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Posts from the ‘Forward in Faith’ Category

Through the Eye of a Needle

Proper 23B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No One is a Nobody

Proper 22B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Together On The Way

Proper 19B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Whole Story

Proper 8B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toppling Stones

Easter Sunday B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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