Blessed are the Rejected. Blessed are the Refugees.

+ A sermon given for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (Year A) at Wicker Park Lutheran Church on January 29, 2017 +

Texts: Micah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

If you’re at all like me, you may feel a little uncomfortable with today’s Gospel reading. These words that start what is perhaps Jesus’ most famous teachings, the Sermon on the Mount, may be about as familiar as they are challenging.
For many people, the list of beatitudes we heard a few minutes ago has become a list of ways to receive God’s blessings in our lives.

This can lead us to a number of questions:

What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Am I poor in spirit?

What if I don’t want to mourn or be persecuted? Will I still be blessed?

Do I really hunger and thirst for righteousness? Am I merciful enough or pure enough? Am I doing enough for God to bless me?

This kind of thinking leaves us with a transactional view of God’s blessing – an arrangement where if we do enough, God will bless us accordingly.

The problem with that view, however, is that we will never do enough to merit God’s blessing in our lives. God’s blessing will always beyond our worthiness of receiving it.
And yet, despite that, God still continues to bless us and to love us.


“Sermon on the Mount” by Laura James (2010)

And I don’t think that Jesus is giving us a checklist here now on to be blessed.
This is Jesus’ first sermon in Matthew’s Gospel and he’s gathered his disciples around him not to give them an exclusive list of who qualifies for blessings, but to preach to them that the people who are on this list – those who are poor, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the oppressed, the persecuted, those who hunger and thirst, those who work for peace – that these people who are so often forgotten or rejected in society are blessed and loved by God.

This is Jesus telling his disciples that his teachings will be different – that God is with those whom society doesn’t have time for.
And I’m guessing that to this ragtag group of disciples – poor fishermen and day laborers, just trying to get by under the oppressive reign of the Roman Empire and a corrupt establishment – these Beatitudes of Jesus would have given them a completely new vision of the Reign of God.
There on that mountainside, Jesus is telling them that even though society doesn’t accept them, God blesses them.
Even though they are told every day that they are worthless, God values them beyond measure.
Even though they are insignificant in the Imperial system, the Kingdom of God is made up of people like them.

Jesus is telling them that God chooses what the world considers foolish or weak, and calls these people blessed.
God chooses what is rejected and despised by the world, and God uses them to demonstrate God’s love and glory.
And, as St. Paul reminds us, God chooses what seems foolish to us – Christ crucified – and shows forth the wisdom and power of God and gives us new life.


View from the Mount of Beatitudes, Galilee – January 2017. Photo by Paul Eldred

There on that mountainside, Jesus is declaring to the world that these people, so often forgotten or rejected, are beloved and blessed by God.
He’s not saying that these are the only people who are blessed or that to be blessed you must be like them, but he’s reminding us that God uses what the world rejects as instruments of God’s new and expansive reign of life and love.
That even these people we may reject are beloved children of God.

We might see echoes of this in our world today.

It’s like when the saints of this community declared in 2006 that our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer siblings were welcomed and affirmed here at Wicker Park Lutheran – the statement was not to exclusively welcome these people, but to demonstrate a welcoming for all people.

Or like when a movement forms to declare that Black Lives Matter. They are by no means saying that other lives do not matter, but are reminding us that the lives of our Black siblings, so often forgotten or discarded in our society, are important and precious.

Or when hundreds of thousands of women march to remind the world of their rights and their personhood, they are not denying the personhood of men but are declaring that they too have value and worth in society.

All this has me wondering what type of beatitudes Jesus may declare if he were teaching us today.
Who has our society forgotten or rejected and who do we need reminding of as worthy of God’s love and blessedness?
I like to imagine that if Jesus were here right now, he would include these in his beatitudes:

Blessed are the doubters.
Blessed are the questioners.
Blessed are those who come to church hoping to believe.
Blessed are the minimum wage workers.
Blessed are the unemployed and underemployed.
Blessed are those working multiple jobs.
Blessed are those living under the poverty line.
Blessed are the uninsured.
Blessed are those with a pre-existing condition.
Blessed are those who struggle with mental illness.
Blessed are the differently-abled and blessed are their bodies.
Blessed are the women and blessed are their bodies.
Blessed are the people of color and blessed are their bodies.
Blessed are the trans folk and blessed are their bodies.
Blessed are the queer folk.
Blessed are those who only feel safe in closets.
Blessed are those who don’t feel represented in government.
Blessed are those living in fear of their government.
Blessed are those who are just trying to get by.
Blessed are those living under oppression or war.
Blessed are the activists.
Blessed are those who seek liberation.
Blessed are those who build bridges and not walls.
Blessed are the Muslims – and blessed are the Jews.
Blessed are the immigrants – and blessed are the refugees.
Blessed are you – and you – and you.

Now, while most Sundays, I would end there and leave you with Christ’s word of blessing for you, this week I find it impossible for me to hear Jesus’ announcement of blessings for the forgotten and the rejected ones in society without thinking of how today’s gospel relates to us in this country – especially in light of Friday’s new executive action concerning immigration and refugees.

President Trump’s decision to bar thousands of people from entering this country who happen to be from majority-Muslim nations has been the spark of outrage and protests this weekend.
As a Christian, I feel compelled to speak out against this discriminatory act and must proclaim how it is completely contrary to Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount that we heard this morning.


“Christ of Maryknoll” -Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Throughout Holy Scripture, God’s people are instructed to comfort the outcast and welcome the stranger.
God’s prophets call us to show love and hospitality to all people.
We must remember that our Savior was himself a refugee when he and his family fled to Egypt in fear of their lives.
And when his disciples ask Jesus later in this gospel, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?” Our refugee God replies, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)

This decision is having immediate effects in this country and around the world.
Real people’s lives are being impacted by this discriminatory announcement.
Thousands of people who looked in hope toward the shores of this country as an escape from war, oppression, and violence have had their hopes smashed and must now look elsewhere.
Many others who are living in the States with green cards or student visas are now prevented from traveling here because of their religion or national origin.
Here in Illinois, the organization Refugee One has reported that 15 families, including 14 children, who were expecting to start their new lives in the United States in the next three weeks, will now be bared entry into this country.

This morning, we as a Christian community have the opportunity to live into our baptismal vocation and speak out against this oppressive act – to declare our belief that those who are refugees are blessed and beloved by God.



“WPLC Welcomes Refugees” The banner made by the Wicker Park Lutheran Church congregation

During the hymn, I would invite you to join in coloring the banner that we have made that is in the back of the sanctuary. We will display it on the front of our building declaring that refugees are welcome here in this place and in this community.

During our annual meeting today, you will have the opportunity to write letters to our elected officials calling for the end of this ban and for the fair treatment of all people.

We will remember and proclaim that the same Christ who used the outcast and rejected of the world to show forth God’s glory continues to do so today.
That the Christ who welcomed you and me into this place to give us his blessing welcomes all people and loves them and blesses them.
In the face of discrimination and hate, we will make this place a testament of God’s abundant and steadfast love for all people.

Thanks be to God.


The banner posted on the church building


God With Us

+ A sermon given for the First Sunday of Christmas (Year A) at Wicker Park Lutheran Church on January 1, 2017 +

Texts: Matthew 2:13-23

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.


From AJ+ on Twitter (@ajplus) 12/13/16

There’s a picture I haven’t been able to get out of my head for weeks now. My friend shared it on Facebook and its haunting image has been constantly on my mind. It shows a young couple – a man and a woman – walking through a desolate street. The man’s face is tired and shows a blank gaze as he balances his sleeping child in one arm and a medical IV drip in the other. The woman’s face is covered as the three hastily make their way down the street – their urgency is clear. In his post, my friend quoted today’s gospel text, “And so he arose, took the child and his mother by night, and fled into Egypt.”
tumblr_inline_nhbuf0xywd1qkqzlvEven though this was a picture taken just two weeks ago of a young family fleeing the advancing government forces in the Syrian city of Aleppo, it could just as easily be a picture from more than 2000 years ago of the Holy Family fleeing the advancing government forces in Bethlehem.

Because my friend shared this picture just days before Christmas and because I knew that this was today’s appointed text, this is the image that has colored my celebrations this season.


This is the part of the Christmas story that often doesn’t make it into our celebrations or onto our greeting cards.
This is the gritty reality of the season that pushes us to think beyond the beautiful story we know so well and challenges us to grapple with what it really means for Jesus to come into this world.

For many of us, myself included, this Christmas season has been a respite from a difficult year.
While I am not convinced that 2016 was particularly any more terrible than any other year, there were things about last year that make many of us glad to see January 1 come at last.
So many beloved celebrities and role models died.
Place names got seared into our collective consciousness because of the tragedy or violence that happened there – places like Orlando, Dallas, St. Paul, Nice, Istanbul, Brussels, Berlin, Aleppo, and yes, even Chicago.
Our country seems more divided than ever after a scathing election cycle and our President-elect campaigned on a platform that would deny refuge to people fleeing persecution and war like the family in that picture that is still so fresh in my mind.

tumblr_inline_nh9zkoenic1qkqzlvFor many of us, Christmas has been a time to celebrate rather than worry – to spend time with family and (hopefully) not fight about politics.
A time to revel with loved ones and be thankful for the beautiful mystery of God coming to us as a little baby.
It’s not a time we want to focus on sad stories or challenging topics and certainly not think about stories like we hear in today’s gospel – a text of terror full of fear and unimaginable violence.
But if we want to understand the true meaning of Christmas, we have to keep in mind exactly these things that we might want to escape from.
Because, what does it mean to celebrate Emmanuel – God with us – if God is only here during the good times?
What happens when the parties end?
Where is God when we can’t celebrate or when Christmas isn’t a time where we can feel loved?
flightintoegypt-masaIf you ask me, that’s exactly why today’s gospel is so important to the Christmas story, challenging though it may be.
It’s, as one theologian has called it, Matthew’s Vision of the Incarnation, Part II.
Today Matthew is reminding us that the crazy thing about this incarnation where God comes to us to dwell with us is that God is here with us during the good times and the bad.
The story is more than shepherds and sheep and angels and magi – it’s a story where God became fully human and lived a fully human life.
And God didn’t choose to be born in a palace or a privileged family, but to a poor couple living under oppression. A couple who feared for the life of their baby.
God chose to come into this world as the son of a family who would soon become refugees as they fled their homeland in search safety.

2020miya20escape20to20egyptFor some, this radical incarnation was seen as a threat to their power.
King Herod was determined to do whatever it took to hold on to his own power – even murdering countless innocent children.
It was into this terrifying reality that God’s incarnation was given its truest meaning – that God stands with God’s people through the most tragic and challenging times.
The incarnation means that God has, and continues to, fully experience these things with God’s people.
That God knows what it means to weep and to mourn and to flee for life itself and God is with those who know what these things mean too.
On this day, we remember how God became human and so quickly became a refugee as God clung on to that life and new birth that we celebrate during this season of Christmas.

So in a way, that picture of the family fleeing Aleppo really can give us a fuller understanding of our Christmas celebrations.
In a way, that family really is the Holy Family who fled the wrath of a murderous and oppressive dictator.
Because in the face of every refugee, every victim of violence, every person reeling from tragedy, we have the chance to glimpse the face of God found in Christ Jesus who fled to Egypt and who knows what it means to cling on to the precious life we have been given.

d8af46024e44bd93dd01739cb7287443As troubling as this story is, it tells us an amazing truth: God does not stand at a distance from us, but through the incarnation, Emmanuel, God with us, is here – is in Aleppo – is in all the places where people are living under fear and terror and God stands with us in the most intimate way.
And this means that whatever 2017 may throw at us, God will be with us too.

Whatever joys we have, Emmanuel is with us.
Whatever pains we endure, God knows them and feels them too.
Even in the darkest of times, God is with us and promises to accompany us through all the fear, all the uncertainty, and all the violence and bring us into life abundant in Christ Jesus.

This is our Christmas joy and our hope for the new year and beyond.

Thanks be to God.

What’s in a Name?

+ A sermon given for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A) at Wicker Park Lutheran Church on December 18, 2016 +

Texts: Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

It finally happened this week.
After resisting for so long, I succumbed to that upcoming holiday – the one we haven’t started celebrating yet – and I listened to Christmas music.
Even worse, I even sang along!
And I know, during this time of waiting we call Advent we have to be patient.
I was doing so well too!
My end of the semester reading and writing was perfectly accompanied by the meditative and anticipatory music of Advent as I awaited both Christ’s coming and the coming end of my school work.
The Church tells us to spend this time to prepare ourselves for Christmas – and if you were here last week, you know that I even preached about that from this very pulpit!
So I confess to you, my siblings in Christ, that I am already looking forward to the end of this week with joyous anticipation and living into that Christmas spirit a bit.

And while I was feeling a little ashamed for my jumping ahead on my Christmas celebrations, as I prepared to preach on this morning’s gospel text, I saw that the creators of our lectionary also jumped ahead!
Here we are in the fourth week and final of Advent, so close to the finish line, and we hear Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ birth.
Sure, there aren’t any shepherds, there isn’t a manger scene with animals around, and we only get one angel, but this is all that is said about Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew.
But Matthew’s telling really isn’t about the remarkable nature of the birth of Jesus as much as it is about what led up to it.
We can sometimes see how each gospel book can have a different perspective on the events of Jesus’ life and in this case, Matthew is less concerned about what happened at the actual birth of Jesus as he is with linking it with Isaiah’s prophecies of the coming Messiah.

isaiah-iconThe portion of the Book of Isaiah we heard this morning takes place around seven centuries before Jesus.
The Kingdom of Judah was under great threat from its neighbors who were looking to attack and King Ahaz was desperate for a sign of God’s protection.
Through the Prophet Isaiah, God gave the people of Judah hope through the foretelling of this sign – a “young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” And before this child is even old enough to eat, the threat of the kingdoms you fear will be gone and their lands will be deserted.

When Judah’s enemies surrounded them, God promised a sign to remind them that God is with them.

I wonder how King Ahaz reacted to this prophecy.
With the threat of powerful enemies preparing for attack, I would imagine that Ahaz would have much preferred God’s sign to be a mighty army or a great general or a divine lightning bolt directed at his foes – something concrete to defeat his enemies.
But instead, he is promised a baby as a reminder of God’s presence.
It’s as if God is telling him, ‘Look at this new life coming forth in your midst – look at the love this mother has for her newborn son and be reminded of my love for my people. Listen to her name her son and every time she calls his name, let it be a reminder to you that I am with you.’

Seven centuries later, the people of Israel were living under occupation by the Roman Empire.
Taxes were tough, most people worked hard labor just to get by, and many longed for freedom and independence.
It was into this reality that Jesus would be born and Matthew intentionally links Jesus’ birth with the prophecy Isaiah gave to King Ahaz all those years before.
Matthew tells his people that while these foreign powers are dominating the land, God reminds them through the birth of a baby that God is there with them.
But this time, it’s even more than a reminder – this time, God will be born into their world through this little baby.
weepingmotherofgodofthesignatnovgorodMatthew’s gospel gives us two names for this baby – Emmanuel, “God is with us,” and Jesus, or in Hebrew Yeshua, which means “God saves.”
Once again, Matthew tells us, God responds to the oppression of enemies not with a great army, but with a tiny baby whose very name reminds us that God is with us and that God saves us.
In a world that craves vengeance or the crushing of one’s enemies, God’s sign comes through the new life of a baby.
And this baby reminds us that God stands in solidarity with us – that God knows what we are going through – that God is empowering us to be God’s presence in the world.
God doesn’t come through an army to kill God’s enemies, but comes among us and with us so we can be signs of God’s presence for all who are in desperate need of it.

In Advent, we once again await the coming of this sign, this new life, and this reminder of God’s presence among us.
We know our desperate need for God’s presence in our world.
We see the atrocities of Aleppo and the faces of the Syrian refugees.
We see the brokenness of a system where people work multiple full-time jobs and still struggle to put food on the table.
We see the needs we have in our own lives to be reminded of God’s presence.
And through this coming baby, we are reminded that God is with us – God stands with us – God empowers us to be God’s presence in the world.

This week, I am reminded of that old Shakespearean question, “What’s in a name?”
Matthew tells us this week of two names given to this coming child – Jesus, God saves, and Emmanuel, God with us.
Today we also are singing through the ancient hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” – based off the 7 names of Jesus that have been repeated by Christians for centuries in the final days of Advent.
These names each come from prophecy in Isaiah and remind us what we know about this child whose birth we are eagerly awaiting.o-antiphons-symbols

O Come, Wisdom – the Divine Word of God made flesh through whom the world was made.

O Come, Lord – giver of the law whose righteousness and faithfulness knows no bounds.

O Come, Branch of Jesse – restorer of David’s dynasty and perfect ruler of all God’s people.

O Come, Key of David – liberator of the house of Israel who frees all captives living under oppression.

O Come, Morning Star – bringer of light to the world and enlightener of those who live in darkness.

O Come, King of Nations – Prince of Peace who rules over the whole world a reign of love and justice for all people.

O Come, Emmanuel – Reminder that God is with us and stands with us and empowers us to be God’s presence in the world that is so desperate for a sign.

O Come.


Jesus of the Oppressed

+ A sermon given for the Twenty Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Year C) – Proper 28C/Ordinary 33C at Wicker Park Lutheran Church on November 13, 2016 +

Texts: Malachi 4:1-2a, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

I think it’s safe to say that this has been an emotional week in our country.
I imagine many of you were disappointed by the results of last Tuesday’s election – I imagine many of you were excited by them too.
One thing seems clear to me, after 18 months of campaigning and debating and bickering, our country feels more divided now than it did before.

But it’s more than civil disagreement that is dividing us.
In the three days following the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center recorded over 200 individual incidents of hateful intimidation or harassment against groups or individuals who happen to be Black, Muslim, Latinx, LGBTQ, women, and more.

Hijabs have been ripped from women’s heads.
People have been told to ‘go back’ to where they ‘came from.’
Swastikas and slogans like “Make America White Again” have been spray-painted in public places.
The list goes on.

There are even reports of increased bullying in schools against minority students.
Many of these incidents appear to be in reaction to the hateful rhetoric that was so casually thrown around during the presidential campaign.

My own social media feed and personal conversations have been filled with friends and loved ones who are members of minority groups and who have expressed fear or uncertainty about what might happen to them in the coming days, weeks, months, and years.
I’m sure many of you have heard similar concerns or fears as well.
It’s a scary time for many people to be living in this country. Continue reading

Recognizing Lazarus

+ A sermon given for the Nineteenth Monday after Pentecost (Year C) – Proper 21C/Ordinary 26C at Augustana Chapel, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on September 26, 2016 +

Texts: Luke 16:19-31

Audio can be found here

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
810iasgmuylThis is one of the nuggets of advice immortalized by Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People – and it’s advice I’ve been given on a number of occasions.
I am admittedly terrible at following this bit of wisdom because I am terrible at remembering names.
And let me tell you, internship was especially trying for me in this department – suddenly I was at a congregation with a thousand members who all knew exactly who I was, but when they came to shake my hand after worship, I frankly wasn’t sure if they were long-time pillars of the community or first-time visitors.

“Hello, Intern Paul!” they’d say. “Thank you for worship today!”

“Hello…you! Thank you for being here!”

I really did work on learning names, but for the first few months, I would get a twisted gut every time someone came up to me with their hand outstretched and I wracked my brain in vain for their name.
And by the time I finally learned everyone’s names, it was almost time to say goodbye so I could come back to seminary – only to realize that nearly the entire student body has changed since I’ve been gone and I have a whole new set of names to learn!

Now I know names really are important and something I need to diligently work on when I get into a new place. As Mr. Carnegie says, they are the sweetest sound in our ears.
And I think that is because names help give us our humanity.
Using a person’s name shows that you recognize them, you see them, and you value them.
We see the importance of names throughout Scripture – the divine renaming of Abram and Sarai, the holy mystery of I AM, the revelation of the resurrected Jesus through the name “Mary.” And in the waters of our baptism, God names us and claims us as beloved children of God.

This past summer, we have learned many names that have been thrust into our national consciousness because of violence.
061216_ch_orlandovigil_01-02Alton Sterling and Philando Castile – shot by police officers in Baton Rouge and St. Paul.
Lorne Ahrens and Michael Smith – two of the five Dallas police officers killed protecting a peaceful protest.
Juan Ramon Guerrero and Christopher “Drew” Leinonen, partners whose families were hoping to plan a wedding, but instead held a joint funeral after they were shot and killed in a gay nightclub in Orlando.
In a few weeks, people around the world will gather in communion to remember the names of the trans folk who have been murdered this year – people like Crystal Edmonds and Dee Whigham.
And this last week, this country has added Terence Crutcher and Keith Scott to our grizzly list of remembrances after their shootings by police in Tulsa and Charlotte.

We remember their names so that their unique stories are not forgotten.
We remember their names to remind ourselves of the injustices of the world and the work left to do.
We remember their names to remember their humanity – the humanity that was taken from them by acts of fear or hatred.

143_bigToday, Jesus tells us a story about Lazarus.
His story is unique too – not only because it only appears in Luke’s gospel, but also because Lazarus is the only character in any of Jesus’ parables to get a name, so immediately we know something is different.
On its face, this parable seems to fit into the Lukan theme of God’s great reversal – Lazarus the poor man dies and goes to heaven while the unnamed rich man goes to Hades. The man who had everything ends up with nothing while the man with nothing ends up in paradise. Or, as we hear in Mary’s song in Luke 1, “[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; [God] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Typical Luke – God’s divine justice upending human economy.

And we can understand why this reversal has happened in the parable: the rich man knew Lazarus – he passed by him as he left his house each morning, he witnessed his suffering and yet, he did nothing to alleviate it.
Even in the afterlife, he dismisses Lazarus’ humanity by asking Father Abraham to send Lazarus to serve him. We know the rich man knew Lazarus because he recognized and named him when he saw Lazarus with Abraham. But we also know that during life and after death, the rich man did not see Lazarus as who he was – a human being worthy of love and respect.
The rich man could not see beyond his own privilege to see Lazarus’ suffering – to see the suffering of the communities around him.

It’s as if Lazarus was holding a sign that said, “Black Lives Matter” and the rich man walks by saying, “All Lives Matter.”g5x6ubkq

It’s as if Lazarus was a police officer killed in the line of duty and the rich man walks by saying, “all cops are pigs.”

It’s as if Lazarus was gunned down while dancing in a gay nightclub on Latino night and the rich man refuses to even acknowledge that he was gay or Latino.

It’s as if Lazarus was murdered for being trans and the rich man misgenders him and utters a slur.

But it’s also as if Lazarus was homeless on the street and the rich man walks by without acknowledging his existence.

Now I know, beloved siblings, that I am personally guilty of at least one of those violations of Lazarus’ humanity. And that’s why I think this parable is less about what will happen when we die and more about how we should live now.
I think the Lukan Jesus is more interested in how we relate with each other in this life than the punishments that may follow if we fall short.
Luke is telling us of the community we can have in Christ – a community where all people are valued and cared for.
A community where my humanity is bound up in your humanity and oppression and violence cease.
A community where the kingdom of God breaks into this world, not just the next one.
Because sending the rich man to Hades does not alleviate Lazarus’ suffering in this life – but truly seeing him could.
If the rich man were to recognize Lazarus as a fellow child of God – bridge the chasm between them – he would do everything he could to help him.


“Beautiful Jesus”, Mariama McCarthy

And just as the rich man requested of Abraham, we have one who has come to teach us that we should love each other – even one who has come from the dead.
One who has named the prophets as the basis of his ministry – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because [God] has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” – and one who, following his resurrection, interpreted to his disciples the scriptures, beginning with Moses and the prophets.

God has given us a life of abundance with love and joy to share.
We are called to share that love with each other here and now – not wait to be brought to the bosom of Abraham.
We are called to recognize each other’s sufferings and bear our neighbor’s burdens – not pass by without seeing them.
We are called to bring forth the kingdom of God through the beloved community we have in Christ Jesus so all may know God’s abundant life.

God in the Boat

+ A sermon given for Storm Sunday in the Season of Creation (3C) at Wicker Park Lutheran Church on September 18, 2016 +

Texts: Luke 8:22-25

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

My siblings in Christ, let me say how grateful I am to be with you all. I’ve had the chance to meet some of you by now, but for those who don’t know me, I am Vicar Paul Eldred and this is the third week of my pastoral residency here at Wicker Park Lutheran. I look forward to getting to know you all during my year here, but for just a short blurb about me, I am a senior at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago down in Hyde Park. I spent the past year as a full-time pastoral intern in St. Peter, Minnesota. Even though I’ve spent the past three years in the Midwest, I’m not from here – the Pacific Northwest is home for me. In fact, three years ago as my husband and I were moving from Seattle to Chicago so I could start seminary, I remember very clearly the day we could tell that we had entered the Midwest.

We were driving through eastern South Dakota and whizzing past cornfields and wheat fields and then some more cornfields and I wondered what the next few years would be like.

Prairie Storm Clouds lightning storm

And then, as happens in the Midwest, the skies started to change color and darken. We could see the clouds building up behind us as we raced down the interstate. And just about the time it was pitch black outside, the first bolt of lightning flashed down from the sky.
Now, there are many differences between the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, but one is this: we never get lightning. Really, once or twice a year is the maximum.
And since I’d lived my entire life in the Northwest and Alaska, this was my first time driving through lightning – and I was terrified.
Each lightning bolt made me jump and then the rain started pouring down too. It got to the point where I had to pull over and make my husband, Ryan, drive for a while as I cowered in the passenger seat.

It’s times like this that give me a lot of sympathy for the disciples in today’s gospel reading.
There they are, in the middle of the Sea of Galilee in a small little boat and a storm comes down on them.
The waves are raging so much that the boat starts to sink.
india_02_27_08__172p_The disciples, understandably, are fearing for their lives. So they turn to Jesus, who somehow is sleeping through this storm, and wake him up. And when Jesus wakes up, he commands the storm to cease – and it was calm.
The disciples are amazed.
Yes, they are amazed that their friend and teacher has such power over the elements of creation, but I think they’re also amazed because they’re starting to understand who is actually in the boat with them. I think this is when they realize that this man is more than a teacher and healer – that God is physically and truly in the boat with them during the storm.
And while they are relieved that the storm has ended and they are safe, I imagine that they are even more at peace when they understand the full magnitude of what Jesus’ presence means to them: that even in the midst of the storm, Jesus – God – is with them.

When I was living in Minnesota last year, we had our fair share of thunderstorms. And while I never quite got used to them, I did appreciate their beauty: the rain they brought that watered the corn and soybean crops, the magnificent colors the sky turned, and the particular smell that follows lightning storms. Not to mention that they usually brought the humidity levels down.
I even have friends who looked forward to these storms – who would rush outside to see them roll in across the prairie.
But each time a storm came, I would keep in my mind the awesome power that they can yield and wonder, ‘will this one cause destruction? Will this one turn into a tornado?’
Eighteen years ago, the little town where I served my internship did experience a devastating tornado. I’ve been told that nearly all of the buildings in the town were damaged in some way – and many were destroyed.
That day changed the town and many still mark its occurrence in daily conversations – “back before the tornado” or “since the tornado,” were common phrases while I was there.
But the damage from that storm also brought the people of St. Peter together and strengthened their bonds of community in the rebuilding.
New relationships were formed and new ideas proposed. St. Peter is also home to Gustavus Adolphus College, an ELCA school, and the campus was hard hit by the tornado. 3755_aChrist Chapel, an impressive building right at the center of campus, was no exception – all of its windows were broken and its iconic steeple, visible for miles around, snapped and fell through the roof of the church. But as the damaged was assessed in the building, one of the chaplains at the time made an interesting discovery – the chapel’s sanctuary lamp, a candle some congregations burn continuously to represent Christ’s eternal presence with us was still burning.
Even though the windows had blown out and the roof had fallen in, this symbolic candle was still burning – reminding them that Christ was and is with them amid the destruction and confusion that engulfed the town.

St. Peter is obviously not the only place to have experienced such devastating storms.
From Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to the Japanese Tsunami that inspired our hymn of the day, we see or experience the destructive power of storms all around us. We see the aftermath and the calls to donate money or blood or supplies.
And we wonder, where is God in all of this?
Why is there such pain and damage caused by God’s good creation?
If you listen to some loud voices on TV, you may hear that these storms are proof of God’s wrath on the earth – and sometimes against the United States.
I have heard that these storms are caused by gay marriage or by religious pluralism or because any number of hot-button issues.
But the God I know does not cause suffering, but suffers with us.
The God I know does not inflict pain, but is with us when we hurt.
Hear again the words from our absolution this morning: “Your God is not high in heaven playing wild games with nature…Your God is the suffering God, revealed on the cross, Your God suffers with all who suffer after a storm. God too suffers in our storms.”
God is not sending storms to punish us, God is with us – Christ is with us, in the boat, ready to calm our fears and there to comfort us in our despair.

Who is My Neighbor?

+ A sermon given for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Year C) – at First Lutheran Church, St. Peter, MN on July 10, 2016 +

Texts: Luke 10:25-37

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

My beloved siblings in Christ, this is the third sermon in a row where I have struggled to find words to encapsulate the grief our country has experienced in the prior week – and struggled even more to find gospel hope to leave you with. This week has been another difficult one for many people in our community and in our country.

Tuesday morning, Alton Sterling was shot and killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Wednesday night, Philando Castile was shot and killed in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.

Thursday night, five police officers were shot and killed and another seven wounded while they were on duty at a peaceful protest in Dallas, Texas.

I’m sure news of these events entered each of our homes. Videos of these horrific acts were plastered all over social media and on a constant loop on cable news.

And after weeks of painful news from Stanford, from Orlando, from Istanbul, and Dhaka, and Baghdad, and Medina, there were times this week I had to just turn off the TV and get off Facebook, because the grief was too much to bear.
It was hard for me to hear people insist that All Lives Matter, even though it is our Black siblings that are being killed at disproportionate rates.
That Alton Sterling and Philando Castile should have done more to prevent their own untimely deaths.

So perhaps all the emotions of this past week is why I have so little patience for the lawyer in today’s Gospel reading. “Wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” Continue reading