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Saturday, June 27, 2015  

Two Churches
Rev. Ben Dueholm
June 27-28, 2015 (Proper 8B)
Messiah Lutheran Church, Wauconda

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Two churches have been on my mind these last ten days. Two churches have been so heavily on my mind that I have struggled even to pray for them.

The first is Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. We all know this name now. But even before last week’s shocking crime it was a famous church in the world of African-American Christianity. One of the oldest black churches in the country, “Mother Emanuel” was once burned to the ground after several of its members were captured in planning a slave rebellion. It existed underground when black churches were illegal and survived many more years when attacks on black churches were common.

As I heard the stories of the church and its martyred members I could not help but think of the warm welcome I have received at every predominantly African-American church I’ve ever been to. Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in Woodlawn, Holy Family Lutheran Church in Cabrini-Green, Trinity UCC in Auburn-Gresham—no matter where, I was never made to feel like an outsider. Never made to feel like what was happening there wouldn’t be for me. That is not always what African-American visitors to predominantly white churches experience, I am sad to say. But the welcome, the hospitality, the pleasure at receiving a visitor from a different community is something you don’t forget.

I’m from a town in Wisconsin that deliberately excluded black residents for long decades. This exclusion lasted in effect well into my own lifetime. I didn’t know anything about black churches because there were no black people in my world. I didn’t have any sense, until I experienced it myself, of what a critical role black churches have always played in preserving culture, in creating community, and in defending the humanity of people who faced a world that was in many ways hostile to them.

When I was an intern at Bethel-Imani Lutheran Church in Englewood, I always invited my friends and family to hear me preach. Dozens of them, mostly white, came over the course of the year. And everyone loved it. They might have driven down there apprehensively. They might have kept their windows rolled up tight and their doors locked. But everyone felt the joy and hope of that community. Everyone felt welcome. It’s an amazing thing, an inspiring thing: to have had to struggle so hard to keep yourself and your faith and your community alive, and yet to be so open to people from outside.

Bible study was a big part of our life at Bethel-Imani. We gathered on Sunday mornings and Thursday nights, ten to fifteen of us. Intimate gatherings, serious gatherings, but always open to me. And if any other young white guy had shown up for it, he’d have been welcomed just as warmly.

It was just such a Bible study that Dylann Roof came to last week. I have read that he later told police that he almost didn’t go through with his crime because the people at Emanuel were so nice. I think I knew exactly what he meant. They were so different than what his hate-diseased heart had led him to expect.

Emanuel AME is having to live through a horror that may have faded but that never really went away. It has always been a part of the DNA of the African-American Church. How to grieve, how to be strong, how to keep the faith. How, amazingly, to extend forgiveness. How to persevere. How to celebrate despite everything. It’s a staggering task. I have struggled to pray for them adequately. But I admire them. I grieve with them. I love them.

The second church that has been on my mind is St. Paul Lutheran Church in Columbia, South Carolina. This is the church where Dylann Roof was baptized and confirmed, where he worshiped with his family. Where his family must turn for strength and healing in an extraordinarily trying time.

It’s a Lutheran church, an ELCA church like ours. I can only assume that they try as hard as we do to cultivate love for all their neighbors, to call forth the best in each worshiper and to name and condemn and forgive what is worst. I assume they love and cherish their youth as much as we do. And I assume their youth are as much a mystery to them as ours are to us.

They must know, like we know, that people are complicated. They know that faithful people can say and do thoughtless and hurtful things. Their Facebook friends, like ours, doubtless justify violence against black people and maybe even fantasize about it. They must know, as we know, what it means to pretend you didn’t hear someone say what they clearly said. They know, as we know, that you have to look, sometimes very hard, for the good in someone. They know, as we do, that you have to work very hard to push the margin of decency outward even a little bit.

But they had no way to see this coming. They had no way to expect that a place of Word and Sacrament, of prayer and fellowship, where Christ’s body is broken and his blood shed for the sake of the whole world could nurture such an act. They now must struggle, too. Their struggle is very different from Emanuel’s struggle, but it is parallel. They must try to keep the faith, to understand, to know themselves. I have struggled to pray for them. But I grieve for them, too. I love them.

Two churches—one black, one white. One victimized beyond imagining, one home to the perpetrator. Yet both the Church of Jesus Christ.

Imagine what these readings would sound like today in the pews at Mother Emanuel. Imagine what they would sound like at St. Paul’s:

“The LORD is my portion, I will trust in him.”

“It is sit with one’s mouth to the dust (there may yet be hope) to give one’s cheek to the smiter and be filled with insults.”

“He will have compassion according to his steadfast love.”

How would that sound to the community of the victims? How would it sound to the community of the perpetrator?

A woman with a hemorrhage touches Jesus, breaking a taboo, crossing a line. Jesus raises a dead child. How must those stories sound for the flock who looks for God in the midst of what has been done to them? How do these stories sound to the flock whose own sheep did this?

That is the church of Jesus Christ. That is the body of Christ in the world. It contains both the one who is violated and the one who violates. It contains the one whose mouth has been pushed down into the dust and the one who must bend down to the dust in humility and repentance. It contains opposite sorrows. It contains opposite consolations. It contains those who must fight every day to preserve their humanity and it contains those who learn to their shock that they have not achieved their humanity while their brothers and sisters are not yet equal. It contains those who may with unimaginable strength, divine strength forgive a horrible and resonant evil. And it contains those who must be given the strength to ask forgiveness. It contains those who have bled for too long, who have never stopped bleeding. It contains those who learn too late that their hearts must bleed too. All of them, all of us grasping at the hem of Jesus’ cloak, all needing healing, all fearful that there will be no overcoming what has been done to us, or what we have done to others. All needing to hear, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

It was Jesus’s great prayer that we should all be one—one flock, one shepherd, one bread, one body, one sorrow, one consolation, one Lord of all. It was Jesus prayer that we would reach beyond ourselves, really beyond ourselves to the sister and brother we do not know. Whose story we have not heard. Whose pain we do not know. Whose experiences we do not understand. That we would, by God’s grace, see ourselves in each other.

Two churches and their people, separated by a cruel and criminal history that has not yet ended. Yet Jesus is greater than the history that rolled right over his own body, greater than the cruelty that pierced his own flesh, greater than his own welcome turned to violence, greater than confusion and shock. Greater than fear. Greater than locked doors. Greater than rolled-up windows. Greater than hate. Greater than death.

Yesterday I watched the funeral for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel AME as it was broadcast from Charleston. You got the sense that the broadcasters were wondering why it was taking so long--the songs, the cousins and colleagues remembering, the bishops and pastors thronging the stage. Our own Bishop Elizabeth Eaton was there--fittingly, as two of the victims were graduates of the Lutheran seminary in South Carolina and the perpetrator was Lutheran. The governor and the president were there too.

They sang an old Gospel song—The Old Ship of Zion. It’s a song about faith, a song about hope. But especially it’s a song about the church and all those people there to be part of the remembrance.

The old ship of Zion  
the old ship of Zion  
the old ship of Zion
Get on board, get on board.

It has landed many a thousand,
it has landed many a thousand,
it has landed many a thousand
Get on board, get on board.

King Jesus is the captain,
King Jesus is the captain,
King Jesus is the captain
Get on board, get on board.

And that’s the church. That’s the Savior. Grieving people come to him, and a hemorrhaging woman comes to him. The woman is repelled by her own fear and the mourners are pushed away by the crowds. But Jesus welcomes them. Jesus accepts them. And Jesus says one thing to them, to us, and to his whole church: “Do not fear; only believe.”


posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:27 PM

Saturday, April 04, 2015  

God’s Loneliness 
Rev. Ben Dueholm
The Vigil of Easter 
April 4, 2015
Church of the Holy Apostles (with Messiah Lutheran Church), Wauconda.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Sisters and brothers grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Then God walked around,  
And God looked around  
On all that He had made.  
He looked at His sun,  
And He looked at His moon, 
And He looked at His little stars;  
He looked on His world  
With all its living things,
And God said, “I’m lonely still.”  
Then God sat down 
On the side of a hill where He could think;  
By a deep, wide river He sat 
With His head in His hands,  
God thought and thought,  
Till He thought, “I’ll make me a man!” 

Up from the bed of the river  
God scooped the clay;  
And by the bank of the river 
He kneeled Him down;  
And there the great God Almighty 
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,  
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,  
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;  
This Great God,  
Like a mammy bending over her baby,  
Kneeled down in the dust  
Toiling over a lump of clay  

Till He shaped it in His own image;    

Then into it He blew the breath of life, 
And man became a living soul.  Amen.

God was lonely, James Weldon Johnson tells us, so he made a world; and after making a beautiful world he was still lonely, so he made people. The theologians have insisted that this is not possible, but let’s ignore them for a moment—they are used to it!—and imagine this lonely God. 

God sits, God holds his head in his hands, and thinks. And then decides to make human beings. God’s hands plunge into the clay of the fresh earth, and this God who made heaven and earth with instant ease takes care, takes time, bends lovingly over the clay like a mammy over her baby. As a mother broods over her child, as a child clings to her favorite stuffed animal, so God would share the world with someone. With someone who can love God, speak to God, hear God, shape the world with God. 

And tonight we hear the best and the worst that this lump of clay is capable of. People can love God’s Wisdom and delight in her play, or they can shun Wisdom and love death instead. People can make each other into slaves or they can sing songs of freedom. These animated lumps of clay can reduce each other to dry bones in a dead valley, or they can imagine new life. They can share water and bread and milk and wine without cost, or they can fight each other for every last scrap. 

Yet in the midst of it all, there’s God—the God whose loneliness was so great and so deep that only human beings could answer it. God planting the world in love; God saving the righteous through the flood; God hearing the cries of the enslaved and oppressed; God giving life to the dead bones; God declaring a feast for everyone, all his adorable, beloved lumps of clay. 

I am struck tonight, hearing these words of James Weldon Johnson, how deeply it must grieve God that we love death so. It must grieve God deeply that we make death together, for ourselves and for each other. It must grieve God to know that each miraculous living soul of us is so fragile and so ready to dissolve in an instant. All of us made for love, for companionship; all of us more than capable of lunging toward destruction. 

Mary Magdalene, and Mary, and Salome come as part of this story. They have witnessed what seems to be another tragic moment in this long war of clay against clay, this long expulsion of the image of God from God’s prized creation. They have seen their friend and Lord, Jesus the prophet and healer, put to death on a cross. They stayed and watched, while the men of their group betrayed Jesus, or denied him, or simply fled. And in the morning, after the Sabbath, they come to do their last measure of devotion, the respect that dust and clay give to each other. They will thrust their hands into the soft ointment and, like a mammy bending over her baby, they will anoint Jesus’s lifeless clay for its final return to the earth from which it comes. 

There’s nothing special about it. It’s been happening for thousands of years and will happen for thousands more. Their tears are probably more bitter than most, their new loneliness is more shocked and painful than it is for many who take on their task. But it’s just another part of life. It’s a beautiful thing, this idea that we love the vacant earth that our friends leave behind so dearly that we’ll tend to it with this much care. It’s a kind of nobility in defeat. Yes, all the clay will slip back into the river and God will be lonely again someday, even more lonely than we are now but until then we will have done our best. All we need is our love, our spices, and someone to help us roll away the stone.

But when they come to do this last kindness to their friend’s corpse, there is no corpse. There is no stone. There is no death. There is no ache in God’s heart. There is no sorrow, but only the dawn of triumph, and the herald of new life. There is no last measure of devotion, but the first fruits of a great and unending harvest. Behind this one stone, out from this one grave, the whole earth of clay will someday rush in a great, eternal, mighty stream—living souls, dead through sin but called back to life, naked bones knit back together for freedom’s march, bodies impoverished by greed and warfare but given milk and honey and bread without cost—all lifted up so that God would never be lonely again. This Great God, like a mammy bending over her baby, kneeling down in the dust, toiling over a lump of clay til he shaped it, again, in his own image, and blew into it, anew, the breath of life, and man, and woman, and righteous and sinner, and faithful and doubting became again a living-and-undying soul. Amen.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Amen and amen.  

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 2:38 PM

Friday, April 03, 2015  

The Simplest Things
Rev. Ben Dueholm
April 3, 2015 (Good Friday)
Messiah Lutheran Church, Wauconda

"Meditations," by R.S. Thomas:

And to one God says: Come
to me by numbers and 
figures; see my beauty
in the angles between
stars, in the equations 
of my kingdom. Bring
your lenses to the worship
of my dimensions: far
out and far in, there
is always more of me
in proportion. And to another:
I am the bush burning 
at the centre of 
your existence; you must put
your knowledge off and come
to me with your mind 
bare. And to this one
he says: Because of
your high stomach, the bleakness
of your emotions, I
will come to you in the simplest
things, in the body
of a man hung on a tall
tree you have converted to
timber and you shall not know me.

I love this poem because it’s about how people find God. Not everyone, after all, sees God in the same way. God speaks to different people in different ways. 

Some people find God in the stars—they see God in the nearly impossible order and beauty of the universe, they see a world saturated by God, built and squared and finished by God from the distant galaxies to the flutter of the hummingbird. And they say, yes, this is Good, and yes, this tells the glory of God. Yes, surely all of this comes from love, and asks me to love it back. Amen and amen. 

And other people find God in their hearts, in that burning center of their existence. What is it that my heart yearns for? What power within me remembers the past, imagines the future, and seeks, and desires, and loves? It is God, some of us hear. And God beckons us deeper into ourselves, deeper into that fire that burns off our understanding and our knowledge and draws us ever toward himself, himself within us. For God alone my soul in silence waits, and the waiting is the beauty and the power. Amen and amen.

But these things can pass. When we stop looking at the stars or the hummingbird and confront our fellow human who is in pain--who suffers from something inexplicable--God can suddenly be less visible. God can even sneak away from us. And when your mind is ready to turn back to the stars from that fellow human who is in pain—from the dying person, from the natural disaster—maybe God won’t be there anymore. 

And when we stop looking inside ourselves and look instead at our messy lives or the messy world, God might not be very present to us. When your mind is ready again to contemplate that burning bush in your heart, it might not be there any more.

God is strange. You can glimpse him once, in a flash. You can sense his presence for a season of your life, and then spend years chasing after him. You can feel him, almost see him plain as day. But then, while everything looks the same, you can’t see God any more. It's like when someone dies--their living room is exactly the way it was, but you can feel their absence. I’ve met burned-out veterans of this chase for God. They wanted to see what they believed in, or had been told to believe in. And they tried. They tried hard. They tried to guess the password that would open the door, they tried to push the right buttons in the right order, they tried to find the missing clue that would solve the puzzle. But the door never swung back open, the lock never unbuckled, the puzzle never snapped back into focus. A lot of them give up. I don’t blame them. 

There is something terrible about Jesus’ words from the cross: “I am thirsty.” It is not surprising. Dehydration was part of the process that kills you when you are crucified. But it is agonizing. Thirst, real thirst, is unbearable. And yet here is the one who told the woman at the well that he could give her living water, needing to be served by the people who are killing him. Where is the God of the stars, the God who gathered the oceans and sets the springs in the deeps of the earth, who waters the earth and orders all things beautifully—where is God now? 

And for that matter, where is the God of the heart? Where is the God who strengthens us to bear all things, who burns within us, assuring us no matter what the he is near, that the world can’t harm us, that hunger and thirst and pain are only the passing illusions of our mortal bodies? Why couldn't Jesus reach the end of his horrible race without that last tremble of physical frailty? Where is God now?

Well, God is right there. It’s like the poet writes:  “And to this one, [God] says: Because of
your high stomach, the bleakness of your emotions, I will come to you in the simplest
things, in the body of a man hung on a tall tree you have converted to timber and you shall not know me.”

That poet, a man named R.S. Thomas, was an Anglican priest in Wales. And he wasn’t lying—he had bleak emotions and he did not walk around feeling the presence of God all the time. He was also apparently a pretty sour fellow; his son reports that he would drone on in his sermons about the evils of refrigerators, mostly to parishioners who couldn’t afford them anyway. 

But he was right about this: our faith is about the simplest things. A human body—a thirsty, beaten, betrayed, forsaken body on a cross—is how God wishes to be seen, even by people who are tired of chasing him in the stars or in the depths of their hearts. God is always there on the cross. 

It’s the simplest thing, and it’s offered up to us as a place of reverence. A child in swaddling clothes, sleeping in a manger; a man’s hand washing the feet of his friends; a lonely, thirsty death—here is where we are invited to look with holy awe. And if the sky is dark and your heart is cold, there is still God revealing himself in this perfect, suffering simplicity. In this moment he pleads and bursts through our deepest exhaustion, our sourest disillusionment, our hardest faithlessness and asks only to be seen. See these wounds. See this thirst. See this dying love of a man for his mother and his friends. See the earth tremble. See the sun blotted out. That is, for today, faith enough. For in that simplest of things comes all grace, all forgiveness, and all love.

Amen and amen. 

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:33 PM

Monday, January 26, 2015  

Rev. Ben Dueholm
January 24-25, 2015 (Epiphany 3B)
Messiah Lutheran Church, Wauconda

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Jesus said to Simon and his brother Andrew, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

I want to talk about what it means to follow Jesus today. It is, believe it or not, a topic that has absorbed a good deal of my adult life. It has absorbed so much of my life because I keep learning about it from people who have tried to do it. 

Earlier this month I was at a meeting of Lutheran clergy in Lake County. We watched a short film during our worship together about the role of the African American church in the civil rights movement and about the assassination of Martin Luther King (it was his birthday). And one of the pastors there, a man who’s been retired for almost 20 years, reminisced about being a Lutheran pastor in churches on the South side of the city in the 60’s and particularly when Dr. King brought the freedom movement to Chicago in 1966. He talked about the real crisis that was caused by the corrupt real estate practices at the time. African-Americans were confined to certain neighborhoods, and kept out of others. Speculators would scare white homeowners into selling their homes cheaply and quickly because they were afraid that black people were moving into the neighborhood; then those same homes could be sold to black Chicagoans at a huge markup, largely because black people were excluded from getting mortgages. People were losing their equity. They were afraid and angry. But often, instead of directing their fear and anger at the corrupt real estate practices, they directed it at their new African-American neighbors. This pastor tried to preach through the crisis. When you preached about loving your neighbor—which had to mean loving your black neighbor—some people, he told me, treated it like a political message. And he said he used to compare notes with his Roman Catholic colleague in the neighborhood, to see how many bottle caps came in the offering plates when they preached about loving your neighbor, as the faithful would express their displeasure with the message. 

Those bottle caps, and the fear and the anger they represented, have been on my mind ever since that meeting. That pastor, who did his best in those days and had some scars to show for it, has been on my mind—as have all those who took bigger risks and paid higher prices, starting with Dr. King himself. He’s a national hero now, but when you read what the Chicago Tribune wrote about him, you see that it wasn’t always so. It was controversial, it was dangerous, it was a crisis.

My throat clenches a bit when I read this first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. Because Mark’s Gospel begins with controversy. It begins with crisis and danger. We hear today of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. And it comes when John the Baptist is arrested. John is arrested and the movement he had gathered, a movement aimed at what he called the kingdom of God, had been deprived of a leader. So it falls to Jesus, who takes up the message of the Kingdom of God. And it was inescapably a controversial message and you could even say a political message. Galilee had a king. It not only had a king, it had an emperor too. And whatever this Kingdom of God was, it was something they may not have been interested in hearing much about. 

The Kingdom of God, Jesus preaches, has come near. It is close at hand. It is within reach. It’s time to repent—to change your mind—and to believe this good news. 

As Jesus goes along, preaching his gospel, he sees Simon and Andrew fishing. And he asks them: Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. They left their nets and followed Jesus. And he goes to James and John the sons of Zebedee and he says come and follow me and they leave their father and the hired man in the boat and they follow. John the Baptist is in prison and this is risky business and something big and unknown is maybe going to happen and they follow. 

Now here’s my question: does it ever strike you as odd that they decided to follow? 

They could have been good and faithful people if they’d just pretended not to hear, the way I do when I hear something uncomfortable out on the street. They could have watched Joel Osteen on the weekend and subscribed to a nice devotional magazine and said their prayers and caught their fish and been perfectly good people.

But they didn’t. Somehow they didn’t. They decided to drop their nets and follow. They decided to follow Jesus and become part of something called the Kingdom of God. Three of these four men would eventually be executed for the sake of this kingdom, executed by the human kings and emperors who did not care to have God for a rival. 

They left their nets and they followed him. 

Last weekend Messiah played host to a beautiful and unexpected event. A 21-year-old man with bi-polar disorder went missing from his home in Cary. Scores of friends and family searched for him in abandoned homes, restaurants, anywhere they could think. A good-hearted person in Wauconda had the idea to check homeless shelters and came here with a flyer. Our PADS ministry hosts 35 homeless men every Saturday night from October to May, with area churches staffing our makeshift homeless shelter each weekend. And the volunteer—last week it was Transfiguration Parish who provided the volunteers—said, I think this guy is here. Soon after the man and his deeply relieved family were reunited. 

This story is so powerful to me. It’s not powerful because it’s a happy ending—it is not an ending at all. The struggle of mental illness doesn't go away because something good happens. And it’s not powerful because I imagine God’s finger nudging a Good Samaritan to the door of Messiah on a PADS night. It’s so powerful because PADS was there. People voluntarily handing over their Saturday nights, voluntarily cooking food, voluntarily doing laundry and cleaning up and keeping people company so that a lost and very unwell man could land somewhere and be found—that is amazing. And not just that. But people voluntarily handing over their money to pay the heat bill and the light bill and the mortgage on a space that does not have to exist, so that a very unwell man could land there and be found—that is amazing. People who are perfectly free to stay at their nets, or in their beds, or to put their few extra dollars in their IRA somehow hear something about the Kingdom of God and they follow, in whatever way is available to them. 

This, my friends, amazes me. 

I regret sometimes that people who do what I do are looked at as sort of expert followers of Jesus, because we’re really not. To tell the truth, my job doesn’t require all that much generosity or altruism or courage. It doesn’t. I get paid a reasonable salary to do what I do, and if I had to fake the religion bit I probably could, at least for a while. To tell the truth, I would just as soon go and sit with some ill people at the hospital as do the things you have to do for a real job. 

It doesn’t take much courage for me stand up here and say “the Kingdom of God has come near; change your minds and believe in the good news,” and to ask myself and ask you to imagine that Kingdom of God being not just over the horizon of this life but now, near, and not just for me and you but for the prisoner, for the poor child, for the person living in a war zone halfway around the world, for the desperately unwell lost man at PADS, for the unborn child, for the neighbor who came here without documents because it was the only way he could see to care for his family—it takes no courage on my part to ask you to believe that good news. You could get tired of hearing it or I could get tired of saying it and I can do something else and we’d all be just fine. There are nets and boats there for us all—including me. There are bottle caps to give if we want to give them. I’ve given a lot of bottle caps, so to say, in my life and I’m not done giving them yet. What takes courage is believing the good news and following when you hear it.

The amazing thing is not that a man was found. The amazing thing is not that somebody does what I do. The amazing thing is that people follow when Jesus calls to them. The amazing thing is that somebody—that is you all—gives something they are absolutely allowed to keep for themselves. The amazing thing is that the people of this church put their money together so that I can go and sit with a man most of you don’t know, who has forgotten who I am, and pray God’s blessing on him, a man who can never pay you back for your generosity. The amazing thing is that the people of this church keep the light on, the furnace running and food on the table on a Saturday night when you could be doing literally anything else in the world. The amazing thing is that we hear about this Jesus who got promoted because his teacher was arrested and we can try to open up this good news that makes us face ourselves and each other with sometimes terrifying clarity and yet you all don’t fill the plates with bottle caps. 

Because this is the thing: there is no special punishment for Simon and Andrew and James and John if they don’t follow. There’s no hell for staying home and mending the nets and watching Joel Osteen on the TV. The punishment is only this: you don’t get to see the Kingdom of God near at hand. It’s that the world goes on exactly as it did before, exactly as you’d expect, with Herod as King and Caesar as Emperor and God safely up in heaven and no room in the world for the lost person. The only punishment is that there is no freedom movement, no PADS, no electric bond between us and our neighbor, no dream that can become a reality, little by little. 

Those are the blessings of listening when we have the right to close our ears. They are the blessings of following when we have the right to stay with our nets. They are the blessings of opening our hands when we have the right to give only bottle caps. They are the blessings of believing that the world does not have to be what it has always been, that there is more than one course a life can take, and that the coming of Jesus changes things, not just here in our hearts but in our hands and everything they touch with his love. 


posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:13 AM

Thursday, December 25, 2014  

Make Haste
Rev. Ben Dueholm
Christmas Eve, 2014
Messiah Lutheran Church, Wauconda

“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘ Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.”

Help Wanted: Consolidated Sheep Products of Judea is seeking dedicated, hard-working individuals to shepherd their growing Bethlehem-based flock. Well-qualified applicants will have: 
* a good working knowledge of sheep, their grazing habits, physical needs, and life-cycle. 
* a willingness to work as a team under supervision and in varying circumstances
* a passion for the outdoors  
* a strong tolerance for cold, heat, wind, and rain and long periods of total solitude
* no compromising political commitments
* no religious obligations
* a desire for flexible compensation and lots of intangible benefits
* a willingness to wait with the flock through any and all occurrences, up to and including the coming of the Messiah

No experience necessary; we will train the right person.

The stars are some comfort and some company, it must be said. The Judean countryside is pleasant. And sheep are not the worst animals to care for. But the waiting—that must have been hard. But then something happened—a voice, a vision, a song of glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace, good will on earth to those whom God favors. Then, all of a sudden, it is time to go. 

I love these Judean shepherds. I love them because the story of the birth of Jesus finds them in the middle of things, in the middle of life. Which is where it finds us. All of us came from somewhere else today. Maybe we tore ourselves away from a roaring fire or a mildly diverting college bowl game or a table well-laden with food. Maybe we wrapped up a last little bit of work, a last email or spreadsheet for our colleagues before a night and a day off. Maybe we are trying, this day at least, to do without something our body demands every day. 

Maybe we’re waiting. Maybe we’re fidgeting in our seats, trying politely not to check our phone, projecting the length of the rest of the service after the wild-card of the sermon.  We all have our roles to play in this world, however small. The great machine of the world grinds on out there and each of us has a place in it. 

But tonight we are not playing those roles; tonight we are not occupying those places. Tonight we have come here—to this manger, this mother, this meal, this child. Maybe we came with haste, maybe we came with hesitancy, but here we are all the same. 

The shepherds went with haste to see the thing that the Lord made known to them. They left their animals on a hillside and met God in a stable. They left their little patch of earth and came inches away from the King of Heaven. They ran from their little role, their little gear in the great machine of the world and went to a place where they were embraced as humans. They ran because they were not made with all of God’s majestic artistry, they were not framed in a miraculous assembly of muscle and bone and blood and brain, in order to sit in their place and give their lives to their sheep. They were not gifted with the Law of God and the call of the Prophets and the tender love of their own mothers and the singing desires of their own hearts in order to tap out emails and update spreadsheets and run for a last-minute gift that has no hope of expressing the love it is meant to represent. 

Their mighty, agile legs were not made to run in circles—to make haste in going nowhere. Their eyes were not meant to stare up at the stars in waiting, or to flutter while a screen refreshes. Their legs were made to run to their Savior, and their eyes were made to behold him. 

Jesus draws them near. Without saying a word, without even being able to recognize his own creation, Jesus draws the shepherds near. He calls to them in their need, in their hope, in their waiting. He calls to them in their love that was homeless until this night. 

He calls to them. He calls to you. He calls to me. He calls to the woman in the senior apartments who has forgotten virtually everything else about her life. He calls to the prisoner. He calls to the family he has left behind. He calls to the addict. He calls to the parents who pray for her. He calls to the person who can’t bear the thought of the long holiday flight and he calls to the person who can’t afford to travel and the one who has no time to visit family and the one who has no family left to visit anyway. He calls to them because the world wants to make them small—to make them as small as their job description and their credit card statement—but he wants to make them great. He calls to them because they know they are sinners but God is rich in mercy. He calls to them because the world wants to keep them right where they are but they know, deep in their bones, that they are not meant to stand still. 

So they go with haste. They see the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and Mary and Joseph and the manger, and they go away rejoicing.

The stars don’t show themselves too clearly here, but the television is some comfort and some company. The forest preserves offer good jogging and biking. And the work is not so bad. It’s good to have work. But the waiting, that’s hard. The hurrying to nowhere in particular, that’s hard. But then something happens—a voice, a vision, a song of glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace, good will to those whom God favors. And it is still not too late to make haste, to bump our heads and scuff our knees as we approach the manger and smell the animals and the hay and see the mother and Joseph and the infant; it’s still not too late to let go of earth and take hold of heaven; to let go of our smallness and take hold of greatness; to let go of waiting and finally see, and embrace, and love, and be loved by the One we were waiting for. 


posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 12:43 AM

Sunday, September 21, 2014  

Five Years

Friday was the fifth anniversary of my ordination to the ministry, as we Lutherans tend to call it, of Word and Sacrament (that is, to pastoral/priestly/clergy-like ministry). I pulled up a  picture of the bishop praying over me--kneeling, slightly more hair, everyone in red--for social media and submitted, graciously I hope, to an anniversary recognition today at church. I've spent too much time around committed ministry lifers to be anything but slightly embarrassed at marking such a trivial milestone. But then again, people who came into professional ministry in 2009 are, I've read here and there anyway, about as likely to be doing something else today as to still be working in the church. This is partly because careers are a bit of a joke for people launched into the job market in that particular year, partly because by upbringing or economics or whatever else people my age and younger are less likely to stick with one job for decades at a time (see also), and partly because the church world is going through painful transformations that are likelier to leave junior clergy un- or under-employed (there is also a non-trivial but not large, as far as I know, segment of the cohort of 35-year-old ordained clergy who just aren't good at the job).

But here I am, despite my own very close brushes with leaving (if the University of Chicago had had an opening for an undergraduate adviser four months earlier than they did, I'd be helping freshmen switch their biology sections right now). I'm glad I'm here. And I'm lucky/blessed to be, however you prefer to depict the morally random quality of these things. I don't think I've learned a whole lot that would be worth imparting, but five years of daily work in this world has surprised me in a few ways.

First, ordinary human suffering is no joke. Like plenty of people who do what I do, I imagined spending more time in the midst of life's acute traumas than I have done. We expect high emotion and problematic coping and stress and all the rest from such traumas--extreme poverty, public conflict, level-one trauma centers, deathbeds--and perhaps not coincidentally we write a heroic role for ourselves in them. What I didn't expect is the emotional toll of the daily sorrow--the divorces, the estrangements, the hatred of work, the bouts of depression, the substance abuse. Actually sitting down and talking over these experiences with people is a relatively small part of my work, smaller than I would have guessed. But it comes up at the oddest times, and it can blindside you with its force. Unlike what a lot of us perhaps had in mind, or unlike how we may imagine a more conventionally "helping" profession, there is often no solution, either. Some people will never get sober. Some people will never mend their marriage or make peace with their life. Being faithful and compassionate in those situations is really demanding, because you can't encounter people solely through their pathologies. You have to walk with the whole of their damaged humanity, which requires a kind of acceptance most people don't have to practice.

Second, people are kinder and more accepting than I would have guessed. My wife was sick last Sunday so I had the boys with me at the beginning of our 7:30 liturgy, the baby still unfed. As I began the announcements, I found myself gesturing toward the narthex with a banana in my hand. "You are probably wondering why I have a banana in my hand," I said. People laughed. They were not mad. Someone watched my baby and fed him so I could preach and celebrate the sacrament. I had been grumbling to myself about how ungodly the hour was and how punishing our worship schedule is, primarily because I expect myself to be capable of doing everything, but the people were happy to help. For the most part, I've found that to be the case. Some of my colleagues have ended up in churches that are dominated by small, sore-headed people but that's not the norm. And the truth is that it's hard to be on the receiving end of such kindness, especially if you're the sort of person who, for whatever reason, wants to talk about a guy who got crucified all the time. So there has been some growth along with the learning there as well.

Third, stuff changes, a lot more quickly and drastically than I expected. Ordination is very much like marriage in that you are making promises that a different you will have to fulfill. I do things today that I wouldn't have countenanced five years ago, and yet I'll still find myself surprised by the vehemence with which I'll hold to something that a lot of people don't see as a big deal (tip: don't ask me to rebaptize you). Why? Who knows! I express my faith differently than I did when the stole was first placed over my shoulders, and that has made me (I hope) more patient with what seem like people's odd beliefs, and also more committed to those things that don't change as a loom of sorts on which all the inevitable changes can happen without the whole thing falling apart. I almost wonder if that is what is meant by being "pastoral" as one hears it now, especially the Roman Catholic world in discussions and debates over Pope Francis's leadership style--negotiating the inevitability of change and variation against the necessity of some kind of stability. This is genuinely hard, and it only gets harder when money, institutional culture, and real estate are involved. I've never been the biggest admirer of the outgoing Archbishop Francis Cardinal George, but it must be acknowledged that he's had an impossible job--a job no one will ever do to anyone's complete satisfaction.

So there it is--an impossible job! Five years of attempting the impossible is something to enjoy, I suppose. I hope there are a lot more.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:29 PM

Monday, September 08, 2014  

Tomorrow and Today
Rev. Ben Dueholm
Isaiah 25:6-10a; selections from “Archaeology” by W.H. Auden; Matthew 6:24-34
Rockefeller Memorial Chapel
September 7, 2014

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God, creator of heaven and earth, and from Jesus Christ the redeemer and savior. Amen.

I want to thank you all for welcoming me to your community this morning, and I especially thank Bromleigh for the invitation. The University of Chicago, and this chapel itself, are places that I have no hope of untangling from the accounts I am sometimes asked to give of myself and my journey to faith. I didn’t go to church very much when I was a kid. I became a Christian while I was a student here, and church folk sometimes want to know how that happened. And while I ad-lib this story every time, there is always a pivot here: “well, I went to an Ash Wednesday service at the campus chapel,” or “I read the Sermon on the Mount in a bookstore in the basement of a seminary.”  This story, which I have often told and which is always different and yet always the same, is not one I am going to tell from this pulpit. If you should, for whatever reason, ask me for it after worship today, I will be abashed and reluctant and then I will, with relish, launch right into it. 

Because stories connecting the person we are with the person we were and the person we expect and hope (or fear) to be are essential to our lives. These stories give us something to cling to in tough times, when adversity challenges our identity. They give us a way to interpret things that happen to us and around us. This is not just a cultural thing. The capacity to make up stories is, apparently, part of our biology. We need it in order to make sense of a world that is throwing more stuff at us than our brains can process. 

And what’s true of us as individuals is true of our families and communities as well. We tell stories about our families that connect past to present and future. We identify with political ideologies that tell stories about the world: if you think of yourself as a “progressive,” you may tend to tell stories about how much power of growth and change and improvement is locked up inside of our world, waiting to be liberated. And if you think of yourself as a “conservative” you may tend to tell stories about how fragile the world is and how important it is to preserve those practices and beliefs that have carried us to this moment.

I know I’m not alone here in being a compulsive consumer of stories: stories about lives, about places, about civilizations, about the beliefs that have shaped me and all of us. It’s why country music is so awesome—it tells stories. If you’re anything like me you have been listening to a whole lot of Kris Kristofferson songs lately. I can’t get enough of “Me and Bobbie McGee,” the song about how freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose: “Somewhere near Salinas, Lord I let her slip away / Searching for the home I hope she’ll find / And I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday / Holding Bobbie’s body next to mine.” 

There’s just one problem with our innate urge to make the world into stories: it tends not to be especially accurate. I’ve seen it called “confabulation.” A writer named Will Storr describes it this way

We live, moment to moment, in an emotional reality of love, hate, feuds, sorrows and dreams. We spin seductive, reductive narratives of heroism and villainy, struggle and victory, to parse reality and give ourselves esteem and our lives meaning…In the chaos of the daily world and our irrational behaviour within it, our brains conjure the illusion of order; they wrench a plot from the chaos and then place us heroically at its centre. 

Stories have limits but life ignores limits. The song ends but life goes on. You found Bobbie McGee on Facebook and you see pictures once in a while, she’s had a little too much sun and some scary health problems. It turns out you’re just as content to be living in all those tomorrows you would have traded, once upon a time, for one last day with her. 

And, OK, there’s actually a second problem: religion is one of these confabulations, a story that imposes order on the chaos of life by turning it into a coherent narrative. We were in a garden and had everything and it all went to hell. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see. Things may be bad now. But in the words of the prophet this morning, “It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God for whom we have waited; this is the LORD for whom we have waited.” And we’d trade all our yesterdays for a single tomorrow on that mountain, at that feast. 

Now I love these stories. They’re good and they’re necessary. But even the best, holiest, truest, most beautiful story we tell ourselves has the potential to lie to us, to make the past from which we are coming or the future into which we are going way, way more important than they really are. And much more under our control. 

This is part of why Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which we hear today, is so challenging. Jesus was plenty fond of stories. His life is deeply entwined in the story of Creation and the story of the people of Israel. He told stories to interpret the world. A man asked him “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus answered “A certain man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho.” 

But when the time came to talk about ethics in the clearest way he could, the stories are gone. The appeal to yesterday and to tomorrow is gone. In fact, Jesus urges his followers not to worry about tomorrow at all, or about how we will be fed and clothed tomorrow. 

“Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” 

Don’t worry about these things, Jesus says, because Gentiles do that. “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

That last line is a rather pedestrian translation. The old King James is actually better: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” And here’s the thing: we are hard-wired to worry about tomorrow’s evil! We need to! Anxious people aren’t sick, they’re wise! At least that’s what I tell myself and my therapist. 

And it would be easy enough to shelve this whole passage as good advice about living in the moment, being serene and lily-like, and cultivating our inner peace. Advice that I’ll never take, but good advice, and if you can, by all means go for it. 

But that’s not it what this is about. That’s not why this is the most important sermon pretty much ever. Jesus is making a drastic, thrilling, maybe even frightening claim about the importance of today; the importance of Now. 

Not the importance of living into a brighter, fairer tomorrow. 

Not the importance of preserving what is good for a dangerous future. 

Not even waiting for the LORD who will act to save on that day, some day. But the importance, the eternal, infinite significance of Today.

And in this eternal now, our self-justifying stories and our heroic tales don’t matter. They no longer justify anything and they no longer explain anything. They can’t lie to us any more. There will never be a better day to open our hand in generosity. There will never be a better day to quit drinking or say those words that need to be said or to make amends or come clean or fall in love or tell the truth or speak up. You can’t serve two masters, both God and wealth—or, as I’ve come to think of it, the God of Today and the God of Tomorrow. Strive first for the Kingdom of God. Strive first for today, with its daily bread and daily troubles and daily mercies, and everything you need will follow. History, as W.H. Auden tells us today, is made by the criminal in us, that part of us that is enslaved to tomorrow. Goodness is timeless. Goodness is always in season, always right now. 

Underneath this whole awesome command to be good, to be fully and joyfully and un-anxiously good right now, is Jesus’s message that this timeless Goodness is capable of loving us back. The eternal Day that arrays the lily in unfading glory, and feeds the sparrow with perpetual abundance, is for us, too—we who have such little faith. In the heart of that day, in the silence where we hush the stories we tell ourselves, there justice, there is freedom, there is peace, there is heaven. There is the gracious voice of God.


posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:59 AM