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Posts from the ‘Flesh’ Category

Come and See. Follow Me.

Epiphany 2B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus found Philip.  Philip found Nathanael. They joined Andrew, Simon Peter, and others in declaring eureka! “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:41).  The English translation is dry by comparison.  There is joy, amazement, and disbelief in their voice.  Can anything good come out of s–holes like Nazareth? Come and see. Follow me.

Great adventures often begin—because of what see calling us to explore. Longs Peak in Colorado is something like that.  If you’ve ever been to Denver you’ve seen it. Longs Peak is the highest mountain on the horizon. It took me three tries to reach the top.

You get out of bed at 3:00 am to be on the trail by 6:00 in order to reach the summit by 12 noon before the lightning storms roll in. The final third of the hike has is no real trail. There are boulders to climb over, a scree field at a 45-degree incline, and a narrow ledge across a vertical rock face. At 14,259 feet above sea level, the air becomes thin and breathing is difficult. The top is the size of about two football fields and just as flat. Mathematicians calculate you can see 150 miles. It seems farther. I remember someone driving golf balls over the diamond-shaped cliff.  I remember a sailplane appearing as if by magic and circling the summit.  I remember catching sight of the tiny glint of the parking lot where we left our car and wondering if I had enough left in me to make it back down. We stopped for pizza that night and I could barely lift the pieces to my mouth.  We could see it. That’s why we had to climb it.

Who you follow defines what you do and who you become.  We followed a trail most of the way to the top of Longs Peak, but the road to get there was longer. It involved planning and preparation. Following that path meant defining our goals, focusing our energy, organizing our calendar and the commitment of financial resources.  Following gives direction to your life.

Philip, Nathanael, Andrew, and Simon Peter didn’t know they were Christians. They just knew they were thirsty and hungry for something better. They didn’t know they were disciples, or followers until they saw Jesus.  He said to them come and see.  Follow me. He was a walking epiphany, an awakening.  The disciples were among the first in the human family to see something in Jesus that answered their own deepest longing that drew them to follow.

The American Catholic Monk, mystic, and writer Thomas Merton compared baptism to spiritual mountain climbing.  The original, but censored, beginning of his famous autobiographical book about coming to faith and becoming a monk, The Seven Storey Mountain reads, “When a man [or woman] is conceived, when a human nature comes into being as an individual, concrete, subsisting thing, a life, a person, then God’s image is minted into the world. A free, vital, self-moving entity, a spirit informing flesh, a complex of energies ready to be set into fruitful motion begins to flame with love, without which no spirit can exist…” The disciples saw this in Christ Jesus.

Our baptism tells us what we are. Baptism means each of us is created in the image of God and that’s why we’re restless and searching until we begin to conform our lives into the likeness of that image. Baptism means we are loved and accepted as God’s own child just as we are, and yet called by that same love to be and do more than we ever thought possible. Baptism is the beginning of a spiritual adventure.  To say that we are Christians means that Jesus is our epiphany.  We have seen and heard in him who and what we are. Because we have glimpsed the divine and have seen God’s eternal love for all creation in Jesus we follow him in the way that he lived.  Like a mountain beaconing on the distant horizon, Jesus makes visible a new way of living we have learned to call the way of the cross.

Like climbing a mountain, the way of the cross is the slow, painstaking process of faith becoming lived faith in us. The way of the cross is the life-long struggle to transform beliefs into lifestyles and habits with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit. We do not make this climb alone. Although it is deeply personal and intimate the way of the cross is not merely a project in self-improvement.  It must be communal. It involves us with one another. The way of the cross is learning to beat our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks by fashioning communities of justice and peace. Come and see, Jesus says.  Follow me.

Jesus’ invitation to discipleship is also an invitation to wellness.  The old preacher W.C. Coffin wrote, “The incarnation says as much about what we are to become as it does about what God has become.”  “The Word became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1:14).  We are called to love and serve the Lord, with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Somehow, the poisonous idea that discipleship must force a wedge between our spiritual life and our earthly selves has crept into Christian consciousness.  Yet scripture could not be clearer.  We are not disembodied souls. We are bodies.  As St. Paul reminds us today in 1 Corinthians, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Cor. 6:19).  Paul admonishes us, therefore, that the life of discipleship calls us to be good stewards of our bodies. Exercise is part of your spiritual work.  Respect your bodily needs and learn to love your limitations for these are what make us appreciate one another.

We are embarked upon a spiritual adventure by our baptism into Christ.  It will call upon us to plan and to make preparations. Following the path revealed by Jesus means defining our goals, focusing our energy, organizing our calendar and the commitment of our financial resources.

Here at Immanuel, we measure progress toward this goal to the extent that we together are a living sanctuary of hope and grace.  This is why we do what we do that gives purpose and direction to everything we undertake and to what we strive to become. A living sanctuary is a place people feel safe.  It is a place to renew trust and become a community of mutual respect and care. Sanctuary is a place where we come to know the depth of our own human dignity and hear the still small voice of God.  Sanctuary is the place we make together for others to see and hear the living Christ in us. Sanctuary is a beacon inviting and welcoming the poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

We’re keeping ourselves honest and telling the story of ways we’re making progress toward this goal in a piece in today’s This Week and the E-newsletter called This Is Us.  Sometime later today look for it to read testimonies of young people in the ECT youth group.

Jesus extends an invitation to discipleship and the way of the cross that is not a command.  Each of us must hear God’s call for ourselves, wrestle with the obstacles, and respond in faith with the lived faith we do together. Come and see.  Follow me, Jesus says.

Love is God in Me

Baptism of our Lord B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1). Biblical cosmology was inspired by cutting-edge work by the ancient philosophers of Babylon.  They pictured a flat earth standing on pillars.  Underneath was the realm of the dead.  Sitting on top they imagined a large dome separating the heavens from the earth.  The stars were said to be small holes in the dome through which the light of heaven could be seen to be shining through.

It sounds ridiculous to us, of course, but to this very day every time you hear someone say ‘heaven is up’ and ‘hell is down’, this is the understanding of how the universe is organized they’re talking about. And this is exactly the kind of universe, Mark says, was torn apart when Jesus was baptized.

From the very beginning of Mark’s gospel, the heavens were ripped open as Jesus burst free from beneath the waters of baptism.  God broke the barrier between heaven and earth.

Now what is opened can be closed again.  But what has been torn apart must remain open for all time. Through Christ Jesus, Mark says, the realms of heaven and the realms of earth have become mixed together.  God is now everywhere up close in, with, and under us throughout the world.

God is with you.  It’s a theme Mark repeats as Jesus first breaks upon the scene and when he leaves it, Jesus’ entrance and exit.  At the moment of Jesus’ death on a cross, as Jesus breathed his last, the curtain in the Temple that separates the profane from the Holy of Holies was torn in two from top to bottom (Mark 15:38).

It means that God cannot be contained in our holy spaces. God is loose in the land.  God’s presence fills the world.  God’s light shines from the darkness of human hearts.  It means the church cannot set conditions for God’s involvement with you. Baptism is not an if-then. If you are baptized then God will be part of your life.  God is already always and everywhere part of every life.  Period.  When will these old discredited ideas be finished among us?

Your baptism is not for God but for you.  Baptism is God’s gift, not a prerequisite. Just as the spirit of God moved and brooded upon the waters of creation, so God creates order and blessing from the chaos of our lives. The Spirit of God intercedes and prays for us without ceasing. God is not too big or too busy to care. The Sacraments are a way of speaking that goes beyond mere words to become an indelible part of our identity: Behold, God says, you are my beloved child.

From baptism, we learn that it is God’s very own voice that speaks to us of the dignity of every human life.  It is God’s own life that gives our own its infinite depth.  It is God who counsels and guides us in the quiet, dark hours.  It is God who pushes and cajoles us toward our calling and mission as artists of grace. It is God who shines the light of creative grace upon our feet and casts a light on our path.  It is God who has brought us together –God who strengthens and prepares us to work in concert with the Spirit as members of the living body of Christ at work in the world.

It is part of the majesty and glory of God that God is not only the creator.  God is a creator of co-creators.  God is a lover of artists. God delights to see what new and beautiful things we can make from what God has given and God laments the tragedies wrought from our ignorance and evil—forever.  What we do, or do not do, or allow to be done in our name, has real consequences. Our identity as baptized believers in Christ is our call to work together to fashion communities of hospitality and grace.

Jesus baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry.  Likewise, our baptism has a public dimension for us to become peacemakers.  Jesus, the lamb of God, became a scapegoat.  He took the blame for upsetting the social order and was sacrificed for us on a cross in order to end all scapegoating, violence born of vengeance, jealousy, fear, and disloyalty.  Jesus appears to the disciples and said, peace be with you.  My peace be upon you. I refuse to be part of your sin accounting game anymore. At his baptism, Jesus ripped apart the ability of any religious or secular authority to separate people whether by gender, race, color, ethnicity, morality, religion or zip code. Community in Christ is not based on fear of our enemies or anger at outsiders, but rather the unity we share as children of God.

Baptism makes explicit what already is. You are a child of God among a diverse family of God with many brothers and sisters.  Baptism is God’ invitation to work together to make our lives and our communities ever more closely reveal the likeness of God in whose image we are created and whose mark we indelibly bear. Behold, the manger of the infant Christ is prepared within you.

The Catholic Italian author Carlo Carreto (1910-1988) wrote, “Love is God in me.
Yes, love is God in me, and if I am in love I am in God, that is, in life, in grace: a sharer in God’s being…If charity is God in me, why look for God any further than myself? And if God is in me as love, why do I change or disfigure God’s face with acts or values which are not love? (“Love Is for Living”, quoted from Carlo Carretto: Essential Writings, Robert Ellsberg)

In Christ Jesus, God tore apart what we had come to believe was how the world is organized and how it works.  “So [by baptism] if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  (2 Corinthians 5:17)

On The Proper Use of Freedom

Proper 8A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

This holiday weekend we celebrate 241 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  We acknowledge with every rendition of our national anthem the struggle and sacrifice required by the founding generation, and nearly every generation since, to bring into being the opportunity for freedom we now enjoy as our birth rite. They died to make us free.

The American democratic experiment is not quite two and a half centuries old, but the question of how to properly use of our freedom within the span of a single human life is thousands of years old, perhaps as old as history itself.  It is the central question addressed by our bible in the great narratives of creation, of the Exodus, and of Christ. Each human being living under every permutation of governance ever devised or bumbled into has had to ask themselves what am I to do with the miracle of my life?

Paul writes, “…the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23) Chapters 5-8 of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome from which today’s second lesson was read is a majestic statement of some of Paul’s greatest themes: The love of God embodied in Jesus’ death; the hope, even during suffering, enjoyed by God’s people; Christian freedom from sin, the law and death itself; and the life-giving leading of the Spirit. Countless Christians, faced with times of struggle, have found strength and joy in Paul’s closing words: “Neither height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39) (N.T. Wright, Commentary on Romans)

For Paul, the difference between slavery and freedom is not whatever political system in which we find ourselves but in dying and rising to new life in solidarity with the ever-living Christ. The exodus, the story of coming out of slavery into freedom—with all the new puzzles and responsibilities that freedom brings!—is the story of the gospel.  In the Exodus the Jewish people discovered the character of their rescuing God.  Likewise the covenant faithfulness of this same God is fully unveiled in the paschal events of Golgatha and Easter. In Christ, God extends an invitation to all people to become children of a new humanity.  We find the true purpose of our freedom, the highest and most noble version of ourselves by walking the way of the cross.

We must give ourselves away to be free. Last Sunday, we heard Jesus tell the disciples, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39) By walking the way of the cross Jesus taught us our freedom is not about how well we follow religious rules either. For Jesus, our hard-won freedom in Christ is about a way of living in which we find ourselves willing to give someone a cup of cold water on a hot day. Our freedom has no higher purpose than that.

Many today are misled in believing that, if you are lucky or strong or bold or beautiful and powerful enough, freedom is about living without any obligations, any commitments, any requirements whatsoever. By contrast, Paul invited the Christians in Rome and each of us, to consider the choice we face is not between obedience or freedom, but rather a decision about what we will be freely obedient and dedicated to.

It is human nature to slide toward whatever seems easiest in the short run. Sacrificing short term gratification for long term happiness is always difficult for us.  That is why we cannot rely on will power alone to be truly free. The ability to strive for things that bring long term happiness and eternal blessings comes from God—and specifically—from dwelling in God as our small, selfish, frightened ego-self is transformed by connection to the One-life we have in God and to all the living things God has made.

For Paul, we find the power to be free in our baptism, in Christian community, and in the prayers of the Holy Spirit working in us too deep for words that draws us more closely into relationship with God and neighbor and serves to remind us that we are, indeed, God’s own children. (David Lose, Working Preacher)

From here, we can begin to see what makes service to others so central to the Christian message and to the exercise of true freedom. Ancient people were amazed and drawn to Christianity because they said, ‘See how they love each other.’  Hospitality is credited with being a big reason why Christianity spread and grew.  Yet, this was never just an outreach strategy.  The key component of our mutual welcome and service to one another comes from the presence of Jesus who has joined us all together. My self is become part of your self, your suffering has become part of my suffering, your joy part of my joy. Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40)

Here at Immanuel, we exercise our freedom in Christ by welcoming guests here to worship on Sunday, or to play groups, pre-school, tutoring, neighborhood meetings, or simply to come from the park across the street to use the restroom.  For Vacation Bible School this week we shared the humble, hospitable gospel with over thirty neighborhood children with the help of twenty adult volunteers. Yet Jesus’ call to hospitality doesn’t stop at our front door.  These past several weeks in worship we have read through the entire 10th chapter of Matthew’s gospel and know what Jesus is taking about here to the disciples is their charge to become missionaries.

We say our mission here at Immanuel is to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace.  Yet, we know this mission did not come from us, but from what God is already, always, and everywhere doing in the world. We exercise our freedom and walk the way of the cross not by always playing host, but also by relying upon the hospitality of others by being guests.  Not only by inviting people into our space, to eat our food, and use our bathrooms—but to go where we are sent into other’s homes, eating their food, navigating their customs, and using their bathrooms. One of the most difficult parts of hospitality is vulnerability.  Mutual hospitality –welcoming and being welcomed as we would welcome Christ—is how we abide in the One life of God and discover the true purpose of human freedom.

All people, all things, no matter how marginal, ugly, or shameful find a place of dignity in this welcome. Let me leave you with the words of Sara Miles, author of Take This Bread.  She writes, “What I heard, and continue to hear, [in this gospel] is a voice that can crack religious and political convictions open, that advocates for the least qualified, least official, least likely. It [Christianity] proclaims against reason that the hungry will be fed, that those cast down will be raised up, and that all things, including my own failures, are being made new. It offers food without exception to the worthy and unworthy, the screwed-up and pious, and then commands everyone to do the same. It doesn’t promise to solve or erase suffering but to transform it, pledging that by loving one another, even through pain, we will find more life. And it insists that by opening ourselves to strangers, the despised or frightening or unintelligible other, we will see more and more of the holy, since, without exception, all people are one body: God’s. (Sara Miles, Take This Bread: The spiritual memoir of a twenty-first century Christian)

 

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.

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