Holy Innocents

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Every year, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College in Cambridge features a new carol commissioned for the Christmas Eve service. This year, Hungarian poet George Szirtes’s poem “The Flight,” inspired by the plight of refugees trying to make their way to Europe, was set to music by Richard Causton. (Lyrics and link to audio below)

The account of the Magi from Matthew’s gospel, which immediately precedes the carol in the service, tells of Herod’s plan to track down the whereabouts of the newborn Jesus in order that he “may come and worship him also.” Of course, we know Herod’s actual intentions were not as he claimed, and the warning given to the Magi at the end of the reading precipitates another warning to Joseph, where Herod’s secret plot is made explicit.

Mary didn’t get a baby shower, or a nice, sanitary hospital birth. Jesus wasn’t cleaned up by a nurse and wrapped in a warm, fluffy blanket. Nor did family and friends deliver homemade casseroles to the newlywed parents. What Mary and Joseph got after the birth of their son was government persecution, forcing them to flee from their homeland to a foreign country. Sound familiar?

Szirtes writes in his poem, “The sea is a graveyard / the beach is dry bones.” I can’t help but think of the now-famous, distressing photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose family sought to escape political unrest in their native Syria, lying dead on a Turkish beach.

Of course, Kurdi’s death, gut-wrenching as it is, is only one case among many, illustrative of a global crisis. Jesus and his family were among the lucky ones who escaped persecution and were even able to return to their homeland, but that by no means lessens the tragedy that follows in Matthew’s gospel–Herod’s ordered massacre of all children two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem. And it by no means lessens the tragedy of the refugee crisis, or our broken immigration system, or the national epidemic of gun violence. As the gospel writer mourns in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, so too we cry out:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more. (Matthew 2.18)

On this day, when the Church commemorates the massacre of the Holy Innocents, just days after the “silent night, holy night” of Christmas, we remember also those “holy innocents” of our own day, Kurdi included, and we pray:

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem by order of King Herod. Receive into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims. By your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Prayer of the Day for The Holy Innocents, Martyrs, Evangelical Lutheran Worship)


THE FLIGHT
Words: George Szirtes
Music: Richard Causton
Oxford University Press

[Link to audio available here, accessed 26 December 2015]

The child on the dirtpath
finds the highway blocked
The dogs at the entrance
snarl that doors are locked
The great god of kindness
has his kindness mocked

May those who travel light
Find shelter on the flight
May Bethlehem
Give rest to them.

The sea is a graveyard
the beach is dry bones
the child at the station
is pelted with stones
the cop stands impassive
the ambulance drones

We sleep then awaken
we rest on the way
our sleep might be troubled
but hope is our day
we move on for ever
like children astray

We move on for ever
our feet leave no mark
you won’t hear our voices
once we’re in the dark
but here is our fire
this child is our spark.

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Stephen, Deacon and Martyr

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On this second day of Christmas, I offer the following reflection on St. Stephen’s Day, originally written for Fling Wide the Doors, the 2014-2015 Advent and Christmastide devotional by the community of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chicago.ststephenicon

Stephen’s story is recorded in the book of Acts. He was appointed as one of the first deacons of the early church in order to care for those in need. Ultimately, Stephen’s preaching caught the attention of the religious authorities in Jerusalem, who ordered that he be stoned to death. In many Commonwealth nations, St. Stephen’s Day is called Boxing Day and commemorates the martyr’s ministry among the poor.


The twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task…” And they chose Stephen. – Acts 6.2-3, 5 (NRSV)

Nearly every Sunday for the past year, I have joined South Loop Campus Ministry to prepare sack lunches and hand-deliver them to our sisters and brothers living on the streets. What started rather by accident—when SLCM advertised “Free Food for College Students” and more than just the target audience showed up—has since turned into our most popular ministry.

See, this thing called Christianity is really all about food and feeding people. From its inception, the early church recognized the need to feed and care for people, and in Acts we are told they commissioned seven people to this task as deacons (literally, “servers”)—including Stephen, whose martyrdom we commemorate today.

Of course, our liturgical life also centers on food, in a special kind of meal entrusted to the pastor. But the ministry of diakonia, or table-serving, is entrusted to all of us—”the priesthood of all believers.” In the Eucharist we are refreshed and strengthened with holy food to love and serve and even feed our neighbor in return. So the Christian life is all about food and feeding.

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SLCM students and leaders “Takin’ It to the Streets” on Lower Wacker (photo credit: Ben Adams, also for photo above)

One particular Sunday with SLCM, while were serving food on Lower Wacker, a brother asked us to pray for him. We joined hands around our shopping cart full of sack lunches and prayed, and it occurred to me in that moment that our cart is essentially our altar on wheels, around which we gather in community each week to give thanks and make and bless holy food for hungry people. Such is what diakonia means: the Christian life is all about food and feeding.

Before his martyrdom, Stephen concludes his speech with the indictment, “The Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (Acts 7.48). To be sure, he’s not claiming that God is not present in our places of worship but declaring instead that God is not limited to those places alone. God is just as present on Lower Wacker as God is at Addison and Magnolia or at Grace Place.

So this St Stephen’s Day I invite you to be mindful of where you encounter the sacred amid the quotidian, particularly among “the least of these.” Holy Trinity certainly has no shortage of opportunities to engage in this ministry of feeding.

Finally, I offer this quote, adapted from Gordon Lathrop, as a prayer, or perhaps a mantra, to carry with you today: “Christianity is a meal. Its members are table-servers. Let beggars come. Amen.”

Sermon Remix for Gaudete (Rejoice!) Sunday

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[Essentially a rehash of my second sermon for preaching lab, found here. But listen to this one first. It’s better, I promise.]


Grace Lutheran Church
13 December 2015 + Advent 3C
Philippians 4.4-7



I hate to break it to you, but you realize that we’re now less than two weeks away from Christmas, right? If we’re being generous and count today, that’s only 12 shopping days left before the big day. It feels like it was just yesterday that many of us were stuffing turkeys and baking pies for Thanksgiving. But if local retailers’ shelves are any indication, that holiday happened in July. And if you haven’t caught up for Christmas yet, good luck, because I’m sure they’re already displaying their Valentine’s Day merchandise.

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So once again, not to stress you out or anything, but did I mention there’s only 12 days left for all the gift shopping, cookie baking, tree trimming, light hanging, hall decking, card writing, gift wrapping…

But you know, don’t worry.

If you’re anything like me, then you probably take issue with what overly optimistic Paul has to say in this passage from Philippians. Rejoice always. Don’t worry. Pray continually. And by the time he rolls around to his conclusion, “The peace of God which surpasses all understanding,” his maxims and platitudes have reached their pinnacle of gag-worthiness.

3b5e24b0282e0cd039bfeaeeeb75185eI learned the lesson about vapid platitudes and overly optimistic maxims the hard way during a summer of Clinical Pastoral Education, when I worked as chaplain intern in a hospital. During one patient visit, I was listening to a woman, Amy, talk about loss upon loss in her life: her son’s unemployment, her own tenuous employment and lack of sick pay during multiple hospitalizations, the uncertainty of whether or not the bank would foreclose on her house and leave her homeless for the second time. So at one point when I said, “Well, you’re here now, and it sounds to me like you’re a survivor,” she basically told me to shut up. I imagine if Paul were in the room telling her to rejoice in the Lord always and not to worry about anything, she might have said something similar.


There was an article floating around Facebook about a month ago titled “Your Mental Health Is More Important Than Your Grades,” which, as a stressed-out seminary student who jumps at every opportunity to procrastinate, immediately appealed to me. The author reports that about 62% of students suffer from “perpetual, toxic anxiety.” It’s like she’s been spying on me or something, I thought.

But what’s even more unsettling: This anxiety can have damaging effects on our sense of well-being and our ability to function, resulting in fear, doubt, and depression. In response, the author conducted a study focusing on what her students were doing to actively combat stress. Among her conclusions: you don’t have to be a perfectionist, and you’re not alone. In other words, stress isn’t worth it if it costs you your mental health and your life in community.

The Philippians appear to have been no strangers to stress, either. There’s evidence throughout Paul’s letter that the church at Philippi experienced both external persecution and internal conflict. But Paul offers them encouragement. “Rejoice,” he says, and “let your graciousness be known to everyone.” Don’t get hung up on the little things, Paul says. Be gracious. Be forgiving. Or as one popular coffee table book implores: don’t sweat the small stuff.

Paul also refers to the graciousness of Christ in another letter to the Corinthians. As one commentary puts it, graciousness evokes a sense of generosity toward others, and Paul uses it here as a model of living for the Philippian community. Be like this because Christ was.

charliebrownchristmasIn this passage, Paul is basically telling the Philippians the same thing as the author of the stress study tells us: Your unity and graciousness to others are more important than getting it right all the time. Paul is concerned for their unity, and against the background of conflict and anxiety, his words remind the Philippians that they’re in this together. As one biblical scholar writes, “Jesus has redeemed us from petty squabbles and derisive chatter to provide a particular kind of witness to the world. That witness is found in the way we treat one another.”


So: rejoice in the Lord always, let your graciousness be made known to everyone, do not worry… and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Paul ends with a promise of God’s peace, but it’s not just another vapid platitude. The word Paul uses for guard can also be used in the sense of confinement in prison. I don’t think his word choice is just a coincidence. Paul knew what confinement was like, since at the time of his writing to the Philippians he himself was locked up in Rome, pending capital charges. So if Paul could be reassured of the peace of God in his situation, the Philippians could believe it in theirs. Paul wasn’t offering empty words; he was offering his lived experience.

After Amy, my patient from CPE, finished telling her story, I offered to pray with her. Reluctantly she agreed. I can’t say I remember what I prayed for, but I’ll always remember the way she ended our visit. “Thank you,” she said, “that actually helped.” And with a hint of a smile, she continued, “Now go help someone else.”

We rejoice not because circumstances are always ideal or easy, but because in the end God’s peace endures even in those dark places—be it a hospital room, or the stress of the rapidly approaching holiday, or even the depression that accompanies the ever-shortening days until the winter solstice. Advent is the season we anticipate the inbreaking of God’s new reality in Jesus, culminating in the angels’ proclamation: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.”


Hymn of the Day: “Awake! Awake, and Greet the New Morn”
(Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #242)

That time I preached about the Reformation during Advent…

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Sermon for ML 403 Preaching Lab
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
1 December 2015
Jeremiah 31.31-34 (Reformation Day)


[With thanks to fellow ML 403 student Analyse Triolo for the recording!]


When I was handed the little slip of paper for my final preaching text, I honestly anticipated what feast or festival I would be given with a bit of dread. After all, we’ve heard a sermon on an Old Testament text for the feast day of a New Testament apostle. And just two weeks ago, we heard three sermons on good old triumphalistic Christ the King Sunday. So not to be disappointed, I got… Reformation Day. I mean, really, what could a Lutheran seminarian possibly have to preach about the Reformation to a room full of the same?

We all know the story of the Reformation. So instead, journey with me on my research for my Religious Heritage paper, about 450 years beyond the time of Luther, to a lesser known but no less important era of our shared ecclesiastical history.

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Jacob Preus

Still some two decades before the dawn of the ELCA, our sisters and brothers in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod had just elected a new president (their equivalent of a presiding bishop), Jacob Preus. That same year, the seminary in St. Louis had also just chosen John Tietjen as its new president. But these two men could not have been more different.

Preus represented the old guard—what we might today call a fundamentalist. For his part, Preus was simply trying to hold together a church body with a fraught and fragile history, insisting that what they’ve always believed could still hold true and be counted on. But his view also thought of Lutheranism as a box: You either agree with us or you don’t. You’re either in or you’re out.

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John Tietjen

But trouble was brewing at the seminary in St. Louis. With the support of President Tietjen, the faculty began to rattle the box. They dared to suggest that the old way might not be the only way or the best way for a changing context. Thinking outside the box, they suggested that Lutheranism was instead a platform. As God’s word cannot be contained, neither can its proclamation.

The faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis—and later Seminex—spoke against a system that tried to contain God’s word within an outmoded framework, privileging the old guard at the expense of those who sought to reform it.


When we gather every October 31st to commemorate the Reformation, we remember another group of reformers that likewise spoke against a system that tried to contain God’s word for a select, privileged few. Isn’t that interesting how church history tends to repeat itself?

The church of Luther’s day, as we know, tried to make salvation a commodity that could be boxed and bought. But Luther and the reformers knew that that’s not how grace works. Grace, they insisted, is freely available to all because it cannot be contained.

d84437ad811812321867d0b64ffc7efff8c5a434124475e335ecaa5d614ab147And surprise of surprises, this is a problem even older than church history itself. We see the same dilemma unfolding in our reading from Jeremiah this afternoon. The exile was one of the most earth-shattering events in the history of ancient Israel and spanned much of the prophet’s career. When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, they didn’t just take captives. They also destroyed and looted the Temple—the one place where the Jewish people thought God could be contained.

And this is the audience to which Jeremiah speaks his prophetic word. Talk about a challenge in pastoral care! And right smack-dab in the middle of the book comes our reading today: a vision of God’s new covenant and promise of restoration. Of course, Israel’s history of disobedience is nothing new, and in a way, neither is the certainty of God’s clear intent to forgive, no matter how many times God’s people mess up.

But there is also a sense that this “new covenant” is going to be different: It will “not be like” the old covenant, “no longer” will it be how it was in the past. The people thought God could only be found within their now destroyed temple, but God comes to them in a new, surprising way.

Jeremiah prophesies that not only can God’s word of grace not be contained, but that it comes when and how the people least expect it: the law will be written not on stone tablets but on their hearts, and this new covenant will include all people, not just the people of Israel. It disrupts their expectations of a neatly confined God with limited interests.

And so Jeremiah prophesies to us: In the moments that it feels like God is not where we have to come expect, we can look to the heritage of our tradition and our ancestors in faith for the confidence that God comes in quite different ways beyond our comfortable expectations and presuppositions. As we hear this word of reformation in the midst of the Advent season, I’m also reminded of the hymn text: “Unexpected and mysterious is the gentle word of grace.”


Lest we get too full of ourselves and our ELCA Lutheran pride on Reformation Day, we might do best to remind ourselves that God’s word is not limited to the Seminex movement either, nor is it limited to the pages of the Book of Concord. But as God’s word in Jeremiah is for all people, so then it must be able to speak always afresh to new contexts.

seminexThe logo that was designed for Seminex, after the faculty and student majority had no choice but to leave, depicts a chopped down, dead tree stump. But emerging from that stump is a new shoot of leaves. New life out of dead matter. That’s the message of the gospel. For the people of Jeremiah’s day, it meant God emerging from beyond the confines and rubble of a destroyed temple. Some time later in the history of salvation, it meant an empty tomb in a garden while it was still dark.

The good news today and every day is that God’s word of grace is always surprising and always being made new and manifested in unexpected and disarming ways. It can’t be boxed in—not in a temple, not in a sealed tomb, not in this chapel, not in doctrine or dogma made by humans. And for that, thanks be to God.