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A Pair of Sermons for Lent: March 9 and 23, 2022

Below you’ll find the services of Evening Prayer at Grace Lutheran Church (River Forest, IL) from Wednesday, March 9 and Wednesday, March 23. There are no manuscripts, but I hope you’ll enjoy the sermons. For March 9, the sermon begins at 23:40. For March 23, the sermon begins at 19:53. The photo of Grace was taken by me at the corner of Division and Bonnie Brae, about three minutes ago.

March 9

March 23

Thank you for being part of the Grace community during the season of Lent, under the theme: Praying the Psalms.

Sermon: Incidents and Accidents. March 20, 2022

This sermon was preached at Grace Lutheran Church (River Forest, IL) on the Third Sunday in Lent. You can watch the service and view the bulletin. The photograph of the fig tree is by Mike Bogle (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. My bracket, if not quite busted, is in serious disrepair. But that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying March Madness. The men’s NCAA basketball tournament has been entertaining so far, even though my alma mater once again failed to even make the tournament. We’ve produced four U.S. presidents but can’t find five guys who can play basketball. So, I cheer for my home state Badgers and whatever underdog is playing at the moment. Like the rest of the country, I’ve been caught up in the story of the St. Peter’s Peacocks, the plucky squad from a Jesuit school in New Jersey that has already punched its ticket to next week’s Sweet Sixteen. Having never heard of them a few hours earlier, I found myself cheering for them passionately as they took on, and finally took down, mighty Kentucky. It took overtime to get the job done, but in the end, they were celebrating an upset for the ages. I was enjoying it, too, until the camera cut away to a young boy in the stands. Decked out in Kentucky blue, he stood there with tears rolling down his cheeks, dreams dashed, as his mother sought to console him. Yes, it was great to see St. Peter’s win, but my heart went out to that kid. While it’s just a game, the pain is real. And it’s just not that much fun to see people suffer.
  2. Whether we like to see it or not, there is no shortage of suffering in the world. My television screen has shown me worse that disappointed basketball fans in these recent days, as we continue to see images from Russia’s war against Ukraine. Children who should be struggling with nothing worse than disappointment at the outcome of a game are instead targeted by bombs and displaced from their homes. Why, we continue to wonder, is such a tragedy happening in the first place, and how do we respond? While there is neither rhyme nor reason to this war, at least we know the cause. Putin bears the blame. With other forms of suffering, it is not always so easy to see. Why, we cry out, has this diagnosis, this misfortune, this disappointment come upon me? Us? The ones we love?
  3. The question of suffering is front and center in our gospel reading today. Some in the crowd tell Jesus of a grisly incident that unfolded at the Temple. Some Galileans, perhaps known to Jesus from his old neighborhood, were offering sacrifices when Pilate, that petty Putin-tate, had them murdered, mingling their blood with that of the animal sacrifices. It was the act of a terrorist, but in their attempt to understand such evil, the people imagined that it was somehow the fault of the victims. They must have been worse sinners than others for such a thing to happen. While this worldview is a bit foreign to us, it was not uncommon in Jesus’ day, and it does have a certain appeal. If bad things happen to bad people, well, as least they’re getting what they deserve. And at least we have some control of the world around us. If we’re good, or at least better than them, good things will happen to us. Jesus isn’t having it, and he goes on to mention another tragedy, this one without a bad guy behind it. In Siloam, a construction project has seemingly gone awry, resulting in a collapsing tower that killed eighteen people when it fell. Did these people have it coming, Jesus asks? Did they get what they deserved? Is God in the business of knocking over buildings to take out sinners? No, Jesus says. God is not in the business of toppling towers or working through murderers. God didn’t kill those people in the Temple; Pilate did. And as for the tower? Sometimes in this broken world things fall down.
  4. Jesus tells the people that these victims were no worse than them. More to the point, the people speaking to Jesus are no better than those who died. If everyone were going to start getting what they deserved, there’d be a lot more falling towers. But God doesn’t cause such suffering. Sometimes we can identify the cause of suffering; sometimes our “whys” go unanswered. So perhaps Jesus is inviting us to ask a different question. Instead of why, what? In the face of suffering, what are we to do? Jesus tells us plainly: Repent! To repent is not simply to regret what we’ve done, but to change directions. To turn from our sin toward God. Speculating about the sins of others gets us nowhere; it is our sin that needs to be dealt with. Repent! Turn to God. We do so not to earn God’s favor or avoid suffering, but because Christ calls us, in our joys and in our sorrows, to return to God. Fred Craddock writes about our wonderings on the whys of suffering: “Jesus rejects such attempts at calculation not only because they are futile but also because they deflect attention from the primary issue: the obligation of every person to live in penitence and trust before God, and that penitent trust is not to be linked to life’s sorrows or life’s joys. Life in the kingdom is not an elevated game of gaining favors and avoiding losses.”
  5. In the midst of suffering, both in the lives of those around us and in our own lives, we turn to God. For God is not the cause of suffering but the One who joins us in our suffering. What change does this bring? What does this look like? It looks like the bearing of fruit upon once-barren tree limbs. Trees bear fruit not for themselves but so that others might be fed; so that others would flourish. We bear fruit to care for others, even if we continue to suffer. Perhaps you saw a picture of Olga, a young mother being treated for wounds in Kyiv. The image shows her, head bandaged and bloody, cradling her baby at the breast. She had used her own body to protect the child as the Russians shelled her neighborhood. This young woman reminds us of last week’s Mother Hen. She also reminds us that while we do not choose our suffering or understand why it’s happening, we can respond by bearing fruit for the sake of those around us.
  6. If the “what” of suffering is repentance and fruit bearing, we are pushed beyond that question to another: Who? Ultimately, we need to know not why suffering happens, but who will save us. The answer is Jesus, and Jesus only. It is Jesus who is both the gardener who cares for us and the tree that is cut down in our place. Left to our own devices, we would remain barren, lifeless. Jesus, who goes into the earth so that we would be fed and nourished. Jesus, whose lifeblood now enlivens our limbs. Jesus, whose Spirit makes us to bear fruit for the world around us. Jesus, who teaches us not to dwell too long on why people are suffering but instead to help them. Jesus, who is with us in our suffering, encouraging us to remember that the pain we experience will not last forever. Jesus, who never gives up on us but gives himself up for us. Make no mistake, this grace is not what we deserve. But God, thank God, isn’t interested in giving us what we deserve. Instead, God gives us Christ, who teaches us to give our lives to God and live our lives for others. In Christ and for his sake, we may still suffer, but we suffer with a hope that does not disappoint. God, we sometimes say, won’t give us more than we can handle, but that’s not quite right. God, Paul writes to the church in Corinth, won’t give us more than God can handle; God will provide a way through Christ, who makes a way through death into everlasting life. In that hope, turn to Christ and bear fruit. 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 Hen in the Fox House. March 13, 2022

This sermon was preached at Grace Lutheran Church (River Forest, IL) on March 13, 2022, the Second Sunday in Lent. You can view the service and the bulletin. The image is Mother Hen with Chicks (Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, 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. As far as playground taunts go, it’s both tame and effective. I imagine I was called worse than “chicken” by schoolyard bullies, but few terms were more motivational. Being called a chicken created the opportunity to prove you weren’t. Sure, inside you might be too frightened to attempt the monkey bars, too nervous to spin a cartwheel, too rational to jump off the swing at its highest point, but only until someone called you a chicken. At that point, your honor was at stake. Who would want to be a chicken? The taunt is freighted with negativity: weakness, fear, cowardice. I never wanted to be called chicken, so I’m always struck by the Jesus use of the term for himself. With death, the greatest bully of them all, hot on his heels, Jesus calls himself a chicken. A mother hen, to be precise. Not a lion, tiger, or bear. A chicken.
  2. Jesus has animals on the brain in today’s passage from Luke. Just a few moments earlier, in response to a warning from the Pharisees that is more than likely a trap, Jesus calls Herod a fox. Herod, a puppet potentate whose strings are pulled by Rome, is threatened by Jesus. He wants to do away with Jesus and his gospel of love, grace, forgiveness, and healing. You can’t very well let that sort of this get out of hand, after all. Herod is sly and cunning, and Jesus sees him for what he is: a fox. Some might say Herod is savvy, a genius, but Jesus knows his sort. Whatever else Herod might be, he is evil; a dealer in destruction and death meted out upon the weak and innocent to maintain his own place in the empire’s reign of terror. Herod, no doubt, thinks he has Jesus right where he wants him. This itinerant preacher? This mother hen? No match for a sly fox who’s been having his way in the chicken coop for years.
  3. Herod, however, misjudges his opponent. This mother hen is not weak and afraid. She is strong but grieving. Strong enough to do anything necessary to protect her brood. Grieving because her brood willfully rejects the shelter of her wings. Grieving because, generation after generation, we somehow end up choosing war and violence, oppression and exclusion, instead of allowing ourselves to be gathered together as God’s beloved community. Grieving people we reject God’s Word and those sent to preach it. Grieving because what sort of God would look at the mess we’ve made of this world and not respond with brokenhearted lament? Jerusalem, Jerusalem!
  4. God grieves, but God does not abandon. What mother hen would leave her brood to fend for themselves forever, would not do anything for her children’s sake? At any rate, it’s too late for God to give up. Long ago, nearly two thousand years before today’s gospel reading, God made a promise to Abram. Perhaps our Old Testament reading today struck you as esoteric, if not downright weird. God tells Abram to collect a heifer, goat, ram, turtledove, and pigeon. Abram slaughters and halves them, except the birds, and lays them out for the Lord, at which point the Lord knocks out Abram, sending him into a deep sleep. What’s going on here, we might ask from our postmodern and more hygienically-minded vantage point? Is this some sort of sacrificial ritual? Quite the opposite, actually. Abram isn’t giving anything to God. It is God who is the giver. This is the first time God makes covenant with Abram, and what happens here is a covenantal ritual. A sealing of the promise in blood. Covenants typically have two participants, so they would take and kill animals and then walk between the carcasses to seal the deal; the implication was that if the covenant was broken, a similar fate would befall the transgressor. Let it be unto me, as it was to these animals, if I break the covenantal bond. But Abram isn’t awake to walk through the pieces. Only God, present in the fire pot and torch, passes through. God promises the land to Abram’s descendants forever, never mind that there are still no descendants. And if the covenant falters or breaks, it is God alone who will be on the hook to atone for it. To Abram, it is all grace, a gift. The consequences of covenant fall upon God.
  5. In Christ, God has come to fulfill the promise made to Abram, Sarai, and their descendants. Indeed, Christ has come to expand what it means to be a descendant of Abram and Sarai, gathering all under these wings that are both compassionately comforting and persistently protective. Christ comes into this world where civilians are attacked by a modern-day Herod, the fox in the Kremlin. Christ comes into this world in which we still try to sort out who belongs and who doesn’t. Christ comes into this world in which we each live under the shadow of death, never knowing when diagnosis or tragedy will befall us. Christ comes into this world to gather us in ever more closely in God’s loving, protective embrace.
  6. In pursuit of this mission, Jesus has no time for Herod’s foolishness. Jesus will get around to Herod when Jesus is good and ready, thank you very much. When the time comes, the fox will think he’s about to swallow the hen, feathers and all. But just there, Jesus will spread his wings wide upon the cross, offering up himself in the fight against death, that through his death the hen’s brood would live. A hen might not look like much. Neither does a cross. Yet in God’s great love for us, Jesus embraces weakness and death to undo death’s reign of power. Come, friends, under the shadow of God’s wings. See this God who fights off sin and suffering by suffering for sin, who defeats death by dying, who in the ever-expanding embrace of the divine has created room even for you. There is room here for you.
  7. In this world of war and woe, of sickness and suffering, we know that death continues to stalk us as it stalked Jesus. But in the shadow of the cross, under the wings in which God gathers us, we are given a new vision. A vision beyond what we can see with our eyes. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, writes of the deep faith of African slaves in antebellum America, who “by virtue of their servitude, were compelled to cast their ken beyond mere sight – to extend their vision beyond things as they were, to a deep, broader, higher vision, and dream of things as they could be.” Their faith continues to be sung in the spirituals they’ve left for us, which “stretch the contours of reality as it is given in the social order, pointing to the form of a new heaven and a new earth – a new social order, a new set of institutional arrangements – a kingdom not born or controlled by the powers of this world.” And so, in a world in which they controlled almost nothing, in which their owners tried to steal everything from them, they taught us to sing, “There’s plenty good room, plenty good room, plenty good room in my Father’s house.” Friends, as you carry you own burdens, as you watch war unfold, as you worry over the fate of the world and all those you love, come under the shadow of the cross. Be gathered in by this hen who loves you, this chicken who though crucified is stronger than death, this God who has room for you today and who will hold you forever. God made the covenant. God has made good on the promise. There’s plenty good room 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.

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday. March 2, 2022

This is the sermon I preached on Ash Wednesday at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL. No manuscript today; the sermon starts at the 28:35 mark of the video. You can also view the bulletin.

I also invite you to join with others at Grace in reading our daily devotions, Praying the Psalms.

A Sermon for Transfiguration, a Prayer for Ukraine. February 27, 2022

This sermon was preached for the Transfiguration of Our Lord at Grace Lutheran Church (River Forest, IL) as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to unfold. You can watch the service and view the bulletin. The image is Transfiguration of Jesus by Carl Bloch, 1872 (public domain). I appreciate that the disciple in the foreground is wearing blue and yellow.

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 far as mountaintops go, it was mediocre. The Courtyard by Marriott in South Bend, IN, is not going to become a destination for spiritual pilgrims any time soon. Still, it was good to be there. After all, its lobby-level store sold Funyuns and dry ramen. Its high-speed wi-fi enabled me to Zoom back into the real world for appointments and meetings. Best of all, I was there with Greta, enjoying some father-daughter bonding time as she and her teammates played in a hockey tournament. I could have stayed there a bit longer. Checking out was bittersweet. It’s good to retreat from day-to-day life, to escape the world in meaningful if not luxurious manner. Even mediocre mountaintops have their pleasures. Fortunately for me, my descent down one mountain has brought me up another, for I’m back today with all of you. I’m happy enough to be back, but whether in South Bend or here, part of me wishes I could remain where everything is good, easy, pleasant.
  2. The fact of the matter, however, is that this escape really wasn’t. For even though I was watching a hotel television instead of my own, I was, like you, watching the news out of Ukraine. Seeing the images. Hearing the heartbreaking tale of humanity’s depravity and degradation. A week ago, we hoped it was nothing worse than grandstanding and brinksmanship. Surely Vladimir Putin would not actually launch a full-scale assault on Ukraine. By the time we went to bed on Wednesday, such hopes had proved illusory. Land war has returned to Europe. Vague threats of nuclear aggression have been invoked. Meanwhile, images emerge of ordinary people taking up arms to defend themselves against a superior foreign army – grandfathers and newlyweds and young women who are schoolteachers, not soldiers. We do not know where this will lead, but we know already that children have been killed. Kids, perhaps, not so different from those I watched play hockey these last few days. We wonder how this can happen, how it can happen again. We wish to go up the mountain, and to bring these dear ones with us to safety.
  3. We are taken up the mountain today, walking with Peter, James, and John, just a few steps behind Jesus. Is there a word for us in this moment? Here, on the mountaintop, we not only find respite from the violent valleys below us; more importantly, we find Jesus. Here, more is revealed to us about who he is and why he has come. A few things: Luke tell us that Jesus goes up the mountain to pray. Prayer has fallen out of fashion in our world today, and perhaps fairly so when prayers and thoughts are offered instead of action. But when we pray with and to this Jesus who is transfigured on the mountaintop, prayer is For what is prayer if not the opening of oneself to be aligned to God’s purposes for us in this world. Within the darkness, prayer is a primary way we stay connected to the hope we have in Christ.
  4. And that’s just it: the hope we have in Christ. For this One we see on the mountaintop is no ordinary person, nor even a leader or prophet like Moses or Elijah. This Jesus transfigured before us is revealed to the disciples as the One in whom the light ever shines. The One, indeed, who is the very Light of this world. It is true that while he walks the dusty byways of Galilee, the majesty of God is veiled in his human flesh. Veiled, but not gone. Today, we are reminded that this Jesus, this Light, is One we can trust; the Christ to whom we can turn. In him do we find the culmination of Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet, for in him is the fulness of God.
  5. Peter’s reaction, of course, is perfectly understandable. “It is good for us to be here,” says. How true! How good to be in the presence of Jesus, shot through with the glory of the divine. This is no mediocre mountaintop; it’s the real deal. Of course they should build dwellings and stay awhile! Why check out so soon? Jesus makes no response, but the voice from the cloud breaks the silence: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Even then, Jesus does not speak. Neither does anyone else. The scene fades. Moses and Elijah are nowhere to be found. They walk back down the mountain, into the darkness of the valley below. Peter wants to remain, but Jesus’ mission compels him to continue to Jerusalem and the fate that awaits him there.
  6. Why doesn’t Jesus speak? This is question that wells up in our hearts in moments of uncertainty and fear. Why doesn’t Jesus speak? Why doesn’t God act? In this text, perhaps the first thing to note is that perhaps Jesus does not respond to Peter because Jesus agrees with him. It is good to be there on the mountain, to find rest and release from all that would chain and claim us in the valley below. It is good to be in the presence of Christ. But the presence of Christ does not remain only on the mountain. I read an article this week in which the author writes that this was the only moment in the gospels in which Jesus makes no response to someone who speaks directly to him. That didn’t sound right to me, however, and it turns out it’s not. Later, Jesus will stand before Pontius Pilate, agent of tyranny and empire. Jesus will be asked to respond to the charges set forth before him. But Jesus will give no answer, not to a single charge, Matthew tells us. Jesus is silent in the brightness of transfiguration and in the shadows of the Passion. This is, I think, because when Jesus, the Word of God, wants to speak most clearly, he doesn’t use words. He instead points to the cross. Jesus, transfigured before us, is crucified for us. But his Light cannot be so easily extinguished.
  7. This past Friday, Grace’s Religion in Literature group met to discuss J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Some of us had read it many times before; others were coming to the book for the first time. It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I think we all found hope in a central theme of the story: that ordinary people can face extraordinary darkness and respond by doing the right thing, even when it is the hard thing. At a turning point in the quest, the Lady Galadriel gives a gift to Frodo, the story’s unassuming hero. The gift is a small crystal phial in which is caught the light of their most precious star. With the gift come these words: “It will shine still brighter when night is about you. May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.” Tolkien, a devout Roman Catholic, perhaps had the Transfiguration in mind when we wrote this passage. We face incredible darkness in our world, and the night seems deeper in these days. The long arm of empire is seeking to extend its reach through violence, evil, and terror. But we are not without hope, and we are not without light. Jesus journeys with us as we follow him, responding to hatred with love, violence with peace. In him and to him, we pray without ceasing.
  8. It is good to be on the mountaintop. But now we journey to the cross. Today, Moses and Elijah speak of Jesus’ impending departure. That word, however, would be better translated as “exodus.” Like Moses before him, Jesus prepares an exodus for the people. For us, and for all people who live under the veil of sin and suffering, of idolatry and empire, Jesus prepares an exodus. It will not happen on this mountain but through the cross, by which the powers of this world will be overwhelmed, finally and fully, by the love and self-sacrifice of our God. In the power of that love will we be brought to the mountain that is anything but mediocre, for there shall we feast. There will God swallow up death forever. In that hope, let us cast off the veil. Having seen the Light, what darkness can we not face? Friends, it is good to be here in the presence of Jesus Christ. Know that he, the Light whom no darkness can overcome, journeys back into the world with you to light your way. May we pray for, and stand with, the people of Ukraine and, indeed, with all people in all places who suffer under tyranny, war, and violence. May we pray for those who present themselves as enemies. May the peace that can come only from Christ burst forth in dazzling brightness upon the nations of this world. Amen.

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