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Sermon: Into the Maelstrom. June 20, 2021

This is the sermon I preached for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 20, 2021, at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL. You can view the worship service and the bulletin. The image is The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, by Rembrandt (1633, public domain).

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. The communist-era train, whose air conditioning had given out long before we took our seats that day, had been stopped at the border for some time. My friend and I were returning to Slovakia after a day trip to Budapest, and I, in the heat, had dozed off. I woke to the sound of our compartment door sliding open. My eyes opened to see a young man, younger than I was even when this happened twenty years ago, standing there is a crisp uniform with a semiautomatic weapon slung on his back. “Passport,” he said, his cadence turning the simple word into a demand. I patted my pockets, realizing in groggy horror that I didn’t know where my passport was. My eyes, sleepy no more, widened in worry. The stale air in the train compartment hung heavily, barely moving, but a storm broke upon my mind. Where was it? I was at the border. I had come this far and couldn’t go back. Suddenly, it seemed, I couldn’t go forward either. Just as it seemed that I might be stuck on the frontier forever, my friend nudged me in the ribs and pointed up to the luggage rack above our heads. “Dude,” Phil said, “you put it there so you’d know where to find it.” Calm washing over me, I grabbed my passport and handed it over to be stamped, safe passage assured. The storm lasted only a few seconds, and in retrospect I know that I wouldn’t have been stuck in-between countries forever, but for a brief moment the outcome seemed uncertain. Would I be able to cross over?
  2. The disciples find themselves in a crossing-over moment today, in a few different ways. At the conclusion of a time of preaching and teaching, healing and casting out demons, Jesus decides it’s time to move on. They get into a boat to cross over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. If you’ve stood on Galilee’s shores, you know it is not a large body of water. “Sea” seems too grandiose a term for something that is only eight miles across. Nevertheless, the sea is plenty big enough for large storms to roll in and threaten small fishing boats. The winds and the waves blow and crash. What a storm it must have been to strike such terror into the hearts of the disciples, at least four of whom were experienced fishermen who had worked these waters since childhood. The storm puts their outcome very much in doubt. They had come this far and there was no turning back. But was there a way forward? And come to think of it, where’s Jesus? They find him in the back of the boat, sleeping. Without, it seems, a care in the world. They shake him awake. One might expect them to say, “Jesus, we need your help,” or, “Teacher, how are we going to get out of this one?” Instead, they ask, gesturing at the waves cresting the gunwales, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” Jesus, don’t you care?
  3. Here, with the storm still raging and the outcome, as far as they can tell, very much in doubt, the disciples find themselves wondering whether or not Jesus cares for them. Have such thoughts not arisen in our hearts when outcomes are uncertain? As we wait for a diagnosis or a test result, worry over a job interview, or wonder whether a broken relationship can be restored? For many of us, I think, the question is not so much if God is real. The question is, does God care? Is God at work? Or is God sleeping at the back of the boat while we try to make it across on our own? Jesus, with miraculous clarity, provides an answer today. He wakes and speaks, “Peace! Be still!” Immediately the wind ceases and a calm falls dead upon the sea. The storm that seemed it would be their undoing is itself undone. Safe passage is secured. They will reach the far shore.
  4. It is still true that not all outcomes will be good in our eyes, or what we hope for. Despite our faith, the diagnosis will not always be good; the job will not always be landed; the relationship will not always be healed. We live in a world of wind and waves, and our boats do not always get where we want them to go. Guaranteeing a good outcome in this world, however, is not the lesson of faith that Jesus is teaching us in the boat. There is more going on today. Jesus is not simply bringing the disciples across the sea; he is bringing us across into a new understanding of himself. “Who then is this,” we ask, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?” The answer, even if they don’t yet see it, is implied in the disciples’ question. Who was it that spoke over the waters and moved as wind over the sea, bringing order out of chaos in the act of creation? This Jesus is more than teacher and healer. This Jesus, this friend of theirs who just moments ago was taking a nap, is none other than God. His command, “Be still!” is the Lord’s command from Psalm 46, spoken to the raging, rebellious nations, bringing stillness by making wars to cease as peace breaks forth.
  5. God is in the boat with us, even as the storms rage on. Do you not care, Jesus, that we are perishing? Jesus, they will later see, cares so much that we are perishing, cares so much for us, that he is willing to perish for us. The boat in the storm is prelude to the cross in the maelstrom, as Jesus charts a course directly into the storm of sin and death and evil that has long been our undoing. Jesus, to atone for our sin and faithlessness, perishes, dies, for us. As the storm overcomes Christ on Calvary’s cross, the outcome seems very much not in doubt. Death, that most certain of eventualities, has done its work. But as God once spoke to the sea, so now God speaks to death: “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped.” Death is not allowed to claim the victory, not over this Jesus who is also God. Jesus moves us through death, over to the far shore of life abundant and eternal. Forgiven and freed by Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see just how very much he cares for us.
  6. Hearing afresh the good news of this Jesus, the question changes from, “Does Jesus care?” to “Do we?” As those who have been given new life in Christ, do we care for those who are perishing? As those who are in the boat with Jesus, we are called, compelled, to care for our neighbor, wherever and however we find them. We do so by sharing the good news of Christ, of the mercy and grace that can be found only in him. And we witness to Christ by living lives of grace and mercy. We do so by steering into, not away from, the storms of this world; by getting into the boat, so to speak, with those most in need. Today is World Refugee Day, a day to remember that there are more than 26 million refugees throughout the world, about half of whom are children. Every minute, every minute, twenty people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution, or terror. That means that every minute of every day, families not so different from mine or yours are forced into the impossible choice of fleeing their home, escaping one storm by heading into another. In Christ, we are free to show our care for these fellow children of God. At Grace, in partnership with RefugeeOne, we are embarking on a journey to help a family build a new life in Chicago, a life of safety, dignity, and self-reliance. We do so to witness to the God who is present for these people as they journey through the storm; the God who calls us to join in this work for the sake of Christ. May God bless this new journey of ministry.
  7. We live in a world of uncertain outcomes and unbidden storms, but Jesus has claimed mastery over wind and waves, won victory over sin and death. So have faith, friends, for whatever befalls you in this life, the far shore is guaranteed. In Christ, go forth in faith and with good courage to do good work. He is in the boat with us, and he will not forsake you. We’ve come this far, and there’s no need to turn back now. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Sermon: A House United. June 6, 2021

This sermon was preached at Grace Lutheran Church (River Forest, IL) on June 6, 2021, the Second Sunday after Pentecost. The preaching text was Mark 3:20-35. You can view the service and check out the bulletin. The photo was taken by me; apologies to those who aren’t shown because my head is in the way.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. How good it is to be here today! To be together in person, to lift our voices together in praise, after so many months apart, in this home we share at Grace. To be sure, we’re not all the way home yet. Many are still joining us via livestream today, and we rejoice at your presence, for you are very much here with us. We have further yet to go before we’re back to normal, or have arrived at a new normal, as we emerge from this pandemic. We still live with capacity limits and facemasks and assorted alterations to our worship practices. Nevertheless, today feels good. After such a lengthy displacement, things are falling back into place. How good it is to be here today, whether you’re in this room or your living room, singing praises to our God. A mighty fortress, indeed!
  2. We were made for moments such as this, humans living together in community in the presence of God. Genesis, however, reminds us that the human story is all too often the renunciation of God’s intention for us. Adam and Eve, tempted by the serpent, take their fate upon themselves. Rather than trusting in God’s plans and purposes, they seek to determine what is good and evil, what is right and wrong, thinking they know better than God. In so doing, they drive wedges between themselves and God, between themselves and creation, and just plain between themselves. They are sent forth from the garden, displaced by their sin. Their story is our story, for we each have a rebellious old Adam or old Eve alive and at work in us. We make the sinful choice of the garden every day, thinking that we know best for ourselves and those around us. In our sin we dislocate others, drawing boundaries around our spaces and declaring who is clean or unclean. Our world suffers under the weight of racism, which continues to lead many to say who matters and who doesn’t. During this month of Pride, we recognize and confess that for too long we have failed to create spaces in which our LGBTQ siblings are welcomed and valued. We continue to stigmatize mental illness. We have turned on creation itself, doing damage to the planet that may not be repairable. We have, in these and so many other ways, given ourselves over to the power of sin, in thought, word, and deed. We cannot free ourselves. We are in bondage. So bound, we are displaced. From the garden. From God’s presence. From peace with one another, peace with this world, peace with ourselves.
  3. We have turned from God, but God in Christ returns to us. But we are so trapped in sin, so dislocated, that we do not recognize him at first. The scribes, consummate insiders, give voice to our doubts about this teacher who has thus far cast out demons, cured maladies, claimed authority over the sabbath, and called a cast of outcasts to be his inner circle. Looking at Jesus, they suggest that the only possible explanation is that he is possessed by a demon, Beelzebul, ruler of demons. His own family thinks he is out of his mind. But it is not Jesus who is possessed by a demon. He, in fact, is the only one who is in his right mind. He is possessed, but it is no demon who holds him in thrall. No, he is in possession of the Holy Spirit, whose possession leads never to bondage but always to freedom. Jesus is in his right mind, and he sees the problem quite clearly. This whole world is possessed by a strong man, the evil one who keeps us bound in sin and evil, dislocated from God’s presence, living together in a house deeply divided.
  4. Jesus journeys into this far country of sin and death to set us free and bring us home. While we have never been a match for the evil one, that strong man is no match for Christ. Today’s reading is early in the story, but we know its end. Jesus will enter all the way into the home evil has made in this world. He will give himself over to the forces of violence and tyranny, hatred and death. But in seeking victory over the Son of God, the forces of evil reach too far and create their own downfall. For the Jesus they, we, crucify, is also the Jesus who will be raised from the dead. In his rising shall the old house come crashing down, inviting us home again, calling us into God’s presence. In Christ alone is there hope for this world. By Christ are the chains of bondage released. In Christ are we dislocated no more.
  5. My Facebook feed has begun to fill up with pictures of people setting out on family vacations. My mind wanders to some of my favorite summer trips from years past, including adventures in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. There’s something incredible about spending a long day paddling and portaging, going as far as your body will take you and then setting up camp for the night. I love sleeping in a tent far from civilization, where you can hear wind and water and the sounds of the woods. Of course, those sounds that make tent camping so delightful also remind you of the precariousness of your position. There is little between you and the world, little to keep you safe from downpours or lightning or the creatures that call such places home. I love sleeping in tents, but there’s also not a much better feeling that crawling into your own bed on the first night home.
  6. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, describes our earthly bodies as tents. They are wonderful, to be sure, but fragile. Perhaps this is why we give in to sin and evil so easily, doing whatever we can to shore up our defenses and batten down our hatches. We usually only make matters worse, for ourselves and for others. Jesus comes to do what we cannot. The promise is hidden in his very name. Jesus, we know, means “the Lord will save.” But as Fred Niedner points out, the Hebrew name, Yeshua, is related to the Hebrew word for saving, which literally means “to make or give a place.” Jesus is the one who saves us by being the Lord who makes a place for us. In plundering the house of the evil one, Jesus has cast down the powers of this world. In his resurrection, he creates a new home for us, raising up our fragile bodies with promises imperishable. Jesus invites us home, and home is wherever Jesus is. Joined to Christ in the waters of baptism, we renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God. Sealed by the Holy Spirit, we find ourselves in our right mind for the first time. Gathered together by the God who always simply wanted to be with us, we find ourselves with siblings abundant. In this new community, all that is needed is faith in Christ, itself a gift of the Spirit. There is no other marker or barrier, and none need be left out anymore.
  7. As we emerge from the pandemic, it is good to be here today. It is also a good time, perhaps, to think about what sort of “here” God is calling us to be. This reading from Mark’s Gospel points us in the right direction. We see here that all are welcome. Not as a banal bromide or a slogan, but because Christ has come to set people free. All people. To cure us of our sinful madness and restore us to God’s presence. There are no other markers in play. Those who are different from us, those who are unclean by the world’s standards, are welcome here. Those who have never known, or who have lost, the love of a parent or spouse, or the joy of having sisters and brothers, are welcome here. Those who battle demons and those who live with mental illness are welcome here. Demons and mental illness, it must be said, are not the same thing. But they are both real, and those who live with them are welcome here. Here, at Grace and in the grace of God, Christ is creating a new family for a new normal. We’re not all the way back yet; we have a ways yet to go. But already we hear the promise: In Christ, your sin is forgiven, and evil is defeated. Healing and hope flow from his cross. We are bound and divided no more. We are home with the One who makes a place for us, who calls us family. The Kingdom’s ours forever. How good it is to be here. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Sermon: How Can These Things Be? May 30, 2021

This sermon was preached at Grace Lutheran Church (River Forest, IL) on May 30, 2021, the Feast of the Holy Trinity. The preaching texts were John 3:1-17 and Isaiah 6:1-8. You can view the bulletin and watch the service in its entirety. The image is a fifteenth-century icon by Andrei Rublev (public domain). Be well, friends. You are loved.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. The hardest questions come in the night. This was certainly the case earlier this week. I thought I’d made it to the end of the day. The boys were asleep. Erika was out for the evening. I had closed my laptop and opened a novel at the kitchen table. The day was done. And then it wasn’t. Greta came down the stairs, plopped a notebook in front of me, and asked a question to strike fear and doubt into a parent’s heart: “How do I do this? “I looked down and saw, to my horror, an algebra problem. With multiple parentheses and variables on both sides of the equation. How do I do this? Greta, your father was much more qualified to answer that question thirty years ago. Fortunately, I had a resource at my disposal that middle-school me did not: the internet. I googled an algebra-help website and typed in the equation. I did not do this so that I could provide Greta with an easy answer. She still had to do the work. But I knew that I could only work the problem backwards, teaching myself as I went and gaining understanding so that I could teach my daughter. Fortunately, I was able to quickly recall the principles of orders of operation and distribution. Looking at the question, I was lost. Looking at the answer, I was able to understand the question. Everything fell into place, although surely it was affirmed that I was better suited to a theological vocation than a mathematical one. Questions are wonderful things, but sometimes we need to start with the answer. This is never truer than when we meditate upon the reality of God, proclaiming that one equals three and three equals one. This is not very good math, but it is very good news, for it is this God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – who is working out our salvation.
  2. This morning, our readings draw out our questions, those things that keep us up in the middle of the night. With Isaiah, we are drawn into the splendor and majesty of the heavenly throne room. In the face of the divine, we wonder how we, sinful persons who live among sinful people, can find grace or purpose. With Paul, we find ourselves trapped in a spirit of fear, sensing that this broken world has left us orphaned, adrift. And with Nicodemus, we go to Jesus by night, seeking answers to our questions. He is drawn to Jesus, having heard of the signs Jesus has worked thus far. Here is a man, this Pharisee knows, who comes from God. Nicodemus, however, goes as one who assumes that he already has a mastery of the subject, and that he can fit some small, new teaching from Jesus into his worldview. Immediately, however, Jesus throws him off balance, leading to more questions. I must be born again, from above? Can one enter the mother’s womb and be born a second time? I must be born of water and Spirit? How, Jesus, can these things be?
  3. The questions Nicodemus asks, the stirrings in his soul, lead him to Jesus. But there, in the nighttime, across from Jesus, Nicodemus’s world is upended. He cannot question his way to truth. His very life, in fact, must come to an end. To need to be born again, from above, in water and Spirit, is to know that this life must be brought to a close. This life, with its sin and suffering always close at hand, must be ended. This life, bounded by death, must pass so that new life might rush in. This is not the sort of thing Nicodemus was looking for. He’s the expert, after all, not part of the problem. Isn’t he? The preacher Brett Younger paints a delightful, if somewhat too close to home, portrait of Nicodemus in modern terms: He is “chair of the religion department and a mover and shaker in the ministerial association. He has a blog called ‘Religion for Grown-ups.’ Being a professional expert on God is good work if you can get it. Nicodemus is adept at articulating the intricacies of religion and detecting the logical shortcomings in other people’s faith.” The problem for Nicodemus, however, is the problem we all share. Knowing about God is not the same thing as knowing God and being known by God. Having turned from God, we cannot return on our own. Having turned aside, we no longer know where to look.
  4. At the end of our questions is an answer unlooked for: Jesus of Nazareth who is the Son of God. The incarnate Christ comes into this world that deserves condemnation, but he does not come to condemn it. Rather, for the sake of God’s love for this world, Jesus proclaims that he will one day be lifted up on the cross. That in him, the crucified One, we will find life, eternal and abundant. That all we need to do, when our questions have run out, is believe in him. And that even this is the gift of the Spirit, which moves and blows where it will. With Nicodemus, all we need to do is give up our need for control and understanding and receive new life, new birth, as a gift. Starting with the answer, Jesus Christ, our questions fall into place, as we seek to grow deeper in love and knowledge of the One who knows and loves us.
  5. Not long ago, little Huxley was born into this world, a gift to his family. Today, he is brought to the waters of grace. We will see, later this morning, the Spirit moving through this place, claiming Huxley as a child of God. This happens not because Huxley has found answers to life’s questions or come to a logical understanding of the mysteries of God or mastered the Holy Scriptures and the creeds and the Lutheran Confessions. Huxley may, of course, do all these things someday, but they are beyond the current reach of this little one. But he is not beyond the reach of God, and in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God claims Huxley as God’s own, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  6. As the baptized people of God, we meditate today upon the mysteries of the Holy Trinity, this God who is three-in-one and one-in-three. There is no math problem in the world to make sense of this, and our theology, done well and faithfully as we seek to better know our God, must finally yield to mystery and praise. Our minds were not made for such comprehension. Our hearts, however, were made to know that we are loved, to know that we are known. Drawn into the divine community of love by our brother Jesus, we begin to feel God’s Spirit moving in, through, around us, connecting us to the love of the Father. We are orphans no more. We are home, forgiven and free. Standing in the throne room of God, whose glory fills creation, we need not be afraid. For this God is Abba, Father, the loving parent who has done everything needful for our sake; the God in whose love Christ was lifted up for our salvation. In the cross we see the fullness of God’s love on display; there, for you. At the end of our questions, in the face of death, here is this answer that gives new life. His name is Jesus. Here, in the rising of God’s Son, in the outpouring of the Spirit, do we see night finally pass, giving way to the endless light of the Kingdom of God as we await the day when we will gather around the throne, singing “Holy, holy, holy,” to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Sermon: Lit. May 23, 2021

This is the sermon I preached on May 23, the Day of Pentecost, for Bach Cantata Vespers at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL. The texts for the day were Acts 2:1-13 and John 14:23-31. You can view the bulletin and view the service.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace this day in the name of God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. On a warm summer Saturday fifteen years ago, Erika and I met each other at the head of the aisle at First English Lutheran Church in Appleton, WI, to be joined together in the holy estate of marriage. The day was warm, but the preaching was warmer; Uncle Johan brought his A game. Hotter yet was the music in worship. The dance party that followed? Absolutely scorching. I mean, Erika’s cousin tore his ACL on the dance floor. The party was, as the kids would say, lit. Shortly thereafter, we moved from my bachelor’s apartment into the church’s parsonage, excited for the future but gradually realizing that we had no idea what we had gotten ourselves into. Life together was so new. It’s been a grand adventure so far; three children, two cross-country moves, and one hectic but fulfilling family life that bestows grace upon grace, from the breakfast table to the t-ball field to our nightly prayers. We never could have guessed what would be the contents of the new life with which we were gifted that day, and goodness knows what’s coming next – what joys or sorrows we’ll encounter – but I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.
  1. It is perhaps not surprising that, when Bach was preparing a new cantata for Pentecost, he chose to parody an earlier wedding cantata; if, in fact, the wedding cantata came first. If not, it’s equally unsurprising that he would parody a Pentecost cantata upon the occasion of a wedding. The opening chorus works for both: O fire eternal, O wellspring of love / Enkindle our hearts and consecrate them. This could be the prayer of the disciples in Jerusalem on Pentecost, or the cry of the church today, as much as it could be the shared prayer of two beloved souls, alone together in the midst of the congregation, preparing to have their two hearts, lives, joined as one. We wish, O most high, to be your temple / Ah, let our souls in faith be pleasing to you. Warmth, fire, home, new life – the themes and imagery are present from either perspective. And like a newly married couple, the earliest church could not have known what they were in for. We, too, live out this journey of faith as, well, exactly that: Faith. Following Christ by the power of the Spirit through difficulties unimagined but always into joy beyond measure. New life in Christ; new life through the Spirit, new life together that is always new.
  2. Our reading today from Acts is the same as it was this morning, except we hear less of it, just as less would have been heard in Bach’s day on this day. Again, we hear the rushing wind and see the tongues of flame. The Holy Spirit opens tongues to speak and ears to hear. The roll call of those present, from the Parthians to the Arabs, is pronounced, announcing the sweep of God’s new Kingdom. And we hear the sneer: “They are filled with new wine.” This afternoon, that’s where our reading ends, leaving us without Peter’s defense of their sobriety. Hearing the Pentecost story only in part, ending with the comment about new wine, recalls an earlier moment in Luke’s narrative. This is not, after all, the first time that he has included a reference to new wine. All the way back in chapter five of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims the newness of God’s activity, reminding the people that new wine cannot be put into old wineskins. It would burst the skins, ruining both wine and wineskin. No, new wine must be put into new wineskins. While Peter and the disciples are not drunk at nine in the morning, they are filled with the wine of new life. They are the community of forgiven sinners connected to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They have been made new, able now to receive the gift of the Spirit that tethers them to Christ. The people gathered that day in Jerusalem for Pentecost were there to celebrate the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. But the new gift of the gospel cannot be contained in the old vessel of law. God has a new home in mind. God, in Christ, by the Spirit, is coming to make God’s home with us.
  3. If we keep God’s word, Jesus tells us, his Father will love us and will come to us and make God’s home with us. In this love song between lover and beloved, between Christ and church, a new home is created with room enough for us all. We are the resurrected vessels, the new wineskins, in which God chooses to abide. As will be sung by Susan in the cantata’s central aria, Happy are you, you chosen souls / Whom God has destined for his dwelling. We dare not overlook the beautiful mystery of what God accomplishes on Pentecost. God, who through our sin was once far off, was incarnate as the living Word who is Jesus of Nazareth. This Jesus, crucified for our salvation, has been raised and is now seated at the right hand of God. But he is not gone! The new life poured out upon us not a second gospel; it is our connection to the first. The work of the Spirit is ever and always the work of the Christ who continues to comfort us, teach us, and give us peace. New Testament scholar Craig Koester writes, “The Spirit did not bring new revelation on the same order as Jesus had already given but manifested Jesus’ presence and disclosed the significance of his words and actions to people living on earth after his ministry on earth had ended.” Life in the Spirit, therefore, is always new and unexpected, but always grounded upon the same promises, ancient and dependable, spoken to us by Christ.
  4. This promise is one we need as much as ever. Jesus, here in John’s Gospel, speaks peace because he knows we need it, have so little of it. We have watched with a mixture of horror and helplessness as violence has rocked the Holy Land in recent weeks. We know that the cease fire is fragile. We have long prayed and worked for peace in this and in other parts of the world, only to see violence erupt again. The librettist of today’s cantata included a prayer for peace in Israel that becomes our prayer for the people of Israel and Palestine today. This short little prayer is drawn from Psalm 128, in which the psalmist prays for Israel not as a prayer of national pride or strength; it is a prayer for a lasting peace, a peace that will allow for one, as the psalmist sings, to “see your children’s children.” Is this not the prayer at the heart of any new family? Is this not the heart’s cry of the people of the Holy Land, wanting to know that their children will live, and that they will live to have children of their own? In Christ, we are inheritors of the peace long promised, the peace that enables us to live without troubled hearts amid this troubled world. Given the peace of the Spirit, we are free to become peacemakers, working for true and lasting peace for all people, as distant a goal as that may seem. This is the work to which we are called, new and surprising work grounded in the Word of God who was present at creation and cross, the Word who dwells in and among you now. Where will this work lead us? Who can say? But the Spirit calls; freed in Christ, we follow.
  5. The very fact that we are here today bears witness to what happens when the people of God, forgiven and freed by Christ, are caught up in the Spirit. 50 years ago, Paul Bouman and Carl Schalk brought this new ministry of the Spirit to life, a ministry of making music to God’s glory, music from another time pointing back even further in time to Jesus, made fresh and new for us by the Spirit’s power today. To be in this room on a cantata afternoon is to know the presence of the Holy Spirit, moving and blowing through this music. I don’t know that Paul and Carl, or Vickie and Noël for that matter, knew what would come of this vision. I do know that we are grateful to them, and to all who have faithfully stewarded this ministry through the years. Thanks be to God for these moments of peace and joy, of grace and unrivaled beauty, in the midst of this broken world. Foretastes of the feast to come, truly, proclaiming the mystery that God has made a home with us, right here at Grace and wherever else we happen to find ourselves, until we are brought home to God.
  6. You, friends, are the temple of the Most High God, forgiven of your sin and born to new life, eternal and abundant. Christ is with you. The Spirit falls upon you. Today, let us rejoice in that gift. We don’t know what the next steps in our journey will bring, what joys and sorrows we will navigate. But Christ has joined himself to us. He will not fail us or forsake us. Enkindle our hearts, O Lord. Set our lives aflame with your gospel. And loosen our tongues to sing the ancient and always new song of praise. On earth today even as we will one day gather at the marriage feast of the Lamb, to sing praise to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, forever and ever and ever. Amen.

And now may the peace that passes all human understanding keep you hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Sermon: Joy in the World. May 16, 2021

This is the sermon I preached at Grace Lutheran Church on Sunday, May 16, the Seventh Sunday of Easter. The preaching texts were John 17:6-19 and Psalm 1. You can view both the service and the bulletin. The image is Tornado, by Thomas Cole (1835, public domain).

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace this day in the name of God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

  1. We learned at a young age to listen for the sirens, particularly at this time of year. Northeast Wisconsin is not exactly tornado alley, but we would have our share of close calls each summer. While my brother and I might chance a quick glance out the front door (or a longer look from the driveway once we were older), we would quickly make our way to the basement with our mother. We’d turn on the battery-powered radio and scan the AM dial for news, making sure we had flashlights and candles at the ready in case the power went out. Which it did, from time to time. We’d sit on the couch, the minutes passing slowly, wondering what was going on in the world up above our heads. My memories are faded, but I recall my mother’s strong, comforting presence. Holding me. Reassuring me that everything would be okay, that she would protect us. As a parent, I’ve learned something about words spoken in such moments. The promises spoken to our children are also prayers lifted to our heavenly Father, for we know that while we would do anything in our power to protect the ones we love, we also know that some things are simply beyond our power to control. Mom couldn’t have stopped a tornado, although I’m sure she would have tried. But she made me feel safe, loved, protected, even while this world’s winds whipped about us.
  2. We live in a dangerous world, and not simply because of storm systems. This world is in open rebellion against its Creator. Jesus, the Word through whom the world came into being, is clear-eyed in his assessment of this world, by which he means not the rocks and rivers but our cosmic turn to idolatry and sin, our thralldom to the evil one. So, on the night before he submits fully and finally to this world’s destructive violence on the cross, Jesus prays for those who will be commissioned to fulfill his purposes after his resurrection and ascension. “And now,” he says, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Protect them in your name.
  3. Note that Jesus does not say, “As I am coming to you, Father, please bring them with me, that they might leave this world behind.” Perhaps we wish Jesus would offer such a prayer, would make such a thing come to pass. Goodness knows we would all like to escape. This pandemic, even while it loosens its grip, has held us in its grasp for so long. We have sought to protect ourselves and our communities through uncertain times with ever-changing guidance. Beyond sickness, there is violence. In what seems like an endless cycle, the people of the Holy Land seek protection while inflicting violence upon one another in the midst of a conflagration that threatens to engulf the innocent who cry out for peace and protection. Beyond violence, there is division. We find ourselves living not just in this world with one another, but in different worlds from one another, as people become ever more ready to embrace their preferred vision of the world, regardless of its connection to reality. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously quipped, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Our current political reality seems dedicated to upending this observation, with many preferring to create facts out of thin air, all evidence to the contrary. Sickness, violence, division. Frankly, it can all be exhausting, and who can blame us for wanting an escape hatch to a different, better world. But there’s one more piece of the puzzle that needs to be acknowledged, for the problems in this world are not simply out there; they are in here. In me, and in you. In the sin that continues to draw us further from God and further from one another. In the ways we perpetuate or benefit from this world’s rebellion. In the ways we drive deeper the wedges that separate humanity and sow the discord in which the evil one does his best work. Even if we were to escape, would we not bring the same problems with us?
  4. Our hope is found only in this One who prays for us on Thursday and dies for us on Friday. We are joined to his death, undertaken willingly for our sake and salvation, that we might also be joined to his life. Where once we were severed branches, now we have been grafted onto the vine who is the risen Christ. We are given a unity we could never achieve among ourselves, gifted to us by the Christ who makes us one despite ourselves. We find ourselves planted like trees whose roots reach deeply into the flowing waters of eternal life. These roots not only feed us; they connect us to this world, keeping us here because it is precisely in this world that Christ needs us.
  5. Perched in the mountains above the evil land of Mordor, Frodo turns to his friend Sam and says, “I don’t like anything here at all.” Everything around them is accursed, blighted. Sam, in this scene from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, replies, “And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started.” He goes on to muse about how the heroes in old tales must have had many chances to turn aside, but they didn’t. The friends take comfort in the old stories, and even more in their friendship. Fate has led them to a difficult, dangerous spot. But they are not alone. The witness of those who came before them keeps them on their path. Their presence with and for one another keeps them safe. They know they could choose to turn aside, to escape, but in the knowledge that they have been chosen to bring light and life back to a broken land, the choice is already made. These hobbit heroes know that the only path to a better world goes directly through the broken world in which they live.
  6. So, too, are we sent, not out of but into this world. For even though the world has turned its back on God, Jesus does not turn his back on this world that God so loves. He gives his life within this broken world to bring a new creation into being, a world for which we wait but that is also made manifest in our midst. Jesus speaks of those who follow him as those who keep his word. Jesus’ Word, his logos, is nothing other than Jesus himself. We are made safe, protected, by keeping the One who is already keeping us safe. This does not mean, of course, that we will be kept from all harm in this world, but it does mean that nothing in this world can ever truly harm us. We, after all, already live on the other side of death. Of what can we truly be afraid? This morning (at 11:00), Rory will be baptized into Christ. He will not be given a false promise that everything in his life will be easy from here on out, that he will be protected from any and every possible bad thing. By no means. But Christ promises to be with him always, calling this child to live already on the other side of death so that he can also live fully the life set before him now, here, today. Rory is sent this day into the world as a child of God whose identity is secure in the world to come. But Rory doesn’t go alone; he goes with you and with me, his fellow sanctified sisters and brothers in Christ. We go together, forgiven of the sin within us and strengthened to resist the sin around us.
  7. Protected, held safe in the arms of God, we find rest and renewal. As Tom Troeger writes, we discover “a sense of Christ’s presence that will allow us to live vitally and faithfully in the world, not owned by it, but fully engaged with its needs and wounds and energized by the truth of God’s word, by the truth who was sent into the world that we all might have a more abundant life here and now.” Friends, we may yearn for escape from this world, but there is no way out for us yet. This is where God needs us. But if we cannot yet leave this world, neither can we escape the God who is with us, the God who, for the sake of the crucified and risen Christ, forgives us and gives us life, who promises that not one of us shall be lost and who brings us into his joy even now. We are forever held safe in the arms of the God who will never let us go. Amen.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

And now may the peace that passes all human understanding keep you hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.