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Sermon: One Needful Thing. July 17, 2022

This is the sermon I preached on July 17, the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL. You can view the service in its entirety and the bulletin, too. The image is Cosmic Cliffs as revealed the the James Webb Space Telescope (NASA, ESA, CSA, STScl).

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. Some years ago, in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, Tom Friedman wrote of a ride he took in a taxi in Paris. Over the course of the hour-long trip, Friedman made note of he and the driver doing six things. Friedman, as the passenger, sat, worked on his laptop, and listened to his iPod. The driver drove, talked on his cell phone, and watched a video. This last action of the driver must have created some anxiety for the passenger! “There was only one thing we never did,” Friedman wrote: “talk to each other.” He went on to quote Linda Stone, who has written that the disease of the Internet age is “continuous partial attention.” I confess that I find that phrase convicting. How often am I thinking about too many things at once, without ever truly turning my attention in one direction or the other? How often do I allow myself to be pulled, physically and emotionally, in manifold directions at once? The many gizmos at our disposal certainly contribute to our distraction. But I don’t think we can blame our gadgets. The commentator James Wallace muses that continuous partial attention is perhaps “not only the disease of the Internet age; perhaps it has always been with us, and just the causes of our inattention have altered.”
  2. Following last Sunday’s Parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke turns his attention to matters more domestic. While we know Mary and Martha from John’s Gospel, it is Luke alone who records this story. It’s a scene many of us know well. Martha welcomes Jesus into her home and sets about the many tasks which hospitality demands of her. Mary, however, just sits down at Jesus’ feet and listens, without another care in the world, it seems. Martha, with an exasperation clearly conveyed in the text, asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her. But Jesus does not. “Martha, Martha,” he gently chides, “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” The story itself is straightforward, but we’ve added a lot to it over the years. Mostly we’ve added our own interpretive layers to Martha’s activities and words. We imagine her as a nag, or a busybody, or an overachiever, or the perfect straw woman for a Lutheran polemic against the dangers of works righteousness. She may, I suppose, be any or all these things. But neither Luke nor Jesus level such accusations. We simply hear once that she is worried and twice that she is distracted.
  3. It’s worth noting that Martha is not rebuked for tending to her many tasks, even if they ultimately pale when compared to sitting at the feet of Jesus. Hospitality, as we well know, may be a fair amount of work, but it is also a gift. An act of joy. To welcome someone into your home or church, to prepare a meal and grant respite, is a sign of grace. Early in the story of God and God’s chosen people, we see Abraham and Sarah roll out the welcome wagon at the oaks of Mamre in response to a triune theophany. We are enjoined in the Epistle to the Hebrews to show hospitality to strangers, for we may be entertaining angels unawares. Just yesterday, the people of this congregation did one of the things you do best. You showed hospitality to the grieving by preparing a meal to share after Don’s memorial service. Let us not pretend that Martha’s problem is her desire to be hospitable. Her problem is her distractedness. The original Greek makes this clearer, as Mark Bangert points out: “In verse 40 the Greek word for ‘distracted’ literally means to be dragged away from a reference point.” Martha is being bombarded with too much to do; no wonder she yearns for Mary’s help. It is distraction, not doing, that undoes Martha.
  4. Jesus, as Martha’s sister has already realized, has come to cut through our distractions, to defend us from all that would assail us – including our distraction-induced anxiety. Mary has caught a glimpse of what Martha is only just beginning to realize: Jesus is not simply a guest to welcome, no matter how honored. Jesus, wherever he goes, no matter whose house he’s in, is now the host. Invited in by Martha, he now invites Mary and Martha to sit and learn. To be still. Not because stillness is always better than action, but because to be in Jesus’ presence is to receive the welcome for which we have always yearned. And with the welcome, rest. Once you recognize Jesus for who he is, how can you not stop in his presence?
  5. This week, people around the world have seen the creation around us more clearly than ever before, thanks to images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. From cosmic cliffs to dying stars to Jupiter like we’ve never seen it, we are seeing the cosmos is its awe-inspiring beauty and perspective-shifting vastness like never before. Who wouldn’t stop what they’re doing, at least for a few minutes, to gaze in wonder at the wonders of the universe around us? Such images stop us in our tracks.
  6. This is what happens to Mary and what could happen to Martha. For into their living room has walked not just another guest but the very fullness of God. Right there in front of them, plain as day, sits the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation,” the One through whom and for whom everything was created. Mary and Martha, galaxies and nebulae, even you and me. He was before us all, and in him – God made visible – is everything held together. He holds us even as he holds the stars in their courses. In grace has he appeared to us, revealing God to us. It was clear to Mary that day and would be clearer still in the most detailed image of love ever seen: Christ on his cross, God dying that we and this whole dying universe would live. Jesus cuts through all that distracts; pulls us back from all that would drag us from God; that in him we might focus. In our doing and in our being; in our worship and in our service. In all things, that we might live our lives focused on Christ.
  7. It is no mistake that this episode follows immediately on the heels of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells a story to rebuke the religious for failing to serve, only to commend Mary’s faithfulness while inviting Martha to stop serving for a moment. Worship and service are not opposed to one another; they are different ways of loving God and neighbor. As the preacher Fred Craddock writes, “If we were to ask Jesus which example applies to us, the Samaritan or Mary, his answer would probably be Yes.” Indeed. The distinction, finally, is not between serving or sitting; it is between Jesus and not-Jesus. He has come to us, inviting us to sit at his feet and listen, calling us to see him in our neighbor’s needs. Distraction casts aside, focused on Christ, we are free to do both.
  8. Today, with Mary (and Martha, too, I think) we sit at Jesus’ feet and behold the Word made flesh, the same Word through whom the cosmos came into being. But not only do we see Christ; he sees us. Returns our gaze. Looks on the best of us with love. Sees us for who we are and loves us anyway. You have Jesus’ undivided attention. In the midst of this vast universe, Jesus comes to you today. Sets a table for you. A little flour, a little wine, the feast of the new creation. Set your distractions aside and spend some time at the feet of Jesus, for he is the One we truly need. Grace upon grace, he meets our need and gives himself to us. Amen.

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

A Memorial Service Sermon for Don Heimburger: July 16, 2022

This sermon was preached at the memorial service for Don Heimburger, July 16, 2022, at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL. You can view the here and the bulletin here.

Marilyn, Amy, Alison; family and friends; sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace this morning in the name of God the Father and our Lord and our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Just a few weeks ago, I found myself in a train station in central Europe. Along with ten other members of Grace, I was looking to board a train at the Bratislava main station. Despite having travelled a fair amount, I always get a bit nervous in these situations. Am I on the right platform? Is that train going to right direction? Do I have the right ticket? I couldn’t help thinking, “I sure do wish Don Heimburger were here!” Travel? Europe? Trains? Who better to have in that situation than Don? Not only would he know what to do; he would have such deep joy in the moment, smiling at the thought of the adventure about to unfold (and probably already thinking about how to write it up). In a situation in which I might feel slightly lost, Don would no doubt make me feel right at home, just like he did every time I walked through those doors and spotted him in his Sunday best, with an usher’s carnation and a warm smile. I imagine it’s not the last time I’ll wish Don were here. I’ll miss his presence at Oktoberfest. I already miss him each Sunday when I note his absence. Others miss him more deeply, of course. A wife and family who still yearn for Don’s presence; not because you don’t trust the promises of God, but because it is hard to say goodbye to such a man. Because after retiring, you imagined a different future. Because 75 years, however good, are not quite enough. As we gather this morning in our grief, it’s worth acknowledging that we wish things were otherwise.
  2. Today’s gospel reading speaks of the deep, abiding peace which Jesus gifts to us through the Holy Spirit. This section, however, begins in doubt and with anticipated grief. Jesus, on the night before his death, has washed his disciples’ feet and fed them a last supper. He speaks now of going away the next day, a trip taken too soon and to goodness knows where. Anticipating the doubts that Thomas shares on behalf of the others, Jesus proclaims: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” He goes on to paint a picture a heaven, imagining for them the hugeness of his Father’s house, a mansion with many rooms. With room enough for all. Thomas, like a lost boy in a busy station, expresses his fears: Jesus, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we possibly follow you? Jesus speaks words to create our faith, words to which our faith can cling: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Thomas and the others do not yet know what we know, that Jesus’ departure into death the next day would be a short journey, just three days until his return. And that when he would depart again, forty days later, he would do so as the One who has defeated death forever. That from his Spirit would come peace and power the likes of which the world has never seen.
  3. It was his trust in this power and peace that saw Don through his illness. Cancer did not take it easy on Don. Marilyn, you did such a fine job caring for your husband, leaning deep into the love you shared through 49 years of marriage, which he always made a point of mentioning to me. Through it all, it was the power and peace of God, filling your home on Lathrop, that carried you both. The life of faith is not a life of ease. There are times when we are called, forced, to walk through raging rivers and burning fires. God does not say that we will not have to make such journeys in life. Instead, God promises to walk with us; God promises that we shall be overwhelmed or consumed, for the Holy One of Israel is with us. The words of the prophet echo across the centuries: “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” His illness took Don from us too soon, but it has not taken him out of God’s hands. The victory of life over death is sure and certain. Don’s infirmities are gone, but Don lives now in Christ.
  4. Don had a childlike faith in the promises of our God at work in Christ. Not a faith that was unintelligent or uniformed. Just faith like a child, trusting that when Jesus says he is the way, the truth, and the life, well, that was good enough for Don. Perhaps that’s why Don always got on so well with children and took the time to get to know them here at Grace. On that Saturday morning after his death, I told my children what had happened. They exclaimed, “Not the train man!” Anders, our ten-year old, has been working his way through Don’s recent book on North American cabooses; just a small example how Don’s legacy lives on. With his childlike wonder, Don could embrace the promises for himself, picturing himself in one of the Father’s many rooms. In fact, Don liked to tell people that once he found his room in that house, he’d be working on a model railway layout. That he’d have it done by the time we got there. Don working with, playing with, model trains in his heavenly Father’s house; that’s about as good an image of heaven as I can think of.
  5. As for us? In our grief and in our holy tears, may our hearts not be troubled. Don knew enough to entrust himself into the mercy of God. May we turn to God in hope. Our travels are not complete. We do not always know where we are going. But because the destination is guaranteed, there is nothing to fear. There is always joy to be found in journey. Don loved to quote the American poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay:

My heart is warm with the friends I make,

And better friends I’ll not be knowing;

Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,

No matter where it’s going.

  1. Yes, there is joy in any journey, wherever the destination. But how much more joy when the destination is known? When the endpoint is home? For the last end is no end at all, but an endless beginning unfolding in the presence of the Father, who loves us; and Christ, the Lamb who was slain for our salvation; and the Holy Spirit whose peace knows no bounds. May we, friends, listen like children to the words of our God, this same God who casts out fears and wipes away tears. May we trust Christ, who has made a way safe through death. May we journey on together until we, too, find ourselves at home with our God, reunited with Don and all the saints in light, in our Father’s house. Amen.

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

Sermon: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? July 10, 2022

This is the sermon I preached at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL, on July 10, the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, the day after returning from our mission trip to Martin, Slovakia. You can view the service here and the bulletin here. The picture is me and Rollo the armadillo in the Bible School in Martin. I’m grateful to God, and to the people of the Center for Christian Education in Martin, for a wonderful experience. It was great to be back together after our pandemic separation.

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. I just flew in from Slovakia, and boy, are my arms tired. Truth be told, I am tired; tired out with the joyful exhaustion of a week well spent with ten other members of Grace’s mission team to Martin. After a two-year hiatus due to COVID, we returned to help lead Vacation Bible School. The week was marked with all the fun of VBS: raucous songs, funny skits, creative art projects, and deep engagement with the scriptures. All accompanied by the renewal of old friendships, beautiful views, and wonderful food. It’s amazing that only thirty years ago, these people were beginning to emerge from the shadows of Soviet communism. What wonders and joy God has wrought; what transformation God has brought! Sadly, everything old is new again. Russia creeps westward, not only with ideology but with the guns of war. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, an estimated twelve million people have been displaced. Of those, five million have sought refuge in foreign countries. Nearly 1,000 of those have made their way to Martin, mostly women and children seeking safety while their husbands and fathers remain at home. So it was that our Vacation Bible School was trilingual, with almost twenty children from Ukraine joining our ranks. We were blessed with their presence as we claimed together the hope of a God who is greater than suffering and evil, all evidence sometimes to the contrary.
  2. A few days ago, a Slovak friend related a conversation he’d recently had with a Ukrainian woman who is helping the Center for Christian Education with relief efforts. He had mentioned to her in passing that he hadn’t before seen the dress she was wearing. She replied that it had recently arrived in the mail along with much of the other clothing she had left behind. Their house, you see, had just been bombed. Her husband figured there was no point in hanging on to things at home any longer and shipped off what he could to his wife in Martin. This story, these lives, are just one example of the pain inflicted when human neighborliness goes wrong; when we turn on one other, hurt and abuse one another, impose our will on one another. When love is forgotten, replaced by violence, hate, and war.
  3. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Well, you know the Law, Jesus says. Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. It’s all so simple, isn’t it? Except for what follows: But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, and who is my neighbor? We just can’t get out of our own way, can we? God creates this beautiful world in which we are meant to live in community with God and one another. In which we are meant to love. And like the lawyer, the first thing we seek to do is justify ourselves, which is to say we want to be the arbiters and adjudicators of the law, seeking to limit its claim on our lives and increase our authority. Surely, we say, not everyone is my neighbor. Surely, I don’t really have to love everyone as myself. As we twist inward in sin, we love God less and less and love our neighbors hardly at all. We create a world in which nation invades neighbor nation. A nation in which we begin to fear neighbors as potential threats, scanning neighborhood events for escape routes if needed. From far-off Russia to nearby Highland Park to the darkness that lurks in our own hearts, turning us from one another, we see that true neighborliness is hard to find.
  4. Who is my neighbor? Jesus tells a parable: A man was on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was set upon, beaten, robbed, and left for dead. First a priest and then a Levite approach him, but they both pass him by. These religious hypocrites are too caught up in their imagined importance to God to actually do what God desires of them. As a quick aside, traditional interpretations of this parable often make particular note of the Jewishness of these two. These two are Jews who are self-righteous, but this does not mean that all Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day were self-righteous, nor that such attitudes are endemic to Judaism but absent in other religions. Let’s not pretend that people of any and all religions can’t be self-righteous jerks. Here ends today’s reminder to avoid casual antisemitism.
  5. Back to our story. These two self-righteous dudes walk right on by their fellow human being, lying half-dead in a ditch. But a Samaritan – an outsider, an outcast, one of those people – comes by. And he has pity. Drops everything he was doing, gives him first aid, a lift, and a room at the inn. All on his own time and his own dime. Drops everything he was doing to show love to this man. Which one of these was a neighbor, Jesus asks? The answer is as obvious as it is surprising: the Samaritan. Go, Jesus says, and do likewise. Go, and love.
  6. Here, I think, is about as far as we usually allow ourselves to go. Just so, here is where we are tempted to get the parable of the Good Samaritan wrong. A man is dying by the side of the road. Two men pass by. One doesn’t. This one is neighborly; go and do likewise. The temptation is to imagine that Jesus wants us to figure out which of the three we are to emulate and then do it. Sure, but that can only come later, because if we are honest with ourselves, the person with whom we most identify in the parable is the guy in the ditch. We are broken, bruised, beaten half-dead by the powers of this world and the sin we have unleashed. We are also, of course, the robbers who do the beating and the self-righteous who walk on by. Sure, we should be the Samaritan, but Jesus’ parable is first a conviction and a diagnosis. We are the ones who have sinned, in things done and left undone. We are the ones who are dying in a world wracked with war and violence. We are the ones who need pity. And who should come walking down the road but Jesus, this outsider who hangs out with outcasts, who drops everything, the very joys of heaven; to stoop low to us, to bandage our wounds, and deliver us safely home. This is the very nature of the gospel, that gospel that Paul writes has come to you. Not because we have justified ourselves, but because in our sin and in our suffering, God chooses mercy, grace, and love. Because in the incarnation of the Son, God chooses to be our neighbor.
  7. And that’s just the beginning! The love of Jesus is so great that he takes our place in the ditch, allows himself to be robbed, beaten, stripped, and put to death. No room for him in the inn; never has been. Just a slab in a cold, new tomb. But God refuses to let that be the end of the story; indeed, for this purpose Jesus was born into our world. To die. And to live, that we might find our life not in ourselves, but in him. If our life is in him, we already live on the other side of death. Safe passage on the road to life, abundant and eternal, is guaranteed. In him, in him alone, do we find the power and the peace to live the life of the Samaritan. Once we come to see that we have received everything from Christ as a gift freely given, then are we finally free to freely give. Alive in Christ, we can finally turn from hate to love. From self to others. We can finally be neighbors, knit together in the beloved community of God.
  8. This does not mean we will not face difficulty; far from it. This world will remain a broken place until the day of Jesus Christ. But we are made, Paul writes, “strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power,” and “prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father.” On my last day in Martin, I visited the community center where Ukrainians can come for food and household products, or help filling out paperwork, or a bit of free childcare, or a hot cup of coffee, or a friendly face. Or all of the above. I went before they opened, not wanting to be a tourist gazing upon the needs of others. After a nice visit with the staff, I made my way out. Two people were there early, waiting for the center to open. A mother and her young son. And I couldn’t help but think that, but for a few different circumstances, I could be looking at Erika and Torsten. Seeing our fellow human beings as family, we can see ourselves as neighbors. As neighbors, we can do something.
  9. Bohdan, the director of the CCE, shared with me that he has learned not to ask people from Ukraine how they’re doing (How are you?), as that question could force someone to engage with trauma when they’re not ready to do so. Instead, he asks, “How can I help you? “I keep thinking about that. While asking how someone is doing can be a perfectly good thing to do, it’s also a question that does not demand anything of the asker. How are you today? Not great, lying half-dead in a ditch. Okay, have a nice day! Jesus doesn’t simply ask us how we’re doing; he gives us the help he knows we need. Binds our wounds. Patches us up and brings us home. Pays the price for us out of his own pocket. Brings us from death to life. In him, we are doing well. May we, in him and for our neighbor, also do good. May we ask what our neighbor needs and let their answers be holy claims upon our living. Amen.

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

God Is Surprising. VBS Day 5

Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals. Psalm 66:5

And just like that, it’s over. I’m at a hotel next to the Vienna airport, ready to go home. And I am ready to go home. Tomorrow, I’ll go from the airport to Anders’s ballgame to home to write a sermon for Sunday. All good.

But bittersweet. There’s a Martin-shaped space in my heart.

This week has been incredibly good. I know I write a lot about the music, but oh my, it really is a rush to lead these kids in songs of worship.

A joy to see the finished Joseph portrait (yesterday was the “not quite” version; see below).

A blessing to see the two community centers where the nearly 1,000 refugees from Ukraine can go to get food and clothing, childcare and help with paperwork. To get a bit of hope.

An amazement to have the youngest child at VBS, a pigtailed refugee all of five years old, hug and high five me after the closing.

A wonder to watch kids exuberantly navigate today’s obstacle course (aka “Slovak Ninja Warrior”) in games.

A comfort to share these moments with old Slovak friends, to watch their children grow into young adults who will transform this world by the Spirit’s power.

A gift to share this all with members of Grace, to hear their rushes, joys, blessings, amazements, wonders, and comforts.

Today we learned that God is surprising. And you know, even knowing how good this week would be, I’m surprised by just how good our God is. Monumentally good.

As Joseph knew, God intends it all for good. Always for good.

American friends, see y’all tomorrow. Slovak friends, see y’all soon.

Shining in the darkness, I will follow you.

God Is Stronger Than Anything. VBS Day 4

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39

How did it get to be Day 4 already? The songs are all taught. The crafts are almost finished. Our journey through Joseph’s story almost complete. Nostalgia was even setting in a bit already; these young ones can sense the end of this special time together. Hugs come more freely, as do other means of communication that do not require a shared language: piggyback rides, playing with a soccer ball, hide-and-seek, the electric slide.

More than anything, today was shot through with joy. Kids took to the stage to lead “My Lighthouse” with out so much as a by-your-leave from me. I was nearly out of a job! And what a joy to see.

Whence did this joy come? From our detour into the New Testament. Today we followed the women to the empty tomb. We heard the amazing words of the angel of the Lord. We even (perhaps extra-biblically) shot off butterfly-shaped confetti. He’s alive!

Jesus is alive. Christ is risen. Alleluia! What else is there to say?

Tonight, not much. It’s my last night in Martin. VBS ends tomorrow, and I’m scooting out of here a bit early so that I can lead worship on Sunday. Tomorrow night I’ll be in Vienna; I’ll try to write more then. I’m going to go enjoy the night air, which in Martin is a bit different than just about anywhere else in the world. I don’t know. Maybe the air is the same; perhaps it’s the holiness of the ground that sets this place apart.

I’ll leave you with words from our friends at the CCE: “Slowly but surely we are approaching the end of our camp, which is evidenced by today’s group photo shoot. But what does not end is our story together with God, which is stronger than anything.

The featured image is the collaborative portrait of Joseph in paint and fabric. The lower picture is an historically accurate (probably) dramatization of the joy of the women at the empty tomb.