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, February 28, 2016: Third Sunday in Lent

Texts: Isaiah 55:1-9  +  Psalm 63:1-8  +  1 Corinthians 10:1-13  +  Luke 13:1-9

So, three powerful, evocative texts from the scriptures this morning. Isaiah offers the image of “wine and milk without money and without price” (Isa. 55:1); Paul lectures the church in Corinth about idolatry with examples about the various and horrible ways the Israelites died in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:1-13); and Jesus interrogates the given assumptions about why bad things happen to some people, calling those who follow him to repent before they perish (Luke 13:1-9). The obvious choice would be Isaiah, right? Let’s go back to that invitation to feast on rich food, or at least the parable of the gardener who advocates for the unproductive tree. But no, I think I’ll try my hand at Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, with its haunting reminder of the more than twenty-thousand who died in the wilderness because of sexual immorality, because, you know, Lent.

Before we can dive into the prickly thicket of these particular verses, let’s just remember for a moment the audience to whom Paul was writing. They were a church divided for a multitude of reasons. The community included some Jews, but mostly Gentile converts. They were poor and working people, some of them were slaves, though a few were wealthy, possibly even nobles. They were women and men who were deeply at odds with each other, while somehow remaining fairly comfortable with the dominant culture’s practices of excessive litigation, the commodification of women’s bodies, and feasting on food sacrificed to pagan gods. In other words, they were a microcosm of the surrounding world whose conduct toward one another showed very little evidence that their experience of God in Christ had made any difference in how they lived their lives.

In his letter up to this point, Paul has called on the community to transcend their petty factions where some claim to be following Paul’s teachings, while others are following the teachings of another Jewish Christian named Apollos, yet others are following Jesus’ own disciple, Peter, and a final group claiming to follow Christ — though Paul fails to understand how one can claim to follow Christ while continuing to divide Christ’s body. While the Corinthians put their trust in their interpretations of various teachers and leaders within the church, Paul flips their argument on its head by proclaiming his own faith in “God’s foolishness” by demonstrating power through a cross, choosing “what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” and “what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” (1 Cor. 1:27)

Having re-established a common foundation for Christian faith and life, something deeper and more trust-worthy than all their self-interested rationalizations and accommodations to the dominant culture’s dysfunctions, namely the witness of Jesus’ self-giving for the sake of love, Paul begins to try and reunify the church, stating, “we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Cor. 3:9)

By the time we get to the passage we just read this morning, Paul had tackled head on the issues that were dividing the church, from issues of morality and advice on marriage to methods of conflict resolution and finally the matter of eating food offered to idols. Now, as we join this argument already in progress, he is using language powerfully, masterfully, to implicate this divided community in a shared reality. Let’s tease it apart.

“I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” (1 Cor. 10:1-4)

Paul is writing to a community that is mostly Gentile, but still partly Jewish. Yet he says to them, “our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea.” He’s telling them the story of the Exodus, the story that belongs to the ethnic minority in their congregation, the ethnic minority Paul himself is a member of, and he’s asserting that it’s everyone’s story. It’s hard for us today to hear how shocking that is, because Christians have been reading Jewish scriptures for two thousand years as our story, so it seems perfectly natural. But it wasn’t always. I don’t think it was here.

MLK-in-Birmingham-jailIt would be as if Martin Luther King, Jr. — but the MLK from 50 years ago, before he was a saint with a national holiday — were to write a letter to a community of mostly white people, with perhaps a few people of color, you know, like Lutherans, and say, “our ancestors gathered in the woods beyond the plantation fields and sang songs from the old country, songs of freedom, songs that gave them the courage to steal away in the dark of night and wade in the river waters as they made their way north toward freedom.” Would we even hear the message, or would we be like, “Wait a minute. Did that Black preacher just call me Black?!”

Except it doesn’t stop there, because Paul also said, “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea … For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” Now Paul is talking to the Jewish minority, as one Jew to another, saying that their foundational stories, their crossing at the Red Sea, their water from the rock, their pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, was Jesus all along. It would be as if … well it would be just exactly that, as if a rabbi were to walk into a synagogue and say, “all your sacred stories are really about Jesus.” You can actually imagine exactly how that would go, because we’ve been living with the rift it caused two thousand years ago ever since as ethnic prejudice made enemies and oppressors out of people and communities that Paul called sisters and brothers.

Because what he’s saying is your story is my story. My people are your people. The body of Christ is not divided but one, and anything that harms one of us harms all of us. These horrible stories he references from Hebrew scriptures about the twenty three thousand who fell in a single day (v. 8), or those who were destroyed by serpents (v.9), or who were destroyed on account of their complaining (v. 10) — well, they’re horrible stories, which we can unpack some other time, because the reason Paul cites them here is not to terrify the church with threats of an angry, vengeful God, but to point out that we do not live or die alone, that we are all in this together. He is telling stories from Hebrew scripture about times when the idolatry that caught hold of a few had devastating consequences for the entire community. And while that may not sound fair, doesn’t it strike you as actually being very, very true?

Doesn’t it seem as though we are living in precisely such a moment, when the idolatry of a few might bring about the ruin of us all? When our inability to confront the false gods that some of us have turned to to provide the illusion of safety in the middle of a wilderness of chaos and doubt might be the very things that finally kill us all?

And, what’s worse, is that we are all so sure we know what the false gods are! They’re the ones those other, crazy people are following! You know, the unrestrained gun culture; or the racism and xenophobia that rules our borders; or the austerity that has gutted public services to the most vulnerable of our neighbors; or the denial of death as a fact of life that has paralyzed our healthcare system. Our story about what is wrong with the world, which is generally just our story about other people.

But what about their story about us? What truth is there to the accusations leveled at us by brothers and sisters we refuse to acknowledge as members of the one human family to which we all belong? How offended would we be to hear them tell our story of oppression as if it were their own, as if they had a right to the same kind of longing for a better world, even if their better world is one we would never want to live in, and the path to getting there is one we would never want to walk?

Can we afford another two thousand years of unresolved family feuds? Do we even have the luxury of another two thousand years?

Paul writes, “so if you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” (v. 12) It’s a warning against the false pride of the self-righteous, and I will confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that I am the worst of all sinners when it comes to this. I am so self-righteous. I am so convinced that I see clearly what others are too dumb or blind to understand. I won’t ask you to tell me I’m wrong, because you know me too well, and we both know it would be a lie. And I won’t say that we all suffer from the same sin, because we don’t. Some of you possess a humility that puts me to shame. You live from a place of selfless love and genuine compassion that sees people before politics or positions. You minister to me, because I see Christ in you, and it calls me to repent.

And repentance is not synonymous with feeling bad about one’s self. It isn’t rehearsing a feeling of guilt. Repentance is turning to face the God who never wearies of forgiving us so that our minds can be renewed and our broken hearts can be healed. Repentance is the dawning epiphany that God’s foolish love is so much stronger than our “smart” self-righteousness. Repentance is a thirsty person finally realizing that they’re standing knee-deep in water, or the exhausted worker finally asking what might truly feed them. Repentance is a rejection of the logic of ownership, which throws away anything or anyone that doesn’t produce the thing we want to see, to have, right now, in favor of the logic of the gardener, who is willing to wait, to be patient, with all that is still possible for you and for me and for those who do not look, or think, or talk, or vote like you or like me. Because God is faithful, and will not let us be tested beyond our strength, but instead will give us another year, and another after that, and another after that, until we realize that our strength is each other, and that together we are being made new.

And what is it that you need to repent of? What false gods have you put your trust in? Whose story are you refusing to hear as your own? Which community do you hold at arm’s length? Who is too different for you to love? How has your heart grown hard, and when did it happen?

planting-a-tree--banner-3There is a reason we hear this hard scripture halfway through Lent, this season when the church prepares people to be baptized, and calls us each to be honest about the ways we have all fallen down in our baptismal vocations. Because if we cannot be honest about our failings, then we cannot experience the relief of forgiveness or the joy of a new beginning. And that is what God is always offering — a new beginning. God, whose first act was to plant a garden and populate it with life, is always granting the extra year, the year of the Lord’s favor, the year Jesus proclaimed when he unrolled the scroll and sat down to teach. We are living our whole lives in that extra year.

Let’s not spend another minute of it despising or condescending to another another. Let’s tell our stories. Let’s listen to each others, imagining that they could be our own.

Let’s fall in love with each other like long lost relatives.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, March 5, 2014: Ash Wednesday

Texts:  Isaiah 58:1-12  +  Psalm 51:1-17  +  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10  +  Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

The prophet Isaiah issues a call to action, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” (Isa. 58:1) and Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew replies, “So, whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so they may be praised by others” (Mt. 6:2)pb-120222-ashes-2-go-01.photoblog900At El stops across the city, people have been getting their ashes-to-go since this morning’s commute, even as Jesus continues with “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others” (Mt. 6:5) And, it is almost guaranteed that if you leave worship tonight with the sign of the cross on your forehead and venture into any public place, someone will ask you, “what have you given up for Lent?” How will you answer, given that Jesus instructs, “whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward” (Mt. 6:16)

What’s a faithful Christian to do with this season of Lent?

Though they may disagree on the surface about the nature of our repentance, whether it should be public or private, the prophet Isaiah and Jesus share in common a distaste for the hypocrisy that fills too much religious ritual.  When Isaiah instructs his listeners to lift up their voices like trumpets, it is not so that the world can see their faith, but so that the community can hear as an honest account of their failings is made public.

Isaiah mocks the pleas of the people as he mimics their complaints, “why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isa. 58:3a)  In response he offers a cold dose of hard truth, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers” (Isa. 58:3b).  The prophet has sounded the horns not to praise the people, but to take a searching and fearless moral inventory of their wrongdoings.

cb_alcoholics_anonymous_ll_120314_wgIf that language of “searching and fearless moral inventory” sounds familiar to you, then you’re probably acquainted with the 12 steps and 12 traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, or one of the many communities of recovery based on the 12-step spirituality that emerged from AA.  The steps are an essential part of the process of healing that restores people to life and makes it possible for them to return to the families and communities they have harmed in a new way.  Listen to the twelve steps:

We admitted that we were powerless … that our lives had become unmanageable.

Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood God.

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.

Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to [others who shared our condition], and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Taken as a whole, the 12 steps set out by communities of recovery like Alcoholic Anonymous give us, perhaps, contemporary language for making sense of the ancient traditions of Ash Wednesday.

We are addicts, all of us.  Some of our addictions are confined to our own personal behavior — be that drinking or drugs, gambling or sex.  Some of our addictions, though, are harder to spot because we share them with so many of the people around us — a reliance on violence, in any of its many forms, to establish and maintain control; a dependency on wealth to prop up a flagging sense of self; a habit we just can’t shake of taking on more and more work to prove to ourselves and others just how important we are. Then there are those mass addictions, our unhealthy attachment to goods and services that come to us at great expense to others: foreign oil, sweatshop clothing, cheap food, and the list goes on.  We allow ourselves to remember only briefly and occasionally the cost others pay daily so that we can get our quick fix of consumer culture and conspicuous consumption.

In 12-step recovery programs, the promise that’s held out is that there is restored health and new life available to all, but that to get there we will have to be honest with ourselves, with others, and with God.  The same is true tonight, on Ash Wednesday, as we begin a season of repentance and renewal that will last forty days, and will culminate in our celebration of the resurrected life that is ours through Christ Jesus when we finally arrive at Easter on the other side of this season.

But that is still forty days off, and the new life that God is always giving us comes to us all, rich and poor, one day at a time.  There will be many steps between this night and that great morning, but none of us can speed the days or avoid the work to be done in the interim.  “Now is the acceptable time; see now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor. 6:2b)

Tonight’s work is to take a searching and fearless inventory of our failures as individuals and as a people — not in order to generate a certain mood, or the appearance of penitence — but so that we can actually open our hearts and our lives to the healing that God is always and already pouring into and over us.

As we do our work we will be marked with ashes, not so that the world around us might notice what good Christians we are, but so that we might remember that life is short, and precious, and sooner than we can imagine will be over.  And why would we want to spend one more minute of our irreplaceable lives pretending to be well, when God is already at work making us truly whole.

Amen.

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