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Not Grow Weary

So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. Galatians 6:9

We worshipped this morning at the Lutheran church in Martin. Before we could make it into the building, we were warmly met and greeted by old friends, most of whom we haven’t seen since 2019. It was a joyful service celebrating the end of the school year. The kids were reminded that just as a strawberry plant needs soil and light, so do they need the nourishment of the gospel. In the “big people” sermon, we were admonished to take in the proper sort of nutrition; after all, what good is it to be fruit that looks good if we’re not filled with the “vitamins” Christ gives us. So filled, we are sent to nourish the world. Holy Communion took on an added shade of meaning; the body and blood of our Lord are packed with all we need to live a vital life. And we were even called up front to help the children of the congregation sing “Awesome God,” so that was cool.

After lunch at my favorite restaurant in town, Česká hospoda (which means “Czech pub” – you can’t beat a name that straightforward), we made our way to the Center for Christian Education to prepare for Vacation Bible School. There are tons of Slovak helpers, many of whom are youth and young adults we’ve known for years. They are, of course, thee years older. A lot has happened in the interim; kids we remember as young are now in high school; high schoolers are now off at university in Bratislava, Košice, and beyond. It is a source of deep joy to build these relationships not only across distance, but across time; to be part of a community that is foreign and far away and yet always feels like home. And as much as I like the mountains and the blueness of the sky, it’s the people who make Martin the amazing place that it is. What a joy to share the monumental love of God with them this week!

My morning devotions took me through Galatians 6, and I was struck by Paul’s call to not grow weary in doing what is right. And oddly, though I’m still a bit tired in body from our travels, my spirit is energized. God must be giving me the vitamins I need! It is a blessing beyond measure to be able to do good work with good people here. Tiring, but never wearisome.

The picture is from worship this morning, during the children’s sermon. You can see the kids leaning in to look at a strawberry plant.

Standby

I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. Psalm 40:1

Greetings from Bratislava! Our mission team, eleven members in all, is ready to make the journey to Martin today via train. We are, it seems, more or less rested and ready to go. I’ve had a harder time than usual adjusting to the time difference. Last night I was still awake at 2:00 in the morning; fortunately, I had the GameChanger app so that I could follow along live to the boys’ baseball games (Anders struck out the side and faced the minimum of four batters across 1.1 innings to lock down the win!). But I did finally fall into a lovely seven-hour sleep, followed by the sort of breakfast buffet that makes me love Europe so much. Also, I’ve already had bryndzové halušky; this concludes the culinary section of the blog.

The journey began with a bit of anxiety. For reasons unknown, Austrian Airlines wouldn’t issue me a seat assignment. My status was given the dreaded label, “standby.” I planted myself at the gate desk two hours before takeoff and waited for an agent to appear. Ninety minutes later (a long line now formed behind me), a gate agent cleared things up and gave me a seat. I ended up in a window seat next to a woman rerouted in an attempt to get to Paris. She looked at me like I had two heads when I told her that I was a Lutheran pastor. She had long since renounced her Roman Catholic upbringing and faith in general. I hope that our conversation and my witness to Jesus as a loving, freedom-giving Savior, leads her to give faith a second look. Who knows? She also mistook me for a fellow Millennial, and I’m still trying to figure out how I should feel about that.

I keep thinking about being on standby. It’s an unsettling feeling that seeks resolution. But perhaps it is not a bad posture for the faithful to assume. We’ll be spending the week ministering to and with 115 children (17 of whom are refugees from the conflict in Ukraine) and our Slovak counterparts. We have a curriculum and the best-laid plans. But if previous trips to Slovakia have taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. All we can do is be on standby, ready to go when God calls, ready to receive when God is ready to give. Whatever happens, this week – like all weeks – is in the Lord’s hands.

May the Lord bless the work of our hands!

Finally, a word of thanks to the people of Grace Lutheran Church and School: Thank you for supporting our mission team with your prayers. Thank you, also, for your generous giving at the close of the fiscal year. The dust is still settling, but it looks like we will end the year with a modest surplus. Well done, and thanks be to God.

Sermon: Fruitful Freedom. June 26, 2022

This is the sermon I preached on June 26, the Third Sunday after Pentecost, at Grace Lutheran Church (River Forest, IL). You can view both the service and the bulletin. The image is used with permission.

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. It is a well-established fact that navigation is not my strong suit. I’ve lived in Oak Park for seven years and I’ll still open up my maps app to help me get around the village. The degree of difficulty only increases when I’m in an unfamiliar place. And in a foreign country? It’s bad enough when I understand the language. Figuring out where I’m going in a different language? Forget about it. I recall becoming almost paralyzed in a navigational meltdown the first time I tried to find my way through the streets of Vienna. Why had the Austrians made things so much more difficult than they needed to be, I wondered? What would possess them to give so many streets the same name? And why wasn’t that the name of the streets on my map? What kind of a street name was “einbahnstrasse,” anyway? For those of you keeping score at home, no, my German is no better than my French. It did eventually dawn on me that einbahnstrasse – as many of you already know – is not a street’s name but it’s type. Einbahnstrasse, German for one-way street. Let’s just say it’s a good thing I was exploring on foot and not behind the wheel of a car. But once I knew the meaning, the way was easy enough to follow.
  2. Today we encounter Jesus on the road, with others struggling to read the signs. Jesus, Luke tells us, has his face set toward Jerusalem. Jerusalem itself is the problem for the first group who misunderstands him, these Samaritans whose religious road led instead to Mount Gerizim. James and John, the aptly named sons of thunder, are no better at understanding Jesus’ direction. They think that a rejection of Jesus is a reason to bring down the wrath of God upon the Samaritans. But vengeance is not part of Jesus’ path. Others think they know where Jesus is going and wish to join him on the way, but Jesus rebukes them. They do not yet understand what it means for him to go to Jerusalem. This is no easy journey; there will be no cushy hotels along the way, not even foxholes or bird nests. Neither is there any time to waste, not even to say farewell to family, living or dead. The time to follow Jesus is now and his course is set. Jesus is going to Jerusalem, and he’s going there to die.
  3. This is not a journey any of us would choose for ourselves. As Mark Bangert points out, “there are dangers involved. There will always be a Samaria to pass through. We have not yet reached Jerusalem; we are still ‘on the way.’ That’s the tension in this text; that’s the tension” Bangert concludes, “of the ‘already, not yet.’” It is only in being joined to the death and resurrection of Christ that we are able to make the journey with Jesus. Joined to Jesus in the waters of baptism, we are always already where we need to be. We will never be lost again. But we are simultaneously not there yet, journeying along paths as yet untrodden, seeking a way forward together. At times it can feel like we are adrift, with nary a place to safely rest.
  4. The decision of the Supreme Court on Friday to overturn Roe v. Wade has left many feeling suddenly unsafe along the road. The matter of abortion is not simply divisive; it is morally and ethically complex. I appreciated the statement from the editors of The Christian Century: “The Century editors see eye to eye on many subjects. The ethics of abortion is not one of them. Some of us see abortion as a moral good; others very much do not. Some of us find it morally troubling but maintain that there are instances in which it is the least bad option. We agree, however,” the editors continue, “about Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision the US Supreme Court overturned today. It was a crucial legal protection that empowered people to make such ethical determinations for themselves – and to act on them without fear of legal sanction. Now that protection is gone.” I certainly have prayerfully held beliefs about abortion; about when it may be the right decision and when it may not be. But as I am unlikely to ever become pregnant, my voice about the choice is not the most important. It is lamentable that the court saw fit to restrict the freedom of so many, to empower states to make choices for people that should belong to women and to their healthcare providers. If you’re feeling a little more lost, a little less safe and valued today, know that I, as your pastor, stand with you. Much more importantly, the love of Christ is with you, for he is the One who leaves safety behind to stand with the marginalized, with those whose voices the world seeks to silence.
  5. In the midst of this, as always in the midst of everything, Jesus calls us to follow him today. He makes no bones about what the journey will entail. The end of his road is, well, the end of the road. He will go to Jerusalem and to Calvary’s cross. By the grace of God, in his death we find life. And with life, freedom. In a world that seeks in so many ways to bind us, Jesus sets us free. We are freed from this world and free of our old lives. This is at the heart of Jesus’ difficult words in today’s passage. We can either cling to the old ways or we can follow Jesus through the waters of baptism and into newness of life. We can’t do both. Today, Jesus calls us again to leave our old lives behind. In doing so, we discover the beautiful freedom of the gospel and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Freedom in Christ is fruitful. Love, joy peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – there is no law against these things! We embrace and enact these freedoms in anticipation of the coming reign of God in which we shall all truly be free. From sin and death and all that would bind us. We are not there yet, but Jesus has guaranteed we’ll get there. Along the way, let us love one another.
  6. Today, we rejoice with Chloe Ann as she is baptized into Christ and joins him on the journey. Today, we welcome Chloe as a sister in Christ. In that welcome, we are reminded of the call laid upon our lives in baptism. As David Lose points out, “those who would embrace Jesus and his mission must be under no illusion of what it will mean for them.” There is, Lose notes, a “truth-in-advertising element” to Jesus’ words today. Jesus wants us to know the direction of the road, a path taken to “eschew violence, to embrace suffering for the sake of another, to refuse comfort, privilege, [and] status for the sake of fidelity to God’s vision and mission.” In the counter-cultural gospel of our Lord, we find true freedom and its fruits. Against such things there is no law. Today, let us commit ourselves to love our neighbors as ourselves. Let us claim joy and work for peace. Let us be kind and generous, patient and gentle. Let us show self-control and live faithfully. Let the fruit we bear be signs, that others might come to know Christ. Gifted by the Holy Spirit, let us freely follow Jesus, for he is the one way home. 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: Ready or Not, the Spirit Descends. June 5, 2022

This sermon was preached on Pentecost Sunday, June 5, at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL. The service and the bulletin are available for viewing. The image is “The Giant,” with fries and a drink, from Quick (L.W. Yang, 2009, used with permission).

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. Summer is upon us, and no doubt many of you are looking forward to travelling; perhaps even travelling abroad. While I’m hardly a seasoned world traveler, I have enjoyed a number of trips to Europe. I’ve even travelled there with some of you, and I’m looking forward to our small contingent’s trip to Slovakia in a few weeks. Long before any of those trips, before I was even married, I spent a few days in Paris with my friend, Phil. Hungry after a morning of taking in that beautiful city, we stopped for lunch at Quick, a McDonald’s-like restaurant. With six years of French class on my junior and senior high resume, I walked up to the counter and boldly declared, “Je voudrais un cheeseburger, s’il vous plâit.” The teenager behind the counter couldn’t contain his laughter. Apparently, even though I’m fairly sure I strung together the correct words, my accent was just too much for him. It was abundantly clear that I wasn’t from there; that I was a foreigner. Everything about me screamed, “American.” Another employee had mercy upon me, asking with a European’s perfect English, “So, you would like a cheeseburger?” My relief was so palpable that I didn’t even mind being the butt of the joke. Being a stranger in a strange land is challenging; there are few things more calming than hearing someone speak in your native tongue. Especially if that person proceeds to give you a cheeseburger. No matter where you are, hearing your own language connects you to home.
  2. The city was filled with foreigners that day. It was Pentecost, and people had flooded Jerusalem from the corners of the known world to celebrate both the wheat harvest and the giving of the Law to Moses upon Mt. Sinai. Food from the earth and the Commandments from heaven, both sources of life for God’s people. Their faith united them, but so much else kept them separated, nothing more so than language. Unbeknownst to them, however, God has been up to something new. Unseen by them, a small band of women and men had been gathering in prayer, waiting to see what God would do next. Into the midst of the crowd come these disciples, 50 days after their crucified teacher had been raised as their Lord. Inspired, quite literally in-spirited, they burst forth from behind closed doors and begin to speak. For every person in the crowd, from every nation under the sun, there was a voice speaking to them in their own language. While some sneered, most, I’m sure, suddenly felt a bit closer to home. Not simply closer to their country of origin, but closer to the God of their ancestors, suddenly new and on the loose once more. God, through the disciples, was speaking to each of them in their own tongue of God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ. That’s even better than a cheeseburger.
  3. We are never, of course, quite prepared for such moments. We wander through a self-imposed exile, passports marked with the stamps of sin, suffering, and death. It is hard to hear anything clearly, let alone words of hope. We are victims, yes, but also complicit in the suffering of this world. We continue to create divisions, continue to make home seem further away. Russia denies Ukraine’s identity, throwing the region into fear violence. We continue our own violent ways; last week in this pulpit in the wake of the Uvalde massacre, I spoke of a hope for less gun violence. But since Uvalde, there have been 20 more mass shootings in our nation. Twenty. Divisions abound among us. For all the strides we have taken toward affirming our LGBTQ siblings, there are still forces arrayed against them. And amid everything else, we are each burdened with our unique sufferings, the hurts we harbor and the guilt we have incurred.
  4. We cry out to God with broken voices. Amazingly, on Pentecost, God answers our cries, speaking to us in words we can comprehend. The Spirit is poured out to continue to work of Christ, saving humanity and indeed redeeming all creation. We cry out, “Abba! Father!” and our Father answers us. The Triune God does not wait for us to get it all together, to handle our problems ourselves, to learn the language of heaven. No. God simply comes. The Spirit is poured out not because we are ready, but because God is ready to make God’s home with us. God is up to something new, and that newness is for us and includes us. Jesus, the Holy Spirit speaks over and again, is risen. In his life we find our life; through him are we forgiven. Jesus, born into our strange land far from his heavenly home, welcomes us home. We are orphans no more. As Joy Moore of Luther Seminary writes, “In the moment where God seemed inconsequential, incompetent, or inconceivable, the people all heard in their own languages that God was powerfully active in human history. In the commotion, the most consistently understandable report was of the mighty things God had been doing.”
  5. The Spirit continues to be poured out today, connecting the baptized with the risen Christ. In the face of war and gun violence, the Spirit continues to give us what the world cannot – the peace of Jesus that both calms us amid violence and empowers us to resist violence with peace. If we ask anything in Jesus’ name, it will be granted to us. May we never stop asking! May we also work. In the face of ongoing division and ostracizing, the Spirit leads us to ever-greater welcoming, and during the month of June, we are particularly mindful of welcoming and affirming our LGBTQ siblings. And the Spirit speaks in our more intimate, personal conversations, too. Today we are blessed to commission four new Stephen Ministers for the sake of the gospel. Susan, Larry, Ackli, and Linda will join the ranks of those providing high-quality, one-to-one, Christ-centered care to people burdened by life’s difficulties in our congregation and community. Thanks be to God for the Spirit’s gifting, equipping, and calling of these Stephen Ministers, who will speak words of gospel hope in a language that can be heard by their care receivers.
  6. The Spirit speaks to us in the language of our hometown, for the Spirit abides with us, makes God’s home with us. Today, the Holy Spirit speaks to us, calling us out of sin and death, gifting us with the very presence of the risen Christ. In the wheat of the harvest, Jesus gives himself to us on this festival day. To enact a new commandment of love, Jesus gives himself to us, that we might love like Christ every day. To be sure, we are still learning the language of the new creation. To be sure, we are still burdened by the weight of the old. But we are not alone. We are not orphaned. We are home, for the Holy Spirit has made God’s home with us. Christ is risen. Come, Holy Spirit! 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: Unity after Uvalde? May 29, 2022

This sermon was preached on May 29, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL. You can watch the service and check out the bulletin, too. The image is of me with my fourth grader, hanging out and eating lunch between baseball games. You know, the sort of things a fourth grader should be doing.

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

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. As summer approaches, the rituals of the season are unfolding. At Grace, this means we are marking the end of the school year in a variety of ways. One of my favorite traditions at Grace is that the penultimate chapel service of the year is led by our graduating eighth graders. This year’s class of eighteen students is remarkable in many ways (they are Grace students, after all), and they did a wonderful job. One of the songs they chose for the service was “Fear Not for Tomorrow.” It’s a lovely, hopeful song about entrusting ourselves to God’s care. I was singing along from the back pew when a sudden urge came over me. I slipped out of the sanctuary and gently pushed against each of the wooden doors in the narthex. In spite of the words we were singing, I couldn’t help checking to make sure the doors were locked. They were, of course. They always are during the school day. But I had to be sure. Singing about tomorrow, I was thinking about yesterday, for the day before nineteen children and two teachers had been killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. When I first heard the news on Tuesday, I was sad, angry, and afraid for those in danger. But I wasn’t surprised. Not in America, not these days. Not in the wake of so many other school shootings; not in the wake of what unfolded at a grocery store in Buffalo two weeks ago. 21 more lives offered upon this nation’s altar of violence and guns, of our indifference to suffering. Years ago, we hoped that such acts of violence would draw us together, unite us. Sadly, we know that’s not true. Sadly, such things will almost certainly happen again, thoughts and prayers notwithstanding.
  2. On the night before his own death, another innocent victim offered up to this world’s insatiable thirst for violence and death, Jesus has a few thoughts and prayers of his own. Staring his own death in the face, he thinks not of what is about to happen to him, but of what will happen to us. He prays not for himself; he prays for us. He prays that we will be one, united with him and with one another, as he is united with his Father. He prays that the love of God would take root in us, and that we would share this love with one another and with all this rebellious world. In the face of so much division, so much violence, this is the prayer we need. While I as your pastor would never encourage you to pray less, to stop praying for an end to violence, for evil to stop, for hearts and minds to change, for God’s peace to prevail, perhaps Jesus’ prayer is a reminder to us: Perhaps we should spend less time praying for God to do something and more time remembering that Jesus is praying for us, that we would do something. Until Jesus returns in glory, we are his hands and feet in this world. We can only do so by God’s power, to be sure, but it is up to us to effect change in this world. Guns are idols of our creation. Change is up to us. We are called to repent, to return in worship to the one true God; the Triune God who is a God of peace, not violence; hope, not fear; life, not death.
  3. We are, of course, too mired in sin to begin, let alone complete, this work on our own. But we are not on our own. We have been crucified with Christ and live now in the promise and power of the resurrection. We fear not for tomorrow because in baptism we already died many yesterdays ago. The unity for which we yearn is not something we must create or cobble together; it is gifted to us by Christ as the Sprit knits us into Christ’s body. The love of God is not like our fickle, feeble love; it is given as a gift, poured out from the cross of Christ. Meda Stamper writes, “The oneness of the Father and Jesus is synonymous with love in John, and what the world is to see in our display of that oneness is the love of God miraculously made manifest. Our love for God and one another becomes then an offering in and for the world to experience the love through which all creation has come into being.”[1] So, the question, it seems to be, is at which altar we will make our offerings. Will we continue to worship at the altar of violence and death, giving no more than lip service to God? Or will we make our lives offerings of thanks and praise to the God of life by working for life in God’s name? Try as we might, we cannot worship two gods at once. As we mourn the deaths of 21 children of God in Uvalde, it seems to me that the time has come to make a choice. I offer no policy suggestions and I’m not here as a partisan. Just a preacher with a word: If we continue to live by the gun, we will die by the gun. Or we can live by faith and claim the life that is really life.
  4. I spent yesterday, a beautiful Saturday, with thirteen fourth graders. It was the first day of the first tournament for Anders’s summer baseball team. As they were warming up before their first game, their chatter was all about the games they had played against each other; about how this umpire had blown that call; about how that team should have won instead of this team. They had only been opponents before yesterday. By the time the game started, however, matters had shifted. After the call to “play ball,” they settled into oneness, united in purpose. They worked together easily, encouraging one another, lifting each other up. By the end of the day, it was hard to imagine that anything had ever separated them. It’s amazing that what comes so easily to children is so difficult for adults.
  5. Today, I invite you to consider fourth graders. The fourth graders of Robb Elementary cry out to us. It is not enough to say that we, as a nation, failed them, although that is certainly true. As I saw on social media this week, there’s no such thing as other people’s children. These children were ours, and we allowed them to be sacrificed to a nation, a world, that demands innocent blood. A world that will do so again. Consider, too, the fourth graders on Anders’s team, who remind us that working together is actually pretty easy to do. All we need to do is agree on the goal. Is working to minimize, if not end, gun violence something we really want to disagree about? For freedom Christ has set us free. Cast down the idols. Guns may not be our only problem, but that’s no excuse to not do anything about how easily we make them available, how greatly we glorify them, how deeply so many worship them. It is time to repent.
  6. This morning, amid everything else, we catch a glimpse of a vision of hope. In the blood of Christ the Lamb, we have been washed and will be welcomed into the city of God. All who hear are welcome; come! All who suffer are welcome; come! All who thirst for justice and peace and welcome, for there, justice and peace will be found. One day, Christ will return, overthrowing once and for all this world’s opposition to God’s reign. By his grace we will finally come to our senses, melting down handguns to make garden hoes and beating assault rifles into ploughshares, that together we may till the soil around the tree of life. For Christ the victim is also Christ the victor, and his promises are certain and sure. His triumph is won, and his Kingdom will come. It’s coming, some tomorrow or another. Maybe yet today. We know not when, but it’s coming. So yes, fear not for tomorrow, for tomorrow is in God’s hands. But work for today, for God has placed so much that matters today in our hands. But we are not alone. We are knit together. Jesus is with us. Jesus prays for us. And for Jesus’ sake, the status quo can be good enough no longer. For Christ’s sake and in anticipation of his reign, let us love. Let us do better. Amen.

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

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

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/seventh-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-john-1720-26-5