Abundant Leftovers

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on August 6, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 9:1-5 + Matthew 14:13-21

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Please pray with me this morning:

Holy Abundant God,
You have generously blessed us,
And call us to be generous with our lives.
Open our hearts and hands beyond our selves,
That through you, our generosity might be multiplied.
Amen.

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One of the greatest privileges of my life was spending a semester abroad, living in Sevilla, Spain. During my 6 months there, I was obviously immersed in Spanish culture, everything from language to customs to food. And one of the things I discovered almost immediately, was a sense of genuine generosity in how I was treated. Whether it was a native Spaniard being patient with me as I struggled through what I was trying to communicate; or waiters letting us probar, or try, a lot of different things when we weren’t sure if we’d like a certain food; or simply giving their time and attention and offering their hospitality to a foreigner who was trying his best to learn and learn from another culture, the Spanish people are incredibly generous.

I’ve heard similar stories from people in this community who’ve visited our friends in El Salvador. That even though they don’t have much, the Salvadoran people are so, so generous and hospitable: inviting folks into their homes, feeding them, giving them gifts, everything.
It’s the same generosity and hospitality that I hope they experienced when they were here a couple of weeks ago.

I’ve also heard that the same commitment to generosity and hospitality holds true in most, if not all, of the global south. These wonderful people who, compared to the resources we enjoy here in the United States, have much less than we do, share anything and everything they have simply because being generous is inherent to their identity.

I wonder if people from other parts of the world would say that about us in the United States?

What about you, church? Do you think people would say that New Hope is a generous community?

And this is when a Gospel story becomes more than just a Gospel story. Remember when I said that you’re going to need your bibles? Everyone got Matthew 14? Great.
Our Gospel this morning picks up at Matthew chapter 14, verse 13 and started with, “Now when Jesus heard about this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place.” The “this” being referred to here is everything that’s happened up to this point in chapter 14. Check out those first 12 verses of Matthew 14.
The “this” is the beheading of John the baptizer. A beheading that took place at a banquet that Herod was hosting. This first 21 verses of Matthew 14 might well be called ‘A Tale of Two Banquets’ because if we read carefully, Jesus’ feast in this deserted place is a play on the banquet that Herod held at his place.

Herod’s banquet is at the palace, likely very lavish. There is plenty for the wealthy and powerful few, but no regard for the many, for the hungry and the poor. At Herod’s party, a powerless prisoner is executed for entertainment. The leftovers of Herod’s banquet are violence and death.

Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes is the subversive inverse of Herod’s banquet and is a diametrically opposed example to how the empire works. Jesus’ feast happens in a deserted place of no particular importance, simply a place that he and his disciples withdrew to get away and have some quiet. The explicitly invited group to Jesus’ banquet are those that the entirety of Jesus’ ministry is fixated upon—the poor, the hungry, the blind, the sick, the dis-eased, and the outcast, exactly those that Herod’s banquet kept out.
Herod consumes, Jesus multiplies.
Herod takes a lot and leaves behind only death and violence. Jesus takes a little and creates abundance.

And it’s this continuing inversion that we come together to celebrate every week. That rather than wantonly overconsuming and squeezing every ounce of life out things until they are more than dead as the empire does, God takes things that are dead and raises them to new, thriving, and abundant lives.
It’s the simple, straightforward truth we proclaim about the cross. That God brings life in spite of, instead of, death.

And so what are we doing with this incredible gift?
God has overcome death and given you life, and life abundant. You’ve been given a gift, and so what?

I think Jesus’ directive is pretty clear, “You give them something to eat.” The call of Jesus is one on our lives, how we live as disciples of the one who feeds a multitude with hardly anything. The point of the Gospel reading is not how Jesus literally took 5 dinner rolls and some trout and somehow fed 5,000 people by breaking them into tiny pieces and asking people to share. The point is that there was enough.
There is enough.
There is more than enough, it’s just that you’ve been told for your entire life that there’s not, and so you’ve been told that you have to stock up and hoard what you can.
Friends, that is a theology and a worldview of scarcity.
The God we worship, the kingdom that God is bringing about, operates on an economy of enough.

breadJesus transforms the economy by blessing it and breaking it beyond self-interest. Jesus’ question isn’t “How much do you need?” but rather “How much does your neighbor need?” When we start from a place of care and concern first and foremost for our neighbor, I think you’ll find that there’s always enough.

I’ve gotten a handful of funny looks from folks when I give them a big chunk of bread at communion. But when the gifts of God are so abundant, so extravagant, and so, so good and tasty, how can I not share them with the same lavishness with which God has shared them with us?
baptismYou’ve noticed that I do this with the waters of baptism as well, I think. Not only is it just fun to fling water everywhere and soak little foreheads, in my mind, my joy and excitement is simply mirroring the same extravagance and abundance that God has shown to us in giving us these gifts.

I use this language in our invitation to offering, too. Have you noticed? Every Sunday, I call us back from a time of sharing peace into a time of offering by saying, “We’ll now receive our offering, giving thanks to God for what God has given to us.”
Dear friends, our gifts, what we have, the space and place we inhabit, our friends and family, everything that we are blessed with…these are all blessings from God, and a holistic understanding of stewardship is one that recognizes that all we have and all we’ve been given were first given to us by God. And stewardship, whether we’re talking about offering, time, resources, food, money, talents, gifts…anything you have to give…is simply a way of looking at everything God has blessed you with and asking the question of what you do with…how you steward well…everything God has blessed you with.

How do you show thanks to God, for what God has given to you?

Maybe it’s volunteering at Fort Bend Family Promise or the East Fort Bend Human Needs Ministry Food Pantry. Maybe it’s finding one afternoon a month to read with some kids at your nearby school. Maybe it’s partnering with a mentoring program like Big Brothers and Big Sisters. Maybe it’s taking a Saturday morning to pick up trash around your neighborhood park. Maybe it’s giving of your time, energy, resources, or talents to New Hope.
Maybe it’s all of those things.

The point is, God is a God of abundance, and God has lavished gifts of all kinds on God’s people, so how do we thank God for all those things that God has extravagantly lavished on us?
When we move beyond an understanding of an economy of scarcity, and begin to view the world and everything in it the way God sees the world, as full of promise and possibility, through an understanding of an economy of abundance, the question is reframed from “How can there possibly be enough?” to “What are we going to do with all these leftovers?”

Falling Gracefully

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on July 9, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 7:15-25a + Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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Please pray with me:

Holy Comforter,
Our lives are full of expectation,
Maybe none more than the expectation we place on ourselves.
Lighten our burdens and ease our demands this morning.
Help us hear your liberating word of grace.
Amen.

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These last 3 verses of our Gospel this morning are read to every Lutheran pastor at their Ordination. It’s read as the stole, one of the marks of the Office of Pastor, is placed on their shoulders.
Usually the pastor kneels while this is happening, and will stand up and be announced after the stole is put on.

And…if you’re Pastor Chris, you’ll get caught up in your alb as you’re trying to stand and nearly fall on your butt, only to be saved by a quickly-placed hand on the floor, trying to make it look as natural and smooth as possible.

Yeah…tell me again about how easy that yoke is and how light that burden is…

Sometimes the call to discipleship can feel like that. It can feel like a really lofty ideal, completely unreachable. And I wonder, what must that do to our own sense of discipleship? Devastating, right?
Why would we willingly follow if the way seems impossible?

Like St. Paul in Romans this morning, you might find that you’re heaping all kinds of guilt upon yourself, trying to live as God has called you to live. It’s one of my favorite lines from Paul, by the way, “The good that I want to do, I do not do, but the evil, that which I do not want to do, is what I do.”
Paul’s giving voice to a really significant inner struggle, I think. Why is it that I keep doing the thing that I don’t want to do—harming others with my words, my actions…living counter to the way God would have me live—rather than the thing I want to do…living according to the path of discipleship God has called me to?

The Reformer, Martin Luther, resonated deeply with this passage from Romans.
Side note: 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We haven’t talked a whole lot about it up to this point, but it is something that is informing my preaching a lot these days. It’s one of the reasons why when we made the changes to our liturgy for the summer, I wanted to be sure that we heard these passages from Romans. For Luther, Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the clearest articulations of the Gospel. And you’ve heard those themes these past few weeks.
Saved by grace through faith…baptized into Christ, buried into Christ’s death and joined to Christ’s Resurrection…
Luther had many of his own struggles, but these verses from Romans 7 really vexed him. Luther couldn’t figure out why it was that even though he wanted to live out what he felt God was calling him to, he continuously felt like he wasn’t measuring up. He constantly felt like he was falling short.

Maybe you feel that way too. I certainly do.
You may have heard me preach the past few weeks and thought, “There’s no way I can live like that all the time. That’s an impossible task for anyone.”
And if that’s the case, then I hope Jesus’ words this morning are a welcome balm of grace for you.

Look, the call to discipleship is a tough road, let’s be honest. It’s not easy, it doesn’t come naturally to us, and to try and live the kind of life of discipleship that Jesus is talking about will find you, like St. Paul and Martin Luther, at odds within yourself.
Our default posture is not one of giving of ourselves so that others would have.

But just because the task seems tall and the goal seems unreachable, doesn’t mean that there aren’t steps we can take to try and live the type of life that we’re called to.

But…and this part is key, so don’t miss this…we try to follow Jesus in the path of discipleship in full and complete knowledge that we will fall short and we will be in need of God’s grace to help us and cover us and make up for our shortcomings when that happens.
That the grace of God will catch us when we stumble.
And right here, church…this is the incredible gift of the Gospel that makes all the difference in the world.

I was raised in the city, I don’t know much about agriculture or farming, but I learned something about plowing this week. Yokes, like the kind used to link two cows or horses together, are custom-fit pieces. Yokes have to be made to fit precisely, otherwise it can cause serious injury or harm to the animals.
Friends, if Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon yourself,” you have to know that it is fit exactly for you.
The yoke of discipleship is specifically made for you.
And you are created to be a disciple.

yokeThe heaviness of the yoke can sometimes feel like the heaviness of the cross of discipleship that we’ve been talking about these past few weeks. But the magnificent gift of grace is that you are not called to carry a cross or a yoke that is ill-fitting. You are called precisely according to the gifts that you have.

We have a baptism this morning at the late service, and as I sat with Milo’s parents, Peter and Brittany, this week, we talked about baptism as being born into a spiritual family…a community of faith…the body of Christ…and that through our baptisms we celebrate and name the various members of that body and the gifts we bring to that community. We had a wonderful discussion about what part of the body each of us might be and why, and then I asked Peter and Brittany my most favorite question to ask whenever I do a baptismal seminar: What member of this body do you hope your child is?
The warmness of hope and possibility that settles over me every single time I ask that question is one of the great gifts I receive as Pastor of this community.

We all bring gifts to this community, church. You have something to give.
Later on, we’ll bless and commission youth that will serve our neighborhood and community as staff during the next 3 weeks of Camp Hope.
We’ll bless and bid farewell to Cheryl and Tom Braaten as they make their way to San Antonio and we celebrate the gift that they’ve been to us these past 34 years.

What about you? What gifts do you bring? What part of this body are you?

You are made to be disciples, dear friends.
The yoke of discipleship is easy and light.
Know that. Trust that.
Most especially when the weight of the world causes you to stumble.

True Peace is Hard to Come By

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on June 25, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 6:1b-11 + Matthew 10:24-39

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Please pray with me:

Holy God,
We say we want peace,
Yet true peace is hard to come by.
Guide us as we walk down this path of discipleship.
And remind us again that you walk with us.
Amen.

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One of the things I hated most about being a kid was getting hurt. Scrapes, bumps, bruises, cuts, gashes…I got them all. I loved riding my bike more than anything, so all of those were basically a weekly occurrence.
I hated the cuts and bumps and scrapes most because 1) it meant playtime had to be put on pause, but 2) because the process of cleaning up scrapes and gashes and cuts is really quite terrible.
See, because before you put a bandaid or neosporin on it, you have to clean it. Really well.
You have to wash it with water, maybe a little soap, maybe put some hydrogen peroxide on it, and if you’re anything like me, you’re thinking back to when you had to do that last part and you’re cringing a little bit, right?

In order for wounds to heal well, they have be cleaned. And that part is awful, sometimes as bad as the injury itself. But it is necessary in order for good healing to happen.

In our Gospel this morning, we hear Jesus saying one of the most un-Jesusy things in all of the Gospels, “I’ve not come to bring peace, but I’ve come to bring a sword.” It’s a hard thing for us to hear from the one we call the Peaceful One. But I do think Jesus is talking about peace here.
It’s just that I think Jesus is talking about a deep, abiding, true peace, rather than the things that masquerade as peace these days. That abiding peace—that true peace—in Hebrew is Shalom.

Jesus is saying here that true peace is hard to come by.
And I think deep inside our heart of hearts, we know that to be the case. That so much of what passes as peace these days is a false peace. False peace is a peace that is gained by violence. False peace is a peace that is peaceful for some, but not for all.
But true peace—that abiding peace—I think we know, is a long, arduous, and sometimes painful road.

Because true peace requires you to confront some pretty ugly things about yourself. It forces you to recognize and be honest about the ways in which you’ve distanced yourself from your neighbor, how you’ve hurt or harmed those you once called family, and how you’ve used your words to cause injury or violence rather than building up and healing.

I think this poem by Christian Wiman that we’re using as our Confession during this Season of Pentecost does a pretty good job of naming this: “For all the pain passed down the genes or latent in the very grain of being; for the lordless mornings, the smear of spirit words intuit and inter…”
Right? These ways in which our words smear the spirits of others. Or the pain we cause others because it’s inherent to our very being, our DNA is infused with this sense of separation from God, and our innate inclination is to distance ourselves from our neighbors or the other.
Look deep inside yourself. Isn’t that true of you?

That’s what St. Paul is talking about when he writes about our “old self.” That the sinful posture of humanity is one of turning away from God. That’s been true of humanity from the beginning.
SparrowAnd we have to fight with every fiber of that being to overcome those tendencies. It takes a conscious choice on our part to try to live in reconciled relationships with God and with each other. And it’s not a one and done thing, we have to recommit ourselves to that difficult work of reconciliation and peace-making again and again, day after day, morning after morning, Sunday after Sunday. We come to this place to hear God’s word of forgiveness; that every single hair on your head has been counted, numbered, and named; that you, precious child of God, are worth so much more than a thousand sparrows; that neither height nor depth, that nothing in all of creation can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus; that if you have been joined to Christ in a death like his, how much more surely, dear people, will you be united with Christ in a resurrection like his.

True peace is hard to come by.
The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was preaching a sermon on these verses from Matthew said, “Peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.”

When we truly follow Jesus in this path of discipleship…when we take seriously the call given to us in our baptism to actively work for peace and justice in the world…when we internalize what the Reverend Doctor King noted that “No one is free until all are free” and that our liberation as humanity is inextricably tied together and caught up in “an inescapable network of mutuality”…when we really, actually work for and make justice a reality in our unjust communities…when we take up our own cross and follow Jesus…that’s how we start down the way of true peace.

But let’s be clear about where that way leads.
If you pick up your cross, if you undertake the difficult work of creating and cultivating justice, you will find yourself with Jesus along the way of the cross. And that way leads to death.

You will die to yourself, and you will have started to live for others.
You will lose your life, but in losing your life you will have gained it.

The path of discipleship, this way of the cross, is one marked by wounds and scars.
And it’s especially through the wounds and scars of the One we follow in this way of hard-fought, abiding, true peace that God gives life to all of God’s creation…including the sparrows.

One Spirit, One Community

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on Pentecost, June 4, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the Festival of Pentecost:
Acts 2:1-21 + Psalm 104:24-34, 35b + 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 + John 20:19-23

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This was a jointly preached sermon between one of our youth and myself.

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When I was young, well younger than I am now, I was taught the head, shoulders, knees, and toes song. You know, “head shoulders knees and toes, knees and toes,” you get the gist. And the preschool teachers began the long process of teaching us kids all the parts of the body and their roles. The hands were for touching, the mouth was for eating, the feet were for walking. And then years later the health and science teachers expanded on that, going into excruciating detail on organ and body systems, and how they interact with each other. My entire seventh grade science class was devoted to biology and the study of what makes creatures stay alive, while also adapting and evolving to continue thriving through homeostasis. We thoroughly explored how each part contributes to a whole, and that that is precisely what keeps us breathing in and out, among other things.

In the second reading, today we hear again the familiar idea that “all the members of the body, though many, are one body.” Reinforcing everything I had learned, a reminder even in faith. It doesn’t have the same meaning though. This liturgical version runs deeper as it applies to much more than just the scientific aspect of the body. If English class has taught me anything, it’s that to learn the true meaning, unwrap the layers of the text and focus in on the word choice. Paul chooses the word “member”, rather than piece or part. Now why is that? Paul uses the word member to represent living individuals coming together to become one, just as he uses the word body to symbolize not only the literal human body, but larger communities and societies. The dissolving of the differences that separate us brings us together, speaking the same language, listening to the same words, singing the same songs.

These days in the media you hear the way people treat each other. As if they have nothing in common. You see the inequality. The discrimination. How somehow people think it is acceptable to treat people differently than they deserve, based solely on things that make us people. Things like, “race, gender, sex, pregnancy, ethnic or social origin, color, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth, etc.” If this all exists then how can we also be simultaneously members of one body, all whole as one? The other day I was sitting at the lunch table with my friends stressing over finals, how we were going to miss each other in high school, plans for the summer, etc. And the topic of Ariana Grande’s concert came up. Immediately we expressed our sadness for those who were injured and those who lost their life. But then my best friend in the world, who happens to be Sudanese and proud of it, looked at me, straight in the eye and said, “I hate those attacks because whenever people die or get injured everyone assumes that all Muslim people are bad and not every Muslim is a bad person.”

Therefore, how, in the midst of all this, can we be one whole society?
Paul tells us. “In one Spirit” For in one spirit. We are all connected. Today’s reading stresses that the Holy Spirit is truly what brings us together and creates that bond of members we have under the church of Christ. When I was growing up out of the three and one, the Father and the Son were most talked about. But now as I mature I start to realize that the Spirit might be one of the most important of all. The Holy Spirit not only unites us, but marks us as children of God during baptism. It is during that time when the Spirit washes over us, cleansing our mind, body, and conscience of differences, so that we can be our own selves, but joined under the entire umbrella of the church, sheltering us from the harsh rains of separation.

Furthering this train of thought, Paul grasps at something bigger for he touches the theme of identity, and defining who you are in relation to others. For not only does this reading ask “how can we be united when we are so different?” but also “how can we be different if we are so united?” The Holy Spirit guides us to help find that perfect middle, so that all those pieces of the puzzle are distinctive, but whole, and all irreplaceable.

Today we honor the Spirit and all that it entails, shaping our lives so that we can be who we are. Who we were created to be. Today we remember not only the stories when the Spirit comes as fire, or water, or wind, but especially the present stories of ways the Spirit shines through people now. In my now old middle school we had the most diverse classrooms I have ever seen. I must’ve had friends from countless countries teaching me about their traditions and lifestyles. I personally hung out with many Indian friends, so much that they have accepted me into their culture and called me an honorary Indian. I participated in doing an Indian dance in PE when we had to choreograph one together, and I’m pretty sure right now I could name at least 10 Indian songs that are popular even though I don’t understand the language at all. The purpose of this now lengthy example is that this is how I see the Holy Spirit. When I walked into school every day and saw all those friendly but widely varied faces it evidenced the power the Spirit has, forever bringing us together, no matter what.

NHLC Pentecost

Like Abby said, Paul writes “In the one Spirit we were baptized into one body, and so it is with Christ.” Friends, in our baptism we are brought together as one, joined to Christ, joined to one another, through the Spirit. And “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”.

I think that’s a really important verse for us. As Abby notes, we’re much more ready to identify those things that divide us than those things that unite us. And how on earth could we possibly work together for good if our starting point is one of division?

God’s not looking for mindless drone robots. That’s why I think Paul’s language of members of the body is so beautiful. Each member of the body retains their own identity. A finger is different than a toe, a shoulder different than a nose, but all of these members are dependent on one another to accomplish that which a body is used for. Our task, dear people, is to come together, bringing our individualities and identities, yet asking the prayerful and discerning question, “What is that God would have us do together?”

It’s part of the reason that today, during this celebration of Pentecost, that we’re recommitting and rededicating ourselves to the mission and ministry of New Hope Lutheran Church. On a day when we celebrate the birthday of the Church, the day when the message of the Gospel was heard in new ways by new groups of people and set loose in the world by the Holy Spirit, we’re also celebrating the ways in which we, as a church, as New Hope, are hearing and experiencing and living out the Gospel in new ways and being moved out from our pews by that same Holy Spirit.

Recommitting ourselves to the mission and ministry of New Hope means recommitting ourselves to prayerfully asking that question about what God is calling us to. It means moving forward into a new future, a new mission, a new path… It’s not closing the book, at all, it’s committing to beginning a new chapter, one that remembers and is informed by but is not beholden by our past.

There are many ways in which the church we are now has been incredibly blessed by the church we once were, and we are thankful for that. And, we are and we can be so much more than the church we once were.
Recommitting and rededicating ourselves to the mission and ministry of New Hope is recommitting and rededicating ourselves to listening for and following that Spirit of God that was set loose at Pentecost and is still moving mightily in our world and in this place.

And if you’re wondering if that’s true, if you’re still not convinced, just take a look at our worship this morning. Everything we’re doing this morning has been planned and led by this group of faithful Christians, who want nothing more than for you to recognize what they’ve known this whole time: that the Spirit is here and the Spirit is moving through this place like fire.

 

So in your everyday life, if you haven’t already, start noticing the little ways the Holy Spirit contributes in your life. Notice how the Spirit sparkles and flows through members you see, for all of them are surely becoming one body.

A Reasonably Full Account

* a sermon preached in class at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on March 29, 2016 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Text: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

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I sat staring at the screen, watching the cursor…

… * blink * … * blink * … * blink *…

I sat there for what felt like an inappropriately long time. I stared back at the printed page, back at the blank computer screen, back at the printed paper…

I reread the sentence at least 10 times… “What does this mean?!?”

Back at the screen, back at the paper… “Please give a reasonably full account of your life.”

 

What……?!?

 

I started typing… “I was born…” That’s as far as I got.
Back at the paper, back at the screen, back at the paper…
Nope. Not today. ‘File > Save As > CPE Application > Enter’. Shut the computer.

I sat there for an hour, and all I had to show for it were three words. “I. Was. Born.”
Yep. Very good, Chris. You were, in fact, born. Glad we figured out that mystery.

But what else? Ummmmm…… I don’t know…
It was clear to me that I needed to sit with this prompt. I needed to think about it for a while.
Because I needed to figure out what this question was asking at its base. What were my potential CPE supervisors looking for out of my response to this question?

I eventually did answer this question, just as we all did, just as we answered the myriad of similar questions over the years.

  • Provide a brief autobiography, including your early years and faith formation.
  • Describe your journey of discernment.
  • Give a clear statement of faith that reflects your understanding of the heart of Lutheran Confessional witness.
  • What key theological insights have been influential in your development as a missional leader in the Church as it participates in God’s mission in world? (Missional, mission, missionally missional…)
  • In fifty words or less, describe your vision of your calling in ministry and your passion for ministry.

Such gems…

These, and many other prompts like it that we’ve responded to over the past 4 years are, fundamentally, questions about our identity. Who are we?

Our response to this question isn’t cut and dry, it’s not simple. It requires a multi-faceted, multi-angled, and nuanced answer. For example, I’m a husband. I’m also a son. And a brother. And a male. And…I’m caring. And I’m loyal. And I’m a little bit silly…

 

This question of identity is one that we see being worked out in our Gospel today. We have the people wondering about John’s identity: “Is this the Messiah for whom we’re waiting?” We have John’s assertion of his own identity: “I’m not the one, but there is one coming after me. I’m not worthy to touch his feet.” We see Jesus coming to be baptized by John, as much a marker of belonging and identity as it is a ritual cleansing. And this affirmation from a disembodied voice from the heavens: “This is my child. He is the Beloved. And I am well-pleased with him.”

A lot gets made of Luke 4, the story of Jesus in the temple reading from the scroll of Isaiah. It’s often described as Jesus’ mission statement, the start of Jesus’ ministry. I wonder, though, if the beginning of Jesus’ ministry isn’t our verses for today, and if further description of the nature of Jesus’ mission isn’t found even before where our pericope picks up.

More on Jesus’ baptism in a second, but follow me first to 5 verses before the reading we heard today starts. Starting at verse 10: “Then the crowds asked John, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked John, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’”

See, here’s the thing, in the midst of baptizing people for the forgiveness of their sins, John was also calling people to a certain pattern of life. The community into which John was baptizing people was to be known by certain habits and practices: the sharing of resources, fair economic policies, and mandates for compassion and justice by those in power.

Jesus baptismAnd I don’t think it’s insignificant that Jesus comes to be baptized by John. I don’t think Jesus was just walking along the banks of the Jordan in Galilee and chose to just stop off and see what this strangely-dressed prophet of the wilderness was putting down and decided on a whim that all of this sounded like a good idea. No, I think John’s vision for society is compelling. I think Jesus explicitly understood the nature of his ministry as being aligned with, and maybe even informed by, John’s version of communal living. And if we’ve learned anything in 4 years, I think it’s that we know that fairness, compassion, justice, and community are the trademarks of Jesus’ ministry of preaching, healing, and teaching.

They’re trademarks of a ministry that culminates in the ultimate act of solidarity and love. The giving up of one’s life for the sake of the world. Emptying of one’s self so that we might have life.

And even in that, even in the shameful and horrific execution that was supposed to restore order and reassert the status quo, we who live on this side of Easter know that that’s not the end of it. There’s a new order, a new way. The status quo is no longer…quo. See, God brings life from things that are dead. God’s response to a world that would murder and silence the very embodiment of Love is the Resurrection of that Love and the establishment of an alternative vision for life founded on that very Word: Beloved.

 

Which brings me back to baptism. See, as much as Luke 4 does give us a clear description of what Jesus is going to be about, I think the call to that ministry is found one chapter before in this baptismal narrative. This call to ministry that gets articulated in the temple, I think, is first instilled in Jesus in the waters of baptism and the assertion from God that, “This is my child. Beloved. I am so pleased.”

Dear friends, it’s the same call that was kindled us when we were washed in those refreshing waters, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever. The call that has been growing and emerging inside of all of us as we move forward into ministry patterned on those same trademarks of fairness, compassion, justice, and community.

It’s that call that will be publicly reaffirmed for most of us in a few short months when we will be told that by the grace of God and the call of the church you, Christian Michaelis; you, David Elliott; you, Andrew Yoos; you, Marissa Tweed; you, Dione Miller; you, Amy; you, Alma; you, Stacy; you, Peter; you, Debbie; you, Elizabeth, are called and ordained to preach and teach the Word and rightly administer the Sacraments. To feed God’s people with bread and wine and Word. To shower God’s people in the waters of the unending mercy and compassion of God. To lead and to call and to join with God’s people in an alternative way of living and being in this world, a pattern of life marked by fairness and justice.

And may God who has given you the will to do these things graciously give you the strength and compassion to perform them.
Because that’s who you are. That’s your identity.

 

Friends, that reasonably full account of our lives is about to get so much more full…

 


Image credit: Steve Erspamer, SM

All In The Family

* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on January 11, 2015 *

Text: Matthew 3:1-17

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Please pray with me:

Please pray with me.

Living God,
We are often forgetful people.
Remind us and keep us mindful
of who we are and whose we are
in the waters of our baptism.
In your most holy name, we pray.
Amen.

***************

“There’s always one in every family…” We’ve heard this before, haven’t we? Maybe you’ve said this yourself. This phrase gets tossed out to explain why Uncle Fred insists on wearing his hawaiian shirts during the holidays when there’s snow on the ground. Or used to reason away why your 24-year-old second-cousin Paulette has 14 cats but hasn’t signed up for eHarmony yet.

Or…at worst…we use this phrase to excuse, and even condone bad and destructive behavior…

Maybe you are the “one in every family…”

You know, I was privileged to spend my holidays here with y’all at LMC, which meant I wasn’t blessed with the warmth of a Texas Christmas. But it also meant that Tiffany and I got to host our families up here this year. Let me tell you, 9 Texans navigating a Chicago winter is quite a hilarious sight to witness.

But we got to spend the holidays with our families, which was wonderful, but I’ve got to tell you…I think I’m the “one” in my family… But that’s just speculation at this point.

I suspect that John was probably the “one” in his family, too. Seriously. I mean, camel’s hair? Locusts? Honey? Yeah. “Cousin” John was definitely the one drawing the sideways glances at the dinner table…

And yet…Jesus comes to John to be baptized. Not the other way around. Curious…

It was suggested to me this week that I take a look at the pronouncements of the births of John and Jesus by the angel Gabriel, and so I did. They’re in Luke 1, by the way, if you want to check them out for yourself. Most of you are pretty familiar with the pronouncement of Jesus’ birth, I think. Gabriel, Mary, “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord…” You’ve got it.

But the foretelling of John’s birth, probably not so much. Instead of appearing to John’s mother, Elizabeth, Gabriel comes to John’s father, Zechariah, in the temple. The content of this pronouncement is what’s interesting to me. Gabriel tells Zechariah that Elizabeth will bear a son, and his name will be John. He will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn the hearts of the people back to their God, and he will prepare the way of the Lord. And there’s also this strange tidbit: He must never drink wine or strong drink.

Hmmm. It’s interesting to me that no such conditions are placed on Jesus by Gabriel. Apparently we want our prophets to be focused on prophesying, and not preoccupied with such frivolous things as wine or strong drink. The Messiah? Yeah sure, go ahead, whatever you want. But God forbid that the one preparing the way enjoy a nice Pinot or 2 fingers of the dark stuff…

We laugh, but this understanding is important to the story. See, John didn’t drink, he lived simply, he ate simply. John was an ascetic. From the Greek word askesis, which means ‘exercise’ or ‘training,’ ascetics abstain from so called “worldly pleasures” in the interest of pursuing spiritual goals. John was baptizing people into this simple, ascetic way of living, this spiritual discipline. For John, baptism was a ritual cleansing, replete with repentance of sins and a commitment to this self-denying way of living.

And then along comes Jesus. Interesting to note that Jesus comes to John to be baptized. Was Jesus seeking to be baptized into this way of living simply too? Maybe. Certainly if we take what we think we know about how Jesus lived, we might say he lived quite simply. He traveled, he didn’t own a home, he didn’t have a career, he taught, he ate what people offered to him. This…is our Messiah? This is the one through whom God will redeem the world? Homeless? Jobless? Eating what he was given by others? Doesn’t sound like much of a savior…

John recognizes this, and tries to stop Jesus saying that Jesus should baptize him. But Jesus prevents him, and is baptized by John in the Jordan. It’s counter-intuitive; it doesn’t make any sense. And this is the kind of subversive, flipped-on-its-head thinking that we get from Jesus. Jesus’ baptism is subversive; just like his birth, life, ministry, death, and ultimate resurrection. It defies our conventional ways of thinking and challenges our expectations. We expect a king; we got an infant in a feed trough. We expect a warrior; we got a teacher. We expect our enemies to be vanquished; we got a crucified rabbi. We expect that death is final; we get resurrection. Life from death.

And it’s this life that we are baptized into as well. And not just the life that destroys death, but also the alternative way of living and being in the world that Jesus was baptized by John into. Through our baptism, not only do we affirm the grace, mercy, and love of God that continually washes over us from the very moment of our existence, but we are called into a life, into a way of being in the world, that bears witness to the life and ministry of Jesus. In our baptism, we are charged to let our light so shine, so that the world sees Christ shining through us, reflected through our lives.

Finally, we baptize into a family, into a community, just like Jesus was baptized into a community. At his baptism, a voice from the heavens declares of Jesus, “This is my Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.” Jesus is affirmed as God’s child. In our baptism, we too are affirmed as daughters and sons of the living God. We affirm our place in God’s family. And we are also baptized into the family of a faith community.

And just like our families of origin, we’ve got all types, don’t we. I suspect that we have a few Uncle Freds with a hawaiian shirt among us… Joking aside, just like our families of origin, we take the good with the bad, but this doesn’t mean that we allow destructive or harmful behavior to go unchecked. We hold each other accountable to the promises we make to each other in baptism.

I was privileged to see this family on full display as we laid our brother to rest this week. On Tuesday, I saw and heard this community say, “Charlie is part of our family too.” This family doesn’t supplant or stand-in for our biological families, and yet, sometimes this family might be the only family any of us has when we’re ostracized or forced out of our families of origin. You are welcome in this family.

All are welcomed, and affirmed, and respected, and so deeply loved in God’s family…

Last thing; in the Small Catechism, Blessed Martin Luther tells us that we should remind ourselves of our baptism every single day. Legend has it that Luther once said, “Every morning, when you wash your face, you should remember your baptism.” That’s beautiful imagery, I think. That my first thought every single morning isn’t about how freezing cold it is outside, or any of the million and two things that are on my to-do list; but the very first thought I have every single morning is, “Christian, blessed child of God, remember that God’s grace and mercy are new every morning, and you are so loved, more than you could possibly imagine…”

It’s one of the reasons that every time I walk in this sacred space, I stick my hand in the font, play in the water a little bit, and retrace the sign of the cross on my forehead.

We’re going to be blessed by the waters of baptism now, so if you’ll stand and face the font, and in a minute, when you feel the cool, refreshing water fall on your face, remind yourself: “Blessed child of God, know that God’s grace and mercy are new every morning, and that you are so loved, more than you could possibly imagine.”

Welcome to the family.

Learning to Swim

* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on May 17, 2015 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Text: Romans 6:1-14

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Pray with me this morning:

Cleanse us, and make us new, Holy One.
Today, and every day.
That your resurrection might be our hope,
And hope for the world.
Amen

***************

It has been suggested to me, on more than one occasion, that perhaps, just maybe…that I have “too much fun” asperging the congregation on Sundays that we have remembrances of baptism.

And I just have to say…that I am really quite shocked…and it is just totally…patently…absolutely…true.

Are you kidding me?!? I love flinging water! Who wouldn’t?!? Maybe it really is just that fun to flick water. Maybe I enjoy, maybe too much, soaking some of you in the face. Maybe it’s just a way for me to be passive aggressive. “This is your warning. Don’t tick off the Intern.

Maybe the promises of baptism made tangible in a simple ritual act are so incredibly joyful that I just can’t help myself.

…Maybe I just love water. And I always have.

Maybe it’s a combination of any and all of those things…

Texas, where I grew up, is…some would say…rather “hot.” And in a place where 100% humidity on a 100 degree day is not at all considered abnormal, you can imagine, there are a lot of pools. We never had one, but I had lots of friends that did. And so, I learned to swim at an early age.

Parents, if you’ve ever tried to teach your kids to swim, you know this is true. You can spend all the time you want trying to teach the motions: the front paddle, the back paddle, the leg kick, and some really awkward combination of all three of those all at once…but at some point, you just gotta go for it. You just gotta jump in.

It’s a terrifying proposition.

And I think it’s a bit like what Paul is doing here. See, up to this point in his letter to the community in Rome he’s been teaching the motions: this is the law and this is the gospel, salvation through faith, justification by grace, boasting in suffering… And right here, in our reading today, is where Paul reaches his pinnacle.

This is getting thrown into the deep end, so to speak.

This is like the Lutheran equivalent of the sharp drop between the shallow end and the deep end of the pool. It would be like the shallow end is all those nice Lutheran words we throw around: “Grace! Justification! Sanctification! …Saved by grace through faith for the sake of Christ!”

And here’s the deep end of Lutheranism… The one you’re not sure about. The one that you don’t know how far it goes. The one that you can’t see the bottom of.

“Do you not know that those who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into his death?”

A terrifying proposition.

You know, this passage is one of the ones we focus on in our baptismal seminars, where we bring in parents and children and those preparing for baptism and talk about what baptism means. And it’s difficult for parents to hear these words from Romans. And so we ask the question, “How do you feel about the thought that you’re baptizing your child into death?” And, basically 100% of the time, the answer is what you’d expect, “This is NOT what I signed up for!”

And honestly, I don’t blame you. Tiffany and I don’t have kids yet, but I can tell you that I will have the same reaction, “This is NOT what I signed up for!”

But just like last week, just like boasting in our suffering, we need to put away our western ears and minds for a second. And hear this from the perspective and context of the Christ-believing community in Rome…

The community for whom death was all but certain… The community who would gather behind locked doors, because if they were ever found out there was a lion in the coliseum waiting for them…

Hear Paul’s words in this way, “In baptism, you die. But not only that, you get to choose the terms. Your life is not taken from you, but you give up your life. If death is certain, be dead to the ways of the world and live. Live as children of God.”

THIS is Paul’s message.

In baptism, you die to the patterns of this world that separate you from God. In this refreshing bath you are cleansed from the grit and grime of self-absorption. In these waters you are released from all that which shackles you to yourself, and you are freed…to live lives in complete service of others.

Luther would say, “Christian, you are lord of all, subject to none. A servant of all, subject to every one.”

By dying with Christ, you give up your own life for the sake of the Gospel, so that the Gospel might be birthed in and through you…

And not only all of that, but…if we have been united with Christ in a death like his, how much more surely, dear friends, will we be united with Christ in a resurrection like his…

And this is the hope on which all of our hope is based. People of God, this is resurrection hope.

This is the hope that is at the crux of all of this. That by living as Christ lived; by dying with Christ in baptism; by becoming dead to our selves; by laying down our lives for others; by emptying our selves to give to others…that Christ’s resurrection might be our resurrection as well. And not just ours, but the resurrection of all of creation.

And I think that hope is desperately needed in a world that is hyper-individualized, that glorifies violence, and celebrates death as a punishment.

And it’s not an outdated and stale hope. It is a hope that is living, and active, and present, and still yet to come. Paul uses an interesting choice of verb tense in our Scripture today. In referring to being baptized into Christ’s death, Paul uses what’s known in Greek as the past perfect tense. It reflects a completed action, with lasting and ongoing effects. Done, and yet still happening. Already, and not yet. Was…and is…and is to come.

Paul’s hope in resurrection wasn’t just for himself. It wasn’t just for the community in Rome. It wasn’t even just for the first communities of Christ-followers. It’s for us also.

Paul’s resurrection hope, is our resurrection hope. And this is good news.

Dr. Martin Luther understood this as an ongoing process too. In a wonderful quote that Pastor Tim shared on our facebook page, Luther writes, “This life, therefore, is not godliness, but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.”

At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed…

Be cleansed today. Be open to the renewing and refreshing waters of resurrection. Splash and play and swim in the living waters of God’s promises.

And next week, and in the weeks after, when Pastor Tim and myself come down the center of this aisle flinging water, find unrestrained joy in being soaked in a reminder of your baptism.

Amen.