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Posts from the ‘Forward in Faith’ Category

The Prodigal God

Lent 4C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet” (Luke 15:22).  A robe, a ring, and some sandals were not for fashion or comfort or even for hygiene—although they imply all these things.  More important, these gifts restored status, ownership, and authority.  The wayward son is welcomed home with more than a lavish party.  The Father awarded him a new share in the estate he squandered by half.  The older brother has reason to be angry.

This father is a prodigal. That is, he is foolish, wasteful, extravagant with his love.  The young son is also a prodigal. He is immoderately callous and careless.  An outright failure, he realized the error of his ways.  On the long road home, he rehearses his apology again and again, but he doesn’t even have the time to say it all before the father, runs to meet him, and restores him fully to belonging.

God sets a higher priority on forgiveness than on being right. God places a higher value on reconciliation than on saving face.  Better to be humiliated than estranged. God has done what many of us would not.

For a child of God, family is family.  All are created in the image of God. Therefore, regardless of past actions, religious or political beliefs, none of us have the right to treat anyone differently. We have no excuse to exclude or condemn a person whom God does not view with unkindness or condemnation.  This is the great good news that can also be a tough pill for us to swallow.

Family is family for God.  How ironic, therefore, that family and intimate friendships are so often the place that we struggle most. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eli Saslow chronicles the true story about a special relationship between a father, Donald Black, and his son Derek.  They traveled the country together for Don’s work starting when Derek was young. Derek enjoyed these trips and liked to help out.  In fact, Derek made a reputation for himself by creating a website, online games for kids, and a daily radio program for the so-called family business.  Looking back, Derek said of his dad, “We were always very close and could talk about everything.”  It seemed like an ideal childhood, except that racism was the family business.

Derek’s dad is the founder of Stormfront, the largest racist community on the internet. His godfather is David Duke, a KKK Grand Wizard.  By the time he was 19, Derek was already regarded as the ‘leading light’ of the fast-growing white nationalist movement in America.

Like the prodigal son, each of them squandered their birthright.  They frittered away their own inherent dignity by denying the full fruits of that dignity to people of color and to Jews.  Derek and his father Don are good examples of people we might feel justified in excluding.  Maybe they’re a little bit like the weird cousin or eccentric uncle we cut out from family gatherings.

This could be where the story ends—as it so often does—in brokenness, cut-off, alienation, and bitterness. But fortunately, for Don and Derek, and for us, we have a good, extravagantly loving prodigal father in heaven.  Jesus’ parable proclaims the stamp of incarnation imparted upon all creation.  The presence of God is present everywhere and in everyone alike.  Rocks and trees, plants and animals, seas and stars proclaim the greatness of the Lord God who has shamelessly claimed us and named us as her children.

In Rising Out of Hatred: the Awakening of a Former White Nationalist, Saslow tells how Derek Black realized the error of his ways.  Eventually, at tremendous personal cost, he disavowed the racism he was taught to believe. It happened because of the courage and grace of a casual acquaintance at college, named Matthew Stevenson, an Orthodox Jew, who set aside the vitriol and rage at Derek sweeping the campus and chose instead to do something different and even prodigal. Matthew went out of his way to meet him on the road, which is to say, he sent him a text message. “What are you doing this Friday night?” Matthew invited him to the weekly Shabbat dinners he held in his dorm. With hospitality, not judgment, dialogue not manipulation, after two years and including lengthy conversations with other intimate friends, Derek’s thinking finally began to change.

This improbable change came through non-judgmental friendship, kindness, and listening. It came through respectful dialogue without name calling.  Matthew believed people can change.  Family experience with Alcoholics Anonymous taught him that. He believed that faith compels him to “Reach out and extend the hand no matter who is on the other side.”  “It’s our job to push the rock,” Matthew said, “not necessarily to move the rock.” Each of us has opportunities to do this among people in our lives. We do not have a responsibility to complete the work, but we all are obligated to engage in the work. Faith compels us to confront the racism inherent in our American history.

Reflecting on this, Derek said, “There are moments I get quite pessimistic coming from the background I do. I’ve seen how effectively white nationalists can take pretty commonly held assumptions in America and elevate them to a level of hate that is fast, burns bright, and last’s a lifetime.”  It’s easy to quickly elevate a private grievance and turn it upside down, like whites are the ones being discriminated against.   Opposing hate is sometimes harder than inspiring it.

Being silent is a choice. We can’t challenge it by being silent. We have to actively work against these beliefs.  Speaking from his years of experience, Derek, says the people with the most power to douse the flame of white racism is another white person who calls B.S.  What is best for all people, including whites, are communities that thrive on diversity.

Our parable offers us a choice. Engage in the work of reconciliation or be like the older brother who refuses to join the party. Self-righteousness and judgmentalism became a stubborn obstacle to his own growth and renewal.  In these waning days of Lent, as our congregation considers ways to uncover our own blindness and complicity with racism—the great three-day banquet culminating in the Easter Vigil Saturday night, April 20th@ 7:30—remains ahead of us.  There is yet time for us to choose whether to accept the invitation to enter into the joy that is for all people.

We have a prodigal God. For all God’s children family is family. “O Lord of all the living, both banished and restored, compassionate, forgiving, and ever caring Lord, grant now that our transgressing, our faithlessness may cease. Stretch out your hand in blessing, in pardon, and in peace.” (ELW #606)

Fish Out of Water

Epiphany 5C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The clerk at the bookstore was helpful. He answered my questions. He gave advice about what was worth buying and what material I could find for free on YouTube.  He invited me to come for a sit, he called it, when people from the community gather for silent meditation, reading of scripture, and intercessory prayer.  That’s how, at 8:30 on Friday morning, I found myself in meditation with about 20 Christian brothers and sisters in a modest neighborhood of Albuquerque, New Mexico, while Kari attended a conference on legal education.

It felt good to be there.  We were a diverse group united in our hunger for God and thankful for abundant grace. I remember thinking, God’s house is big. Each of us (and now I’m including all of you) whether we are new or life-long Christians, whether our faith is weak or strong, whether we are seeking or serving, are summoned by the same Spirit, gathered into one body, responding to the same invitation, being drawn by the same divine lure.

Here, in Word and Sacrament, we have God’s promise that what we dare to hope for will not be in vain.  But our scriptures train us to look for God beyond these walls.  Learn to find God in one another, in other races, in other congregations, in the poor, in the earth, in the weak in every form.  Look for God in your own brokenness.  Look for God in the midst of every kind of suffering. Our temples, worship, rituals, and theology are only as good as the clarity of heart they inspire to look for God where God lives—out in the suffering world.

As the sun rose over the Sea, Peter and his two helpers, James and John, thought they were simple fisherman.  They expected to live out their lives moving between ship and shore following the feeding rhythms of fish.  Later that morning, when Jesus persuaded Peter to put out again so he could speak to the people, Peter was still a fisherman.  He was a husband, a homeowner, a businessman, and a resident of Capernaum in Galilee.  But when he returned to shore, he was a repentant disciple, the first member of Christ’s church, a fisher of people.  Peter and his partners, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, abandoned their boats beside the Sea.  They left everything—everything familiar —to follow Jesus (Luke 5:11).

The invitation has your name on it.  Each of us, in our own way, is called to leave the shallow comforts of the familiar and put out into the deep water.  Much of what is called Christianity today is shallow. It may have more to do with keeping the peace, feathering our own nests, or avoiding treading too deeply into matters of injustice, systematic racism, xenophobia, fear mongering, deathly materialism, and ecological ruin. Religion’s constant temptation to self-righteousness and moralism can make religious life feel like cosmetic piety. It only goes so deep.

“There are two utterly different forms of religion: one believes that God will love me if I change; the other believes that God loves me so that I can change.  The first is the most common; the second follows upon an experience of indwelling and personal love.” (Richard Rohr, The Enneagram, p. xxii)  The gospel of Christ invites a transformation of our fragile egos. We are being called from death into life. We are invited into the deep water, beckoned to draw closer to pain and suffering.

Peter could feel the pressure mount up in him until it overwhelmed him, and he cried out, “Go away from me, Lord!” (Luke 5:8) In Greek, he said, “Get out of my neighborhood!” It was the same thing we heard last Sunday when the people of Nazareth drove him out of the synagogue and meant to throw him off the cliff. Get away.  Leave me alone.  Except this time the reasons for Peter’s rejection were different.

The people of Nazareth wanted Jesus out of their neighborhood because he was unwilling to grant them special treatment.  But Peter wanted Jesus out because he knew he was not special enough. He is unworthy.  Like Isaiah before him, he felt himself to be in the fullness of the presence of God and that filled with equal measures of shame and awe, so he was afraid.

God doesn’t withhold love for you until you are changed; God’s love is what enables us to change.  Jesus’ invitation to discipleship had nothing to do with Peter’s (nor James’ nor John’s) qualifications, character, or potential.  God’s call is as unpredictable as it is unmerited.  Jesus did not issue the call to simple fisherman in a holy place, in a temple or a synagogue, but in the midst of daily work and routines.  Their energies are re-directed and given new focus.  From now on they would fish for people.  They would learn to find themselves by drawing closer to the suffering of strangers.  In this difficult path, they would find joy and life in abundance. Jesus sought to reassure them. “Don’t be afraid,” Jesus said.

When you feel ready to give up, Jesus says, ‘go deeper’ –push out into the waters, examine your faith, entrust yourself to Jesus’ vision for your life.  God gently pushes us forward into new adventures.  The Spirit urges us to explore –to ask, ‘where do I need to take a risk to answer the call following in Christ’s way of life for me?’

Answering Jesus’ call leads him to embrace a mission that was well beyond Peter’s imagining, that far exceeded his own strength or capacity to achieve.  Jesus is gathering us up along with Peter and the other disciples for a new way of life. We are like fish snared in a net, pulled out of the life we know, and deposited on the sandy shores of a new kingdom. Incredibly, unbelievably, we have become like fish living out of water.

We are called to seek out other fish struggling to breathe and gasping for life because they don’t know yet how to live.  We engage in a kind of fishing that is life-giving rather than life-taking.  We use the bait of love and grace and mercy; rather than fear or threats or intimidation.

Jesus is calling.  Jesus speaks in a voice to calm our fears, embolden our strength, and inspire our dreams.  Answering Jesus’ call will issue in a choice that could redirect our lives, foment unrest, and create instability.  We set sail to journey deeper into suffering and pain. In the face of such a daunting challenge we all feel unworthy, out of our depth, and inadequate. Like Isaiah or like Peter, we may not feel up to the task, but God’s indwelling love somehow empowers us to become more than we could ever have previously imagined. God’s house is big. God’s people are diverse but see, we are all becoming part of the One Life, and what joy there is this Life Together. May God be praised!

Divine Interruption

Epiphany 2C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I once presided at a wedding in which we waited an hour and a half for the mother of the bride to fetch the wedding ring left behind on the kitchen counter.  She got home and realized she was locked out.  After trying all the doors and windows, she found an extension ladder, climbed through a second story window and tumbled in head first, heels over frills, onto the floor.

Every wedding seems to have a mishap, including in ancient times. At the wedding in Cana of Galilee, they ran out of wine. It might be hard for us to appreciate just how humiliating and scandalous this oversight truly was for the newlyweds in our gospel and even for their entire extended family.  Once I was told by the host at Mexican restaurant their liquor license had been revoked. We turned around and walked out before being seated.  (What’s bad Mexican food without margaritas? What’s a week-long wedding without wine?) In a culture that placed supreme value on hospitality, the family in Cana of Galilee would never live it down.

Which is all to say the first sign of Jesus’ glory didn’t go according to the script. The beginning of Jesus’ public ministry was unplanned, perhaps even inconvenient.  Jesus wasn’t ready.  His hour for the big reveal had not yet come.  I wonder, how often moments of grace are accompanied by grumbling?  Jesus had said, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” (John 2:4)

John’s gospel might have had a different beginning.  The miracle of water turned to wine wouldn’t have happened at all.  Jesus and the disciples might have launched their new venture in Capernaum with great fanfare if Mary hadn’t noticed people in need.

Mary speaks for us. She averted humiliation. It was Mary, not the disciples, not Jesus, who recognized it was time –it was a fertile moment, it was the Kairos time, the auspicious moment for God’s glory to be revealed. Honestly, isn’t that the way life goes?  Interruptions overrule our agendas.

An epiphany of God, by definition, is an interruption.  As with all interruptions, I suppose most epiphanies include some element of unpleasantness.  In April of 1963, from the Birmingham jail, where he was imprisoned as a participant in nonviolent demonstrations against segregation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in longhand a letter to eight white clergymen who criticized as “unwise and untimely” the non-violent protests against the injustice of racial discrimination.

King wrote, “I must confess…I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate… who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

King reminds us that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. The advance of the Beloved kingdom in our economy, our culture, and political life will always give us fits and starts.

It is fashionable today to talk about becoming a “disruptor.”  The pace of change has accelerated to the extent we now know from lived experience that the ‘new and better’ do not emerge seamlessly from the status quo.  They replace the status quo –with all the painful accompanying changes that that implies. Could it be that Christians are called and enabled by the season of Epiphany to become disruptors for Christ?  We are called, with Martin Luther King, to strive toward the Beloved Community.

The grace and glory of God reveal themselves according to a script written by human need interrupting our own narrow plans and agendas.  Miracles happen when someone takes time to notice.  We do God’s work with our hands and feet.

What a miracle it was. Jesus responds with both quantity and quality. Wine was a common symbol of joy in ancient Palestine. Six stone jars stood empty used for Jewish rites of purification—each one filled to the brim with 20-30 gallons of water transformed into a total of 120-180 gallons of wine—enough to gladden the wedding feast for the remainder of the week.

In this epiphany, Jesus reveals God isn’t stern and stingy, but a God of lavish generosity and extravagance. God is like a manager who pays a worker a full day’s wages for one hour of work. God challenges Jonah when he becomes angry for having compassion for the enemy Ninevites.  God is like a father made foolish with love, who welcomes home a prodigal son with a ring, a robe, and a party.

When it’s our turn to imitate the character of God, it should be with the same extravagant generosity to others— like the other Mary, the sister of Lazarus, (John 11:2) who anointed the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume even though the disciples complained that it was a waste of money.

Perhaps there is a third ingredient to miracle these examples have in common. Mary persisted.  In the face of reluctance, resistance, and grumbling, Mary gave voice to human need.  She trusted in the power of God in Christ Jesus to make a difference. Maybe we too can notice, name, persist, and trust. “No matter how profound the scarcity, no matter how impossible the situation, we can elbow our way in, pull Jesus aside in prayer, ask earnestly for help, and ready ourselves for action.  We can tell God hard truths, even when we’re supposed to be celebrating. We can keep human need squarely before our eyes, even and especially when denial, apathy, or distraction are easier options. And finally, we can invite others to obey the miraculous wine-maker we have come to know and trust.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, 1/13/19)

God stands ready to fill the empty vessel of our lives to overflowing.  Christ Jesus, our epiphany, opens the door to a new way of life.  Just as he gladdened the wedding feast with as much as 180 gallons of fine wine, so Jesus invites us to gladden this life with dignity and purpose filled by the Holy Spirit.  Come drink and be satisfied.  Come walk from darkness and into the light following the divine disrupter. In Christ, the whole world is being changed.

From Death into Life

All Saints B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus wept. In fact, scripture says, he wailed. “When Jesus weeps, he legitimizes human grief. When Jesus cries, he assured Mary not only that her beloved brother is worth crying for, but also that she is worth crying with. Through his tears, Jesus calls all of us into the holy vocation of empathy.” (Debie Thomas, When Jesus Weeps, Journey with Jesus, 10/28/18)

When Jesus weeps, he shows that he understands that all is not as it should be.  Things here on earth are not as they are in heaven. When Jesus weeps, he shows us that sorrow is a powerful catalyst for change. The pernicious intoxicating allure of hatred is an evil that cannot be met without wisdom born of love that unites us all. When Jesus weeps, he stands shoulder to shoulder with us in sweeping back the tides that would swamp us.

It sounded a bit cheesy.  One of the interesting people we met in Ottawa, Canada last weekend announced he was wearing Griffindor socks.  We were at a workshop on baptismal living talking about the covenant God makes with us through the waters of baptism. The image of faith of Christians now, he said, is like the wizards of Hogwarts lifting their wands together to shine a light in courageous defiance of the evil Lord Voldemort.  That light created a protective shield over and around them within which they could prepare to battle.

Today, at the feast of All Saints, we hear words of comfort and compassion to dry our tears, bind our wounds, and strengthen us to engage with God in works of love.  Never forget we are gathered here in the presence of the Holy Spirit and our Lord Jesus with the great company of all the saints in light.  What we do in faith-filled acts of worship and praise matters, for this is where we learn how to heal and renew the world. Tikkun olam. With our Jewish brothers and sisters, we hear the call to be workers with God in repairing the world.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16) Let the exercise of gratitude we forge today with the paper in your worship folder be another small way to bind our hearts in Thanksgiving.  For that is how we create a protective shield over and around us to keep the tides of hate and violence from swamping or overwhelming us.

The prophet Isaiah invites us to a feast upon God’s holy mountain, the new Jerusalem. In Revelation, we read that the vision of God’s holy city, the new Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelation 21:2) God will remove the heart of stone in us and replace it with a heart of flesh. Joined together with all the saints of God in Christ, we move from grief into joy, from scarcity into generosity, from fear into courage, transforming death into life.

When Jesus wept, he showed that each of us is gifted by grace to carry the healing power and likeness of God to all those in need. We are God’s children, called to confront the fear-mongering powers of darkness with the joyous light and glory of grace.

“Let us go to Judea again”, Jesus said. The disciples were astonished, “Rabbi,” they said, “the [religious authorities] were just now trying to stone you, are you going there again?” (John 11:7-8).

By the grace of God, Jesus accounts us as Saints even while we are still sinners. Jesus confronts our fear, our pride, and condescension.  Jesus confronts our greed and mindless consumption.  Jesus confronts our capacity to empty other people of their God-given dignity to justify systems of injustice that privilege ourselves. Jesus will not back down but calls us to follow him.

When he arrived after four days at the tomb of Lazarus there was already a stench. At home, we have a five-gallon bucket to collect food waste for compost. We get a new one each week. Day one it’s in the kitchen. By day four it’s in the garage for as Martha said, ‘Lord, it stinketh.’ The story of poor Lazarus is the story of our own smelly rebirth as Saints in light. Lazarus was dead in the grave. Lazarus could do nothing for himself. All he could do was receive the gift of new life in God.  The story of Lazarus assures us—do not be ashamed, do not be afraid of the steps you take to health and wellbeing that are off-putting or smell bad to others. Come, take your place beside all the angels in light to shield us from the power of hatred and violence.

You’ll notice that while Jesus commanded Lazarus to come out, he also commands the community to unbind him.  The Christian community is the place where we are called to lovingly, carefully, help each other with our grave clothes. We do God’s work with our own hands.  Without judgment, without recoil, with the great love that comes only from God, we help one another with our grave clothes to be dressed again in the bright garment that is our new life in Christ. Jesus and all the saints beckon us from death into life as we passed through the waters of baptism, just as today, God calls little Greta Soo Schuchhardt a child of God.

Because God has set you apart, claimed you and calls you holy anything you do in faith can be called holy –like changing the diapers of our kids, or the diapers of someone else’s kids; or volunteering as a tutor; or creating a home where laughter resounds; or caring for a sick parent; or deliberating about which candidate to vote for and casting that vote; or being faithful in our duties at home or work; or visiting a neighbor who has a hard time getting out; or befriending a kid at school that other kids pick on; or anything else you do in faith. There is precious little in our life that can’t be a place where God is at work to heal, comfort, and restore because God has called us to be saints.  Never forget you are not alone in this work. God in Christ has commanded us out from the grave and gifted us with the challenge to help one another be free of our grave clothes.

When Jesus wept, he showed he stands with us. As St. Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, therefore “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35, 37-39)

Isaiah’s Great Discovery

Proper 24B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“…We accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted….[yet] Upon him was the punishment that made us whole.” “By his bruises, we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5).

This is no prosperity gospel. The prophet Isaiah offers hard-won wisdom, born of exile and slavery in Nineveh and Babylon. The people of Israel used to measure their righteousness before God in the value and number of their possessions.  But five hundred years before Christ they began to sing a new song—like the servant song we read today.  They began to see that righteous suffering could become part of God’s ongoing work by contributing to the healing and well-being of the nations that enslaved them.

I know. It sounds like crazy talk.  Yet, the prophet Isaiah claims to have glimpsed a path that leads us past our own pain.  First, we must dispel a common myth about suffering. In his classic book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “The conventional explanation, that God sends us the burden because [God] knows that we are strong enough to handle it, has it all wrong. Fate, not God, sends us the problem. When we try to deal with it, we find out that we are not strong. We are weak; we get tired, we get angry, overwhelmed. . . . But when we reach the limits of our own strength and courage, something unexpected happens. We find reinforcement coming from a source outside of ourselves. And in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God is on our side, we manage to go on. . . .”  (Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Avon Books: 1983), 129, 131.)

Isaiah’s discovery is not talking about carrying on in an abusive relationship.  It’s not about keeping deadly painful secrets out of loyalty to those we love.  It’s not about suffering out of fear and intimidation. Instead, it’s about the pain we endure for the sake of grace, truth, hope, and justice.

Knowing and naming brokenness is essential in the journey toward wholeness. As the 12thcentury German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, and Christian mystic, Hildegard of Bingen [1098–1179] once said, we need two wings with which to fly. One is the “knowledge of good,” and the other is the “knowledge of evil.” If we lack one or the other, we will be like an eagle with only one wing. We will fall to the ground instead of rising to the heights of vision. . . . (Hildegard of Bingen, Letter to Wibert of Gembloux. See Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs, ed. Matthew Fox (Bear & Company: 1987), 350.)

The great discovery our ancestors in faith pass down to us, the insight born of suffering, slavery, and oppression, is that we discover people around us, and God beside us, and strength within us to help us survive the accidents, tragedies, and traumas of life.  Taste and see the Lord is good.  Eventually, this hypothesis is tested in every human life.

Many people rightly question how God can be good or just in the presence of so much evil and suffering in the world—about which God appears to do nothing. Statisticians reassure us, the number of people living in poverty is going down in the world. But advances in communications, radio, television, and now the internet, has also brought more awareness of the suffering endured by people around the globe than ever before.

In answer to this, we proclaim in Jesus. Jesus reveals that God is suffering love. If we are created in God’s image, and if there is so much suffering in the world, then God must also be suffering. How else can we understand the revelation of the cross? Why else would the Christian logo be a naked, bleeding, suffering divine-human being? Jesus reveals God doesn’t just watch human suffering from a safe distance up in heaven; God is somehow at the center of human suffering, with us and for us. The triune God—creator, redeemer, and sanctifier—includes our suffering in the co-redemption of the world, as “all creation groans in one great act of giving birth” (Romans 8:22).

Jesus picked up and amplifies Isaiah’s great discovery in our gospel today. By now the disciples have heard Jesus say not once but twice, “whoever wishes to be first among you must be last and servant of all” (Mark 10:31). They’ve heard Jesus say three times that in Jerusalem he will be condemned, mocked, rejected, spit upon, flogged and executed.

But something about this idea doesn’t compute.  We hear but do not listen.  We look but do not see.  In some type of fever-dream, we imagine our faith, church and religion will put us on a path to greatness.  James and John envisioned themselves seated in glory beside Jesus, one at his right and one at his left, elevated above the rest of the disciples, as they drove the Roman armies out, ruled all of Israel, perhaps even the whole world.

But God does not glory in greatness. God shows no partiality between us; makes no distinction between those inside and those outside. God does not call us owners, but stewards of our lives. Our ancestors in faith offer this surprising message. God calls us out of places of security, privilege, and comfort to meet the suffering and pain within ourselves, and in people around us. Strangely, wonderfully, unbelievably, in this, we discover we are not alone.  We are not victims, but in sharing our weaknesses we are made stronger. In shared foolishness we find wisdom. In sharing our lives, we find true shelter.  We become a living sanctuary of hope and grace. This is not only Immanuel’s tagline but also a lifeline.

Opening ourselves to pain and suffering mirrors God’s work of grace upon entering the world to live among us.  In this way, we open ourselves to hard-won truths beyond regular knowing. We tap into the wisdom of God operating deeply in with and under all things.

In recognition of the St. Luke, the physician, we take extra time in our service today for prayers and anointing for healing.  During the prayers of the people, along with thanksgiving and supplication, members our church stationed throughout the sanctuary, will offer personal prayers of healing for you. May God somehow transform our pain into compassion and wisdom so that rather than transmit or project our suffering onto others we may instead become wounded healers working with Christ to reconcile the world.

Isaiah saw that healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain, with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust and the undeserved—all of which eventually come into every lifetime. Likewise, Jesus now calls and leads into wholeness by way of his life-giving cross.

Through the Eye of a Needle

Proper 23B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). Despite this, or maybe because of it, today we baptize little Salma and little Antonio so God may do for them what we who love them cannot.

We baptize them to receive new life by drowning.  We baptize them to become children of a new humanity, to be born from above, to live like fish out of water, and to pass through the eye of the needle. We baptize in faith and hope that what is impossible for mortals is indeed possible for God.

Spiritual writer Anne Lamott writes about baptism, “Christianity is about water for God’s sake,” she remarks. It’s about immersion, about falling into something elemental and wet. Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry; looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain and rivers and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time, it’s also holy and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving into all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched.” In baptism, we are delivered from the shallow birdbath of culture and the daily news and immersed in the waters of life that go way over our heads.

These past five Saturdays I had the privilege of learning with Christians brothers and sisters taking part in Diakonia (the two-year adult study of scripture and theology in the Metro Chicago Synod). We examined the five phrases in the single sentence that is the covenant we affirm in baptism. “Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism: to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?” To which we respond, “I do, and I ask God to help and guide me.” (ELW, p. 1164)

It’s going back a few years now, but I’m remembering a scene in the Broadway musical, A Chorus Line. In that grueling audition, one of the dancers, named Michael, tells a story about what drives him to perform. His big sister got all the dance lessons, while he had to insist and to prove and convince everyone “I can do that. I can do that. I can do that!”  It was the beginning of a professional career in dance.

In baptism, our career in Christ begins by admitting exactly the opposite. The key that unlocks and swings open the great gate turns as we switch from I can to I can’t. The day Martin Luther died his wife and children prepared his body for burial. They found a small handwritten note in his pocket. It read: “We are all beggars.”  We stand in need of grace to draw us into the life we were created to live. We move through the eye of the needle to and through the way of the cross, into the abundant and forever life we share in Christ starting today and into eternity. We can’t do this, but God can.

This might be the great question in every life. How do we get there from here? I imagine a man sitting on a bench in the park across the street watching his children play. He finished college in four years.  Got married at 24.  He realizes his biggest accomplishment in life is that he is reliable, responsible and respectable.  He neither gives nor causes offense.  You can take him anywhere without worry.  He is a good neighbor, a good husband, a good father, even an occasional church-goer. But he wonders, is this all there is to my life?

Imagine a woman who decides to come to church with a friend. She is a citizen of the world.  She is careful to turn off lights before leaving a room.  She buys local and eats organic.  She enjoys a warm circle of creative, left-of-center friends.  She wants to contribute to the creation of an alternative culture.  She hopes that she is making the world a better place, but she wonders with all the hatred and division how is it possible?

Each of them is like the young man in our gospel today.  He is bothered by life’s ultimate questions. He is restless and unsatisfied.  He kept the faith his whole life. He has amassed a fortune.  Yet despite his righteous reputation and accumulated riches, he comes before Jesus as a needy man.

Notice, he waited until the last moment.  As Jesus is about to leave, he ran up, knelt before him and asked the big question. It is the honest, sincere question of a man dedicated to conforming his life to God’s will and doing what is best. “Good Teacher”, he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)

The man in across the street wonders what he should do to make his life more fulfilling. The woman in church just for fun with her friend wonders if what she does really matters.  The wealthy sincere young man wonders what he can do to eliminate the nagging feeling there is something that he is missing.

Our gospel says Jesus looked at the young man intently and loved him.  This is the only person in the gospel of Mark Jesus is said to love. Yet Jesus’ answer is both wonderful and terrifying.  What can you do, Jesus asks?  What can you do to make your life better?  Nothing.  But see, God brings everything you are, but nothing you possess, through the eye of the needle.

The text says the man “was shocked and went away grieving.”  I imagine it was sticker shock. The abundant life in Christ proved unaffordable.  He considered his wealth an entitlement — a symbol not only of his worldly accomplishments but also of God’s favor.  How terrible to be told that his best credential was a liability and a burden.  How grievous to realize that God’s kingdom was not custom designed for his ease — that he might not like it, or agree with its priorities, or find common cause with its inhabitants.  How shocking to encounter a God who is so scandalously honest — a God who strips us of our entitlements and freely hands us reasons to walk away. (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus)

The key that unlocks the great gate is “I can’t” rather than “I can.” Through the eye of the needle, although we lose all our possessions, we receive gifts of the spirit. By gifts such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, we become reconciled to God and to one another (Galatians 5:22). These gifts sustain our community here at Immanuel.  These gifts nourish love in our families and kindle warmth between neighbors.  These gifts have the power to repair the breach in our democracy and restore dignity to our civic life. Through the eye of a needle, in the waters of baptism, from lament into glory, from death into life, “I can’t” becomes “we can.”   For little Salma and Antonio, for the man across the street, and the woman visiting the church with her friend, for you and for me, this is what God has done that we could not. Praise be to God.

No One is a Nobody

Proper 22B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

No one is a nobody. With striking and welcome unity all the readings for worship today align to focus our attention on the essential indelible value of all people, including animals, by affirming God’s creative purpose in creation. We are fashioned in God’s image. We are made for embrace.  We are invited into a love story that yields the delicious fruit of justice and righteousness.  Even now, God opens our hardened hearts to grace-filled compassion, that is without guile or calculation, that is love for all people, beginning with those accounted by others as unimportant.  No one is a nobody.

You observant listeners will notice I am skipping over the long history of the ways Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Mark has been so tragically used in the church that goes against this original liberating message.

I can remember a time in the 1970’s when parents of my childhood friend got a divorce. The church they belonged to was at the center of their lives. Yet when my friend’s mom announced her intention to remarry, church elders pronounced judgment upon her, not their blessings.  Rather than share in her joy, they labeled her an adulteress (no doubt citing authority from today’s gospel) and drove her out of the church.

Thanks be to God things have changed in the church. Curiously, as the institutional strength, authority, and status of the mainline church has declined, the gospel message of welcome, hospitality, and compassion of God in Jesus Christ has increased.

We find our way back to Jesus’s original message, as we always do, by listening for the plain meaning of the text.  Not in what we hear but in learning what the people of Jesus day noticed upon first hearing it.  In those days the Pharisees allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, cast his wife out of the house and into abject poverty.  In those days Children had no status or power.  Children and divorced (and widowed) women were non-persons. They were nobodies.  Yet “…it is to such as these,” Jesus said, “that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14).

No one is a nobody.  When Jesus heard the disciples were literally ‘shoving away’ nobodies from getting close he became angry.  The two stories in our gospel are linked together to demonstrate a new reality: Women and children are accepted and valued, not dismissed as inferior to adult men. (#Metoo.  #Lovethechildren.) Sadly, we are still learning this lesson.

Once again Jesus was teaching the disciples to give up ordinary calculations of greatness to unlock the great gate that opens into the kingdom of God.  Like the disciples, we continue to allow God’s grace to soften the hardness of our hearts, to open us to understanding no one is a nobody so that God’s love might finally flow through us, among us, and back to us through full participation in the rule of God.

The gospel calls us to press against the hardness in our hearts we bear toward the suffering of those whom society calls a nobody, #Blacklivesmatter.  Are you listening to this?  We ignore the gospel at our own peril. The serious damage done to erode the public trust so essential for the Chicago police to be effective in their core mission to protect and to serve  cannot be repaired until the hardness in our hearts of systemic racism directed toward people of color is softened and opened by grace, because God insists—no one in my creation is a nobody.

Friday afternoon the city held its breath.  When it was announced the jury in the Jason Van Dyke trial had reached a decision, about 90 minutes before it was read out, businesses closed, schools went on lockdown, people were advised to go home and “stay indoors.” Rather than justice, people were expecting a riot.  But then something unexpected happened. The system that labeled Laquan McDonald a nobody, that dismissed his murder as unimportant, that was bracing against the violent backlash, broke down. Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and sixteen counts of aggravated assault –one for each bullet he fired into 17-year old Laquan McDonald’s body in 2014.

For thirteen months the system worked to prevent people from seeing the police dash cam video. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel withheld it until after his re-election campaign when a court finally ordered its release.  Officer Van Dyke was not arrested and charged until after the video’s release contradicted the official story and made the city and his fellow officers appear complicit in helping to cover it up.

The evidence against Van Dyke was overwhelming, but that was no reason to assume he would be convicted. According to the Chicago Tribune, a Chicago police officer hasn’t been convicted of murder in “half a century.” New York Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo was never charged in the death of Eric Garner, despite video of him choking Garner to death. Cleveland Police Officer Timothy Loehmann was never charged for killing 12-year old Tamir Rice, despite the video showing him firing only moments after pulling up to the scene. Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted in the shooting of Philando Castile as he reached for his identification, despite video showing the aftermath of the confrontation. These are all examples of the system working, because this is what the system is actually designed to do: provide impunity to police, no matter what harm they cause. (Adam Serwer, “Something Went Wrong in Chicago,” The Atlantic Magazine, 10/05/18,)

But God has another system. No one is a nobody. The human dignity of any one cannot be denied without damaging our own claim to being human.  This truth will reveal itself because we are fashioned in God’s image.  We are made for embrace.  Thanks be to God things are changing in our society.  Healing will come to Chicago when we finally acknowledge our own complicity, whether as people of privilege, as citizens, or members of this church we love, in the sin of systemic racism. We are called to do God’s work with our hands. We are called to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace as we lean our shoulders against the hardness in our hearts and our eyes opened to the particularly brutal reputation of the Chicago police, which has paid out more than $500 million in abuse settlements over the past decade, and which has a long legacy of illegal detention, corruption, discrimination and even torture.  Because no one is a nobody it is time once again to let the cleansing waters of justice roll down and for righteousness to flow like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24). It is time for us again, like the disciples of old, to let God’s grace to carry us to a better brighter future.

Together On The Way

Proper 19B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

‘Those who are ashamed of me, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed’ (Mark 8:38). Have you ever been embarrassed to be a Christian? I know have.  Sometimes, when people ask about our church I explain we’re ELCA Lutherans.  Or, if that doesn’t work I say, you know, we’re the gay-friendly Lutherans, or the progressive Lutherans, or the cool Lutherans.

I’m proud of our church and I wish people didn’t seem to always have the wrong idea. I want to say, those are not my Christians. The bible is life-giving. The word of God is alive, healing, prophetic and still-speaking. I don’t believe the bible is a set of proof-texts to put others down. Our religion is not based on fear. The way of the cross is not a weapon but inspires a love of our enemies. Even more, I want them to know they’re invited. They belong. That God loves them just as they are and, at the same time, calls them to become more than they ever thought possible.

But I don’t usually get that far before the conversation moves on to other things. So, I just say those Christians are not my Christians. And once again, the world gets a little bit smaller, sliced again into groups of trusted insiders and embarrassing outsiders.

Yes. Sometimes I am ashamed to be called a Christian.  But I don’t think it’s the same shame about which Jesus warned the disciples.  I strive to be a follower.  I try to be a disciple.  I want people to know about it, but like, Peter, I struggle to see the big picture. How can people who are so different, so polarized, so adamant in their opinions ever be fit back together?

Here’s where we get to the heart of today’s gospel. I get that you’re not that kind of Christian, Jesus says. Then what type are you?  Jesus’ exchange with the disciples makes clear, it’s not enough to answer in the negative, or talk about what others say.  You’ve got to answer the question for yourself. “Who is Jesus?”  Could our hesitancy to answer be due to the fact that then we’ll have to do something about it?  Or perhaps we’re reluctant because we know our answers like Peter’s, at best, will only be half-right?

We’ve reached a turning point in Mark’s gospel at the end of chapter eight. It’s decision time.  Suddenly, we’re moving from wilderness scenes, stories in boats, and encounters beside the Sea of Galilee.  We begin a journey with Jesus from the margins of Palestine to its center; from the extreme north of Caesarea Philippi southward to Jerusalem. Jesus and the disciples are “on the way.” This is Mark’s beautiful and repeated metaphor for discipleship which will be repeated in our gospel readings in coming weeks. Jesus is on the way to the cross. The disciples, however, don’t yet know where this road leads.  They’re on the move when Jesus asks them (and each of us) “Who do you say that I am?”

They’re in the villages of Caesarea Philippi. It was an area known for its dedication to the Roman nature-god, Pan; near a city with a name honoring the human Caesar who was often regarded as divine. Notice, Jesus didn’t ask the disciples what they believed in a synagogue, but in public. That’s one of our value statements too. (Public, the arena for living our faith is the world.)

As they walked among a crowd of people with differing viewpoints, and in the middle of all the other forces that competed for their allegiance, and beside people who don’t seem as if they could ever be united together, Jesus asked them, what’s the word on the street?  What have you heard?  What do the opinion polls reveal?  The disciples parroted back what they had heard others say.  “They answered him, John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets” (Mark 8:28).

This is where all explorations of faith begin, in naming what we’ve heard, examining what we’ve inherited, and parroting back the certainties others have handed to us.  These answers are easy, they cost us little or nothing, so they’re safe and benign.  But of course, they don’t offer us much in return, either. They hearken back to history and tradition, or to anthropology and sociology.  But there’s nothing personal in them.  No intimacy.  No fire.

Jesus goes deeper.  Next, he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” looking at each disciple in turn.  Meaning: forget about other people’s theologies and interpretations.  Put aside tradition and creed, valuable as they are, and consider the life we have lived together thus far.  The bread we’ve broken, the miles we’ve walked, the burdens we’ve carried, the tears we’ve shed, the laughter we’ve shared. Who am I to you? (“Living the Question,” Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, 9/9/18.)

Peter, bold, reckless, earnest, and impetuous answers when the silence becomes unbearable.  He throws himself forward as confidently as he can: “You are the Messiah.” It seems like a miracle because he’s right! But in the very next moment, he’s wrong again.  At best, he’s only half-right.  Peter is like the rest of us who confess Jesus as Christ and know who he is yet can’t bring ourselves to come to terms with what Jesus calls us to do or to be. Come, follow Jesus on the way.  Let him show you where it leads.

Who do you say that Jesus is?  It’s a question to ponder for a lifetime. It’s a question that must be shared, a question best answered in community, but an answer that must finally be our own.  It’s a question that has so many others folded into it: What stories of Jesus have you inherited?  What “truths” about him do you need to say goodbye to?  How might you be blessed by his loving rebuke?  Is he merely the Messiah?  Or is he yours? (Debie Thomas)

To be a disciple is to join him on the way. Conversion without immersion in the way of Christ’s cross becomes a perversion of the gospel.  It becomes a means for violence rather than of blessing; more hurtful than healing; a means to prop up those in control rather than a source of radical, creative transformation and healing of mind, body, spirit, and community.

We join Jesus on the way to understanding, on ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  By faith we are filled with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that the Spirit is leading us, and the love of God is supporting us, and Christ is walking beside us.  This personal commitment to follow, by some miracle, leads to re-discovery of our shared humanity. In the particularity of our personal commitment to following Jesus on the way, we find communion with the universal story we all share as children of God.

The Whole Story

Proper 8B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Fifteen-year-olds Melanie and Xanath are members of the ECT youth group in Houston this week at the ELCA Global Youth Gathering. On Friday they became leaders, among 300 other young people. Youth gathered at an iconic statue in front of the Medical Center that dramatically depicts a mother about to receive her newborn child into her arms for the first time from an OBGYN nurse. Melanie and Xanath spoke in protest of Federal immigration policies that have separated more than two thousand children from their parents. They gave interviews for Telemundo and the Houston Chronicle.

Xanath, who is normally very quiet, at least around me, said, “It really disappoints me and makes me upset that this happens to other families and, while I’m not in their position, it hurts to see them suffering…Whether we know them or not, the fact that they’re still human beings means that we shouldn’t dehumanize them.”

Today’s gospel is a story wrapped in a story.  It features people like Xanath talked about who are desperate to be seen, heard and recognized as human beings. Jesus and the disciples have just returned from across the border. They’re back from the other side of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus was healing and proclaiming the gospel among foreigners. Immediately, almost before they can get out of the boat, there’s a crowd. They’re curious. They’re excited. They have something important for Jesus to do.

A man named Jairus is a leader in the synagogue, a well-respected lay-person, a father, and patriarch of the entire community. Jairus falls down before Jesus and begs him to help his little daughter, “who is at the point of death” (Mark 5:23).  Meanwhile, somewhere in this crowd, unknown to everyone, is a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. She is nameless, homeless, childless, and alone. Mark, the briefest of gospels has a lot to say about her.  She suffered under the care of many doctors.  She used up all her money to be cured.  Yet, she only got worse.

The unnamed women lingered in the background waiting for an opportunity, while Jairus spoke to Jesus directly. The woman talks only to herself.  Jairus’ request is met with enthusiasm and a sense of urgency. The woman knew she was forbidden to touch any man, least of all Jesus. She knew just touching her fingertips on his cloak would defile him and anyone else in the crowd.  She decided to enter the crowd to reach out and touch Jesus, anyway.

A struggle ensues. The unnamed woman gets in the way. The whole procession to Jairus’ house grinds to a halt.  She prevents Jesus from helping Jairus’ daughter before it’s too late. To everyone, it looks like a wasted opportunity to do something important, but not to Jesus. Jesus was #MeToo 2,000 years before MeToo.

While the disciples and the crowd were counting noses, sizing up the pecking order, doing a cost-benefit analysis, sorting people into categories of more and less worthy, more and less human, Jesus was focused on the person and place with the greatest human need.

Perhaps we should step back for a moment to understand there were three forms of uncleanness in Jesus’ time thought to be serious enough to require that a person is quarantined: 1) those with leprosy, 2) those with any kind of bodily discharges, and 3) the dead.  In other words, once Jairus’ little girl died, both she and the unnamed woman were joined with the tribe of the damned, the grotesque, and the sub-human. They were untouchables, not worth bothering about.

In the story of Jairus’s daughter, Jesus demands that we not pronounce death where he sees life.  In the bleeding woman’s story, he demands that legalism give way to compassion every single time.  In each story, Jesus restores a lost child of God to community and intimacy. In each story, Jesus takes hold of what is “impure” (the menstruating woman, the dead girl’s body) in order to practice mercy.  In each story, a previously hopeless daughter “goes in peace” because Jesus finds value where no one else will. The love of Christ humanizes those we have dehumanized.

Notice, Jesus didn’t just heal her, but he listened to her. ‘The woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before Jesus, and told him the whole truth’ (Mark 5:33). She told him her whole story – the shame and the blame, the pain and the fear, the loneliness and the isolation, the good and the bad. This is how we reverse the effects of dehumanization. This is how we overcome the labels, the racism, the stereotypes, and the bias that allows people to so quickly dismiss others as inferior or less-than-human.  It requires the patience, compassion, and honesty that is ours in Christ Jesus to listen to someone’s whole story so they may become known.

As we prepare for another Independence Day, it strikes me that perhaps we have seldom had the patience or the stomach to listen to the whole story of our nation’s history. This land we celebrate, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; this land of opportunity, of immigrants, of diversity, has also been a land that celebrated the genocide of native peoples, supported slavery, and continues to condone systematic violence against people of color.  Sadly, the church too has played a role in this. Most Christians have been ready to go right along with it.

We are engaged in a struggle for the soul of the nation and the sanctity of our church today. Who are we?  What type of nation shall we be?  We can let our gospel be our guide. Jesus can help us recover, reclaim and believe again in the common humanity we share with all God’s children.

Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, put it this way “if it doesn’t look like love, if it doesn’t look like Jesus of Nazareth, it cannot be claimed to be Christian.”  If it doesn’t look like love, it isn’t Christian.  Period.

What then looks like love today?  What looks like Jesus of Nazareth?  “The one whose heart melts at the cry of a desperate father.  The one who visits the sick child and takes her limp hand in his.  The one who risks defilement to touch the bloody and the broken.  The one who insists on the whole truth, however falteringly told.  The one who listens for as long as it takes.  The one who brings life to dead places.  The one who restores hope.  The one who turns mourning into dancing.  The one who renames the outcast, “Daughter,” and bids her go in peace.”   (When Daughters Go in Peace, Journey with Jesus, Debie Thomas, 6/24/18.)

We have become one in Christ. Jesus has brought down the walls and led us across the borders that separate us. Like Xanath and Melanie, Jesus will help us find our voice. Jesus shows us the way forward. This grace changes everything.

Toppling Stones

Easter Sunday B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

It might be the first April fool’s joke. The angel said to the woman, “He is not here! But go and tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:6b-7). (Alleluia. Christ is risen!)

But on their way to the empty tomb, the only thing they talked about was how to move the heavy stone. Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome quietly went to Jesus that first Sunday morning to anoint a corpse, not to witness a resurrection.  They went to the tomb early on Easter morning, but in their minds, it was still a Good Friday world.  They were preoccupied, not with hopeful anticipation, but with the obstacles they had to overcome. They seem to have all but forgotten, or at least to have discounted, what Jesus had told them: “After I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mark 14:28).

I confess, as we enter this Easter season, the tension in my belly often makes me more mindful of the heavy stones being piled up against us than the message handed down from of old of trusting in God’s amazing grace.  Another mass shooting; another person of color murdered by police in their own back yard; another threat against immigrants, Muslims, or Jews; another rule to save us from ecological or financial ruin undone;  another shady deal to personally enrich politicians or to suppress the vote; another blatant attack on truth; another war, on top of the threat of war, on top of constant war since 911 feel like so many heavy stones—not to mention whatever struggles we might be coping with for housing, health, work or love.

This Wednesday, April 4th will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King.  Had he lived, he would be 89 years old today.  I am mindful of the heroes and prophets we have lost.

No doubt, Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome were feeling something like this that first Easter morning.  They were thinking about death and the crushing weight of the threat of death mounded up against them by the Roman Empire, the religious authorities, and perhaps even old friends and neighbors to whom they could no longer safely go home.

Fear is like a heavy stone. This peculiar Easter story without a resurrection scene, with no reassuring words to strangely warm their unknowing hearts, in which the last word “phobos,” or fear seems to almost linger in the air, reminds us that fear was the disciple’s undoing again and again.

Peter walks on the water beside Jesus, until fear sent him sinking beneath the waves (Matthew 14:29).  Out of fear, the disciples failed to recognize Jesus authority over the storming wind and waters, (4:40-41).  Out of fear, Peter suggested they build booths on the mountain of Christ’s transfiguration (9:6).  Jesus’ predictions of suffering and death elicited much fear and consternation (9:32).  In every case, fear isolated the disciples from Jesus. Fear gets in the way of God’s plan for them and for us. “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8) But, I John writes, “Perfect love casts out fear. (I John 4:18).  Perfect Love is of God.  It falls on everyone and everything like the morning sun or like life-giving rain.

Scholars say, Mark wrote for a church that was small and, on the margins, feeling expendable, and suffering from religious and economic persecution.  To them, the message that God triumphed in Christ despite the dim-witted failures of the first disciples must have come as quite a relief.  I admit, it kindles hope in me too.  After all, here we are two thousand years later. Mark’s gospel is incontrovertible evidence that God can bring faith even out of human weakness, fear, and failure.

Mark draws attention away from the last sentence to reflection on the first one: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).  It’s the beginning of the good news, not the whole story, it’s not even most of the story because it doesn’t end there. You and I are the continuing gospel of the gospel of Jesus Christ. (Nadia Bolz Weber)

Mark’s gospel removed the last barrier to the abounding of grace in us: the fear of failure.  The women’s terrified response to the angel’s invitation to “Go to Galilee” brings us face to face with a great mystery of our faith: somehow God’s work will be accomplished through our hands and hearts, despite our own worst fears, and tragic failings.  (Alleluia! Christ is risen.)

The seed of the gospel is sown on good soil.  We tend and toil in the field, but God gives the growth. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Almost always the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.”  There were not many Christians who supported civil rights but the movement prevailed.  There were not many Lutherans in Germany who opposed Hitler, but the words and witness one Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer prevailed.  Not many people of faith favored an end to slavery, but a faithful minority made it impossible to sustain.  There are so few Christians in America today who support the inclusion of the immigrant, the Muslim, the LGBTQI community, and the poor; who support democracy; and who urgently call for care of the earth that we seem invisible to the media and the wider culture. But the stones piled against us will come toppling down like the walls of Jericho. We have courage and confidence in our convictions because we know how this story ends.  We know the love of God triumphs over every narcissistic tendency and evil.

The victory is won but the battle continues. It just didn’t matter how often or how miserably the disciples failed him.  Jesus always called them back.  Jesus opens a way to the future.  Jesus opens our eyes and sets us again on the pilgrim path to God. Again, and again, Jesus drives out fear and writes a new script for our lives as we become joined to the undying life of God in the waters of baptism.

This is the hope to which the gospel calls us: regardless how often we have failed, however imperfect our faith is or has been; how many times we were silent when we should have spoken out; no matter how hard our hearts have been against compassion for those who suffer—the outstretched hand of Jesus opens to us today.

The angel’s words are not information but a commission for everyone who hears the call to follow him.  Hear the invitation to continue the kingdom-building work that remains to be done—for that is where we encounter the risen Christ.  Jesus goes ahead of us to Galilee.  He is not in the tomb.  Jesus who casts out fear and leads us deeper into abundant life can be found among the suffering, the needy, the oppressed, and estranged. He lives among us now.  Jesus is with all who share their bread, who give a cup of water, who receive the little children, who protect the vulnerable, care for widows, attend to the environment, and keep widening the circle of a living sanctuary of grace and hope for all.  (R. Alan Culpepper, Mark, p. 596-97) Alleluia, Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!)

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