may be a sign that they do not suffer alone. To the person who has spent countless hours planning, meeting, strategizing, and preparing, your presence may be a show of support and an expression of gratitude. We are not simply making one more decision, we are making all of these decisions together.

So, I look forward to seeing you this Sunday for worship, the work of the people and our witness to the world.

In Christ,

Pastor Erik

“So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (Gal. 6:9-10)

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, April 7, 2013: Second Sunday of Easter

Texts:  Acts 5:27-32  +  Psalm 150  +  Revelation 1:4-8  +  John 20:19-31

The preacher has some choices to make during the season of Easter, a season of 50 days, seven Sundays and then the festival of Pentecost.  You’ll have noticed that our readings are a little different than usual.  Instead of the first reading coming from Hebrew scripture, we’ve read a portion from the book of Acts, which is really an abbreviation for the book’s full name: the Acts of the Apostles.  The second reading came from the infrequently read book of Revelation; and the Gospel reading came from the Gospel of John, which doesn’t get a year to itself in our three-year cycle of readings, but instead gets read in every year during the high holidays and festival seasons.

Further, this pattern will hold throughout the season of Lent.  Each week for the next two months we’ll be reading from Acts, Revelation and the Gospel of John.  In Acts we’ll be following the story of the explosive growth of the church following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.  From Revelation we get a message of hope and life to the struggling churches of the first century written in a kind of code that is one part poetry to one part dream.  And in John’s gospel we will hear how Jesus came to those he loved and led following his resurrection to prepare them for the power of the Holy Spirit, with flashbacks to moments from his ministry in life that pointed ahead to his expectation that it would be us, the Church, that would continue his work.

If we had an extra hour each Sunday, I could preach on all three stories, and I know some of you think I’d love to give that a try, but I promise you I won’t.  So, I’ve made a decision to focus on one set of these readings throughout the fifty days of Easter, the story of the Church’s earliest days, the Acts of the Apostles.

Clearly this morning’s story has dropped us in the middle of some intense action.

When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in his name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” (Acts 5:27-28)

Here’s what you need to know:

The book of Acts begins with Jesus alive among the disciples after his resurrection, and the promise that God will send the Holy Spirit.  The disciples stick together in Jerusalem, waiting for that moment, and select Matthias to replace Judas in their inner circle of twelve.  Then, in a familiar story that we’ll return to at the end of this fifty day season, the Holy Spirit is poured out on the disciples at the festival of Pentecost and Peter preaches his first great sermon, at the end of which the scripture says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)  And if that pattern sounds familiar to you, it should.  It is the pattern of worship, and this is the birth of the Church.

The disciples’ worship leads directly to action, which is the source of the trouble we read about in this morning’s portion.  In those early days of the church there was a fire burning in the hearts of the people such that it says,

They were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.  And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:45-47)

hands-reaching-outSo one day, as they were headed to the Temple for more of this intense communal fellowship, worship, prayer and praise, Peter and John come across a man who had been lame since birth, whose lot in life was to lay just outside the doors of the temple and beg for offerings from the people coming in and out of the Temple. You know who I’m talking about, the people we pass on the way to and from church, or the office, or the gym.  The ones crippled by disability, or war wounds, or mental illness, or addiction.  Going from soup kitchen to pantry. Living off the handouts of others.  This man sees Peter and John coming to worship and asks them for money, but they have none since all that they had was now being held in common by the community of believers, so they offer that instead.  Peter tells the man,

“Look at us.  I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.  And all the people saw him walking and praising God, and recognized him as the one who sat at the [door of the Temple begging]. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. (Acts 3:6-10)

Recognizing that the healing this man truly needed was not a life of ongoing dependence, but instead of unconditional welcome, Peter and John heal him by raising him up and bringing him inside the walls of the Temple — no longer unclean, inconvenient, embarrassing, or irritating.  Now one of them, a member, an equal, a brother.

And Peter, who had three times denied Jesus on the night of his betrayal now just can’t stop preaching.  With everyone looking at him in awe and wonder following the healing of the man born lame, Peter says,

“[People] of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? … the faith that is through Jesus has given this man this perfect health in the presence of you all.” (Acts 3:12,16)

And this is what gets Peter arrested (the first time).  The powers that be thought that by killing Jesus on a cross, by making a public example of him, that they would silence the power of God being unleashed in the world, a power set loose for the sake of healing and reconciliation.  But, filled with God’s spirit, the church picked up right where Jesus had left off, and the power that had been contained in one man was now multiplying — loaves and fishes.  By the time Peter was thrown in prison, the community of the Church had already grown to five thousand people.

When they bring him to stand trial the next day, they ask him by whose authority and power he has worked this miracle, the same question so often directed at Jesus, and in reply Peter says,

“If we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead — by him this man is standing before you well.” (Acts 4:9-10)

And scripture says that the priests were astonished because these were “uneducated, common men.”  As though only they, in their long robes, could act as God’s agents in the world.  But, no, here were ordinary people, moved by the power and the presence of Christ to do extraordinary things.  Here were ordinary people, no longer content to see other ordinary people begging for food at the doors of the church, the end of the off ramp, the alley behind the store, inviting them to stand up, to come inside, to be a part of this new fellowship of people who shared everything in common and who were increasing in faith and in numbers day by day.

The Temple authorities want to know by whose authority these things are being done and Peter says,

“we are doing them in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, who you killed, and whom God raised.”

And this is where things must have felt crazy to those in authority, this is why I love this story and chose to preach it over all the other options, because they thought they’d taken care of their Jesus problem.  But now there seemed to be a little Jesus in everyone who had known him, and even in those who — like us — had only come to know him through the stories and actions of his disciples.  They’d hung him on a cross and buried him in the ground, but there was more Jesus in the world now than ever before, so they tell Peter and John to stop teaching and preaching and healing.  To stop using that name: Jesus!

And Peter tells them,

“Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20)

Jesus had told them, “you will be my witnesses,” and now the apostles begin to understand the meaning and the power of the resurrection.  That seed once planted in the earth had begun to sprout.  That tree on which had hung the salvation of the world had begun to flower.  And now there would be no holding back.  Life was rising up from the ground, healing for those who’d been left outside the doors of the church, a new community for a new world.

I love this next part of the story.  After Peter and John were released from prison they returned to the company of the believers and they shared their account of what had happened.  Immediately the community begins to pray with them, and the scriptures record the words of their prayer in a form that suggests an early Christian hymn, so I take it that they sang as they prayed.  They prayed,

“And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus”  And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:29-31)

Don’t you know that’s why we’re hearing this morning, to pray for boldness?  Don’t you know that in the week since we last gathered, people in this room, people in our church, people throughout our city and across the world have been standing before the powers and principalities of the present moment and teaching and preaching in the name of Jesus, who is not dead but alive, in you and in me, for the sake of healing and reconciliation.  We are here this morning because we’ve all just come from one prison or another and we need to be fed with this Word, with this bread of life, not because we are so weak, but because we are so extraordinarily strong.  So strong, together, that we can hardly believe it.

God answers the community’s prayers for boldness by expanding their mission and ministry.

God answers prayers for boldness by expanding mission and ministry.

Though he’d been put in prison for preaching and teaching in Jesus’ name, and for healing one man born lame; now Peter and the disciples were performing more signs and wonders than the scriptures have space to individually record, so instead they just say,

And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, so that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them.  The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed. (Acts 5:14-16)

So Peter is put in prison again, to try to shut him up by shutting him in, but in the night the angels come and open the prison doors (though I happen to think that Peter preached to his captors and made converts of them, because when you’re filled with the power of God’s Holy Spirit, every prison becomes a place just waiting for God’s reconciliation to take hold).  The next morning, instead of finding him in his cell, they find Peter in the public square, again, preaching Jesus (because, of course, faith is public not private — which is why Peter went to the public square, and not back to his home).  And this is where we finally join up with the passage assigned for this morning.

Knowing that he has become too popular with the people, that they cannot have him taken by force, they bring Peter before the Council for questioning, reminding him that he’d been given strict orders not to teach in Jesus’ name, and Peter basically repeats what he’d already told them, that he and the community of the faithful now answer to and live their lives according to a higher authority.

People of God, we are all witnesses to what God has done.  We are all apostles with acts of our own too numerous to tell.  Baptized with water and the Holy Spirit, we are part of the great, ongoing uprising that is Christ’s insurrection — err, I mean, resurrection in, and from, and for the whole Earth.

Just outside our doors there are people begging for a little of the bread, a little of the community, a little of the life that we experience when we are together.

Why make them settle for a little?

Why not give them a lot.  A whole lot.

Why not take them by the hand in invite them to stand tall, to stand proud, to remember the dignity that is their birthright as children of God.  Why not bring them inside the temple to pray, and sing, and dance with us?

Brothers and sisters, the new life God wants for us is the new life God is creating through us.  We are here this morning to pray for boldness, because we know that God answers prayers for boldness with an ever and ever expanding mission and ministry.  We are here this morning because we know that when God’s Holy Spirit takes hold of the church, it is called to act.

Come, Holy Spirit, Come.

Amen.

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