A Sermon about Resistance in the Face of Suffering

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Augustana Lutheran Church
7 May 2017 + Fourth Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 2.19-25



Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Fourth Sunday of Easter brings us to Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s tempting, isn’t it, to dwell in the midst of the idyllic early Christian community described in our reading from Acts, or to linger beside the psalmist’s green pastures and still waters, abiding in the tender care of Jesus our shepherd. So given all that, it’s also tempting to just gloss over that second reading from 1 Peter. I mean, really, who put that in there alongside today’s other readings? On the other hand, at least they spared us an even more disturbing opening line that didn’t make the cut in the final lectionary edits: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you…” the epistle writer goes on. Kind of changes the perspective, doesn’t it?

And yet, I believe, this text, including the address to slaves, begs examining. It begs examining because the history of this country, built on the institution of slavery, makes the very word slave difficult to digest and yet at the same time necessary to confront. It begs examining, too, because so many in our world today still suffer injustice and violence and the last thing they need to hear is someone from a lectern or pulpit telling them to suck it up because the Bible tells them so.

In the first place, let me be clear: The point of this text is not to suggest that suffering for suffering’s sake wins over God’s approval. Nor is it meant to insist that those in physically abusive and potentially life-threatening situations should continue to endure abuse. But, the epistle writer clarifies, if you endure when you do right and suffer for it—or to put it another way, if you are pursuing justice and righteousness and that lands you in hot water to the point of suffering—so be it. The epistle writer’s aim in the larger context of this passage is to outline a “code” for Christian conduct in society, and the far greater emphasis in this passage is the exhortation to do good and to pursue justice. It nearly goes without saying that the history of civil disobedience among people of faith in this pursuit predicts suffering as its probable by-product.

Oftentimes, though, professed Christians have been the worst offenders of upholding the very unjust systems that others so passionately fight against. Slavery in the pre-Civil War era was condoned by Christian slaveholders with passages such as this, and still today, many of our LGBTQ+ siblings are bombarded by so-called “well-meaning” Christians who pluck out choice passages of Scripture to deny their very humanity.

In recent weeks, the newly debuted TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale makes us keenly aware of this point. The series depicts a not-so-far-off future United States, now governed by a strict totalitarian government based on an extreme form of Christian fundamentalism. Here, the class divide is stark, comprised of an elite ruling class and a class of servants and sustained by a select, literal interpretation of Scripture. In one scene this dramatically comes to a head when one of the handmaids is reminded, “Remember your scripture. Blessed are the meek.” And in a short-lived but fierce act of defiance, for which she is then subjected to an attack of physical violence, the handmaid responds, “And blessed are those who suffer for the cause of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Like the handmaid and like the slaves to whom the epistle writer writes, the condition of slavery and oppression is never one that is sought out or chosen, but there are ways to live defiantly even in the midst of injustice while fighting against it.

Another verse outside the bounds of our lectionary reading is key: “As servants of God, live as free people,” verse 16 begins. So, while this is still an address to actual slaves in the first-century world, it also includes a reminder that they are first and foremost servants of God and therefore are free. It does not deny their present suffering nor make excuses for it, but it does offer them hope and encouragement even in the midst of it.

The principle of Christian freedom—that we are not only freed from sin, death, and the power of evil but also freed for service to our neighbors in the world—is a core part of Lutheran theology. Of course, as we know, using that freedom for the pursuit of justice is not easy. In recent months, people of faith have marched in the streets and called and emailed legislators to bear public witness to the faith that compels us to oppose harmful and life-threatening policies around health care, immigration, and so much more.

Nearly 60 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this well when he wrote of the path of nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance is not passive: it does not mean being a doormat in the face of injustice. Nor does it mean that those who resist become the aggressor or oppressor in return. Nonviolent resistance, for King, meant opposing evil itself, not the persons who commit evil acts, and he admitted that it also meant a willingness to suffer and sacrifice.

In that same spirit, the epistle writer offers us Christ as an example of what it means to suffer as a result of opposing evil for the cause of pursuing justice. Lifting up the lowly and reaching out with unconditional love to the marginalized was the whole point of Jesus’s earthly ministry. And it got him killed.

As James Cone has said, “If you are going to worship somebody that was nailed to a tree, you must know that the life of a disciple of that person is not going to be easy.” Following in the path of Jesus, as we who profess to be Christian claim to do, we are told that we don’t suffer in isolation for the cause of justice, but that the crucified Christ who has gone before us still accompanies us today.

Today we hear a word of comfort and hope that the crucified Christ is with us still, in every moment, and in this Easter season, we proclaim the victory of Christ’s resurrection over the forces of evil that newly emboldens us in our baptismal calling to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

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Early on the First Day of the Week

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+ Preached at our joint ecumenical Easter sunrise vigil with Holy Family Parish (Roman Catholic) in the park +


Augustana Lutheran Church
16 April 2017 + Resurrection of Our Lord
John 20.1-18


Kate Braestrup is a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service. In addition to enforcing the state’s fish and wildlife laws, the game wardens Kate works with also respond to various outdoor accidents, fatalities included.

So when she’s helping train new wardens on how to respond to deaths, she tells them a story from her own life. Kate’s husband Drew, a police officer, died in a car accident while on duty a number of years ago. When the news of his death reached her, she knew that she wanted to see his body, to bathe him, and to dress him — much to the astonishment and horror of the state police department and funeral home director. After a good deal of back-and-forth phone calls, they grant Kate her request — and with her mother, she goes to her husband, bathes his body, and dresses him in his dress uniform. The experience, she says, was “better than fine, better than okay.”

Kate tells that story to new trainees to teach them this: When a family member says they want to see the body of their deceased loved one, you can trust them. You don’t have to pretend to protect them.

Kate also points them to the text we just heard read. “Back in bible times,” she says, “there were no state troopers or funeral directors to get in the way of things.” Mary Magdalene did not have to justify herself to the disciples nor overcome their protective skepticism when she wanted to go to the tomb where Jesus’s body had been laid. Nor, upon discovering the tomb open and the body presumably gone, did she have to justify her distress and her grief.

It’s natural, and more common than not in Kate’s experience as a chaplain, for loved ones to ask to see the body to tend to their loved one. Far from the common perception that the presence of a body makes the pain more acute, it’s just the opposite — which, I think, explains Mary’s weeping and grief intensified. They have taken the body away, and I do not know where they have laid him…

Which then, for me, raises the question: If there is such attachment to the body, the physical body, how did Mary not recognize Jesus when he appeared? After all, she was one of Jesus’s closest friends and disciples, and it hadn’t been that long since he died. Surely she wouldn’t have forgotten what he looks like, right?

Sidebar: To say I’m not very good at gardening is an understatement. In no way would anyone ever describe me as having a “green thumb.” If anything, that thumb is brown, shriveled up, and falling off the vine. Case in point: When, after my grandpa’s funeral one of those hardy green plants that are supposed to be impossible to kill was (foolishly) entrusted to me… well, you know where this is going. So you can imagine my surprise when I decided to re-pot a plant in the kitchen down the hall from my office this year and a little time, some sunlight, and remembering to water it at least a couple times a week later, it’s flourished. Compared to the near-dead plant it was before, it’s been transformed and is barely recognizable. You might even say it’s undergone a resurrection.

Like that plant, it’s as though we’re led to believe there’s something different physically about the resurrected body of Jesus. It would certainly explain why Mary didn’t recognize him. I don’t know what to make of that, nor am I sure there even is a definitive answer, nor am I sure it even matters. But what is certain is this: the resurrection changes things. Things are different, and new. There’s something different about Jesus, but it’s more than physical, with far-reaching implications.

Theologian James Cone describes it this way:

The cross and resurrection of Jesus stand at the center of the New Testament story… [and] mean that we now know that Jesus’ ministry with the poor and the wretched was God effecting the divine will to liberate the oppressed. The Jesus story is the poor person’s story, because God in Christ becomes poor and weak in order that the oppressed might become liberated… God becomes the victim in their place and thus transforms the condition of slavery into the battleground for the struggle of freedom. This is what Christ’s resurrection means. The oppressed are freed for struggle, for battle in the pursuit of humanity.

The resurrection changes things. The resurrection liberates and declares that God is, definitively, for the oppressed, for the marginalized, for those who mourn, for those who are cast down. The resurrection empowers and urges us to be about the work of justice and love. That is the message we proclaim when we declare, against all odds: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

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

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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.

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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!

Missed Connections: A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

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Grace Lutheran Church
3 April 2016 + Second Sunday of Easter (Year C)
John 20.(1-18), 19-31



Alleluia! Christ is risen!

A reading from Craigslist:

“Wednesday afternoon blue line (towards O’Hare)—We made eye contact a few times during the ride. Would love to get to know you better. Let me know what you were wearing/where you got off. You seem pretty cool.”

“This is a long shot but wanted to try. I was paying for some yard tools at Home Depot. You were standing behind me and said something like ‘looks like you are into some yard work’ or something like that. I looked at you and said you should sure come help me if you want… If this is you, write Home Depot in the subject line. I hope to hear from you.”

“I saw your picture today in the mug shots on the Tribune’s website. You look fantastic, especially for a girl who has just been [arrested]. I believe that every girl deserves a second chance, and I want to be the guy who gives it to you. Please write back and let me know when you’re free. I’m willing to wait 30 to 60 days if that’s what it takes.”

Missed connections. There are many more, including more than a few your preacher can’t repeat from the pulpit this morning, but you get the point. Hopeless romantics reaching out online in desperate attempts to kindle a connection that almost was.

The Easter gospel has its share of a different kind of missed connections:

It was evening. We were afraid because of everything that was happening, so we locked the doors of the house. I had to step out for a minute, and of course that’s when they told me you showed up. But I’m not so sure about that. I mean, really? But if it was you, I’d love to see you again.

It was early morning, still dark. I came to the tomb, but the stone was removed from the entrance. I had no idea what to think, so I ran to get Peter and another friend. They came back with me, only to discover your body wasn’t inside. They went home and left me, crying, alone, in the garden. I just wanted to see you one last time.

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“Do Not Hold On to Me” by He Qi

From Mary at the tomb to the disciples in the locked house, this has all happened in the course of one day. Emotions are running high. Just three days earlier, Jesus—their teacher and their friend—had been betrayed and arrested. He stood trial. He was denied by one of his closest followers. He was flogged and mocked and sentenced to death and nailed to a cross and mocked some more, as he hung, helplessly, before uttering his final words: “It is finished.”

And by all accounts, for those who loved and followed Jesus, he was right. It was finished. Their hope in a would-be Messiah who was supposed to save them from everything that was wrong and corrupt in their society had been found guilty of treason and executed by the Roman empire.

No wonder Mary was weeping when she came to the tomb early that morning. As one preacher put it this past week, “When [Mary] saw the open tomb, everything up to that point in her life told her: This is bad news.” Her teacher had been killed—and now his body was stolen. The one thing she had left to hold on to—gone.

Later that day, we hear from Thomas: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of  the nails and my hand in his side, I will not (cannot) believe.” Thomas, like Mary, was certain that everything that had happened over the past few days meant that resurrection was too good to be true. Unless I see it, it didn’t happen. It couldn’t have happened. He had simply learned to expect the worst.


This story in John’s gospel, read every Second IMG_7578Sunday of Easter, has come to label this incredulous disciple “doubting Thomas.” But I think that’s unfair. I think “realistic Thomas” might be more accurate.

But maybe, like Thomas, I too have come to expect the worst: Iraq. Turkey. Nigeria. Belgium. Yemen. And just this Easter Sunday, in Lahore, Pakistan: a suicide bomber killed 72 people, including 29 children, and injured over 200 others, at a public park. A day to celebrate the resurrection suddenly disrupted by death and violence.

Mary weeps. Thomas despairs. In their world, they had come to expect the worst, and no wonder. And it doesn’t look much better two thousand years later. It doesn’t seem like much of an occasion for shouting “Alleluia!” so much as crying out “Lord, have mercy!”


Later that morning, while she was still at the tomb alone, Jesus appears to Mary, except she doesn’t know it’s him. And suddenly, he says, gently, “Mary!” And before she knows what she’s doing, she reaches out to embrace him: “Rabbouni! My teacher!” And in a succinct command from Jesus, he says to her, “Do not hold on to me.” Let go. But that of course assumes there’s something tangible to hold on to.

Then a week later, the disciples were again gathered in the house, this time with Thomas. Jesus appears and says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” And Thomas touched, and saw, and believed.

Touch. Sight. Sound. Connection.

I can’t say with any certainty that our Craigslist romantics found their true loves, but in our Easter gospel, we see missed connections turned into profound moments of connection.


Giles Fraser, an Anglican priest in south London, writes about the challenges of running an urban parish. A small patch of land on their church property was, for too long, a place he described as “thick with the deathly thorns of heroin needles and the excrement of rough-sleepers.” But through the care and determination of a handful of parishioners, it has been transformed into a small garden filled with daffodils. And now the church has literally opened its doors to welcome their homeless neighbors and offer them a safe place to rest. It’s just one example, he writes, of how “resurrection is the name we give to the multiple ways we push back against the darkness.”

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The writer of John’s gospel names that darkness in Mary’s grief and Thomas’s despair. And Christ’s presence—his offer of his very self through touch and sight and sound—is the pushback of resurrection against that darkness.

These profound moments of connection attest to the subversion of resurrection, life in the thick of darkness, against all odds. And what’s more: “These [moments of connection] are written so that you may come to believe.” We are invited, like Mary and Thomas, to experience the physical connection to Christ as we take him into our own bodies at this table: Take, eat, touch, taste, see. The body of Christ, given for you.

Today, hear the risen Christ calling your name. Touch the nail marks in his hands, and see that, despite it all, he is alive, that he has defeated death.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!