A Good Ol’ Fashioned Sermon about the Radical Nature of God’s Grace (on the 15th anniversary of 9/11)

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Augustana Lutheran Church
11 September 2016 + Lectionary 24C
Exodus 32.7-14



Liturgical whiplash. It’s the result of a hearing a bizarre pairing of seemingly disparate jonathanedwards04lectionary texts. On the one hand, there’s the angry vengeful God ready to smite the Israelites in Exodus—and yet, it’s precisely that kind of rash judgment toward “sinners” that Jesus calls out in his twin parables in Luke.

At first glance, God’s angry tirade against the Israelites reads rather harshly. God even opens by distancing Godself from them: “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt…” God says to Moses. As if to say: Not my circus, not my monkeys. And God’s decision: consume them and bring their existence as a people to an end.

It seems rather excessive, and even out of character, for the God who heard the groaning of the Israelite slaves in Egypt and liberated them from their oppressors.

The medieval French rabbi Rashi offers some help here. His commentary on these few verses proposes that God’s insistence to be “let alone” is actually a subtle hint to Moses to do just the opposite—suggesting that if Moses intercedes on behalf of the Israelites, God will not destroy them. [1]

And Moses does just that. He starts by  boldly turning God’s words right back on God: “your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt.” But that’s only the beginning of Moses’s reminder to God of God’s relationship with God’s people.

Remember Abraham… Remember your covenant promise. Remember how Abraham, too, once pleaded with you to save a whole city from destruction.

Remember Isaac… the long-awaited son you promised to Sarah.

Remember Israel… Remember how Jacob wrestled with you and became Israel, the one who strives with God.

Remember Israel… The children of Jacob, who multiplied and grew exceedingly strong in the land of Egypt, who were enslaved and oppressed, and whose cries God heard.

But wait — Surely God doesn’t need reminders of the history of God’s people and their long relationship, right? I suspect Moses’s plea is less a reminder for God—and more a reminder for Israel and for us.

In keeping with Rashi’s observation, another commentator claims that the whole conversation between God and Moses is a divine setup. Just as Abraham’s bargaining with God to save Sodom allowed him “to measure and remeasure the height, depth, and width of the divine bias toward mercy,” so too does Moses’s plea remind us of that same mercy. [2]

In other words, we might ask: Did God ever really plan to destroy Israel?

The incident of the golden calf could easily have been told in one sentence: Israel screwed up, but God forgave them anyway. But that doesn’t make for a very compelling or interesting story. Instead, we read a fiery exchange between God and Moses. It calls out the gravity of Israel’s sin, but in the process, it also makes God’s grace and readiness to forgive all the more profound.

It’s a reminder of God’s covenant faithfulness for a people lost in the wilderness and, centuries later, for a people exiled from their homeland. It’s a reminder for anyone who finds themselves separated from God, or when it feels like the divine is nowhere to be found. Perhaps in the midst of national or global tragedies, or on the anniversary of one like today.

IMG_8688.PNGEven so, the end of a divine tirade is an unusual place to find grace. But grace is nothing if not “unexpected and mysterious,” as the hymn begins.

Southern Gothic writer and devout Catholic Flannery O’Connor acutely understood the nature of grace. The characters in her stories are often grotesque, deeply flawed, and unlikable human beings, and her stories typically leave me scratching my head and needing to re-read them to glean whatever could be O’Connor’s point in telling such deeply disturbing tales.

Her point, though, offers keen insights into the nature of grace. “There is a moment of grace in most of the stories,” she says of her work. But elsewhere she qualifies, “This notion that grace is healing omits the fact that before it heals, it cuts.” [3]

That’s why in O’Connor’s stories, profound moments of grace are often embedded in deeply disturbing moments of suffering—the latter moments shock us so that grace moments are made all the more surprising.

So it is with the Israelites. These are a people who have been on the brink of hopelessness over and over again. Under oppression and slavery in Egypt. At the bank of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army rapidly closing in on them. At the base of Sinai after Moses, their leader, has by all accounts disappeared.

No wonder they demanded that Aaron make them the golden calf. It’s out of their fear that they erected something to remind them of a godlike presence. It wasn’t so much an idol as an image of the God they hoped against hope hadn’t abandoned them.

And so the story of a seemingly vengeful God that opens the door to a reminder of God’s long history of covenant faithfulness, of liberation from bondage, of grace upon grace.

A grace that overflows, even and especially in the messiness of life. A grace that welcomes tax collectors and sinners. A grace that intentionally seeks us out, time and time again. A grace that always precedes and stands at the ready to embrace us.


[1] http://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.32?lang=en&p2=Rashi_on_Exodus.32.12&lang2=en

[2] Marilyn McCord Adams, “Exodus 32:7-14: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Year C Additional Essays (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 3.

[3] Quoted by Tod Worner, “The Mean Grace of Flannery O’Connor,” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/acatholicthinker/2013/10/the-mean-grace-of-flannery-oconnor/.

That time I preached about the Reformation during Advent…

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Sermon for ML 403 Preaching Lab
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
1 December 2015
Jeremiah 31.31-34 (Reformation Day)


[With thanks to fellow ML 403 student Analyse Triolo for the recording!]


When I was handed the little slip of paper for my final preaching text, I honestly anticipated what feast or festival I would be given with a bit of dread. After all, we’ve heard a sermon on an Old Testament text for the feast day of a New Testament apostle. And just two weeks ago, we heard three sermons on good old triumphalistic Christ the King Sunday. So not to be disappointed, I got… Reformation Day. I mean, really, what could a Lutheran seminarian possibly have to preach about the Reformation to a room full of the same?

We all know the story of the Reformation. So instead, journey with me on my research for my Religious Heritage paper, about 450 years beyond the time of Luther, to a lesser known but no less important era of our shared ecclesiastical history.

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Jacob Preus

Still some two decades before the dawn of the ELCA, our sisters and brothers in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod had just elected a new president (their equivalent of a presiding bishop), Jacob Preus. That same year, the seminary in St. Louis had also just chosen John Tietjen as its new president. But these two men could not have been more different.

Preus represented the old guard—what we might today call a fundamentalist. For his part, Preus was simply trying to hold together a church body with a fraught and fragile history, insisting that what they’ve always believed could still hold true and be counted on. But his view also thought of Lutheranism as a box: You either agree with us or you don’t. You’re either in or you’re out.

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John Tietjen

But trouble was brewing at the seminary in St. Louis. With the support of President Tietjen, the faculty began to rattle the box. They dared to suggest that the old way might not be the only way or the best way for a changing context. Thinking outside the box, they suggested that Lutheranism was instead a platform. As God’s word cannot be contained, neither can its proclamation.

The faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis—and later Seminex—spoke against a system that tried to contain God’s word within an outmoded framework, privileging the old guard at the expense of those who sought to reform it.


When we gather every October 31st to commemorate the Reformation, we remember another group of reformers that likewise spoke against a system that tried to contain God’s word for a select, privileged few. Isn’t that interesting how church history tends to repeat itself?

The church of Luther’s day, as we know, tried to make salvation a commodity that could be boxed and bought. But Luther and the reformers knew that that’s not how grace works. Grace, they insisted, is freely available to all because it cannot be contained.

d84437ad811812321867d0b64ffc7efff8c5a434124475e335ecaa5d614ab147And surprise of surprises, this is a problem even older than church history itself. We see the same dilemma unfolding in our reading from Jeremiah this afternoon. The exile was one of the most earth-shattering events in the history of ancient Israel and spanned much of the prophet’s career. When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, they didn’t just take captives. They also destroyed and looted the Temple—the one place where the Jewish people thought God could be contained.

And this is the audience to which Jeremiah speaks his prophetic word. Talk about a challenge in pastoral care! And right smack-dab in the middle of the book comes our reading today: a vision of God’s new covenant and promise of restoration. Of course, Israel’s history of disobedience is nothing new, and in a way, neither is the certainty of God’s clear intent to forgive, no matter how many times God’s people mess up.

But there is also a sense that this “new covenant” is going to be different: It will “not be like” the old covenant, “no longer” will it be how it was in the past. The people thought God could only be found within their now destroyed temple, but God comes to them in a new, surprising way.

Jeremiah prophesies that not only can God’s word of grace not be contained, but that it comes when and how the people least expect it: the law will be written not on stone tablets but on their hearts, and this new covenant will include all people, not just the people of Israel. It disrupts their expectations of a neatly confined God with limited interests.

And so Jeremiah prophesies to us: In the moments that it feels like God is not where we have to come expect, we can look to the heritage of our tradition and our ancestors in faith for the confidence that God comes in quite different ways beyond our comfortable expectations and presuppositions. As we hear this word of reformation in the midst of the Advent season, I’m also reminded of the hymn text: “Unexpected and mysterious is the gentle word of grace.”


Lest we get too full of ourselves and our ELCA Lutheran pride on Reformation Day, we might do best to remind ourselves that God’s word is not limited to the Seminex movement either, nor is it limited to the pages of the Book of Concord. But as God’s word in Jeremiah is for all people, so then it must be able to speak always afresh to new contexts.

seminexThe logo that was designed for Seminex, after the faculty and student majority had no choice but to leave, depicts a chopped down, dead tree stump. But emerging from that stump is a new shoot of leaves. New life out of dead matter. That’s the message of the gospel. For the people of Jeremiah’s day, it meant God emerging from beyond the confines and rubble of a destroyed temple. Some time later in the history of salvation, it meant an empty tomb in a garden while it was still dark.

The good news today and every day is that God’s word of grace is always surprising and always being made new and manifested in unexpected and disarming ways. It can’t be boxed in—not in a temple, not in a sealed tomb, not in this chapel, not in doctrine or dogma made by humans. And for that, thanks be to God.

A Sermon About Rest for the Weary, with #KellyOnMyMind

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Sermon for ML 403 Preaching Lab
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
6 October 2015
Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30 (Pentecost 5A)


Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

You know the words. And you could probably sing them better than me. But I’d be hard-pressed to think of a time when these words were sang as poignantly as when Georgia death row inmate Kelly Gissendaner sang them early last Wednesday morning, just moments before the pentobarbital took over her body and she breathed her last.

That night, in the hours leading up to her death, I was glued to my Twitter feed—waiting, watching, praying, and hoping against hope. When the Supreme Court rejected her last request for a stay of execution, I was sad, angry, and bitter.

And with #KellyOnMyMind, I read with fresh eyes this gospel text. And I couldn’t help but resonate with Jesus: “To what will I compare this generation?” Of course, the generation that Jesus was referring to had just rejected John the Baptist and was now actively rejecting him. They had rejected his message of the coming of the royal reign of God that was especially for tax collectors and sinners and outsiders. On Wednesday morning, that generation didn’t seem all that far removed from those who rejected Kelly, a death row inmate-turned-minister of the gospel, an outsider among outsiders.

In our text Jesus is frustrated, and I felt that frustration. I once heard the death penalty described as “evil cloaked in respectability and law.” We call it “justice,” but we’re fooling no one. It’s the taking of life for life, rooted in an unquenchable desire for retribution. It rejects any possibility for reconciliation and restoration.

Kelly (center) with theologian Jurgen Moltmann, at her 2011 graduation from the Candler School of Theology’s Certificate in Theological Studies program

Reconciliation. Restoration. Sound familiar? Words that could just as easily describe Jesus’s ministry. Jesus’s rejected ministry, that is.

No wonder Jesus was pissed off. The gap in this pericope includes some not-so-nice words against the villages that rejected him. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! And you, Capernaum, you will be brought down to Hades!”

They just don’t get it—these wise and intelligent ones. But notice who does: infants. Ones without religious status, ones who shouldn’t know but somehow do, ones that get trampled on, ones whom the wise and intelligent resent. Ones like Kelly Gissendaner.


But then there’s that beautiful paragraph at the end: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” What are we to make of that after everything we just heard?


A few years ago, I went through bout of depression. I had just graduated college with what had been plans to go to seminary, but I had also just come out. The denomination of which I was then a part doesn’t exactly support queer clergy, so those plans were shattered. I struggled with a loss of community and a lack of clarity about what I wanted to do with my life.

It was also around that time that an Episcopalian friend introduced me to compline. This simple prayer service for the close of the day involves reciting these last verses from Matthew’s gospel. For me, compline has become a practice of laying down the burdens of the day and a powerful reminder of rest. It doesn’t solve all my problems, but it reminds me of God’s love and God’s ability to hold all my stuff when I cannot.

We’ve all had our share of seemingly hopeless situations. Last Tuesday night, Kelly could’ve easily despaired or harbored resentment against her executioners, but in her final statement, she said, “Let my kids know I went out singing ‘Amazing Grace.’” Kelly sang “Amazing Grace” because she knew that the power of the state to take her life was no match for the power and the love of the God who had redeemed her life.


There’s plenty to despair about in the world around us, my friends. There’s plenty to despair about when the state of Georgia takes the life of a woman who embodied the very definition of rehabilitation. There’s plenty to despair about when a news article from last Tuesday bears the headline, “The U.S. has six executions scheduled over the next nine days.” There’s plenty to despair about when yet another mass shooting leaves nine innocent people and their killer dead at a community college in Oregon.

There’s plenty to despair about, and frankly I’m sick of it. But Jesus offers something different.

Come to me, all you that are weary of state-sanctioned killings.
Come to me, all you that are burdened with loss and uncertainty.
Come to me, all you that are weary of mass shootings.
Come to me, all you that are wretched, lost, and blind.

Come to me, and I will give you rest.
Come to me, and I will show you amazing grace.

Come to me, Jesus says to each of us, and I will give you rest. Jesus doesn’t necessarily promise to make everything better, but he does promise respite in the thick of it. And that promise is ultimately found in the hope of the resurrection. And we can rest easy knowing that all has been conquered for us. Thanks be to God.