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Posts from the ‘Forward in Faith’ Category

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!

Alive Together in Christ

Epiphany 3C-12

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


We read some extraordinary news in our bible today. Let’s do a quick review.

First, that among you God has appointed apostles, prophets, teachers and leaders. God gives the ability to perform deeds of power, to make gifts of healing, to render forms of assistance, and various kinds of tongues. None of us choose which gift to receive. But all are blessed. Each of you is equipped for specific work for the greater good. (I Corinthians 12:28- 30)

Second, although we are blessed with unique gifts God does not want us to be like some kind of separate and random jumble of tools rattling around inside God’s toolbox. Instead God intends for us all to fit together. In making disciples God was and is making a body for Christ, Paul said. Christ didn’t have a regular body any more so God began making him one out of ordinary people like you and me. God began using other people’s hands to be Christ’s hands and other people’s feet to be Christ’s feet. When there’s some place where Christ is needed in a hurry, and needed real bad, God puts the finger on some maybe-not-all-that-innocent bystanders like you and me and gets us to go and be Christ in that place for lack of anybody better. (From Frederick Buechner, Weekly Sermon Illustration)

God prepares workers for the vineyard and has sends us out. You are my disciples, Jesus says. You are anointed for service. Apostles, prophets, teachers, leaders, helpers, healers, heroes and communicators are joined in wonder, mystery, and love together in the undying life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, forever.

Just in case you and I aren’t sure what we’re supposed to do, today Jesus opened the scroll to words from the Prophet Isaiah to declare his mission statement, which by our baptism into Christ, now is our own. Jesus delivered his inaugural address in his hometown synagogue about his work among us for our salvation. He was anointed by the Spirit, he said, to bring good news to the poor, release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the acceptable year of God, the year of Jubilee. (Luke 4:18)

What is striking, if you listen closely, is that this mission is not good news for everybody. The good news for everybody is that our lives are embraced and taken up into the undying life of God forever. Yet our mission is good news only for those willing to admit what is hard in their lives, what is lacking, what has been most difficult. Our mission is not good news for the wealthy, the comfortable, or the content, but rather it is good news for the poor.

The people of Jesus’ hometown quickly understood this. Today we read that all spoke well of him. But by next week, when we read the conclusion of this story from Luke, they will move as one mob ready to throw Jesus over a cliff. The question today is how will we respond? Perhaps the most amazing quality of God’s grace is no matter how many times we throw Jesus out and over the cliff, no matter how often we turn a cold shoulder or try to ignore this gospel, this mission, this call—God will come knocking again. Everyday, often, many times each day God invites and equips us to follow in the footsteps of Christ. The Holy Spirit quietly entreats, ‘How about now?’ Can you be the good news of Jesus Christ? (From David Lose)

Today, Jesus says, join me in proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed. Today, and not some other day, God comes in Christ Jesus to release us from our burdens so we might begin again to manifest the extraordinary grace of God in our ordinary lives and relationships.   As St. Paul puts it, today and not some other day you shall at last become human beings and attain to mature adulthood. God is going to keep after us until we all attain “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13). Until you can all be Christs to each other, Christs to God. All of you. Today we read God’s plan is just as easy, and just as hard, as that. (Frederick Buechner)

Today, or sometime in the coming weeks, I invite you to look to the east side of the sanctuary, read something from Immanuel’s mission, vision, or values statements, and let it really sink in. Let your eyes trace over the pattern of vine and branches even as the Spirit works to graft us into the true vine of Christ; let yourself become a member of Christ’s body; be built into a temple not made with hands; as we strive together to become a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

The call is only becoming more urgent. On Friday, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois said it must cut more than 750 jobs and close more than 30 programs, representing 43 percent of its work force, because of the state budget impasse. It has been seventh months and the State of Illinois still has not passed a budget. As a result, some 4,700 people will no longer receive services, including many people here in Edgewater. (Crain’s Chicago Business)

Here in Word and Sacrament, within the walls of this sanctuary we are formed and transformed by grace to be a living sanctuary for families and young children, for kids doing homework, or navigating from high school to college, or for youth looking for a safe spiritual home to belong. In 2016, we look for these ministries to grow through investment in a new multipurpose Ministry Center, and by partnering in mission with Hispanic friends and neighbors.

Christ Jesus calls us to make use of our differences. God calls us to a unity that’s not bland uniformity, and to a diversity without division. God says, ‘I need you. And you need me.’ “The eye cannot say to the hands, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you.'”  Instead, we have become and are yet becoming the Body of Christ – God’s hands delivering the promise of good news to all who come in need.

Come to the table so that my life may be strengthened in you. Come, eat, drink to find courage, to be refreshed, to know that you belong to me and I to you. We are alive together in Christ, forever. Amen.

Toppling Our Beloved Idols

Proper 5B-15

Immanuel, Chicago

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” Was there nothing too sacred for Jesus to challenge?

We’re just three chapters into this gospel. Jesus managed to alienate anyone that matters in a real big hurry. He’s already traveled from home, to the wilderness, to Galilee, to the sea, to Capernaum, to Simon’s house, to a deserted place, and back out to other towns of Galilee. Then Jesus went back to Capernaum, and to home, and then to the sea, and to Levi’s house, though the grain fields, to the synagogue, then back to the sea, and into a boat, before heading up the mountain where he chose the twelve apostles and then, finally, he goes home again.

During this short time he has broken the Sabbath laws, eaten with sinners, healed people and forgiven sins by his own authority. He offered himself as an image of God. He interpreted the scriptures in new and challenging ways. He encouraged people to forsake traditional ways of thinking about God and embrace their own experiences as better wisdom.

The people were excited, but reports about Jesus have not been good. So, even as Jesus continued to heal and to draw crowds and disciples, he has to skirt around in the border regions and escape to the mountains (3.1-19). The Pharisees and the Herodians are already conspiring how they can destroy him (Mark 3:7).

Jesus’ mother, brothers and sisters knew they had better do something before things got out of hand. In Jesus’ time, the extended family meant everything. It was how people knew who they were. Family was how everything was organized. Economic, religious, educational, and social networks required a password—that was your family name. Loss of connection to the family meant you could be denied access to these vital networks, including your connection to the land itself. (Malina and Rohrbaugh Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels)

Jesus was making a mess of everything. His gospel shook the very foundations of religious, political, economic, cultural and social life. Now in 2015 it’s happening all over again.

This Jesus and his gospel of baptismal water thicker than blood is messing things up for the church in our own day. If religion makes you feel more important than other people, knock it down. If your church spends more energy being a landlord than a servant of the Lord, its going the wrong way. If church makes you passionate about how communion is served, how long worship lasts, who left a mess in the kitchen, more than the destruction of the planet—then something has gone terribly wrong with the church. Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus is not an apologist for free-market capitalism. He is not a chaplain for the Jesus branch of the Jerusalem chamber of commerce. (Robin Meyers, The Underground Church, p. 6) We cannot be Jesus’ disciple with our creeds but not our deeds. Human beings are not commodities. People are not “human resources”. In the face of desperate need, abandoned children, and violence as a way of life, why are we spending so much time and energy debating how to save ourselves?

Who are my mother, my brothers and my sisters? Jesus’ simple, clarifying and transformative question puts the proper focus on people—right here, right now. This gospel would lead us “to oppose anything in the dominant culture that brings death and indignity to any member of the human family, or to creation itself.” (Robin Meyers, Spiritual Defiance, p. 7)

Let whatever does not help us focus on the lives of real people or gets in the way of that mission of compassion, forgiveness and transformation be toppled. Yes, if we take this gospel of Jesus Christ seriously, it will mess up everything. That’s the bad news –and also—it is the good news. It’s always been this way.

Preeminent scholar of religion, Phyllis Tickle thinks she sees a pattern that recurs every five hundred years or so, leading to renewal and rededication in church. The church holds a giant rummage sale. Rethinking everything, it decides by light of the gospel what must go and what will stay; what is essential and what is replaceable. Five centuries after the Protestant Reformation, we find ourselves passing through another time like this. The whole church is sorting through its theological cupboards and asking painful and disorienting questions about what to keep. Throughout this process, Jesus’ revolutionary and iconoclastic question reigns supreme: ‘Who are my mother, my brothers, my sisters?’

As this congregation reflected on how we shall go Forward in Faith to live our mission, vision, and values –among the goals we articulated was to open our hands and hearts even wider to children and families of our neighborhood through expansion of Monday night Tutoring and Tuesday IYO. For decades, these ministries have been among the ways Immanuel joined Jesus’ mission to love our mothers, brothers and sisters—not is some abstract way, but face to face, person to person. We now have a dream to explore ways grow these ministries (among others). [We will celebrate our leaders and volunteers of these ministries as they close out another year in worship today.]

I’ve read that in the great basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, where Francis is buried, there is a small bronze statue of Francis honoring the Holy Spirit. St. Francis’ posture here is very unusual. Instead of arms uplifted and looking toward the sky, Francis has his hands folded and is looking down into the earth.

The Holy Spirit and gospel of Christ would lead us into the world not out of it. Jesus emptied himself and became flesh (see Philippians 2). It was not a movement into the heavens but into the earth. Francis recognized the full and final implications of the incarnation.

Lutheran theology is incarnational. This means the dominant mode of God’s work is movement into the earth. God is embodied, enfleshed, and fully realized here and now, in human community, in the lowly, the marginalized and the poor—in, with and under all things, in the sacraments (bread, wine, water). All of these point into the world and speak to us of God. Baptismal water is thicker than blood. The light of Christ’s gospel enables us to see beyond this to an even greater truth.

If God became flesh and entered this world in Jesus, then the hiding place of God is this world, in the material, in the animals, in the elements, in the physical. These are the hiding places–and the revelation places–of God! (Richard Rohr) Brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers—the human family is God’s family. The human family is our own family. Let everything opposed be toppled.