A Sermon about Journeys

Standard

img_0899Preacher’s Editorial Note: I have the privilege of serving a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) congregation, meaning they have made the decision to be intentionally welcoming and affirming of the diversity of God’s people, particularly those in the LGBTQ+ community. When I was looking for an internship site, it was important both to me and to the field education directors at my seminary to find a site that is RIC to provide me with a safe place to complete my internship year. I am grateful for Augustana’s welcome and also for their future support of an LGBTQ+ intern in the next academic year.

Today, Augustana celebrated nearly thirteen years of being an RIC congregation. Our worship was enhanced with the music of the River City Mixed Chorus (a choral ensemble made up of LGBTQ+ persons and allies). I also preached perhaps my most personal sermon to date, the text and recording of which follows below. I am happy beyond words for the support of all the communities along my journey that have made it possible for me to do what I am called to do. Deo gratias.


Augustana Lutheran Church
5 March 2017 + First Sunday in Lent (RIC Commemoration)
Matthew 4.1-11



I admit, when I learned that Augustana’s annual Reconciling in Christ commemoration would coincide with the First Sunday in Lent, I was nervous. Lent, after all, is traditionally a season where words like “repentance” and “sin” are thrown around in excess—words that have come to be triggering for many in the progressive church and especially for those in the LGBTQ+ community.

I’m also usually not one for diverting from the lectionary, but the texts assigned to the First Sunday in Lent this year—one from Genesis about the fall into sin (there’s that word again) and another from Romans, a letter written by the apostle Paul who is responsible for many of the “texts of terror” used to justify homophobic and transphobic violence—made even me take a few liturgical liberties.

christ_tempted_by_the_devil-_16_m-m_copy__47243-1437065422-1000-1200_1024x1024

As I began to mull over what I might preach today, I found myself drawn to the gospel text, the one reading I did not change. It tells the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Much could be said about the story itself, but what most attracted my attention was the larger context. Immediately before this passage comes the story of Jesus’s baptism, which we just read moments ago, and immediately following is the account of the launch of Jesus’s public ministry. Taken together, this pattern of baptism-wilderness-ministry suggests the pattern of the Christian life—or we might say the journey.


My own journey began at the font at Trinity Lutheran Church in Utica, Michigan. The subsequent years of Lutheran schools from preschool through high school drew me to Concordia University in the near suburbs of Chicago, where I originally planned to study secondary education in English. After one field education experience in a 7th grade English classroom, that was enough of that for me, and I opted instead for the pre-seminary program.

Then, late in my senior year, I began the process of coming out as gay. While that task proves difficult enough on its own, it also meant that I could no longer in good conscience or for my own safety pursue ministry in the fundamentalist faction of the Lutheran church in which I was raised.

Enter Urban Village. The young, United Methodist church plant I discovered around that same time fully welcomed and affirmed me for who I am and invited me more deeply into the community. For the next two years, I found myself more involved in the life of the church than ever before, as my own theology began to be re-formed. It was also during that time that I began to pay attention to my call to ministry again.

The next phase of my journey brought me to Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chicago, which in many ways felt like coming home to the rich heritage of my natal tradition but with a refreshingly progressive spin. The Holy Trinity community continues to support me through seminary, and I am grateful to call them family.


IMG_0896.JPG

The River City Mixed Chorus sings a trio of choral anthems for our Reconciling in Christ (RIC) commemoration at Augustana on Sunday, March 5, 2017. (photo credit: Josh Evans)

Today as we celebrate nearly thirteen years of being a Reconciling in Christ congregation, I tell you my story to tell you this: Inclusion matters. Inclusion matters because it saved my life. Inclusion matters because it reawakened my call to public ministry. Inclusion matters because of comments like this one that I received just this past week from a queer friend who also grew up in an ultra-conservative congregation: “Even something as simple as seeing someone like me at the front of the church means a lot even after having been out for years.”

Inclusion matters, but inclusion also demands confession and repentance of the ways we are complicit in systems of oppression. In a quote attributed to Indigenous Australian artist and activist Lilla Watson, we hear: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

The work of liberation and reconciliation is an ongoing activity. Being a Reconciling in Christ congregation today means that when we see the water protectors of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe forcibly removed from their lands, we speak out. It means that when a presidential order threatens the lives of our immigrant and refugee siblings, we hold candlelight vigils and call and write to our elected officials out of the deep convictions of our faith. It means that when transgender persons of color are murdered at alarming rates, while our lawmakers are more concerned about where the hell they pee, we demand justice and accountability for their lives taken too soon.

when_we_rise_abc_logo

The struggle for justice is hard, and I’m  especially grateful this week for the new ABC mini-series When We Rise, chronicling the LGBTQ+ rights movement, beginning in San Francisco in the early 1970s. In the first episode, Ken Jones, a Navy officer in the Vietnam War who has just been reassigned to a base in San Francisco, struggles with coming to terms with his sexuality and, at the recommendation of a Navy chaplain, finds himself in the congregation of an anti-gay fundamentalist preacher. But as he leaves the service, he spots a gay bar down the block and walks in as a drag performer is singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” He’s greeted by Mama Jose, who says to him: “God has delivered you to this place of refuge.”

Not long after, that place of refuge is raided by police, who start beating and arresting patrons. While others lock arms in solidarity and protest, Ken runs away.

Later in the episode, he returns to the bar, apologizing for his cowardice and vowing to stick around the next time it happens. As he is welcomed back with open arms, and joined by the other main characters for the first time, Mama Jose declares, “All of you combined, locked arm in arm, are stronger than you know. You could lift us all up.”

The struggle for justice and the work of reconciliation is hard, but we always stand on the shoulders of those who came before and lock arms with those who fight alongside us.

For those of us who are Christian, Lent offers us the opportunity to return to the font, to remember our baptism, and to renew the covenant we made at the waters in renunciation of evil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God, and the ways of sin and oppression that draw us from God. It’s a tall order, but the promise of God is certain: In baptism we are named and claimed as God’s own, and throughout this season, throughout the wilderness journey, we are ever led back to the source and font of abundant life.

afe_g21

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday about Being Human

Standard

Augustana Lutheran Church
1 March 2017 + Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21


Ash Wednesday is a curious thing, isn’t it? First, we hear a gospel text that begins with a warning against practicing our piety before others, urging us instead to give alms, pray, and fast in secret. And then we proceed to dab our foreheads, perhaps the most publicly visible part of our bodies, with ashes — doing exactly what Jesus just told us not to do.

It’s also not a particularly popular message to go about proclaiming “you are dust and to dust you shall return” — words evocative of the funeral liturgy — “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

So you can imagine my surprise when I found myself in a young, urban church plant in Chicago that decided to take Ash Wednesday to the streets, offering ashes to passers-by at train and bus stops and other busy intersections and gathering places in the city.

470363_10150565788715248_743297262_o

“Ashes to Go” with Urban Village Church, Chicago, Ash Wednesday 2012

I remember the first year I participated in this “Ashes to Go” tradition. I was paired with one of our pastors and a fellow parishioner, and we were stationed outside a blue line train stop during the morning rush. After a while of imposing Chicagoans with ashes, I’ll never forget what came next: An SUV coasting down Damen Avenue — mind you, this is a fairly busy street — slows down as it approaches us. The driver’s window rolls down, and a woman, spotting my pastor, yells out, “Hey! Can you come here and do the kids real quick?” And he did, right in the middle of the street.

I’ve participated in Ashes to Go in the years since then, and what strikes me, again and again, is the response among those who stop to receive ashes — grateful for the opportunity when they might otherwise have not been able to make it to church or simply have forgotten all about it.

This curious thing we do — marking our foreheads with small crosses of ash — is a powerful ritual. It’s a reminder of our mortality, our creatureliness, our utter dependence on and connection to the earth.

Sara Miles has spoken of her own experience taking Ash Wednesday to the streets in her home city of San Francisco, remarking how often people run after her asking for ashes while she’s out and about. For Miles, the profundity of the ritual lies in the rare opportunity to be physically touched by a stranger and told the truth about who we are.

The fact is that we live in a culture where we’re being sold almost daily the idea that we’re immortal or that somehow we can delay or deny the inevitability of death or control the outcome. But the truth is quite the opposite, and so Ash Wednesday comes as a countercultural, even welcome, relief to let our guard down and to acknowledge that we’re not the ones in charge. This day is a reminder of our mortality, and so reminded, it’s also an acceptance and coming to terms with our limitations as human beings.

On Ash Wednesday we confess our shortcomings, but we repent in dust and ashes not for the sake of feeling sorry for ourselves and certainly not for showing off to others. We do so because we know that God’s mercy and capacity to forgive and to heal are always deeper and wider than we can imagine.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes this in his prayer, “Marked by Ashes”:

We are able to ponder our ashness with some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.

Ash Wednesday stands at the beginning of Lent, the church’s preparatory season for the celebration of the resurrection, and so we receive these ashes today as anticipatory of Easter itself and the certain promise of our new life in Christ.

ashwednesday

It’s no coincidence that the ashes that will shortly be traced on our foreheads are traced precisely where the water of our baptism began our new life in Christ.

We are marked with water and named as God’s own in our baptism, and we are marked with ashes on this day too as God’s own fiercely beloved people.