Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Forward in Faith’ Category

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!)

A Complicated Thanksgiving

Proper 28A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The holiday season is upon us.  The interfaith ECRA Thanksgiving service is 3:00 o’clock today at the North Shore Baptist church.  I’m sure many of you have plans to travel or welcome guests this week.  Some of you have already started planning the holiday meal. Growing up, I remember that my mother (who is here today) made everyone around the table say something they were grateful for before we could eat.  She made sure we put some thanksgiving in our Thanksgiving.

This year I am thankful for many things.  I am grateful for all of you, for this congregation, for home and family arriving this week, for the food we will prepare and share, and for the fact that I, unlike too many in this city and across the world, never have never had to worry about when my next meal is coming.

I am thankful for many things, but this year my list of thanksgivings feels more complicated. The daily news out of Washington gives me such a belly-ache.  So, one thing for which I am aware that I am grateful is that things haven’t gotten any worse.  I am just holding my breath hoping our luck doesn’t run out, just waiting for things to fall apart. This year my Thanksgiving is complicated by worries, tension, and dread.

It makes me thankful and hopeful that for some, this dread has become like an alarm clock.  People woke up in defense of women, of immigrants, for the sick and those in need of healthcare.  People woke up to confront the malignant disease of racism and to cultural indifference to sexual harassment. People woke up to the ecological dangers we face as the inevitable consequences of our economy.   I am grateful, especially for young people already living in and making diverse communities of hopeful change and resistance.

New biblical scholarship on today’s gospel lesson, the parable of the talents, has woke up too. It leads us to reassess what Jesus may be trying to teach us.  The first task of any preacher or biblical scholar in understanding as best they can what the bible says is to spell out the plain meaning of scripture.  What did Jesus’ words mean to those who first heard it?

I have a drawer full of sermons on this parable of the talents. All of them identifying with the first two slaves who risked their talents to create even more.   However, it’s probably most likely that Jesus’ original audience would have identified most strongly with the third servant, the one who buried his talent in the ground and thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 25:30).

The landowner is “a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” The average peasant listening to Jesus’ parable did not look kindly on wealthy people who multiplied their wealth ‘without sowing,’ i.e., without honest labor. He is the very opposite of the God of Israel who brought God’s people into a land flowing with milk and honey, drinking from cisterns they did not dig and reaping harvests that they did not plant. It’s not like the God who tells harvesters to harvest badly, leaving the edges of the wheat, leaving dropped sheaves behind, not stripping the vines or shaking the olive trees, so that those who have nothing to sow can reap anyway. It’s not like the sower Jesus tells about who goes out and throws seed wastefully all over the place, knowing that whatever lands on the good soil will produce beyond one’s wildest dream.

In fact, according to religious teaching at that time, the prudent and just thing to do in caring for another’s wealth was precisely to bury it. Jesus’ audience would have given a thumbs-up to the actions of the third servant, because he is the one who said no.  I will not participate, I will not cooperate, I refuse to be part of your system.

The ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person (Jerome, In Heiremiam 2.5.2; Corpus Cristianorum Series Latina, LXXIX, 61). In the first-century Mediterranean world, the common belief was that the economic pie was “limited” and already distributed, so an increase in the share of one person automatically meant a loss for someone else. Acquisition was, by its very nature, understood as stealing. Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion or fraud.

Honorable people, therefore, were interested only in what was rightfully theirs and would have no desire to gain anything more, that is, to take what was another’s. The notion of an honest rich man was a first-century oxymoron. (Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels)

Perhaps the third servant’s appraisal of his master as a “hard” man (v. 24), with which the master does not disagree, indicates that he had no feelings towards the poor who got poorer as the first two servants got richer. That is, the first two servants were as hard and uncaring towards the poor as their master, which is why they were able to make so much more money — yet that is why they are praised. In the kingdom of God, in which Jesus has called us to dwell starting now and forever, the highest praise is reserved for those who make of themselves a gift to others. “To whom much is given, much will be required” (Lk 12:48).

The so-called “lazy” servant said no to the ways of the world, the ways of Empire and dog-eat-dog competition, and so, was cast out just as Jesus was. The way of Jesus leads to the cross. If we truly want to ‘make America great again,’ we could start by shoring up the traditional civic value that those who have more should pay more in support of our common life and society.  Throughout the 1950’s the top federal income tax rate was 91%.  Such progressive tax policy seems shocking today, especially in Illinois, which is one of only 8 States to have a flat income tax, placing a proportionally higher burden on those with less.

If there is a silver lining to these days, it is that we are waking up to the fact that democracy is not inevitable or self-perpetuating. It requires involvement, it requires that we be a nation of laws that protect minorities and defend the value of truth.

The third slave said “no” to his master because he said “yes” to God.  We too, said “yes” in our baptism.  We have vowed to renounce the devil, the powers of this world, and the ways of sin that draw us from God.  We have vowed to live among God’s faithful people, to serve all people following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. This is not a burden, but the source of our joy and thanksgiving.  Even now the kingdom of God is breaking in all around us, in us, and through us, and among us.   Thanks be to God.

From Death into Life

Reformation A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

“Comforter of priceless worth, send us peace and unity on earth… Lead us from death into life.” (ELW #517)

500 years ago, on October 31st, 1517 Martin Luther ushered in a period of radical reform and renewal. Historian Stephen Ozment has said, “[Luther] removed the barrier which had put priests nearer to God than lay people.  Under Luther’s reforms, priests were encouraged to marry.  Ordained ministry became defined by the tasks of preaching and teaching rather than acting as civil judge, tax collector, or steward of large estates.” Ozment continues, “Perhaps this helps explain one of the lessor known consequences of the Reformation.  By the 1540’s and 50’s the overall number of clergy in Protestant cities dropped by as much as two-thirds.”  Priesthood became less profitable.  Empty monasteries became hospitals, hospices, or schools. The faithful could serve God just as well being a good shoemaker or blacksmith as by being a priest.

Theologian Diana Butler Bass is equally sanguine. “The heart of Protestantism is the courage to challenge injustice and to give voice to those who have no voice.  Protestantism opened access for all people to experience God’s grace and God’s bounty, not only spiritually but actually. The early Protestants believed that they were not only creating a new church, but they were creating a new world, one that would resemble more fully God’s desire for humanity. The original Protestant impulse was to resist powers of worldly dominion and domination in favor of the power of God’s spirit to transform human hearts and society.  Protestants were not content with the status quo. They felt a deep discomfort within. They knew things were not right.  And they set out to change the world.” (Diana Butler-Bass, A Great Awakening, 10/28/2011)

For much of my life Reformation was observed as a kind of “Lutheran Pride Day.” Indeed, this Sunday is packed with beautiful images, deep-seeded ideas, and a rich history. I am proud that our Church affirms and embraces that it is fallen and in continual need of reform.

Yet, slowly the Holy Spirit drew us out of our cozy religious silo and into ecumenical dialogue. We have begun to change our tune. Our pride is tempered by stories of pain. The Reformation sparked wars of religion from 1524 to 1648 that consumed many lives and much treasure throughout Europe. The conflicts ended with the Peace of Westphalia recognizing three separate Christian traditions in the Holy Roman Empire: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism, otherwise known as the Reformed tradition.

Today we cannot celebrate, but we recognize this 500th anniversary after working more than forty years to heal wounds caused, for example, by the brutal persecution of Mennonites at Lutheran hands.  In 2010, ELCA Presiding Bishop and Lutheran World Federation President, Mark Hanson begged forgiveness on behalf of all Lutherans in a service of repentance. He said the church’s repentance is part of the “ministry of reconciliation” Christians are called to as “ambassadors for Christ.”  The ELCA is now in full communion with six Protestant Churches, including, The Presbyterian Church, USA; The Reformed Church in America; The United Church of Christ; The Episcopal Church; The Moravian Church; and the United Methodist Church. Bilateral talks continue with four others.

This work of reconciliation continues in a small way here today. We are blessed to welcome our neighbor Greg Krohm from the Catholic Archdiocese as part of our Reformation series. Greg’s timely topic is Healing the Wounds.

In 1965, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council under the leadership of Pope John the 23rd ushered in a new era of ecumenism and liturgical renewal across the Church.   On May 13, 1989, the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Archdiocese of Chicago entered a historic covenant, the nation’s first such accord. On October 31st, 1999, in Augsburg, Germany, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. That agreement was celebrated in congregations around the world, including right here at Immanuel Lutheran by Cardinal Francis George and Bishop Ken Olsen. Last October, we celebrated another agreement, Declaration on the Way, with 32 statements of consensus where Catholics and Lutherans find essential agreement. On Tuesday night, Metro-Chicago Bishop Wayne Miller and Cardinal Blase Cupich will renew the covenant of agreement we have enjoyed locally between our two churches for 28 years, at Holy Name Cathedral.

Throughout these 500 years, the Spirit of truth has lead the church to deeper reconciliation and renewal, from death into life. Our Reformation scriptures testify that this spirit of truth lives in each of us. I have written the truth upon your hearts. “If you continue in my word…you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. (John 8:31).  At the same time, we know the truth is often painful.  The truth is not always welcome at Thanksgiving dinner. In our politics today, telling the truth might not get you re-elected. Truth is a measuring stick. The extent to which truth is uncomfortable is a measure the dysfunction in our families, the church, our community, culture, civic, and political life.

As we confront so many challenges today, the daily news brings a belly ache and our hope begins to fade, we can draw inspiration knowing that Christians through the centuries and around the world have faced more dire circumstances. They too were under threat and confused. They lost confidence in worldly leaders. Belief in their own talent, power, and abilities to end violence and make a better future was at an end. They placed their trust in the leading power of God’s grace rather than democracy, progress, or worldly wisdom. They walked in truth just by keeping to Jesus’ way.  They had no light to show them the way but the light of Christ.

The American Catholic writer, theologian and mystic, Thomas Merton, said, “the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it.”  The human soul is like a crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it. When God’s infinitely love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of thing takes place.  And that is the life called sanctifying grace. (Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain, p. 170)

We come here to be renewed and reformed in mind and spirit.  We come here to stand again in the light of grace, to measure our lives against the standard of God’s truth, to be embraced and healed, to be filled again with God’s light through prayers, hymns, silence, confession, and by Word and sacraments, so that we and the world might be transformed from the inside out, filled with bright colors and shine once again with some small portion of the image and likeness of God our creator. That is our truth. This is our freedom.  This is the life to which we are called.  This is the source of our undying hope. This is how God who formed and reforms us by way of his cross will lead us from death into life.  Amen.

A Heart for Grace

Proper 20A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?”  Jonah’s answer, of course, is yes!  God’s little object lesson using a weed, a worm, and the wind did nothing to dispel Jonah’s bitterness. What made him so upset?

You remember the story, God said to Jonah, “Go at once to Ninevah, that great city…” (Jonah 1:2) and prophesy to it. It is a shocking mission. Ninevah (which is the modern city of Mosul in northern Iraq), was home to the enemy.  It was the capital city of Assyria, Israel’s traditional enemy and eventual conqueror.  With a population of 120,000 people, some classical accounts say that it was the largest city in the world in those days. Its pagan sinfulness was legendary, as was its cruelty:  The people of Ninevah were known to scorch their enemies alive to decorate their walls and pyramids with their skin (Jacques Ellul, The Judgment of Jonah, 1971, p. 26).

The Ninevites were bad.  Their policy of forced slavery and intermarriage were intended to annihilate the Jewish people. So when God told Jonah to go to Ninevah, he can’t believe his ears and he tries to run away.  He booked a trip to Tarshish –which is completely in the opposite direction, and about as far away from Ninevah as any person in the ancient world could get.

An interesting side note is Jonah comes up in our lectionary only twice every three years. But this week in addition to being read by Christians at worship across our city and around the world, it is also read in worship by Jews everywhere for the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur.  God offers Jonah forgiveness by which he may be purified and cleansed from all his sins before God. But notice, in typically Hebraic fashion, God doesn’t rebuke Jonah for his anger.  Instead, he playfully attempts to broaden Jonah’s horizons, so that Jonah will see the Ninevites as God sees them.

Jonah’s plan to run away from God is met with disaster.  No one is beyond the reach of God’s hand. He is thrown into the sea, gets tangled in weeds as he is about to drown, at the last moment is swallowed by a great fish and, finally, three days later, vomited out upon the sandy shore.  He doesn’t even have time to wipe himself off when he hears God repeat the command, ‘Get up, and go to Nineveh!’ (Jonah 3:2).

The only thing more preposterous than this big fish story is what happens next. When he finally arrives at Ninevah Jonah’s half-hearted preaching has amazing results.  The evil Assyrian king and all the people repent.  Even the animals repent!  They repent in the same way an observant Jewish person would –only much much better.

And rather than being overjoyed, Jonah complained bitterly: “I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).  God’s equal-opportunity mercy disgusted Jonah.

Disgust and rejection at God’s mercy could be the thread that binds our readings together. Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to an owner of a vineyard who hired day-laborers to take in the harvest.  Some worked twelve hours, some worked nine, others worked for six hours; while others only worked for three; and some for only one hour!  And yet, he paid them all the same, beginning with the last ones hired to the first. Then, to add insult to injury the landowner insisted on paying the workers in reverse order, thereby making sure that the first workers saw what the last received.  Wouldn’t it be easier to pay the all-day laborers first, sending them home before they could see what their “less deserving” counterparts received.  But no, the landowner wanted them to see what kind of vineyard he ran.  He wanted them to experience radical generosity.  He wanted them to surrender their envy and join the party.

Again scripture confronts our righteous indignation with question Is it right for you to be angry?” Are you envious because God is generous?   Whatever else it may be, the Kingdom of Heaven is not a meritocracy. God plays by different rules. Jesus’ way opens us to a life of grace and not merit, status reversal instead of status reverence, underserved generosity rather than pay for services rendered.

The parable of the generous land-owner offers a concrete example of living out Jesus’ Sermon the Mount. In the immortal words of Jimmy Buffet, it’s always five o’clock somewhere.  But rather than the start of cocktail hour, these words are a call to action and mercy for all those standing idle and at the margins at the marketplaces looking for useful work to do to support themselves and their families.

The story of Jonah teaches us that no matter our past behavior, God’s benevolence and mercy awaits us if we only repent full-heartedly and God’s grace covers all people, everywhere, no matter their religion or place of origin. The story stops short of telling us which way he turned in case Jonah’s heart is in some way our own heart.  In case in some way we also are more severe than God, begrudging the forgiveness God so freely extends.

The story of the miracle of the big fish and the miracle of Ninevah’s repentance ends just before crossing the threshold of the last and greatest miracle as the unloving barriers in our own hearts give way to the persevering compassion of God.

Do we have a right to be angry?  Are you envious because I am generous?  God leaves us to decide.

Writer Mary Gordon, in her book Reading Jesus, calls this “an impossible question, calling for an impossible honesty.”  Because yes, she writes: “I am envious because you are generous.  I am envious because my work has not been rewarded.  I am envious because someone got away with something.  Envy has eaten out my heart.”

We can appreciate Gordon’s candor, because really, if these scriptures don’t offend us at least a little bit, then we’re not paying attention.  After all, we know how the world is supposed to work.  Time is money, and fair is fair.  Equal pay for equal work is fair.  Equal pay for unequal work is NOT fair. But alas, God is not fair.  And God is not on our side but at everyone’s side.

Maybe, if God’s generosity offends us so much, it’s because we don’t have eyes to see where we actually stand in the line of God’s overflowing grace and kindness. (Debbie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, September 17, 2017)

God has given us the profound gift of unending love and mercy. Even now, little by little, and all at once, God is working to fashion a heart in all of us to match.  By God’s grace, the Holy Spirit is kindling in us a new humanity.  It’s not the old rat-race humanity.  It’s the new humanity we have through our baptism into Christ Jesus.  It is a humanity not rooted in fairness, but in grace. “O God, who gave yourself to us in Jesus Christ your Son, teach us to give ourselves each day until life’s work is done.” (ELW # 695)

The Pursuit of Perfection

Epiphany 7A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus said, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) In the operating room, surgeons have a saying, ‘perfect is the enemy of good.’ Trying to make good enough better can result in something even worse. In the classroom, educators say perfection is the enemy of learning. This may be especially true of adults. Embarrassment at the possibility of looking foolish is a barrier to building new skills with language, a musical instrument, sports, or almost anything that takes you beyond your comfort zone. In religious circles perfection is virtually a synonym for self-righteousness. No one is perfect, least of all those who think they are.

So why does Jesus lay this challenge to be perfect on us? The definition of a SMART goal is that it must be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. I’m not sure Jesus’ admonition is any of these.

The Founding Fathers agreed perfection may not be attainable but, nevertheless, they thought we are right to pursue it. The idea is enshrined in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Way back in 1787 our forefathers said striving for an ever more perfect union is an essential part of the American experiment in democracy. Without that striving, the project is at an end.

I don’t really know any perfect people. Neither does God. Jesus said, ‘no one is good but God’ (Matthew 19:17). I take it, that’s the whole point about grace. On Thursday in the side chapel we were studying Paul’s letter to the Romans with our friends from St. Gertrude Catholic Church as part of our recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We encountered a quote from bible scholar N.T. Wright that helped us unravel some meaning from the super-dense thicket of words in chapters 6 and 7. About grace Wright says, “God accepts us where we are, but God does not intend to leave us where we are. Justification is by grace alone, through faith alone. But grace is always transformative.”

In Christ, with Christ, through Christ, little by little and sometimes all at once we are being transformed through the renewal of our hearts and minds. As surely as water finds its way to the sea, so grace works tirelessly to lift us ever deeper into God’s embrace. We are carried on currents of grace in the direction of perfection.

The word Jesus used for “perfect” is the Greek word “telos.” Telos is less about where you are than in is about where you end up. The telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target. The telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches. The telos for us is to be the person and community God created us to be.

Jesus’ words are less command than promise. “God sees more in you than you do. God has plans and a purpose for you. God intends to use you to achieve something spectacular. And that something spectacular is precisely to be who you were created to be and, in so doing, to help create a different kind of world.” (David Lose, Working Preacher)

“Be perfect just as God is perfect.” There are two temptations here. The first is to not take the challenge seriously. We Lutherans tend to flee for refuge in grace too quickly instead of wrestling with these more difficult sayings of Jesus. We must face up to challenges of really changing our behavior in order to better reflect the image of God that is in us. The second temptation is to take these words too seriously. As in, believing we’ve got it in us to do all this. The result is less tragic but more deadly. Religious people who forget to be humble quickly become arrogant, judgmental and exclusive rather than generous, welcoming and open.

Martin Luther once said that the Christian life is not about arriving but always about becoming. “We are not now what we shall be, but are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.”

Jesus calls the new world being patiently, persistently, passionately made in us the kingdom of God – where violence doesn’t always breed more violence and hate doesn’t always kindle more hate. Can we do this – turn the other cheek, love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us? No, not perfectly. Some days, maybe not at all. But that’s not really the point. It’s not our job to bring in the kingdom; Jesus does that. It’s our job to live like we are already part of God’s kingdom, and to practice living like Jesus’ disciples and citizens of this new kingdom in the meantime.

Remember, Jesus’ sermon was directed to a small and powerless community, in which it was easy to give up hope and want revenge. Jesus proclaimed that God is present in the lives of the oppressor and enemy, and that although we are small our love can be transformative.

You heard Paul remind us, you are God’s temple. We strive to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace. Therefore take care not to deface the holiness and divinity in yourself or others. Let God’s Spirit shine forth in your life and support the emergence of this same Spirit in others. In order to be perfect as God is perfect, we humbly ask ourselves three critical questions: What can I do? What can you do? What can we do together?

We do not forget or even minimize the presence of sin in us or in the world. But neither do we assume God is limited by our sin. Rather, we are always being called by Jesus to be more than we ever thought we could be. Jesus’ challenge to reach for perfection is an invitation to claim our identity as God’s chosen and beloved people.

May God bless this house from roof to floor. May God bless each pilgrim seeking refuge at our door. May God fill every room with peace and grace, so that all who sojourn here may find healing in this place.” (from This House of Peace, Ralph M. Johnson, Earthsongs)

Today, In Paradise

Christ the King C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) Jesus’ gracious words of forgiveness to the criminal hanging beside him mean the door to heaven is wide open for us.

A ruthless Empire of occupation, a corrupt religious hierarchy, a blind, feckless people, faithless friends and betrayers threw their very worst at Jesus and still his heart is full and his hands are open. On the cross, Jesus teaches there is nothing you can do to make God not love you. ‘You can disappoint me,’ God says, ‘break my heart, and grieve my Spirit.’ Still, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus the king of kings and Lord of Lords reigns from his throne upon the cross, (Revelation 19:16)

Jesus is a different kind of king to be sure. All four gospels contrast the way of Jesus with the way of Judas. Judas avoids capture. Jesus is seized into custody. Judas is given free passage. Jesus is beaten and sentenced to death. Judas stands alone. Jesus stands with everyone and for the other. Judas turns a tidy profit –30 pieces of silver. Jesus gives all that he has –even to losing his life on the cross.   (Pastor David Henry)

Millions of people just voted to make America great again. Christ our king offers no path to glory that sidesteps humility, surrender, and sacrificial love.  The Lord does not grant me permission to secure my prosperity at the expense of another’s suffering.  There is no tolerance for the belief that holy ends justify debased means.  Truth telling is not optional.  In God’s kingdom favors the broken-hearted over the cynical and contemptuous. Christ’s church will not thrive when it aligns itself with brute power. Where does this leave us?  I think it leaves us with a king who makes us uncomfortable.  (Debie Thomas, A King for This Hour, Journey with Jesus, 11/13/16)

The powers that be washed their hands confident they finally put an end to this Jesus business once and for all. The gospel is foolishness in the eyes of the world. To all but one, it was obvious. The savior would fail and die. Life would return to normal: survival of the fittest; domination of the strong over the weak; the privileged lording it over the few. Yet there was one who saw it differently, “Jesus,” he said, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replied, “…today you will be with me in paradise.”

We know the cross was not the end, but the beginning. Death is inevitable—yes. We cannot avoid it. Yet Christ has shown us we need not fear it. Life isn’t about survival, but about how you live. The choices we make to incarnate love and mercy, in spite of the hatred all around us, that’s what matters. In Jesus Paul tells us, we have glimpsed the invisible hand of God operating in with and under the whole universe.

Our king was a dead man walking.  His chosen path to glory was the cross.  To all observers, the cross looked like the very opposite of good news for Jesus. Yet, if paradise was anywhere, it was with him, only and exactly where his oppressors left him to die.  Today.  With Me.  Paradise.

Jesus hung in the gap between one man’s derision and another man’s hunger. This is our king.  My prayer for this hard season in America’s history is that we will find ways to walk as Jesus walked — to spend ourselves for love of the Other—to listen, to protect, to endure, to bless and to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace. 

There are good reasons for anger, good reasons for grief.  But we are not a people bereft of hope.  We are not abandoned.  We know where to look for paradise.  We have the right king for this hour.  The truth is, the Church has always proven itself in times of peril.  Peril brings forth prophets.  It lights holy fires.  It teaches us the radical nature of love.  This is our opportunity to testify. (Debie Thomas)

John envisioned a great multitude such that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, worshipping God. (Revelation 7:9) Later today we will glimpse something like this heavenly body when the interfaith Edgewater religious community gathers here to sing, pray, and share sacred stories. Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders will reflect on the meaning of thanksgiving. Eight choirs will sing praises to God. We will share from our abundance with our hungry neighbors. Then we will linger in fellowship over a potluck potpourri of desserts. It brings a smile to my face to think this must be what God sees every week.

President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday on October 3, 1863 by issuing a proclamation. The full text will be read today by Illinois State Senator Heather Steans. Although the Civil War would continue for another 19 months, Lincoln wrote, “The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

As much as divides us today, it is worth remembering we’ve faced tougher days and prevailed. America emerged from war between the States with a renewed sense of mission and purpose to end slavery and expand the tent of freedom to include people of every race and nation. Our American forebears did so because they did not forget who they were. They did not forget to give thanks. They opened their hands and hearts to their enemies in a spirit of reconciliation and solidarity just as our savior did on the cross. Opening our ears, speaking the truth in love as we know it, defending the poor, and standing vigilant against injustice will is what we must be dedicated to now.

St. Paul told Timothy to pray for the king and all those in authority. (1 Timothy 2:1-4) Likewise we pray for the president elect and all our leaders in the name of Jesus who was executed by the authorities. We pray, we give, we love, we bless, we forgive because Christ our King enthroned upon a cross has shown us the Way of Life leads through and beyond death. Our paradise, enlightenment, nirvana, eternal life begins now and continues into eternity while we dwell together with God in Christ Jesus.

 

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.

Turning Point

Proper 8C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The longest day of the year arrived this Tuesday bearing the buoyant promise of summer. Teachers and school kids said goodbye to their classrooms, and many Chicagoans, at long last, enjoyed the advent of some truly beautiful weather. That each subsequent day is now a bit shorter, the sun pulls farther away, and the darkness grows longer, does not register with any but the most gloomy among us.

 In our gospel today, Jesus, too, has reached a decisive turning point. Now, his face is set toward Jerusalem. Jesus is walking toward the cross. The day is growing shorter. Night is coming when all hope seems lost. We are at a hinge point in our gospel, which like the spring and fall equinoxes that govern the seasons on earth is also the point upon which human lives turn either toward death or toward life. Christians from all times and place proclaim, to choose life we must follow Jesus in walking the absurd, preposterous, and foolish way of his cross.

There is real urgency in our readings today. Every moment counts. Don’t look back, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” There’s no time even to say goodbye. For every time there is a season. The time has come for Jesus and the disciples to head toward Jerusalem. In every Christian life, there is a time to enter into mission.

Today’s gospel speaks to any of us who recognize our tendency to put off decisions that have big consequences. It speaks to us who come to Jesus with ready excuses to defer our Christian walk until we are in a better place, or a better time, or when all the stars align. There comes a time to stop making excuses until “I get my stuff figured out.” Are we waiting for others to stand up for those the world rejects? Or will you seize the moment and say God’s love is for all? There comes a time to stop waiting for God’s action, get up on our own two feet, and be the body of Christ.

We heard St. Paul say, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) In his famous Treatise on Christian Liberty, Martin Luther succinctly captured the gospel message regarding our freedom as people who have found new life in Christ. He wrote, “A Christian is perfectly free, Lord of all, subject to none. [and] A Christian is perfectly dutiful, servant of all, subject to all.” If you wish to love God then you shall love your neighbor as yourself—but don’t expect all your neighbors to be happy about it.

Luke tells us the moment Jesus turned to the cross met immediate resistance. First the Samaritans, who had been cheering him on, now turn away because they despised Jerusalem, the temple culture, and do not like that he is going there.  Then his own friends, James and John, offended by this rejection are moved to react with violence. Does insult entitle one to inflict injury? Does being right or having a holy cause justify the use of force?

“Elijah had called down fire on the Samaritans; could not Jesus’ followers do the same? Misunderstanding the identity of the one they followed, the disciples mistakenly though they could achieve his ends by violence. How often have those who claimed to be following Christ repeated the mistake of these early disciples? They had yet to learn that violence begets violence, and that Jesus had come to break the cycle of violence by dying and forgiving rather than by killing and exacting vengeance.” [Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Luke- John, p. 216] Jesus was walking the way of the cross, and teaching us to do it too. What was in him was life and the abundance of life. While the disciples, to repeat a statement from Jonathan Swift in 1711: [Show] “They have just enough religion to hate, but not enough to love one another.”

Walking the way of the cross provokes immediate resistance and sabotage. On The Way we are called upon to oppose evil, but also perhaps, to sacrifice things that are good to maintain steady focus upon what is right. Only a tyrant wouldn’t allow saying goodbyes to one’s parents, or to attend to their proper burial. Yet our

Gospel indicates that neither family, nor religious, nor social, nor business obligations, or even patriotism on the approaching Fourth of July weekend, no matter how good they are or mandatory can stand in the way of following Jesus.

In how many testimonies of the Saints do we find talk about all the evil things that were left behind in order to follow Jesus? Jesus also demands that we give up the very best things in our lives to follow him.

“The radicality of Jesus’ words lies in his claim to priority over the best, not the worst, of human relationships. Jesus never said to choose him over the devil but to choose him over the family. And the remarkable thing is that those who have done so have been freed from possession and worship of family and have found the distance necessary to love them.” (Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Commentaries p. 144)

As the sun marks the turning of the seasons, so the cross of Christ declares the steadfast love of God that never ceases. God’s mercies never come to an end; but arrive new every morning. (Lamentations 3:22-23) The world is cold and lonely and mean. There is so much suffering all around us. Yet the good news of Jesus Christ is we may all find the shelter we so desperately need as we become a living sanctuary of hope and grace to one another by walking the way of the cross. That is why this mission is so urgent. That is why the time for action must be now. Turn and follow me, Jesus says, so the blind may see, to let the prisoners go free, to kiss the lepers clean, and let God’s love be revealed in you.

Peace Be With You

Easter 6C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

The words we read today are among the last spoken by Jesus to the disciples. He is preparing them to carry on without him. Life is about to radically change for the disciples—again. His death would be a shattering experience, one that would shake the foundations of their lives. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” Jesus said. (John14:27a)

They learn all too quickly the peace Jesus gives will not bring an end to conflict, or tragedy, or loss, or finitude, or mortality. Jesus was not giving the Disciples peace and quiet, or a little vacation, or much needed rest and relaxation. No. Instead, they discover the peace Jesus gives can come even amid hardship, struggle, conflict, and disruption.

Let’s remember what was happening that night. Jesus’ gift of peace comes as Judas is preparing to betray him, hours before his enemies arrive to take him to be executed. And still, even in that moment, Jesus not only senses peace, but also gives peace to others. (David Lose) Paul writes to the Philippians, “…the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)

This is not peace as the world gives, but only as God can give it. This is peace for when our dreams don’t come true, when the plans we set for ourselves are changed, when doors are slammed in our face, and for when new doors are opened.

This peace, this unbreakable shalom, connotes contentment, fulfillment, and a profound wellbeing from basking in God’s pleasure. This peace comes from being held tightly to God’s bosom and joined there with the One True Undying Life we share in Christ Jesus. Peace.

Jesus’ explanation makes him sound a bit like Master Yoda in Star Wars.  “If you love me, you will keep my word, and my father will love you, and to you we will come and a home with you we will make.” (John 14:23)

The peace of Christ is not the absence of conflict, but the assurance that life’s storm do not have power to undo us. And there’s another thing. This peace of Christ comes with the presence and counsel of the Advocate to help propel the disciples and the new church in the right direction.

The famous 19th Century English philosopher and political economist, John Stuart Mill reportedly once lamented his father’s decision to exclude any religious instruction from his early education. It was a waste of time, his father had said. Yet Mill declared he felt his soul was starved. Without the guidance of a personal God known through prayer and faith, he likened himself to a “well appointed ship, but with no sail.”

Without a means of locomotion no ship can safely put out to sea. Yet, many attempt to navigate life with nothing to propel them. They are drawn by the siren song of popular culture. In the Tragedies of ancient Greece, the siren would begin to sing and everybody in the audience knew the entire cast of characters was doomed.

‘My peace be with you. A home in you we will make.’ Jesus said. Paul set sail from Troas and planted a new church in Phillipi. Lydia listens from beside the river and responds to the gospel. John envisions a tree of life with leaves to heal the nations in the city of God, the New Jerusalem.

“Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed. (I Cor. 15:51) By blessing the disciples with peace, Jesus offered them his life. Joined together by Christ in this way, we find shelter in one another. Unlike the lonely ship without a sail John Stuart Mill described himself to be, we in the church are united in Christ like the great wooden beams Noah lashed together to build the Ark. We lift one another above the waves. We have become living members of the body of Christ, belonging to one another and to God.

The peace of Christ now has become our dwelling place. God’s peace encircles us wherever we go. God’s indwelling peace widens from the inmost depths of our soul to encompass all who believe with God’s shalom. It is a home-making peace intended to comfort the grieving, to warm the hearts of those who are afraid, to be a light in the darkness, and for the healing of the nations.

We do not perish, but with the gift of the Advocate avoid hidden dangers, while strengthening communities, welcoming strangers, lifting up the poor, embracing the marginalized, joining the long struggle for justice, and dispensing the mercy and forgiveness of God that is the only real antidote to fear, shame, and hate—the true beginning of lasting peace between peoples and nations.

This is why we are here. This is why we do what we do. Here at Immanuel our mission is to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace like the saints of old. We do this by welcoming each other to the Lord’s Table on Sunday and by welcoming children and families throughout the week who need a place to play, to talk, to connect, to share resources, or get some help with their homework. We are doing this in the way we are all working together after the fire to put this place back together and preparing to open new program space to the community in the ministry center this fall.

Joined to one another in Christ, we hope to bring peace as Jesus did in the midst of hardship, struggle, conflict, and disruption. Gathered at the Lord’s Table we have prayed each week throughout the Easter season, “Grant us such life, the life of the Father to the Son, the life of the Spirit of our risen Savior, life in you now and forever.” We pray for God to grant us peace, not as the world gives, but only as God can give it, so we may become a sign of peace among our neighbors, partners and friends.

Let us prepare once again for Jesus to abide in us by welcoming his gift of peace (14:27). Let us respond again to his presence with faith in the absence of sight (14:18). Let us receive again new life in Christ Jesus, so God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit will come to us now, and a home in us they will make. May the peace of the risen Christ be with you always.

Awakened By Dreams and Visions

Easter 5C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Our scriptures are full of people hearing voices. People dreaming dreams. People we could easily dismiss with a wave of the hand and a roll of the eyes. People just brave enough, or fed up enough, or foolish enough to cast reality aside and give themselves to trying something better. People who have discovered the world as it is turns on an axis of mystery and grace. People who know that hearing voices and dreaming dreams can lead to an awakening for us all. They don’t hang up the call. They don’t lose the message. They accept the invitation, the opportunity, the challenge, the sacrifice, the grace, the glory.

Mary acts on the advice of an angel. Joseph cleaves to a startling choice he made while he was asleep. Peter rises from a trance to proclaim a vision for a new humanity in Christ. Afterword, Christianity becomes a world religion rather than another obscure brand of Judaism. John “saw a new heaven and a new earth” including all the diverse tribes and nations of earth living together in harmony with God in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21)

Jesus gives the disciples a new commandment, a new mandate, a new standard by which to measure the effectiveness of their progress toward this impossibly grand goal. One month ago, to the day, on Maundy Thursday, on the night he was betrayed, while he shared the Last Supper, Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

They will know we are Christians by our love if we’re crazy, or brave, or fed up enough with the way things are to live in such a way among ourselves that the dream becomes a reality. In the mid-1980’s Alan Paton movingly illustrated an example of what can happen when we begin to live this way in his novel, Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful.

Paton tells the true story of a white South African judge named Jan Christian Oliver in the days of Apartheid. One day, a black pastor friend invited him to attend his church on Maundy Thursday. Given the facts of Apartheid, the judge knew he would be risking his career if he went, but he accepted the invitation anyway. Upon arrival, he learned that it was to be a foot washing service and the judge was urged to participate.

The whole congregation was involved in washing one another’s feet. As chance would have it, the judge was called forward to wash the feet of a woman named Martha Fortuin, who, as it happened, he recognized. She had worked in his own home as a servant for thirty years. Kneeling at her feet, he was struck by how weary they looked from so many years of serving him. Greatly moved, he held her feet with gentle hands and kissed them. Martha began to weep, as did many others in attendance. The newspapers got word of it. Oliver lost his job. But perhaps, he found his soul. He became a child of a new humanity. He discovered a profound sense of solidarity with long lost sister who for years, had served in his midst. Now everything would be different, because it had to be different.

Let’s return for just a moment to Peter’s trance in the book of Acts (11:1-18). This is a staggering story on which the future of the whole church pivots. Peter’s vision on a rooftop in Joppa opened the early Jesus movement to people of every tribe, race, gender, and nation. I wonder, how many of us could play host to such a radical idea without dismissing it outright, let alone use that vision to shape our action and behavior for how we actually live in community?

Peter’s story features a trance, the Holy Spirit, strangers who show up outside the gate were he was staying, and an angel. Any of one of these factors would be reason enough to make the whole idea unbelievable.   Yet the first thing Peter and the early Christians teach us about listening to God is that it must begin with a certain readiness, or openness to God’s Word or it simply evaporates. Peter and the early Christian community proved willing to explore the promptings of their hearts and dreams, to weigh and test them together through prayerful dialogue. In this way they dusted their dreams for God’s fingerprints through examination involving the whole community in the re-examination of scripture. They weren’t afraid to wake up and embrace the consequences of what they found, even when it meant profound changes in the way they were living.

Five years ago, Michelle Alexander wrote The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Less than two years ago Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson Missouri. Once again, the Holy Spirit is at work to awaken us to a new awareness of how racial hatred has taken hold again to poison our society. Like Peter, we have all begun to glimpse the truth. Because all lives matter, we must stand up now for Black and brown lives because they are being singled out and under threat. Many people don’t like to hear the alarm clock ring. It’s time to wake up. Wake up to our own complicity. Black lives matter is not about incriminating the police—that’s too simple. The police have merely done the dirty work of reinforcing white privilege.

The fact is, all this makes me excited and nervous. It makes me nervous as Immanuel sets out this year to welcome Latino friends and neighbors to be part of our congregation. I am excited because Latino outreach has been a persistent hunch, a recurring dream, we heard voiced by many of you at various times and places while we talked together in recent years about Immanuel’s goals and objectives in the Forward in Faith process. It led to the renewal of Immanuel’s mission, vision and values centered in striving to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace. It is a vision rooted in the gospel no less radical and bold than the dream of inclusive community that distinguished the early church. Of all the things I’ve worked on, it feels like the wind of the Holy Spirit is blowing at our back—moving us down this path. There is real urgency and excitement about this mission.

It makes me nervous when we look and see how few examples for inclusive community there are throughout history. Martin Luther King Jr., once aptly described worship in the church as the most segregated hour in America. I’m nervous because at times, we seem to have trouble sharing our building with 75 beautiful smiling children and their families who are part of the Coop school, or the hundreds of families who are part of our playgroups each week. Are we really ready for this?

Probably not. But we move ahead anyway, feeling both nervous and excited, because it’s what we do. It’s what people of faith always do—what they have always done. Perhaps for the same reason that Peter didn’t just go back to back to sleep, ignore the people standing outside his door, or didn’t just shut up and stop talking about it all once he got back home. Because we are people who hear voices and dream dreams that lead to awakening and transformation. We follow the Holy Spirit just a little closer to on the way to living the life God intended as children of a new humanity, citizens of the New Jerusalem, residents of a new heaven and a new earth, one people with God in harmony and solidarity with all the people of God. And all the people say—amen!

%d bloggers like this: