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Posts from the ‘Bread of Life’ Category

Peace. Shalom. Salaam.

Christ the King B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Peace. Shalom. Salaam.  It was apocalypse now last Sunday.  People of faith throughout Edgewater streamed to the throne of God as foretold in the book of Revelation for the annual ECRA Thanksgiving Service.  Looking out at the large, diverse, happy crowd assembled at the Ismaili Center, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky read the Thanksgiving Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln and said, “I haven’t felt so at peace in a very long time.”

Let we who were there testify. At the-end-of-days people of God sat on metal folding chairs. Among the Saints of God are some who sing well and many who don’t. There are some that are concise and articulate and many who are long-winded. For the apocalypse, worship will run long but there is guaranteed to be a spirit of joy, generosity, and thanksgiving. As modeled by our hosts at the Ismaili Center, at the end times, there will be a dedicated and devoted attention to hospitality. Each and every person will find a welcome to rival the Prodigal Son.

Could the world be about to turn?  Could it finally be the end of this old tired world?  Could the reign of hatred, fear, and division ever possibly end?  “Peace. Shalom. Salaam,” we sang.  These words are like a prayer that echoes an ancient gospel long forgotten and seldom proclaimed anymore from tens of thousands of Christian pulpits, and ten thousand times ten thousand Christian communities. Christ our king does not build a wall to separate us from people different faiths or no faith at all, but a bridge.  Christ our king reigns from a throne not in heaven but here on earth. The end-of-days is now. See! The kingdom has already come like a child waiting to be born in us. These are the days of the birth pangs. The evidence is all around us.

Midway airport was mostly quiet last night in stark contrast to the crush of holiday travelers and the approaching winter storm expected to hit there today. I went to meet Leah who flew home alone after spending Thanksgiving with family in Los Angeles.  I remembered a time, not so many years ago, we watched together as the first snow of the season gently fell across Chicago.  Leah was thrilled –and in that remarkable way a young child sees the world—she said, “I can’t believe how God makes every snowflake different.  I get tired cutting out paper ones.”  We both agreed.  We’d stop making new patterns of snowflakes at about twelve.

The first three verses of the gospel of John read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him, nothing came to be.”  (John 1:1-3) Snowflakes, trees, blades of grass, and people—each one unique for all time—this is the kind of king we have.  Standing under guard before Pilate, we must admit he is not the sort of king we expected.  Mocked, abused and crucified, he’s probably not the kind of king we wanted.  Jesus wields power made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor. 12:9) Jesus rules with love, justice and mercy, and forgiveness. Again and again, we are tempted to doubt his power. [Yet] What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. (John 1:4) Peace. Shalom. Salaam.

The ancient gospel proclaimed by early Christians in the Book of Acts declare the same thing. They preached “Jesus is the [Eternal] Christ” (2:36, 9:22) and therefore the deepest pattern for everything that preceded and followed him. Jesus is God’s divine Logos, the blueprint by which the universe was made, and through which it is now being sustained.  As the Book of Revelation puts it, the Christ is “the Alpha and the Omega” of all history and of all creation (1:8, 21:6, 22:13).  Let the end times begin with us.

Many of us are taught Christ is God’s plan B.  Jesus came into the world to solve the persistent problem of human sin. We were taught that is was God and not us who demanded Jesus had to die. Yet as he stands in the Roman Praetorium, ready to take the throne of his cross, now we see the full truth.  Christ is God’s plan A. From the very beginning, Jesus the Christ is the very meaning, purpose, direction, beauty, joy, goal, and fulfillment of the whole divine adventure. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, 11/2/15) Jesus is the revealer of the One “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:8)

Peace. Shalom. Salaam. We will have to radically expand our idea of king and ruler to take in what this means. “With this perspective, Christianity need not compete with other religions; rather, authentic Christians can see and respect the Christ Mystery wherever and however it is trying to reveal itself–which is all the time and everywhere, and not just in my group.”  Martin Luther said whatever preaches Christ is the gospel regardless of who said it or where you encounter it.  For the apocalypse to be now all tribalism becomes impossible.

In Another Turn of the Crank, the Kentucky sage, Wendell Berry, writes, “I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.”[Wendell Berry, as quoted in Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, ed. (The Golden Sufi Center: 2013), 77.]

Christ our king leads the way. We will not know God, ourselves, each other, or anything else that exists except by entering into communion. To try to know something without first loving it is not to know it very well at all. Our failure to understand Christ our King in this fundamental way has made much of the Christian search for truth brutal, arrogant, divisive, the possession of a few, and confined almost entirely to our heads.  I take joy in the fact that as we move deeper into the 21stcentury, Christians seem to be re-discovering the way of Christ our king is the way of incarnation, the way proclaimed by the very name of our dear congregation.  Immanuel is the way we become a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

The French-born author Anais Nin famously once said, “We don’t see things as they are.  We see them as we are.”  We must be changed, renewed, refreshed, refashioned, reformed and resurrected.  In Christ, the old world is passing away. See! A new kingdom has begun. We join our prayers with those of every place and generation. “Let your kingdom come and your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven!  Let our eyes be opened, our ears be unstopped. Let our hearts of stone be replaced with hearts of flesh starting now. Peace. Shalom. Salaam. Let the apocalypse begin right here, right now, among us.  Yes, this Jesus is a different kind of king.  Let the people say …Amen!

In Flesh and Blood

Proper 15B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

To begin to explain communion the gospel of John points to the cross. Jesus said, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51b) Jesus did indeed give his pound of flesh on the cross. He will hand over his flesh and blood to the full power and ingenuity of the Roman Empire to inflict pain and to sow fear. On the cross, Jesus walked straight into the death-dealing jaws of worldly power, to reveal the greater life-giving power of grace

On the cross, once-and-for-all, Jesus proved God’s love cannot be broken despite how awful you are or whatever evil we have committed. Once-and-for-all Jesus revealed that glory is ours and God is beside us when we give our own flesh and blood for the sake of the suffering. Once-and-for-all Jesus showed us where we belong. We dwell in unity with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit today and forever. Therefore, following Jesus’ example, we here highly dedicate our flesh and blood in solidarity with victims of collective violence wherever and whenever they exist. For the first three centuries, before Constantine, the church more easily identified with the oppressed having sometimes been the victim of the Empire’s collective violence itself.

This is the life of which we partake. This is the true food we consume at the Table to nourish and to give soul to our poor flesh and blood. The cross is Jesus’ answer to the question of what kind of life the bread and wine incarnate in us. The cross is a sign of the kind of life the waters of baptism even now are working to reveal.  The cross is a stark sign of incarnation. Somehow, the Christian gift and message of the incarnation sounds sweeter and less threatening in Advent in Mary’s Magnificat or in barren Elizabeth’s joy in conceiving. But the message is the same. “If in your heart you make a manger for his birth, then God will once again become a child on earth.” (Ana Hernandez)

After the resurrection, Jesus’ words at the end of John, chapter 6, will sound different and more intelligible to the disciples too. But for now, they are scandalous.

In Hebrew culture “an eater of flesh” is another name for the devil. The drinking of blood is forbidden by God’s law. Even today keeping kosher means there’s no blood in your food.  On top of all this, Jesus uses a word for eating that’s especially crude.  It was used to describe the way animals eat. Jesus’ phrase ‘eat my flesh’ translated literally sounds like a command to loudly chew or to gnaw his flesh –disgusting!

It sounded like blasphemy. It sounded like idolatry. Worse, it sounded like cannibalism.  Upon hearing Jesus’ words, a dispute broke out among his followers (John 6:52).  Scripture implies it was a serious conflict, perhaps even physical. The argument was intense and bitter.

Up to now, great crowds of people had followed Jesus’ every move.  They ran ahead to arrive at his destination before he could. But now they said, “this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (vs. 60) …and because of this many who were following him, turned back and no longer went about with him’ (vs. 66) because of the flesh and blood.

Flesh and blood—because of the flesh and blood—people rejected Jesus. Indeed, the shock and scandal of the incarnation continued to be a difficult teaching for Christians throughout the history of the church. In our theology, ecclesiology, and daily practice of faith we turn and twist it to avoid confronting its full meaning.

When we partake of one flesh, let’s face it, there are always going to be some people we want to exclude. Flesh and blood are our family-right?  Flesh and blood are the people who look like us, who come from the same place, who share the same history.  Your flesh and blood are the people you don’t have to explain yourself to. They’re the ones to whom we’re especially devoted, obliged to be loyal, who call on us when times are tough, and with whom we share our wealth in life and in death.  Wrong. In Christ all people of every nation are included in God’s family—even strangers—worse, even enemies!  Jesus’ friends and family from his hometown of Nazareth were so shocked and scandalized when they heard Jesus’ inclusive message they moved as one to throw him over a cliff.

It’s been the same ever since. Christians with all their rules and heavy expectations deny access to the kingdom train at the front door, while Jesus lets everyone in at the back door. If we followed Jesus way of the cross, there wouldn’t be a difference.  Every congregation would be united and as diverse as are all the children of humanity.

It doesn’t stop there. Discomfort with strangers is just the beginning. The shock and scandal of the incarnation calls upon us do something, that for most of us, is even more difficult—to love our own fleshy, bloody, messy bodies. The gospel of Christ calls upon us to turn and embrace what we so fiercely reject in ourselves—namely our mortality, our limitations, our flaws, our vulnerabilities, our shame, and shortcomings.  This is the plain meaning of the incarnation: the fullness of God is pleased to dwell in, with, and under us and everything that surrounds us.  The material world is infused with Spirit.

Through its history, the church has side-stepped the radical inclusion of the incarnation to make things easier and to make the Christian life less threatening.  Every time we slice a little bit of our humanity off from the blessing of incarnation we have hell to pay for it. We have said, yes, God is fully present –but only among the male gender, or especially in the ordained, or only among baptized Christians, or most tragically, only among those the celibate. The unholy interlocking triangle of gender, celibacy, and ordination contributes to a culture of secrecy and sexual abuse. Pain and tragedy results when we call anyone or anything unclean that God has made good. (Acts 10:15)

The depth of our sinfulness obscures and hides the gift of incarnation in us. We are wise to be humble, to listen, to pray, and discern together how to walk the way the cross. The cross must not become a cheap and easy way to crucify or to judge others but used for that which Jesus’ intends it –as the means of transforming our own flesh and blood to better reflect the divine image endowed and incarnate in us by our creator.

We abide together, one flesh, one blood, one body. The verb translated in our gospel, ‘to abide’ occurs 40 times in John and 29 times in John’s letters.  It can mean to remain, stay, live, dwell, last, endure, or continue.   As a noun, it means a dwelling place, room, or home.  Jesus’ shocking, off-putting words are an invitation to enter into wisdom. Enter into the life of the Trinity. In this new understanding of our body and our life—of where and to whom we belong—we begin to act differently.  We make different choices.  We value different things.  Our mission at Immanuel is rooted in this.  Together, our vision and our prayer is to become a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Table Fellowship

Proper 14B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

One day Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with the disciples. When he looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward them, he bid them sit down. (John 6:3) There were people of every station, nation, and denomination.  Seated near Jesus was Matthew the tax collector who had once made a living by cooperating with the occupying Roman army.  Nearby by was another disciple, Simon the Zealot, who once conspired with revolutionaries for the violent overthrow of Rome.  Political opposites seated together. Red and blue united in communion with Jesus.

In the crowd were others we might have recognized, like the man formerly known as the Gerasene demoniac, or perhaps the leper who returned to say thanks, or the woman healed of the hemorrhage she suffered for twelve years. The Samaritan woman could have been there, as could Jairus the synagogue leader. Maybe even Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea –along with Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, Salome, and the other Mary’s who used to financially support Jesus’ ministry.

Many who shared the feast were deeply, personally connected to Jesus. Most were there because they were hungry, or because they were curious, or because they wanted to see someone famous. Whatever their reasons for being there. It didn’t matter. Gathered together were people there of faith, of no faith, and of different faiths. Yet each person was welcomed. Each person one was fed.  What are we to make of it?

This is week three of five in which we meditate upon the 6thchapter of John’s gospel.  There’s a lot going on.  You could get a Ph.D. picking through all the details.  Don’t neglect to see the big picture. This is what Eucharist looks like. The entire scene is meant as inspiration and guidance for us in what it means to be Christian, to be the body of Christ, united in holy communion with the cosmic Christ, fed at his table to become food for others—bread for the world.

This might be Jesus’ most often repeated teaching.  Jesus mostly taught from the table. He was constantly eating in new ways and with new people, encountering those who were oppressed or excluded from the system. Through table fellowship, Jesus was teaching us what family means. He was always trying to broaden the circle.

By one side, he was criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10-11, for example); by the other side, he was judged for eating too much (Luke 7:34) or for eating with the Pharisees and lawyers (Luke 7:36-50, 11: 37-54, 14:1). He ate with both sides. He ate with lepers (Mark 14:3), he received a woman with a bad reputation at a men-only dinner (Luke 7:36-37), and he even invited himself over to a “sinner’s” house (Luke 19:1-10). He didn’t please anybody, it seems, always breaking the rules and making a bigger table.

Here is the New Jerusalem.  There, seated en mass on the mountain, and at table in home after home was the Kingdom of God.   This is what Eucharist means. This is what holy communion looks like. We must be careful not to miss the point.

As Christianity developed and communion moved from being an inclusive meal with open table fellowship to the relatively safe ritual meal we call the Eucharist, unfortunately, that ritual itself became a way to categorize people into groups of insiders and outsiders in terms of worthiness and unworthiness—just the opposite of Jesus’ intention! Jesus continually interprets the Law of Holiness from the Hebrew Bible in terms of the God whom he has met—and that God is always compassion and mercy. We emphasized the priest as the “transformer” instead of the people as the transformed.

Eucharist is more than a theological statement that requires intellectual assent. “It is an invitation to socially experience the shared presence of God and to be present in an embodied way(Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, The Shape of the Table, 7/22/18). Eucharist is both deeply personal and profoundly communal.  That’s the point, in our own small way, of moving back and forth from the rail in Advent and Lent to standing together before the altar each summer. More importantly, eucharist should help us to recognize the people who flood into Immanuel each week, in some cases, for more than thirty years for playgroups, tutoring, and the Cooperative Nursery school are a lot like the crowd that gathered around Jesus in John chapter 6.  Jesus instructed the disciples then, as he continues to encourage us today–just give them something to eat.

When you are really present with our guests then you will experience the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist for yourself.

In the Eucharist, we slowly learn how to surrender to the Presence in one place, in one thing, in one focused moment. The priest holds up the Host and says, “See it here, believe it here, get it here, trust it here.” Many Christians say they believe in the Presence in the Eucharist, but they don’t get that it is everywhere—which is the whole point! They don’t seem to know how to recognize the Presence of God when they leave the church when they meet people who are of a different religion or race or sexual orientation or nationality. They cannot also trust that every person is created in the image of God. Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry trying to break down the false distinctions between “God’s here” and “God’s not there.” He dared to see God everywhere, even in sinners, in enemies, in failures, and in outsiders.”  Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Eucharist, 7/27/18) We are not always capable of seeing that, but fortunately God is patient with all of us and with history itself.

This, now, here is the bread of live present always and everywhere.  Taste it here and now.  Chew on it and meditate upon it, so that you may better see and greet Christ in your neighbor and to become food that nourishes the soul.

The Iona Abbey, on an obscure island off the coast of a narrow peninsula in Scotland, where Christianity thrived for hundreds of years throughout the Dark Ages of Europe, put the invitation to Eucharist this way:

The table of bread and wine is now to be made ready. It is the table of company of Jesus, and all who love him. It is the table of sharing with the poor of the world, with whom Jesus identified himself. It is the table of communion with the earth, in which Christ became incarnate. So, come to this table, you who have much faith and you who would like to have more; you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time; you who have tried to follow Jesus, and you who have failed; come. It is Christ who invites us to meet him here. (Iona Abbey Worship Book (Wild Goose Publications: 2001)

Christ, The Way

Proper 10B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Elizabeth and Zechariah were overjoyed at the birth of their son.  Zechariah struck dumb for doubting God in the temple, found that his tongue was loosed at his birth.  “His name is John,” he finally said. What joy they had for their son, this man of God, the last of the great prophets. But look what it’s come to. John the Baptist landed in prison for speaking truth to power; he suffers doubt and despair about the Messiah he thought he knew; he received no solace, no rescue from God and gets his head chopped off during a birthday party to appease a clueless girl, a cruel-hearted queen, and a cowardly king. What can we say about this old weary world—but that sometimes some truly stupid, senseless, crap happens.

We’ve all heard good Christians friends reach for some redemptive meaning to be found in tragedy:  “God never gives anyone more than they can bear.” Or, “God has a plan,” and “For everything, there is a season.  A time to be born and a time to die.”  I confess I’ve said things like this, and that I do find some comfort in these familiar sayings.  Yet, the true answer to tragedy is the cross. The strong message of the cross is God can always find a way to make something beautiful from the manure we make of our lives.

Faithful words hung in a frame above our bed are not jagged enough; they’re too easy and polite.  There’s a hazard in moving to closure, redemption, and triumph too quickly.  But here, in today’s gospel, is a Christian story that looks true horror in the face. Here is the Christian story that will sit with us in the darkness and help us trust that God is there, too.  Instead of reaching too quickly and compulsively for brightness, here is a gospel story about injustice, a travesty, a desecration. The head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.

We’ve heard examples of this kind of story from everywhere, from hospital rooms, opioid clinics and the streets of Chicago. We hear about the brave Muslim men, called the White Helmets. We see them run into bombed and burning buildings in Syria, pulling out children covered in ash and entire families when suddenly, the building collapses and some of them are killed too. We hear this story from families fleeing violence, facing death from dehydration at the border and now from toddlers who don’t recognize their parents after separation.

We need strong gospel medicine if we are going to withstand such losses and not lose heart. Starting with the fact that we don’t need to slap some transcendent purpose or meaning on all human experience. Christian friends our faith doesn’t require that we believe everything is part of a Divine plan, some things are just plain horrible.  Period. The cross was not God’s plan A.  It was plan B, or maybe plan C or D.  Rather, faith is knowing God will not abandon us. Faith is trusting God to bring salvation and grace even out of horror—when all the evidence leads us to conclude otherwise.

How much more credible and relevant we, his followers, would be, if we’d follow Jesus’s example as we confront the world’s ongoing horrors?  Some things are too terrible for words. We take them to the cross. Some hurts can’t be salvaged with a neat story.  “So, honor the silence.  Create space for grief.  Mourn freely.  And when you’re ready, feed the people around you whatever you’ve got.  Somehow it will be enough, even if you can’t explain how or why.  This is how we make the sorrows bearable.” (Debie Thomas, “Bearable Stories,” Journey with Jesus, 7/08/18) This is how grace heals the world. Not everything happens for a reason, but somehow, God makes beautiful sense of the jagged and bloodied pieces of our lives anyway.

Mark insists that we see this. Mark’s gospel intertwines the story of John and Jesus almost from the very beginning.  There’s something important Mark wants us to know about the timing of Jesus’ ministry and John’s arrest.  All the way back in chapter one, Mark told us it was “…after John was arrested, [that] Jesus came to Galilee, [following his baptism by John] proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!” (Mark 1:14).

Furthermore, in his very first sentence, Mark called his work “a gospel.”  This is easy for us to miss because now, we refer to all four evangelists as “gospels.”  Yet Mark was the first and only one to explicitly do so. The word Evangelion meaning “gospel” or “good tidings,” was used for imperial announcements such as the birth of royalty, the ascension of an emperor, or a military victory.  Mark’s word choice undermined the caprice of political-military power by appropriating its language and infusing it with new, deeper, and transcendent meanings (William H. Willimon).   Mark not only invented a whole new literary genre, “the gospels,” but in doing so he challenged the powers of this world and pointed to the power of the kingdom that is coming in Christ Jesus by way of the cross.

For us, it means that faith in Jesus and the end of the death-dealing social-political-economic order cannot be completely separated.  The death of John the Baptist foreshadows Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  The death of both John and of Jesus are an indication to us of the potential costs of discipleship. Things do not always, or even very often, go God’s way. But the way of the cross is the way of Life toward which, ultimately, all life must flow.

The death of John the baptizer opened a window through which to glimpse the stark contrast between the gospel of Christ and the ways of power in the world. Mark’s “flashback” to John’s imprisonment and senseless, brutal death, comes just as Jesus sent out the disciples, two by two, without bread or bag or money, to preach the good news.  Herod had sent out hired men to arrest and to bind John, while Jesus sent out disciples to bring life and wholeness to others.  Herod gave an extraordinary banquet for the rich and powerful with well-prepared foods in abundance.  Yet, Herod’s banquet became an occasion for bitterness and betrayal.  It exposed his foolishness, his precarious grip on power and lack of control.  By contrast, as the disciples returned, Jesus bid ordinary people of every type and description sit on the green grass and provided a feast of abundance for 5,000 men and their families from five loaves of bread and two fish.  It became an occasion for generosity and joy.  It exposed the wisdom of Christ’s gospel and the power of grace to unlock human hearts in relationship to Christ Jesus. Christ Jesus showed us the way to respond to senselessness is to love our enemies and feeding them.

Our Christian faith is more than simply learning about Jesus.  It is more than admiring Jesus.  It is more than gladly hearing the Word. King Herod did all that, but the Word sown in his life did not bear fruit.  The cares of the world choked it out.  Christianity is not knowledge about Jesus, it is knowing God as revealed in Jesus.  It is about having a relationship with God through Jesus.  Our faith is about knowing and being known by God, trusting in God to bring harmony and blessing in abundance when we are broken and lost.

Gospel of Fools

Proper 6B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

The Kingdom of God is like when the smallest of seeds grows up, puts forth large branches so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade (Mark 4:31-32). Jesus’ parable recalls images of the tree of life.  We might expect a great Cedar or Sequoia.

In Glacier National Park in Montana, the Trail of the Cedars is a short walk from the road. Their massive trunks can soar up to two hundred feet high. Some are as much as 400 years old. The canopy of interlacing branches creates an awe-inspiring interior space worthy of a great cathedral. In fact, the magnificent Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain is inspired by a forest. Architect Antoni Gaudi duplicates structures found in nature. The width of the pillars undulates and branch out like tree trunks. Standing inside the Basilica looks more like it grew there than was built there.

It is easy to imagine the kingdom of God in an old growth forest or grand cathedral. But Jesus surprises us. Jesus says the presence and power of God is better revealed in a tiny, no-account seed. This is not the way we expect divine activity to look.  Honestly, it’s not what we wanted either.

The people packed beside the sea listening to Jesus would have known, just as any farmer in the Midwest does, a mustard plant doesn’t have large branches.  It doesn’t grow into a tree.  It’s not suitable for birds to nest in. In fact, mustard isn’t good for much of anything. It’s a common weed.

A rule of thumb for interpreting parables is if they don’t offend you, you’re probably not understanding it.  Until we hear the parable as Jesus own audience did we can’t begin to know what he meant.

Here then this parable of Jesus. ‘The kingdom of God flourishes like crabgrass or dandelions, or the creeping Charlie growing in your yard, next to the sidewalk, and underneath the L platform. The Spirit of God is like a weed.  A weed is by definition, a plant nobody wants.  A weed is a plant that grows everywhere, without tending to it. It just takes over – “so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:32).

Here Jesus topples any self-importance we might have nurtured about our piety and empties all pompous notions about our prized traditions, institutions, culture, refinement, and the arts. The response to Jesus’ message was decisive. The world flung out the parables and gospel of Jesus onto a garbage pile outside Jerusalem and violently put both him and his message to death on a cross. To which God responded creatively, gracefully and just as decisively with a resurrection for Jesus and also for us.  In him was life. God’s free gift poured out upon all people.

To bind ourselves to this gospel is to take our place beside people, places, and things the world has thrown away—starting with yourself.  Whatever flaws or faults you think you have, whatever shame you carry, regardless of the bad choices you made, or the tangled mess your daily life has become, the first step in our disciples’ journey is simply to prayerfully open ourselves and let the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus infuse, encircle, uplift, and heal you. You must learn to love yourself before you can truly love others. Here Jesus surprises us again.  Once we stop running away from what is broken and become reconciled to God in Christ, fear and anger give way to generosity and joy.

Here is the tree of life sown in us like a tiny mustard seed.  Here is the cross around which we gather, the tree into which we are grafted through baptism, the true vine that nourishes us with its fruit in the cup we share today at the altar. It did not appear all that impressive at first, but while nobody was looking it grows like a weed with a creative tenacity and power beyond our understanding. Even now God is bringing something new to life from ordinary discarded people and things that otherwise seem impossible.

The parables of Jesus teach us to see the world with new eyes. When the prophet Samuel went to the house of Jesse to anoint a new king to replace Saul he was sure he had found him the moment he saw Eliab.  But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)   Instead, God directed Samuel to anoint the youngest, the littlest, and by all outward accounts, the least likely to succeed.  Yet, King David became the greatest king in the long history of Israel.

So, I ask you, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, what do you see?  What do you notice as the fever dream of fear and violence begins to subside by the grace of God?  Where does the spirit of generosity and joy encourage you to do God’s work with your hands and voice?

For three Sundays now, we’ve brought our collective attention to focus on the border and the plight of people in the world who live beyond it.  Jesus led the disciples across borders and boundaries. Jesus lead them beyond their fear, beyond their wants from death into life.  The love of God doesn’t stop at the border. Can we imagine a world where safety, justice, and abundance are so widely shared we will no longer have a need to defend the borders between nations, peoples, and religions?

What would happen to us, our households, our workplaces, our neighborhood, and our nation if we took Jesus’ crazy parables seriously? What if we embraced the parable of the mustard seed as a model for how we live life?  What if we follow this gospel of fools would we see it is not only about the surprising character of God and grace, but an invitation to be planted like seed, to be plunged into the dark earth and there to die alone, in order that our lives might be broken open and our gifts multiplied like bread for the world?  These parables are an invitation to walk with Jesus the way of the cross.

Be the seed. You may find yourself in rocky soil, on the path, or among thorns. It doesn’t matter. Be the seed.  God will give the growth.  Each of you is rooted in the garden of grace fed and watered through faith. Be the seed. Let yourself be planted in whatever place you find yourself.

Four thousand years ago human civilization was born in the land that today we call Iraq. Civilization began with the invention of agriculture and the cultivation of seed.  Today, we multiply them, splice them, and harvest them in air-conditioned cabs guided by global positioning satellites, fertilized precisely according to the need of each plant with the help of drones.  We know all about the bounty created by seeds –are we ready to let ourselves be the seed?

In baptism, the grace of God was sown in us so we might become like seeds of the kin-dom of God in the world.  Thanks be to God.  “For the wonders that astound us, the truths that still confound us, most of all, that love has found us, thanks be to God.” (ELW # 679)

Turning Point

Lent 2B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

According to the often-quoted wisdom of Yogi Berra, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  Today, the disciples reach a fork in the road in their journey with Jesus.  We’re at the midpoint of Mark’s gospel.  It’s the pivot point upon which Jesus takes a decisive turn to the cross.

The disciples walked with Jesus throughout Galilee.  They witnessed his ministry of preaching and healing (6:7-13, 30).  They watched his fame and favor grow so that Jesus could no longer visit cities and towns without attracting a crushing crowd.  He called, they followed, but now their novitiate is over. Jesus reveals his way of serving God will not be to become the kind of warrior-king David was whom they had all hoped for. Jesus will rule not from a throne, but from the cross.  He calls us to wield the power of love rather than the sword. The disciples (and Peter) do not yet understand that suffering born of love lies at the heart of Jesus’ mission.

Jesus has seen where obedience to the loving God will take him.  The road leads to Jerusalem.  The path of faithful service will lead directly into the grinding jaws of the Roman Empire, and the gnashing teeth of powerful, corrupt religious leaders.  The disciples, however, are shocked and confused.  They didn’t see this choice coming—now, they don’t know which way to turn.

We must pause a moment to make one thing clear.  Our Bible does not say that God takes any delight in human suffering.  Jesus’ healing miracles, his compassion for the crowds, and his miraculous feeding of the hungry multitudes are enough to show us that.  God is good.  Jesus came that we might experience life fully and share in this abundance widely.  Yet our life in Christ is no antidote to suffering and grief.  In fact, to embrace the call of Christ is to walk along with him on our own Via Dolorosa (which means the way of suffering), that was Jesus’ path in his final day in Jerusalem to the cross.  We do this, not out of morbid duty but in a spirit of generosity and joy because as children of God the slings and arrows of this world can no longer reach us.

Yet the disciples have no clue that Jesus aims to heal the world by subjecting himself to human savagery in order to expose its ugly face and break its hold and power.  Upon hearing this plan, Peter rejected Jesus’ words.  He took him aside and rebuked him as though he were casting a demon out.  Perhaps Peter was beginning to wonder, as Mark’s gospel tells us members of Jesus’ own family did, whether Jesus was not going a little bit crazy.

But Jesus would have none of it.  He turned to the crowds who followed him and said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

These are puzzling words, to say the least.  We lose by saving.  We save by losing –but how could this be?  The disciples have witnessed Jesus’ power.  Jesus controls the cosmic forces –even the wind and the water obey him.  How could Jesus permit his enemies to succeed, who wish to destroy him just as they had already destroyed John the Baptist?  St. Paul is right to insist the gospel of the cross makes a mockery of all our human conceptions of success (1 Cor. 1:18-25). In a pain-killer culture like ours, it’s tough to imagine anything good can come from agony –let alone to understand how suffering might actually be a path to healing and redemption.

We all know that this world can be a dangerous place. We all know only too well the reality of human savagery means that life for many born to this world should come with the same written warning as that seen posted at the entrance of an African game reserve: “Advance and be bitten.”

Logic dictates that evil must be met with force –right?  ‘Human kingdoms advance by force and violence and with falling bombs and flying bullets, but God’s kingdom advances by stories, riddles, and tales that are easily ignored and easily misunderstood.’ (Brian McClaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, p. 49).

This Lent, we are learning together about the call and power of forgiveness. How can we turn from vengeance to reconciliation? How can our anger and suffering be channeled into wisdom and healing rather than fear and violence?  How can we break the endless cycle of violence? How can we pivot from following the ways of the world to walk in the demanding, life-giving way of the cross instead?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said forgiveness begins with telling our story and in naming the hurt. “There is no way of living with other people without, at some point, being hurt… The response to hurt is universal.  Each of us will experience sadness, pain, anger, or shame. What so often happens is we step unaware into the revenge cycle… If we cannot admit our own woundedness, we cannot see the other as a wounded person who harmed us out of ignorance. We must reject our common humanity.”  (Desmond Tutu, The Book of Forgiving, pp. 49-51)  By telling our stories and naming our hurt we are able to face our suffering. When we face into and accept our pain we start to recognize that we don’t have to stay stuck in our story.  In the way of the cross, Jesus has shown us how to metabolize our hurts and suffering to strengthen the bonds connection and community among us.

Look, even now, the world is being remade—not by force, but by the grace that is poured out like fast-running water through a relationship with God and one another as we gather here in Jesus’ name. The difference between Jesus and the disciples—the answer that ends our befuddlement at Jesus’ words about the call to save our lives by losing them—is that Jesus dwells in the undying kingdom of God, while we (and the disciples) believe we still live in the dog-eat-dog world where might makes right, rather right making might.  Forgiveness is a key to unlocking the door that opens into the kingdom of God here in our midst.

Life in God’s kingdom opens us to a way of living that is radically different from the way people lived in Jesus’ day and in our own time.  In our gospel today Jesus announces that this world is under attack.  The land is subject to an invasion.  “We are under a gentle, compassionate assault by a kingdom of peace and healing and forgiveness and life” (McClaren, p. 60).  God’s kingdom comes, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven –not through simple formulas, or lists of information, and not through angry threats or ultimatums, but like a treasure hidden in a field, like a seed hidden in soil, like yeast hidden in dough, beginning with the bravery to become vulnerable, the courage to face into our hurts and tell our story, the acceptance of the path of forgiveness, the way of the cross.

The kingdom of God spreads from person to person, to person like a virus, like a flame, like water moving downhill.  Jesus’ scandalous message of the kingdom of God reveals the weakness of the apparently powerful and the power of the apparently weak (McClaren, p. 68). German quantum theorist and Nobel prize winner Max Planck once said, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”  The cross of Christ certainly changes how we look at life. Love is an abstraction and impossible without one another.  By way of the cross, Jesus has shown us what we are. We are already one.  Knowing this, we need never walk alone but courage comes with the sound of Christ’s steps by our side.” (ELW #808)

A Different Kind of King

Christ the King A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

“Tell us, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?” (Matthew 25:38). It can be frustrating. Why must God be such an open secret?  Every proof for God ending in a leap of faith?

We may wish it to be otherwise but certainty is exactly what scripture does not offer us. Instead, the bible ushers us into an entirely different way of knowing: an intimate relationship, a dark journey, a path where we are always On The Way to discover for ourselves that grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness are absolutely necessary and sufficient for survival in an uncertain world. Yes, we really are saved by faith alone. Jesus is a different kind of king.

The hiddenness of God is an ancient idea. It runs deep through Luther’s writing too, including famous Christmas sermon which is both humorous and shocking in its frankness. Imagine waking up to these words on Christmas morning: “There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: if only I had been there [at Christ’s birth].  How quick I would have been to help the baby! I would have washed his linen.  How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!  Yes, you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at the time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. Childish and silly thoughts are these!  Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor.  You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.”

Scripture admonishes, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels.” (Hebrews 13:2) Faith is measured by loving service and acceptance of the weak, the lost, the grieving, the meek, the persecuted, the tearful and distraught—starting with the brokenness in yourself and moving out to encircle the whole world. Jesus is a different kind of king.

The hiddenness of God is a result of radical, pervasive incarnation. Franciscan author and theologian Richard Rohr writes, “The presence of God is infinite, everywhere, always, and forever. You cannot not be in the presence of God. There’s no other place to be. It is we who are not present to Presence. We’ll make any excuse to be somewhere else than right here. Right here, right now never seems enough. It actually is, but it is we who are not aware enough yet.”

Because God is the water we swim in, it takes something more than our physical senses to detect this presence. Jesus praises God for “hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them only to the little ones” (Matthew 11:25). Well, what is it that the learned and the clever often cannot see?  The presence of God always hidden in, with, and under each moment is found and observed using the more sensitive and finely tuned faculties of the human heart rather than the senses alone. Jesus is a different kind of king.

When the Spirit within you connects with God’s Spirit given from outside you, you are finally home. Now you know that your deepest you is reflected in the image and likeness of God, and Christ is living his life in you and through you and with you.  Only God’s grace has the power to turn the inward spiral of the self out toward others. This dwelling in grace is what Jesus called the kingdom of God. Here we find unity not in conformity but in our differences. Jesus is a different kind of king.

We come to know God by loving God, and in knowing God we come to love our neighbors as ourselves. For some time now people of faith have been confused about this. The Good News is not about being correct but about being connected.  Beyond personal morality, the gospel calls for mercy and forgiveness. Beyond acts of charity and kindness, the gospel calls for justice. There is great urgency in re-learning this lesson. Like the prophet Micah before him, today’s gospel (Matthew 25:14-30) admonishes us to Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

Later today, I am talking about the social and economic teachings of Martin Luther as part of our on-going reformation series at the Forum.  From his earliest days in Wittenberg when he saw the adverse effects of the emerging market economy on the common people and was overwhelmed by the sheer number of beggars on the streets, Luther committed a great deal of theological energy and passion to the issue of persistent poverty.

With words that sound as if they could be written today Luther wrote, “The poor are defrauded every day, and new burdens and higher prices are imposed. They all misuse the market in their own arbitrary, defiant, arrogant way as if it were their right and privilege to sell their goods as high as they please without criticism” (from the Large Catechism). According to Luther, “God does not care even if you never build a church if you only love and serve your neighbor.” “If you want to love and serve me [God says,] do it through your neighbor. He needs your help, I don’t.”

The hidden God is encountered by faith not reason. Likewise, Luther acknowledged, there is no single, biblically-mandated economic model, no direct line from the biblical witness to any specific economic institution, political party or system. Instead, the gift of reason, God-given creativity, and freedom find their proper place in striving answer how best to live out what St. Paul called “faith active in love.” Faith active in love is something we do together by reasoning, listening, and learning how best to support the common good.

Jesus is a different kind of king. We are saved by grace and not by merit. But according to Luther, “Faith is followed by works as a body is followed by its shadow.”  God’s love for us moves us toward works that embody love toward the neighbor. We do these works despite knowing we are a mixture of sheep and goats, weeds and wheat and we always will be. As Martin Luther put it, we are simul justus et peccator. We are simultaneously saint and sinner.

So, as we set out to do God’s work we do so with humility, boldly calling upon God’s mercy when we get it wrong. To accept that we can be goats doesn’t mean we say, “It’s okay to be ignorant and evil.” It means we have some real wisdom about ourselves. You can see your weeds and acknowledge when you are not compassionate or caring. You have to name the goat as a goat. I’m not perfect; you’re not perfect; the church is not perfect; America is not perfect. Together let us strive for a more perfect union –as the preamble to the U.S. Constitution says so brilliantly.

It takes uncommon humility to carry both the dark and the light side of things. The only true perfection available to humans is the honest acceptance of our imperfection. Only God in us can love imperfect and broken things. By ourselves, we largely fail. By faith in grace alone, we are saved.

“Though some would make their greatness felt and lord it over all, [Christ] said the first must be last and the last and service be our call.  O Christ, in workplace, church, and home, let none to power cling; for still, through us, you come to serve, a different kind of king.” (ELW #431)

What a Loser. Huge!

Passion Sunday C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

What a loser. Huge! While the parade of Jesus followers shout hosanna, the powerful people in Jerusalem shake their heads.

As Jesus marched from the Mount of Olives and entered the city from the east, that same day another procession clogged the streets, drew large crowds and entered the gates of Jerusalem from the west. From the road that leads toward Rome, Pontius Pilate rode into Jerusalem followed by brigades of well-armed soldiers in brightly colored uniforms and Centurions mounted on horseback reminding everyone who was really in control leading up to the celebration of the Passover.

The way of the world understands greed, status, ruthlessness, economic or military might. The way embodied by Jesus is animated by service, compassion, non-violence, solidarity with the most vulnerable and trust in God. Christ was not the strong, powerful, military Messiah the people had prayed centuries for. This was Jesus’ great revelation, and it is still a surprise and a scandal that we have not fully comprehended. (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation: Vulnerability–Even in God! 3/17/16)

But we should have seen this coming. Throughout scriptures God consistently chooses the weak to confound the strong (1 Corinthians 1:17-31). We see this in the barren wives of the patriarchs, the boy David forgotten in the fields, the rejected prophets, and now Jesus on the cross. Jesus forever redefined what success and winning mean, and it is not what any of us wanted or expected. On the cross, God’s power is revealed as vulnerability itself.

This is Christ’s revolutionary understanding of wisdom and it is still offensive and even disgusting to many in the world and sadly, often even among those in the church. Only vulnerability allows change, growth, and transformation to happen. Only with open arms, open minds, open hands, and open hearts can we be healed and become healers ourselves. Who would have imagined this?

It takes all of us a long time to move from power to weakness, from glib certitude to vulnerability, from meritocracy to the ocean of grace. As we read in Philippians and throughout Paul’s letters, he consistently idealizes not power but powerlessness, not strength but weakness, not success but the cross. It’s as if he’s saying, “I glory when I fail and suffer because now I get to be like Jesus–the naked loser–who turned any notion of God on its head.” Now the losers can win, which is a good thing, because that’s just about everybody.

Jesus entered the city determined that the “no” of the people will be answered by God’s “yes”. God used the cross to say decisively for all time, ‘Go ahead. Do your very worst. There’s nothing you can do to stop my love.’ The cross and empty tomb show us the way to our best life and our truest selves leads through and beyond the cross. In baptism we have died to the life run by the Pilates and Herods of this world. Yes! Look, we are being born again, members of a new humanity, children of the living God.

What is it?

Proper 13B-15

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Last Sunday Jesus invited them to ‘come and eat.’ So naturally, the very next question becomes what is it? We’ve all been there. Could there be anything more universal than the dinner table and the interchange of excitement and apprehension between cooks and those they cook for?

Try it you’ll like it. It’s good for you. Isn’t that what our parents said? Sometimes it worked. Other times we flat out refused.

The Israelites asked Moses. What is it? They had been through so much together. God set them free from their lives as slaves. But how quickly they began to long for what they had back in Egypt. Pangs of hunger conjured memories of meat and bread. Wasn’t it better than wandering in the wilderness on some endless camping trip? So they grumbled. They complained.

Scripture says God heard the Israelite’s complaining and rained down bread from heaven. Manna. Scholars believe manna was the sweet substance secreted by insects on the leaves of the tamarisk shrub. It drops to the ground and becomes firm. Gathered early each morning, it can indeed be a tasty treat.

When the people saw the food God had provided, they asked what is it? The root of the word manna is man huwhat is this? Despite their obvious skepticism this manna was a hit. The people liked it. But with this strange food came a new spiritual challenge. Manna was perishable. It only lasts a day before it spoils. Try to gather more than you need for the day, it would rot. Give us our daily bread, we pray. But we want more. How easy it is to try to stockpile and hoard the gifts of God, the gifts of life.

It takes us a while to learn what’s best, what food satisfies and what leaves us empty. We confuse needs and wants. Our economy is market-driven. Give the people what they want! Whatever people will buy is good. But any cook knows that isn’t true. Anyone who has gotten sick eating too much cake and ice cream knows what we want isn’t the best gauge for what we need. We have more and more, but our hearts still go hungry.

We have 21 candidates for president (and counting) gorging themselves with record amounts of money from newly created Super-PACs. But democracy is undermined when according to news reports, “Fewer than four hundred families are responsible for almost half the money raised in the 2016 presidential campaign, a concentration of political donors that is unprecedented in the modern era.” (Small Pool of Rich Donors Dominates Election Giving, Nicholas Confessore, Sarah Cohen and Karen Yourish, The New York Times, 8/1/15)

Empty calories, foolish consumption, shallow politics, hungry hearts. Jesus fed the five thousand beside the sea, afterwards the clamoring crowd followed him. They wanted more of that miraculous wonder bread. But they missed the point. Jesus told them, Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life. It wasn’t Moses who gave you the true bread from heaven, but my Father. I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:27; 32; 35)  For a month of Sundays, literally, this will be our message at worship. Jesus implores us to see that our spiritual hunger for the bread of heaven is satisfied only as we join with God in providing bread for the world.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus roamed the gentle hills of Galilee. He went among the cities of ancient Israel. He saw people were hungry—just like us. The people attempted to fill the God-shaped longing within them with whatever they could find—wealth, power, fame, alcohol, drugs, uncommitted sex—but nothing worked. Jurgenn Moltmann (via St. Augustine) wrote, ‘the God-shaped space in ourselves can only be properly filled by God. When we try to fill that God-space with something else we become ill.

Grace is to human life what yeast is to a good, fragrant loaf of bread. Yeast, a tiny one-celled organism that grows and metabolizes its own food with great speed –work the dough—slightly fermenting it and releasing gases so that the bread begins to rise. Jesus, the bread of life, is released and energized in each of us through the work of the divine yeast of the Holy Spirit at Eucharist.

For a month of Sundays (through August 23rd) our worship takes us into the kitchen with Jesus learning how to prepare and to eat food that builds our body. Each week, we share in the Eucharistic meal of bread and wine as a source of nourishment, sustenance and transformation.

What is it we’re eating? It is a diet rich in forgiveness and tender-heartedness, to quote Ephesians. It is a diet rich in gratitude, filling our lives and this community with thanksgiving for the blessings of life. It is a diet rich in stewardship, calling us to use well what God has given us. It is a diet rich in sharing, inviting us to share our bread with the hungry; our love, our resources, our hope with those in need. It is a diet rich in struggle for justice and peace as we become united in one body with the marginalized, the oppressed, the profiled, the unjustly prosecuted and persecuted, the demeaned and dehumanized, with both the victims and the perpetrators of violence. In solidarity and humility we feed one another this bread of life that makes us all stronger, wiser, less anxious and more balanced within ourselves.

The Sri Lankan evangelist and hymn writer D.T. Niles wrote, “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread”. What is God trying to say to us today through this gospel, if only we had ears to listen? Where are we to find the true Bread of Life? We must help one another find Jesus.

“I am the bread of Life”, Jesus said. Let my life become yours. Do like I do. Feast on my gospel. Let God’s holy Word re-fashion and transform you deep within. As a baker kneads dough, so my words, my life shall re-work you. Give me what you are able. Give me your trust and your faith, and I will multiply it. See, I return your life to you with your heart filled to overflowing. Jesus satiates and satisfies us with the good things of God we crave body and soul.

We come together each Sunday for bread that gives us energy for the tasks ahead and hope for whatever is to come. We feast on Christ, our living bread, our daily bread. Christ lives among us, in us, through us, and for us. Come, eat and live!

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