ESMA ~ EEUU // Worlds Collide

When folks first heard I’d be spending my year in Argentina, I, like so many of my YAGM siblings, received some worried looks. At least one person even asked me, “don’t they have a dictatorship?”

(No, they don’t.)

But there was a subtle fear that trickled out of the fabric around us before we left for our years of service that most of us volunteers likely haven’t forgotten. This worry and concern for the danger of anything foreign, while ignoring the danger amidst us, is such a common United States mentality. Matthew 7: 5 comes to mind in hindsight.

Now the reality is, back in the 1970s, Argentina did have a dictatorship. A military coup (Junta) took over the government, and what ensued left a scar on both Argentina and her people, one that endures to this day. Given political power to “annihilate” the left-wing political factions of the nation, armed government soldiers and police began assassinating, and kidnapping any person who opposed the current government. They were taken from their homes, from their work, from the streets, in unmarked vehicles by federal soldiers and police. What followed was a decade-long cycle of kidnapping, imprisonment, torture, and murder of between 15,000-30,000 political “dissidents” against the Junta.

The majority of these people were in their twenties and thirties – a political movement, a generation, cut off at the knees.

Each Thursday, the aging mothers of these desaparecidos (“disappeared”) children fill the plaza before the Casa Rosada, before the seat of government, and speak the names of their lost loved ones. As we watched them march one rainy August afternoon, now old, supported by others, hair white as the handkerchiefs which represent their movement, the feeling was one of confusion, sadness, disbelief.


Now I find myself, just two years later, reading of militarized police and federal soldiers taking young adults like myself off the street into unmarked cars. I watch videos of their friends fearfully asking what they’ve done, why this is happening. I watch soldiers beat a veteran of their own country down, for asking a question. I watch mothers stand in the street, arms linked together, protecting the young people behind. Some of these stolen people protest for equity – something our president calls “radical-left”, a movement he eagerly admits hoping to destroy. Others are simply going about their lives when they’re taken.

And I’m shocked. Sad. Scared. Because this is what my family, my friends, strangers, were worried might happen to myself and my YAGM peers as we lived, worked, put down roots all over the world. And yet so many now ignore the frightening reality of our home country. My heart has been heavy, in recent days, as this reality washes over me. When I think of Argentina, I think of warm empanadas and mate, given abundantly by people who owed me nothing, yet gave me so much love.

Brokenness and evil come from willing ignorance of people, not from their differences. I implore that we find the Christ in our neighbor, all across the lands and seas of a world which feels so large, and yet is such a fragile refuge in an ocean of stars. I pray that we wake up. I feel as though there is a storm on the horizon.

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Ahora buscarme, solo dos años despues, leyendo de policía militarizada y soldados federales que estan abductando los jovenes en la calle y los poniendo en autos sin notificados. Ví videos de sus amigo@s con temor preguntando, “Qué hizo? Por qué es esto pasando?” Ví soldados del nacíon golpean excombatientes de la misma nacíon, solo porque los hizo una pregunta. Algun@s de estos desaparecid@s protestan por igualdad – una cosa que el presidente dice es del “izquierda-radical”, un movimiento político que el es re honesto que quiere destruir.

Y siento sorpresado. Triste. Tengo miedo. Porque esto es que mi familia, mis amig@s, extraños fueron preocupad@s que va a pasar a mi y mis amig@s de YAGM durante nuestr@s vidas, trabajos, y pusemos raízes a través de todo del mundo. Y a lo mismo tiempo no miramos al realidad que es pasando en nuestro paíz. Mi corazon es re pesado en estos dias, en el centro de este realidad. Cuando pienso de argentina, pienso de empanadas calientes y mate, da con generosidad de la gente que a mi tiene ningun deuda, y a lo mismo tiempo a mi dio tanto amor.

El quebrado y el mal viene de ignorancia conciente de gente, no de sus diferencias. Pido que buscamos El Cristo en el otro, en todos lados, a través del tierras y oceanos de un mundo enorme, pero a lo mismo tiempo es un mundo tanto pequeño en todo del espacio de este universo. Pido que despertarnos. Siento una tormenta en el horizonte.

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With fear for the past, and hope for the future,

Eric

 

The One About Anger // Volcan-Theology

On a sunny-but-cool spring morning in late April of 2017, myself and a couple dozen of my colleagues found ourselves slowly winding through the excavated streets of the Roman city of Pompeii, listening to our guide discuss various aspects of the history and culture that had been preserved in the ash of Mt. Vesuvius’ famous eruption nearly two-thousand years ago. As we turned down a small side street, I glanced to my left, and through the ruined stone of a long-since-forgotten structure, was met with the sweeping upward-curves of the volcano, framed perfectly by ancient walls. And in the foreground, growing from the dark soil that still filled the ruined plot, were the waving blooms of bright-red poppies. Struck by the symbolism, I lifted my camera, and twisting the lens into focus, snapped a picture.

A few hours later, I and a few of my friends would be panting heavily, our deep breaths matching the rhythm of loose stone crunching under our feet step-by-step, as we crested the final slope up onto the rim of Vesuvius itself. The warmth of the morning sun had not held out, and the grey sky above even elicited from us exclamations of alarm, as white flecks of ash fell lightly onto our faces, only for us to realize they were, in fact, snowflakes. With the mountain steaming quietly to my left, I hiked round to the far side of the caldera, and stood there in wonder, looking out onto the cities of Napoli and Torre del Greco, whose urban fabric tightly hugged the flanks of the mountain below, even as the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum sat in their midst, warning quietly of threats yet to come.

Now this week, it was Wednesday night, and I was laying in bed. My eyes were focused upward onto the dark ceiling of my bedroom, as the tumult of the world around us again found itself raging within me. I’m sure many of you know the feeling by now. The burning uncertainty, the anxiety, the stress, so – much – stress, as the prayers I offer up to the Lord during the day don’t seem to be enough anymore to ease the frustration welling up within me. For someone who is so often emotional, I’ve been remarkably stone-faced over the past few months. And that has worried me. You see, I’m not an angry person. I’ve never been able to hold on to grudges, even when I’ve desperately wanted to. I tend flee from anger. But as this pandemic crisis continues, and as I witness the destruction it wreaks on so much that we hold dear, I’ve felt such fury, but then, before I can let the anger go, it will suddenly recede deep within me. Then, sometime later it will burst back upward, bubbling even higher and closer to my mouth, and then again, for some reason unable to escape, it will dive back down to the depths. I felt it well up suddenly this week as I read these words from our Psalm for the first time: “For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us just as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid heavy burdens upon our backs. You let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and water,” and then I reached the next few words: “but you brought us out into a place of refreshment.” And my anger fell back within me.

All across our planet, we find volcanoes, these stone vents for the power that still churns beneath Earth’s surface. I’ve always been fascinated with them, if my romanticizing Vesuvius wasn’t enough of a clue. In particular, I’m amazed at the way some mountains, like the Hawaiian Islands, or Mount Etna in Sicily, release magma fluidly and constantly, while others, like Vesuvius, or Mt. Saint Helen’s here in the United States, explode suddenly with incredible power. If you’ll humor my metaphor a bit further, I’ve learned over the years that the difference comes from the magma itself. Some liquid rock is very fluid, and hot, with little gas trapped within it, and so it spills out onto the surface, flowing as quickly and as far as gravity will take it. But the rock inside mountains like Vesuvius is different – it’s only slightly cooler, but much more gummy and plastic, and most importantly of all it’s full of trapped gases, so it sticks up beneath the mountain, clogging the vent, and building in pressure until the energy is so great that it bursts outward and upward, in whatever direction it can. Think of the “mentos” and coke experiment we often did as kids – the foam has to go somewhere.

So as I laid there in bed Wednesday night, my anger welling up within me, nearly bursting from my throat in a sound that, for my mother and sister’s sakes I’m glad didn’t erupt from me that night, I thought back onto a conversation from the young-adult study I’ve been a part of for the last eight weeks. Abide, the group is called, taken from the text in John just after our Gospel reading for this week. You see, I recalled that three weeks ago, our Abide groups spoke about the holiness of anger. And it was in that moment for me that everything clicked. You see, so often in the church, and especially I think, as Lutherans, we shy away from our anger. We are afraid to acknowledge that, as a God-given emotion, anger is holy. Anger is good. It certainly can manifest dangerously into hate, and wrath, but so too can any good thing be twisted by brokenness into a sinful thing. Good food into gluttony. Sexual pleasure into lust. But anger, in and of itself, is a blessed thing. This week we read in the Gospel of the Spirit, our Advocate. This Advocate is not arguing in our favor to God, but instead is God pouring God’s-self into us. Walking with us and filling us. Bestowing us with the Godly power we so desperately need to live out Christ’s example. This ancient energy does not come from without, but from within us. And it is powerful, bursting into the world from our hands and voices and bringing newness to the Earth.

When a volcano erupts, it’s the same transformative Spirit power of our planet bursting onto its surface. So often in the Western world, we view fire as evil, but so many cultures and native peoples, and certainly we Kansans, know that fire is a cleansing thing – necessary for the health of the prairie and the things that live upon it. It’s because we as humans try to manipulate that power, rather than celebrate it, that we often find ourselves in the path of its destruction. Look at Pentecost, which comes to us so soon. Fire is the Spirit, and the Spirit is fire. Christ understood that the time after his ascension would not be easy. You can feel the concern, love, and reassurance in his voice this week when we read “‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me”. Jesus knows the difficult trials ahead – a world which without Jesus’ physical body can often leave us feeling overwhelmed and forlorn. But Jesus goes on, saying to the disciples and to us, “but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” In the meanwhile, my dear siblings in Christ, I want to bless your anger. I want to bless my anger. Because yes, if we’re not careful it can level towns and take lives. But the beauty of anger is in its power to transform us. The beauty of our Earth’s volcanic spirit, is that from lava comes new life. The nutrients of that fresh ash and rock yield lush grapes for good wine.

And so I close with a question: Do you know why the poppies at Pompeii struck me so, blowing in that spring breeze years ago? Because the poppy also bloomed one hundred years earlier, at the end of the First World War. A time which saw more death and destruction and unhealthy wrath than perhaps any other in human history. A time which also brought a pandemic, one far worse than ours. And yet, from the churned-up soil of the battlefields of France, came a flower which bloomed so completely and fully, that whole fields and hillsides were covered in nothing but its blossoms. Amen

 

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In anger, pursuing peace,

 

Eric

Indecision // Accompaniment // Emmaus

These last few weeks, I have been wrestling furiously with my own inaction. Because, as at least a few of you can sympathize, it seems like the longer that this pandemic carries on, the harder and harder it has become to do, well… anything. Getting up at the normal time, brushing my teeth and showering, devotions, emails, sermon writing, all of it. Bit by bit, week by week, I have felt my energy draining lower – and lower – and lower… Until this week, when even the core parts of my daily routine and self-care, things that bring me enjoyment, even they began to lose their lift on my spirit.

All the while, the world raced on around me, as we all fight to overcome this virus. This pandemic, which has taken so much from us. And I felt angry – I felt angry that I didn’t know what to do. That I could see injustice and brokenness in the world welling up to the surface in so many black geysers, and yet I felt I had no strength to fight. Now for me, this has been really really hard. Because the biggest revelation in my faith over the last year or so, has been that evil thrives when others are apathetic, and do nothing. And so my brain, my greatest ally, and also my greatest enemy, has been criticizing myself endlessly for not doing enough, for not saying enough, for not being enough. But then this week, as I began to drag my feet again through Sunday or Monday, or maybe it was Tuesday? (let’s be honest, how many of us even keep track of the days of the week anymore?). Well it was sometime early this week, that I stumbled across a realization while digging into our texts – I was struck by a sudden and powerful sense of fellowship with these two disciples on the road.

Over the last couple of years, this Road to Emmaus passage from Luke has become a mainstay in my life. It’s through this story that our Latin American siblings brought the message of “accompaniment” to our church, a message which now serves as the cornerstone of our Global Mission in the ELCA, and it is from this story that the spirit of the YAGM program was born. So of course, I’m going to be a little biased towards it, but the reason that I so love this text is because, until the very end of the story, God’s presence feels all but nonexistent. Now of course for us readers, this text couldn’t be more full of God’s movement among us, but for these two disciples, for Cleopas and his friend, they are feeling as though they are walking alone. Their journey, is the after-Easter slump, but without the Easter. Though I can’t know for sure, I imagine their movements were somewhat sluggish, trudging along, discussing, questioning, lamenting. Their teacher, the one they had hoped was their Messiah, their friend, he was dead, dead and now also missing. The story was over, so it was time to go home.

However, we soon see that while on the way, the resurrected Jesus himself comes among them. The one person these two people would have most wanted, most needed to see. But for some reason, Jesus hides his identity from the disciples, and for a long time while I was growing up, that bothered me about this story. Why would Jesus do that? Pretend to be someone else, so that his sad and grieving friends wouldn’t immediately get to experience the joy of the resurrection. At one point I wondered if Jesus does this just so that he can lecture the disciples on their lack of faith. That really bothered me. At another time I wondered if it was just so Jesus could have a bigger “Taadaa!” moment later. That bothered me too. But then during YAGM’s placement event, a pastor spoke on this text, and placed it in a new light for me. Jesus comes to these disciples through a person they do not expect, gives them deeper knowledge and understanding of God’s loving plan for our world, and in the end God’s holy presence is only revealed to them through the breaking of bread with this, a stranger. You might start to understand how global mission would tie into that message, and if not, that’s okay, though it’ll have to wait for another sermon.

So, this week when I first read through these texts, I originally was met again with God’s loving presence in the face of those I do not expect. But as I read and reread the Gospel lesson, the new meaning that embraced me this week, from looking into this text in the midst of this pandemic, was Christ’s meeting his disciples in the midst of their grief, and their confusion. At Jesus’ asking about their conversation, they stop moving, still and sad, and pour out their lament to this stranger. What struck me particularly this time round were their words: “But we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” I could ask you all what hopes and dreams of our own have fallen to the wayside recently. Vacations, athletic tournaments, graduations, proms, weddings, time with friends, time with family? This is what so gripped me this week. That Jesus comes to his disciples, though they have lost faith, though they have missed the point, and just listens to them. Walks with them in their uncertainty and their doubt. And then with a strange sort of loving-scorn, that feels a bit like a parent who kneels down with open arms towards their upset child and says, “Oh for heaven’s sake, come here” Jesus offers them yet another explanation of his teachings, just to help them get it.

These disciples missed the signs Jesus had left, telling them he had risen. The signs in the scriptures, and their disbelief at the women’s words from the angel. These disciples were human; how many of us are likely to behave any differently than they had? The world we live in has a way of eating away at faith and hope – sin and brokenness are so very powerful that way. However, God comes to us, in the midst of our worrying or our fear, and listens to us. In Psalm one hundred and sixteen we read this week that God “inclined his ear to me”. How loving. How intimate. That our God would lower God’s-self to hear us, and that each time we fall lower to the ground, God comes closer to us still, even to Earth as one of us, even to die as one of us. This has been the great comfort for me this week, as we continue on in the midst of this draining time.

My mental health, which is so often a gift, has also so often broken me down these last few weeks. Anxiety preventing my uncertain hands from confidently doing the simplest of things. Yet God comes to me, to all of us, always encouraging us to do more, but also always offering grace and love, when we say “today, Lord, I can’t”. The resurrection message for us this week is a constant and eternal outpouring of grace amid the brokenness that grips this world. God’s quiet roadside message of, “I love you. And I walk with you. In all that you do, and all that you cannot. But when you again find the strength to walk further down the road, I will lift you up, and I will joyously pour my love and wisdom into you, my dearest ones. And at journey’s end, in the breaking of the bread, you will see my face, and know that death is but temporary, for through me eternal life has come to all.” Amen

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In peace, here and on the road,

Eric

The Cornerstone // The Christ

1st Reading :: Acts 10: 34 – 43

Psalm 118: 1 – 2, 14 – 24

2nd Reading :: Colossians 3: 1 – 4

Gospel :: Matthew 28: 1 – 10

Almost everything about Easter has felt wrong to me this year. I mean, yes, work in congregational ministry inherently means that Holy Week will feel different than it did before we were the one in the pulpit or at an organ console; we understand that leaving the pew behind is part of the job, and that the shift from laity to clergy (and yes I know I’m a long way yet from ordination) also comes with some wonderful new additions to our faith. But this year… This year is different.

It’s not just that prerecording services means I don’t get to wait until Saturday to actually write my sermon (let’s be honest – I definitely take a leaf or two from Pastor Kristin’s book), no. The difference was decorating the sanctuary for Easter two weeks early to record a favorite hymn, in case we weren’t able to leave our homes this morning. It was recording Good Friday service, and then going home to find my family joyfully cooking together the day before Palm Sunday. It’s the preaching of an Easter sermon to an empty room. I ran across a Tweet this week from the Reverend Dr. Emily Heath, who said, “The first Easter didn’t happen at a church. It happened outside an empty tomb, while all the disciples were sequestered in a home, grief stricken and wondering what was going on. So we’re going to be keeping things pretty Biblical this Easter.” And that Tweet, those couple of sentences, they hit on a chunk of reality that I’ve been chewing on these last few weeks. Because all of the rapid jumping around, from Lent to Easter, back to Lent, to Good Friday and Maundy Thursday, and then back to Palm Sunday. It’s been pounding all these different chapters of the Passion into my head in new and strange combinations. What’s more, we find this pandemic exposing many deeper secrets and truths that we, our nation, and our world have long attempted to hide within ourselves. Really, to me, that there is the Passion of Jesus Christ: our deepest secrets and truths laid bare, while we sit at home – grieving, isolated.

You know, at K-State, when I was studying architecture, there was one thing that came up again and again. We heard it as we began our first week of freshman design studio, and kept hearing it all the way through to the end of our thesis designs five years later: you’re never done designing. It’s a common idea in many professions I think, and we students began to understand its truth pretty quickly. The design process up to the final production of your project is an endless sink of creative energy – a bit like a black hole, to be honest. You can pour and pour and pour yourself into your idea, and it can grow and shift and change, but there’s always more to do. The thing was though, that we kept getting into the habit of saying “alright, my design is done” when the time came to build final models, or to sit down for critiques. Now this was much to the delight of our waiting professors, because they could sniff out that “finished design” mentality a mile away, and they were always ready to let – you – have it.

So what am I getting at here? After all, Jesus’ last words from the cross on Friday were literally “it is finished”. Why bring up this whole “the work is never done” idea, and ask all these questions when God seems to have already given us the answer through Christ’s life, death, and now joyful resurrection? Stick with me.

Because on the one hand, Easter really does mark an endpoint for the Creator’s whole plan of deliverance. God’s covenant with Abraham, the safe passage of the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, in and out of exile – God’s people seem to have experienced every possible twist and turn to finally reach this point: their Messiah who has finally come into the world, and saved it from sin through his death and resurrection on this, Easter Sunday. And see that’s the thing – In many regards, God’s work is done. The tomb is empty. The body is raised. Death has no enduring power, and we are once again brought back into the fold, the flock, the kingdom. But the thing is, on that first Easter two thousand years ago, that flock was still pretty small. The early church, much like the Messiah – was of God, and filled with incredible power and beauty, but was born into this world isolated and frail, tiny and human. That church of a dozen or so Jews would need time to grow in strength and wisdom, and at first didn’t even see their deliverance as something for everyone. But that would soon change…

You might have noticed that our reading from Acts this morning is actually one we read a couple of months back. And if you remember any of my sermon from that weekend (absolutely no judgement if you don’t), you might recall that there was a really cool thing about the translation of Peter’s words in this text. Peter doesn’t really say “I truly understand that God shows no partiality” in the Greek, but instead says something closer to “I am truly beginning to understand that God shows no partiality”, a difference which might seem unimportant, but is actually incredibly – stinking – cool. Because Peter, the apostle and faithful Jew – Peter, who is in the household of a powerful Roman centurion: a foreign occupier of Peter’s nation and people, the very empire which helped nail his Messiah and dear friend to the cross, a man who is supposed to declare Caesar as Lord, not Jesus. It’s to this man, and his household, that Peter casts off the exclusivity of his God and his Messiah, which had been a key piece of his culture and religion for centuries, to say now that all people, and all nations can be brought salvation through God and Christ. Church, this moment for Peter points to a greater movement of the Spirit in our world. She is showing Peter that there is far more work to be done. Christ has died and is risen, but God’s tent needs to be stretched much, much wider. And my dear siblings in Christ, it’s here that I arrive back at the now, the us.

During this next part church, you are welcome to disagree with me, but these last few weeks I have thought – honestly, I have prayed, that this pandemic might show the people of our country a dark secret, a truth we have tried to hide for a long time now: that, like architecture students, we have been pretending our design is finished. Because for so long, I have heard, heck I have joined in with, the scorn against the words “Black Lives Matter”. But now I look to the reality that in Chicago, 70% of COVID-19 fatalities are black. And I look to the almost non-existent statistics for coronavirus in people of color (it’s worth nothing that those with power only tend to record the facts we consider to be important), and I see the reality that African Americans in this country are twice as likely to die from the coronavirus than someone who is white. And persons of Latino descent are 50% more likely to die than a person with the color of my skin. I look to our industrial prison complexes, which are full to bursting largely because of minimum sentencing and because people who commit petty crimes cannot afford their bail. I look at the apathy towards dismantling those institutions, while at the same time the single greatest concentration of global coronavirus cases is in Cook County Jail in Chicago. And to me, this isn’t partisan, it’s human life. I look to global efforts against this pandemic, and read news of the research going on in Senegal and so many other countries to create a home test-kits, because we Western nations wield our power and privilege to purchase nearly all manufactured coronavirus tests for ourselves, leaving others with next to nothing. Folx, these aren’t new problems or situations, it’s simply that the coronavirus has dressed them up vibrantly enough that we are actually forced to notice them. Yet the urge for so many of us is going to be to decry these colorful outfits as nothing more than a clown. Dear church, I beg that we don’t.

Our Psalm today declares that famous phrase, “the stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” Christ is risen, “it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The foundation of faith and salvation has been laid through the resurrection of Christ and it is our one firm foundation. But church, we’ve still got to design the building that goes on top of it. And the reality is that – the design is never finished. You know, the Greeks originally built all their temples out of wood, but they didn’t stop there. They went on to master masonry, and rebuilt all those temples in beautiful stone. And then the Romans learned from them, and invented new ways of building – concrete, and the dome, and indoor plumbing. And then that empire fell, and those secrets were lost for hundreds of years before we began to rediscover them.  This art of design is a process of trial and error, but that’s why when we Lutherans fall, we lean into God’s grace, pick up our tools back up, and continue the work.

We so often declare ourselves saved by grace, rather works. That is the chief joy of our faith. Christ has died and risen, taking the burden upon himself so that we do not have to carry it. I asked earlier why I should bring up this idea of “the work never being finished” in the light of our redemption? But it’s precisely because there is always more celebration, joy, and love to pour into this world, that our Christian work is never done – just as God has poured endless life and grace into us on this Easter morn. It’s the joy we find in Christ’s lifting the yolk from our shoulders, that drives us, as church, to follow the way of Jesus in our own lives. Now for some reason, as I was pondering all of this, the words to the preamble of our nation’s constitution came to mind. But let me tell you how I read the mission set before us by that famous “We the People”: That we human beings, in the full scope of our diversity, in order to celebrate the beauty of that diversity, to live in equity and equality, to ensure peace for this family, to defend and sacrifice ourselves for one another’s safety, to lovingly lift up all members under our roof, and to protect the blessing of freedom for us and all who follow us. That is what I have always seen as the witness of our congregation. That is our resurrection message. That is the Easter message that Reformation shares with the world, if only we can cast off our privilege and realize that there is no country, party, or flag tied to this kingdom we are to pursue.

No, there is only the kingdom of Christ, whose realm no wall, no mountains, no ocean can divide. A kingdom of boundless grace and love, for which we waited so long. But finally Easter has come, and Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Let us ever more ardently strive to share that peace and joy with the world. Alleluia, Amen

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In peace, in love, and filled with resurrection joy,

Eric

Wakefulness // Lazarus

Our Lectionary Readings from this week ::

Ezekiel 37: 1-14

Psalm 130

Romans 8: 6-11

John 11: 1-45

If you’d like to see these readings and this sermon read aloud, you can find that on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCq-G43scrbcZjx6veG3_IUg for RefLuthKS. And if you’re here to read, read on:

Dear church,

Let’s not kid ourselves. The scripture readings this week are heavy with the weight of death. Within them, and within us there is confusion. There is sadness. There is anger and there is fear. But there too is life. Rebirth. Redemption and hope. So at the beginning of the message here today, I offer this: much of the road ahead may be dark, but we musn’t forget the light we know comes at its end. In just two weeks, Lent will be finished, and the Resurrection will again burst upon the world. But today, we walk yet in the wilderness. Let us give strength and encouragement to one another, trusting in Christ as our hope even as we look fearfully ahead to the cross.

I want to place our focus onto a single sentence spoken by Jesus in our (very long) reading from the Gospel of John: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” I point our attention to this one phrase, because I think Jesus utters it to lay a scriptural cornerstone that will remain solid during the uncertainty that lies ahead. Here on Earth, there is some debate amongst cultures and peoples about death, but it really is one of few things we agree is pretty absolute. We know this, and Jesus knows this. But he also knows that God does not come from the Earthly realm – death to God is simply a state of being, not unlike wakefulness, or sleep. It has no real power when compared to the strength of the Creator of all, and so Jesus, with an almost alarming level of coolness, waits two days before even setting out to see his dying friend. Because he knows death is no real barrier for the God given life that comes after it. And when finally he begins the journey back to Bethany, he offers that line, “our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” And the question, church, that has been sitting heavily on my chest this week is, are we awake? Or are we asleep?

When I applied to the YAGM program, I was a privileged, ignorant starry-eyed seminary-hopeful. The only time I had experienced outside my native culture and people was a semester abroad in Italy, a nation which I love, and for whose people my heart aches in the face of this pandemic. But I wouldn’t dare to say, that those four months traveling Italy, living with more than a few creature comforts, even came close to breaking me out of the fortress that was my “American” privilege. No, really it just fed a hunger I’ve always felt: for learning, seeing new places and new people. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But it’s that excited hunger for travel, that drove me to apply to YAGM, all dressed down with the humility of the phrase “global mission”. But that wasn’t what God had in store, and I’ll never forget the moment that I first realized my YAGM year would be something altogether different than anything else I’d seen before.

You see, when I was first accepted to the program, YAGM was planning on sending me to either the United Kingdom, or Southern Africa for my year of service. And the biggest part of your placement decision comes from two interviews you have with the respective country coordinators. As I sat down with Reverend Alex LaChapelle for my Southern Africa interview, he asked me a number of questions about my life, my upbringing, my passions, and my reasons for applying to the program. And then Alex asked me a question that, at the time, blindsided me a bit. With a kind smile on his face, moving smoothly from the previous sentence, he asked me, “Are you racist?” And that was the first time I felt God strike my bubble with his fist. Because with that question, I felt every excuse, defusing comment, and rebuttal leap into my throat, urging me to scoff and say, “no!” But the time I had spent in discernment that weekend, talking with my global colleagues, and just listening to them meant the integrity of my shield had been broken, and that now all of Creation (not just the privileged United States part) was poured into me, and I now could see my fear, my insecurity, and my ignorance, and knew the answer to Alex’s question really was “yes”. Even though, if memory serves, I actually just sort of sputtered nonsense for about thirty seconds.

I think this is why, a few years back, the word “woke” came back into the common use within social-justice circles – a term meaning, “one’s alertness to injustice in society, especially racism”. The thing is, a person doesn’t get to declare themselves “woke”. It can only come from somebody else, because to put it simply, if you’re asleep it’s awfully hard to know whether you’re dreaming. It takes something shocking. Something surprising. Sometimes something horrifying, to help us distinguish between dream and reality. Sleep and dreams play heavily into scripture, from Jacob’s Ladder, to this week’s the Valley of the Dry Bones, to our Gospel. Wakefulness versus sleep, death versus life. So in John today, it isn’t all that strange to hear Jesus referring to Lazarus as “sleeping”, knowing well that his friend was already dead. So often though, we assume phrases like, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” or “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” We take those to mean that God does these bad things just so that later Jesus can perform the miracle. Mari mentioned the same dilemma just last week in the story of the man born blind. But instead I look at it in a different way. All through the time and space of Creation, God takes bad things, terrible things, that happen throughout human history, and uses that painful and heart-rending brokenness to create new opportunities for life and for love. Letting free will take its course, letting chaos roam, but making beauty wherever God can in the aftermath.

Now church, I want to pause for a moment, because I won’t pretend to have the answers for every bad thing. I can’t tell you why Lazarus had to suffer for days, and finally succumb to his illness, while Jesus took his sweet time getting to him. I can’t tell you why I had to watch my grandfather’s body wither and die to the demon of cancer. I can’t tell you why right now thousands of people’s lungs are around the world are scarring, failing to draw breath against the onslaught of this virus. I can’t tell you why we so willingly took sin onto ourselves and brought brokenness into the flawless beauty of the garden. I deeply feel that pain, the anger of not understanding. But church I can also tell you, that our God struggles so violently for us against evil, that God took on an Earthly body, and let his own lungs fill with fluid and fail upon the cross, so that we might breathe eternal life. Not with lungs but with the Spirit – the Ruach, the divine breath that fills the bodies around Ezekiel in that valley dreamscape today. God pursues us, regardless of the danger – after all, Jesus knew going to see Lazarus meant returning to a town that had just tried to kill him. Our God always pursues us, to enter into our brokenness and pain, so that the Creator might cause new life to burst from the cracks. I know that doesn’t answer everything – goodness how I wish it could right now, but we must leave it there, letting that Lutheran “What does this mean?” dwell in us, and come back to today.

Are we awake? Or are we asleep? I think most of the world is sleeping. I think I am still sleeping. I just wish it wouldn’t take things like the coronavirus to wake us up. For us to realize our neglect of our bodies and our minds. Our neglect of our families and our relationships. Our societal neglect of our fellow human beings, both the millions here in the United States who live paycheck to paycheck and now face absolute uncertainty, and moreover the hundreds upon hundreds of millions around this planet who do not have the privilege to “react” to a global pandemic, and quite simply face life, or death. Our global body is cracked and broken. I would ask where that leaves us church, but Paul has already given the joyful answer: “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead [, or rather if the Spirit of him who raised Lazarus from the dead] dwells in you, he who raised [them both] from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

That is the answer church. We need to keep letting God’s power and Spirit flow through this broken body that it may again have life. That we might remain awake and in God. My siblings in Christ, and all across the world, I end now with that Lutheran twist to the recipe – the reality that this is not something we’re going to be able to do perfectly. There’s a lot of brokenness in this imperial, patriarchal, homophobic, white supremacist body we live within, but when we find our fear and fragility catching in our throats, that is a time to rejoice in the grace of our Creator, which gives us strength and hope, not to utter a no no, but a yes yes! And it’s to that joyous truth in the face of our struggle that I give an amen.

atlas

 

In peace, grace, and acknowledging coffee plays a role in the wakefulness too,

Eric

Cuarentena // Quarantine

Dearest church,

Dynamic shifts, uncertain steps, the balance of our lives thrown askew – these last few weeks are unlike anything our country, or indeed our world, has experienced across most of our lifetimes. That said, on and on our blue planet keeps spinning, its wobbly axis tracing its path ’round the Sun, and even as I write this, the first beams of spring sunlight fill my living room with their warm glow. Yet, as a warm morning breeze fills my nose with the scent of rain, the word “pandemic” flits again across my mind. Forty days Christ walked in the wilderness, this Lent. Latin America calls it cuaresma, taken from the number forty, cuarenta. And as my Argentine home too has begun feeling the effects of the virus, I’ve noticed that the Castellano word for quarantine is cuarentena. I wonder if the similarity is a coincidence.

Humor me for delving again into my YAGM experience, but if I’m to honestly talk about things that jarred me, that tested my faith and trust, last year stands a head above the rest. The rhythm of my life at El Arca was not my own, which may at first sound like criticism, but I don’t intend it to be. There is no question that life in the hogar, home, wasn’t without its distractions and chaos, but the beauty of living in a L’Arche community, is that the beat of your own heart melds with that of your new siblings. You commit to one another, they to you, and you to them, sharing table, sink, home. And like any family, that commitment becomes a dance. Now sometimes yes, that dance means avoiding a certain someone during their first waking hour of the morning, and for another it means singing with them in the shower during the washing of feet, but it’s in those moments that the threads of life intertwine to form tapestry.

However, it’s easy to lose oneself in the joint movement, the chaos of L’Arche life. It’s easy to forgo your daily exercise when Osvy starts singing fifteen minutes earlier than usual (his signal that he’s awake) in the middle of your workout. It’s easy to close your devotional and set it aside when Maxi wants to ask you about yet another superhero movie at the breakfast table. Day in day out, you begin to lose your own identity in the midst of the many, and suddenly one day you find yourself feeling drained, overwhelmed, trapped within the walls of the single building in which you now both work and live. But that realization becomes an opportunity to strike a new balance. With time, I began to reshape my identity within my site placement, but what that meant more than anything was to reacquaint my body and mind with the spirit I had lost somewhere beneath all the life raining down around me. Those two scrambled eggs I had for breakfast each day became sacrament for me – shared, buttery, delicious sacrament between myself and my creator. So too was my nap each afternoon, restorative energy given so that I could tackle the evening boldly. And that’s all my spiritual practice was at first, and it was good. And soon, balance found, I brought back daily devotion to scripture and prayer. The playing of music and the beauty of poetry filled the cracks in my mornings, and they too were good. Then finally, at end of day, in the silence of the house, save for perhaps a mosquito buzzing or Maxi snoring down the hall, I began to meditate again. Just five minutes at first, but then ten, fifteen, all the way up to a half an hour each night. And goodness let me tell you, it was good.

The chaos that we feel now in our lives. The disruption. It is human and worldly and difficult, but it is also beautiful. I dare you to think for a moment of the last time America was told to pause, to stop, to shelter in place. Dear church I wish it were under better circumstances, and church I wish it wasn’t so hard to fit Christ into the chaos, but this is the way it has always been. God filling the cracks, seeping into the brokenness and the fear. Let God fill them. Let divinity fill you. Find time to focus on your own intimate connection with the Creator, one that no virus or evil can break, and nourish it. Read, create, pray, meditate, play. Goodness me couldn’t this whole high-strung country we live in use a bit of time for play. And do that how you feel moved. Do it alone, or do it with others. But above all, do it with God. And church, relish in the Spirit you find thriving in that practice.

ocean

 

In peace, shelter, and practice,

 

Eric

Mother Mary Magdalene

The Advent season has wrapped within it, some of our church’s most beautiful traditions. The nostalgia of driving to a warmly lit church on a cold, dark evening, as Holden Evening Prayer’s meditative tones fill the sanctuary, Advent is something that fills my heart with wonder as we share in this time of Holy Anticipation, looking ahead to the arrival of the Christ at month’s end.

The celebration of tradition, especially in this time of preparation for Christ’s coming into the world, is good and meaningful for us as Christians, however a part of the Advent season is also an attentiveness for the arrival of the divine into the world, an arrival that two-thousand-years-ago defied all expectation for what the coming of the Messiah would be. Tradition is a beautiful thing, but like the Pharisees and Herod, it can also blind us to seeing the new and usually unconventional means by which God speaks to us here on Earth. Because the history of Scripture is also that of patriarchy and empire, we often forget or outright ignore the diversity upon which Christ built the church, which is why, during these next few weeks, we will be meditating on the ways three of scripture’s women brought incredible life, and in the case of tonight’s focus, the Christian faith itself, into the world.

Mary Magdalene is a name rarely mentioned outside of Holy Week; in fact, only passing mention is made of her throughout the Gospels, in which scholars now increasingly agree that the Mary who anoints Jesus’ with nard, another, who sits listening to him while her sister Martha prepares the meal, and a third, who visits the tomb early Easter morning are, in fact, one and the same disciple. Mary’s life is beautiful one, fraught with brokenness and holiness, a real humanity and a genuine desire to follow Christ and lead in his ministry, but also one that has been often misunderstood over the ages. The most important of those misunderstandings being that: it’s now generally understood that she was likely never a prostitute (though her ministry would be no less significant if she was). However, multiple Gospels do note that she was possessed by seven demons, and that Christ had cast them out. This language though, is layered with meaning and symbolism. Demonic possession was a common explanation for physical and psychological ailment in Jesus’ day, and the number seven in scripture heavily implies symbolism of fullness or entirety. You can therefore make a solid claim that Mary had fallen completely away from God as a result of mental or physical trauma, and that Jesus was able to bring peace to her body and mind. How incredible is it then, to think of the possibility that Mary Magdalene, rather than a sex worker possessed by demons, was instead a non-neurotypical (that is, someone who struggles with their own mental health), a non-neurotypical woman playing a leading role in the church. Her presence in Christ’s ministry is deeply inspiring, and makes a profound commentary on the diversity of leaders God calls to the church.

This realization is made most impactful during the death and resurrection, where Mary Magdalene is mentioned most clearly by the Gospel writers. In these most-solemn moments of Christ’s ministry, as he hangs from the cross, where do we find his followers? Peter has denied him, and like most of the other apostles has fled in fear deserting their teacher. Yet we find Mary and the other women with him at Golgotha, mourning but remaining at Jesus’ side as the life leaves his body. And it is here that we find the most incredible piece of Mary’s story, one we know well: her role in the resurrection story. On Easter, we see her fear and confusion as she finds the empty tomb, and even as her announcement of the risen Christ is dismissed by the men to be an idle tale, Mary Magdalene gives birth to our faith. To quote Reverend Lenny Duncan, “From the time when [Mary] left the empty tomb to the time she told the men cowering in fear that she’d witnessed the resurrected Jesus, she was the entire Christian message and the only one who knew the stunning truth: Jesus Christ of Nazareth was alive. For perhaps hours, she was literally the mother church.”

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Mary Magdalene was a woman of devotion and conviction, she dwelled in Christ’s presence while he lived on Earth, and after he had left it, she remembered what He had told her sister Martha, went out into the world with resilience of faith, and began to build the body of this church. Advent is a time to celebrate the ways we can prepare for Christ’s arrival into this world, and a time to nourish that body as it grows in strength and power. I look with such awe and humility at Mary’s ministry, and believe we have much to aspire to in following her footsteps. Though we live in an age that so often feels full of brokenness, it’s comforting to know that the disciples too struggled with the brokenness in themselves and this world. And that ultimately this Advent, rather than a season of sadness, is truly a time of anticipation and hope for the celebration to come.

 

In patient expectation, and devoted action while we wait,

Eric

Hindsight & Holidays

As the summer has faded into fall, or rather slammed into winter with that October cold snap, I’ve lately found myself day-dreaming off into the coming Holiday season. It’s been two years since I’ve celebrated an “American” Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I admit: I’m nervous for the celebrations, even as they rush quickly into view.

It’s hard, in the wake of my Young Adults in Global Mission experience, to know when I’ve tooted my own global-mission horn one (or ten) times too many. But frankly, YAGM took my reality and broke it, taking something ordinary and radically imbuing that reality with sacramental meaning. The spiritual incarnation that happens at the global table, in, with, and under the experiences of our years of service left us changed: permanently, powerfully, and radically changed.

But this isn’t because of anything we did; we missionaries were not the breakers of bread – we did not present the cup. We were seated at the table, receiving our bread and wine, trying to make sense of the words being spoken to us from the Teachers in our midst. In some small way, or rather in many small ways, we witnessed the following days in Christ’s journey: we saw families break, and the disciples scattered. We saw political turmoil and violence; empire, oppression, and histories of persecution. We told ourselves lies, and ran from our faith. We saw death. And we mourned, waited, and hid from the resurrection.

But the resurrection did come, though I would bet it never came in the way we expected. I thought the Christ-ly body of my YAGM year would be strong, a King to lead my life on the right path, and one who would lift me up as greater for my dedication to the experience. But reality was different; reality was better. The body of my year is indeed risen, in life and love, but still bears the scars and the wounds of its death. My memories are full of earthly experiences, terrible and beautiful. The meaning and depth of the world has grown because things have descended beneath it and ascended above it. YAGM opens the eyes of its volunteers to realities and cultures, to human lives that we could never have known before our years of service. We could have seen them. We could have even met them. But we would never have known them.

And it might be now that you’re asking, “Eric, but we’re headed into Advent and Christmas, not Lent and Easter”, and you’d be right. But the divine manifestation of Christ’s birth cannot be understood without also understanding the end of his journey: the sacrifice of the cross, and the silence of the tomb, and the joyous life of the resurrection. Christ’s birth means nothing without the resurrection, just as YAGM’s meaning has grown ever stronger in the time after our return to the United States.

As I look now at our country. At our world. The brokenness and political divide. Our hungry consumption of the Earth and the treasures it holds. I see Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and the many other religious holidays that are celebrated as the northern hemisphere of our planet moves towards its deepest darkness.. I see them differently. I see the light that has come into the world. It is good and warm and bright, like the firelight flickering behind a Thanksgiving banquet. But I also see the darkness that surrounds it: those that are denied a seat at the table, those without the privilege of knowing the taste of mashed potatoes and homemade gravy, and frankly the absurdity of a celebration rooted in relationship with our country’s indigenous peoples, even as we continue to deny their voices and their equity.

The Thanksgiving meal, and the Advent season, are a time of thankfulness and wonder at the expectation of God’s coming into the world. The tradition and joy of that celebration fill me with so much happiness and love. But they are also a moment to remember that God has been baked into Creation since its beginning, and that Christ’s coming into the world was to save us from the fate of further destroying God’s handiwork – in the world, and in one another. Celebrate this time with loved ones, but rather than turn inward on our immediate families this Advent, turn outward, to embrace the fullness and diversity of our Godly family.

Let Christ prepare to manifest in you, at your tables, and in your lives this Advent season, not just in the manger at the front of the sanctuary, but in a world that so desperately needs our Creator’s love.

wine_wedding

 

In joyful expectation, and even more joyful action,

 

Eric

We Are Church // Act

First Reading :: Genesis 15: 1 – 6

Psalm 33 :: 12 – 22

Second Reading :: Hebrews 11: 1 – 3, 8 – 16

Gospel Reading :: Luke 12: 32 – 40


To finally stand before you all, this my family in Christ which has supported me with so much love and encouragement in my youth, my early steps into ministry, and now my year of service in Argentina – from which I returned a month ago is… overwhelming. And to be honest, I’ve looked ahead to this day, when I’d share my first message with all of you after my time as a Young Adult in Global Mission, with a heavy mixture of both excitement and fear. What can I say? What can I do? How can I explain what has happened to me? I’m sure many of you would struggle with the same questions were I to ask you to summarize the past year of your life into a single pithy phrase. How was it?? Goodness, how was it… Well, at least I was given a break this week preaching. After all, we find ourselves as a country, and as a church, more unified than ever before, right? No, instead I found myself sitting at the keyboard, a knot in my stomach because not one, but two, mass shootings have again bloodied our soil, and I am supposed to find the God in this. In our grief. In our humanity. So, with heavy hands this Monday morning, I opened my Bible to the scripture, from which I prayed would blossom a sermon worth giving – something to balm my heart and yours.

And in Genesis, I find the Lord’s words to Abram: “‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’” “You’re kidding me”, I said. Well at least it seems like Abram and I are on somewhat of the same page, because while maintaining politeness he replies to God with an honest skepticism of “‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’” In other words, “‘God, I know you made me this promise, but I’m like 65 years old, and my wife is in her mid-eighties, what are you talking about, “my reward shall be very great?”’”. But then Abram does the impossible – the sermon wrecking decision: he trusts God’s word. God says again to him, to us, “have faith”. And Abram does. Now I don’t know about y’all, but I haven’t had any visions this week, and there were plenty of times in Argentina where I would have liked one too, but didn’t get to see a multitude of stars in the night sky. And yet God asks us still to trust in the divine – that which we cannot see or feel or touch: faith. Faith, which Paul describes in Hebrews to be “the assurance of things we hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, so that through this we might be able to “understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible”. This week’s readings hit me like so many dull punches as I read them again and again, and then panicked to Mari a bit, and then read them three times more. The reality is that oftentimes, the Bible is uncomfortable, confusing, scary even, but that in its words lie a deeper meaning, one outside of our expectations, that shapes us, and can guide us to places of incredible beauty.

That’s what Young Adults in Global Mission felt like to me – the breaking of expectations and a not-so-gentle shaping that led me to some incredible places. When I applied for YAGM, I knew I was pushing myself out of my comfort zone, but I also knew that I loved travel. I knew there were many peoples and places I feared, but I also knew that I have a gift for ministering to others. I knew I wanted to be broken out of my understandings in favor of the reforming love of Christ, but I didn’t know how violently I’d resist it. In a hundred million moments, I thought I had laid aside my power and my privilege: my hetero-normativity, my whiteness, my “American”-elitism, my sexism, and my pride. Oh man my pride. And in a hundred million equal moments I was shown how I closely I held those systems of power and privilege to my heart, and Jesus’ words from Luke now echo in my mind, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. Our gospel today, like the rest of our readings, leaves us with a sick kind of “uh oh” feeling in your stomach. Man, isn’t this a fun, light-hearted sermon so far? Nothing makes us feel love for Jesus like his comparing himself to a thief breaking into your house. However, there is a warmth in these readings too – hope and love to hold onto amidst the discomforting words. The problem is that there’s all this “earthly” stuff clouding our minds to see it without doing some digging. Listen to the first line of our Gospel reading again: “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Amidst all the talk of disobedient slaves, fearing God, and thieves breaking in at an unknown hour, the Creator wants, desires, deeply to give creation to those which God created. God is seeking us out, earnestly and constantly, but the problem is we have so many other things in our hands, minds, and hearts that we fail to see what is really good. What’s more, sin and brokenness flow freely within and throughout the universe, and break into grace’s endless bounds clouding our world with violence, injustice, and pain.

However, we as creations of divine beauty, are called to push back against this brokenness, with God – that is love and power through the Spirit. Jesus explains in the Gospel that the slaves need to be prepared for their master’s return, and not in a passive way, but “dressed for action” and “alert”. Folks this is the important part, because I thought by applying for YAGM that I was dressing myself for action. I thought by working in camping ministry I was staying alert. I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I also knew I was trying. However, then came the charge onto the beach – then came the main assault, which I thought was going to be serving in the UK, but… okay turns out it was Argentina, fine. Then our plane left the United States for Buenos Aires… and promptly broke down. So! We took a second plane to Buenos Aires and made it, and yeah I didn’t remember any Spanish at all, cool… Okay, now I’m arriving at my site and realize I have no experience caring for adults who are dis-abled. It felt… it felt like one of those circular moon bounce rides where the part in the middle spins, and you have to jump over or under the arm or you get clotheslined. But the thing is, in every one of those instances, it wasn’t God or Argentina or my site El Arca who was at fault – it was my own inability to let go and just love people. To just trust that the world was moving erratically, but that the Spirit would help guide me through it. And it was so hard. To be alert, not necessarily knowing when the time would come, but not getting complacent when things calmed down. But every time, after getting flattened to the floor of my year, I’d lift my face out of the mud, and look up to see the beauty of everything that was around me. To try and explain the love I found for seventy-year old Osvy… who needs help in the shower and the bathroom and eating; it’s precisely because I had to do those gross, exhausting, frustrating things, that I came to love him like a member my own family. And in the end, the things which I had first hated more than any other, let’s use our fiestas en el baño as an example… those ended up being the moments I treasured most.

Brothers and sisters, here at Reformation we are doing so much good: serving in community breakfast, Fill the Gap, and our church’s endowment committee, which gave me the opportunity to do YAGM, just to name a few. But what our Gospel is crying out to us today is this: we can never think that “we are doing enough”. Our church, our country, our world is broken and hurting. God’s nurturing arms are cradling its sick Creation, straining against the weight of white supremacy, patriarchy, xenophobia, homophobia, and empire. Brothers, sisters, my fellow humankind, our beings are pulled from the ether and crafted together through love. It was love that knit us together, and our Creator, love incarnate, that molded us. God has put torches of Spirit-fire in our hands and dressed us for action against the ways humanity denies its fullness. Lament and grieve the pain in our pasts, rest for a moment when you’re knocked to the ground, but then lift your face to Christ’s waiting hand, take it, and stand up. The whole point of that dark-skinned migrant Jesus of Nazareth was to fight injustice till even death fell beneath him – we are called to do the same.

Amen.

reformation

 

I gave this sermon this week at my home congregation Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas while sharing experiences and parts of my site-placement’s culture during the weekend’s worship services. Thank you once again to everyone who donated to my year, and made my YAGM experience possible. I have so many thanks to give for this opportunity, and I am forever changed.

 

Peace, love, and action,

Eric

 

Unknown. RLC Memorial Park. Hanney & Associates Architects, date unknown. Photograph. https://www.haarchitects.com/memorial/refmem.htm

Vapor // A Message on a Meditation

First Reading :: Ecclesiastes 1: 2, 12 – 14, 2: 18 – 23

Psalm 49 :: 1 – 12

Second Reading :: Colossians 3: 1 – 11

Gospel Reading :: Luke 12: 13 – 21


A month ago today, I returned from a year of missionary service in Argentina with the E.L.C.A.’s Young Adults in Global Mission Program (a very long title, that I will shorten from here on out to the very attractive acronym: YAGM). From the onset of our Chicago orientation last August, until our planes touched back down on U.S. soil, we were away from our homes, our families, and our cultures for just under a year. I had good friends living in both the desert of the Australian outback, as well as beside the Indian ocean on the coast of Madagascar; we seventy-six missionaries were spread across the world to do . . . what exactly? Well, as you might guess, we served in all sorts of different capacities: there were English teachers and office workers, resident assistants and chorus members, runners and cooks, but the word that tied all our forms of service together, coming from the Spanish acompañamiento was “accompaniment”. Accompaniment blossoms from a Latin American cultural custom, where in relationship with others you do not walk before them, leading them along, but neither do you walk behind them, pushing or taking second place. Instead you walk alongside one another, in equity – listening and learning what you can, and in that balance and trust lives the Holy Spirit. Christ between us, walking with us on the road to Emmaus as we disciples share the journey together.

My site placement for my year was serving at a small Lutheran congregation on Sunday mornings, and during the rest of the week, living and working as a live-in assistant at a home for 5 differently-abled adults: El Arca. In English, “The Ark”, is part of the global network of communities founded by a French-Canadian Catholic theologian named Jean Vanier, where volunteers live in close-knit community with those challenged by a wide set of physical and mental hurdles. Known in the rest of the world by its French translation, L’Arche poses an incredible set of trials before any volunteer who enters into one of its communities, not the least of which to two white Lutherans from the United States: myself and Tara, another YAGM, with whom I shared my year of service. Life at El Arca means sacrificing one’s privacy and independence, so that we might come to know and love others in ways we ordinarily might not. To wash another’s back and feet in the shower, to cut food and spread jam on bread for another at mealtimes, and to accompany yet another on their journey home from work – this was the ministry of El Arca. However, as you might guess, our normal spiritual customs, like Lutheran hymns sung with an organ, daily journaling and prayer, or even going to worship, were often not possible in our Argentine context. This meant finding meaning in new things, and worshiping in new ways. One of the most powerful for me, meditation, came from a Podcast called The Liturgists. Diving into the ways various parts of our lives related to science, art, and faith, the first Liturgists meditation I listened to was built on a few verses from Qoheleth, the Teacher, we find today in our reading from Ecclesiastes: “‘Vanity of vanities’, says the Teacher, ‘vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’” Or, in other words: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says Qoheleth. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!’” How very chipper. I admit as I read this scripture for the first time this week, I panicked. Not exactly your easy-going sort of sermon material we guest preachers like to work with. But you know? I thought to myself, “no problem, it’s just the Old Testament reading – let’s see what the Psalm says.” So, I flip over to Psalm 49, and where to my eyes fall, but “fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others”. Awesome. Thanks lectionary, what an easy sermon this will be to write. So I flip to the New Testament reading: “On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.” And sweat now pouring from my brow, I turn to the Gospel for what I’m praying is my sermon’s salvation, and find “‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” You know, I admit the thought crossed my mind as to why David is out of town this weekend…

I looked around at my life, and at our world; at its chaos, its prejudice, at its corporate greed and the power of empire, and I couldn’t help but wonder “God, what is happening? Where do we turn in the midst of this storm?” And the words from Qoheleth, our optimist extraordinaire said to me, “Meaningless, meaningless . . . Everything is meaningless”, and I realized the connection to the meditation I heard nearly a year ago, titled “Vapor”. As I’m sure many of you know and remember, Apollo 8 in December of 1968, was the first manned mission to orbit our moon, only six short months before the first lunar landing, whose fiftieth anniversary we celebrated two weeks ago. From the command module, the men of Apollo 8 watched for the first time as our planet, the Earth, rose quiet and small above the lunar surface – Earthrise. This moment, just over twenty years later, prompted NASA to rotate the Voyager 1 spacecraft, as it left our solar system, back around to face its home world for the last time, to take another portrait of the Earth. That photograph, full of the dark blackness of space, is interrupted by one tiny pale blue dot: us. A “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. Vapor. “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.”

Our scriptures each week are tied together through the lectionary by common threads, and while at first glance this shared meaning may seem a disheartening one, I find peace through Qoheleth’s words. They can certainly be a depressing set of ideas; the transience and impermanence of the life on this earth we share, but it can also be a beautiful one. How often do we become caught up in partisan bickering in our government? How often are we heartbroken to hear of migrant boats overturned at sea while seeking refuge? How often are we frustrated by the car in front of us who decides not to use the turn signal before welcoming themselves to our lane? All of these things sit with a weight on our heart, feel so large, and looming. But now, if I take my arms and outstretch them, and that distance were to represent all of Earth’s geological history, and if then I were to file off just the edge of one of my fingernails, I would have just erased all of human history. Dust. Vapor. Meaningless. We preoccupy ourselves so much with the “things of Earth”, in Paul’s words today in Colossians, that we forget the transience of all this pain, this strife, this humanity. We are not meant to hold onto this brokenness, because our minds and bodies were never meant to bear it. It’s for that very reason that we were given that Lutheran grace, the Christ who came to Earth and bore that burden for us.

However, brothers and sisters, this line of thinking, this newfound peace may leave us with a new problem – some of you may already have realized it. If we ponder Qoheleth’s words, the Psalm’s theme of death as the equalizer, and the words of Jesus in the parable of the rich fool. If we let our preoccupations for this world cease, we might find ourselves doing little to better it. Our scriptures, our Gospel, do not encourage apathy, no, quite the opposite. To see it, we look to the last sentence of our reading from Luke, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” Richness towards God is the key to this lesson, and at first it may seem simple: prayer, thanksgiving, confession, communion – perfect, I can knock all of those out each Sunday! But God’s rebuke of the rich fool is for not giving tangible offering to God, the fruit of his labor: the harvest. Yet, how can we give, truly give, to God – the time of burnt offerings and Passover has well… passed. Where does God reside among us? The answer here of course is Christ, but we quickly find ourselves in the same dilemma. Christ’s body has not walked the Earth for thousands of years, how can we give – truly give our harvest to him? We can find the answer in Colossians, for Paul writes we “have been raised with Christ”, and our lives are “hidden with Christ in God”. We strip off our old selves – not a jacket, but our way-of-being, and clothe ourselves with a new way. Humankind has the Spirit and Christ living within us. We had this bestowed upon us, in all of us, whether we asked for it or not, through the death of Christ on the cross, and now it is our challenge to seek and to serve that Christ in others through God, that God being composed of the most true and intimate love. And that Christ exists with in us regardless of nationality, of our bodily make-up, of our past, our culture, or our alliances. Paul writes “Christ is all, and in all.”

So yes, the universe, this life, and this world are vapor. Meaningless, and transient. But they are only transient because of the infinite love and existence we share with our Creator. The challenge then, is to use this fleeting moment of life lived together to boldly and radically share that love and joy for acting and creating with others. To be with Christ is not placing a check-mark in a box at birth, baptism, confirmation, or membership, but as Luther and our church attest, and as we read in Colossians, a constant renewal “in knowledge according to the image of its creator”. The weight which hung heavy on my heart after returning to the United States, the realization of all that there is to do in the world. How far humanity continues to fall, and how blind we are to so much injustice. The fear of that evil is washed away in Qoheleth’s words of transience, and replaced instead with a joy of action found in the Gospel – albeit an oftentimes anxious and frantic joy of “Lord, I adore sharing your love, and your service, but am I enough in the midst of this storm?” And the Lord answers with Martin Luther’s words that “this life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but is actively going on. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.” So go, reform, love, and above all, do.

Amen.

Earthrise

 

I gave this sermon at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Salina, KS this Sunday morning, and decided to share it with you all on here.

 

Peace, love, and action,

Eric

 

Anders, William. Earthrise. Time Magazine, 1968. Photograph.

http://100photos.time.com/photos/nasa-earthrise-apollo-8