Constant

* a funeral sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on September 10, 2017 *

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

Text: Matthew 25:31-40

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Please pray with me, church:

Holy Comforter,
Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
Draw us close today,
And send us your peace that soothes our hurt,
And reminds us of your constant love for us.
Amen.

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There’s an image that I’ve been carrying around with me.
I saw it last Saturday, and it’s been in my mind all week.

As I sat with Sam, Samuel, Laura, and Matthew, and Megan, and Cameron last Saturday morning, Sam showed me a picture. It was from 30 years ago.
It was of Sam and Karlyn, standing together. Sam in a tuxedo and Karlyn in a beautiful dress. They were standing in this sanctuary. Standing right there in front of this altar.
It was from their wedding.

The sanctuary looked a little different then. We used to have blue carpet, if you can imagine it.
Sam and Karlyn looked a little different then too. Though I must say, Sam, you both aged really gracefully.

And then I noticed something, just to the right of where Sam was standing in the picture. A drop of green fabric over the altar and a blue wave off the side. And I remember thinking, “I’ve seen that wave before.”

And if your eyes are looking at the parament that’s hanging over our altar now, you’re having the same thought I had.
Actually I had two thoughts. The first was, “Man, I guess it really is time to update our paraments.”

But the second was wondering about this blue wave.
I wonder…what does this blue wave do for you? Where does your mind go when you consider this wave?

I’m pretty simple, I guess; it evokes for me the images of a river.
Flowing… Moving… Meandering… Rolling…
Constant…

A photograph from 30 years ago. And a lifetime of stories since.
And a couple of strands of fabric drawing a thin connecting thread between then and now.
Constant…

It’s a word that is synonymous with the Maultsbys, particularly with the Maultsbys and New Hope. We’ve all changed a great deal in 30 years, and yet, there’s something connecting all these threads and holding all these strands of fabric together.

When I began my call here at New Hope just about a year ago, Karlyn had just received her cancer diagnosis. And we’ve journeyed together a long way since then, haven’t we, Maultsby family?
You’ve had to travel an extremely tough road, but not once did you ever think you were doing it alone.

You approached this diagnosis together, with the same constancy that you approached your life here at New Hope. Karlyn once said, that the Maultsby’s involvement at New Hope was an investment. And what she meant by that is that by being deeply connected to this community of faith, by promising to raise your children here, and by committing to being involved so fully in the life and ministry of New Hope, you were instilling in your family a sense of responsibility, not just to the church, but to the community and neighborhood and people that this faith community serves.
For Karlyn, a high commitment to the life and ministry of New Hope was a given. And that investment has paid return upon return, as we have been and continue to be blessed by your presence and commitment to this community and our neighbors.

From teaching Sunday School and at Southminster Day School, to taking the lead in coordinating New Hope’s involvement with Fort Bend Family Promise all those years, Karlyn embodied service to the least of these.
Karlyn showed us what a life of discipleship—what a life of following Jesus—looks like.
And even this past year, one of the most difficult of your lives, that commitment remained and remains constant.

It’s the same constancy with which Karlyn is loved and cherished by God.
It’s the same continuous threads of the flowing river—of those waters of baptism—which extend all the way back to before the foundations of the earth were laid and all the way forward to God’s reconciliation of all things.
The same constant waters that fell over Karlyn’s head in her baptism, when God came close, and told Karlyn, “My dear, sweet, beloved child…you are mine…forever…”

We live in sure and certain hope of the resurrection because in baptism, God reaches out and names us and claims us as God’s very own.
St. Paul writes in Romans that, “Those of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. Therefore we have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

If we are 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.

It’s in these constant waters that we return to, that we remember the constancy of God’s great care for God’s children.
That we remember that we are surrounded and supported by the compassionate arms of a God who draws us close, and whose constancy will sustain us in the days to come.
That we remember the constancy of the fierce love with which our wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend lived.
And that we remember the constancy of God’s immeasurable love for us, and for Karlyn.
Amen.

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On Our Hearts

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on August 20, 2017 *

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

Texts for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 + Matthew 15:10-28

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Please pray with me, church:

Holy God,
Break our hearts this morning.
Break open our hearts and fill them
With your extraordinary love and compassion.
Give us courage to change our hearts where change is needed,
And help us to boldly and persistently come to you in our brokenness.
Amen.

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My mom and I will often call each other when either of us is leaving work in the early evenings. Usually that ends up being around 6, which is much later than either of us would say we’d like to be working. But there’s always something to do…
By the way, that also reminds me, call your moms. Or call your kids. Or your dads. Or your step-parents or step-children.
Call your family. They love to hear from you, I promise.

So my mom called me this week after we had been trying to catch each other for a couple of days, and we were having a good conversation about how things were going, what’s the latest family news, stuff like that, and we got to talking about everything happening in Charlottesville, and Barcelona, and our country, and around the world, and then she just…came out with it…
“Chris,” she said…, “what the heck is going on…? What the heck is happening in this country…in this world?”

*Deep breath*
*Sigh…*
“I don’t know, mom. I wish I did…”

Spoiler alert, church…I don’t know.
This is one vexing question that I don’t have a good answer to. I have thoughts and I have responses and ways forward, but I do not know the answer to this question.
As much as I’m not my family’s Pastor, fielding some of the big questions of the universe kind of comes with the gig. And I’m ok with that. I like those sorts of conversations.
But, man, it’s tough to have to be totally honest and say, “You know, I really don’t know about this one.” Especially when what’s behind the question, the things that aren’t said in the question, are feelings of confusion, sadness, uncertainty, and a little bit of hurt.
“Well, I don’t know either,” she says, “but it breaks my heart to see all this stuff.”

 

Mine too, mom. Mine too.

sun heart leaf

I totally get my empathy from my mom, by the way.
It does hurt. It hurts my heart to see and read and hear about these things. I’m certain it hurts your heart, church.
At least, I hope it does. I hope that seeing displays of hatred and violence and bigotry and racism hurt.
It’s tough to hear people say hateful, violent, and ugly things. Things like Nazi slogans, like “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.”
These are not things one reasonably expects to hear in 2017.

And I think of Jesus’ words in our Gospel this morning, “It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles. And what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this is what defiles.”
Well, if what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, then what we saw and heard in Charlottesvile is most certainly profane and most certainly defiled.

Like I said last week white nationalism, white supremacy, racism, bigotry, and hatred are rooted in a place of fear, I think. And I believe that fundamentally, they are symptomatic of the failure to see the image of God in someone else, in the other.

Which is also how I feel about Jesus’ words and actions in these verses from Matthew. A lot of scholars have a lot of different thoughts about what’s happening between Jesus, the disciples, and this woman.
I happen to not think very highly of Jesus in these verses. I don’t give Jesus a pass here.

The author of Matthew uses a term that really hasn’t been in use for hundreds of years by the time this gospel was written, the author calls this woman a “Canaanite.” It’s an anachronistic term, and not something one reasonably expects to hear in the 1st century.
But the implication is clear: this woman is an outsider, not Jewish…she is an “other.”
So Jesus dismisses her.
Which breaks my heart, honestly, to hear Jesus being so un-Jesus-y…

But here’s the thing, the entirety of the book of Matthew is an unfolding of Jesus’ own understanding of who he is and who is called to be as the Son of God and as the Messiah. It’s one of the unique characteristics to the Gospel of Matthew, we get to see the maturation of a Messiah, and follow along with Jesus as he grows in his understanding. Up to this point in the gospel, Jesus has understood his mission and ministry as being strictly to Jewish believers, “the house of Israel” as the author calls them.
And this woman, not only would it not be appropriate for a woman to be so forward with a man in 1st century culture, and it certainly wouldn’t be appropriate for her to address a Rabbi like that, but to pile even more scandal on to the whole encounter, the writer of Matthew tells us that she’s a Gentile, a Canaanite, an outsider…an “other”…

But she presses Jesus. She resists. And she persists.
And Jesus doubles down, “It would not be fair—more accurately translated, “appropriate”—to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.” It wouldn’t be appropriate to take what is meant for the house of Israel, for God’s chosen children, and give it to those for whom it is not meant for.

But she resists further. And she persists.
“You just fed thousands of people and had 12 baskets of leftovers, there is certainly more than enough of God to go around.”
And here, I think, Jesus has a change of heart. I think that this outsider woman changes God’s mind, and Jesus realizes just how expansive the role of Messiah is.
“How great is your faith, daughter! Let your child be healed of what is ailing her!”

 

So who is “other” to you, church? Who is outsider? Who is someone for you for whom the lavish love and gifts of God are not meant? Who do you need a change of mind and change of heart about? Is it someone of a different gender, a different nationality, a different sexuality, a different racial experience, a different religious belief, a different political affiliation…?

I think this particular story this morning is full of the Gospel. Because if God can change God’s mind, and even Jesus can have a change of heart, then there is certainly hope for the rest of us.

I think it’s very apparent to us here this morning that our world is very broken. What we say and how we say it matters a great deal. Even spending just 15 minutes on social media gives me heartburn. Watching the evening news breaks my heart. Spending time with and listening to my friends who have been further marginalized by the way things are in our world, in our country, and in our city makes my heart ache.
I hear and see a common refrain from people as they reflect on the current state of things; people will often say, “The United States, or the world, has a heart problem.” Seeming to say that if we could just get our hearts right, the world would be better. Seeming to echo Jesus that it’s what comes out of the mouth that defiles, and what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this is what defiles.
So we have a heart problem.

So it stands to reason that if our hearts are changed, then what comes out of our mouths, which proceeds from our hearts, will be uplifting and building up and good and wonderful.
And I think that’s true, church, but let’s be honest, heart work is tough work. It takes a lot to change a heart.
It’s difficult work to soften a hardened heart.
It’s difficult work to break open a heart that is closed off from the world and others.
It’s difficult work to turn an inwardly-focused heart out toward world, neighbor, stranger, and other.
It’s difficult work to breathe life into and resurrect a heart that has shut itself out and died to the possibility of change and transformation.

But praise God that the God we worship is a God who is intimately familiar with matters of the heart, who has a long history of transforming things, and whose signature work is resurrection—of bringing life from death.

It gives me such hope for the world, for the world that we’re teaching these young people that we just blessed about, for the world that we’re sending these young people out into.
I desperately want us to be the world and people that these young people dream we can be.

My heart is breaking a lot recently, but to borrow from St. Leonard Cohen, cracks are how the light gets in. And a cracked and enlightened heart is a heart being transformed, a heart being filled with the knowledge of the extravagance and expansiveness of God’s immense love for all of God’s creation.
Thanks be to God.

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.

Worn Out

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017 *

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

Texts for the Festival of the Resurrection, Easter Sunday:
Acts 10:34-43 + Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 + Colossians 3:1-4 + Matthew 28:1-10

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Please pray with me:

Holy Crucified and Risen One,
We live in the tension of this morning,
When our Alleluias are bursting out of us,
And some of us are so weighed down we can barely stand.
Call us, again, to live.
Help us be resurrected, again, today.
Amen.

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It’s a marathon, not a sprint, right, church?

The worship services of Holy Week can feel like a whole lot of worship, but I assure you, they are packed full of meaning. And if you made the commitment, and it is a commitment, to come to all the worship services of Holy Week, even if it was somewhat coerced (thanks, Choir…), I guarantee that you experienced this sacred story of salvation, of betrayal, of torture, of death, and of resurrection in a way that was both completely familiar and terrifyingly new.
Thank you—all of you—for helping me tell this story in our time and place…here at New Hope Lutheran Church in 2017.

I’m somewhat of a superstitious person, at least when it comes to some pastory things.
I’m just going to tell you…I have lucky shoes. I call them, My Preachin’ Shoes.
I’ve had them for almost 5 years now, and these shoes and I have been through a lot. I preached my first sermon to a congregation in these shoes. I graduated seminary in these shoes. I won a preaching award in these shoes. I was ordained in these shoes. I baptized little Elwood, my first baptism, in these shoes.
I wore these shoes last night at my first Easter Vigil here at New Hope.
And I’m wearing them this morning, my first Easter Sunday here at New Hope.

And I’ll be wearing them at my second and third baptisms this morning, when we baptize Noble and Nirmal.

These shoes and I have been through a lot together, and I hope that we’ll continue to go through a lot more, but I worry about, and truthfully I’m afraid of, the day that will inevitably come when my shoes are just too worn out.
They’ve got holes, or stains, or begin to separate at the sole…shoe

Because that’s what happens when you commit to something for any worthwhile amount of time or spend any worthwhile amount of energy on something, you get worn out.
The disciples most certainly felt worn out after following their teacher, their Rabbi, around ancient Palestine for three years. I’m sure they had blisters on their feet, holes in their hearts, and an emptiness in their souls when the one they walked around with, the one they thought would surely be the savior of the world was hoisted up on a cross and met the same gruesome death as a common criminal.

And it wears on us too…
We feel worn out after committing to all the services of Holy Week.
We feel worn out after making the long 40-day Lenten trek from Ash Wednesday to now.
Beginning by hearing the truth about ourselves, about how we’re nothing more than the dust from which we were formed…
Journeying through Lent and examining the patterns of our lives that keep us from living fully and completely as God calls us to live, lives of compassion and mercy with arms and hands made for embracing and serving…
Traveling to the cross where God takes all of those things in our lives that keep us separated from God and from one another, Christ takes all of those things unto himself, and they die…with Christ.

And for what? Why wear yourself out, why wear holes in your shoes and in your hearts, if the story just ends like that…?

These women that arrived at the tomb early that morning, their hearts and feet worn out, carrying spices and oils to care for the body of their teacher, were there to turn the page on that chapter of their journey. This part of the story was done, time to go back to what they were doing three years ago, or maybe start something new.
But where they came to turn the page, God picks up again and keeps writing.
Because this is not the end of this story.

The tomb is empty. Christ has been raised.
And these brave women, the first witnesses to the glorious resurrection of Christ, fall down at Jesus’ feet and they bless those worn out, blistered, scarred, and nailed-through feet because it means that their blisters and scars…our scars and bruises and the holes in our lives and the emptiness in our hearts, have all been redeemed.

Because this story is our story too, church. Christ’s resurrection is our resurrection.
And I think we could all use a little resurrection from these things that wear us out.

Because the promise of the resurrection isn’t that there won’t be death.
It isn’t that there won’t be things that wear us out, or weigh heavy on us, or that we struggle with, or that there won’t be illness or sickness or disease.
The promise of the resurrection is that even in the things that wear us out, that weigh heavy, that we struggle with…even in the midst of illness and disease…even in death…
God is there. With us.
Because God has been there.

Resurrection isn’t ignorant of death. Resurrection promises life in the midst of death.
Resurrection promises life in spite of death.

Because to hear the words of the Resurrection is to hear the good news that death is not the final word. It’s to hear the good news that the death-dealing powers of this world that seek to exert control over us and that try to prevent us from living lives of goodness, grace, mercy, compassion, and love toward God and toward one another have been crushed under Christ’s foot, and by God, church, we are free!
We are called out from our graves, called out of our tombs like Lazarus, released from the darkness and stench that tries to kill us and keep us locked away in our tombs, and we are told that we are unbound! We are freed to live the lives that God has called us to in our baptism.

Noble and Nirmal will hear that call on their lives through their baptism in just a little bit, and these rafters will shake with glorious shouts of “Alleluia!” because your sin has been drowned in those waters, and you are free to live lives that reflect the light of Christ, a light that overcomes darkness and warms even the most frigid places in our world.
Lace up your shoes, church, because we’ve got a lot more living to do.
Living of lives that are created for…that are made…for showing and giving mercy and grace and peace and love.

Come to this meal, people of God.
This is what resurrection tastes like.
Christ’s very body and blood are given and poured out for you, so that you might receive just a foretaste of that glorious day when we will all join together in God’s great reconciliation and resurrection of all things.
Hold out your hands and receive nourishment to sustain you when you are worn out and to strengthen you to live the life that you are called to, that you were created to live.

Thanks be to God!
Alleluia!

 

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.

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“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

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

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.

Torn in Two

* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on November 16, 2014 *

Text: A Story from Isaiah (based on Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; and 2:1-4)

The King of Assyria came to Judah and sent a messenger to King Hezekiah in Jerusalem. The messenger called out to the people of Jerusalem, in their own language, urging them to submit to Assyria. Greatly distressed, King Hezekiah ripped his clothes and went to the temple to pray and consult with the prophet, Isaiah. Isaiah urged King Hezekiah to trust in God and used these words:
2:1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

———
Pray with me, as we imagine a future of peace.

Break into our world, God.
Fill the earth with everlasting peace.
Break our hearts, God.
Fill us with love and compassion for one another.
Amen.
———

“There is time enough for everything; and, you must make enough time for everything.” These words were spoken to me on Thursday afternoon, in the midst of an extremely full two weeks for me. And they were so absolutely appropriate, and named exactly where my spirit is. Maybe you feel that way, too. That there’s just simply not enough time for everything.

Astronomical ClockKnowing what time it is is not one of my spiritual gifts. Not in the sense that I don’t know how to read a clock, but in that I can become so engrossed in a project that I fail to take time away from that task. I’m someone who gets easily wrapped up in details, and so the most important thing at this moment is this one thing, and anything else is secondary to this and is a distraction from this really important thing.

Except this “thing” may be quite minor, and in fact, may not be all that important at this particular moment… When we have a thousand different things competing for our time and demanding our attention, we can feel…”torn”…

I think maybe King Hezekiah felt torn also. Literally. I mean, here we had this huge army from Assyria, advancing on Jerusalem, and a message from the king of Assyria essentially saying, “Give up, people of Israel. It’s not worth losing your lives fighting back. Jerusalem will be conquered by Assyria, so don’t listen to whatever Hezekiah is telling you, because he’s wrong.” For all of you Trekkies out there, the Assyrian army was basically the biblical Borg; “Resistance is futile.

But Hezekiah knew that the message of the Assyrian army was not God’s message, and that God’s word to God’s people is one of hope. And Hezekiah wants to trust that, he really does want to believe that’s true. But that doesn’t mean that the Assyrian message of fear isn’t still convincing or compelling. I mean, Hezekiah was feeling pulled in two different directions; he was torn…and so what does he do?

He literally tears his clothes. Rips them in half… A visceral reaction to a very real inner struggle.

Maybe you’ve felt that way. Felt trapped because on the one hand you have a pretty convincing narrative of fear, and on the other you know God’s promise is a word of hope. But I think if we’re honest, hope is difficult; and all the more reason that a message of fear is so compelling.

Fear is easy. Our society is set up in such a way that our default position is one of defensiveness. If you tell me that my livelihood, my family, the things I cherish are in danger, I’m likely to believe you. Fear is a great motivator. Cultures of fear create beliefs in things like scarcity rather than abundance, or us versus them, or violence rather than peacemaking, or keeping people out rather than welcoming them in, or…insert your own dichotomies…

And it is precisely into these dichotomies, or gaps, that God enters into our world. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word used there to describe Hezekiah’s actions is ‘schizo.’ It’s where we get our word ‘schism.’ The interesting thing about this word ‘schizo’ is that it’s used exactly twice in the Gospel of Mark.

Baptism of ChristThe first is at Jesus’ baptism; in Mark it says “the heavens were ‘ripped open’ and the Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove.” The Spirit of God enters our world through a ‘schizo’ and is set loose on the world through the teachings and actions of this wandering rabbi from Nazareth.

The second is at the moment of that same rabbi’s death, the author writes that the curtain of the temple was “ripped apart,” from top to bottom. See, in the Temple in Jerusalem, there was the place where everyone gathered, attended worship. And there was this other place in the center of the temple, called the ‘Holy of Holies,’ where it is said that God dwelled. Only the priests were permitted to enter the Holy of Holies. And this ripping, this ‘schizo’ of the curtain is important. See, now there is no separation between God and the world. With Jesus’ death, God has entered most fully into our human experience, even to death.Curtain Torn

And we know that death is not God’s final word in the matter. More than just experiencing death, God defeats death, and brings resurrection—brings life. God’s promise is one of hope, one of life, to a world that desperately longs to hear it.

Swords and spears may have fallen out of favor, but make no mistake, we’ve just gotten better at making weapons. You see it every time you open a newspaper or watch the news: 1,839 shooting victims, 363 homicides, just in Chicago, just this year. 73 of those victims are children. Across our city and country and world, hurtful comments. Teasing. Bullying, both in-person and online. Social media, while a wonderful tool for staying connected, has opened up thousands of avenues for people, particularly children, to hurt each other.

Isaiah’s words to Israel are no less prophetic for us in 2014.

I don’t lay all of these numbers out in front of you today to shame you or guilt you in some way. I lay all these numbers out in front of you so that you might gauge your own reaction to them. See, my theory is, we’re so used to hearing these statistics…that we’ve actually become numb to them.

73! 73 young, vibrant, living, breathing, running, playing, beautiful children of God! I lay all these numbers out in front of you in hopes that they break our hearts! That by hearing these, our hearts are ‘schizo,’ ripped open, and that God would come in and fill our hearts with love and concern and care for one another. And that we might be moved to do something about it…

The crux of this Isaiah narrative lies in the tension between hope and illusion. Who are you going to believe? The king of Assyria, whose message is, “You don’t stand a chance against me, Jerusalem. I will lay waste to your city just like I’ve destroyed all these other cities around you.”? The king of Assyria who tells you that the future is already determined, and that the future is one of destruction and violence and death?

Or will you listen to Isaiah, who says that God’s future is a one of hope? Who says “Do not be afraid;” that in God’s kingdom there is no more war, no need for instruments of destruction.

Our actions in the present are shaped by our ideas about the future. I’ll say that again, “Our actions in the present are shaped by our ideas about the future.” If we truly believe that the ultimate line of the story is destruction, we will live like it.

BUT, if we really…truly…believe that God’s final word to us is one of hope—one of resurrection—our actions will not only reflect that, but we’ll actively work to bring that future about. We’ll say it in a few moments, “On earth, as it is in heaven.”

Isaiah saw God’s justice and peace as light that brings life to the nations. But for Isaiah, that light was not just “in the days to come.” Isaiah believed that the extent to which the Jewish people themselves became, or lived into, that light, all the nations would be attracted to that light and would come streaming to learn the ways of God and to hear the word of the Lord.

Traffic Lights

Returning to my favorite question that keeps coming up for me as we work through the Narrative Lectionary—How are we to be together?—I think Isaiah would have us ask ourselves, “How are we being light in this world?”

And our answer to this question, I think, is really important. I would even dare to say it’s vitally important.

You know, I’ve spent a lot of my time here at Luther Memorial these past few months with the youth, with the junior- and senior-high schoolers. Let me tell you, they get it. They’re wrestling with difficult concepts, asking tough questions, and really trying to figure out what this life is all about. These young people, who are the leaders and decision-makers of the future, have this beautiful concept of what it means to live in a world together. They get it.

What we do here matters. Deeply. This…stuff…all of this…matters. If you’re wondering if that’s true, consider that in just a few moments, we’ll baptize a beautiful child of God. And the fabric between heaven and earth will be ripped apart, if only for a moment. And we’ll bear witness to a complete inbreaking of the divine in our midst. And the Spirit of God will be set loose on the world, yet again.

And as a congregation, we’ll make promises to Isabella that we, as a community, will be here for her, and support her in her faith, and encourage her in her journey. And these promises are not made lightly; we’ll hold each other accountable to do what we say we’re going to do. That’s part of what being a community of faith means. And part of what we’ll say to her is, “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works, and give glory to God in heaven.”

Jesus said it this way, “When I was hungry, you fed me; when I was naked, you clothed me; when I was sick and in prison, you visited me.” Vitally important… With real effects. Impacting real people.

Hezekiah’s first reaction was not to rush out of the city with his armies to do battle with the Assyrians. Rather, he prayed. He was quiet, and he listened. He consulted with Isaiah. In a culture of immediacy and instant gratification, the beauty of patience and waiting is bulldozed in favor of ‘I get what I want, when I want it, and I want it now.’ What might it mean for us to not rush into knee-jerk reactions, but instead to prayerfully consider what God would have us do? As we move, and even hurtle, toward Advent, we will be called to be people of patience and waiting.

“There is time enough for everything; and, you must make enough time for everything.”

How will we spend our time while we wait?