Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Jesus Is / Jesus Was

Theological note: 

“Jesus was a refugee.” “Jesus was undocumented.” “Jesus was poor.” 

These are theological statements. 

They might be better said in this way: 

“Jesus is a refugee.” “Jesus is undocumented.” “Jesus is as poor as dirt.” 

That is, we believe that Christ is embodied (here and now), in, with, under, and through those who struggle and suffer the most under the Romes and Caesars and Legions and Cults-of-the-Emperors and Principalities and Powers of our day. We believe in the God of the Cross.

Let me try that again (in case that was not clear): 

“Jesus was ___,” “Jesus is ___!” These assertions are not historic claims about the first century (even if they are historically true of the first century human named Jesus). They are theological claims about our own present history, about right now. Therefore, an exegetical reply, (“Well, actually…. Jesus was ____, because ____. Duh. Don’t you know history???!!!!!!??!?”), is completely inappropriate and missing the point.

In such a case, the theological claim is a claim about God right now, whereas the response is about an endlessly debated historical event that took place 2,000 years ago.

Jesus is Black. Jesus in trans. Jesus is poor. Jesus is migrating through the desert. Jesus is caged. Jesus is in prison. Jesus is in the nursing home and the cancer ward and silently living out her last days in the home of her youth with absolutely no one around. God the Child suffers in flesh. God the Human is alone. God the Crucified cries out to the world for liberative acts of justice and love for the crucified forsaken here and now. God weeps as those the church, the world, and all people sacrifice, marginalize, and exclude; 

for those imagined outside the bounds of love.

Jesus was… Jesus is… these are theological statements about the God of the Cross, 

and the God of everlasting love. 

They are about God right now.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

A Loving and Pending Farewell From Your Pastor

Fourth Sunday after the Pentecost
June 17, 2018

To Our Family in Faith at First Trinity: God’s Peace and Love to You, Always. 

If there is any memory about First Trinity that I have turned to time and again, it is the memory of my first visit here at First Trinity as a seminarian, when asked to “supply preach” for a friend who had become unable to show up. 

The congregation was small, like the one I was raised in, and at which I received much support and love as a young person. The liturgy was familiar. The music was pretty amazing. It felt like home. But more importantly, I saw something in the people of this place that very seldom had I seen before. Church, often expressed in reality more by its clear divisions than through the unity for which Jesus prayed, found a quite different expression here. First Trinity, it was clear, was unique—a fact in which we as a community have come to take healthy pride. 

The image burned in my mind from that day took place after worship. Here, a young hippy sat on the steps to the community center. And he shared a cigarette with a woman who, at the time, was homeless. A simple gesture. A tiny act of sharing across lines of race, ethnicity, gender and age (and even fashion!), lines which so often in the world are used to conquer and divide. Here, in that moment, and in so many moments like them here at First Trinity everyday, dividing lines were transformed into an act of sharing. Of community. Of neighborly love. There is no longer Greek or Jew, male or female…(Galatians 3:28). In that moment, in that image, I heard the Spirit say, This is my Body. This act, this place, is holy communion. 

This remains the First Trinity that I know and love. 

A couple of years later, out of seminary, awaiting call, and living just down Wallace Street, with great nervousness I came to a First Trinity Voter’s Meeting—an experience in and of itself! Nervously, I made a proclamation. I feel called to be your part-time pastor. I wonder if you also feel the call. You did! We told the bishop. He said no. But you called me anyway. Because you felt what I felt in my gut. This was the right match, said the Holy Spirit. And we could hear it. The Spirit at First Trinity is very strong. Bishop Miller came to preside at the ordination—April 4, 2009. It was a blast. And a beautiful beginning. 

Over the years we have grown in spirit and in number. Ups and downs, of course. We have talked about building a sanctuary and a home, a safe place and a place for all people to belong—especially those who do not feel safe or at home in other churches, other places, or even at home. On our better days, we have achieved this. As a community. In our interactions with one another. Even if sometimes only for a moment or a minute at a time.  

Officially and institutionally, we became a Reconciling In Christ congregation as a result. We drafted our Affirmation of Welcome, affirming that call to include everyone in God’s Body, and acknowledging that, to truly offer sanctuary and home, to live out God’s call here at First Trinity, we had to overcome the collective history of exclusion and judgment that hang as a shadow over the institutional Church as a whole. 

Simultaneously, we began to turn outward, asking: What does it mean to make the world or even our neighborhood a safer place and a place where more people feel welcomed and at home? We formed allies across the city and we fought for a number of important causes. With neighbors, we gave birth to Bridgeport Alliance. We closed the coal-fired power plants that gave many of us asthma and respiratory disease, as our community members were being sacrificed so that someone else could profit. We won a bus on 31st Street so people could go to school and avoid violence and get from God’s Closet to Benton House and eat healthy food. Everyone should be able to eat. This struggle continues. We played an important role in raising the Cook County minimum wage. We brought the Gospel to the streets through our creative and theatrical participation in Moral Mondays Illinois. We became a sanctuary and a home for organizations doing good in our communities. We do this, to the best of our ability, to this day. 

As we have grown in the work of God’s Closet and Community Meals, we have found it important to say again and again, “This is not something we do to them.” Rather, we do community. Not charity. And we do community together. Not as alienated others. We’re all in this together. Because, again, this is holy communion. This is community. We do this for all of us. For our family, for the body of God here at First Trinity. We do this because the world needs this, and so we need to create this special piece of the world—despite the world, for the sake of the world. We do this because God leads us. And when we do this, the Spirit always shows up. Sacred moments are all around. 

Wanting to pass the love of God in Christ and the work of the Spirit to the next generations, you dreamt up the possibility of having youth programs once again at First Trinity. As a result, this summer, we will have a handful of our amazing and awesome youth confirmed by the bishop after a two year confirmation curriculum has been completed. While the old kids were learning, a number of our younger youth have also been learning and making meaning of the Bible stories they hear week after week in Godly Play. For two years now! Two years! This all takes place in the rooms we built and paid for, as an act of faith, to offer a safe space for our youth to learn and to grow in the faith. This has been a beautiful and life giving transformation, both of space and of activity, and indicative of our community’s willingness to move in faith and to respond to God’s call to something new. 

Recently we have come to put God’s mission here into words in a new way: First Trinity is a faith community called to grow in the Spirit, love as Christ loves us, and participate in God’s liberating work of justice and peace. So we are, and so, by grace, we go on, standing upon the sure and certain hope that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more, and nothing you can do to make God love you less. God loves you. Period. And there is nothing in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:35-39). I believe those are the first words, here, that I ever preached. 

We currently have a strong council with strong, creative, and love-filled leaders. And amazing community members. And we are dedicated more than ever to this work of sanctuary and home, of worship, faith, growth, love, justice and peace. We can look with joy and anticipation to the future life of our congregation, guided by our Call to Mission, to participate in the work of the Spirit. 

With the near completion of Trinity House B&B and an increase of dedicated giving, as well as a newfound comfort and excitement about raising funds and asking for financial support, we are moving toward much better financial stability and sustainability, thanks also to our partner churches, donors, friends and families, the Metro-Chicago Synod, and the ELCA. Thanks be to God! 

And so it is with a heavy heart, and also with a strong confidence in the life and mission of God at First Trinity, and the amazing people here through whom the Spirit works miracles of loving-through-dividing-lines on a daily basis, that I must confess to you that that same Spirit that spoke to me on my first visit to First Trinity is now calling me to bring my time at this beloved, beloved, beloved, amazing and life changing church community to a close. 

After over nine years of being an ordained pastor with you (and two or three volunteering, supply preaching, and teaching bible studies at First Trinity before that), it is now time for me to shift my focus onto finishing my Ph.D. work at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. As of mid-August I am being granted by the bishop’s office an educational leave from my call to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. This leave will allow me to prepare for Field Exams and then to write my dissertation. When, by God’s grace, I have finished my Ph.D., Daisy and I will both be listening for the Spirit’s call to the next journey for us,  and for me as a pastor. Certainly it will continue to be the work of sanctuary and home, growth in the Spirit, and works of faith, love, liberation, justice, and peace—be it in congregational community life or in the life of a classroom, working with pastors-yet-to-be. 

I have a deep love for all of you. I can’t say that enough. Without First Trinity and all of you, my life and my spirit would be stunted in so many ways. I will undoubtedly feel your absence for a long, long, long time. I’ve already begun to grieve. I’ll miss you. A ton. Yet, whenever I think of you, I’ll give thanks to God for the holy moments and sacred work we have shared, the work of the Spirit which continues day in and day out at First Trinity. 

My last Sunday presiding as your pastor will be August 12, 2018. That’s about two months from right now. In the meanwhile, we will be confirming some of our youth, traveling to the ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston, sending kids to Lutherdale Bible Camp, traveling to Wild Goose Festival to talk about God’s work through First Trinity, and enjoying yet another rendition of Jesus and Justice Day Camp here on the grounds of First Trinity. I hope you’ll join us for some rousing campfire singalong songs at the close of each night!

I plan to be around all week, Tuesday through Friday, for that week of Jesus and Justice Camp (my last week), packing here and there, and hoping you’ll drop in and say some farewells. As our beloved Connee used to always say, “We never say goodbye.” We say farewell. I think she was right. Even if farewell still hurts. 

In the meanwhile, this coming Sunday, June 24, I will stay after worship until about 1:30PM to answer any questions you may have of me before we leave the following week for the Youth Gathering. And of course I’ll be in the office this Tuesday, June 19, as well. If you’d like to stop by, please do. Lectio Divinia begins our day at 9AM until about 10:15. You are welcome to join us in prayer and meditation then. After our staff meeting, I’ll then be free from around 1-5PM, before God’s Closet. 

On a practical note for you all, know that our current Vicar, Samantha Nichols, for whom I have deep respect and full confidence, is available and willing to serve in a part-time role here at First Trinity as she finishes her final year of pastoral studies. Samantha has a heart for God’s mission here, and a passion for the content and work of our shared faith. And she gets what the Spirit here is all about. I believe that a somewhat seamless transition in pastoral roles could help the ministries not to lose momentum in the way that a leadership gap might. I also believe that consistency and continuity in preaching each week from someone involved in the mission of the church will serve to deepen the mission and work here in a way that hiring supply preachers cannot. I also think Vicar Samantha is really good preacher, as well as a well-loved leader in our community. As you pray, and in your discernment, I encourage you to consider her as a resource in the coming months. This of, of course, will be up to you as a congregation to decide and negotiate. But it is my pastoral advice to a community I love and care for very much. 

Further, the synod staff (a.k.a. the Bishop’s Office), and Rev. Hector, our Director of Evangelical Mission, will be able to help and guide you all in your search for your next called pastor, whoever you come to discern that it will be. There is a whole process for this. You’ll form a Call Committee. It’s a blast. And it can be an amazing and galvanizing process for a congregation. I trust that the Spirit will guide you in all of this, as she always has, and that you will discern what is best for the people here and soon-to-be-here, and for God’s important, important, indispensable mission here at First Trinity. I have left the council with a little more information, which they can relay to you. Our president, Erika Hobbs, has already been in contact with Bishop Miller and Rev. Hector. The bishop’s office is poised to move immediately, and will provide you with more detailed information about the next steps in the process. They will be connecting again with Erika and the council this week. The council will then communicate with all of you. 

Again, I give thanks for all of you, and I extend to you so much love. These next weeks will certainly include pain and sadness—for me, certainly, and I imagine also for many of you. Sad though these moments may be, however, certainly they also will be opportunities for the Spirit to continue to create in this place something beautiful, something full of grace, and something shot through with holy and liberative love. They will be opportunities in which God will continue to take place here through all of you in ever new and always surprising and beautiful ways. 

With all my love and all my gratitude, and with a heavy heart at a pending farewell, 

And in Christ—Love Enfleshed each day in you, 

Rev. Tom Gaulke, Pastor, First Lutheran Church of the Trinity 

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Good News of a Maladjusted Christ Whose Family Was Disappointed

Sermon, First Lutheran Church of the Trinity, Chicago
June 10, 2018

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. - Romans 12:2

And the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind." And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons." - Mark 3:20-22

And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." - Mark 3:34-35

"Jesus' Family," A photo I took a nativity set by Delfim Dias de S√°, Santo Tirso, Portugal. It is housed at the St. Fancis/Capela de Ossos in √Čvora, Portugal.
There were a lot of fat people there, 
and a lot of people who were considered mentally ill, I think.  

And there were ex-convicts, and future convicts, 
and a ton of non-citizens of Rome. 

There were people who had been bullied and abused and mistreated, here and there, in schools, at home; 

as well as those who still were. 

There were those who wanted a way out. 

A new heavens and a new earth. 

The poor. Of course. 

And the sex workers. 

The tax collectors were there.

More or less everyone who was counted as notorious among the morality police—that is, those who only did in private those things they decried in the pulpits and in the public square. 

The aged were there too. The old people. 
and all those whose bodies used to work
(that’s a strange word we use, isn’t it?)
but had been worn by their masters’ labor, 

and by time, 

down to the bone. 

All of these people were there, gathered around Jesus, eating up Jesus’ every word. 

The misfits, the left-outs, 
those for whom fitting in 
was less of given thing, 
and more of a task, 
something to work at, 

yet something that was not ever quite entirely achievable. 

These were the crowds that gathered around Jesus: 

The maladjusted ones, not quite conformed to the world, 

and suffering because of it. 

The maladjusted ones, looking for someone like Jesus, 

And for a place they might belong. 

Around this agitating savior they found comfort in a promise.

A comfort lost, not comprehended or felt, by the rest.  

A comfort that, for some of the others, felt like affliction. 


This year, according to the church calendar, 

we’re going through the book of Mark. 

And today we find ourselves in the third chapter of Mark’s Gospel. 

Now you might remember that Mark’s gospel... 

[remember: gospels are stories about Jesus, right?]

You might remember that Mark’s gospel 
doesn’t start with a Christmas story, or any story about Jesus’ origin, or where he came from, as you might expect.

But, on the contrary, Mark’s gospel simply begins with a statement: 

This is the beginning of the Good News of the Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the God. (Mark 1:1)  

This is how the gospel starts. And immediately, it’s off to the races. 

John the baptist shows up. Jesus is baptized. The heavens are opened up. 

A voice from heaven speaks.

And it says “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 

Now, if any of this sounds mundane to you, don’t let it fool you. 

Because let me tell you: 

when the 1st century communities who collected these stories 
and wrote them down and shared them with each other
first read (and even wrote) this gospel, they knew exactly what it was trying to say.

You might remember that the word gospel, or good news, and specifically this phrase, This is the beginning of the good news of SO AND SO, the Son of the gods… 

You might remember that that phrase was specifically a phrase used in Rome, in Jesus’ time, to announce Rome’s victory in battle over enemy forces—and not just enemies, anyone they decided to attack while expanding the Roman territory. 

The soldiers would go off. Fight, plunder, whatever, and they’d come back to town, processing, trumpet sounds. They’d have a parade. 

And when they arrived at the town center, they’d unroll the scroll, and they’d read the account of the battle that Rome had just won. 

They’d unroll the scroll, stand way up high, and begin the speech like this:

This is the beginning of the Good News of the Caesar, the Son of the gods.

This is the beginning of the Good News of the Caesar, the Son of the gods.

The Son of the Gods was Caesar’s title. 

The title spoken on to Jesus by a voice from the heavens, was generally assumed (and enforced) by the Roman empire, and by those same soldiers who fought and paraded and shared Lord-Caesar-the-Son-of-the-Gods’ Good News of victory in war, to refer to the emperor.  

It’s no wonder that the early Christians were martyred for calling Jesus, “Lord,” and “Son of God.” Amen? 


Jesus baptism (and we might say his commissioning—the start of his ministry) was marked by tension 

a tension that would build throughout the gospels between Jesus and the Powers. 

From the very beginning, this is how Mark’s community members frame their Gospel: 

Jesus’ Good News is different.

Jesus’ Good News is different, 
and, in fact, in opposition
to Rome’s Good News. 

Jesus’ gospel is different than Rome’s reports of war. 

Jesus’ victory is a different kind of victory—a victory that does not sacrifice or marginalize or exclude the left outs 
and the weirdos, 
and the maladjusted, 
and the non-conformed. 

But, in contrast, is a victory specifically for those people: the marginalized and the left out and the maladjusted and the non-conformed. Amen? 

Jesus’ victory is a victory for those Rome would sacrifice.

And for those for whom, simply, Rome just didn’t work. 

From the very beginning of the Good News, there is tension between Jesus and Rome. 

And that’s not all. 


After his baptism, and subsequent temptation, 
Jesus begins to call his disciples. 

This might, once again, seem somewhat mundane.

He calls two brothers: 

Simon and Andrew.

And then also two other brothers:
James and John, the sons of a man named Zebedee. 

Jesus calls them and they leave to follow Jesus, says the text. They get right out of the boat they’re in. 

And they leave the family business. 

And they leave their father in the boat with the hired hands. 


That is to say: long before he made the crack we read today about who his real family is (right?),

Jesus was challenging what it meant to be family and what it meant to be faithful to the human family and to the the One he called his heavenly parent. 

Long before his crack today about who his real family was, Jesus was challenging what it meant to be family and what it meant to be faithful to God. 

And this all happens before chapter two!

It’s, like one or two pages in Mark’s Gospel, depending on how many footnotes you have. 

I won’t recount every story that follows, but there are many healings that Jesus does: demons, fevers, paralysis, helping someone to walk… 

Jesus seems to have a cure for everything in Mark’s Gospel. 

Lots of good, laudable, charitable things! Amen? Stuff that makes people happy. Stuff that makes the front page of the Bridgeport News. 

But then Jesus does something really stupid.

He begins to go around forgiving people’s sins.

Not only that, he calls (as his disciple) a tax collector! 
A despised, hated tax collector!
Nobody likes a tax collector, especially in Rome!

Many of you have heard a ton of sermons on that point, so I won’t unpack that one now. 

He calls a tax collector, dirty, disgusting, despised, 
to be 

And he profanes himself, and his reputation, according to the rules of religious tradition in his time, by eating with the sex workers that came for dinner there, at Levi’s house (Levi was the name of that tax collector that he called), and eating with other tax-collectors and a whole group of other people back then who were just labeled generally as “sinners.” 

This impure rabbi, fraternizing with the least of society, eating and drinking with the lowest of the lost is going around telling people they are forgiven of their sin?! Telling sinners that they now have no sin? 

Blasphemy! Unrighteous! Unholy! Unclean! Impure! Freak! Weirdo! Deplorable! 

You can hear the televangelists shouting! 

Oh how the preachers of holiness would’ve hated Jesus if only they had actually met him. 

So it is no surprise that when Jesus and his disciples don’t fast correctly, when they don’t not-eat correctly, (in the story we read about last week), 

and then, immediately after Jesus does another unthinkable for the holy ones: 

“Working” on the Sabbath (breaking religious rules to heal somebody’s hand)...

It’s no surprise when all of this goes down and builds up 
that the authorities, 
those who benefit from the world-as-it-is, 
and who delight in the status quo, 

had finally HAD ENOUGH. 

This guy was up to no good. 

From Chapter 1 of Mark’s Gospel, 
all the way through Chapter 3, 

Jesus, to the powers, 
is nothing 

He is unpatriotic toward the empire, and even opposed to it.

He doesn’t think right about the well-established institution of family.

And He doesn’t respect the religious rules. Or those in religious authority. God bless his soul.

No wonder we ended last week’s reading with the ominous words after Jesus healed someone’s hand, 

that “The Pharisees and the Herodians immediately conspired against him, how to destroy him.”

And it’s no wonder, when we pick up in the gospel today, that we read these words: 

“Jesus went home. And a huge crowd gathered. And when his family heard it, they went to restrain him.” 

And also: that people were accusing him of having (and even being) a demon!!!

But: his family went to restrain him… 

His family knew things were getting tense. Right? 
They were smart people. 

So they went. And they thought they’d try one last time to talk some sense into their brother, into Mary’s son. 

They thought they’d try one last time to talk some sense into him before he kept preaching about an alternative government, 
Where the last become first. 


They thought they’d try one last time
And just invite Jesus back into the family business, 
And let Andrew and and Simon and the sons of Zebedee, and Levi, and everyone else just go home where they belonged.

The tax booth. The fishing boat. 

Just get back in your place.

They went to try to convince them
to return to the world as it is. 

And how it’s always gonna be! they said. 

They thought they’d try one more time to ask Jesus and his friends to behave. 

To quit their dreaming.


to be conformed to the world. 

Please! they pleaded.

Before the Herodians and Caesar and the the defenders of all of the institutions he had shaken 

would have their way...

Family! Faith! Country! 
God bless Rome! they said with a healthy, 
well-conformed-to-the-world dose of fear.

So stop causing a ruckus.


And while they were going on and on.

And on and on and on again, 

Jesus began to pray: 

May God’s Reign come, he prayed.
May God’s will be done,
On earth, 
because earth is nowhere near the kingdom of the heavens. 

May God’s Reign come.
May God’s will be done.

And his family was disappointed. 


And the defenders of traditional families, they hated him more and again.

And the great defenders of the faith plotted to kill him. They called him heretic and blasphemer and devil and demon. 

And the patriots, waving flags, conspired how they would put him behind bars, or lynch and hang him.

As they did with all who weren’t able to conform

All the champions of the norm, and lovers of normalcy, 
they all plotted to kill him. 

All together in one place.

Make Rome Normal Again.

And so Jesus did what he always did: 

he continued to heal and to cast out demons and to preach. 

And there were a lot of fat people there, 
and a lot of people who were considered mentally ill. 

And there were ex-convicts, 
and future convicts, 

and a ton of non-citizens of Rome. 

There were people who had been bullied and abused and mistreated, here and there, in schools, at home; 

as well as those who still were. 

There were those who wanted a way out, 

A new heavens and a new earth.

May God’s Reign come
May God’s will be done...

The poor were there. Of course. 

And the sex workers. And the tax collectors.

Phillip and Andrew and the Sons of Zebedee, 

and Levi and Martha, Joanne and Mary.

More or less everyone counted as notorious among the morality police—that is, those who did only in private those things they decried in the pulpits and in the public square. 

And the aged were there too, 
the elderly, 

and all those whose bodies used to work
(that’s a strange word we use, isn’t it?)
but whose bodies had been worn by their masters’ labor, and by time, 

down to the bone. 

All of these people were there, gathered around Jesus, eating up Jesus’ every word. 

The misfits, the left-outs, those for whom fitting in was less of a given thing, 

and more of a task, 

something to work at, yet something that was never quite entirely achievable. 

These were the crowds that gathered around Jesus: 

The maladjusted ones. Not quite conformed to the world.

And suffering because of it. 

The maladjusted ones. Looking for someone like Jesus.

And for a place they might belong. 

Looking for the Reign of God. On earth. And in heaven. 

Around this agitating, 
ill-conformed savior, 

they find comfort. 

A comfort lost, by many. 

But for those who come, 

and for those who come to believe, 

it is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus, the Christ, 
the Son of the God.