A Sermon about Journeys

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

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


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



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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Sermon for Ash Wednesday about Being Human

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Sermon for a Faith Grounded in Mystical Experience

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Augustana Lutheran Church
26 February 2017 + Transfiguration of Our Lord
Matthew 17.1-19
Vicar Josh Evans



I have a confession to make: I hate the Transfiguration. Or maybe more to the point, I hate it because it seems so hard to grasp and  to make any possible meaning out of it. But I love what the Transfiguration means. Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but bear with me.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain… Six days after what? In the preceding chapter in Matthew’s gospel, we encounter a memorable scene: Peter, who confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, is called “blessed” by Jesus and told he is the “rock” upon the church will be built. But lest Peter’s ego should get the best of him, only a few verses later, Jesus sharply rebukes him — “Get behind me, Satan!” — for his misunderstanding of what kind of Messiah Jesus was.

The details there are not important, but suffice it to say that it was probably a confusing, upsetting time for Peter. And so it’s not difficult to imagine why Peter is the one who, upon witnessing this strange and wonderful spectacle on the mountain, suggests they build tents and stay a while in this moment of glory and excitement.

So what happened on the mountain that was so awe-inspiring that left Peter grasping at the opportunity to make it last?

Karl Rahner, one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 20th century, once argued for the rediscovery of the mystical foundations of Christianity as vital to the church’s survival — mystic, by one definition, meaning “one who has moved from mere belief systems…to actual inner experience.”

By that way of thinking, what happened on the mountain, all that was witnessed by Peter and the other two disciples, was a mystical experience — something so inexplicable and beyond comprehension that it simply had to be experienced.

I also suspect that these sorts of mystical moments often come to us in situations like the one Peter found himself in — in the midst of the turmoil and confusion of everyday life.

The closest thing I’ve ever had to a mystical experience happened a few years ago when I was at a small group leaders’ retreat with the church I used to attend. The retreat was designed for those, like me, who were about to embark on small group leadership, as well as a refresher course for seasoned leaders. It was those seasoned leaders I remember looking at, thinking how inadequate I seemed for this work compared to them.

At one point, we were given some free time to roam about the building for contemplation and prayer. Never having been great at spiritual practices which require me to sit in silence with nothing to do, I found an empty pew in the sanctuary, opened a bible to Exodus, and began to read, just to pass the time.

I was reading the familiar story of Moses encountering Yahweh, the Hebrew god, in the burning bush, giving excuse after excuse about what Yahweh has asked him to do. Who am I that I should go? Moses asks. Exactly! I thought. Who am I that should lead this group? Who do I think I am? And Yahweh answers Moses, I will be with you. It was as though those words were being spoken directly to me that day. I will be with you.

And they were overcome fear. Because sometimes mystical experiences can also be downright terrifying. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, found himself in a state of shock, doubt, and fear the night he received the first revelation of the Quran. According to tradition, he alternated between feeling that, at best, it was all a hallucination or, at worst, it had been a confrontation with an evil spirit.

Terrifying — because mystical experiences like Mohammed’s and the disciples’ and even my own mean something is changing. In Matthew’s gospel, the Transfiguration marks a decisive turning point from Jesus’s public ministry to what he will soon encounter in Jerusalem, events we too will soon recount as we inch closer to Holy Week. Peter and the other disciples, in this moment of change, need the memory of what is happening to stay with them because of what is about to happen.

Like Peter and the disciples, we constantly find ourselves in states of change — everything from job to family to personal transitions. They’re in between moments of both holding on and letting go, oftentimes at once excruciating and exciting.

And that, I suspect, is the whole point of the Transfiguration: permission to be in those in between moments of holding on and letting go. The Transfiguration as mystical experience acknowledges this tension, offering something to hold on to as we let go.

As they were coming down the mountain… The Transfiguration is more about the journey down the mountain than the mountaintop experience itself. Yes, it’s about coming down the mountain to the valley below, but let’s  also not overemphasize the destination at the expense of downplaying the journey.

With Transfiguration Sunday, we mark the turning toward our Lenten journey — a journey in which we call to mind the paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. But, as one theologian reminds us, “Until we have personally lost our own foundation and then experienced God upholding us so that we come out even more alive on the other side, the theological affirmation of the paschal mystery is little understood and not essentially transformative.” In other words, the journey is a thing to be personally experienced, even savored.

I don’t think that Peter and the other disciples could have ever conceived intellectually of what would happen on the mountaintop that day. It had to be experienced, and having been experienced, it changes them. The glory of the mountaintop moment, the mystical experience of God’s enduring presence, gives them strength for the journey ahead.

It gives strength for the moment, for moments of change, and for leaping into an unknown future, letting go of all control and certainty, while at once holding on to the  memory of what has been and looking to the hope of what can and what will be.

A Reflection-Sermon for Christ the King

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As mentioned in my previous post, this year my internship congregation did a special liturgy for Christ the King Sunday, in which we traced the liturgical year, season by season, in a pattern of reading-reflection-hymn. What follows is my short reflection on the gospel pericope for Christ the King, Luke 23.33-43. I am also including my reflections on Advent, Epiphany, Lent, and Ordinary Time. Full liturgy is available upon request (vicarjosh (at) gmail (dot) com).


Augustana Lutheran Church
20 November 2016 + Christ the King
Luke 23.33-43

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image courtesy of River Needham’s blog

There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

It’s puzzling, at first glance, that we read a gospel lesson on Christ the King Sunday that has our so-called “king” hanging on a cross, dying. It’s certainly not the image of a king I would choose to use if I were trying to make some grand claim about Jesus.

But I think that’s exactly the point: Luke’s gospel is full of subversions and reversals. This is another one: Christ the King is so unlike any earthly monarch we can imagine. Recall way back at the beginning of our journey through the church year this morning to my reflection on Epiphany. The psalm on that day speaks of a king who will judge with righteousness and justice, defend the cause of the poor, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

Our gospel text today adds another element to Christ’s kingly qualities: solidarity with those who suffer. As Karoline Lewis writes, salvation for the second criminal here means:

…that there was someone who saw his suffering, who was willing to stand in that suffering with him, who spoke up against his suffering in the form of empire, evil, and totalitarianism. That someone was Jesus. The criminal died knowing that someone was with him in his suffering. [1]

Every Sunday we proclaim Christ crucified, but especially so on Christ the King. That proclamation calls us into a brave new way of being church. To quote from Lewis again, it means, among other things, that we are compelled “to look to the left and the right and notice who is getting hanged on a tree and say stop.” [2]

I’m sorry to say that there are too many people being hanged on trees in our world today. In the first century, crucifixion was a tool used to silence those voices that the Roman Empire didn’t want to hear or deemed as threats. Today, on November 20th, many people around the world will gather for the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance to name and remember those beloved children of God who have been murdered as a result of transphobia.

It is the church’s responsibility to call out these and other acts of evil: Transphobia. Racism. Homophobia. Sexism. Islamophobia. Xenophobia. We have a starting point in Luke’s story of the crucifixion — a story that underscores the wideness of God’s abundant love and mercy for all whom God has created, a love that is so deep that it manifests itself in a God who suffers right alongside the most vulnerable and whispers to them, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=4754
[2] Ibid.


ADVENT

The season of Advent is a powerful counter-cultural pushback against the hurried rush to Christmas. While all around us we have seen Santas and candy canes and holiday greenery for weeks, the church defiantly declares “not yet!”.

Advent isn’t about any of these things, or even the birth of Jesus, “but about the church’s continual prayer that God will come to us, bringing life to a dying world.” [3] In fact, it’s not until the Fourth (and final) Sunday of Advent each year that we hear a gospel text about the birth of Jesus. Prior to that, we’re introduced to John the Baptist, whose cry on Jordan’s bank “calls us into hope and urges us into justice.” [4]

Everything about Advent urges us to wait, to slow down, to return to ourselves and to God. On our wreath, we light one candle at a time. In our prayers of the day, we pray for Christ to “stir up” divine power and come, even as we pray for God to “stir up” our hearts in renewal towards the divine will for justice. Even the blue of the pastor’s vestments and the paraments in our sanctuary is not unlike the deep blue of night just before the coming of the dawn.

So in Advent: We wait. We watch. We pray. We look expectantly for the coming of Emmanuel, God-with-us.

[3] Gail Ramshaw and Mons Teig, Keeping Time: The Church’s Years (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 73.
[4] Ibid., 74.


EPIPHANY

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… gold, frankincense, and myrrh?! If Advent is the pushback against Christmas coming too soon, then the peculiar feast day of Epiphany protests how quickly we rush to move on after December 25th. Indeed, Epiphany marks the conclusion of the twelve days of Christmas, and the gospel read on this day still proclaims the coming of Christ into the world, as we retell the familiar story of the magi visiting a newborn king.

The psalm appointed for Epiphany also tells us exactly the kind of king we can expect in Jesus. This king, in stark contrast to earthly monarchs, will judge with righteousness and justice, defend the cause of the poor, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. Following the example of such a king, we too are called to recommit ourselves to the work of justice.


LENT

“What are you giving up for Lent this year?” It’s a question many of us who grew up in the church have probably asked and answered ad nauseam over the years. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Lent has nothing to do with giving up our favorite things, like ice cream or coffee. If that were the case, I’d be a very cranky vicar.

In fact, the giving up of material pleasures appears to be more an aberration in the history of Christian liturgical practices, a “blip” in the grand scheme of things. As early as the fourth century, Lent was observed as a forty-day period of preparation for new converts to Christianity who wished to be baptized at Easter. Only in the medieval era, when adult baptisms declined, did the focus move to fasting as an act of penance to make up for one’s personal sinfulness.

Fortunately, in recent years, the earlier, ancient practice of the church has resurfaced. Easter is again a popular time for baptisms, with Lent as its counterpart both in preparation for baptism but also an annual renewal of baptism for all Christians. Still, classic expressions of Lenten discipline—giving alms to the poor, praying, and fasting—are common and even encouraged. But the goal here is to stress that these things “are not necessary for gaining God’s approval… [but] are behaviors that we choose to adopt to remind ourselves of the renewal of life that baptism calls forth.” [5]

Keeping a holy Lent therefore suggests that our fasting be a hunger for justice, our alms a making of peace, and our prayer the song of grateful hearts.

[5] Ibid., 85.


ORDINARY TIME

Ordinary Time is anything but ordinary. Liturgical scholars are quick to remind us that the naming of these “green Sundays” after Epiphany and after Pentecost as “ordinary” refers not to their quality but simply to the fact that they are ordered, or numbered. No matter what we call these Sundays, though, it’s important to remember that every Sunday, regardless of season, proclaims Christ. In other words, every Sunday is a little Easter.

The green of these “ordinary” days, many of which fall during the spring and summer months, also calls us to delight in the beauty of God’s creation. Hear now these words from John O’Donohue:

Nearer to the earth’s heart,
Deeper within its silence:
Animals know this world
In a way we never will.

We who are ever
Distanced and distracted
By the parade of bright
Windows thought opens:
Their seamless presence
Is not fractured thus.

Stranded between time
Gone and time emerging,
We manage seldom
To be where we are:
Whereas they are always
Looking out from
The here and now.

May we learn to return
And rest in the beauty
Of animal being,
Learn to lean low,
Leave our locked minds,
And with freed senses
Feel the earth
Breathing with us.

May we enter
Into lightness of spirit,
And slip frequently into
The feel of the wild.

Let the clear silence
Of our animal being
Cleanse our hearts
Of corrosive words.

May we learn to walk
Upon the earth
With all their confidence
And clear-eyed stillness
So that our minds
Might be baptized
In the name of the wind
And light and the rain. [6]

[6] John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 73-74.