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Posts from the ‘Flesh’ Category

Win By Losing

Proper 25C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

What a weekend to be a Cubs fan! I can’t help but think of all the dedicated Cubs fans who kept the faith their whole lives without seeing what you and I are seeing. (e.g. Chester Larson, Howard Morton, Theresia and Steve Klos)

They say baseball is a humbling game. The numbers bear that out. Batters at the pinnacle of success reach first base just 30% of the time. The only team that won more than 60% of their games this year was the Chicago Cubs at 64%.

Former historian, professional player, coach, manager and scout of baseball, Wesley Westrum once said, “Baseball is like church: many attend, but few understand.” So I wouldn’t be surprised to see baseball players who devote hours a day, nearly every day of the year, for a decade or more to experience stretches of failure at the plate like an 0-for-20 streak, nod their heads in agreement to hear Jesus say, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14b)

Jesus said, ”I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Luke 5:32) His words echo the accusation of his enemies: “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2) The gospels tell us that many sinful people followed Jesus. Today, we could call them “failures.” Failures flocked to Jesus. They felt safe, somehow sheltered rather than judged, valued rather than dismissed, called rather than belittled, transformed rather than labeled.

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke contrasts two characters.  They’re polar opposites, and set in bold relief two ways of being religious. One way is death-dealing, the other is life-giving. The winner loses and the loser wins.

The Pharisee was religiously righteous, the taxman extorted revenue for the Roman oppressors. The religious expert was smug and confident, the outsider was anxious and insecure. The saint paraded to the temple, the sinner “stood at a distance” from the sacred building—a nonverbal expression of his spiritual alienation. The righteous man stood up, the sinful man looked down. In an act of shocking narcissism, the Pharisee prayed loudly “about himself”; whereas the tax collector could barely pray at all. The Pharisee puffed out his chest in pride; the publican beat his breast in sorrow.

Yet, Jesus said, the respectable, reputable believer, so competent and accomplished, who had done everything right, was rejected, whereas the secular sinner — the disreputable, inadequate, and incompetent failure — “went home justified before God.” (Daniel Clendenin)

What happened? It’s hard to imagine a more earnestly religious person than the Pharisee. He prayed often, he fasted regularly, and he gave generously to the poor. His spiritual regimen was stringent. But he made two tragic mistakes in his religious life: first, he “looked down on everybody else,” and second, he thought he could justify himself, thanking God he was “not like other people.” Somehow, we imagine that in judging others we validate ourselves, or that at least we will compare favorably in the eyes of God.

We’ll invoke almost anything to justify ourselves — intelligence (GPA and SAT), alma mater (“This is where I went to school thirty years ago”), money (“I’m frugal toward myself and generous to others”), family (“Great kids!”), sports (“I’m in shape, you’re a slob”), politics (“My vote is enlightened, yours is ideological”), and work (“I work at X; what do you do?”). A common form of self-justification invokes your zip code (“Where do you live?”), a transparent insinuation that net worth equals self worth. (Daniel Clendenin, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, 10/16/16)

Like the Pharisee, we keep trying to make religion a way to climb higher up the ladder of spiritual success. But self-justification doesn’t work, and it isn’t necessary, for in the words of the famous hymn, God accepts me “just as I am.”  Full stop. We have a hard time accepting that God comes down to us, which is the meaning of the Incarnation (see Philippians 2:5-8); somehow we think we’ve got to go up to God. We start running up the down escalator! And we miss Jesus on the way—as he descends into our so very ordinary world.

Christians have named this mystery—as the path of descent, the Way of the Cross, or the paschal mystery. Although we name and symbolize it quite well, we have not lived it much better than many other religions and cultures. All humble, suffering souls often learn this by grace.

Jesus, however, brings it front and center. A “crucified God” became the logo and central image of our Christian religion: a vulnerable, dying, bleeding, losing man. If that isn’t saying you win by losing, what is it going to take for us to get the message? How often do we have to look at the Crucified and miss the point? Why did we choose that as our symbol if we’re not going to believe it? Life is all about winning by losing—losing with grace and letting our losses teach and transform us. And yes, this is somehow saying that God suffers—and our suffering is also God’s suffering, and God’s suffering is ours (Colossians 1:24). That has the power to transform the human dilemma of tragedy, absurdity, and all unjust suffering. (Richard Rohr, The Paschal Mystery, 10/16/16)

Follow Jesus on this pathway of descent. Walk the way of his cross. Learn the wisdom of winning by losing so that you may be more kind, that you may be a better listener, that you may grow thicker skin, be more compassionate, more ready to cry foul when others suffer injustice, that you may be more generous, more welcoming, more hospitable, that you may be a better lover, friend, parent, spouse, sibling, and neighbor.

To get to that place, Jesus says we need only seven words — those mumbled by the tax collector as he stood at a distance from the Temple and stared at the ground: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13) The Orthodox famously named these seven words “The Jesus Prayer.”  It may be the only prayer you’ll ever really need—because it proceeds from a clear-eyed appraisal of our human condition and, more importantly, from confidence in the character of a God who welcomes sinners and eats with them.  (Clendenin)

We win by losing. We stand transformed before God and each other. All our pretentions and strivings are ended. Our humble and abundant life begins.

With Clean Hearts and Dirty Hands

Proper 20C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Clean hearts and dirty hands.   Jesus offers two lessons about discipleship today (Luke 16: 1-13). The first isn’t a surprise. “You cannot serve God and wealth”.  The second is a bit of a shocker.  Jesus chides, ‘Why can’t each of you be as shrewd as the dishonest manager?’

The parable of the dishonest steward should come with a warning. If we were to take Jesus literally it could lead to arrest—or a fine at least. But could we be more crafty for Jesus?

Here’s what I hear Jesus saying in today’s rather confusing gospel: my disciples must have clean hearts and dirty hands. Can we use worldly strategies to promote the Gospel? Could we be more cunning in dismantling the powers and principalities arrayed against God in the pursuit of justice? Can we care for the poor not merely with our charity, but also by fostering good public policy? How might our wisdom in the ways of the world be use to promote the good news of Jesus Christ?

To do this, the first but only partial answer is, we must have a clean heart. By legend King David wrote psalm 51 after Nathan exposed the truth about what he had done to murder Uriah the Hittite in order to take Bathsheba for himself. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)

The renewal of our mind begins with reorientation of our heart. We are too good at lying to ourselves, making up reasons for what we want, and rationalizing our sinful desires as if they were something good.

A clean heart comes as an underserved gift from God as the old me is put to death, drowned in the baptismal font and a new heart is fed with heavenly food at the Lord’s Table. A new heart requires an “identity transplant.” As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “I live no longer, not I, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) You know you are close when each human being you encounter in need you say, there but for the grace of God grace go I. A clean heart beats with the same profound empathy and solidarity as we have found in the heart of God.

If we could put all the Christians of the last hundred years in a room with Christians of the first three hundred years, I wonder how surprised they’d be about how distant God has become for us? I think they might try to tell us, God is not an object out there located in one place or time. Rather, God is always the Divine Subject who must be encountered, experienced, known only in part, and trusted from within.

Perhaps an obstacle to creating a clean heart in us is that for so long we have operated with a static and imperial image of God. God as Supreme Monarch who is mostly living in splendid isolation from what he (and God is always and exclusively envisioned as male in this model) has created. This God is seen largely as a Critical Spectator, and his followers must do their level best to imitate their Creator. Early Christians might warn us, “We always become what we behold; the presence that we practice matters.” (adapted from Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation 9/14/16)

Although they did not have the word until the fourth century, the presence early Christians practiced was the God who became known to us as Holy Trinity, a divine presence inviting us to join hands and move together as one in the great circle dance of life.

With clean hearts from God we are called and sent into the world, extending our hands in invitation for still more people to join in this dance. With warmth, welcome, joy, hospitality, generosity, and joy we find the courage in our new hearts to not hold back but to draw close and get involved. Together with Christians of every age, with hands dirty, we open ourselves to the chaotic and unpredictable, go beyond our comfort zone, and let ourselves become vulnerable for the sake of loving one another as we ourselves desire to be loved.

Where have you seen people of faith being shrewd for Jesus? Parents must often be shrewd. Co-workers might be shrewd in helping their friends. Activists are shrewd in the pursuit social justice. I think chef Mary Ellen Diaz, a former member of Ebenezer Lutheran, who now resides in Switzerland with her wife and two kids, showed her clean heart and dirty hands in creating the First Slice Pie Shop, a self-funded charity now providing over 4,000 meals a month to feed the hungry.

Diaz, who grew up in Virginia with mom, dad, four sisters and a brother, trained in France and worked at multi-starred restaurants such as the North Pond cafe, and with Richard Melman at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.

She was on a leave of absence after she and her partner adopted their second child, when she began volunteering at soup kitchens, stirring her culinary experience into the meals. “It only took one night of making meals amazing for people in need and seeing the smiles that made me realize I could do something here,” Diaz said.

In the restaurants where she’d worked, “the first slice of pie was always served to the staff. … So this symbol of pie as community was important as was the first slice being the most important.” Today First Slice funds its efforts with a “shareholders program.” Hundreds of subscriber families receive home-cooked, restaurant-quality meals each week. Funds from those subscriptions are used to make the same quality meals for people in need distributed through several social service organizations, such as Streetwise.

“We all feel much more driven if our mission is based on us sort of rolling up our sleeves and cooking for every dollar,” she says, whether it’s for the subscription program or the cafes. “We find a lot of joy in that and that’s why we’re sort of a different organization. You can come in and have good food, and other people can have good food too.”

Sometimes you need to feed the soul. And sometimes feeding others salads of local greens and fresh tomatoes, maybe spinach-squash lasagna and chocolate-peanut butter pie does just that, even for the cook.(Judy Hevrdejs, Tribune Newspapers, Featured Article Chicago Tribune, 7/15/12)

With clean hearts and dirty hands, faith makes us ready to love in real time. In a complicated world our choices will never be simple.  I think in today’s gospel Jesus encourages us not to be ‘So heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.’  But “See,” Jesus says, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). And know that I am always with you –even to the end of the age.

The Good Shepherd

Proper 19C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

When Jesus finds the lost sheep, ‘he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and carries it home.’  (Luke 15:5) Art depicting this familiar image of Jesus the Good Shepherd is almost as old at the church itself. It adorns the walls of ancient catacombs, stained glass windows of countless churches (including Immanuel), and the religious imagination of generations of Sunday school kids.

The life of Jesus reveals the heart and character of God. This is why we call it good news. Yet from the beginning this news makes some people grumble to the point of becoming violent. Whether then or now, there’s a bitter irony in how the simple act of accepting another person angers some people. I wonder who the people are who are difficult for you to call brother or sister?

Jesus ‘welcomed sinners and ate with them’. (Luke 15:2B) Jesus was open to people we ignore and despise. He exuded compassion. People felt safe with Jesus. The only people who didn’t feel safe were the religious experts who appointed themselves as gatekeepers of God’s love. They had good reasons to feel unsafe. In Matthew 23 Jesus denounced them with “seven woes” as hypocrites, snakes, and blind guides. (Daniel Clendenin, Journey with Jesus, posted 9/4/16)

Being on the inside with Jesus means not putting anyone, even our worst enemies, on the outside. It is very difficult, perhaps even impossible to do, without the power of the Holy Spirit steadily working within us to transform our minds, change our hearts, and open our hands. Whereas the gatekeepers get angry, Jesus says three times that there’s “joy in heaven” when the lost are found and returned to the fold. Jesus tells three parables — the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (or Prodigal) son. Each reinforces the other in making the same point about the Divine Welcome extended to all people and about God’s unconditional acceptance.

In each moment we can measure the depth of the resurrected life the Spirit has created in us by how ready we are to join that heavenly party or, like the Prodigal’s older brother, do we prefer to stand outside? We have that choice. We are all invited inside. Being on the inside with Jesus is better, but you can choose to be on the outside.

In fact, Jesus almost rubs our noses in how difficult these parables can be for us. He doubles down on the offensive nature of the good news by using three images for God at work in the world that would have offended the religious sensibilities of good people during that time: a shepherd, a woman, and a Father that has no pride.

Which of you, Jesus asked, doesn’t abandon the sheep in the field to search for the one that is lost? Which of you upon finding a lost coin would not immediately spend it on a party to rejoice with their friends? These are rhetorical questions—we are meant to answer yes, of course we would. But in truth, none of us would. Nobody is so foolish and so generous as God. Yet this is the new life that we drink and eat. This is what the Holy Spirit accomplishes in us with water and Word.

Jesus welcomed the unwelcomed. He accepted the unacceptable without any preconditions. He angered the religious experts preaching we don’t need to do anything to receive God’s welcome, because there’s nothing to do. God welcomes us just like we are and right where we are. Martin Luther described faith as the beggar’s empty hand that accepts a gift. (Clendenin)

This is what Jesus’ Christ-ness is about. Jesus opens the eyes of the rest of the herd, opens the eyes of those who think they are not lost, to see and love what it is they have lost, and to love their neighbors as themselves. (Alyce McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 9/08/13)

In this week’s epistle reading, Paul uses himself as an example of God’s “unlimited patience.” God’s welcome, says Paul, is “a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance.” Throughout the New Testament, Paul describes himself as a former religious zealot who tried to exterminate the early Christian movement.

In this letter we realize that as an old man Paul was still haunted by his past. He describes himself as “formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor.” But God welcomed Paul. And his conversion moved him from violent aggression to indiscriminate love.

Today marks the 15th anniversary of 9-11. A terrible day, a day of death and destruction. A fearful day. America has mourned and honored its dead, and rebuilt what was destroyed. But there is among us a spirit that wants to turn Arabs and Moslems into Eternal Outsiders, because of that day.

Great protest arose when the existing Tri-Beca Al Farah Mosque wanted to build a Ground Zero mosque, prayer and study center where all religions could meet, as a sign to the world that Islam is a religion of peace. Many were fine with this project, but after two years of struggle in the face of widespread resistance, the Moslem owners decided instead to build luxury condos on the site. It was another victory of the self-appointed gatekeepers over the Good Shepherd. It was another nail in the crucifixion. The goodwill needed to do good deeds, to do God’s Work with Our Hands, grows in us when we reject hate and learn to rescue what is perishing. (Nancy Rockwell, A Bite in the Apple)

Jesus is the Great Shepherd of the Lost. “Grace tells us that we are accepted just as we are,” writes Donald McCullough. “We may not be the kind of people we want to be, we may be a long way from our goals, we may have more failures than achievement … but we are nonetheless accepted by God, held in his hands. Such is his promise to us in Jesus Christ, a promise we can trust.”

Poet Edwina Gateley writes, “Let your God love you.  / Say nothing. / Ask nothing. / Let your God look upon you. / That is all.”

 

Amen.

Humble Wisdom

Proper 17C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11) Jesus often spoke in parables and paradoxes like this. Early Christians had no words to communicate their experience of Jesus and his teaching. They had to coin new ones like this word “humble” in our gospel today.

They often found these new words in the trashcan of Greek culture. Early Christians reclaimed and gave new meaning to unfavorable adjectives like lowly, empty, and foolish. Being humble was not a virtue among ancient Greeks. Its synonyms were other adjectives like “ignoble”, “slavish”, “cringing” or “cowering.”

Yet, for early Christians, humility wasn’t an affliction, but a blessing. Humility is chief among the values early Christians espoused for their newfound life-style as followers of Christ.

The strange little story about Jesus at a banquet from our gospel today is an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the life God intends—the humble life. Like always, it is a vision of life that is both strange and wonderful.

Humus comes from the same root. It turns out that humus, or what we commonly call dirt, is a wonder. If scientists find dirt on another planet, they will have proof positive of life beyond earth. In contrast to sand and rock, humus is the end product of living things now dead, that through death are now living and a rich source of life. Jesus said,there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7:15) Humble people are not afraid to get their hands dirty. Humility opens us to the beauty and wisdom of so-called trivial things all around us.

As understood by the first followers of Christ, being humble is to stand in constant awareness of our appreciation, curiosity and need for others. For them, the opposite of humility was not ‘self-esteem’, but violence. Therefore humility isn’t about being passive. It isn’t letting other people take advantage of you. It’s not the same thing as being shy. Humble people are not wallflowers.

Instead, humility is a strength that grows from the mercy God shown to us to make us whole and well in God’s sight.   Humility comes from the recognition that our achievements are much less than the sum total of the grace we have received. Each of us is individual, unique, and one of a kind, yet no one is complete without the other.

Humility is an indelible, unchanging, and timeless characteristic of God. Humility opens fisted minds, hands, and hearts to one another. Humility cultivates connections between us. Humility encourages us to get our hands dirty. Humility makes us open to finding wisdom and beauty in places, neighborhoods, or among people everyone tells you to avoid.

‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… [for] he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…and lifted up the lowly (Luke 1: 46, 47, 51-53) Therefore “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)   “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; and those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” (Hebrews 13:3)

On Friday, I had the pleasure of listening to Bryan Stevenson, the humble and wise author of a book called Just Mercy. In it he shares many stories of his life’s work advocating for poor children, men and women in prison and on death row.

He told about Charlie. Charlie was just a little boy, age 14. He weighed less than 100 pounds and was just five feet tall. “He didn’t have any juvenile criminal history—no prior arrests, no misconduct in school, no delinquencies or prior court appearances. He was a good student who had earned several certificates for perfect attendance at his school. His mother described him as a “great kid” who always did what she asked. But Charlie had, by his own account, shot and killed a man named George.”

“George was Charlie’s mother’s boyfriend. George would often come home drunk and violent. One night, George hit Charlie’s mother and she collapsed on the floor. Charlie kneeled beside her. She was bleeding badly. She later revived and was okay. But that night, Charlie thought she was dead. He had to call an ambulance but the only phone in the house was next to the bed where George was now passed out, sleeping.

When he got there, instead of reaching for the phone, he reached into the dresser drawer where George kept a handgun hidden under some folded T-shirts. Nervous and shaking, Charlie pointed the gun at George’s head. At one point, Charlie became startled when he thought George might wake up. The gun went off. The man Charlie killed was a police officer, so Charlie to be tried as an adult and was taken to the county jail for adults.

Bryan first met Charlie in jail. Charlie wouldn’t make eye contact. He wouldn’t say anything despite repeated attempts. “Charlie, are you okay?” Brian asked. He didn’t say a word, but kept staring at a spot across the room. He tried again, “I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me.” Nothing.

Finally, Bryan moved around to the other side of the table and sat beside Charlie. He leaned in close, “I’m really sorry if you’re upset, but I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me.” When he put his arm around the boy he started to quietly shake and cry. It didn’t take long to realize that what had Charlie so traumatized wasn’t what happened to his mom or to George but what was happening at the jail.

Three men had hurt him the first night and again the second night. He didn’t know how many more came on the third night. Bryan tried to reassure Charlie it would be okay. He would get him out of there. Yet as he left the jail to begin the process to get Charlie moved, Bryan was filled with questions and rage. Who is responsible for this? Who would let something like this happen? He realized the answer was all of us. (Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy, Chapter 6, “Surely Doomed”)

Collectively, we are responsible for a legal system that privileges the wealthy and guilty over the poor and innocent. We are responsible for a system that incarcerates more people than any country in the world. We are responsible for a system that regards people of color as dangerous and guilty before they are proven innocent.

Yet the gospel of Christ puts an end to the language of fear, anger and scarcity sowing death and tragedy in human lives all around us. Instead, we have new words to write a new story. God has begun a new way of being in us yielding justice and transformation from the fertile gifts of grace and mercy. We are not afraid to get our hands dirty and are opened to the wisdom and beauty God pours to overflowing in every heart and every place. Amen.

Division for the Sake of Unity

Proper 15C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled! (Luke 12:49) What are we to do with this week’s readings? Isn’t there already enough polarization, gridlock, tension and violence in the world? These readings seem to fuel the flame.

Religious divisions are among the leading examples of strife. We have one version of Jesus for the red states and another Jesus in the blue states. There are upwards of 41,000 different Christian denominations in the world today. Among them, I don’t need to tell you, are deep divisions and disagreements about what it means to be a good follower of Christ.

According to a study done by the Pew Research Center, The share of countries with a high or very high level of social hostilities involving religion reached a six-year peak in 2012. In 2014, a woman named Meriam Ibrahim was sentenced to death in Sudan for apostasy from Islam, and to public flogging because her marriage to a Christian was not legally recognized. She gave birth to her second child while shackled in prison.

That’s why we give thanks for the actions of those who took part in the international outcry to save her from the death penalty and ultimately, to bring her and her family to live here in New Hampshire. Mrs. Ibrahim speaks of the persecution as a test of her faith, which she says was strengthened by the ordeal. Charlotte Allen, writing in the Wall Street Journal, compared Ibrahim’s story to that of third-century martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, who were also young African mothers (June 26, 2014).

The struggle in Sudan and its new neighbor, South Sudan continues. There are many more Meriams whose families are afflicted with religious persecution. That’s why we pray for the vision co-sponsored by our national church and the Lutheran World Federation to build a new peace church including formerly warring Dinka and Nuer tribes in the capital city of Juba.

Strife among religions is an especially odious example of the depth of human sinfulness. That’s why we celebrate agreements of full communion crafted over the past ten years between our national church and six other denominations. Where the gospel is preached and the sacraments rightly administered, remaining differences between our denominations is enriching, not divisive.

We celebrate the decision at the ELCA National Assembly this week meeting in New Orleans to overwhelmingly approve a new Lutheran-Catholic ecumenical document called, Declaration on the Way. At the heart of the document are 32 “Statements of Agreement” that identify where Lutherans and Catholics do not have differences that divide us on topics about church, ministry and the Eucharist.

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton addressing the assembly following the vote said, “…let us pause to honor this historic moment. Though we have not yet arrived, we have claimed that we are, in fact, on the way to unity. After 500 years of division and 50 years of dialogue, this action must be understood in the context of other significant agreements we have reached, most notably the ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’ in 1999…. This ‘Declaration on the Way’ helps us to realize more fully our unity in Christ with our Catholic partners, but it also serves to embolden our commitment to unity with all Christians. ”

We give thanks for every example when followers of Jesus stands apart from the warring world by standing together with people of faith and good will. I wonder, could this is the fire Jesus meant to kindle in us? Could this be the division with which Jesus intends to disturb the peace? Perhaps, this is our baptismal work.

The Holy Spirit is at work deep within us, prompting the overlooked to say, we are not invisible! Teaching the unheard to find their voice. The child will say ‘it’s not okay for daddy to hit mommy’. The spouse will say ‘I am worthy of being loved’. People of color rise up and say ‘our lives matter too.’ Yesterday I heard news anchor Katie Couric describe the work done in recent years to promote greater respect for women in the workplace. When she started working in broadcast journalism, ‘harass’ was two words, not one.

While there is no justice, there can be no peace. The laborer will refuse to be just another human resource, but demand a fair share of the profits wrought by their skill and sweat. God’s grace prompts the teacher to teach, the preacher to preach, the lawyer to advocate, the plumber to restore flow, the electrician to create connectivity.   Whatever our vocation or area of service, we are called to distinguish ourselves for the greater good.

This is our work. It is the work of all the baptized and of the ancient prophets. Daniel Berrigan wrote, “Open up the book of Jeremiah, and you do not find a person looking for inner peace.”  Poor Jeremiah is called “the weeping prophet” for his life of grief over his wayward people: “Oh, that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people.” (Jeremiah 9:1)

At times, this baptismal work may cause painful division among us, between father and son, mother against daughter, or in-laws against out-laws. St. Francis stood naked in the street and returned everything he possessed including the clothing on his back to renounce his father. Jesus called the disciples to leave their work and their families to follow him. (Mark 1:17-20) Jesus’ own mother, brothers and sisters came to plead with him to come home and stop preaching. (Mark 3:31-35)

Rather than keep the peace that is no peace, grace teaches us the proper use of our anger to identify things that are not right and to set about making them better. Speak the truth in love. Confront bigotry with human dignity. Overcome ignorance with learning. Seek wisdom by speaking the truth as you know it, and by prayerfully listening, striving to listen more than you speak.

In this way we will keep a song in our hearts and the peace of God for the constant renewal our minds while striving for common good and opening ourselves to receiving one another and all strangers as though we were greeting the Lord Jesus himself, for that indeed is what we are doing. Of course, we will not always be successful. But it is enough to know that in suffering injustice, we share more fully in the divine life at work in the world around us.

Fever and Frenzy Fall to Grace

Proper 11C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

In our gospel we encounter a word that seems to fit our lives today. It is used only once in the entire New Testament. The word is perispaomai. It literally means ‘to be pulled from all directions’.   Poor Martha is anxious and distracted by her many tasks while her sister Mary sits and learns at Jesus’ feet.

I quickly become perispaomai as I flip between Facebook, Twitter, newspapers, email, and the reply I’m thumb-typing to two separate text messages momentarily disappears because I have an incoming phone call. We can be perispaomai at work chasing clients and project deadlines. We can be perispaomai at home when balancing chores and childcare while worrying about when the next rent check is due. Perispaomai is an onomatopoeia –a word that sounds like what it means. Martha is perispaomai while stewing and steaming at her sister Mary at the same time she is rushing around attending to hosting Jesus and his merry band of followers. But when she tries to triangle Jesus in to telling her sister to get off her rear end and help, he rebuffs her.

The tyranny of the urgent is a timeless human problem. By attending only to whatever is most pressing long term goals and avowed ideals are nibbled to pieces by the squeaky wheels that demand our attention. Our gospel today can teach how us to slay the dragon of false urgency with silence. We need time to listen. There must be time in each day and every week to sit at Jesus’ feet. We need time to pray, sing, or meditate upon God, otherwise our work, our homes, our lives will be pulled from all directions.

Last week, we read the story of the Good Samaritan. We learned that a disciple of Jesus must continually do works of love of neighbor. This Sunday, we learn from the example of our good sisters Mary and Martha (both of whom are founding members of Christ’s church), a disciple of Jesus must also continually sit and listen at Jesus’ feet.

We can become perispaomai while coping with daily life. If there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we receive the imperfection that is everywhere, especially in ourselves. We learn about the humbling, healing power of grace that emerges from our imperfections while we sit at Jesus’ feet

Church and society can become perispaomai—frantic and ineffectual chronically chasing down its worries and anxieties too. Today’s gospel offers an insightful counterpoint to many popular counter-terrorism efforts.

How we react to terrorism and mass violence has become a measure of who we are, as individuals and as a society. ‘Each new attack, each new convulsion of fear, horror, grief and anger is a progressively greater test of enlightened civilization’s commitment to its core values. Regardless of who strikes the blow, whatever its malevolent purpose or toll, the response cannot be to abandon the respect for human rights, equality, reason and tolerance that is the aspiration of all democratic cultures. Though it has become almost a cliché to argue that the goal of terrorists is to bring their victims down to their moral level, it is also a truth, and it must be reaffirmed after every attack. The best defense against terrorists is to cleave steadfastly to the core values of love and freedom that inspire and unite us.’ (NYT Editorial Board 7/15/16)

As Christians, we must return to our place at Jesus’ feet again and again for our confidence and hope to be restored—and our mission to once again become clear. Prayer and mission go together. Each emerges and is strengthened from the other. Our religion cannot be merely a private matter between God and ourselves. Religion cannot stop with a personal relationship with Jesus. For our faith to be complete God’s grace intends to make each of us a combination of Mary and Martha; or (as the tenth chapter in Luke’s gospel would have it) a combination of Mary and the Good Samaritan.

Our fierce and loving Catholic sister and prophet Dorothy Day once put it this way: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” If we think we can say our private prayers and still genuflect before the self-perpetuating, unjust systems of this world, our conversion will not go very deep or last very long. There is no one more radical than a real person of prayer because they are not beholden to any ideology or economic system; their identity and motivation is found only in God, not in the pay-offs of “mammon.” Both our church and our government is threatened by true mystics. Such enlightened people can’t be bought off or manipulated, because their rewards are always elsewhere. (Richard Rohr, Richard Rohr, Necessary Falling Apart, 7/8/16)

In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we catch a vision of God at work in the world through Christ, in Christ and with Christ that is both anciently unchanging, and as momentarily effervescent as a lightning bug: God is in all things, and all things are in God. Christ, who is dynamically present in all things, is the principle of creativity and reconciliation alike. God’s vision opens us to re-imagine the whole world. God’s grace refreshes understanding of our most intimate fears and aspirations. Encounter with God points us in the direction of our life’s work. (Bruce Epperly, Lectionary Commentary, 7/22/07). Rather than be pulled from all directions, the fever and frenzy of our lives can be healed as we begin to be pulled toward God and forward by grace alone.

These two things go together: If you want to know God, then love your neighbor. If you want to know your neighbor, then love God. Loving God and neighbor are not separate items on a pious to-do list. They are two sides of the same coin. They form a single pathway into the abundant life God intends for us all.

Devotion to God and service to neighbor form the double helix of this tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. They are the skeletal structure upon which the whole chapter hangs and the key to unlocking the pain and bewilderment we face today. Here—here is the doorway that opens to the fullness of grace. It is never far from you, but it is always only as far away as your neighbor. Here—here is the doorway that opens to the fullness of grace. It is never far from you, but is always only as far away as your own heart in which all the fullness of God happily dwells.   Go in peace. Serve the Lord.

Satan Falls Like Lightning

Proper 9C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Thirty-five pairs of disciples go out from Jesus like lambs into the midst of wolves. Yet as they fan out and set to work, Jesus will later say he ‘watched Satan fall again and again from heaven like lightening.’ (Luke 10:18)

The seventy are almost giddy with the thrill of their first endeavors. They are filled with joy and amazement. This decentralized gospel proved unstoppable working through their mortal hands and voices. For proof now they may offer the same evidence that Jesus did in response to the doubts of John the Baptist: The blind see, the lame walk, the spirit is with us, Christ is alive.

But what in the devil does this have to do with Satan falling like lightning? Answering this question is the key to understanding what the disciples achieved and how they accomplished it—which is unfortunate for us because what we know about the devil mostly comes from books and movies, not the bible. Truth be told, contemporary progressive Christians like us hardly know how to talk intelligently about Satan without embarrassment and generally prefer to avoid the subject all together. Of course, that’s just the way the Devil likes to keep it.

As it happens Kari and I watched a classic horror film a few weeks back. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s called The Exorcist. Honestly, finally watching it, I was shocked, but not in the way you think. It took soooo long for the story to develop. Scenes went on for minutes that would last no more than two or three seconds in a film today. By contrast movies in 2016 are almost frenetic. (It’s a bit of an aside, but I wonder, what does it say about our lives today?)

Movies like The Exorcist tell us a lot about what people imagine about the Devil. Hollywood’s version of the Devil is locked in another realm and hidden in obscure objects. On rare occasions Hollywood Devils break through to this world by tragically inhabiting a human body. Then suddenly, there is hell on earth. Bodies are contorted. We hear the strange voices of demons. Furniture begins to jump around. People who get too close are filled with murderous, suicidal thoughts. In The Exorcist, the Devil uses shocking foul language, and seems weirdly obsessed with sex. Inevitably, Hollywood Devil struggles to break further into the world until the brave exorcist drives Hollywood Devil back into hell using a cross and baptismal water like a lion tamer’s whip.

Clearly, we have to erase everything we’ve learned and absorbed about Hollywood Devil in order to make room for the Satan Jesus and the bible are talking without. It’s probably not a bad idea to go ahead and cleanse your mind of Milton and Dante too. Stop thinking about magic and metaphysics and just look at what the gospels actually say about the everyday, everywhere reality of evil, sin and Satan.

Far from being magical or fantastic, the gospels use pretty simple language for a commonplace reality. Satan is called “the tempter,” “the accuser,” the “prince of this world,” “the prince of darkness,” “the murderer from the beginning.” A functional reading of Satan in Luke makes it clear Satan is always lurking in the background of this world, delights in violence, inspires fear and is involved in orchestrating the death of Jesus.

Paul lists some of the Devil’s favorite weapons in Galatians: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” (Galatians 5:19-21) The point is these are not just bad behaviors or poor choices. They are the Devil’s traps and snares. They are sticky. We easily get ourselves all caught up in them. We cannot free ourselves.

People in bible times used the name Satan or the Devil to refer to a daily presence pressing down on us, a brutal, violent and dehumanizing force. This Lucifer effect is the diabolical pattern of this world tempting, taunting, demoralizing, yelling, whispering, and squeezing the life out of us. Tirelessly molding us into its dark image—and if not to mold us, then to break us—to walk us toward despair and suicide. This force may or may not have a red face and pointy horns; may or may not be malevolent, but it is most definitely malignant and it is most definitely as real today as ever. (Richard Beck, Reviving Old Scratch p. 187)

So yes, you can imagine the harvest of souls yearning to be free of the power of death is plentiful (Luke 10:2) even as the forces arrayed against those few who might liberate them in the name of Christ is everywhere, deep, hateful, and strong. The seventy went out like sheep among wolves. Their work was urgent. There was no time to waste. They were made strong for this work because they put on the body of Christ.

They stepped into a living sanctuary of grace and hope and wore it like protective clothing. They put on the full armor of God, so that they could take their stand against the devil’s schemes…they took up the shield of faith, with which they could extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one (Ephesians 6:11,16)

They fought this war in two theaters simultaneously: both in their personal lives, and in the culture and society. Conservative Christians are right, the fight against the Devil is a deeply personal struggle to be cleansed morally in order that we may become holy.   The journey toward goodness, wholeness and peace is difficult. We are constantly tempted to get off track. Progressive Christians are right the fight against the Devil must be communal, cultural, and political. The battle against injustice is a fight against the powers and principalities opposed to the Kingdom of God. Conservative and progressive Christians have allowed an unholy divide to grow up among themselves that keeps Satan safe from falling down among us like lightening.

But we are free from the power of death and scarcity. We are all exorcists. Together, especially in pairs and in community with one another, we wield power to drive the devil out. Our greatest weapons are joy, generosity and thanksgiving. These gifts are abundant and ours for the taking through prayer, worship, through Word and Sacrament, and especially through song. Singing together makes community in Christ. Black Lutherans, White Lutherans, Latino Lutherans and Asian Lutherans become as one Body through song. Singing is the Lutheran crucifix and holy water. Singing is how we come along side one another to lift our spirits in the midst of darkness and despair. Singing is exorcism.

Like the seventy we are safe and protected in Christ even as we go out like lambs into the midst of wolves, shining a bright light in a dark world in order to bring more brothers and sisters home. The harvest is plenty and the laborers are few. Even now, Satan is falling from heaven like lightning.

Simple and Amazing Grace

Proper 6C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

“The one to whom little is forgiven loves little. “ (Luke 7:47b) We are more and more filled with love and joy as our congregation, and Christians everywhere, are being transformed by God’s holy Spirit with heavy groans, sighs, and hand wringing from being the first church of Saint Simon, to the lowly church of the unnamed woman.

The transformation is profound and amazing. Yet, the method to accomplish it is quite simple. It’s only a matter of changing our perspective. Maybe you’ve experienced something like this when you travel. Christmas the year before last, Kari, the kids and I were coming up out from a cave at some tourist destination miles off the main highway in the middle of the jungle native to the Yucatan peninsula somewhere south of Cancun when I happened to sit down next to another family from Chicago. Suddenly, they were my new best friends.

Perhaps you’ve noticed this too. As the distance and duration of travel increases, differences among those we encounter from home decrease. They may be black, white, Latino or Asian. They could be from Rockford, Elgin, the Quad cities, or St. Louis. It doesn’t matter. It feels like they’re like old neighbors or even family.

On Christmas Eve 1968 astronaut William Anders snapped a photo of earth rising over the lunar surface during the Apollo 8 mission. If I could show it to you, you would all recognize it. Nature photographer Galen Rowell declared the photo, called Earthrise, “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” Another author called its appearance the beginning of the environmental movement. From a distance, it is easier to see what we all share in common rather than what divides us.

This change in perspective, clears the way to loving one another and all living things more deeply. Something like this happened for the unnamed woman in today’s gospel. It profoundly changed the way she understood her life in the world. It emboldened and liberated her. She had no shame. Instead, she is filled with a spirit of joy that created in her a profound generosity and deep capacity for love. She traveled through the complete and utter breakdown of the ego, pride, and trust in ourselves which people of faith everywhere have followed for centuries to become flawed and loved children of God.

Franciscans call it poverty. The Carmelites call it nothingness. The Buddhists call it emptiness. The Jews call it the desert. Jesus calls it the sign of Jonah. The New Testament calls it the Way of the Cross. (Richard Rohr) They’re all talking about the same necessary step in the journey of transformation. By God’s amazing grace, the unnamed woman now lives in a new place, united with God and all living things in Christ. It is the same journey of transformation I see God is working now in this congregation and in the wider church throughout the world.

Jesus asked Simon “Do you see this woman?” (Luke 7:44) Simon looks at the unnamed woman and is silently filled with judgment and contempt. He sees what separates them rather than what unites them. As yet, he does not see he stands under the same need of grace that she does.

The setting of our gospel story is a formal banquet in a private home, where guests of honor recline gracefully on couches while their feet stretch out behind them. It’s a scene people of Jesus’ day would recognize as one specifically intended for scholars and Rabbis to offer lectures on moral and theological questions. Simon—privileged, successful, and admired by all for his religious devotion—invited Jesus to be a guest lecturer at a public meal held in his home. Jesus was there to give a formal presentation.

We don’t know what Jesus said. The real lesson didn’t start until the surprise entrance of a woman, “a known sinner,” interrupted the refined atmosphere of this upscale gathering. The unnamed woman arrives unescorted, but presumably she and her sins were known to those present that day. She seems to already know Jesus. Apparently, the depth of that experience was life changing, and profound.

From Simon’s perspective the unnamed woman walked into his house like a homeless addict into an exclusive store on Michigan Avenue. If Jesus were truly a prophet he would have her thrown out.

She carries an alabaster jar of ointment. It is a public lecture. Yet, everyone knows this open invitation does not really extend to her. She doesn’t say anything. Yet, her actions speak volumes. At the sight of Jesus, she begins to weep. Her tears begin to fall upon Jesus’ feet. She unfastened her hair and began to dry his feet. She continually kissed his feet as she wiped and dried them, and anointed them with oil. Perhaps you can feel the discomfort this scene might cause in yourself —at an unplanned interruption of a prestigious social event.

What do you see? It’s simply a matter of perspective. The spirit of transformation at work in us at the table, the font, and through the life-giving Word is that we might see more and more through the eyes of Christ. God’s grace is working to throw out the spirit of Simon in us so that we might become better at welcoming one another into the Holy Communion we share with all life in God. It’s that simple. It’s that amazing.

The unnamed woman is a charter member in the true church. Black, White, Latino or Asian, it doesn’t matter. Male, female, transgender or they you have a place at the table here. It’s not that Christian community is colorblind or indifferent to differences. It’s just that these differences are not more important than what unites us so that our diversity becomes enriching, empowering, and amazing.

We are members of a living and holy sanctuary of hope and grace. Look along the glass wall to the side chapel.   You’ll see ten core values that help us define the shape of the community of the unnamed woman that even now, God is shaping us into. Worship, Community, Compassion, Clarity, Courage, Challenge, Service, Integrity, Public, and Nurture, we strive to embody these values without shame, filled with a new spirit of joy, generosity and thanksgiving. These values help us measure the strength of our eyesight for the gospel by how well or how often we see people as Jesus and the unnamed woman does, and not like Simon does.

The Holy Spirit is working to move us down the path of transformation through the renewal of our hearts and minds that is profoundly changing our perspective and our church. Like the unnamed woman, we have begun to discover the joy of being the loved, free, and flawed children of God. God’s grace has embraced and loved us exactly as we are and at the very same moment, now calls us to be more than we have ever been before. It’s that simple. It’s that amazing.

I Say, Rise!

Proper 5C-15

Immanuel, Chicago    

 

“Young man, I say to you, rise!”(Luke 7.14b) We might wish we all could invoke the amazing power of Jesus’ words after three days in which 64 people were shot, leaving six of them dead during a beautiful, sunny Memorial Day weekend on the streets of Chicago. But you and I are not Jesus.

What’s Jesus up to? We are told the corpse was “the only son of his mother,” which meant that this woman from Nain faced double jeopardy. She was already a widow, but now she was also childless. Translation—as if her fragile life wasn’t hard enough, now she will fall even further down the economic scale of protection and provision. All she had to live for and live by was gone.

So we can easily understand why Jesus is overcome with compassion. Scripture says literally, his viscera flutters upon seeing the widow and her dead son. He tells her ‘don’t cry’ and commands the young man to get up. Less obvious to us is how willing Jesus was to break the deeply held religious rules to help this woman and her son.

It was thought the Hebrew Bible forbid contact with dead bodies. In both the first and second readings, Jesus and Elijah shrug off becoming ritually unclean. In both stories, Jesus and Elijah literally reach across the boundary between what is acceptable to God and what is unacceptable with their hand and body so that life may be restored.

In fact, the bible tells us Jesus did this three times. He raises this son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:14); He raised the little daughter of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, (Luke 8:54); and he raised his friend Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha (John 11:43). Notice, all these were raised only to die again. The promise of eternal life in Christ for us all includes death. Death is not eliminated, but now, death has no power to eliminate life.  “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:54)

Jesus isn’t just dazzling us here but wants us all to learn something. If we step back to widen our view we notice Jesus has only just finished the Sermon on the Mount (which in Luke’s gospel is called the Sermon on the Plain). Jesus is trying to teach the disciples and the crowd following them how to be good disciples—and he is loosing patience.

‘Listen to me, follow me’, Jesus says. “Can the Blind lead the blind?” (6:39) “Students are not above their teachers,” (6:40),“Why do you notice the sliver in your friend’s eye, but overlook the timber in your own eye? (6:41). . . each tree is known by its fruit (vs. 43). Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from brambles.” (vs. 44) Finally, Jesus pleads “Why do you call me Master, Master, and not do what I tell you?” Do what I tell you, Jesus says, and your life will be like a house built on a rock, not on shifting sands (vs. 48). I say to you, rise!

What to do when your students just don’t get it? Right—Jesus continues teaching using two object lessons. Each takes aim at blasting apart their narrow worldview. The story about the widow of Nain occurs only in Luke, who places it right after a story about another obscure outsider, the Roman centurion who we read about last Sunday. After healing the centurion’s slave in Capernaum, Jesus, the disciples, and the crowd walk 25 miles southwest to the village of Nain.

So imagine the scene.   There are two large crowds are on the move. One is headed out the city gate. It is centered on the grieving mother, a poor widow and her dead son. The other crowd approaching the city is filled with hope and expectation and is focused on Jesus. It is a meeting between the creative, renewing power of the Resurrection and the destructive power of Death.

Jesus seems to be saying, you can either walk through this mortal life following the drumbeat of death or the rhythms of life. I say to you, choose life. I say to you Rise! Rise –through the resurrection of your hearts and minds. Rise so your joy may be complete. Rise, through unity with the One in Three. Rise in fellowship with one another and with your brothers and sisters around the world so you may dwell in the living shelter of the Lord forever.

This is the kind of message that has real meaning for us. Life isn’t fair. But lucky for us, grace isn’t fair either. God stands ready to remove all the defects of our character. God stands ready to wash away our shortcomings. Even now, God is replacing the logic of death driven by fear, with the logic of life animated by love. Only God can soothe the fever for vengeance and retaliation that fuels the never-ending cycle of violence that begets violence. Only God can create in me a clean heart and restore a right spirit within me (Psalm 51) I say to you, rise up today and live! Let mercy and forgiveness be your constant companions and the abundance of eternal life give you peace.

Later, Luke says that in the crowd with Jesus were two of John the Baptist’s disciples. John the Baptist—now in prison—sent them to find out whether Jesus is the “expected one” (vs. 19). In answer, Jesus repeats the words from Isaiah, which he read in the synagogue at the beginning of his ministry. (Chapter 4) “Go report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind see again, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news preached to them” (vs. 22). In other words, the kingdom of God is upon us. Something is happening now in Christ Jesus. The reign of righteousness, peace, healing, justice, and transcendence is at hand. Again I say to you, rise.

This is how your life is being returned to you and how our city is being healed. “This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.” (Martin Luther)

It’s true. This life offers no end to our grief –but is almost a perfect recipe for it. This life offers no formulas, no methods, but only a way of living. This life offers blessing for the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and those who are hated, reviled and excluded on account of the Son of Man (Luke 6:20-26) We follow the path marked by way of the cross. Rise, Jesus says, take up your cross and follow. Let us walk together from death into life, from fear into joy, from hatred into peace. Amen.

God is Smiling

Pentecost Sunday C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I heard a man speak about something his father once said. I listened as he told his story on the radio. He wasn’t a religious man. But he cherished the memory of his father speaking to him as a boy. He said, ‘God lives within you and he is smiling.’

God lives within you –and is smiling! It’s not a bad way to summarize the whole gospel in a single sentence. With wind and fire the Holy Spirit is poured out upon you us. God lives within you. I find the message of Pentecost both deeply comforting and profoundly disturbing.   While the love of God heals me, the restless grace of God propels me into the messy, confusing realities of this world.

How often have we heard Pentecost is the birthday of the church? But, that’s not Luke’s only point in Acts, chapter 2. An inclusive community marked by word and sacrament was already gathered around the risen Jesus when the wind and fire came (cf. Luke 24:28-35, 36-51; Acts 1:1-5, 12-26). What comes into being on Pentecost is not the church but rather the mission of the church in the world. Just as Luke’s Gospel opened with the promise of the Spirit coming upon Mary to do the impossible (a virgin would conceive; 1:34-35), so Acts opens with the promise of the Spirit coming upon the community to take on an impossible mission –to make the small community of Jesus-followers, gathered in Jerusalem following Jesus’ ascension, into a nation of prophets (Acts 1:5-8; cf. Luke 24:45-49).

“…God declares, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams (Acts 17). You will speak and it will not be your word, but the Word of God that is within you. You shall touch and it will not be your touch, but the healing power of God that can make a life saving difference for others.

With your hands and voice; through the fruits of your imagination and faithful service, God is present in the world –and it makes a real difference for people’s lives. God is within you and she is smiling. At times, God’s smile inspires us to dream dreams, or swells our hearts with confidence, or fills us with determination to do better next time.

Our ancestors in faith tell us what we could only have guessed for ourselves. The gift of God’s presence is the voice of truth. It is the challenge of conscience. It is the capacity for empathy and compassion. It is the inner sense that welcomes beauty, or that drives us to harmonize diverse voices and lives. It is the restlessness to create. Today we adorn the church in red, the color of life-giving blood and passion so we might remember the gift of the Spirit that has put humanity into every human.

We have never lived a day without the gift of God’s presence and so, it may become easy to mistake the divine spark within us for something that belongs to us. Like those who find buried treasure in their backyard and begin to put on airs of superiority, we betray our humanity by building monuments to ourselves like infamous the tower of babel of old.

The book of Genesis begins with two chapters which establish that human beings are blessed by God, followed by nine chapters that walk us through all the ways hubris and self-centeredness lead to our own demise. These stories are not intended to chronicle unique events in ancient history, but to tell us the kind of things that happen over and over again.

After creation had begun with a perfect relationship between God and humans, between man and woman, between people and animals and plants, sin ruined all these relationships. In the Babel story, the people want to make a name for themselves apart from God. They count themselves as equals to God. They use a technological breakthrough in brick making to cement their idolatrous faith in themselves and to strengthen their unity through conformity by building walls to shut out the world.

Time exposes the folly of all who put their trust in monuments of their own making. The ruins of cities and civilizations litter the landscape. There is only one life that lasts. Only one way for everything we do to count forever. It is God who gives purpose and meaning—God who has given us all a name in Christ Jesus; God who creates unity in diversity. At Pentecost the story of babel is reversed. We have become living stones in a temple not made with hands—a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

God puts sinew to bone and builds the body of Christ out of us, making good use of our our diverse backgrounds, varieties of gifts, conflicting politics, and clashing perspectives. God joins us together in community that is as beautiful and joyous as it is improbable and difficult to define. Just look at us, a bystander would say it is not clear what all these people have in common. We have Christ in common. We are gathered and sent for a common mission to welcome one another and all the peoples of earth as we would welcome Christ for that is who they are. God is alive in you today and God is smiling. Let all the people say, Amen!