A Sermon about Faith, Community, and Subverting Boundaries

Standard
htloop copreaching.jpg

Photo Credit: Ben Adams

This weekend, I was invited to preach at my home congregation, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chicago. I also had the unique opportunity to preach alongside my good friend and seminary colleague Analyse Triolo.

The video below, courtesy of Analyse, is from Sunday morning’s version, though we also preached at the Saturday night liturgy in the South Loop. In the manuscript that follows, our individual headshots denote those portions of the sermon we wrote. Analyse’s spoken parts are in green, and mine are in blue.


Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
28-29 May 2016 + Lectionary 9C
Luke 7.1-10



analyse headshotEveryone feels like an outsider at one point or another. Whether you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, the eccentric theatre geek in your high school, or anything in between, I bet that not one of us here feels like we fit perfectly into the communities in which we find ourselves. The centurion in today’s gospel reading is also an outsider. It’s clear that he cares deeply for the community he’s a part of and is deeply involved in seeing to the welfare of the people in Capernaum, but at the same time he knows that because of his vocation and ethnicity he will always be an outsider.

I remember feeling like an outsider not too long ago, back in August when I first moved to Chicago. Not only did I move away from my home state of North Carolina for the very first time, but also from First Lutheran Church, a welcoming community that had been my church home since I was 4 years old. I had left everything that was home, that was comforting, to finish my degree at LSTC. The problem was that I was only going to be here for a year. What was the point of plugging into the community? Who was going to invest time in a stranger who was just passing through? I was an outsider looking in, not only at LSTC, but also as I looked for my church home-away-from-home.

Thankfully, the LSTC community saw my desire to connect, to build relationships not only at school, but also with a church, and so I was invited to Holy Trinity in the Loop my second week here. I didn’t know what to expect that first Saturday night…but when Pr. Craig said, “No matter who you are, no matter who you love, no matter if you’re here for the first time or if you call this your church home…you are welcome here.” In that moment I heard no matter if you’re part of the “in crowd” or if you feel like an outsider, no matter if you feel lost or if you feel right at home, YOU. ARE. WELCOME. HERE. I cried. My home church’s welcome statement starts much the same way.

I turned to a friend sitting next to me and I said, “I found it. I found where I belong.”

When Jesus saw a community welcome an outsider, he was amazed. 

josh headshot.pngCommunity stands at the heart of today’s gospel, and it is deeply intertwined with faith.

The centurion, of course, is an official of the Roman empire. He knows what it means to have the authority to tell someone to do something and they do it. He also seems to recognize that Jesus has a similar but far greater authority when he says, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” It’s a confession of faith that makes a claim about who Jesus is and from whom his authority comes.

It’s a tremendous confession of faith—but the centurion never says a word of it. Instead, it is mediated secondhand and carried by others.

Earlier in Luke’s gospel, a man who is paralyzed is carried by his friends to Jesus to be healed. In another passage, a widow’s son who has died is being carried away when Jesus has compassion and raises him to life. And in yet another story, parents are carrying their little children to Jesus to be blessed. The centurion’s friends, too, carry his faith on his behalf. Over and over, people are being carried to Jesus by their community. To paraphrase the Beatles, they get by with a little help from their friends.

The life of the church, too, is filled with carrying. When we are very young, we are carried to the font to be baptized and welcomed into the community of faith. Every Sunday, too, we are swept up in that same community to eat and drink at this table. Even when we recite the Nicene Creed in the liturgy, it is not “I believe” but “we believe.”

In a short story by Megan Mayhew Bergman, the narrator spots a gospel choir that passes by her cottage every Sunday morning, singing. The sight is enough to make her cry and yearn for their return every week, as she says, “All I needed of religion, I realized, was the beautiful sound of someone else’s faith.”[1]

When Jesus heard this faith that is vulnerable enough to be carried by the community, he was amazed.

analyse headshotThe centurion’s faith is a subversive act. James Marsters, a subversive actor and musician best known for playing the role of Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, describes an act of subversion as something that pushes back against the status quo. Subversion, he says, strips away the lies that are taught to us by society.[2] Subversive acts break down those falsehoods and say, “No! That is not how it has to be.”

The centurion’s faith, carried by the community, strips away the idea that only God’s chosen people, Israel, are capable of great faith. This Gentile’s faith reflects belief in a God who also subverts boundaries and cares for all people. And so through his friends he exclaims that Jesus has the authority to heal his servant. Furthermore, Jesus’s authority, which greatly outshines his own, is capable of doing so while simultaneously honoring Jewish purity laws. The centurion’s faith in a subversive God is so great that faith and hospitality become interconnected, a bridge is formed between ethnic groups, and for the first time this outsider truly belongs.

Jesus also responds subversively. Jesus finds the centurion worthy because the centurion declares first that he is not. The centurion’s faith alone, carried by the community, makes him worthy in Jesus’s eyes. In the historical context of this text, healing miracles were expected to require direct, proximate contact between the healer and the one being healed. And so inspired by the centurion’s faith, Jesus subverts this custom, bestowing God’s gracious, healing power upon the centurion’s servant, giving legitimacy to the centurion’s faith, and opening the community of believers up to not only Israel, but to the Gentiles as well, subverting boundaries all the way. As biblical scholar Gregory Anderson Love writes of this text, “Luke portrays faith as situated within a community of hospitality in which God and others are embraced.”[3]

When Jesus understood that God subverts all boundaries, even the one between Jews and Gentiles, he was amazed. 

josh headshot.pngFor the past three years since I’ve been at Holy Trinity, I have experienced what it means to be carried by the faith of a community that reimagines Christianity in expansive ways. Especially on days when I’m personally not feeling it, I have been able to come to this place and be communally carried by that faith.

The story about the healing of the centurion’s slave is a story about faith in community—that happens to include a healing. It’s a story about the kind of faith we strive to embody here at Holy Trinity. It’s a communal faith that transcends boundaries because the one in whom we trust transcends boundaries.

It’s a faith that finds expression in our hospitality every week and in our guiding principles.

When we bear our faith in anti-racism work and two Advents ago on the corner of Clark and Addison to declare that “Black Lives Matter,” we act with courage.

When we say every week Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, whomever you love or marry, you are welcome here, we are radically inclusive.

When the mission of Holy Trinity spans peoples across Chicago, from Lakeview to the South Loop, we cultivate empowering relationships.

When a sliver of green space in our garden (at our Lakeview building) reminds us of the splendor of creation and our task to be good stewards of the natural world, we delight in God’s beauty.

When we experience meaningful, multi-sensory liturgy and are renewed for our daily life and work among God’s people, we engage with intention.

These guiding principles are rooted in the exemplar of faith Jesus holds up in today’s gospel. He commends a faith held together by the community that trusts in God’s all-encompassing grace for the sake of the world.

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed.


[1] Megan Mayhew Bergman, “The Right Company,” in Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories (New York, Scribner, 2012), 147.

[2] https://youtu.be/Qp6x-agIfhQ

[3] Gregory Anderson Love, “Luke 7:1-10 Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, vol. 3, pt. 3, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 92-96.

Advertisements

A Sermon about the Call of the Holy Siri and Being Rerouted

Standard

Grace Lutheran Church
1 May 2016 + Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year C)
Acts 16.9-15; John 14.23-29



Have you ever been lost? No, I don’t mean lost in the spiritual, “Amazing Grace” sense of the word: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” I mean lost like you’re on vacation, you have the map spread out across your dashboard in a futile attempt to determine if you really should’ve gotten off at exit 63, but you might as well be trying to read hieroglyphics.

argue_1677436c

I can remember being lost on vacation once with my dad. We were on a hike through the Badlands of South Dakota in the blazing summer heat—a beautiful landscape, yes, but not so much when it’s a thousand degrees outside and you’ve lost track of your car. Though perhaps the greatest lesson learned that day is that when traveling with an ten-year-old maybe pack more than beer in the cooler.

In the age of the smartphone, getting lost has also gotten increasingly more snarky. If you know Siri, you know what I mean. Miss just one turn, and Siri’s nagging to “return to the route” starts to sound like a broken record. And her seemingly helpful attempts at rerouting you are nothing if not passive aggressive.

In our reading this morning from Acts, I am convinced that the Holy Spirit behaves a lot like a primitive Siri. To see what I mean, we actually need to back up a few verses.

At the onset of the chapter, things are going great. Paul and Silas recruit another travel reroutecompanion, Timothy, and the three of them go from town to town, visiting the churches. But then, two interesting things happen: First, we’re told they are “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” So they get rerouted through the region of Phrygia and Galatia. Then, they try to go to Bithynia, but similarly we read, “The Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” Rerouted again, they finally wind up in Troas.

Now, those are a lot of place names. The geography itself is not necessarily important, but the sheer number of times their own divine GPS reroutes the trio is noteworthy.

It is at Troas that our reading picks up and where things get really interesting. During the night Paul has a vision. A “certain Macedonian man”—we’re not told exactly who—appears to him. “Come over to Macedonia and help us,” he says to Paul. Rerouted yet again.

At this point, the narrator adds the crucial line: being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. What exactly the Holy Spirit is up to is yet to be made known, but this much is clear: The Holy Spirit is calling Paul, Silas, and Timothy to their missionary task of preaching the gospel—and certainly not where they first expected.

In Macedonia, predictably, the group seeks out the local “place of prayer.” What they encounter is a group of women. It’s easy enough to gloss over this detail in the 21st century, but for Paul and company to engage in conversation with a group of women is no small matter in the original context. Now add to an unexpected venue an unexpected group of people.

Predictably, after these women hear their preaching, one of them, Lydia, along with her family, is baptized. But here again, we should notice something unusual: Between the typical preaching and baptism, there’s no mention made of the Holy Spirit. Last week, we heard Peter’s report to the church at Jerusalem about his own vision while he was staying with Cornelius. In that story, before Cornelius and his family are baptized, the Holy Spirit falls upon them. In the case of Lydia, this detail is strangely missing.

Perhaps, as biblical scholar Mitzi Smith suggests, this implies that the Holy Spirit is already present and active in Lydia’s life. Indeed, we as Lutherans confess that it is only 'The father the son and the holy spirit split.'through the work of the Holy Spirit that we can hear the Gospel and receive the gift of
faith. So it only makes sense that the Spirt would already be at work in Lydia’s life before Paul shows up.

Let me repeat that: The Holy Spirit is already present and active in Lydia’s life before Paul shows up. That simple statement bears repeating because it carries with it tremendous implications about what it means to be called to preach the Gospel.

If the Spirit is already at work in Lydia, then that means the Spirit is not unique to any one time, or place, or people. The Spirit moves where the Spirit moves, and she is always one step ahead of us.

Like Paul and company, we have certain ideas about where we might want to go and about what we think mission looks like. But like a giant “detour” sign, the Holy Spirit is always rerouting us. Sometimes, God simply has different plans in mind for what our mission looks like and calls us accordingly.


As I conclude my time among you as your seminary student intern, I too find myself called away, rerouted, if you will, to the next chapter of my ministry. Looking back on the past several months since I’ve been at Grace, I can see the many ways that this community preaches the good news. Certainly, the good news is preached in all the usual places: in bible study, in confirmation, from this pulpit. But then there are those unexpected places where the Spirit has called us to share the gospel: at a block party in August, at an Easter egg hunt for children and families across this neighborhood, in mutual dialogue with our Muslim friends just a couple weeks ago.

The Spirit is very clearly at work in this assembly, and not simply in the (expected) four walls of this sanctuary.

Each week, the Spirit moves through our liturgy and beyond. In gathering, the Spirit calls us together as the people of God. At the table, we remember the work of God’s Spirit in history and invoke that same Spirit to bless our feast and grace our table with divine presence. And nourished by Christ’s body and blood, the Spirit sends us out in mission to the world.

We can go into mission confidently because we know the Spirit precedes us. Jesus promises his disciples the gift of the “Advocate”—“Paraclete” in Greek, literally something like “the one who is on your side.” But he also promises them the gift of peace—a “profound and holistic sense of well-being,” rooted in the joy of the resurrection.

We hear it in today’s Gospel, and we heard it four weeks ago in the locked room with Thomas. With the gifts of peace and the Spirit, Jesus sends the disciples into mission. And with the same gifts, we too are sent.

As I leave this place for my internship in Omaha, the ministry of this congregation continues on. As the Spirit moves through this assembly gathered here, so too she moves in this neighborhood. Can you hear the man from Macedonia? “Come on over to Elmwood Park, to Chicago, to River Grove, to Oak Park, come on over and help us.” We have good news to share, friends. It starts here, but it continues in our Monday-through-Saturday lives, especially in the most unexpected places.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!