A Sermon on Being Prayed For: Easter 7/Ascension


Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
13 May 2018 + Easter 7B
John 17.6-19

After my first year of seminary, I moved to Cleveland to spend the summer as a hospital chaplain — just one of the many steps along the way to becoming a pastor. This chaplaincy internship is officially called CPE: Clinical Pastoral Education. But, unofficially, as those who had done it before me would say: Crying, Processing, Eating. CPE.

To say it’s an emotional ten weeks is an understatement. You spend your days making rounds, visiting patients, writing reports, and spending time debriefing it all with your fellow interns and your supervisor. There are, most always, tears involved.

In between patient encounters that leave you questioning your career choices and call to ministry altogether and poignant sessions with your supervisor that feel akin to having your heart ripped out of your chest, however, there are indeed some very sacred moments. Moments that make you remember why you’re there, moments that make it all seem worth it. Such moments often involve prayer, and that prayer, I can tell you from experience, does something for the one being prayed for.

Jesus’s words in today’s gospel come to us as a prayer. This prayer is no ordinary prayer, nor could this prayer come at a more timely place in the disciples’ experience. Over the past few weeks in our gospel readings from John, we have been privy to hearing bits and pieces of Jesus’s “farewell discourse,” his final words to his disciples before he would be handed over to be put to death. This lengthy speech that has spanned four chapters up to this point now culminates in a prayer — and at a crucial turning point in John’s gospel, just before Jesus would be arrested, setting the events of Holy Week into motion.

Jesus’s prayer for his disciples is remarkable, too, because it is prayed in the presence of his disciples. Biblical scholar Karoline Lewis helps us imagine the scene: “That upper room was filled with pain and abandonment. With betrayal and loss. With unsettled hearts and fearful souls. And Jesus ends it all with a prayer for his disciples.”

A newly minted chaplain intern, with only one year of seminary under my belt, I hardly felt qualified to offer spiritual care for the patients I saw everyday. Feelings of pain, physical and emotional, abandonment and loneliness, fear and uncertainty are not uncommon in patient encounters. It can feel like ending a patient visit with prayer is just a formality, at best, just something a chaplain should do, or, at other times, a convenient way of getting out of an awkward, uncomfortable visit, the sound of the “amen” as effective at whisking me away as the startling beeping of my pager. Sometimes, if I’m being honest, that was certainly the case. But there were other times, at some point between the “Dear God” and the “Amen,” that I know something happened — a new sense of calm, peace, stillness.

In the midst of complicated emotions, Jesus doesn’t offer another miracle or parable or teaching, but a prayer that is more profound and more needed than anything else Jesus could’ve done for them. Jesus prays on behalf of his disciples, the ones he calls friends just moments before. He offers them a reminder of their belonging to God and commends them to the loving protection and care of God, even as he himself is about to leave them. And he prays for their unity — the unity of Jesus with his Father, the unity of the disciples with Jesus — a profound experience of an intimate relationship. A relationship built on the promise of Jesus we heard last week: “Abide in my love.” Where the world has dealt the disciples uncertainty and fear and despair, Jesus offers his presence, his blessing, his prayer for them.

It’s one thing to pray for someone or something. It’s almost our natural response to when people tell us about a loss, or illness, or anxiety they are facing: You’ll be in my prayers. Or when things happen in the world — shootings, bombings, natural disasters — and we’re so quick to offer our “thoughts and prayers.”

But it’s quite another experience to be prayed for. Many of the most profound experiences of being prayed for in my life have come during moments of great transition. Transition is no small thing: There are often feelings of anxiety and uncertainty and even fear of what the next step will bring. There is also often a clinging to the past, a resistance to letting go of what has been, what is comfortable. On my last Sunday at my internship congregation, almost a year ago, I could physically feel the hands on my back and the wider presence in the room as I stood in the center of the sanctuary, to be prayed for, to be blessed and sent forth.

Jesus’s prayer for his disciples happens in their very midst. They are meant to overhear Jesus’s prayer for them! It’s a time of great transition for them, unsure of what the future will bring in the absence of their closest friend and teacher. And not just in the upper room that one night, but again at the ascension. We often overlook the ascension, falling as it does on a Thursday, just this past week, but there again is a moment of great transition, of leave-taking, of uncertainty for what the future will bring. But there again: Jesus blesses them as he is taken up into heaven.

At the end of this Easter season, we encounter stories of transition and leave-taking. On Thursday, we experience the risen Christ taken up from our midst in the ascension. Today, we hear Jesus’s words in the moments leading up to his death. Yet in both of these experiences, leaving is intertwined with blessing. It brings an invitation, and it makes room for the Spirit to enter in, as we anticipate the great day of Pentecost next Sunday. The liturgical poet Jan Richardson offers these words of blessing as she reflects on the leaving and the blessing of these days:

In the leaving
in the letting go
let there be this
to hold onto
at the last:

the enduring of love
the persisting of hope
the remembering of joy

the offering of gratitude
the receiving of grace
the blessing of peace.

Transition happens, but it is not the end. Fear and uncertainty and anxiety take hold of us, but they do not have the final word. Still, Jesus prays for his friends. Still, the risen Christ reaches out his hands to us in blessing, even and especially when we most need it.


Abide in My Love: A Sermon for Easter 6


Grace Lutheran Church, Lily Lake
6 May 2018 + Easter 6B
John 15.9-17

“I am a failure at prayer” …so writes Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor. And, I have to confess: So am I. Like Taylor, I have more books on prayer and spiritual practices in my home library than I know what to do with. I have taken classes and even led workshops on spiritual practices. No practice I try seems to “stick” for longer than a few weeks.

I am, it seems, especially bad at silence and sitting still. Last year, I attended a workshop on centering prayer during a daylong retreat. It’s a lovely practice, in theory: sitting in silence, eyes closed, doing and thinking about nothing for twenty minutes, just dwelling in the presence of God, the idea being to re-center yourself by the end. All I could think of: When will this be over?!

“Abide in my love,” Jesus says in today’s gospel. It’s so simple: just abide, dwell, sit, be in the promise and presence of the love of Jesus. But we don’t do this abiding-in-love thing very well, do we? Sure, we like to talk about it. We might sing “Jesus loves me, this I know” in Sunday School, but when it comes to actually practicing it and living it, I think, more often than not, we fail to fully realize what it means, how profound of a promise it really is. So what gets in the way of abiding in the love of Jesus?

On the one hand, there are the things we do to ourselves: We don’t let ourselves abide in that love. Maybe we don’t think we’re “worthy” enough of Jesus’s love, that we don’t deserve it, distrusting the promise and doubting our own self-worth, doubting the certainty of God’s grace. Or maybe we just don’t think we have enough time to abide, to dwell, to sit, to be. Ours is a culture that is so often individualistic, competitive, consumeristic, fast-paced, where our worth is determined by how much we can accomplish and not simply by who we are.

In her poem “Prayer,” Marie Howe captures this perpetual dilemma. Listen to this excerpt:

Every day I want to speak with you. And every day something more important
calls for my attention…
Even now I can hardly sit here…
Why do I flee from you?…
Even as I write these words I am planning
to rise from the chair as soon as I finish this sentence.

There’s always something more important, or so it seems. Things that call us away, make it impossible to just sit and be, to abide in the love of Jesus. Distractions about growing to-do lists, worries about getting everything just right, tending to strained or broken relationships, anxiety over illness or unemployment…

There are also two sides to every coin: Not only do we have a problem abiding-in-love ourselves; we seem to project that on others. We especially haven’t done a very good job of proclaiming the promise of abiding-in-love as the church. Sure, we might say “all are welcome,” but do we really mean that, all the time? All are welcome, we say, except… those people. People we’d rather not think about, let alone have sit next to us in the pews, whose political views or social identities differ from what we believe or think is acceptable. People we ourselves have determined are somehow outside the bounds of abiding in the love of Jesus. And so we set up systems of exclusion and oppression.

Recently, I’ve been reading a collection of writings by Joel Workin, a seminary student at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. In a sermon preached to his internship congregation, Joel addressed head-on the widespread misconception that persons living with AIDS were something to be afraid of and to be avoided at all costs — those people, he writes in his sermon, like the tax collectors and sinners Jesus dared to eat with, much to the chagrin of the Pharisees. Such persons faced a very real sense of alienation, perhaps most especially in the church. They were told: you don’t belong here, you are outside the bounds of abiding in the love of Jesus. In the midst of this, Joel’s prophetic word was profound: Persons with AIDS are not people to be afraid of. “We don’t need to run away,” he says. “We can, we must stay with them, eat with them, just as Jesus ate with those people.”

Exclusion and alienation is not the message of Jesus. Not for persons living with AIDS at the height of the epidemic, not for anyone told by the church they are “less than,” not for anyone who feels for any reason they are undeserving or don’t have time for abiding in the love of Jesus.

“Abide in my love” is a promise, plain and simple, no strings attached. It is the assurance of Jesus’s presence to be with us no matter what.

Jesus’s words in this gospel reading come at the heart of what biblical scholars call the “farewell discourse,” the last words of Jesus to his disciples before he is betrayed, put on trial, and sentenced to death by crucifixion. Already the disciples know one of them will betray Jesus, and they’re getting the sense that the hour when Jesus will leave them is getting closer. But Jesus meets their anxiety with words of reassurance: He calls them friends for the first time — a new way of understanding the fellowship they all shared together, a sense of mutual dependence and trust for getting through life in Jesus’s absence.

Friends, Jesus says, I chose you — reminiscent of Jesus’s earlier call to the twelve, here a reminder of that chosen-ness. Or in one  paraphrase: “You are here. With me. Now is not the time to wonder whether or not you should be here, are meant to be here, are worthy to be here” (Karoline Lewis). You are here.

Friends, chosen by Jesus, who exist in a community of love, rooted first in the love between Jesus and his Father, extending ever outward, as an act of intimacy between God and all of us. This is what it means to abide in the love of Jesus. It requires nothing of us: We love because God first loved us. God’s love flows to us, through us, and from us.

In John’s gospel, we hear the promise of abiding-in-love from the Word made flesh, the Word who makes his dwelling among us, the Word who abides with us and we in him.

Over and over, the promise of love is not an abstract concept but a real, tangible experience. We feel the water on our forehead from the font. We taste the bread and wine at this table. We hear the word proclaimed in our midst. We experience the presence of our neighbors in our communities. In all of this, we receive the invitation and the promise of the risen Christ: “Abide in my love.” Just be, just as you are, no strings attached. Thanks be to God.

Seeds of Hope, Stories of Resurrection


Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chicago
17 March 2018 + Lent 5B
Jeremiah 31.31-34; John 12.20-33

Wakanda Forever! (Not to be confused with the Illinois suburb, Wauconda.) It’s the rallying cry of a remote African nation at the heart of the recent theatrical blockbuster Black Panther. Theirs is a civilization technologically advanced beyond that of any modern country, but to the rest of the world, it’s seen as no more than a third-world nation, crippled by poverty and anything but tech-savvy — their discoveries kept a closely guarded secret to avoid exploitation by outsiders.

A central theme set up from the film’s beginning is the extent of Wakanda’s responsibility in global affairs. In a world of so much grave suffering and injustice, can a country so advanced and poised to offer aid really sit idly by? Or do they step in, even at the risk of exploitation?

That’s where I’ll stop, just enough of a teaser to get you to see it for yourself, without treading into the dangerous territory of the spoiler… Suffice it to say that Black Panther brings to the forefront a host of issues: the exploitation of vast parts of the globe by colonial powers, the moral responsibility of nations with the resources to alleviate suffering to step up and help, the ever-shifting and often unpredictable dynamics of world politics.

What does the prophet Jeremiah have to say to all of this? Quite a bit, actually.

Jeremiah knew something of what it’s like to live during a time of tremendous political unrest and turmoil. Jeremiah, in fact, lived through five kingly regimes during a time of drastic change and impending national exile in his country’s history.

Political rivals. Competing factions and parties. International war. Hostile foreign policy debates. It sounds a bit like the fictionalized world of Wakanda. It sounds a bit like our own reality. In the midst of this, Jeremiah prophesies on behalf of God to announce the destruction of Judah for turning away from the covenant between God and God’s people, at the heart of which is the command to love God and love neighbor — in other words, a commitment to social justice… but a commitment the people had long abandoned, turning their backs on those most in need.

Yet even amidst broken promises and the threat of destruction and exile, God acts. To paraphrase Kathleen O’Connor, in this tiny sliver of the promise of a new covenant, the book of Jeremiah testifies to an abiding hope in God despite all evidence to the contrary. This is a new covenant that will not be like the old covenant. We’ve been hearing a lot of covenant stories during these weeks of Lent — with Noah, with Abraham, with all of Israel at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments, and now, this new covenant promised to an exiled people who least deserve it.

There’s a sense here that the promised new covenant is like a seed falling into the earth, buried deep, barely noticeable (to borrow imagery from our gospel text). It’s easy to gloss over these few verses from Jeremiah, buried deep, like a small seed, in prophetic oracles of judgment and hopelessness. But the thing about seeds is that they die in order to sprout new life, to bear much fruit. In that way, there’s a sense that this new covenant is a story of resurrection.

We can begin to draw the parallels to Jesus, but: There’s a danger here in leaping to the conclusion that the new covenant is fulfilled in Jesus. This tendency toward supersessionism — think back to Pr. Craig’s sermon a couple of weeks ago — abounds in Christianity, this idea that somehow Christianity has superseded, or replaced, Judaism with the coming of Jesus. In the first place, that completely misses the point that the first Christians were, technically, not Christians but observant Jews, merely a different “denomination,” you might say. But more importantly, it also misses the richness and profundity of this new covenant in its historical context, given to a people in exile, in the worst of the worst of situations, with no perceivable hope for the future. Yet even there, the new covenant means that God has still not given up on God’s people. Like a seed that falls into the earth and dies, this is a story of resurrection.

The story of resurrection is deeply embedded in the whole of salvation history, not just in the gospels. The story of resurrection shows up even here in Jeremiah and continues into the story of Jesus in John’s gospel.

John’s is a gospel full of rich theological language and words loaded with more-than-literal meaning. In John, Jesus speaks of the appointed time for his death as his hour. And his death is no ordinary death but instead the hour when the Son of Man will be glorified — glorified in the double sense of being physically “lifted up from the earth” on the cross and metaphorically glorified, or in some translations, exalted, raised up to a position of power, thus subverting the image of the cross as an instrument of torture and death and reclaiming it as a symbol of hope and life.

In a more subtle way, the image of the seed offers the same message. This week, I stumbled across these appropriate words of the gay Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos: “What didn’t you do to bury me, but you forgot that I was a seed.” As an outspoken advocate for  the queer community through his poetry, Christianopolous wrote these defiant words in response to critics who tried to bury his work because of his sexuality. But, again, the thing about seeds, buried in the earth, is that they are destined to sprout new life. Seeds are subversive.

What a marvelous metaphor — this seed parable — for the death and resurrection story of Jesus! Life out of death, hope out of despair. Resurrection even in the midst of so much evidence to the contrary. The promise and presence of God even in the midst of desolation, injustice, political unrest, uncertainty, human brokenness. It’s the salvation story in its simplest form. It’s the story behind Jeremiah’s covenant, it’s the story Jesus tells about his own death, it’s a story that continues all around us even today — maybe you’ve seen it — in the voices of the women of the #metoo movement, or, just this week, in the witness of the students who walked out of their schools to call attention to gun violence. Where else?

Seeds of hope, falling into the earth, lying in wait. Resurrection stories in progress.

Covenant, Promise, Presence: A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent


Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
5 March 2018 + Lent 3B
John 2.13-22; Exodus 20.1-17

What does this mean?

I can still hear those words as if I were hearing them in my childhood confirmation classroom. “What does this mean?” “We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.” An almost robotic response.

The words from Luther’s Small Catechism have been emblazoned on the hearts and minds of Lutheran confirmation students everywhere, as surely as the Ten Commandments were first given to the ancient Israelites at Mt. Sinai many years ago.

Newly brought out of slavery from the land of Egypt, the people of Israel, God’s chosen ones, hear these new “commandments” read to them in the context of the covenant-promise between God and Israel, a marker of national and religious identity already established in the covenant made with Abraham we heard last week, and a moment that would define their relationship with God from that point on.

These “commandments,” however, are not exactly a set of laws or legal codes but are intimately tied to that covenant-promise. It’s unfortunate that Luther’s Catechism misses what our Jewish siblings actually observe as the first commandment: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The commandments begin with a word of good news! The law is rooted in gospel. And the you here is singular: These words are a reminder that God has liberated each person of Israel, that God has redeemed each one of us.

Rooted first in God’s action, the Ten Commandments are ultimately given as a model for living in community, with God and with each other. As later summarized in the version that appears in Deuteronomy, the Ten Commandments boil down to this: love God and love your neighbor. It’s a vision of God’s shalom, to borrow from Dr. Menn’s sermon last Wednesday, God’s peace, God’s wholeness. It’s a vision of being in an intimate relationship with God and with each other.

Fast forward to the time of Jesus, to the scene we encounter in John’s gospel, and we get a very different picture. We see religious practice not driven by love of God and neighbor for its own sake but co-opted by a sacrificial system made oppressive by corrupt temple practices by those in authority.

In three out of four gospels, we get an idea of what that corruption looked like. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus accuses the money changers and vendors of making the temple into a “den of robbers,” exploiting the people with price gouging and dishonest transactions. But in John, there’s no reason given. Jesus walks in, takes one look around, and promptly makes a whip to drive everyone out with a stern warning: Take these things out of here! Instead of targeting individual practice, Jesus condemns the whole system.

Then, in an allusion to the passion events still to come, Jesus makes the bold assertion: My body is the real temple, the real place you can meet God. Access to God is not comprised of complex rules and regulations and systems that have corrupted and only exacerbate the problem. Access to God is here and now! God is made known in the very presence of Jesus, the Word made flesh who makes his dwelling among us. Here, in Jesus, is the place where God and humanity meet. Get these other things out of here! What you need is here. As if to say: I AM.

While neither we as Christians nor our Jewish siblings today have any firsthand notion of temple-based worship, we do know something of what it’s like to get bogged down in things that distract or deter us from being in relationship with God.

We who seek ordination and consecration in this church as pastors and deacons know something of what it’s like to jump through hoops, feeling like we’re always having to “prove” our call to ministry, from entrance to approval. And the hoop-jumping continues in the paperwork, interviews, and evaluations of CPE, MIC, internship, assignment, and first call.

For we who are LGBTQIA+ or persons of color or living with disabilities, proving ourselves is made even more difficult by the systemic hurdles of homophobia and transphobia, sexism, racism, ableism, the list goes on.

The stress of midterm exams and papers, the hours spent preparing for qualifying exams and writing theses and dissertations, the time-consuming labor of sorting through CVs and interviewing faculty candidates, the minutiae of managing academic administration and accreditation and comprehensive campaigns…

It’s not difficult to get bogged down and burned out in the midst of carrying out our vocations, making us feel like our relationship with the One who called us here is distant, at best. Instead of temple vendors, cattle, sheep, doves, and money changers swarming all around, the demands of academic and administrative hoops to jump through absorb much of our time.

During Lent, a traditional time for “giving up,” we are invited into disciplines and practices that are meant to foster a mindset of repentance, of turning around, of refocusing and reorienting. This season, I found myself returning to Quaker writer and theologian Richard Foster who has written one of my favorite pieces on the spiritual practice of simplicity. Foster offers some very practical marks of what simplicity looks like:

Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status.
Develop a habit of giving things away.
Learn to enjoy things without owning them.
Develop a deeper appreciation for the creation.
Reject anything the breeds the oppression of others.

I have come to value the practice of simplicity as Foster describes it, though of course these things are easier said than done. But simplicity as a practice is an intentional invitation to declutter and remove those things which distract or harm us and to refocus on that which is life-giving, to enter anew into the intimate relationship with our Creator which they invite us to and so desperately want with us.

When I took a class on preaching the gospel of John last semester, one of the questions we asked after hearing a colleague preach was: What is the image of abundant life in this text? John’s gospel is indeed one of abundance, beginning right away with Jesus’s first miracle of turning water into wine at Cana and including such other signs as the feeding of the five thousand. There is explicit abundance in these stories, but there is abundance in more subtle places too. Jesus’s act of cleansing the temple is an act of  practicing simplicity — a clearing away of distractions, in order that we might experience God’s presence without obstruction. There is abundance here, and it is abundance in simplicity.

And while there is no allusion to the Ten Commandments in this story, it shouldn’t be lost on us that the gospel writer sets this event in the context of Passover — a festival with its roots in the exodus from Egypt, the journey through the wilderness, and the covenant at Sinai. Maybe it’s pure speculation, but I’d like to imagine that maybe, just maybe, Jesus had this in mind, pointing his people back to the covenant, back to all the words which God spoke, beginning with a reminder of their liberation and redemption.

These texts offer us the same thing. Whatever the baggage we carry with us into this space today that weighs us down, Jesus strips all that away and offers us the divine presence and promise in his very self.

I also remember hearing way back at my seminary sampler visit five years ago of LSTC’s mission statement: “to form visionary leaders to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.” In the midst of our work here, no matter what else weighs on us, distracts us, burdens us, stresses us out, this is what are we are here to do, as God’s own redeemed people, loved beyond our wildest imagining.

A Sermon for Reconciling in Christ (RIC) Sunday


Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Northbrook
28 January 2018 + Reconciling in Christ Sunday
Matthew 19.10-15 (NRSV); Acts 8.26-40 (Inclusive Bible)

So there I was, sitting in the chapel at St. Francis Retreat Center in San Juan Bautista, California. It was opening worship, and the liturgy continued with a litany, naming significant events and ordinations in the history of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries — an organization with roots in the Extraordinary Candidacy Project that worked to accompany and support gay and lesbian candidates for ordained ministry in the ELCA when the ELCA told them no.

Just a few hours prior, I was on a plane from Chicago bound for San Francisco, for my first Proclaim Gathering, part of ELM’s continued work to accompany openly LGBTQIA+ candidates for ministry in the Lutheran  church — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual… the acronym ever expanding as we catch up with the many identities our Creator God has gifted us with.

That evening in opening worship, I knew very few people in Proclaim and had no idea what to expect. As the litany began, it named each person who was ordained extraordinarily (outside of official church polity) — and beyond (when church polity caught up after the 2009 Churchwide Assembly). As the names of those present were read, they were invited to stand, take hold of a piece of the ball of red yarn that was being passed around, and declare: This is my body! The litany continued, too, into the future, naming seminarians, like me, who would make up the future of the church. As the yarn was passed to me, I stood: This is my body! Soon, the whole room was connected with a single strand of red yarn. And I knew I belonged. I was a part of something. My call to ministry mattered.

Growing up in a church body that did not recognize the gifts of LGBTQIA+ persons for ministry, I could not have dreamed that such a moment, like that in the chapel at St. Francis Retreat Center, was possible. It’s no secret that the church has had a rough relationship with its LGBTQIA+ members. Of course, we’ve made great strides. I give thanks for the work of ELM and Proclaim, for my home congregation not far from here in Chicago, for my internship congregation in Omaha, and for you! — the people of Gloria Dei in Northbrook — for your bold witness as an RIC congregation, declaring that all are welcome and affirmed as beloved children of God, exactly as we are.


Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Northbrook, IL, RIC Sunday, January 28, 2018

And yet, we know, the mass of Christianity is still not of one mind. The church tends to have a problem with those who are different, those who don’t fit inside neatly prescribed roles and norms and identities, and so the church has come up with ways to marginalize them, citing select verses of Scripture, plucked out of context, to justify exclusion and violence. But the witness of Scripture, and particularly the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, says differently. The church may have lost touch with God’s dream and vision for a way of being church together that is inclusive, affirming, and life-giving, but Jesus offers this dream and vision anew.

Jesus’s ministry and teaching is marked by a radical inclusivity. That’s easy to miss, though, in a passage like the gospel text we just heard read. In the first place, it begins in the middle of a conversation — a conversation about divorce. That doesn’t exactly preach “all are welcome,” does it?

Zoom out a bit further from our text, and you’ll encounter this:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (Matthew 18.1-5)

Children, in Jesus’s cultural context, were looked down upon, or even ignored, for their young age and inability to be productive members of their family and the wider community. And yet, these children are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven! Jesus’s teaching continues with a stern warning against putting a stumbling block before these little ones. Take care not to despise them, he goes on.

It is this lead-up that brings us, just a handful of verses later, to our gospel text today. Now, a word about divorce in first-century Palestine: At the risk of oversimplifying things, divorce then is not like divorce today. This text, then, is not saying anything to persons affected by divorce or marital separation in our context, despite what the church may say in the judgmental way it is often inclined to do.

What this text is calling out is the ugly underside of divorce in Jesus’s day. It was men alone who generally had the right to initiate a divorce, and it was the women who were left with no legal recourse, adversely affected by an unjust system, and open to ridicule and abuse. It is with this in mind that Jesus speaks out against the practice of divorce.

Another crucial detail: It is the Pharisees, not Jesus, who bring up this whole topic of divorce to begin with, as a way to try to trap Jesus and make him contradict centuries of Jewish tradition. And Jesus’s response boils down to this: Yes, the law of Moses allowed for divorce, but a legal way to deal with a bad situation doesn’t make that bad situation any less awful, especially not for the women who are so adversely affected.

Then, immediately after this debate about divorce, Jesus comes back… to the children. When you read these two chapters of Matthew’s gospel together, Jesus’s emphasis is clear: It is these little ones Jesus is concerned about because it is these little ones to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs. With that in mind, a pattern emerges: Jesus is teaching about the inclusion of the little ones, but he is interrupted by the Pharisees who ask about divorce. Not to be outdone, Jesus seizes this opportunity to continue to reveal his dream and vision for what the kingdom of heaven looks like — where the little ones, whether children, divorced women, or anyone else “such as these” whom society actively tramples on and marginalizes, are welcomed into the embrace of Jesus and blessed for who they are, as they are.

It’s a theme that runs throughout Matthew’s gospel: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, the Beatitudes begin. Just as you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me, the well-known parable summarizes.

There is a common thread that runs through Jesus’s ministry and teaching in Matthew, and it is GOOD NEWS for the poor, GOOD NEWS for the little ones, GOOD NEWS for the least of these, GOOD NEWS for gay and lesbian and bisexual persons, GOOD NEWS for our transgender and intersex and asexual and queer siblings. THEIRS is the kingdom of heaven!

Today, we celebrate that radical inclusivity, God’s dream for a world where all are welcomed and affirmed, and Jesus’s vision for a church that actually lives into that dream.

We celebrate inclusivity today specifically to resist the church’s problem with LGBTQIA+ persons and instead to proclaim God’s extravagant love for persons of all gender identities and sexual orientations.

We celebrate inclusivity that reaches ever further, as you capture in the Welcome Statement you have adopted as a congregation.


Gloria Dei Welcome Statement

God’s dream and vision for the church invites us into encounters like the one between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Tradition often labels this text as the conversion of the eunuch, and that’s not necessarily wrong, but I think Philip experiences his own conversion, too. It’s easy to miss because it’s barely mentioned. It happens just after their conversation in the carriage. “Look, there is some water right there,” the eunuch observes. “Is there anything to keep me from being baptized?” And Philip can’t answer.

Is there anything to keep me from being baptized? No. Not his gender, not his sexuality, not his ethnicity, not his religious affiliation, nothing. There is NOTHING that can keep the eunuch from becoming a full part of the Christian community.

There is nothing that can keep the eunuch away. There is no stumbling block that can keep the little ones away. There is nothing that can keep us away from God’s unimaginable love.

Let the little children come to me.
Let the least of these come to me.
Let the poor in spirit come to me.
Let the LGBTQIA+ community come to me.
Let those whom the world tramples on come to me.
Let the weary and those carrying heavy burdens come to me.
Let all whom I have made and love come to me.
Yours is the kingdom of heaven.


With the Gloria Dei RIC Committee and pastor, Rev. John Berg

A Sermon about the Bread of Life and God’s Abundance in the Midst of Scarcity


A sermon preached for ML 502: Preaching the Gospel of John at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, October 25, 2017

John 6.35, 41-51 (Proper 14B)

If I’m being completely honest, the prospect of going on internship to Omaha, Nebraska, didn’t strike me as particularly exciting. I mean, really? Nebraska? As someone who grew up in the near suburbs of Detroit and had spent the past nine years in the Chicagoland area, never having so much as set foot in Nebraska, I had a lot of images of cornfields and prairies and not a whole lot else. You might say it didn’t exactly strike me as a picturesque image of abundance.

Abundance. It’s at the heart of today’s gospel. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves and start talking about “the bread of life” and “eternity,” concepts that have been hyper-spiritualized and are prone to mis-interpretation, the miracle story that jumpstarts the entire conversation that follows centers on real hunger and real bread. The abundance of the miracle is heightened by its numbers: with only five loaves and two fish, five thousand people eat as much as they want, with leftovers to fill twelve baskets. It’s simple math: that’s more food than we began with! But above all, this is real bread for real people with real hunger.

And yet: There’s something more going on. The next day the crowd chases after Jesus: How did you do that? Can you do it again?! And then a twist: “I am the bread of life.” Suddenly, it seems, we’re not talking about real bread anymore, and yet these words are a continuation of the miracle story, rooted in real, physical hunger.

In the midst of real hunger, Jesus senses something deeper going on, a deeper hunger and yearning. His was a world where abundance was not the norm, a world infused by empire, an empire that saw itself as a “golden age” that would presumably last forever. And yet: Despite Caesar’s agenda of “making Rome great again,” for the vast majority this was a society plagued by food shortages, restricted access to staple foods, malnutrition, and disease. Real bread was hard to come by. Scarcity, not abundance, ruled the day. We might even say that bread, which should be an image of abundance and sustenance, had become just the opposite.

If a society of scarcity, in a system controlled by an oppressive empire, sounds familiar, consider Houston resident Mary Maddox, whose home was flooded with nearly two feet of water after Hurricane Harvey hit her city in August. On her back porch sits a Lady of the Night plant, native to Puerto Rico. Pausing by the plant, Mary holds one of its leaves, says a prayer for those in the island nation still without water or electricity, and expresses her deep frustration in the drastically different disaster response she has benefited from in her own hometown.

The effects of empire are stark: While life slowly returns to normal in Mary’s Houston neighborhood, those in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico have seen fewer resources and federal aid directed their way. Throwing a package of paper towels at a crowd of second-class U.S. citizens doesn’t exactly cut it when the very infrastructure of their homeland has been decimated.

Whether in modern-day Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria or in ancient Rome, empire privileges a select few at the expense of the many. It is in the midst of this scarcity, this devastation, this oppression, that Jesus senses a deep hunger for bread and more than bread, a deep yearning to be filled. Uttering six simple words — “I am the bread of life” — Jesus reclaims the imagery of bread from the clutch of empire to proclaim God’s reign of abundance over Caesar’s reign of scarcity.

Jesus reclaims and identifies himself with the imagery of bread to proclaim abundance in the midst of scarcity. And the thing about abundance is that it threatens scarcity. Abundance threatens scarcity and endangers the very system that has set it up. Abundance threatens to eliminate scarcity and to take away the fearful control it holds on those in its clutches. Abundance in response to real hunger and more than hunger is precisely what Jesus offers.

I am the bread of life… the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. Jesus, the eternal Word of God, offers his very flesh, his body, for the sake of the life of the entire cosmos. Jesus’s flesh, offered in abundance, for all persons, without distinction, threatens empire. And try as empire might to push back and crucify the very one who threatens to undo its system of control, the abundant life that Jesus promises cannot be contained by cross or tomb. Abundant life breaks into the very places that we least expect it to thrive and says, no, this is not the way it has to be. Abundant life that foreshadows crucifixion promises resurrection and God’s decisive victory over empire.

This is the mystery we proclaim every week around the table before the Eucharistic meal: For as often as we eat of this bread and drink from this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

The bread we share is the bread of life, the body of Christ, given freely and abundantly for the sake of the life of the entire cosmos. This is Eucharist is John. It is political, it is defiant, it is hope-giving, it is liberation-seeking. It proclaims life in the midst of death, liberation in the midst of oppression, abundance in the midst of scarcity.

Nearly every week during internship, I stood in the chancel at Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha with a stream of people coming forward to receive a little piece of bread and a sip of wine. The words I would repeat are simple: “The body of Christ, given for you.” These words, evocative of Jesus’s own words in our gospel text, offer the promise of abundant life, but more: that abundant life is lived among the community that makes up the living body of Christ, for the sake of each other and for the sake of the world.

The body of Christ that offers abundant life in the midst of scarcity is the body of Christ that I encountered each week around a table of bread and wine, at our first Sunday potluck meals, in the mutual support of the community in times of grief, and in celebration as we marched in the Heartland Pride Parade. The body of Christ that offers abundant life, freely, to all, without exception, is in our midst, among the people we are called to serve and who in turn minister to us.  This is an abundance that satisfies real hunger and more than hunger. Even in the midst of empire and all the forces that would try to tell us otherwise, the body of Christ, the bread of life, offers us abundance now and continues to do so with each new day.

A Sermon for the Feast of St. Thomas


This is the final sermon preached at my internship congregation, as I draw my year (how quickly it’s gone by!) to a close. I am so grateful for the privilege of being invited into so many lives over the past year, in sadness and in joy and everything in between. The people of Augustana will remain in my heart for a lifetime of ministry. Deo gratias!

Augustana Lutheran Church
2 July 2017 + St. Thomas the Apostle
John 14.1-7

Unbelievable. A word which, by definition, implies something too improbable to be believed, something extraordinary, outside the bounds of what we expect to be true.

For nearly the past century, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! franchise, founded by its namesake, American businessman Robert Ripley, has wowed audiences with tales of people and events so bizarre and unusual that leave many scratching their heads in disbelief. Some of their claims have indeed been too dubious and called into question, like the urban legend of Frank Tower, who, they suggest, survived the sinkings of the Titanic, Empress of Ireland, and Lusitania. That claim, as my limited internet research (and a bit of common sense) tells me, has indeed been debunked.

Outside of bizarre events and persons that may or may not fall under the category of #alternativefacts, the unbelievable also permeates the natural world with spectacular and breath-taking vistas — from the Grand Canyon to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts to our own picturesque, pastoral landscapes here in Nebraska, many of which I have been able to see for myself over the past year.

Unbelievable, too, that my time among you this past year as your vicar officially draws to a close this morning. It seems like only yesterday that I was pulling a U-Haul westward down I-80, through the surprisingly hilly landscape of Iowa, across the Missouri River, and into midtown Omaha.

It seems appropriate, then, that this morning we commemorate St. Thomas, one of Jesus’s twelve disciples, who gets rather a bad reputation for his own unbelieving. A picture I stumbled across last year when I preached on “doubting Thomas” shows an image of the apostle that poses the question, “Thomas, do you think Christians will ever appreciate that you were actually a person of great faith?” At the bottom of that image, we read his fictitious reply: “I doubt it.”

It hardly seems fair that this is how we remember Thomas — as a doubter — but I also don’t think it’s very accurate. Indeed, his three direct appearances in John’s gospel suggest a far more dynamic, nuanced picture of this disciple. In chapter 11, after Jesus has learned that Lazarus his friend has died, it is Thomas who boldly insists the disciples join their teacher on his journey to visit the bereaved family, a journey that would also begin Jesus’s path to Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Several chapters later, after Jesus has been raised from the dead, Thomas’s infamous episode of disbelief is not necessarily a sign of complete skepticism or unwillingness to believe. Instead, I suspect his doubts come from a place of deep concern. In the Easter gospel, his disbelief could easily be attributed to his life experience, especially over the past few days: His rabbi had been arrested, tortured, and killed at the hands of a powerful empire, like so many others who dared to question the empire’s authority before him. Execution, period, was the ending to be expected. In other words, nothing about Thomas’s experience would have led him to think any good news could possibly come from this.

Then in today’s gospel, we hear Thomas’s words: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Situated in the context of Jesus’s “farewell discourse” to his disciples, after the raising of Lazarus and of course before his crucifixion and resurrection, Thomas’s deep concern and anguish over the events that were about to unfold are clear. One can imagine the questions on his mind: What’s going to happen to Jesus? What’s going to happen to us?

In contrast to popular perception, in these few verses from John’s gospel Thomas would actually appear to be an exemplar of faith — a faith which includes doubt and questions and anxiety and fear, a faith which is by no means perfect.

Thomas, I suspect, has much to teach us about the life of faith. For starters, faith is far more than pure, unquestioning subscription to a particular belief or doctrine, let alone denominational loyalty. Because, shocker, sometimes the church gets it wrong, like how the church got human sexuality wrong for many years and until only recently made it impossible for someone like me to follow my calling, serve this internship, and stand before you today.

Anne Lamott has famously written, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” To take that one step further, I would assert that as soon as we think we are certain about our beliefs, faith is dead. Instead, questions and doubt along the way are not only expected but welcomed, and likewise, imperfection is guaranteed along our life’s journey. No life of faith is lived in a linear fashion, and any example that suggests otherwise should be held with deep suspicion.

This is why I think Thomas is such a perfect example of a faithful disciple, not in spite of but because of his imperfection.

In our current social and political environment, there has indeed been much to be anxious about. The feelings that Thomas and his fellow disciples would have experienced are our feelings: fear, uncertainty, doubt, worry, lament, questioning. And these things are a natural, even permissible, part of the life of faith.

“You know the way… I am the way,” are the words of promise Jesus offers Thomas. Because the disciples knew Jesus in the flesh, they could know God and experience God’s unfailing presence.

Amid and in spite of doubt and fear, Jesus reassures Thomas that he knows the Father because he has known Jesus. So too, we are also promised Christ’s very presence in tangible signs: in the waters of baptism, in the Word of God proclaimed, in the grape and grain of the eucharist, in this very community whenever and wherever we gather. If you know me through these things, we can hear Jesus saying, you know God and you know God’s presence. These are the places where God promises to meet us in our life of faith, whether in its ups or in its downs, and these are the places in which we can take refuge.

Thanks be to God.

Hymn of the Day: “Faith Full of Doubt”
Dedicated to the people of Augustana

1) Faith full of doubt and full of fear,
faith is far more than believing.
Discord and violence all we hear
give way to worry and grieving,
asking “How long, O Lord, how long?”
pleading for God to right the wrong.
To you we cry, Lord, have mercy!

2) Thomas the twin, true sign of faith,
knew not his own life’s fulfilling.
To Bethany the path he’d trace,
to go with Christ was he willing:
“Let us go too with him to die!”
in faithful loyalty replied.
To you he cried, Lord, have mercy!

3) Among his friends one last repast,
Christ his farewell to them making.
Thomas alone was bold to ask,
e’en as his heárt was breaking:
“How can we know the place you go,
if the way there we do not know?”
Still was his cry, Lord, have mercy!

4) When the apostles saw the Lord,
risen in glorious splendor,
Thomas could not believe their word;
all his experience rendered:
“This is too much, this cannot be!
Impossible unless I see!”
To you he cried, Lord, have mercy!

5) Like Thomas we well understand
journey implies imperfection.
Certainty faith does not demand;
doubt and lament are expected.
When all around is cause to fear,
hope is resigned, hope disappeared:
The cry of faith, Lord, have mercy!

6) Claimed as God’s own in wat’ry bath,
marked on our brows the sign tracing;
ever with Christ to walk the path,
rest in God’s gracious embracing.
Let not your hearts be troubled here!
In bread, wine, water God draws near!
To you we sing, Hallelujah!

Text: Josh Evans, b. 1989
Music: KIRKEN DEN ER ET GAMMELT HUS, Ludvig M. Lindeman, 1812-1887
Text: © 2017 Josh Evans. All rights reserved; used by permission.
Music: Public Domain