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How Can We Live?

Proper 18A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

September 10, 2017

Five years after invasion destroyed Jerusalem, followed by exile and slavery in Babylon, the Prophet Ezekiel asked, “How then can we live?” (Ezekiel 33:10)

These words resonate with me this week as we watch four hurricanes in a row, one that swamped Houston, one that churned through Mexico, one that is tearing through Florida right now, and another following close behind. This morning our prayers are with the all the people devastated by these storms and whose lives are threatened.

Lost in news about Irma, record setting wildfires are burning throughout the West.  Flakes of ash fell like snow covering Portland this week.  Smoke is making the air toxic.  “At one point last month, the air quality in the Seattle region was likened to that of Beijing at its worst, a threat to the old and the young, and those with respiratory problems.” (Henry Fountain, NYT, SEPT. 8, 2017)

“In 1893, the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch completed his most famous painting, “The Scream,” with its haunting vibe of existential dread. [According to legend] The nightmare image, with its swirls of deep reds and blues, was inspired by Munch’s experience, a decade earlier, of witnessing an unearthly sunset, created in part by airborne particulates emitted by the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Krakatau, on the other side of the planet. All of the ash from the volcano scattered the blue-violet wavelengths of light, just as the smoke blanketing the West is doing now. At the sight of ruptured sky, Munch said he felt “a great, unending scream piercing through nature.”” (Jason Mark, NYT, SEPT. 9, 2017)

What Munch intuited at the outset of the industrial revolution, we are beginning to see as facts wrought in the earth and the sky and the water that now impinge upon modern life from all sides. Under the weight of the brokenness we experience in our lives and in the world around us, we recognize the ways we have messed up in our own lives and we bear the burden of systemic and corporate failures, too. When we face so much need in the world and recognize our own complicity in it, we might also ask that question: “How then can we live?”

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says God called the Christian community into being out of nothingness to become a community of healers and reconcilers.  St. Paul writes that ‘we have become ambassadors for Christ.’  We are called into being to reconcile people to each other and to God. (2 Cor. 5:20). In the gospel today from Matthew 18, Jesus suggests one path forward for dealing with sin and conflict on an interpersonal level. Always, we must speak the truth as we know it in love. (Ephesians 4:15)

Yet we must admit even this is not easy for us every time we encounter broken relationships. Often our attempts to resolve our own messes only create more mess.

And the church, which is given as a place to hold and mediate conflict, is itself filled with conflict and divisions – a reality we confront as we observe the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. How then can we hope to address the really big systemic challenges we face wrought by the devastating and self-defeating storms of racism, economic injustice, terrorism, and climate change? How then, can we live?

Today, we set out to be God’s hands in the world with brothers and sisters at Unity, and Ebenezer to praise God and break bread with neighbors in Rogers Park. We face into the challenge knowing that ours is a world in which violence is in our homes, our streets, and in faraway war zones. Ours is a world with refugees and migrants who need hospitality and support in our local communities. Ours is a world in which people are hungry and without shelter. Ours is a world where the earth is littered with garbage and the air we breathe is polluted. We face so much that needs mending and also the reality that even sometimes our best-intended service comes with impure motives or unintended consequences. How then can we live?

In our reading from Romans today Paul offers us the answer—put on our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 13:14) Literally put on the life of Christ like you would put on a new suite of clothes. We put on the armor of light in order to lay aside the works of darkness. The answer is here in the waters of baptism with which we baptize little Autumn Victoria Woods today. We must die to our old way of life so Christ may live in us and through us. We must be transformed in this way so that our daily life and habits can finally be changed.

If we rely on our acts of service today or any other day, then we will fail. We can’t save the world or ourselves, unless Christ lives in us. We can confront our own role in the brokenness of the world because of Christ’s forgiveness poured out. We can face the problems that exist around us because in Christ’s death and resurrection the victory of life, of love, of hope is assured. We can live because God has claimed us in baptism, uniting us to Christ’s death and resurrection. We have faced the worst and seen God’s bringing us to life again. We have the presence of Christ in our gathered community – wherever two or three are gathered – working new life out of our mess.

We will need to put on Christ as we engage the question of our future with Families Together Cooperative Nursery School (FTCNS).  In two weeks, we will meet to decide whether to commit ourselves to an analysis of the building in light of city and state building codes for an extra or third classroom for the school and to sharing the costs of whatever changes would be required to make that happen provided it seems reasonable to us.

One question I keep hearing is why we should go through all this effort since FTCNS is secular and not religious. The assertion is we don’t share the same mission.  I see it differently.  For decades at least, and knowing some of the history of this church, probably from the beginning, Immanuel has served the needs of everyone in the community regardless of whether they share the same faith, belong to a different faith, or no faith. For more than thirty years, it has been our mission to serve children and youth in this way through play groups, tutoring, and after-school programs involving hundreds of families and generations of neighbors. FTCNS is an extension of this mission of service.  In fact, that’s why we searched them out and invited them here twenty years ago.  Since that time, they have been consistent and reliable good partners with us in this space.  Going forward they offer a strong alliance to continue extending our mission of service to the neighborhood and maintaining this building.

Every week hundreds of children and families walk in our doors, play on the front lawn, or pray in our sanctuary, and call Immanuel their home.  If our concern is the school’s presence has not contributed enough to the size of our worshipping community I’d say that’s on us.  We are working to be better evangelists.  Most congregations have to go out into the community in order to meet people to invite to church.  We are blest to have them in our own rooms and hallways.  So, yes, I think partnership with the school fits very well with our mission and that’s why I support working with the school to expand.

How then can we live?  We shall live in Christ, through Christ, by Christ. We dwell in Christ through unceasing prayer. Live in Christ with a song in your hearts.  Cleave to new life in Christ like a shipwrecked sailor clinging to a life raft. Rather than cling to our old bitterness, we must let go in order to bind ourselves more closely to Christ.  Brothers and sisters, you know what time it is.  You can read the signs on the wind and the water. Our salvation draws near. The time is now here to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

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