A Sermon about Faith, Community, and Subverting Boundaries

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.


A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday in Which I Quote Doctor Who


Grace Lutheran Church
7 February 2016 + Transfiguration of Our Lord
Luke 9.28-43

After about a month and a half of vacation time, I am very pleased to be back among you this morning and preaching no less on this feast day of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. I spent most of the holiday season visiting family and friends in Michigan and Ohio, and on New Year’s Eve in particular, after a brisk walk at dusk through Cuyahoga Valley National Park, I spent a quiet evening at home eating dinner, drinking champagne, and watching Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.

Of course, the most notable feature of that evening in New York City is the Times Square 3onzqffdBall: an impressive 12 feet in diameter, covered in 2,688 Waterford crystal triangles, and illuminated by no less than 32,256 LED lights, beginning its descent just seconds before midnight to ring in the new year in all its splendor.

Meanwhile in Chicago, instead of a dropping ball, the Windy City’s inaugural Chi-Town Rising event ushered in 2016 with shooting stars and fireworks off the river. A spectacular event, I’m sure.

But I can’t help but wonder, as one headline dares to question, what does Chicago have to celebrate? This past year saw a city rocked by protests over police shootings, demonstrations that shut down the Magnificent Mile on Black Friday, and a budget stalemate in Springfield. With so much violence, inequality, and instability, Chi-Town Rising feels like false celebration.

I became poignantly aware of the state of inequality in Chicago whenever I would join South Loop Campus Ministry to deliver sack lunches to our neighbors experiencing homelessness. We would walk down stretches of Lower Wacker Drive, literally right below the Magnificent Mile, but so different that it felt like a strange, separate world. It’s the kind of place we’d rather not go to.


South Loop Campus Ministry distributing sack lunches on Lower Wacker Drive

We’d much rather stay above ground—on spotless sidewalks, trimmed with impeccable landscaping down one side and store after brightly lit store on the other. Like Peter in our reading today, we’d much rather stay on the mountaintop where things are dazzling white and bright and clean and happy and safe. Because when you’re on the mountaintop, it’s easy to ignore what’s going on down below.

Even our lectionary (the cycle of readings we read every Sunday) would prefer to stay on the mountaintop and ignore the demon-possessed child in the narrative that immediately follows. If you look in the front of your hymnal, you’d see those verses in brackets, making that part optional. But it’s not optional because it’s there.

In the novel Howards End by E.M. Forster, one of the main characters, privileged by all accounts, remarks: “[We] stand upon money as upon islands. It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its very existence. It’s only when we see someone near us tottering that we realize all that an independent income means.” In other words, when we’re one of the privileged, it’s easy to ignore what’s going on below us, until we’re confronted by it.

But Anglican priest and poet John Donne reminds us, as the poem famously begins:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
…any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.”

We don’t get to live in isolation by thinking our wellbeing isn’t connected to that ofeveryone else.orgslarge

51pr5yn2kol-_sy355_Shifting gears just a moment, if you’ll indulge my latest TV addiction, consider Doctor Who. For those of you who haven’t watched it: the series follows the time-traveling journey of “the Doctor” and his companion. In one episode, they find themselves in New York City in 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression. In the heart of Central Park, they encounter a group of people living in Hooverville, one of many colonies of down and out people so affected by the Depression they have nowhere else to go—the poorest of the poor. Looking up at the construction of the Empire State Building, Solomon, the leader of the group, remarks, “How come they can build that [pointing] and we got people starving in the heart of Manhattan?”

I wonder if maybe the demon-possessed child might have looked up that day at the mountain and caught a glimpse of the Transfiguration. “How can they experience that and I’m suffering down here?”


A shack in the “Hooverville” shanty-town in Central Park, New York City, circa 1930 (image source here)

It’s a question that reorients our attention. As the text shifts from the mountaintop to the village below, I wonder if maybe the point of the Transfiguration narrative—the whole story—is to refocus our attention on the work of the kingdom of God, to the demands of a broken world in need of restoration.

In this way, the Transfiguration reminds us that we can’t always dwell in glory at the expense of ignoring suffering and injustice. It’s why Peter gets reprimanded for suggesting they stay and set up camp: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Listen to him as speaks of his departure, his exodus (as it says in Greek), his work of liberation, which he is about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Listen to him, and keep moving. Listen to him, because there’s work to be done.

fp3134-doctor-who-daleks-exterminateBack in the world of Doctor Who, sometime later in that same episode, Solomon encounters a Dalek for the first time (imagine an evil R2-D2 bent on killing everything and everyone that’s not like itself), and he remarks that the universe is much bigger than he realized, which terrifies him. But he goes on to say, “Surely it’s got to give me hope, hope that maybe together we can make a better tomorrow.”

In the scene that follows, we meet a rogue Dalek who has morphed into a half human breed and is beginning to exhibit signs of emotion. See, Daleks are by their nature emotionless (hence the mass killing), but this particular one who has gone his own way seeks to change that. About their emotionlessness he says, “It makes us lesser than our enemies. We must return to the flesh and also the heart.” “But you wouldn’t be the supreme beings anymore,” remarks the Doctor. And the Dalek replies, “And that is good.”

I think what this rogue Dalek is trying to get at is something that’s more universal than just part of the plot of a TV show. It’s not good to be the supreme beings, to be better, to be separated from other people. But returning to a state of community, of the heart, at the base of the mountain or in Hooverville, that is good.

The Christian journey, like Jesus’s journey, moves us toward this end, toward places of suffering. Not for its own sake but in order to confront it, stand in solidarity with those deeply affected by it, and ultimately bear witness to the fact that it doesn’t have the final word. As our liturgical life today moves us from Christmas and Epiphany (seasons of light) to Lent (a very different season), we’re reminded that we can’t always dwell in the light but must go to dark places too. It’s part of the life of Jesus, it’s part of the life of the church, it’s part of our lives.

But those places are exactly where Jesus is found. It’s precisely because of the Light that
was born in Bethlehem, and the Light that shines in glory on the mountaintop, that we are compelled and strengthened to go into the world, in all its
brokenness, to restore our


“Transfiguration” by Jan Richardson

connection to our fellow human beings. The mystery of the incarnation we celebrate at Christmas—the Word made flesh and living among us—finds its fullness in the Transfiguration event, the whole event. Instead of being removed from it all and staying on the mountain, Jesus comes down to us, offering healing and wholeness. And the thing about healing is that it always happens in community.

That healing, life-giving community happens when we gather for fellowship over coffee and pastries before church every week and talk about our lives. It happens when we gather around this table for communion every week. It happens, more often than not, in ordinary places.

And it’s in those ordinary, everyday places, at the base of the mountain, where we have the promise of God’s presence, where we experience life in community, and where we begin to enact God’s justice for the sake of the whole world.

Such is where my sermon ended until 8 o’clock on Saturday night. But then a friend posted a poem by Jan Richardson, which was too perfect not to share. So I conclude with that, found here on Jan’s website. (Never mind the fact that I messed up the first line of the poem…but grace, right? 😊)

Sermon Remix for Gaudete (Rejoice!) Sunday


[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.


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)