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Sermon: Full Sails. August 15, 2021

This is the sermon I preached on the Feast of Mary, Mother of Our Lord (August 15, 2021) at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL. You can watch the worship service here and see the bulletin here. Image: We’re on a boat!

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 shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but it does. I have a high school classmate who loves Christmas. So much so that his favorite thing to watch is, apparently, the Best of Andy Williams Christmas. This is something he does not only at Christmas, or near Christmas, but all the year through. I know this because he posts on social media while watching Andy belt out all the Christmas hits. I’m always surprised to learn that my friend is watching the Best of Andy Williams Christmas in the middle of the summer. There may be a best time to watch this show, but that best time is not this It’s out of order, incongruent. Then again, maybe my friend is on to something. Here we are this morning, in the middle of August, listening to Mary sing a carol older than any of Andy’s. Her Magnificat catches us by surprise this morning, interrupting what would otherwise be five weeks in a row spent in John 6, listening to and learning from Jesus, the Bread of Life. Today happens to be the Feast of Mary, Mother of Our Lord, or, as some of our fellow Christians refer to the day, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. To be sure, we sing the Magnificat throughout the year at Evening Prayer, but it nevertheless evokes Christmas. And what is that doing in the middle of August?
  2. Perhaps Mary’s song is just what we need in this season. Surely the words of Isaiah ring true today: “the shame of God’s people was double, and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot.” In our sin and suffering, we are as broken as God’s people were long ago. Driving home from vacation on Friday – and yes, we’re home for good now – it seemed as if the world’s problems, already immense, had been magnified. The recent United Nations report on climate change reveals that we are running out of time to take steps to mitigate catastrophic climate change, change for which humans are unequivocally responsible, according to the report. Meanwhile, Afghanistan spirals out of control this week as the Taliban made gains in anticipation of our departure from the war-torn region. We were returning to a home, and a community, devastated by violence. Our community mourns the death of Chicago police office Ella French, shot during a routine traffic stop, killed while simply doing her job of protecting people. Our community mourns the death of fifteen-year-old Melissa Rendon, assaulted, abused, and abandoned to death. Where is our hope when creation itself groans under the weight of our sin, when the lives of young women are taken far too soon?
  3. Our hope is sung this morning upon the lips of another young woman, a daughter of the people of God to whom Isaiah spoke long before. While Isaiah’s words today begin with shame and dishonor, the prophet quickly pivots to promise: “they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs.” Finally, in the fullness of time, God fulfills this vow. God comes to Mary, young and lowly, little to be noticed by the powers of the day. So has God always entered the world. Her lowliness is not worthlessness; she is just the person for this holy calling, just the woman to become the Mother of God. Filled with the Spirit, the very Word of Life taking on flesh within her Womb, she sings. The divine fecundity cannot be contained. She sings, giving praise and glory to the mighty God who has come down to her level to level the playing field, casting down mountains and filling in valleys. God has done, will do, great things. God will show mercy, but also strength; power enough to cast down the powerful. God will show abundance; fullness enough to feed the hungry, so full that there is no room left for human pride or hoarded riches. God has done, is doing, will do these things for us, even in the face of our ongoing sin that spawns cultures of violence and destruction. Mary knows such evil and suffering, but God knows Mary. Known, chosen by God, Mary sings. She magnifies her God, the Lord of heaven and earth who is also her baby boy. As Amy Lindeman Allen writes, the “importance of Mary comes not in what she has done.” No, Mary teaches us instead that our true purpose as those who bear Christ in this world is to point to what God is doing through her son, Jesus.
  4. Earlier this week, while still on vacation in Door County, we went to visit friends who took our family out on their sailboat. Not knowing a tack from a jibe, I left the sailing to those who knew what they were doing and sat on the deck with my sons. We watched as the sails, expertly handled, sprang to life, filling with wind that was already present, moving, now pulling us forward as spray crashed over the bow. The sail, of course, didn’t create the wind. The wind was moving, blowing howsoever it chose. On its own, the sail was lifeless. But unfurled in the breeze, it blossomed with purpose. The sail, you could say, was a magnifier, making visible the work of the wind. This, I think, is what Mary does. It is God who is at work, Mary who magnifies. The Lord who chooses, Mary who says yes. The Christ who grows within her, Mary who gives good care. Following the horrific death of her son, which she watched with a mother’s breaking heart, Mary is among those who wait for the wind, the outpoured, onrushing Spirit, that would fill her sails again, charting a new course for creation. Mary’s vocation as the Mother of Our Lord is unique, but she is our teacher nonetheless. For we, too, have been filled by Christ who lives in us. We, too, daily stick our finger into the air, seeking to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit that our lives would be given purpose, meaning, direction. We, too, know that we could never choose God on own. But when called, chosen, we, like Mary, say yes. We, like Mary, magnify. We unfurl our souls to catch the Spirit.
  5. We do so as those who know that the salvation birthed into this world is one that works through death. We join Mary’s song as those who stand at the foot of the cross, reminded of this world’s sin and convicted of our own. We do so as those who stare clear-eyed into the suffering around us, who know that we are past the point of being able to help or save ourselves. But we do not despair. We do not give in. We die with Christ and, wonder of wonders, we are reborn as children and heirs of God and agents of grace. You never know where or when the wind will blow. But it will, for our God is the God who keeps promises, often in the most surprising ways, as Mary could certainly attest. The pastor and author Walt Wangerin writes, “This is what grace does. It comes as a surprise; it lingers in the rare atmosphere of love, since love itself is breathed by it and love by it is made manifest. This expression of love is ‘ecstasy’ in the Greek meaning of the word: to ‘stand outside’ the ordinary.” Pastor Wangerin died last week, having spent a lifetime reminding us that even rags become radiant in the hands of the Christ. We give thanks for the ways he added to the church’s song in his writing and teaching.
  6. Mary’s song continues today throughout the church, this vessel called to catch the wind of the Spirit and magnify God’s work in the world. It is true that the problems of this world and in our souls compound upon themselves, magnifying suffering and despair. But we, church, we know the song. It is the song of God’s victory over death in the midst of death, the song of the triumph of life and love, the song sung first over the waters of creation and then given voice by this teenage mother who believed what any sensible person would have dismissed as nonsense. It is the song that was seemingly silenced on Calvary’s cross, but Mary’s boy is the Word of Life, and he would not stay silent long. In him you live, witnesses to the truth and magnifiers of the good news that this world so desperately needs. The lowly will be lifted, the hungry will be filled, the dead will be raised, and peace will burst forth forever. God will do this. As the spirit catches you, fills you, today: Sing. For Christ is born of Mary. Perhaps it’s surprising to be reminded of this in the middle of the summer, but God is nothing if not surprising. Just ask Mary. 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: Picking Up the Pieces. July 25, 2021

This is the sermon I preached on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 25, 2021, at Grace Lutheran Church and School in River Forest, IL. It was good to be back in the pulpit! You can view the worship service here and check out the bulletin, too. The image is Feeding the Multitude, Daniel of Uranc (Armenian manuscript, 1433, public domain). I would have shared a picture of my loaf of bread, but I ate it all.

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 crowd was out in full force yesterday morning, and we were part of it. The boys and I rode our bikes up to Lake Street, pilgrims to the parking lot. We dutifully took our place at the back of the line, knowing that our journey would soon reach its end. A woman approached me, wonderstruck: “What’s the deal with these donuts? That’s all I’ve heard anyone talk about this morning!” I did my best to do them justice, especially the powdered, but in the end, I shrugged: “You just have to try them for yourself.” To the best of my knowledge, she did. But as we sat there eating our donuts and listening to bluegrass, the satisfaction was fleeting. I mean, yeah, a good donut is good, but it’s not going to carry you through the day. At that moment I remembered that the refrigerator we were biking home to was almost barren, bereft of groceries. We’ve been gone so much lately that we hardly have any food at home. I hadn’t planned for lunch! So, I struck out across the parking lot on a new quest. Knowing we had some sandwich fixings, I decided to get some bread. I approached, appropriately enough, a stand run by the Bread Man, and bought two loaves. Later, at home, I was rewarded with the best pepperoni, cheddar, and horseradish mustard sandwich I’ve had in a while, thanks to the Bread Man’s handcrafted seven-grain. It was enough to make me consider hopping back on my bike; I wanted to find this woman and tell her, “You thought that donut was good? Sure, it was! But have you tried the bread? That will fill you up; that will last. That was good!”
  2. We set out on our journey with one goal in mind but found a different sort of fulfillment altogether. A similar thing could be said for the crowds that followed Jesus across the Sea of Galilee that day. They’d seen the signs, witnessed his healings, and they went hoping for more. But they forgot to pack lunch. So it is that they find themselves far from hearth, home, and grocery store with the lunch hour approaching. They had set out searching for something, but they find something else entirely. They go hoping to see another sign but find themselves nothing but empty. The disciples are wise enough to know there’s nothing to be done; not by them, anyway. Better to send the people home quick as can be. But Jesus looks into their emptiness, into their hunger, knowing already what he will do. With the contents of one boy’s lunchbox, Jesus transforms scarcity into abundance, feeding the multitude with plenty to spare. While John doesn’t mention how the bread tasted, our minds wander back to the wedding at Cana, where Jesus didn’t simply turn water into wine, but into the best wine. I imagine these thousands finding themselves not simply fed, but at a feast, finally pushing the food away because they just couldn’t eat anymore. In Jesus’ presence, hunger and emptiness are opportunities to show forth who he is. Not simply one who can make bread, but One who is The Bread of Life itself, so plentiful that his disciples, who couldn’t figure out what to do a few minutes ago, are left to pick up the pieces, twelve baskets in all. Whatever the people set out to find that morning, they discovered something else: the prophet long awaited, now come into this world’s void to bring fulness. The very I AM who calmed the world’s watery chaos at creation and now walks across the water, casting out fear.
  3. Who among us has not felt the hunger of the crowd, the helplessness of the disciples? To be sure, if you are worshipping here this morning, in person or via livestream, it’s unlikely you are one of the 690 million people in the world who will go to bed hungry tonight. That number, by the way, will likely increase to 840 million by 2030, a projection that is almost certainly now an undercount, as chronic hunger has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. But if you, like me, can buy a loaf of artisanal bread when you realize lunch is looming, you are nevertheless afflicted by other hungers. For meaning, for identity, for purpose. For health, wholeness, community. We, we who have so much, who are so rarely hungry, have stomachs that are empty in other ways. We try to fill them with so much that does not satisfy; with the omnipresent quest for more that is insatiable, because there is no amount of stuff we can have – money or status or privilege or whatever – that cannot be added to. There is always more to have, so we convince ourselves we never have enough. And we do so knowing full well that our siblings throughout the world, God’s handiwork every bit as much as you or me, are actually hungry. In our rare moments of clarity, when we recognize this dire imbalance and iniquity, we feel helpless. Philip speaks for all of us when he answers Jesus’ question. The problem is too big, the hungry are too many. There is nothing we can do. How do we even begin to pick up the pieces of all that is broken in and around us?
  4. It is exactly here, in the realization that there is nothing we can do, that hope finds us. The thousands did not eat that day because Philip and Andrew figured out how to feed them. They ate because Jesus was there, because Jesus decided to feed them. Neither feeding nor saving the world is up to us, thank God. Jesus comes to feed, to save. Our task is simpler if we would hear and heed the call. What are we to do? While Jesus is the sole driver of the action today, there are roles for us. First, we look to the boy, this child who offered what he had. He knew it wouldn’t be enough, but so what? In Jesus’ hands, his lunchbox held an abundance. If you have something, however small, give. Share. It will be enough. Second, we look to the boy, and remember not to overlook those like him. Andrew is a disciple, an adult, who dismisses the child’s gift out of hand. But Jesus doesn’t. Jesus receives what the child has to offer and does the rest. Don’t dismiss the gifts of others simply because these others don’t measure up in your eyes. Who knows what Jesus will do? Third, take up the task left to the disciples. Jesus breaks and blesses; Jesus distributes and feeds. What do the disciples do? They pick up the pieces. Their call is not to perform the miracle; their job is to gather up what’s left, following in Jesus’ wake so that nothing may be lost, so that the blessing might extend ever more broadly. Remembering this call, we can stop trying to baptize Jesus for our purposes and know in faith that we have been baptized into his mission.
  5. Jesus initiates here the new Passover that will be brought to fulfillment in his death and resurrection. More than a thousand years before Jesus fed the crowds by the sea, the Lord told the people to prepare a meal of lamb and bread, just enough for that night’s journey out of Egypt. As they wandered in the wilderness, God gave them manna each day. Just enough. Make no mistake; when it comes from the Lord just enough is exactly that: enough. But the Passover which Christ inaugurates is not one that’s just enough. It is abundant. Plentiful. Overflowing. It is all these things and more because it is Christ himself, both host and meal. As much as this feast by the sea is more than the crowd anticipated, so is it less that what the sign signifies. When Christ is broken open upon the cross, when the empty void of this world’s sin and hunger and death sought to swallow him whole, the I AM has one more surprise in store. In his dying, Jesus fills the creation he once called into being. He meets us here again today, in wafer and wine, too small to make a difference to our hunger, it seems. Yet we will never be so full as we are when we meet Christ in the Eucharist, a foretaste of the feast to come. Filled, we are freed. Free to follow in Jesus’ wake, picking up pieces of grace and mercy that nothing would be lost. Free to feed those whose hunger has run too deep for too long. Free, like young Hudson today, to be the like young boy on Galilee’s shores, offering our meagre gifts to Christ, that they might by his power become exactly what the world needs. In this new Passover, we are fed by the Paschal Lamb who offers himself for us, who meets our needs not with just enough, but with the full abundance that is simply Jesus. Whatever you were looking for this morning, you have been found by the Bread Man, the One who is always more than enough.

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

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.