Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, September 10, 2017: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost — Leave-Taking and Farewell to St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square

Texts: Ezekiel 33:7-11  +  Psalm 119:33-40  +  Romans 13:8-14  +  Matthew 18:15-20

Before I headed off to seminary — the first time, almost twenty years ago — I reached out to all of my former pastors, people who’d known me since I was a child. I needed their help as I tried to understand what it might mean for me to set off on this path, when the ending was so unclear. I wanted to know if they thought I was making a mistake. After all, what was I hoping for, going to seminary as an openly gay man at a time when our church refused to ordain gay people?

AR-304059984.jpg&q=80&MaxW=550&MaxH=400&RCRadius=5Each of my pastors shared their own bits of wisdom with me, but one pastor’s response in particular sticks out to me as I stand here with you for the last time in my capacity as your pastor. Pastor Elton Richards of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Iowa, who’d known me during my high school years, told me to “keep singing.”

He’d always said kind things about my voice when I was younger. He’d ask, “How’s my favorite tenor doing?” He did the same with my mom, who has a beautiful soprano voice. So when he signed his letter to me, reflecting on my call to ministry, with the words “Keep singing,” I didn’t think much of it at first. It seemed like another way of saying, “I remember you. I see your gifts.” And even if that’s all he was saying, that would’ve been powerful enough. “I remember you. I see your gifts.”

I think about how powerful those words could have been to the people of St. Luke’s twelve years ago, just before we began this redevelopment. The handful of people who’d clung to the hope that their congregation might still have a future, when the rest of the church had all but given up on them. “I remember you. I see your gifts.”

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St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square; October, 2006

But, whether he meant more than that or not, Pastor Richard’s words to me have come to mean more than being seen and acknowledged. For me, “keep singing,” means something more than sharing my gifts, it means “be yourself.” It means, “tell the truth.” It means, “don’t stop now.” It means, “change is coming.”

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Photo of “The Baltic Way” (1989)

It wasn’t until I went to seminary — the first time — that I learned about the Singing Revolution, the term coined by the Estonian artist and activist, Heinz Valk, to describe the non-violent means by which the peoples of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia sought their freedom from the Soviet Union in the late 80s and early 90s. In one of the most famous of these actions, the Baltic Way, about two million people joined hands to form a human chain that stretched over four hundred miles, crossing the national borders of all three Baltic states. Together, they sang songs that expressed their hope for a new nation, a new future. Through a series of actions like this one, Estonia regained its independence without violence or bloodshed.

The text we’ve heard this morning from Romans is now, for me, forever a song. “You know what time it is, now is the moment to wake from sleep. Salvation is nearer to us now, is nearer now then when we first believed. The night is far gone, the day is near. You know what time it is, now is the moment to wake from sleep.” (Rom. 13:11-12) We’ve used this text as a sung gospel acclamation during the season of Advent for years, so that now, when I read those words and hear that tune, I also remember that season: Advent, a season that fills the long nights with songs about the coming light, about hope for a new tomorrow, about God’s faithfulness to God’s promises.

0225BACE-C31A-447F-B5F3-CF9241BD91D1Despite the great love I have for you, and the light that floods this room through these larger-than-life windows facing out onto the street, in many ways the world outside this sanctuary feels trapped in a long and lengthening night. There’s no way we can gather this morning for worship without naming the devastation that’s been taking place during this hurricane season. Harvey has been called “the worst disaster in Texas history.” At least seventy people died and recovery efforts will take years. Irma is breaking records for intensity and duration, and left a path of devastation across the Caribbean before landing in Florida yesterday. Hundreds of thousands of people have been advised to flee the storm in “one of the largest evacuations in American history.” All credible science tells us that the intensity and frequency of these storms is connected to climate change, and that we should plan to see this trend get worse as long as we continue to ignore the ecological crisis in which we are now living.

And, in some kind of societal equivalent to the devastation of the natural world, we also seem to be living in the eye of another storm of racism and nationalism, as politicians pour gasoline on the fires of racial resentment and white supremacy for short term personal gain at the expense of our common life as a nation. From the riots in Charlottesville to the rescinding of DACA protections for the Dreamers in our communities, we have every reason to think that this storm will continue to rage on as well, as long as we ignore the root causes of the human crisis we have created.

This is what God tells the prophet Ezekiel to announce to the nation: “Turn back, turn back, from your evil ways!” (Ezek. 33:11) That is our job as well, to keep singing, to keep telling the truth, to never give up, to herald the dawn while the night still feels long.

It feels almost ridiculous to try to connect the massive destruction being done to people and places by these raging forces of nature (both human and environmental) and the intimate moment we are sharing here, together, as we say goodbye to each other after eleven years of ministry. But it is not. Not at all.

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Kerry and Pastor Erik, Farewell Patio Party; September 4, 2017

On Monday night you all shared such kind words with me and Kerry about what our ministry together here at St. Luke’s has meant to each of you. Something Katie Baxter said has stuck with me all week. She said that I brought with me a gift for reminding St. Luke’s of its story, and telling it back to you over and over again. It meant so much for me to hear you say that, because that’s exactly what I was trying to do. It’s what all of us who preach are trying to do: to remind the church of who we are in light of who God is, to keep singing the song that started long before our verse began.

So let me do this with you one last time. Let me remind you of the part you play in the larger story, your verse in the cosmic song:

When I came to you, after a long journey of my own in which the odds seemed stacked against me, the church as it was did not recognize my ministry in this place. In the technical jargon that props up institutions, the pulpit at St. Luke’s was listed as “vacant” for the first few years of our work together.

What we did, as piece by piece we began to rebuild the foundations of this congregation, was to contribute one more story to a narrative that had already been forming for decades, a story that showed how God calls people from all walks of life, of every sexual orientation and gender identity, to lead God’s church. Our story, our success, was part of a great human chain that stretched across the church, sometimes quite literally across the floors of synod and churchwide assemblies, creating change out of nothing more than hope for the children coming up behind us, faith in the God of liberation, and the songs that kept us standing. We stood against that storm and it did not overcome us. It was we who overcame, and we shall overcome again and again until the whole human family is free.

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You are a part of that chain. We are a part of that much longer chain. The bonds between us. The love we’ve shared. The church we’ve built. The future we’ve imagined. None of that is going away. Everything we’ve been doing until now has just been part of the labor pains, one great push toward the delivery of the new creation.

Now is not the time to stop pushing. Now is the time to take a deep breath and look one another in the eye, to take hold of one another’s hands, to remember who we are and what we were made for. The sounds that come next may sound as much like a howl as a song, but they will carry the truth of this moment to ears that have been longing to know, waiting to hear if the church has anything to say, anything to sing, that makes any kind of difference in times like these. So the songs we sing next, wherever our journeys take us, had better not be confined to these small places. They need to be heard out in the world, in the streets, in the halls of power, at the voting booth, in the break room, over countless meals with family and friends and strangers.

As you set off on the next leg of your journey now, the path unclear but the destination absolutely certain, I have only hand-me-down words to offer. Thankfully, hand-me-down words are to a preacher what notes are to a composer — you’ve heard them all before, but they still have the power to move you. So I’ll leave you with some of the best words I’ve ever heard.

Keep singing.

Keep singing.

Keep singing.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 2, 2017: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Romans 6:12-23

There is a story you already know that is the story you are always longing to hear.

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Does that seem possible? If you let your mind search through the cabinet drawers of your heart and your memory, is there a story there you are always longing to hear? Is it a story from your childhood, one of the ones adults placed in your hands filled with archetypes of heroes and metaphors for the lives you could only imagine? Is it a bit of family lore, a founding myth that explains why your people are the way they are? Is it to be found threaded into all the novels and movies and television shows that are streaming into our homes? Is there a story behind all the stories?

There is a story you already know that is the story you are always longing to hear.

What kind of story must it be for you to know it, and for me to know that you know it? What aspect of human existence is broad enough that it can bridge all the differences that divide us? What feature of human life is so universal that a single story about this theme can speak to us all, while still respecting our essential differences?

The story you know, the story you long to hear, is the story of freedom.

Does that seem right? What are our coming-of-age movies — The Breakfast Club, Lean on Me, Real Women Have Curves, heck, even 13 Going on 30 — if not the stories of young people running hard into the predetermined limits of adulthood and striving to achieve a kind of freedom of self-determination at the front end of a long life defined by other people’s expectations for them?

Freedom is the heartbeat of so many other types of stories. In love stories it is the freedom to be ourselves while joining with another. In mysteries it is wed to the theme of truth which is always breaking free of attempts to hide it. In war stories, freedom is the reason offered first for why people are willing to die. In our greatest epics, the stories of our nations, freedom is promise that drives people to leave their homes, to sacrifice their health, to work harder than they’ve ever worked before, to risk their lives and even to give them up, for the hope of a freedom they may never see.

In a version of the world that existed before the internet, or the radio, or even the printing press, our stories were still freedom stories — passed down by memory from one generation to the next. In the first century, just decades after the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, the apostle Paul could count on his audience having access to these oral traditions, to a common library of shared stories. Among these stories, there was one that perfectly captured their experience of life, that brought together the reality of oppression with the promise of liberation. That story was the story of the exodus of the Hebrew people from slavery under Pharaoh to the promised land of freedom.

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For thousands of years we have been telling that story. In fact, it was already ancient by the time John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness calling people out of the city to repent and be baptized. That baptism was a sign of the original passage through water that liberated the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt. Those waters were the starting point for the ministry of Jesus, and that ministry — a life lived freely for others in defiance of empire, which led to the cross but ended with the resurrection — is the defining moment in all of history for Paul’s message to the church in Rome.

For Paul the story of Jesus makes no sense without the story of the exodus. They are of a piece. The God who brought God’s people through the Red Sea and made them free is the God who claims all people as God’s own people through the waters of baptism and liberates them from the power of death which continues to do its best to choke the life out of the world, and each of us as well.

And, just as it took the Israelites generations of wandering in the wilderness to learn to live like free people instead of slaves, so we also are learning to live in the manner of people saved by grace and not by our own slavish commitment to the false idols of this world. The Israelites were free of Pharaoh the moment they set foot on dry land and the waters crashed in on Pharaoh’s armies, but still they looked back at the enticements of their former slavery with longing and grumbled in the desert. So, Paul acknowledges, though we too are already free, having been baptized into Christ, we also struggle to live fully into the reality of that freedom. We, too, look at the world through the logic of our former captivity and long for its rewards — even when we know that those rewards bring us no closer to the freedom we desire, and that they may even hasten our death!

When you tell the story of your life, what is the freedom you long for? When you search your calendar or your credit card statement, what is the evidence you find of your quest for that freedom? Is the manner in which you spend your life reflective of the freedom that is your birthright, or does it show evidence of the habits that distract you from the hard work of liberation?

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About a week ago I got to meet Jamie Kalven, an award-winning journalist and human rights activist from the South Side of Chicago who has chronicled the deep legacy of police abuses and unchecked power in the city of Chicago and broke the story on the cover-up of the killing of Laquan McDonald. As he spoke to the group of clergy I was with, he recounted to us the history of freedom movements in repressive states, what he called “glaciated totalitarianism.” In such places, like Czechoslovakia under communism or South Africa under apartheid, freedom fighters and dissidents operated on what he called the “as if” principle, asking themselves, “what would happen if we behaved as if we were neighbors?” when, politically, everything was set up to keep that from happening.

The effect he described was the creation of new power. Rather than cowering in fear of repressive power, or sacrificing their vision in order to be granted a small apportionment of corrupt power, people who behaved “as if” their future citizenship had already been secured generated a new kind of power that caught hold of the imaginations of their fellow citizens and launched movements that led to lasting change.

What would happen in your life, in our life together, if we acted “as if” we were already free of the forces that oppress us, of the stories that overwrite us with a vision for our lives that is not our own?

There is a story you already know that is the story you are always longing to hear. If you were to live your life as if that story is true, what would have to change? What do you think? Shall we live “as if” …

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 21, 2016: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 58:9b-14  +  Psalm 103:1-8  +  Hebrews 12:18-29  +  Luke 13:10-17

Well, he told them he had come to bring fire to the earth; to bring division, not peace. Now it was time to make good on his campaign promises and the opportunity came soon afterward, as he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. When we read that Jesus was teaching on the sabbath I suspect we hear that word as a day of the week, as if Luke’s gospel is simply saying “one Saturday Jesus was teaching in the synagogue,” but it’s much more than that.

This story begins with the detail that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath, not so that we will observe that Jesus went to church on the weekend like we do, not so that we will remark that he was a popular speaker who booked great gigs on the preaching circuit, because we know that Jesus was teaching and preaching and healing all the time, wherever he went on whatever day it happened to be. When Jesus healed a boy seized by spirits, Luke’s gospel doesn’t mention the day of the week. When Jesus healed Jairus’ daughter and the hemorrhaging woman, no one remarks on what day of the week it is. When Jesus casts the legion of demons out of the man chained up in the country of the Gerasenes no one bothers to record on which day that miracle took place. So the framing of this story with the fact that it took place in the synagogue on the sabbath matters. Without that detail, the rest of the story doesn’t make sense.

To begin by saying that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath is to begin by reminding us that the God shown in Jesus is a covenant-making, promise-keeping God. That God is faithful. To begin by saying that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath is to remind us how the sabbath came to be. In the word “sabbath,” we hear the echoes of Israel’s liberation from the slavery of Egypt and the covenant made with the people, the giving of the law and the Ten Commandments with the sabbath as the sign of that covenant.

The Third Commandment

When we hear the word “sabbath” we’re supposed to remember all of this and more. Those of us who were raised on Luther’s Small Catechism hear his brief explanation of the Third Commandment (“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy”) explained as meaning that “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn it.” Of course, Luther had much more to say about the sabbath — as he had much more to say about practically everything. In Luther’s Large Catechism, he offers a much richer reflection on the ethical importance of the Third Commandment:

“We do not observe holy days for the sake of intelligent and well-informed Christians, for they have no need of them. We observe them, first, because our bodies need them. Nature teaches and demands that the common people — menservants and maidservants who have gone about their work or trade all week long — should also retire for a day to rest and be refreshed. Second and most important, we observe them so that people will have time and opportunity on such days of rest, which otherwise would not be available, to attend worship services, that is, so that they may assemble to hear and discuss God’s Word and then to offer praise, song, and prayer to God.”

Luther says that we observe the sabbath, not for the sake of intelligent and well-informed Christians, but because our bodies need it. There is a whole other sermon to be preached right at this point about the connection between the sabbath and the labor movement, and the long, proud history of working people facing all kinds of opposition to preserve for themselves and for their children and neighbors the right to rest. Because Labor Day is only two weeks away and because we will once again have a speaker with us from Arise Chicago, a faith-based labor justice organization, I will move on from that point for now, but I’m sure we can all hear the call to action.

Instead, let’s hold on to Luther’s assertion that the sabbath is intended first and foremost for our bodies’ rest and return to the scene in Luke’s gospel where Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath, where a crowd has gathered to hear him speak. Keep in mind that Jesus is not teaching from a pulpit and the crowd is not seated in chairs or pews. Jesus may, in fact, have been seated. The crowd may have been standing around him or in front of him. It would be hard to see past the first row of faces, to know who was in the room, particularly if you were in the back, or if you were short, or if you were hunched over as one of the women was who’d been afflicted for eighteen years.

Jesus does see her, though. He sees the curve of her spine, the way it takes a great effort for her to walk. He sees the arch in her neck that makes even the simple act of looking up from the ground a painful act of resistance. He sees her body’s hard labor, its bondage to a condition that makes leaving her home a great ordeal. When I read about this woman, I think of our sister, Betty Feilinger, who is home this morning because of sciatica that has afflicted her for the last few years. Betty, who for most of her life enjoyed walking a few miles every day all around Logan Square, but has had difficulty leaving her house since her most recent surgery. How lonely it must be to feel so cut off from the people around you by a physical ailment over which you have no control. I believe Jesus saw that as well.

Now comes the challenge, the dramatic tension in the story. The crowd that has come to hear Jesus speak has heard of his miraculous healings elsewhere, and we who have read Luke’s gospel to this point know that he has the power to free her from the spirit that has bent her over. The only thing stopping him is the body of law that has grown up around the practice of keeping the sabbath. As a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people, the people have developed a complex set of customs and regulations for ensuring that no labor takes place on the sabbath, rules that prevent a farmer from farming, a fisher from fishing, and a healer from healing. Rules that go so far as to regulate that one’s oxen and donkeys ought to be untied so as to allow them to experience rest as well. So, in this moment, will Jesus show faithfulness to the law or to this “daughter of Abraham,” this woman who was also a part of the covenant community established by God’s word.

We know how the story ends, but let’s linger for just a little while longer in the space between the moment when Jesus first sees the woman bent low and the decision to call her over and set her free. That moment of opposition, between what Jesus had been taught to do and what he had been called to do. Because we confess that Jesus is Lord, that the Christ who comes to save is the visible face of the invisible God, it is hard to imagine that there was any gap between seeing and acting. After all, this is the same Jesus who berated the crowd by asking them, “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Now the moment is upon him. Where does he find the courage to act, to do something new, to claim the authority to keep the spirit of the law by disobeying the letter of the law?

I think it was by knowing the stories and the histories, by claiming the people’s customs and traditions that he found the strength and inspiration to challenge and reform them. It was because he knew that Moses confronted Pharaoh and led the people through Red Sea on their way to freedom, because he knew that Joshua marched around the walls of Jericho until God brought them tumbling down, because he knew the stories of God’s faithfulness to God’s people, shown through the empowered and empowering acts of God’s prophets in every age. Jesus was a descendant of those heroes, women and men, who by faith saw the distance between the way things are and the way they ought to be, and who braved the leap of faith each one of us must make when we look out at the world today and wonder if we, too, are descendants of God’s holy people. If we, too, are people of the covenant.

We are all this, and more. As people marked by the covenant made with us in baptism, we make the absurd claim that we are connected not by bonds of blood but by bonds of water. We claim that we are living members of the body of Christ, that we have those eyes and those ears, that we are those hands and those feet, that our mouths are filled with words that flow from the same source as the words that flowed from Jesus’ own mouth when he looked at the woman the world had overlooked and said, “you are set free” (Lk 13:12).

We are constantly living in the moment between seeing this woman and calling out to her. There are always customs and regulations and laws, traditions cultivated to serve and protect us, which over time have come to choke and restrain us. In the face of such great opposition, we must remember our heritage. We are people marked by God’s promises, blessed with bodies that God made and God loves. We are destined for liberation, not bondage. Because God has shown such faithfulness to us, we are already free. How shall we use our freedom? Who shall we stand beside? How will our lives sing with the praise of those have known what it is to be laid low, but have also tasted the power of God to lift us up?

Together, with all God’s people, leaving no one behind. That is how. We face the opposition, which is simply another way of saying “the distance between what is and what is to come,” together.

Amen.

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