Augustana Baccalaureate Sermon 2017

Grace and peace to you in the name of Christ. Amen.

Gracia y paz en el nombre de Cristo Jesus. Amén.

On behalf of the congregation I serve, Iglesia Luterana San Lucas, I bring greetings on this festive day. San Lucas is a Spanish-speaking congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America located near the United States-Mexico border in Eagle Pass, Texas. It is a ministry of welcome and faith formation and life together in the midst of poverty, injustice, and border uncertainty. Eagle Pass is right across the Rio Grande from the Mexican city of Piedras Negras, Coahuila. With many families on both sides of the river, it is a community bound by bridges. In many ways, it is not unlike my hometown of the Quad Cities, except you don’t need to show a passport or a visa to armed agents in order to go to Bettendorf.

It is an honor for me to be back here with you today “by the Mighty Mississippi.” I realize that when I started as a first-year student here at Augustana, most of the seniors graduating today would have been in kindergarten.

I’m filled with nostalgia of my time here as I return to campus. Augustana formed me in many and various ways, crystallizing a curiosity for learning, connecting me with a tradition of scholarship and discovery, and strengthening me with a community of faith and service.

For you getting ready to graduate today, it’s probably too soon for nostalgia. It’s more likely relief, or accomplishment, or fear and excitement as you imagine what comes next. Augustana is a part of your story. You are a part of Augustana’s story. It is all a part of God’s story.

I remember a storied piece of Augustana lore told to me by my late father, James Bailie, class of 61. According to Dad, a few prankster students got some feathers, and put them into the pipes of the organ on this stage here in Centennial Hall. You can imagine what happened next. You can imagine when the organist strikes the first chord: Piles of projectile plumage. Everywhere. I tell this story, not to promote collegiate mischief, but as a sign of God’s Holy Spirit.

A pastor I work with in Texas, when talking about the Holy Spirit, often says, “Look for the feathers.” In Christian tradition, the presence of God’s spirit is often symbolized by a bird, floating and maneuvering amongst us. “Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove.” Birds sometimes leave behind feathers as signs that they were there. So too it is with God. We can’t always see God among us, be we can see signs of the Spirit’s presence: Lives transformed. Families welcomed. Communities impacted. Feathers. Our lives become piles of projectile Spirit-signs: lessons learned, friendships cultivated, dreams inspired.

In today’s Gospel from John 14, Jesus promises the presence of the Holy Spirit. In his farewell discourse, Jesus prepares his disciples for time without him, after his death. They are in a liminal state, in-between, unaware of the future without their teacher, without their friend. In their uncertainty of what happens next, Jesus promises that they will not be abandoned. He will send an Advocate, a Comforter, a Guide, a Spirit of Truth, so that they will not be alone. And so it is with us. We are not abandoned. We are not alone.

The time around graduation is a liminal in-between time. You might not know what happens next. There’s anticipation and expectation. Farewells and finals. Sometimes our lives might feel strewn out like a stage full of feathers. Sometimes we don’t know what’s going on. Sometimes our plans don’t happen like we want them or how our families want them. Sometimes the Holy Sprit surprises.

I remember the day that I went to the Register’s office to undeclare my Spanish major. “When will I ever really use this?” I wondered. Now I function in Spanish almost daily as a pastor on the Mexican border.

God’s spirit surprises and changes us. My time after Augustana has led me to a variety of places and contexts: Seminary in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, an internship in a bilingual and multicultural congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and now parish ministry in Texas.

Two years into my first call as a pastor after graduating from seminary, I was serving a congregation in suburban San Antonio. The bishop’s office called me seemingly out of the blue saying, “We’d like you to interview in Eagle Pass.” “Where’s that?” I asked.

Eagle Pass is 140 miles west of San Antonio, across vast open spaces of cattle ranches, mesquite trees, and rattlesnakes. Sometimes it is 45 miles between gas stations. It’s 120 miles to the next closest ELCA Lutheran congregation. Ministry is meaningful and the people are welcoming, but the location can is remote and can be isolating.

I distinctly remember, as a geography major here at Augustana, being firmly admonished by Professor Norman Moline to never use the phrase “Middle of nowhere.” Every place, he told us, is somewhere for somebody. Even the smallest town is home for those who live there. Even the places uninhabited by humans are still somewhere for somebody. They are part of ecosystems and watersheds. Everywhere is somewhere.

And so it is with God. Every place is someplace as the Spirit of God abides. No corner of the universe, no path untrodden or peril unknown, no parents’ basement or entry level position is away from God’s presence. God’s Spirit is with you.

My six years on the border have taught me that God’s presence has no boundaries. We try to build walls, but God’s love transcends our human divisions. In whatever language, God speaks.

God shapes us and forms us. God challenges us and guides us. God is present in the mess and the mystery. God’s Spirit is present in us and with us. Jesus says, “This is the Sprit of Truth.”

In another piece of Augustana lore, I invite you on a scavenger hunt this afternoon during Commencement. Take a look at the banner used in the procession. There’s a Greek word on it. Aletheia. It means truth. It’s the word used here in John’s Gospel.

As you celebrate your graduation from Augustana, the truth is with you. In the liberal arts tradition, we celebrate truth. Truth in classroom. Truth in the laboratory. The truth of creative art. The truth of life together in community.

Students of Augustana, family, friends: Today as we give thanks to God for the gift of education and the blessings of learning, we celebrate truth. We celebrate the truth of God’s love for each and every person here. We celebrate the truth of God’s abiding presence. The Comforter, the Advocate, the Guide is with you. You will not be abandoned.

The Good News for us today is that Jesus sends the Holy Spirit. You are not alone. We are not alone. However the feathers of your life may fall, God’s Spirit of love has been with you. God’s Spirit of peace is with you right now. The Spirit of truth will be with you forever. Amen.

Why I’m Skipping Synod Assembly

This weekend, the Southwestern Texas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is gathering in San Antonio for its annual Synod Assembly. It is a time of worship, fellowship, and decision-making for the sake of ministry. As a pastor of the synod, it has been a way for me to keep connected with colleagues and mission partners.

However, this year, I decided not to attend Synod Assembly for a variety of reasons: 1) The registration fee of $180 per person is hard to manage for a congregation in a community of poverty that already struggles for everyday ministry expenses. It basically becomes an ecclesiastical poll tax. 2) I was already planning to be gone several Sundays this spring and didn’t want to be away from worship too many times. 3) Increased fear about Border Patrol and ICE presence makes some parishioners nervous about traveling.
Perhaps I am being a colonialist gatekeeper pastor myself, but I don’t want this to be my Spanish-speaking congregation’s experience with the wider Church. When parishioners have attended Synod Assembly in the past, it has not always been a safe space or a pleasant experience. Spanish translation, if available, is not always the best quality. Micro-aggressions abound. In my eight years in this synod, I’ve long felt the unspoken rule that one must be German before being Lutheran. It has improved slightly, but it still feels to me like an ethnic insiders club. Polka music and sauerkraut are not uncommon. There is nothing wrong with honoring German heritage. The problem comes when that culture is assumed to be normative, to the exclusion of others. 

I know that by not attending Synod Assembly this year, I am disenfranchising the congregation and am avoiding collegiality with other leaders, but I am also avoiding the physically-draining geographical commute of five hours round trip across desolate Texas backcountry, as well as the emotionally-draining cultural commute.

My decision to not attend was reaffirmed when I saw the bulletin for worship on Saturday morning. I think a polka service could be fun every once in a while. I think it would be a great opportunity to reflect on the mixing of cultural influences that has happened in the course of Texas history. The accordions and oom-pah rhythms that I hear on the local ranchera stations have roots in the musics of the German and Czech immigrants of a century hence.

I understand the desire to honor heritage. I realize that German was the primary language of San Antonio in 1870, but it is not anymore. There are people in our synod who speak German, but I imagine that they also speak English very well. German is not a survival language. There are people in our synod who only speak Spanish. Including Spanish is a matter of hospitality and welcome. Including German is a matter of grasping onto nostalgia. 

My discomfort comes from the litany, “Thanksgiving for Our Heritage.” It’s not all our heritage. If the author were to read it himself during worship, that would be one thing. However, goading the congregation to respond, “May Jesus Christ be praised” at the end requires worshippers to affirm words that are not necessarily theirs. The litany celebrates Biblical heroes—women and men—as well as reformers and European immigrants. It seems to assume that those present share that German heritage or those other White heritages from “a more civilized North.” This is not the heritage of the Spanish-speaking Lutherans in places like Eagle Pass, Laredo, Pharr, and San Juan. This is not the heritage of the “incredulous faces” of the Coahuiltecan, Karankawa, and Comanche whose lands the synod’s territory claims. This is not the heritage of the African Americans whose ancestors picked cotton on plantations in our synod’s territory. This is not all our heritage.  The #decolonizeLutheranism movement is not about denying European culture. It’s not about pretending that German immigrants didn’t exist. Rather, #decolonizeLutheranism is about recognizing other parts of the story. It is about celebrating a theological identity based on God’s grace instead of a cultural one based on our human divisions. I long for a day where there is not this disconnect, where I don’t have to exude so much energy to deal with all the layers of cross-cultural mission.

In my absence at Assembly, I know I will miss out on the opportunity to be collegial. Parishioners will miss out on the chance to meet folk from other congregations. I don’t want to spend my congregation’s precious financial recourses perpetuating the ELCA Marriot culture where decisions happen in expensive hotel ballrooms. I’m skipping Synod Assembly this year because I don’t want to culturally commute to a context where “all are welcome” doesn’t always seem to include me and the parishioners with whom I serve.