Sermon for the 2016 patronal feast celebration at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Madison, WI. These are the readings appointed for the feast of St. Luke:
(singing) Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, dear People of God at St. Luke's. Happy birthday to you! And many more.
So, St. Luke’s is 69! And though not founded today - that is, on this date - we celebrate the life of this congregation today on the feast of St. Luke, transferred to this Sunday from the 18th of October. And it’s a special thing to have a patron saint who can signal the celebration. Now, you and I didn’t pick Luke, but through their identification with him, the founders of this church, this faith community, communicated to themselves and future generations something of the way of Jesus they found beautiful or striking or compelling. When the first founders named this place “Luke,” they named charisms, gifts, qualities of that saint that they prayed, as a people, we could share and around which we might build life in Jesus together. “St. Luke’s” names a particular imagination for living the Christian life.
Of course, it take imagination to live the Christian life. In 1948, a year after Grace Church began the Lake Edge mission church that would become St. Luke’s, the first church building was built on this property. It was a Quonset hut. If you are like me, you might appreciate at this point a definition of a Quonset hut. A Quonset hut is a half-cylinder building made of corrugated metal. They are light-weight, all-purpose, and can be shipped and assembled anywhere. They were first designed and produced for the Navy in World War II.
After the war, say around 1948, Quonset huts were abundant and cheap. But that’s not enough to account for the imagination of a priest who secured a Quonset hut to be the first chapel of the mission community that would become St. Luke’s. What I’m telling you is that some Episcopalians, followers of Jesus, looked at a former instrument of war and saw potential for a redemptive future. They weren’t afraid to say that God works in all things, even hard things and terrible things, for good. Channeling Isaiah and the prophecy that God’s people would beat their swords into ploughshares and practice war no more, a building made to be lightweight, portable, cheap, and not lasting, would become a strong taproot of prayer and constancy and a visible witness to God’s faithful presence on the east side of Madison. What I’m telling you is that a feature of war would become a lasting proclamation of peace, made part of the reconciling purposes of God in this world, announcing the Good News of the kingdom of God.
St. Luke would have loved that. St. Luke was all about announcing Good News. All about telling the story of the new thing God is doing. All about proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus. Luke’s is, after all, one of the four accounts of the story, one of four gospels, we remember and tell, and I want for the next few minutes to take a look at the peculiar ways Luke tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth, because I think those peculiar ways form the foundations of this community that bears his name, whom God first gathered under a Quonset hut, and whose future is bright in God. The four peculiar ways of living the Gospel I want to highlight in Luke are singing, the Spirit, stories, and sending.
Luke’s gospel begins with singing. I sometimes teach classes on the first couple of chapters of Luke, and I call it, “Luke, the Musical.” As the story opens, there’s Mary’s song, sung to Elizabeth, the Magnificat. My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. But even before that, there’s Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel, “Let it be unto me,” which would collect no small fame years later when it was clever remixed by Sir Paul McCartney and an obscure little band called the Beatles. There’s Zechariah’s beautiful prophecy, then the angels singing to shepherd, “Glory to God in the highest heaven.” The message first given to the very poor. And then, Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus in the temple, the prophet Simeon sings the song that we still sing at every Compline, “Lord, you now have set your servant free, to go in peace as you have promised. That’s what, four/five songs in two chapters! Luke’s gospel starts like one of those musical movies in which every poignant moment threatens to turn into song. Each time, it is song in joyful response to God’s unexpected presence. Luke’s gospel reminds us that to sing is to be joyfully tuned to the presence of God in our lives.
Luke’s gospel continues with Jesus’ first sermon, and the sermon is God’s pouring out of the Spirit. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Jesus says, to bring good news to the poor. The Spirit on Jesus means the favor of the Lord, and that’s familiar language for Israel. It’s the language of Jubilee. Jubilee is the Jewish name for the every fifty year feast and the forgiveness of debts: the healing of relationships between rich, poor, and the land. And above all with God. But now it’s not a party saved for every fifty years. Jesus is the Jubilee. Jubilee is wherever he is.
After the songs and the Spirit, Luke’s gospel continues with stories. Stories of God’s notice of and love for the poor. Stories of healing. Stories of calling. Stories of the kingdom and what it’s like. Stories of Jesus’ disagreement with the ones who’d forgotten the story. Stories of mercy and love that reaches farther than any reasonable imagination. Stories of challenge, rejection, death, and resurrection. Stories of faithful women who left the grave in response to the mandate: “Go, tell!” Go tell the story, and I’ll meet you there.
Finally, the thing that sets Luke’s gospel apart from the others is the sequel Luke wrote. The part two. The book of Acts. Acts is the continuing story of the Spirit. Acts is the story of the church. Acts is the spilling over of the Spirit onto the ones who had grown close to Jesus, the sending of the ones who had grown close to Jesus into the world, equipped with the Spirit as a new kind of people; a people through whom the Spirit would do mighty things in the world, in the name of the Savior and to the glory of God.
Singing, the Spirit, stories, and sending. These four elements of Luke’s gospel have been foundations of the people of God in this place. You can see these four marks in the history of this church. These four elements of Luke’s gospel will continue to be the foundations of the people of God at St. Luke’s whenever we are most mindful and remembering of who and whose we are.
And if you were here last week, you know how this people loves to sing. Absent an organist, armed with just a harp and some handbells, the people of God at St. Luke’s woke up the angels with beautiful, vulnerable song, the praise of expectant people lifting hearts high to God, living our joy to the faithful surprise of God’s presence. Each week, too, you enjoy the feast of the Spirit and drink the cup of forgiveness. You’ve heard me say these past months what Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed, that the first task of Christian community and for each person in it is to forgive and be forgiven. Most of the world gets nervous about forgiveness, as if even naming the need for forgiveness is to somehow admit that we’re already messed up beyond all hope. But we who come to the feast of forgiveness, drink the cup, we know better. You know how rhythms of forgiveness are just the beginning, opening you up to the fullness of God’s hopes for you, this community, and the world. We come to the feast, and we ask God to help us seek and share forgiveness as generously as we can, in imitation of the one who died for us. At the feast, we retell the story of God’s mighty acts. We listen. We steep in the story. You recover your place in the story. And at coffee hour you tell more stories. Stories of God at work in our lives and this world. Stories of what you’ve seen of the Spirit who goes out before us, preparing the way. Finally, you’re sent every week and you go. Like the first women at the tomb, you go and tell. Bravely. With words and actions you point with your lives to the mercy we are learning together as God’s people here. We are learning to live in the way that first brought us to life! After all, the miracle of the Quonset hut people is that we are only a people because the people before us said yes to God’s sending. Being sent isn’t just something we do. Being sent is how we came to be.
Singing. Celebrating the Spirit and the feast of forgiveness. Telling the sweet, sweet story. Being sent out again and again and again in the Spirit, out and into the world with the eyes and heart of God for the poor and the new possibilities of God. This is the four-fold imprint of Luke in the life of this church. It’s what is true of you already and what we pray to be. What a gift. Praise God! And happy birthday.