Sermon: Sunday, June 1, 2014: Seventh Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 1:6-14  +  Psalm 68:1-10,32-35  +  1 Peter 4:12-14;5:6-11  +  John 17:1-11

Happy Anniversary, St. Luke’s!

On this very day, June 1, 1900 St. Luke’s was established as a congregation of the General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America, one of the many predecessor bodies that over time merged into what is now the ELCA.

The church history prepared for St. Luke’s centennial celebrations back in 2000 tells the story this way:

“The history of St. Luke’s Church began on Easter Sunday, April 22, 1898, when a Sunday School conducted by St. Peter’s Church held its first session in a vacant store located at the corner of Diversey and Washtenaw Avenues [which today is where the JFK crosses over Diversey, just north of Brentano School]. Lars Undem and J. Paulsen were in charge.

In November, 1899, M. Edmund Haberland, a student at the Chicago Lutheran Seminary in Lakeview (located on the spot where Wrigley Field now stands), was called to develop a church in the area. He was still a student of the seminary and had only a limited about of time to devote to his work. But by persistent perseverance the work gradually grew and the confidence of the community was gained.

On Christmas Eve, December 24, 1899 the first Christmas service was held… In March, 1900 the mission moved into an empty store room near the corner of Rockwell and Diversey Avenues [over by what is now the Green Exchange]. The first session in this new location was held April 1, 1900, and the last session January 6, 1901 when the congregation moved into the new chapel.”

Charter members of St. Luke's, #1-11

Charter members of St. Luke’s, #1-11

The church’s founding charter was signed by Pastor Haberland and his wife, Verna; Louis and Sara Mueller; Andrew and Hannah Gusterine; August and Caroline Johnson; Wilhelmina and Andrew Lindblad; and Lars Undem — one of the adult Sunday School teachers from St. Peter’s that had kicked the whole thing off. That’s five couples and a single guy who, with the help of the wider church, went from a Sunday School class in a store front to the three-story church building that stands behind this sanctuary in just a couple of years. It’s amazing to think what just a handful of people were able to do together by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I wonder what those early days were like.  We know so little about these charter members.  They’d been connected to another congregation, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. They’d been active in an adult program of Christian Education together. Their pastor was a young man still in seminary. What made them want to start a new church together?

We can only guess, but there are clues scattered throughout the parish register.  The neighborhood was full of congregations like Norwegian Lutheran Church (the Minnekirken) that still stands on the square, and other congregations that worshipped in Swedish or German.  But this community founded itself as St. Luke’s English Evangelical Lutheran Church. Today the word “English” in this neighborhood might sound exclusionary, but in 1900 it signaled an openness to the children of immigrants from different parts of the world who spoke different languages and ate different foods, who had different traditions and customs. St. Luke’s picked a name that said, no matter which country your family originally came from, you are welcome here. This guess is supported by the names in the parish register: German names, like Haberland and Mueller; Scandinavian names, like Lindblad and Undem; Scotch-English names like Johnson.

Parish Record, St. Luke's English Evangelical Lutheran Church, ca. 1900.

Parish Record, St. Luke’s English Evangelical Lutheran Church, ca. 1900.

Apparently this openness to the diversity of the neighborhood was attractive to others, who quickly began to join the parish.  The congregation grew from eleven to twenty in the first year, adding 31 people overall in the first year and a half. But not everyone stuck around. Early on, at least four members decided to go back to St. Peter’s, including Lars, the only single guy on the charter. We might speculate about why that was, but who can say for certain. It’s hard to be the one person in a small group who’s different from everyone else. The bachelor in a group of couples. The parents in a room full of childless young adults. Don’t be fooled, it’s hard work building community across lines of difference.

There are about ten others whom the records indicate were “excluded by Council” within the first two years.  Some of the entries say, “excluded by Council by request,” and others do not. Again, who can say what this means for sure, it might indicate that people who signed up early drifted away without giving anyone a reason, leaving it to the Council to decide that they were no longer interested. Or, it may be that there were disagreements about the direction the congregation was taking that resulted in a more active act of exclusion by the lay leaders. Who knows?

There were certainly enough reasons for people to be coming and going. Folks who’d grown up in stable big steeple churches were in for something different, coming to a storefront on Diversey for Sunday School, devotions and prayer. A young pastor, not even fully trained, might have drawn younger families into the church, but alienated people who had decades of life experience on him and his wife. Then there was the challenge of generating the will and raising the funds to move not once, but twice, from Washtenaw to Rockwell and then finally to Francisco. Building a church, creating a community, takes a lot of hard work. Not everyone was up for it.

I wonder how those early dozens would have heard the passage we read from First Peter, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:12-13). Obviously we have to be careful not to equate every suffering and struggle of our own with a sharing in Christ’s sufferings.  Just because something is difficult does not mean it is a holy undertaking.  Christ’s sufferings are the ones he willingly chose to take on so that the world as it is might be transformed into the world as God intended it to be. So, to the extent that the matriarchs and patriarchs of St. Luke’s understood that their struggle to create a place for people of all nationalities to gather around the means of grace, the table and the font and the Word of God, so that they could be strengthened in their faith and equipped to participate in God’s mission to restore the whole creation, their struggle might be remembered as a sharing in Christ’s sufferings.

As they faced hard decisions together about whether their little adult forum could be something more, about whether or not this young seminarian had what it took to lead and care for them, about whether or not they could raise the money to build a chapel, about what language they would use in worship — their parents’ or their neighbors’, I wonder how they might have heard these words from the gospel of John, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11).

So many questions in front of them with no proof that any of their decisions would be the right ones, only faith that the God who had brought their families to these shores from many different places was the same God who spoke through Jesus to the disciples saying, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Although, those words probably weren’t much comfort to the original disciples. Recall that their original question to Jesus had been, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).  Those disciples had already been together a long time, they’d journeyed with Jesus through the course of his earthly ministry. They’d seen him heal the sick and cast out demons. They’d seen him confront the powers and principalities of this world. They’d seen him killed, but they’d also seen him raised from the dead. They’d seen all they needed to see to be convinced that God was in Jesus, and Jesus was in God, and that Jesus was with them, so they dared to hope that Jesus would do for them what they had been hoping for all along — that Jesus would finally restore things to they way they used to be, that he would restore the kingdom of Israel to its glory days.

That is the temptation we face on Anniversary Sunday, especially this year, isn’t it?

We too have seen God at work in this place. We too have stayed steady in our ministry to the sick, to those battling the demons of addiction and depression. We too have watched as the power of the Holy Spirit breathed new life into our dry bones, raising this church from a condition everyone around us expected would lead to death. We’ve seen all we need to see to be convinced that God is with us, and God is for us. So, as we gather this morning, this season, this moment in the life of our community after Easter, after the resurrection, we — like the original disciples — are drawn to ask, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore” things to the way they used to be, they way we remember them, or have chosen to remember them.

And Jesus, full of the power and glory of the resurrection, does not tell them what they want to hear. He says, “it is not for you to know the times or periods that [God] has set … but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:7-8).  You will give your testimony to the power of God at work among you, and in the world, and you will carry this story out with you to all the ends of the earth. Out. Forward. Not back.

And with those final words, Jesus ascends into heaven leaving the disciples wondering how, in fact, they were going to do any of that. Two men in white robes, maybe angels, maybe messengers, maybe just two baptized people dressed in the garments of their faith, finally shook them out of their wondering and asked, “why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly — and mysteriously — as he left” (Acts 1:11, The Message)

Not knowing what else to do, “Peter and John, James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James … together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:13-14) went home to Jerusalem and got together and prayed. That was the first act of the Acts of the Apostles who went on to build the church. They got together and prayed.

Which, come to think about it was the first act of the founders of St. Luke’s, they got together at Washtenaw and Diversey and they prayed.  Then they moved to a new site, and they prayed and worshipped some more.  Then they moved to yet another new site, and they prayed and worshipped some more. And then, sounding an awful lot like the early church, they gave what they had for the sake of this new community they were building, and soon they had a place to gather with their neighbors, people from many lands with many languages.

Peter writes, “Discipline yourselves, keep alert … and after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to eternal glory through Jesus Christ, will fulfill, restore, strengthen and establish you. To God be the power forever and ever! Amen” (1 Pet. 5:8,10-11).


Sermon: Sunday, March 2, 2014: Transfiguration of Our Lord

Texts:  Exodus 24:12-18  +  Psalm 99  +  2 Peter 1:16-21  +  Matthew 17:1-9

I wish I could pretend that each Sunday I preach I climb into the pulpit with an equal measure of certainty about my insight into scripture and my convictions about what I have found there, but the truth is I don’t. There are simply weeks when the mixture of life, time and my own faith — which is being worked out day by day, just like yours — don’t feel quite up to the task. This, as you might gather, is one of those weeks.

My mom emailed me a couple of days ago, “the presiding bishop’s article in The Lutheran on the Transfiguration was really helpful to me.”  So I followed up on that lead. Bishop Eaton writes,

“The Transfiguration is a strange story — the mountain, the light, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, the utterly confounded disciples, the voice of God. How do we make sense of this supernatural event? What does the Transfiguration of our Lord have to do with us? I confess that I couldn’t figure it out. So, when serving in the parish, I scheduled Youth Sunday on Transfiguration Sunday, thereby successfully avoiding preaching about it for years.” (1)

Gee, thanks.  We’re about five kids short and six years shy of being able to pull that off, but a good suggestion nonetheless.  Bishop Eaton goes on, however, to reflect on the relationship between what happens on the mountaintop and what follows afterwards. On the mountain, Jesus shines with the glory of God. Down below, Jesus makes his way to the cross. The two are inseparable, the glory of God and the cross.

We’ve been singing “glory to God” as the canticle of praise at the beginning of worship for the last three months, since the beginning of Advent. The gloria comes, as the note in the margin of your bulletin indicates, from the story in the gospel of Luke of the arrival of the angels at the scene of Christ’s birth who sing, “glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom God favors” (Lk. 2:14). But Matthew’s gospel, which we’re reading throughout this year, the angels appear at night not in the fields, but in a dream, as Jesus’ father Joseph is visited by an angel who tells him, “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us’” (Mt. 1:23).

Immediately after that story, we learn that a star has appeared in the sky, a pinprick of light in the dark, leading wise men from distant nations to the place where Jesus was born. This season of Epiphany began with the glory of God shining brightly in the night, and just a hint of the cross as well. The God who is with us in Christ Jesus is not just with us, but is a light to the nations. Something small, something provincial and tribal, has to die to make room for the glory of God who came into the world for the sake of the whole world, and not just the people and places we know and care for.

Then Jesus met John at the river Jordan, where he was baptized by a man who could not believe that his Lord would consent to be blessed by someone as human as that wilderness prophet. “I need to be baptized by you,” John says, “and do you come to me?” Of course, that’s exactly what Jesus, the Immanuel, does.  God comes to us. God is with us. We sang “glory to God” on that day, the Baptism of Our Lord, to acknowledge the grace of that event, that God comes to us, even when we think it ought to be the other way around. And something had to die in that river, under those waters, namely John’s conviction (and ours) that the righteousness of God is only for the righteous.

As we continued to journey through the season of Epiphany, Jesus moved from Nazareth to Galilee, where he would meet and call his disciples. The gospel of Matthew quotes a bit of the prophet Isaiah here,

“On the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (Mt. 4:15-16).

The glory of God called the disciples — Peter and Andrew, James and John — away from work they knew and people they loved to follow Jesus on the path to a confrontation with power that would lead to a very public and very painful death. The glory of God and the cross.

Then we settled into the real meat of this season of Epiphany as Jesus came to the mountain again, this time to deliver the Sermon on the Mount. Here the glory of God was made manifest as Jesus, doing his best impersonation of Moses, delivered a new law from the mountaintop in the form of the Beatitudes. Blessed are just about everyone you’d think was far from blessed, theirs is the kingdom of God. The glory of God shining through in a reversal of fortune that meant death to all our expectations about who and what is valued in the commonwealth of God.

As I’ve just sketched out, so far this year we’ve been traveling with Jesus pretty sequentially through the gospel of Matthew, accompanying the disciples as they gradually come to understand that God really is with us in the person of Jesus, who they come to know as the Christ. Today, however, the lectionary rips us out of that continuity and shows us a scene close to the end, after the time for teaching parables and healing miracles has ended and Jesus prepares to die.

As I stand here in the pulpit, having already confessed to you that I’m not always ready to be here, that I’m not always ready to preach, that my own faith is fragile and bends under the weight of so much expectation, I discover that this may be exactly how the disciples are feeling as well.

By this point in the story Peter has already confessed that Jesus is the Christ, but almost immediately thereafter he’s been rebuked by Jesus who says to him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mt. 16:23). Why? Because Peter had the temerity to confront Jesus about his public profession that he would be killed by the authorities, but would rise on the third day. It’s all becoming a little too real, the cost of discipleship a little too high, as Jesus declares, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt. 16:24).

Six days later, six days after Jesus has made it clear that God’s glory is going to be revealed most clearly in his death, Jesus returns to the mountain.  On those heights those who follow Jesus see him with Moses and Elijah, shining with the glory of God, and they just want to stop, to freeze this moment and live in it forever.

Episcopal priest and educator Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz, founder of the Episcopal School of Los Angeles, writes,

“The moment of transfiguration is that point at which God says to the world and to each of us that there is nothing we can do to prepare for or stand in the way of joy or sorrow. We cannot build God a monument, and we cannot keep God safe.” (2)

And I realize that this is exactly what has me afraid to preach sometimes, that I’m trying to make for God a monument of words, that I’m trying to keep God safe with stories and explanations that will make it easier for you to bring God up in the places where you work and mix with this world that is always denying that glory has anything to do with death.

But it does.  Glory has everything to do with death. Not just the little deaths, the practice deaths, we’ve watched along the way: the death of our prejudices, the death of our insecurities, the death of our certainties, the death of our expectations. But big death, the one with the capital D.

Jesus’ death is the sign of God’s ultimate solidarity with the suffering of creation. Jesus’ death is the proof that God is not distant, but is with us.

icu handsThis morning I am praying for a friend who is with his family at his mother’s bedside in the ICU, keeping watch as she straddles the line between life and death. Many of us know the anxiety and even the terror of that vigil, but we also know by faith that God is present at the bedside with that family.

This morning I am praying with the family of Lois Valbracht, a family friend who died this week at the age of 98, whose father-in-law was pastor here at St. Luke’s for a quarter century, and whose husband was the pastor of my childhood church in Des Moines, Iowa. She herself — as a mother, a musician, a writer — shared a faith that inspired those who knew her right up to the very end. Many of us know from our own lives how grief at a moment like this can still be transfigured by gratitude at the way God is revealed in a life lived by faith.

This morning I am praying with you, some of you caring for parents whose fragile lives are in precarious places; some of you weighed down by the grief of a parent or a spouse or a child or a friend who died too soon; some of you living with illnesses in your own bodies, approaching your own deaths. The word of hope from the mountaintop is that God is not distant, but with you.

Life is full of makeshift pulpits, moments in a conversation when you are called to coalesce your faith into words that can carry the meaning of God’s glory in the face of death. Just like I do, I know that you sometimes struggle to find words to share the faith that is in you; faith that sometimes stumbles, as it did for Jesus’ own disciples who heard the voice declare, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” and who fell to the ground in fear.

At moments like that, at moments like this, what comfort there is in knowing that it is not we who have to make our way to God, but God who makes a way to us.  As they trembled on the ground, overcome by awe and fear at the reality and the presence of God, Jesus came and touched them, saying “Get up and do not be afraid” (Mt. 17:7).

Patrick Wilson, a Presbyterian pastor in Williamsburg, Virginia writes,

“Some would say that God is much too much to be contained within the walls of a church. Of course they are right. Some would remind us that God is so great that neither the earth below not the heavens above can hold God. Certainly we must agree with them. God is certainly so great that God can never be contained in something as small as a crumb of bread or a sip of wine. We nod our heads, yes; but we must hasten to add: furthermore, God is so great, so majestic, so glorious, that God deigns come to us in a crumb of bread and a sip of wine, just as much of God as a hand can hold.” (3)

On the mountaintop God’s glory is revealed in a body preparing to die. A body like ours, transfigured by a love and a grace that will not abandon us, no matter where our life takes us, not even the cross. That is why we sing “glory to God” and “alleluia!”



(1) “From a Cross, a Dazzling Light,” by Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. The Lutheran, March, 2014.

(2) “Pastoral Perspective, Matthew 17:1-9” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

(3) “Homiletical Perspective, Matthew 17:1-9” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.


Sermon: Sunday, March 3, 2013: Third Sunday of Lent

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

So I have three god-children whom I adore.  My eldest goddaughter, Katie, is finishing up her final year of seminary at Vanderbilt in Nashville this spring and was recently approved for ordination by the Disciples of Christ.  My middle godson, Gabriel, just got into his parents’ first choice of Montessori pre-schools in Brooklyn, which will begin this coming fall.  And my youngest goddaughter, Kai, just celebrated her first birthday here in Chicago two weeks ago.

Goddaughter Katie (far right) carries the cross at my ordination, ca. October, 2006.

Goddaughter Katie (far right) carries the cross at my ordination, ca. October, 2006.

I adore all three of my godchildren, and my only regret is that I don’t somehow live close enough to all of them to get to see them as frequently as I do Kai, who Kerry and I get to babysit once a month in Oak Park while her moms lead the youth group at their church.  You heard me right, we babysit their infant daughter so that they can spend time with other people’s children.  That the kind of fantastic parents these two moms are.

If you’re thinking I look too young to have a goddaughter old enough to be graduating from seminary, thank you.  I do look great, don’t I?  I wish I could chalk it all up to the godly life, but I know myself (and some of you know me) better than that.  The fact of the matter is that I became a godfather at a very early age.  I think I was a freshman in high school.  Katie’s mother, LaDonna, had been my fifth grade Sunday School teacher and, like our own Sunday School teachers here at St. Luke’s, she took the job seriously.  She was prepared for us each week.  She entertained us.  She disciplined us.  She got to know us and she loved us.  LaDonna was among the first in the church who showed us what it means that, in baptism, we are reborn children of God and made members of the body of Christ.

Erika (left), Erik (center), and Laurie (right) with goddaughter Katie and her brother Sean, ca. ~1992.

Erika (left), Erik (center), and Laurie (right) with goddaughter Katie and her brother Sean, ca. ~1992.

When her second child, Katie, was born, LaDonna asked three of us from that fifth grade Sunday School class to be her godparents, me and my two best friends, Erika and Laurie. We were honored, and a little daunted.  What did it mean for us to be godparents at so young an age?  Would we be expected to take care of Katie if something happened to her parents?  What kind of a responsibility was this?

Different cultures have different expectations around what a godparent is, and different families have different traditions around who gets asked to be a godparent.  I’d like us to look for just a few minutes at what parents and godparents actually commit to during a baptism.  So, once again, I’m going to ask you to open the ELW, the red hymnal, in the back of the pew in front of you.  If you’ll turn to page 228 you’ll find the questions that are asked of parents and sponsors when children who are not able to answer for themselves are brought for baptism.

When parents bring their children for baptism, this is what the church asks of them:

As you bring your children to receive the gift of baptism, you are entrusted with responsibilities:

to live with them among God’s faithful people,

to bring them to the word of God and the holy supper,

teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments,

place in their hands the holy scriptures,

and nurture them in faith and prayer,

so that your children may learn to trust God,

proclaim Christ through word and deed,

care for others and the world God made,

and work for justice and peace.

We ask parents to promise that they will do these things, and we ask sponsors (the church’s name for godparents and any others who commit to caring for a baptized person) to “nurture these children in the Christian faith” and to “help them live in the covenant of baptism.”  Then, beyond even the parents and godparents, we ask the entire congregation, who act as the local representatives of the whole Christian church to promise to support these children and to pray for them in their new life in Christ.

In other words, we invite the church to meddle in their lives.

I think we have to remember that — that for most of us in this room promises have been made, very likely before we can even remember, by members of this and other congregations, by our parents and their friends, by church mothers and fathers, by Sunday School teachers, to meddle in our lives — before we can read this morning’s scriptures.  We have to remember that we have been claimed in love, by love, for love, before we can read the word this morning’s scriptures all speak.

Because that word is repent.

A group of people come to Jesus with questions about a terrible thing that has happened.  A group of Galileans had been killed by Herod, the local ruler beholden to the Roman empire.  The blood of the slaughtered had been mixed with that of their temple sacrifices.  What did this mean?  Why had this happened to these people?  What had they done to deserve this?

This is a totally natural question, it’s one we’re still asking.  Ours is a world in which blood is spilled every day, and we tell ourselves stories about those who have died in an attempt to manage the horror of that reality so that we can move on with our lives.  Derrion Albert was beaten to death walking home from school on the South side in 2009.  Why did this happen to him?  What had he done to deserve this?  Janay McFarlane was shot just hours after President Obama gave a speech condemning gun violence in Hyde Park last month.  Why did this happen to her?  What had she done to deserve this?

Jesus asks the crowd, “do you think that because these people suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other people?”

It’s a good question.  Do we think these things only happen to people who, somehow, deserve it?  Worse, do we think these things happen because people deserve it?  The quick answer is, no, of course not.  But that answer comes too easily.  It’s the one we know we’re supposed to give.

If we stay with the question for a while, other questions and other answers begin to emerge.  If we don’t think violence is an acceptable form of judgement on a life, then why do we tolerate its use as a punishment by the courts?  Why do we allow solitary confinement, a form of psychological torture, to be used by our penal system?  Why do we fetishize or valorize the use of torture in films from Reservoir Dogs to Zero Dark Thirty?

If we don’t think violence is an acceptable judgement on a life, then why do we abandon communities, neighborhoods, and nations to the ravages of prolonged violence — whether that be the in the form of children bullied every day for a decade because of a physical or developmental disability; or neighborhoods left to languish without quality education or adequate opportunities for employment; or nations living under the constant scrutiny of drones flying overhead that might rain death at any moment.

We have come up with all sorts of perverted theologies and crass politics to explain away our use of violence against one another.  They deserve it because they’re poor.  They deserve it because they’re Arab.  They deserve it because they’re queer.  They deserve it because they’re Black.  They deserve it because they’re immigrants.  They deserve it because they’re different.  They deserve it because they’re not us.

It’s rarely said out loud, these blunt denials of our shared humanity, but if they aren’t on some level what we believe about the people in this world who disproportionately suffer violence at the hands of the powerful, then why do we suppose it happens?

Jesus says, “do you think that because these people suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other people?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

There’s a quote I used to see on posters and in print all the time by the German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller, on the dangers of political apathy.  Reflecting back on the abuses suffered in Nazi Germany, he said,

First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Catholic.

Then they came for me, and there was no one left for me.

I think this Lutheran pastor was trying to teach us something about the meaning of the word “repent” and its relationship to baptism.  As long as we respond to the suffering of others with questions and assumptions about what they’ve done to deserve their treatment, we will let ourselves off the hook when it comes to doing anything about it.  We’ll find excuses to stay out of the struggle.

“Oh, but I’m not in a union.”

“Well, my family immigrated legally.”

“If you’d seen the way he was dressed, he was asking for it.”

Then the moment comes when it is you who has been targeted for violence, whether that be the economic violence of a war on not only the middle class, but the working class, the working poor and the majority of the world outside of industrialized nations like ours; or the violence of laws that deny you access to the same civil rights taken for granted by your neighbors; or the violence of a spouse or lover who lays hands on you in order to maintain power and control.

And in that moment, who will stand up for you?

We made promises to each other when we were each baptized.  Promises to care for each other and the world God made.  Promises to work for justice and peace.  Baptismal promises.  We promised to meddle in each others’ lives for the sake of good.  We promised we would not abandon each other to the violences of this world.

And we have broken our promises, which is why Jesus calls us to repent.

It’s hard to preach repentance, because it sounds like condemnation, and who am I — who are any of us — to offer up condemnation?  Didn’t Jesus also say, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone?”

But we’re not talking about casting stones, which is just another form of violence.  We’re talking about telling the truth, even when it’s messy, even when it’s dangerous.  And we’re talking about telling the truth in love — not to score points or win arguments, but in order to care for one another and the world God made.  In order to keep the promises we made, and were made over each of us.

Godson Gabe (left) and goddaughter Kai (right), ca. Jan. 2013.

Godson Gabe (left) and goddaughter Kai (right), ca. Jan. 2013.

I love my three godchildren, and I made promises to help them live into the promises of baptism.  Whether they are near to me, or far away, I take those promises seriously.  I meddle in their lives, and I will continue to do so because I understand that to be a part of my job as a Christian, as a member of the household of faith.

It is your job too.  The work of prophets is not reserved for a few, but for all the baptized people of God.  It is not limited to a committee of the church, called Social Justice — it is work that belongs to each of us.  We are called as Christians to make a public witness to the world that each of us is a precious child of God.  That each of us is loved and cherished and necessary in God’s economy.  That none of us are expendable.  If we cannot do that for one another, if we cannot do that for the weakest and most vulnerable among us, apart from us, even far from us, then we will all perish just as they already are.

Remember your baptism and repent.