Open Floorplans

* the final sermon I preached on Internship at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on August 16, 2015 *

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

Text: Hebrews 4:14-5:10

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Please pray with me:

Holy One,
We come to you in our weakness.
We come to your seat of mercy
desperately desiring grace.
Be our salvation.
Amen.

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I remember it pretty well. It was a Tuesday morning, just a little after 9. I walked up to the door, located the bell on the side, and pushed it. I stepped back, adjusted my bag over my shoulder, and took a deep breath in…”Here we go…

The door opened and I walked into the foyer. And I remember my first thoughts very clearly…

“Man…there are a LOT of stairs in this place!”

And if you’ve ever entered Luther Memorial through the red doors on the side, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

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In a building that I’m pretty sure is the love child of M.C. Escher and whoever designed Hogwarts, you better know exactly where you’re going, because you’ll need some luck finding it on your own.

It’s one of the myriad of quirky charms and charming quirks that I will miss about LMC. And y’all have given me a lot to miss…

I’ll miss a faith community that cares deeply for each other. A community that is always asking how they can best serve their neighbor in need. A community with a heart for justice. A community that struggles deeply together. A community that doesn’t settle for easy answers and trite platitudes, but instead takes this call to cooperative living seriously, and recognizes that this way of living is really, really messy but commits to doing it together anyway in spite of ourselves. A community that is passionate about following in the way of Jesus.

It’s a community that I saw at its most loving this weekend. When one in our community expressed her experiences of the reprehensible, dehumanizing, ugly sin of racism, this community stood up, stood tall, and shouted, “We will NOT stand for this.” This community opened its hearts and arms to her, expressed deep and meaningful love for her, offered shows of support to her, and embodied righteous anger with her at the ways that our so-called “post-racial” society is often anything but.

This community has showed me the transformative truth that every single person is made in the beautifully diverse divine image of God.

It’s this same community that has supported me this year. That has walked with me. Learned with me. Searched for deeper meaning with me. A community that has loved me…

But all these stairs…these stairs will also hold a special place in my heart.

Tiffany and I have not been blessed in our life yet to have to search for a home, but when we do, I’m told by House Hunters and HGTV that one of the things that I should desire in a home is an open floorplan.
As many sightlines as possible, views from the front door all the way through to the back, enough of a structure to differentiate between rooms but not too much that they feel completely separate…

It’s a concept that is brought to mind for me when the writer of Hebrews writes, “We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens…” The idea that God, in Jesus, comes to us. Has crossed the chasm of time and space that separate the divine and the human. That God has entered into humanity through the person of Jesus and is nearer to us than a family member, close enough to touch…

It’s what makes Christianity unique among the world’s religions, that we profess that the source of our salvation is not some far off, distant cosmic amorphous thing, but rather entered our world as the most vulnerable among us, a naked, screaming infant born into a racial minority family to an unmarried teenager in a backwater, no-name town; who lived a life as a wandering, homeless spiritual teacher; and who was put to death, crucified, like a criminal, labeled an enemy of the state.
The source of our salvation, the great high priest, sympathizes with us in our weakness, and has suffered in every way that we have.
The source of our salvation, the Christ, identifies with us in every. single. way. Even unto death.
And people of God, that is good news.

In a move that would have made the folks over at HGTV jealous, Jesus did a little home renovation himself. In every synoptic gospel account of the Crucifixion, at the moment of Jesus’ death, the curtain of the temple is ripped, from top to bottom, completely torn in two.

Now, I know you’re all ancient Hebrew architectural and archeological scholars, so the significance won’t be lost on you, but just in case you’re rusty… The Judean temples in biblical times were constructed in a series of areas that got increasingly smaller the closer you got to the center of the temple. You had an outer perimeter, an inner courtyard area, the Tabernacle within that which had a room called the Holy Place, and a smaller room within that called the Holy of Holies. And the Holy of Holies is the place where God dwells. The Holy of Holies was separated from the rest of the Tabernacle by a veil and only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and even then could only do so once a year on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

So, that the veil of the temple is torn at the moment of Christ’s crucifixion is profoundly significant. See, by dying our death, God enters most fully into our human condition, identifying with the deepest expression of our humanity. Through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the veil of separation between the divine and human is no more. No longer is God in there and we’re out here.
God is here, among us, with us.

God, the source of all that is, in the person of Jesus, comes near to earth and touches it. And through Christ’s resurrection, God begins reconciling and renewing the earth. God lives and breathes and dwells among us, so that we might know God, and so that we might be certain that God is not finished reconciling and restoring the world.

In Celtic spirituality, there’s a place known as a “thin space”. It’s described as a place where the distance between the divine and the worldly is just a little bit smaller, a little bit…well…thinner. They are places where the sense of the divine is so strong, that you’re certain that this is heaven on earth, that surely the eternal has come to bear on the temporal.

Luther Memorial is a thin space for me. When I’m here, in this place, I feel the presence of God. And it’s not just the building. As I wrote in my final newsletter piece this week, “I have been irrevocably transformed by you, the people of LMC. From your lives and stories, from experiences of deep and painful suffering to overwhelming joy, you have left an indelible imprint on my heart. It’s a tremendous honor to bear witness to these things, and I simply don’t have words to express my gratitude to you for sharing your lives with me.”

 

LMC, you have shown me the face of God this year, and I can’t say thank you enough for that.

 

So while the stairs will remain a quirky architectural oddity of this place, the true openness of this place lies in your hearts and hands.

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Thank you. So much.

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Wholly Holy

* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on August 9, 2015 *

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

Text: Hebrews 2:10-18

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Please pray with me:

Make us holy, as you are holy, God.
Make us whole.
Make us complete, in you.
Amen.

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Church, I have a confession that I need to make to y’all this morning. I know that some of you will find it strange that in my second-to-last Sunday that I’d be baring my soul, but I really feel like I just need to tell y’all.

I…am a perfectionist.

Yep, that’s right, I’m self-critical, I have a penchant for getting lost in details, I am a perfectionist.
And I’ve been like this for all 30 of my 30 years of existence. As Our Lady of Gaga would say, “Baby, I was born this way.”

I become mired in the details. Every minutia. Every speck and spot. It’s exhausting.
They say “the devil’s in the details.” And for me, that’s totally true. I can’t even say that I believe in an anthropomorphic evil being, and yet, the details are where my demons lie.

As a kid, I had a really short-lived hobby. I got really into building card houses. Quite literally, it didn’t last very long.
Architectural planning. Engineering. Artistic design. It hit all the right notes for me as a young kid.
And yet, a structure was rarely “perfect.” You can see how it quickly became unhealthy for me, the perfectionist. And so after about an hour, I gave it up. I told you it was short-lived…

In recent years, I’ve gained some self-awareness, begun to recognize when my perfectionism is running too strong. It became really apparent to me in seminary. Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, I’m just never going to be super-happy with this 20-page paper, and I just need to get it done, get it complete.

It becomes less about the nit-picky details, and more about the whole. Less about being great, and more about being done, whole, complete.

I don’t know why this is a hard lesson for me. My thought process goes something like, if I just spend enough time on something, if I could just do enough, then things would be great, perfect.

But it’s not that way, is it? No matter how hard we try, how many hours we put in, how much we want it, there will always be something that isn’t quite right, something keeping it from being…perfect.

Today we hear that perfection is God’s work, and here in Hebrews, when the writer uses the word, “perfect,” it means completeness. Salvation is perfected through Christ’s suffering. Our salvation is complete because of Christ’s crucifixion, and resurrection. And to our modern Western minds and ears, we have a proclivity for thinking that it’s about us, right? Like the rich young man to Jesus, “Tell me, Teacher, what must I do to get salvation? Tell me what I have to do.”

But here’s the thing, it’s not about us. Being made complete, perfect, in God has nothing to do with us and has everything to do with God.

Which is really freeing and really terrifying all at the same time. Because on the one hand, it’s the one thing in our lives that we don’t have to do anything but receive the benefits of. It’s the one thing that doesn’t get put on the to-do list, because God knows, you’ve got enough things to do to keep you busy from now until eternity. Dear people, you are saved. It is by the gift of grace. It is because of the cross.

And, on the other hand, it’s really terrifying, because what if what I just said is true? If what I said about being saved by grace through Christ is true, then people of God, we’ve got to live like it. And that’s a scary proposition, I think. I have to trust, I have to have faith, that that’s true, and live like it.house-of-cards-jan-piller

Which means that my life is spent less on climbing ladders and building structures and securities that will collapse with the slightest of breezes, and spent more on seeking justice for those for whom the ladder is nonexistent and who have no structure or security.

Because if, like the writer of Hebrews claims, Christ has freed us who all our lives were enslaved by the fear of death, then we have a holy obligation to recognize and live into and participate in that reality right here, right now.

I was reading a commentary on these verses this week and the author wrote, “I was struck by the use of the word ‘pioneer’ in verse 10.” He goes on, “I thought about using ‘Pioneer Jesus’ during the prayers of intercession, but then I thought that maybe the prayers might not be the best place to try out new material.” I would add that I’m not sure that the image of Jesus in a furry raccoon hat and carrying a musket is exactly the kind of mental picture I want you taking away with you this morning. But rather, think of a pioneer in this way, think of a trailblazer, one who goes before, one who makes a path, one who shows the way.

Which, frankly, is what I need. I need to be shown the way. I need someone to go before me. Because if I’m left to my own devices, I’m guaranteed to mess it up. I’m a perfectionist, but I’m also human. Our world is broken, dear friends. We fail every day in taking care of the good creation God has entrusted to us. We fail every day in making sure that our neighbors have food in their stomachs and a soft place to lay their heads. We fail every day in preventing our precious children from being taken from us in senseless acts of violence.
Zachary Hammond. Christian Taylor. Rekiah Boyd. Do I really need to go on…?

Thank God it’s not up to me, because try as I might, all my best designs and plans and attempts are thin and fragile and will come crashing down under the faintest wind.

See, if our salvation is perfected through the one who shows us what the way is, then our calling as Christians is to follow that way as well. It’s a path, a process. Our own Blessed Martin Luther wrote, “This life, therefore, is not righteousness, but the process of becoming righteous; not health, but getting well; not being, but becoming; not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we 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.”

Just as the world is actively being redeemed by the one who is drawing all things unto Godself, so too are we being made holy by the one who is holy. And this sanctification, this process of becoming holy, is one that has begun, but is, as of now, incomplete. It’s this completeness, this perfection, that we hope for, that we long for, that we wait for, and yes, that we work for. But the kingdom of God will not come about through our own doing, as much as we want it to. But just like that 20-page paper, that doesn’t mean that I get a pass for not doing it.

It’s a collaborative effort. See, we need God, we say we know that much. But as St. Teresa of Ávila said, “Yours are the hands through which Christ blesses the world.” Sanctification, perfection, is God’s work, but if Christ has shown us what it is to be whole and holy and complete, our calling then as Christians is to be involved in the work of building bridges and houses that won’t crumble with every passing breeze, but instead, with God’s help, to build structures of holiness that will withstand the violent winds of this world.

Amen.

Chains and Chainmail

* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on July 26, 2015 *

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

Text: Ephesians 6:10-20

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Please pray with me:

Holy God,
There are many things that bind and tether us.
Free us today, and every day,
So that we may be bound to each other, and to you.
Amen.

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Last week, 10 of our high school youth and 4 adult leaders joined with 30,000 other youth and chaperones in Detroit for the ELCA Youth Gathering. It was a powerful week, full of worship, stories, service, and a whole lot of laughs. I’d encourage you to seek out one of our youth and ask them about their experience.

(Photo from DeadlineDetroit)

(Photo from DeadlineDetroit)

One of the things about the gathering is that each of us received one of these wristbands that we had to wear for the weekend that we were there. These wristbands helped us identify each other and helped the gathering volunteers know who was part of the gathering and who was not. Also, during our day of service, the gathering provided all participants with a bright construction-orange colored shirt to wear. Additionally, many churches had their own obnoxiously loud, 80’s neon hued attire made to further identify their group. One Detroit resident commented to a local news outlet that it looked like a Skittles factory had exploded in downtown.

And all of this is to say that while we went to Detroit to serve Detroit, and all 30,000 of us definitely served Detroit, it was very clear to me and to many others who were passing through as part of the gathering and who were not. See, demarcations are sometimes helpful. Sometimes, demarcations keep us safe and provide structure. But I long for the day when demarcations are no longer needed. When all are invited to worship and praise God in Ford Field. When outrageously bright t-shirts aren’t a prerequisite for serving our neighbor, because I’ll be honest, I think I know who was serving whom and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me in my orange shirt.

These wristbands, these shirts, they bound us to the gathering like chains. Very clear designations of who was part of the gathering. Paul, in our reading today, calls himself an “ambassador in chains.” A figurative and literal reference, both to his tetheredness to proclaiming the Gospel, and to his own imprisonment. Our own chains may not be as physical as Paul’s, but make no mistake, they’re just as binding. The 60-hour work week, the perpetual rat race, alcohol, drugs, depression, sexism, classism, racism, homophobia, the ceaseless push to keep up with the Joneses, the relentless message of a “do this, eat this, buy this” culture that commodifies solutions to made-up problems that it spends billions of dollars convincing you that you have.

We are all bound; that’s the reality of sin. That’s what sin is, being bound to something that keeps you from living into the fullness of your relationship with God, that drains life rather than gives it.

But not all chains are life-draining, dear friends. Sometimes the ways in which we are bound do give life. The majority of our reading today consists of Paul admonishing the Ephesians to put on the whole armor of God. Now, I don’t know much about armor, but I’ve watched enough Game of Thrones to know that armor comes in pieces that fit together sort of like a puzzle, but that underneath this Tetris-like protection, one often wears an undergarment of woven metal. Chainmail works by interlinking chains together, and thus protecting the wearer. See, by binding chain links together, you actually get something stronger than its individual parts.

Chains are life-giving when they bind us together to each other. When we recognize the ways in which we are linked, like I said a couple of weeks ago, the ways in which, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all,” we learn that my well-being is necessarily tied to yours, and your ability to freely live as God intends you to live is directly related that same ability of the person sitting right next to you.

(Photo by Daniel Flucke)

Sometimes this linking, like Paul’s chains of imprisonment, is literal. Before we left for Detroit, Pastor Tim and I walked over to the Dollar Store to get some last minute supplies. Work gloves, paper towels, Lemonheads and Sour Patch Kids…You know, the essentials. And we also got these glow stick bracelets, if for no other reason, than they were a dollar. And on the first night of the gathering, as we were walking to Ford Field, we passed out these neon bracelets. And some of youth thought it would be funny to link themselves to each other. It was funny to watch them try and tether to each other with one hand, even funnier to watch them try and do hand motions to the songs with their hands tied together. Sometimes we are literally linked together.

Sometimes this linking is not quite as physical. Like today, when we’ll be taking up a special offering to donate to help rebuild the 6 historically-black churches that were burned in acts of arson in the aftermath of the Charleston massacre. A tangible show of support from our faith community to theirs, and a clear message that our love for these beautiful children of God is stronger than the hate and evil that infects our world.

My favorite part from our reading today is in the 15th verse. Paul says, “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” This idea that no matter what direction our feet are walking, we are called to walk in the path of peace. That the heart of this Gospel message is that of peace; of shalom, God’s perfect peace. Always moving and walking toward God’s restoration and reconciliation of all things.

It’s this common way of being together that binds us together. And by being bound together, we are being bound to God. By linking ourselves to one another, we become bound to the God who, in Jesus, was enchained for proclaiming a release from the things that bind us. Jesus, who was tethered to a cross for daring to free others from those things that had them in chains. Jesus, who by dying took our chains upon himself, and who by rising destroyed the chains of death.

As a faith community, one of the ways that we bind ourselves to each other is through a common Mission and Vision. We’ll meet in between services to affirm the diligent, tireless, and innovative work that the Mission and Vision team has been doing for the past few months. Our support of that work will necessarily bind us together as a community of faith, and commit us to doing this forward-thinking work together. We’ll vote to move confidently into the future that God is calling us into.

(Photo by Chris Ocken)

I long for the day in which wristbands and neon shirts are no longer used to differentiate. When demarcations are no longer needed for safety or structure. But until that day, let us bind ourselves to each other and to God, linking my freedom and wholeness to your freedom and wholeness, confident that God is breaking our chains of division and hate by binding up all of creation and reconciling all things.

In(ter)dependence

* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on July 5, 2015 *

Text: Ephesians 1:1-14

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Please pray with me:

Holy One,
Reveal in us the mystery of your will.
Through Christ, redeem us,
And reconcile us to each other,
And to you.
Amen.

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I like families. I do. I’ve preached about families before. I’ve preached about families before from this pulpit. So some of this won’t be completely new material. When I think about my own family, I would say we’re fun, we’re adventurous, we compliment each other well, and we’re very supportive of each other. Generally speaking, I like families. I’m a big fan.

And…I think we all know that families aren’t always all of those things. Families can be tough. Families are complex creatures. Sometimes families are hurtful. Sometimes families are damaging and destructive. Sometimes families are fractured.

And so how do we understand our place in the midst of this great family of God that seeks to address, rather than cover up, the parts of this family that are hurtful, damaging, or destructive, and endeavors to love, support, and care for each other?

I read a story last week about Ben Affleck. It was about a program on PBS about uncovering the ancestries of celebrities. Apparently, in their research, it came up that one of Ben’s ancestors was a slave owner, and, like I imagine any of us would want to do, Ben and the producers tried to conceal that fact.
See, being honest about ourselves and our histories is risky business. It can be painful.

And it’s not just our histories that we’d necessarily like to scrub, the past two and a half weeks haven’t exactly been banner. At least 7 predominantly black churches burning, half being investigated as arson. At least 7 people dead, including a 7-year-old boy, and 39 wounded in our city, just in past 2 days…

Being honest about ourselves, about who we are and the world we live in…it can be painful.

But hear this, dear people, you are children of God. You are a daughter. You are a son. Adopted by God. You are God’s own child. You are God’s chosen. Known to and so deeply loved by God before even the foundations of the world were laid.

And furthermore, you have been given unfathomable gifts. Riches of innumerable value. Blessings of unimaginable worth.

The temptation, of course, is to stockpile these away, to hoard them for ourselves. Our independent and individualistic ethos compels us to think this way. Building our walls higher and our defenses stronger, shutting out the rest of the world, “those people” who we think don’t get it, who we think aren’t deserving of God’s gifts.

But just like a family is more than its individual members, so, too, is this community, more than our individual selves. The writer of Ephesians is speaking to a group of Christ followers. A community of people making their way along the way. So while we here this morning might have heard Paul’s poem of blessing with our singularly-focused, independent ears, the Christ-believing communities of the ancient world were listening with ears toward interdependence. Blessings and promises for the community itself, sure, but always with an ear toward the larger community of which they were a part.

Do you see the difference? Independence focuses on the individual and the singular. Independence might even focus on a group of people, like the groups we hold in memory this weekend, our forebears, our veterans, our servicewomen and men… But a focus on independence has a tendency to neglect the relationship of the community and the individual to the larger whole.

Paul is speaking to a different way of being. One that recognizes our interdependence: the ways in which we are interconnected. The ways in which all of us are created from the very same stardust and will return to the very earth from which we were birthed. A way of being that is cultivated in an awareness of just how big and vast this web of humanity goes.

And if that’s the case, if our lives are that intricately linked, then we have a responsibility, not just to ourselves, or our own family, or our community, but we, in fact, have an obligation to ensure that these blessings and promises enumerated by Paul are made known and made manifest in all of God’s creation.

Because if our lives are so intricately linked, then our well-being is certainly linked. And if my wellness is tied to your wellness, then my freedom is necessarily bound to yours.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one…affects all. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Are we really free if there remain those who aren’t? If racism still runs rampant in our country? If death and violence are still the norm for our children?

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

But Paul has good news for us this morning, “In the fullness of time, God will restore all things, every thing on earth and in heaven.

God’s vision, God’s will, is to restore all of God’s creation. And if my liberation and freedom is intricately tied to yours, then that is good news indeed.

God is redeeming all things.
God is reconciling the entire creation to God’s own self.

Celebrate your interdependence today.

A Girl’s Best Friend

* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on June 14, 2015 *

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

Text: Ruth 2:1-23

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Please pray with me:

Be our hope, Holy One.
And whether a comforting hug,
a listening ear, or simply stillness,
Let it be exactly what we need.
Amen.

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What does hope look like? Is it perfect, flawless, and pristine, like a diamond? Or is it dirty, gritty, and a little rough around the edges? What do we have when we say we have hope?

If the first chapter of Ruth was starting on a downer, we begin to turn the corner in the second chapter.
The second chapter is where we start to make our way out of the shadows into the light.

The young heroine meets a strapping gentleman… A wealthy landowner, no less.

Ruth is like many fairy tales in that regard. It follows a familiar and predictable storyline.

And Ruth is not like any fairy tale we’ve ever heard before.
Ruth is infused with historical and contextual elements, it’s ripe with spirituality and piety, and there’s a definite sense that the primary drivers of the plot lines in Ruth are the practices and convictions formed as a result of the characters’ religious beliefs.

Another way you might be tipped off that this isn’t a run-of-the-mill fairy tale is that, rather than a glass slipper, a magnificent palace with a grandiose library, or a wish-granting genie in a lamp, our heroine’s love interest offers her what every girl truly wants……no, not diamonds…that’s right…some wheat!

Which sounds silly, until you pause and think about the circumstances that Ruth found herself in. See, Ruth was a woman from a foreign country, and not just a woman from a foreign country, but a woman from a foreign country who was now a widow. And situated right next to the diseased and dispossessed in the whole social construct, a widow from a foreign country was the most vulnerable of the vulnerable in that society.

And so for the most outcast of the outcasts, and the most marginalized of the marginalized, a woman who, at one time, had a husband who provided for their family, but now had nothing more than her mother-in-law, who by the way was also a widow, for these most vulnerable of the vulnerable, a single grain of barley, much, much less an offer to glean from the harvest, was more valuable than the most precious of stones.

Ruth went looking for a small kernel of hope at the edges of the fields when she had absolutely nothing left. And she would have expected to find at least a morsel of help when she went looking. This is because part of the Torah, the law that the ancient people of Israel adhered to, obligated the people of Israel to care for the most vulnerable among them.

See gleaning was the custom of collecting leftover grain from the fields of harvest and was part of Israel’s legal welfare system. We might call it a safety net. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the ancient Israelites were commanded not to harvest to the edges of their fields, instead leaving some of the harvest for the poor, the sojourner, the widow, and the foreigner. The basis for this, God says, was that they were once slaves in Egypt, sojourners in a foreign land, and God provided for and delivered them. Therefore, they should provide for those who are now foreigners out of their own provisions.

The reality of poverty isn’t lost here. It’s a condition that was prevalent just as much in the biblical tradition as it is in our own time. I mean, even Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you.” But Jesus wasn’t using that as a way of telling the disciples not to help the poor. Quite the opposite, actually. Jesus was referencing the 15th chapter of Deuteronomy, where it’s written, “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. …Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so… Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’”

We are obligated, and in fact commanded, by God to care for anyone who is in any kind of need. And to do so without reservation, without prejudice, and without question.

Hope…that looks like caring for one another.

I had a conversation with Nichole Martinez the other day. Nichole, you might remember, just came back from spending a couple of weeks in Palestine and Israel through the ELCA’s Peace Not Walls initiative. I asked Nichole what was sticking with her, what she would remember and carry with her. I’m paraphrasing, but she said, “I was struck by the generosity and hospitality of people, and it’s got me thinking about my own ways of practicing generosity and kindness in my encounters. Here were people, many of whom had literally next to nothing, who were going out of their way to serve us, to feed us, to make us feel welcome, and giving of what precious little they do have.”

I sat there stunned; I was blown away. Here were Palestinians, a marginalized and oppressed people giving of themselves, not because they expect anything from these visitors, but because it’s just what they’re supposed to do. It’s a societal system that operates outside of the quid pro quo way of living that is so prevalent here in the U.S. And these Palestinians were taught this way of living through their faith, Christian and Muslim.

See, giving of yourself for the sake of others is a way of being in this world that we would do well to remember. Giving of yourself for the sake of others, not expecting something in return, but because they’re a beloved child of God, beautifully and wonderfully made. Because the divine is in you, and the divine is in me, and every single thing in all of creation is infused with the divine.

This is a truth that I think we’ve forgotten. Because if we truly believed and lived as if we believed that every single person is a beautiful creation of God, I think our world would look very differently.

If you keep up with me on social media, you’ll know that this week I’ve been especially impacted by events that happened down in McKinney, Texas, very near to where I grew up. These stories are absolutely heartbreaking, and frankly, they’ve become so commonplace that I think our collective consciousness is hardly shocked anymore… And not only that, but our opinions and viewpoints and conversations about systemic violence and the sin of racism in our country are as divisive and vitriolic as ever. No one’s listening to each other because everyone is shouting, and we’re so sure of what we think we know that we’re completely uninterested in engaging with anyone who doesn’t agree with us.

It’s in these moments and situations that hope seems to be the furthest thing from our hearts, minds and lips. Especially for the ones who are having violence committed against them, how can you possibly have hope in a situation like that? What’s the single grain of hope that sustains us when everything else is gone, when we have absolutely nothing left?

I wish I had some lovely divine insight for you, some quick-fix, neatly-packaged kernel of wisdom that you could take with you and hold on to…

But I don’t… I can only offer that I have struggled, and I continue to struggle, with this too…
The past couple years of my life have been full of questions and wrestlings, and yes, the occasional insight about hope.

I wrote a blog post this past fall that reflected on a card I had received from a dear friend. I wrote:

Inside the card was a gift, part of a tabletop calendar that reads: “Hope is Only the Love of Life.” Not only did this card and gift make me grin widely, it also brought a few tears of relief to my eyes. Both the message and the gesture lifted a great, pressing weight off of my shoulders. It was as if I was seeing anew a known reality that had been clouded by vitriol, ugliness, and fear.
It’s true, isn’t it? Hope is nothing more than the fervently-held notion that life is valuable and every. single. person. has a sacred right to life.
Maybe hope isn’t so delicate after all, I continued. Maybe when we recognize hope for the absolute radical wrecking force that it is instead of a fragile shard that can’t possibly be held by our shaking hands, we set hope loose on the world to get down to the business of transformation. And that’s a tough question, I think… Do we trust that hope can hold its own in the world? Do we truly believe that hope is more durable than the destructive forces in our world?

Maybe… See, maybe hope isn’t the pristine, delicate, fragile thing we make it out to be.

Maybe in the times when we need hope the most, the roughest, toughest, dirtiest, grittiest places in our lives, we actually find the hope that we need, and it actually doesn’t gleam and sparkle. Maybe hope is a little rough around the edges, jagged even. Maybe hope isn’t afraid of being dropped occasionally, because God knows how hard it is to hold on to something when your hands are full with the million other things you need to just get through the day. Maybe hope is smudged, and marked up, and well-worn. Maybe hope is exactly what we need hope to be.

Maybe it’s a grain of barley. Or a friend who will sit with you and not say anything, and yet is exactly what you need to hear. Or a community that will gather around you and pray for you and cover you with blessings.

Maybe it’s a morsel of bread, dipped in wine, filling you with just the right measure of hope to keep going this week, sustaining you with the unending love, limitless mercy, and unrelenting grace of God. A God who, in the death and resurrection of Christ, offers nothing more than exactly what you need.

Nothing more than hope for the world.

All In The Family

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

Text: Matthew 3:1-17

***************
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.

It’s Not About You

* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on February 1, 2015 *

Text: Matthew 6:7-21

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

Please pray with me:

Holy God,
Give us hearts to more fully love you,
so that we may more fully worship you.
Amen.

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

Last November, the Church of England adopted legislation to allow women to be bishops in the church, after decades of back and forth dispute. This past Monday, one of their priests, the Reverend Libby Lane, was consecrated as the first female bishop in the Church of England. It was certainly a watershed moment in the church’s more than 500-year history.

In an interview before her consecration, Bishop Libby, as she’s now being hashtagged, said that she hopes that by her appointment, she will serve as a role model to young girls and inspire young women regardless of their faith. As news made its way around Twitter on Monday, one user posted, “Bishop Libby wants to be a role model for girls. She already is…” and posted a picture of his young daughter, wearing a white robe, with a purple stole over her shoulders, holding up and breaking bread, behind a play table on which sat a plate with bread and a chalice.

Last fall, we heard that our 11 o’clock Communion liturgy was being sung alongside refrains of “Let It Go” as young children ran around their house. Earlier in January, Emily Cooper made a cross out of tinker toys, read the Gospel lesson she had written, and served communion to her family.

“Playing” church… Singing songs and hymns from worship… Recalling Gospel stories…

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating many more times over, this…stuff…matters, what we do here…matters…

See worship is, primarily, a formative experience.

And I think, somewhere along the way, we’ve either forgotten how to allow ourselves to be formed by it, or worse, we’ve made a conscious decision to stop being formed by our worship… See, we come to worship—your presence here is clear evidence of that—but why? Why do we come to this place, at this time, with these people?

Some critics of religion would say that collective worship is escapist. That it’s a way for people to feel like they’re transcending the dirt and muck and grime of everyday life. Some critics say that we’ve got our eyes fixed on some expectation in the future, whether its heaven, or enlightenment, or nirvana, or self-actualization, or whatever you want to call it, and that it prevents us from being able to see the destruction, and death, and atrocities happening right here and right now.

And sometimes, it’s hard to blame some critics. There are a good number of Christians that are so singularly focused on the promised heaven to come. There’s a popular Christian song from a few years ago, and the chorus goes like this: “All I know is I’m not home yet, this is not where I belong.” What does that say? What kind of message are we sending with lyrics like that? What does this escapist mentality say about why we worship?

Today we have Jesus, reversing the so-called “norms” of worship of the day. See at this time, worship had become a show, a spectacle. You went to the synagogue to be seen. The religious elite of that time would pray loudly in long-winded, eloquent speeches, hoping to be heard and noticed. And when they were fasting, they would rip their clothes and cry out in loud voices and put on sackcloth and rub dirt on their disfigured faces so that everyone would see that they were sacrificing of themselves.

Worship had become a spectacle, had drifted so far away from the intimate relationship between God and God’s people that it once was. So Jesus, as Jesus so often does, reverses that, flips it on its head. Jesus says, “Fasting is between you and God. Wash your face when you fast. There’s no need for ridiculously long prayers, because God knows what you need before you even ask it. Pray this simple refrain instead.”

And this simple prayer…it’s become something of a hallmark for many Christians; a kind of creed of sorts. In our weekly text study group, one of the pastors asked us to think about and reflect on the question, “What does the Lord’s Prayer mean to you?” I think that’s a great question, and one that I’d encourage you to think about. What does this central act of our worship, this simple prayer, mean…to you?

For me, growing up, the Lord’s Prayer was my way of participating in worship. It was one thing that really allowed me to feel like I was part of the worshiping community. In visiting with our shut-ins or people in the hospital, the Lord’s Prayer is a touchstone, a common liturgy that they and I share. 2 summers ago, when I served as a chaplain at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, even though the people in those rooms had no idea who I was and often didn’t share my Lutheran faith tradition, I could end my visit with them by starting the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”, and they’d immediately start praying with me. We share this simple prayer across ages, and races, and faith traditions, and for many Christians it’s a prayer of comfort.

And it makes me wonder if we’re actually paying attention to what we’re saying…

See, the act of praying is a powerful assertion. Praying trusts, unequivocally, the nearness and the readiness of God. Praying orients us to God, making God the center, making God the focus. It’s about God. Not others. Not us. We ask God to make God’s will manifest on earth as it is heaven. But by saying so, we must recognize that world as it is is not the world as it should be. And if that doesn’t convict you that you have agency and a role in bringing that about, then I’m not sure you’re listening.

Our translation this morning uses the word “debt.” “Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors…” This is not one of those translations where ‘it could be this word or it could be this other one, but we just arbitrarily chose this one…’ No. The Greek word is opheilemata — debt; Matthew is talking about real, economic debt, and is urging a release from that debt. We must recognize the ways in which unjust economies are counter to God’s hope for the world. The Lord’s Prayer recognizes the way in which the gift of release, this forgiveness, is part of the economy that makes the world work as God intends it.

This forgiveness is central to understanding the whole thing. Reconciliation is the entire point of Jesus’ ministry. Forgiveness…most accurately describes the work of God in making relationships right. Forgiveness…is the heart of the relationship with God and of life in Christian community together. At the heart of worship.

Faithful living comes from the heart, and only God can do this work. Not us. We strive to forgive as God forgives. And when this happens…the reign of God has come near, indeed.

I read an article this week that asserted that Christianity, as a religious institution, could not survive if worship continued declining, because worship is the central thing in our faith where we truly are able to experience God. It’s like I heard from a parishioner a couple of weeks ago about why they started coming to church again. They said, “And then I met people who don’t just go to church, but people who really truly experience God…”

The author of the article wrote, “When people sometimes tell me they don’t get anything from worship, I am happy to answer, ‘That’s great! Because its not about you.’ We need a place in our lives to tell us that not everything is always about us, about our personal happiness, our convenience, our frantic timetables, or shrinking commitments. Some things are bigger than us.” … “The future of the church is worship,” he says, “There needs to be a place where we are told uncomfortable truths about ourselves, our world, and even about God. Worship is the central act of proclamation of God’s grace to us, and that proclamation is focused on God.”

Our worship is formative, and it is transformative. It is but a hint of God’s reign made manifest here and now. We gather around Christ’s table of grace, and eat with the crucified and risen Christ, broken, so that we might taste God’s goodness, and mercy, and grace, and forgiveness, and love…

And so that we might live free in the knowledge that it’s not about you…

Come… Eat… Drink…

Amen.