A(nother!) Sermon about Wealth and Chasm-Crossing

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Augustana Lutheran Church
25 September 2016 + Lectionary 26C
Luke 16.19-31; 1 Timothy 6.6-19



One of my favorite scenes in the film adaptation of the popular rock musical Rent opens on an impoverished-looking apartment complex in Manhattan’s East Village, where we are introduced to two roommates, Mark and Roger, and their former roommate and friend-turned-landlord, Benny, whose upward marriage and new career in real estate brings the chasm between rich and poor to a head. Benny informs them that he plans to evict the homeless population from a nearby “tent city” to put in a state-of-the-art cyber arts studio.Rent

Plans that their performance artist friend Maureen intends to protest, which brings us to Benny’s point for this meeting: Convince Maureen to cancel her protest, and Mark and Roger can continue living rent-free in their apartment, which they can’t afford otherwise.

Friends betrayed. Relationships broken. Livelihoods and homes threatened. A great chasm has been fixed…

Words we hear, too, from Abraham in this parable from Luke. Words, I imagine, many of us have come to interpret as the “great chasm” between “heaven” and “hell.” Frightful imagery, indeed —  but intended not exactly to scare us into getting our act together with the threat or promise of where will wind up when we die.

I suspect the great chasm Abraham refers to has much more to do with life here and now.

If you feel like we’ve been hearing a lot about money and wealth this past year as we’ve been listening to Luke’s gospel: you’re right. Luke indeed spends a great deal of time on the topic:

In the Magnificat, Mary sings of the powerful being brought down from their thrones and the rich being sent away empty.

And in the so-called Sermon on the Plain, Jesus blesses the poor in one breath and pronounces woe on the rich in another.

The outlook for anyone with wealth, it seems, is pretty bleak.

lu16-rch-mn-in-hll-1-173In today’s parable, it seems even worse: Both the rich man, who goes unnamed, and Lazarus, the destitute beggar at his gate, die. Lazarus is taken to rest in “the bosom of Abraham,” while the rich man is tormented in Hades, the place of the dead. It’s certainly a great reversal from their time on earth, where the rich man feasted sumptuously and where Lazarus’s only company was a pack of dogs.

And it’s a bleak outlook for what looks to be a repentant rich man, as he pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers who are still living so that they can repent before it’s too late, lest they too wind up in torment in Hades.

But I have to wonder: Is the rich man really repentant? And is it really repentance if his brothers only change their ways to avoid punishment in the afterlife?

Muslim saint and Sufi mystic Rabi’a writes in one of her well-known poems:

O my Lord, / if I worship you / from fear of hell, burn me in hell. / If I worship you / from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates. / But if I worship you / for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face. [1]

Rabi’a turns the notion of a reward-and-punishment system on its head. Heaven is not a place where “good” people go, nor is hell reserved for “bad” people. Whether or not such places even exist is not the point! (That’s another sermon…)

A great chasm has been fixed… implies that there are two polar opposites on either side of that chasm, but it has nothing to do with the afterlife. This parable comes on the heels of last week’s message about the dangers of serving both God and wealth and is addressed to the Pharisees who are subsequently called “lovers of money.”

The first-century world, even more than ours today, had a tremendous wealth gap between the haves and the have-nots. And that kind of chasm acts as an insulated barrier—keeping the destitute beggar Lazarus just outside the gate of the rich man, who probably never even interacted with him. It creates a kind of ignorance of what it’s like on the other side of that chasm.

But again, I have to pause and wonder: Is this really about the rich man’s wealth? After all, there are people with great wealth who do wonderful things. Just this week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan announced their plans to donate $3 billion to help combat and even eradicate disease. [2]

So is this really a passage that claims wealth is inherently bad? Or is it more of a indictment of wealth that so insulates, that creates such a chasm, that it blinds those on whom it has a such a tight grip from seeing the suffering of the world around them?

Now, it’s easy for me, as a seminary student straddled with loan debt, and not a whole lot of disposable income, to simply ignore this passage: I’m not wealthy. It doesn’t apply to me. If anything, I should take the place of Lazarus in this parable. Right?

But when I start to think again about the kinds of chasms that exist in our world today, the tables quickly turn—and there I am, right alongside the rich man absorbed by all our stuff.

A professor of mine has put it this way, reflecting on one particular urban context:

When I walk the ‘Magnificent Mile’ in Chicago, with elegant shops on one side and gorgeous flowering boxes stitched down a street crowded with gas-guzzling SUVs on the other, I ‘walk the mile’ with scores of bedraggled and ill-looking people holding out their paper cups close to the doorways where vast amounts of money will be dropped daily (including some of my own bills, which I do not place in all the outstretched, empty cups). I am worried about how inured [how calloused] I seem to be becoming to the pain I see all around me; how adept at barely seeing even the things that are stealing life in sips; numbed by the consumerism…and unable to take action to close the distance between myself and others who are close enough to trip over. [3]

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It’s not hard to translate that into our context in this city, where we have very real, literal chasms designed to separate “us” and “them.” Think Dodge Street. Or 72nd, or I-680.

A great chasm has been fixed… and it seems impossible to cross. But our text this morning is a wake-up call to see and be opened to our neighbors who suffer injustice.

Chasm-crossing seems impossible until we remember the one who crossed the chasm for us. Christ, who entered into our world, suffered, died, and rose again, all for our sake, and for the sake of saying this is not the way it has to be!

We, who have been freed by the things that trap us and bring ruin and destruction, are so freed to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.

God, who gives life to all things, and who so richly provides, invites us to take hold of the life that really is life. Here, at this table, every Sunday. Take, eat, live. And be emboldened to go out and cross the great chasm.


[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/55267

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/22/technology/mark-zuckerberg-priscilla-chan-3-billion-pledge-fight-disease.html?_r=0

[3] Kadi Billman, “Practicing Pastoral Care as a Theologian of the Cross”

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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/.

A Sermon for Those Who Have Been Told to Take the Lowest Place

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Augustana Lutheran Church
28 August 2016 + Lectionary 22C
Luke 14.1, 7-14



Wash your hands.
Pray before you eat.
Don’t chew with your mouth open.
Keep your elbows off the table.

All phrases that I imagine each of us has heard as children that teach us table manners.

And the fancier the meal, these table manners only seem to get more strict and more elaborate. Imagine Downton Abbey.

Or closer to home: when the good china comes out at Christmas or Thanksgiving, or maybe going out for a nice dinner at the best steakhouse in town.

And yet all these settings would probably pale in comparison to a candlelight supper, hosted by one Hyacinth Bucket. That’s B-U-C-K-E-T, bouquet.

If you get that reference, you have instantly 2073727127_a383fce445_zbecome of my new favorite people who knows and appreciates the television masterpiece that is Keeping Up Appearances.

The show follows the anything-but-ordinary life of Hyacinth Bucket, whose relentless and often exaggerated attempts at climbing the social ladder provide much of the show’s humor. In nearly every episode, Hyacinth goes to great lengths to steer clear of her much more “lower-class” sister Daisy and her husband, while constantly reminding everyone of her much wealthier sister Violet—all part of her ceaseless social climbing.


Jesus encounters a great deal of social climbing in today’s gospel. At the house of a prominent religious leader, all the guests clamor for the places of honor.

The instruction Jesus offers to the guests in his parable seems straightforward enough: Don’t scramble for the place of honor. If someone more important comes along, you might get bumped down lower. So instead, do just the opposite. It’s better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower. It’s advice straight out of the wisdom sayings we encounter in our reading from Proverbs.

But even more radical is what Jesus says in the follow-up to the parable where he turns his attention to the hosts. Don’t invite the usual suspects, but invite those who are poor, crippled, lame, blind—those who cannot invite you back, those who are explicitly excluded by first-century Palestinian “table manners.”

These are the ones who have had no choice but to take the “lowest place”—or no place at all—because that’s where the system has told them they belong. But they’re precisely the ones that Jesus would have at the table.


The church, too, is guilty of its own restrictive and exclusive “table manners.”

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Clare Byarugaba (photo credit: Timothy Meinch / Christian Century)

Clare Byarugaba is an activist who lives in Uganda. She also happens to be a lesbian.

 

She talks about growing up in the Anglican church in her hometown of Kabale, in southwestern Uganda. Her father played the organ, and she sang in the choir. Clare fondly remembers a happy childhood experience in the church: “I never really questioned my faith or the Bible,” she says. “I was in a certain place with God, and it was good.”

Even after she first noticed her same-sex attraction, and started bringing her girlfriends to church with her, she had reconciled her sexuality and her faith. Certain of her identity, she laughingly remarked, “God will deal with it.”

The church of her adulthood, however, holds a different opinion. Clare recounts one Sunday in 2009 when her pastor urged the congregation to sign a petition backing antigay legislation that would make provision for the death penalty in certain cases of same-sex activity. That day, she decided it would be the last time she went to church, reflecting later, “It was so, so painful… The people who were supposed to bring you closer to God were calling for your death.” [1]

Unfortunately, homophobia in the church is a phenomenon not restricted to Uganda and one we know all too well in our North American context. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals told they don’t belong simply because of who they are and whom they love. Or at best, welcomed, but with an asterisk to take the “lowest place.” Be celibate. Don’t get married. You can’t raise children. Don’t be too flamboyant.

There is no shortage of persons in our world who have been told they belong in the “lowest place.” LGBTQ+ persons are just one example.

A video produced by Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago highlights another. It’s called “Get Home Safely: 10 Rules of Survival,” and it features black youth offering advice to their peers on how to survive getting stopped by police. [2] Advice, I must admit, I never had to consider growing up white. Be polite. Don’t argue. Keep your hands visible. Don’t run. Don’t resist. In other words, take the “lowest place” because to attempt to do anything more is to risk your life.


When Clare Byarugaba decided to return to the very church that only a few years earlier had deeply hurt her, she walked in during an opening praise medley that included a song paraphrasing Isaiah 61:

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”

Words that should sound familiar because they are the very words spoken by Jesus that launch and define his public ministry earlier in Luke’s gospel. Words that give Clare hope for the future of her beloved church.

Words that declare that God is always and especially concerned for the outsider and the oppressed.

I am grateful to come from a seminary that embraces the idea of public church, because public church, too, is, at its best, rooted in these words.

The church declares that in baptism we are claimed as God’s own and marked with the cross of Christ forever. The church declares one’s worth is not dependent on where society tells you you belong—but that you are worthy because you are a beloved and redeemed child of God.

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And the public church proclaims that message of sacred worth to the world and fights like hell against systems that deny it to queer lives, to black lives, to refugee and immigrant lives.

Jesus’s insistence that poor and crippled and lame and blind lives matter enough to have a place at the table is much more than a lesson in simple table manners. It’s a radical re-envisioning of a world marked by God’s reign of justice.


[1] http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-08/unshakable-uganda

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqJ-psD9vJw

A Sermon about Keeping the Sabbath (and Why It’s So Hard)

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This Sunday, I had the opportunity to worship with the people of God at First Lutheran Church, a neighboring ELCA congregation not far from Augustana. You can read more about the ministry FLC is up to in Omaha on their website.


First Lutheran Church, Omaha, NE
21 August 2016 + Lectionary 21C
Luke 13.10-17



Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—
I keep it, staying at Home—

So begins the poem by Emily Dickinson. Exchanging a choir for the song of birds, a vaulted ceiling for the covering of trees, and even the preacher in favor of God herself. For Dickinson, sacred space is more out there than in here.

I suppose it’s probably a good thing I didn’t take Dickinson’s advice this morning—or else this would be a very quiet ten minutes… not to mention that I’d probably be going into the wrong line of work.

calmBut I must confess, even as a seminary student who deeply loves all things liturgical, some of my most sacred Sabbath experiences happen outside the four walls of a sanctuary. Living in Chicago for the past eight years, I have come to relish any sliver of urban nature I can find. Walks along Lake Michigan are my favorite, where in the mugginess of summer heat I can actually dip my feet in the cool water, or just sit along the shore and gaze out over the seemingly endless waters.

These sacred moments spent in the midst of urban beauty more often than not organically lead me to prayer and reflection on the day.

But then, I have thoughts.

Thoughts about my to-do list: There’s laundry to do, a sermon to finish, groceries to buy, meetings to attend, bills to pay.

Left alone to our thoughts, distractions creep in. It’s inevitable. And quite frankly, it makes any notion of Sabbath downtime hard to come by.

Barbara Brown Taylor traces a brief history of Sabbath-keeping in her book An Altar in the World. Growing up, Taylor recalls that the Sabbath was a day of could not: you could not wear blue jeans, you could not play ball, you could not ride bikes, you could not go to the movies. In other words, she quips, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it boring.” [1]sabbath-sunday

But even for the most devout Sabbath-keeper, changing times brought changing attitudes toward Sunday mornings. By the 1960s, the majority of homes had TVs, and many of them would be tuned to Sunday football. More and more, shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues began to open their doors on Sundays. Suddenly, there was a newfound liberation as Americans could fill their Sabbath day with a multitude of activities.

Of course, liberation for some meant just the opposite for others. Lower-wage earners would have to choose between keeping the Sabbath or keeping their jobs to meet the demand of added business hours.

Meanwhile, for churches, all of this has meant ever-decreasing attendance, no matter the reason for a churchgoers’s absence. To be sure, Sunday worship is certainly not the only way to keep the Sabbath, but the constant swirl of activities to choose from, to-do items to check off, and smartphone notifications to respond to seems have left precious little time to just be.


To counteract this “war on Sabbath,” Taylor suggests the spiritual practice of “saying no.” She explains that those who practice Sabbath, those who say no, are more able to resist our cultural emphasis on productivity, consumerism, and consumption. Saying no insists that you are worth more than what you do or how much you produce. Saying no allows you to just be, and rest, and recharge. (And no, I don’t just mean your smartphone or tablet.)

In our gospel text this morning, I suspect Jesus is practicing what it means to say no. To heal or not to heal on the Sabbath? That is the question.

The law, it would seem, is clear: no work on the Sabbath. But hear again what Jesus says: “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie your ox or your donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?”

Your ox or your donkey. I don’t think Jesus’s word choice is coincidental. Those words appear among a litany of persons and animals in Deuteronomy’s version of the Sabbath commandment, underscoring that the Sabbath is for everyone. And it goes on to remind the Israelites of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, rooting Sabbath rest in liberation.

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To heal or not to heal? then becomes something more like To allow a restrictive religious law to continue to oppress this woman and prevent her too from enjoying Sabbath rest, or to say no to all of that?

As one biblical scholar explains: When Jesus chooses to heal the bent-over woman, “his touch represents fellowship for those whose ailments may have denied them human contact; Jesus’s touch is their initial welcome back into community.” [2]

Jesus’s healing touch is indeed a liberative act. It frees the woman who has been healed so that she might praise God.

Our text reminds us that the Sabbath is about being made free. Free to be and to rest and to delight in God’s beauty. Free from distractions, and free to say no.


The Sabbath, as one blogger writes, is a gift of freedom, and it is a gift as old as creation itself. The first Sabbath, described in Genesis, is the capstone of creation, a gift from God so that we might be able to embrace all that has been created. [3]

Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to experience Sabbath rest when I’m wading in the waters of Lake Michigan in Chicago or walking down the tree-lined streets of my neighborhood here in Omaha. Because there is an intimate link between Sabbath and creation.

Creation reminds us of God’s good gifts to us and our interconnectedness with all things and all peoples. And the freedom of the Sabbath calls us to reconnect with God, with ourselves, and with the whole of creation.

When the woman who was once bent over for eighteen long years was suddenly able to stand up straight, her perspective quite literally changed. One pastor calls this text “a story of expansion, revelation, [and] vision widened by grace.” [4] Indeed, the healed woman sees more than just sunshine and fluffy clouds, but also a world in need.

Sabbath is a gift but also an invitation:

An invitation to a new way of life that says no to the things that make us bent over.

An invitation to the kind of justice-seeking Sabbath-keeping that Isaiah envisions, where the hungry are filled and the needs of the afflicted are satisfied.

An invitation to the freedom to be and to rest in God’s grace.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 127.

[2] Rodney S. Sadler, Jr., “Luke 13:10-17: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 385.

[3] https://journeytopenuel.com/2016/08/14/proper-16c-the-sabbath-is-calling/

[4] http://christiancentury.org/article/2016-07/august-21-21st-sunday-ordinary-time

Overwhelmed: A Sermon for Lectionary 18C / Pentecost 11C

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Augustana Lutheran Church
31 July 2016 + Lectionary 18C
Luke 12.13-21 [22-34]



elections_ahead_sky_0It’s all a little bit overwhelming, isn’t it? This election season, that is. We’ve certainly witnessed a mix of exciting and interesting moments.

One moment in particular caught my attention this past Tuesday as delegates at the Democratic National Convention cast their votes, state by state, for their party’s nominee for president. Jerry Emmett, a 102-year-old delegate from Arizona, herself older than women’s suffrage, proudly announced her state’s votes for the first woman candidate, nominated by a major political party, for President of the United States. It was overwhelming to watch.

Now, in case you can’t tell, I’m a bit of a political junkie, and it’s easy for me to become overwhelmed in all the excitement—and anxiety—of an election year.

But even if you don’t share my particular fascination with politics, surely you know what it’s like to be overwhelmed. For better or worse, being alive means having no shortage of things which overwhelm us.

For many of us, it’s technology. It’s hard to imagine any ordinary moment of life without our devices. Sherry Turkle identifies what she calls the “I share therefore I am” principle—the idea that we have come to define ourselves by our digital presence and social media output.

And so, when we don’t have connection, she says, we don’t feel like ourselves, and so, to compensate, we connect more and more—but as we do, we in fact become more isolated, replacing digital connection for the real thing. [1]

I have a hunch the rich man in the parable from today’s gospel reading knows something about being overwhelmed to the point of isolation.

The parable begins: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” Good news, right? For this man, not so much. Instead of viewing his surplus as a blessing, he is immediately overwhelmed and frames it as a problem to be solved. “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” His solution? Build a bigger barn, and store the crops for himself.

It would seem the rich man in this ancient parable is latching on to a rather timeless phenomenon that finds its expression par excellence in our contemporary culture. Theologian Rob Saler puts it this way:

We are programmed to be “not only consumers, but anxious consumers. Even as we are urged to spend and spend, we are simultaneously bombarded with injunctions to save and build up wealth for retirement [and] future catastrophes… We measure the health of the economy by its ‘growth’ even as we are warned that only those who have sufficient reserves will be able to navigate the future successfully.” [2]

No wonder we’re overwhelmed. Hoarding up stockpiles like the rich man is made to seem like a lucrative opportunity. It means safeguarding ourselves for the future. It means not having to rely on anyone but ourselves.

But of course it can also mean isolating ourselves. For Saler, it’s as though we’re actually able to “purchase distance” from each other and the world around us, a sort of “padding” against any potential threats.

And so the parable ends: The rich man, having stockpiled his possessions, will die, alone. There is no one to answer to God’s question about who will inherit all his stuff.

Still feeling overwhelmed?

Beyond the confines of the lectionary, Jesus immediately continues, “Therefore I tell you…” As if to say, This is the point. Pay attention! “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear… Consider the ravens… Consider the lilies…” It’s a passage many of us have heard before and could probably quote, or at least paraphrase, from memory.

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Remember too that all this talk about the rich man and his barn, and about ravens and lilies, started with a simple request from someone in the crowd: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Did Jesus miss that entirely… or is he making a much more profound point? Hold that thought.

Physicist and theologian Paul Wallace recounts one particularly memorable moment in his introductory astronomy course. He began his standard opening lecture: “Under a dark and transparent atmosphere, with an unobstructed horizon and healthy vision, one can see at most about 3,000 stars.” He goes on: “And if we were to remove our home planet from under our feet we would see 3,000 more.” [3]

It was this last point that caused one of his students to react first with a look of horror before grinning and explaining, “It’s just that you said that there are stars under my feet, and I had never really thought of it like that before.”

In that moment, Wallace’s student suddenly became aware of his relatively small place within the vastness of the cosmos. Maybe you’ve had one of those moments too, looking up at the stars in the night sky, or standing in awe of some other natural wonder.

Moments like these reorient our perspective and move us from being overwhelmed by the things that distract and isolate us to being overwhelmed by creation—the very creation that Jesus points to: “Consider the ravens… Consider the lilies…”

As if to say: Look! It’s not just about you. There’s a whole world, a whole universe, out there, and it’s all connected.

Jesus points to a small sliver of the vastness of the cosmos and offers an alternative vision: It’s a vision that reminds us of our radical dependence on God’s grace and God’s certain word of forgiveness. It’s vision that reminds us that we are dependent creatures.  But it’s also a vision that reminds us we are interdependent.

The splendor of creation, the vastness of the cosmos, the radical grace of God. It’s overwhelming.

Rather than isolation, being overwhelmed by these things, to borrow from Saler again, “frees us up to be creatures who joyfully embrace our dependence upon each other and our environment.” It’s an alternative to the ways we get wrapped up in ourselves and our own worries and concerns.

“Do not worry,” Jesus says, and concludes: “Instead, strive for God’s kingdom.”

It reminds me of a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., I have hanging above my desk in my office: “An individual has not started living until they can rise above the narrow confines of individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

King liked to call the kingdom of God “the Beloved Community.” I like that because it reminds us of the communal nature of that kingdom.

Jesus’s alternative vision to strive for God’s kingdom has to do with building up the Beloved Community.

It’s the community prophetically imagined by Mary where the lowly are lifted up and the hungry are filled with good things. It’s a community whose members are “rich toward God,” which starts by being rich toward our neighbor, as the Good Samaritan reminds us.

It’s a community we are welcomed into at our baptism and which continues to be strengthened every week when we gather at this Table. When we take into our hands simple bread and wine, we wield powerful reminders that the Beloved Community proclaims resurrected life in spite of death and abundance in the midst of scarcity.

It’s an overwhelming mystery that proclaims there is enough to go around in God’s kingdom. We don’t have to hoard it, but we  do get to share it freely.


[1] https://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together

[2] http://www.lutheransrestoringcreation.org/the-eleventh-sunday-after-pentecost-in-year-c

[3] Paul Wallace, Stars Beneath Us: Finding God in the Evolving Cosmos (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), vii.

A Sermon about Listening and What It Means to Be a Disciple

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photo credit: Alex Witt

 

 

 

This is the first sermon preached at my internship site. Click here and here to learn more about the congregation I will be serving for the next year in the city of Omaha, Nebraska.


Augustana Lutheran Church
17 July 2016 + Lectionary 16C
Luke 10.38-42



It’s been a hard couple of weeks. I’ve found that one of the ways I cope with tragedies is by showing up to vigils and protests to stand and to grieve and to be angry in solidarity with the community. Last Friday, I was able to join demonstrators at the corner of 120th and Center in what was an overwhelmingly peaceful protest in response to the shootings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas. Many of those gathered carried signs:

“Black lives matter.”

“No justice, no peace.”

“Racism kills.”

And one particularly poignant sign held by a young Black woman: “I am Sandra Bland.”

That rally Friday night reminded me of another. It was November 24, 2014, and I was in Chicago. It was the night that St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch would announce that the grand jury had decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson earlier that year. What I remember most about that night is all of the waiting for those of us gathered in vigil outside of police headquarters — and then the silent, and nervous, listening as we huddled around a radio to hear McCulloch’s announcement.

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outside Chicago police headquarters, November 24, 2014


Listening has indeed been on my mind since I began reading the gospel text for this week. Mary, Luke tells us, “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” But Martha, left by herself to coordinate her sudden out-of-town guests, is understandably upset and tries to get Jesus to tell her sister to help. But Jesus instead commends Mary for listening.

Is Jesus suggesting that Martha’s acts of hospitality toward him are unwelcome? Is he being a bad guest? To read it that way, and understandably so, we might come to the conclusion that Jesus is placing a higher value on one sister’s expression of love over the other.

But, in a blog post this week, Karoline Lewis warns us against falling into the trap of comparing these two sisters and assigning value to their actions. Instead, she suggests that this is a text about discipleship and about who gets to be called a disciple of Jesus.

Consider last week: The Samaritan, a foreigner despised by the Jews for his ethnic identity, is the one who shows us what it means to love our neighbor. And now: Mary, a woman, takes the place of a male disciple, transgressing social boundaries to show us what it means be devoted to God’s Word. Representatives of two marginalized groups that Jesus lifts up as the model for discipleship — a discipleship that means being attentive to God’s Word and to the needs of others. Being and doing.

But again, it’s not about choosing Mary over Martha. The kind of hospitality that Martha shows is indeed important: that much Luke makes clear. But it is a matter of from where her actions flow:

Martha does what she does because it’s what society has told and conditioned her to do. It serves to maintain the status quo — in this case, trying to keep Martha distracted from claiming her place as a disciple by virtue of her gender.

But Mary chooses to disregard those social boundaries. She recognizes that loving God and being attentive to God’s Word take precedence, and Jesus commends her for this — essentially putting his seal of approval on an act of “civil disobedience.”

And then Luke helps us connect the dots: Together, the parable of the good Samaritan and the story about Martha and Mary highlight what it means to be a disciple — to “hear the Word of God and do it.” Devotion and service. Both are important, but one will naturally flow from the other.


Jesus’s commendation highlights the first of these: listening. Because it is what is being listened to that is important. And that, namely, is God’s Word — the good news, as Paul reminds us, that “through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to God’s self all things” (Colossians 1.20). That, dear people, is the bedrock of our faith, and it is only that we are freed from sin that we are also freed for the service of our neighbor. Doing flows from being.

Luther puts in this way in a letter to the pope in 1520:

“This is a truly Christian life. Here faith is truly active through love, that is, it finds expression in works of the freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a [person] willingly serves another without hope of reward… Although the Christian is thus free from all works, [we] ought in this liberty to empty [ourselves], take upon [ourselves] the form of a servant, be made in the likeness of [humankind], be found in human form, and to serve, help, and in every way deal with [our] neighbor as we see that God through Christ has dealt and still deals with [us].” [1]

Faith active in love is the gentle corrective Jesus offers to Martha, and to us, in his commendation of Mary’s devotion. Faith active in love is what it looks like when we combine Mary’s devotion and Martha’s service. Faith active in love is another way of saying that we are a public church — a church beyond the four walls of a sanctuary, immersed in service to our community.

wordsacramentBut we are also still, above all, church, rooted in Word and Sacrament. Emily Heath, a UCC pastor in New Hampshire, writes this:

“I am sometimes worried that we in the progressive church put the cart before the horse when it comes to social justice. It’s not that I believe we are advocating for the wrong things; it’s that I believe we sometimes advocate for the wrong reasons, acting first and then wedging theological meaning in later.” [2]

What we need to reclaim, says Heath, is discipleship. Indeed, she even goes so far as to call it “the next big thing” she envisions for the church.

It’s when we lose sight of “the church’s one foundation,” as the hymn puts it, that we become just another public advocacy group. Because when the church is reduced to a public advocacy group, then the church has nothing to say:

when an unarmed Black man is shot to death by police;

or even when an armed Black man is shot for trying to tell police he had a legal concealed weapon on his person when he’s just trying to reach for his ID;

or when a truck plows through a crowd in France and kills dozens, including at least ten children, celebrating a national holiday.

But the church does have something to say. The church has a message worth listening t0 — and worth proclaiming.

The church proclaims Christ crucified for the sake of the world.

The church gathers to confess its sin and trust in the promise of God’s forgiveness.

The church listens to the Word that promises a God who has been, is, and ever shall be with her peoples to wipe away every tear from their eyes.

The church attends to the mysteries at table and font.

And certainly not least of all, the church, so filled with these things, is sent into the world to strive for justice and peace.

In other words, the bedrock of our faith — the gospel of Jesus Christ — comes first. And upon that foundation, like a garden of fertile soil, spring forth the fruits of peace and justice. Doing flows from being.

The disciples of the church of Christ — you and me — hear the Word of God and do it. It starts with hearing, really listening, for when we listen to the gospel, we hear a message of God’s extravagant grace for us and for the whole world.


[1] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), 74-75.

[2] https://emilycheath.com/2014/09/16/the-next-big-thing-for-the-progressive-church-putting-the-horse-before-the-cart/

A Sermon about Faith, Community, and Subverting Boundaries

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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.