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Posts from the ‘God’s Family’ Category

Grace Beyond Explanation

Lent 5C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

She took a pound of costly perfume, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair (John 12:3). This sensual and surprising story ushers us into the room where it happened among awkward feeling guests.  Judas and Mary are both eye-witnesses to Jesus and the gospel. Yet they have come to very different, even opposite, conclusions about its meaning.

Our gospel offers a tale of two disciples.  What they see is more important for what it reveals about what’s in their hearts, than for what it says about the event itself. You’ll notice this Sunday, we have stepped out from the gospel of Luke, who has been our companion and guide this liturgical year, and into the gospel of John.  Two meals display prodigal and extravagant generosity mark the beginning and end of what scholars call the Book of Signs in John’s gospel (chaps. 2–12).  The wedding at Cana (2:1-22) and this dinner party in Bethany (12:1-8) involving Mary.  Each occasion focuses our attention on the abundance of God’s love and the human responses to it. The critical question for faith is: What do you see?

To the analytical observer, extravagance without price, indulgence without upside, hospitality without reason, is called foolish and wasteful.  But to one who considers these events through the eyes of faith sees evidence of the kingdom of God.  Our scripture implies it is better to see with the eyes of faith.

The difference between the gospel and snake oil; between a con and authentic religion is that authentic religion ushers us into communion with the unconditional love of God. Grace is a gift without expectation of return.  True mercy is forgiveness without condition for forgiveness.  As the 13thcentury mystics said, “It is without the why.”   We in the Church pervert this gospel whenever we treat grace as if it were a product to be provided only by priests, sacraments, or the ecclesial machinery of our chosen faith tradition.

Those with eyes of faith come to regard all this talk of exclusion as mere rubbish.  As St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi in our second reading, “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ…because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”(Philippians 3:7-8a)  Authentic religion invites all people to find their footing upon sacred ground and to build community upon the firm foundation of prodigal compassion, abundant grace, and radical hospitality that is without price, or explanation, or reward.

Mary, whom we read about in John’s gospel today, is among the first flowers to break free from the earth in Jesus’ garden.  She is among the first of Jesus’ true disciples, a fragrant inspiration to us and to people of faith throughout the centuries.

Our dinner party takes place after Jesus had raised Lazarus, Mary’s brother, from the grave.  After raising Lazarus, Jesus could no longer walk freely in public but instead had gone north to a little town called Ephraim where he stayed with the disciples.  At that time, Jerusalem was swollen with Passover pilgrims a-buzz with talk about Jesus. They were looking for Jesus and saying to one another as they stood in the Temple, “Surely he will not come here to the festival, will he?”  The Chief of Priests gave orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let him know so that they might arrest him (John 11:56, 57).

Just six days before the Passover, Jesus returned to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha –just a couple of miles outside of Jerusalem.  Jesus was a marked man and he knew it.  Yet, instead of withdrawing –instead of retreating further north—say to Damascus, or Tyre where he and the disciples might have profited from their notoriety—Jesus returned to the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.  They prepared for him a great dinner party where Mary washed Jesus’ feet with her hair and anointed him with costly, fragrant perfume. It was extravagant.  It was sensual. It was an act of utter devotion.  It was in public.  It was beautiful.  It was something people never forgot.

Judas asked, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:5).  Indeed, the oil Mary used was very expensive.  300 denarii were roughly equivalent to a year’s salary. But here, Jesus gives us a new way to measure the value of how we invest our time and resources.  We take their true measure not in their utility for ourselves, but by their legacy of grace.  We measure our actions according to whether they inspire others to acts of faith, hope, and love.  Things worth doing linger in hearts and minds like blossoms of an apple tree or a fragrant perfume.

Mary’s gift is extravagant.  Judas is merely greedy.  Mary illustrates faith with loving actions.  Judas talks piously of ‘giving to the poor,’ but we know he is not sincere. Both Mary and Judas ‘prepare’ Jesus for burial –she by anointing him; he by betraying him.

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new (2 Cor. 8:17). Out of the death of the old the new arises. Friends in Christ, our walk with Jesus will change us.  Life with Jesus will open us to new behaviors.  We do not act just like we used to.  You might not even recognize yourself anymore. Our Lenten journey with Jesus will open us to new dreams.  We shall become more like Mary and less like Judas.

Through the eyes of faith, we see the world differently. We see history is not just stuff that happens by accident. “We are the products of the history our ancestors chose –if we’re white. If we are black, we are products of a history our ancestors most likely did not choose.” Yet here we are all together, the products of that set of choices. And we have to understand that in order to escape from it.” (Kevin Gannon, the 13th)

Authentic religion reveals itself in what is true for all people, in all times, and places: Love of the stranger, care of a friend, compassion for those who are suffering. It is found in those simple things that offer their own reward and open hearts and minds. We find God waiting for us in these things that offer healing and give us joy and make life worth living. This is how we shed our fear and leave behind all the things that divide and separate us today. This is how we become one human family again.  Follow Mary. She knows the way.

The Prodigal God

Lent 4C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down the Mountain and to the Cross

Transfiguration C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

We are standing on the threshold of Lent. We began Epiphany eight weeks ago following the magi to the manger.  On Wednesday, we begin a 40-day Lenten journey with Jesus’ to the cross ending on Maundy Thursday.

Standing in this open doorway, we are called to consider trying something new, or to give up something we like, to aid the Holy Spirit’s work in us this Lent.  Lent is an invitation to hush our routines and to listen for the rhythms of grace.  (You have three more days to think about it.)

In today’s gospel we read, Jesus got up early. He invited Peter, James, and John, to go on a walk. It was a day like any other. It was a day just like today. Yet, what transpired sounds like a scene from a Hollywood movie.  Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a high mountain, and while he was there his face changed, his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two heavenly figures, Moses and Elijah, stand there talking. They are discussing Jesus’ departure from Jerusalem when the disciples are overshadowed by a dense terrifying cloud from which they hear a heavenly voice saying, “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9: 28-30; 34-35)

Perhaps Peter speaks for all of us when he says, ‘It is good, Lord, to be here.’  After all, this transfiguration moment seems like the perfect ending to Jesus’ story. Somehow, we imagine that growing in faith is a journey upwards –striving toward the mountaintop of glory, getting past the pearly gates, gaining entry into the kingdom of heaven, and shooting the breeze with Moses, Elijah, and all the other saints in light.  Yet, God has other plans.

Our story does not end on the mountain of transfiguration.  This magnificent scene is not the end but the beginning.  Faith that follows Jesus leads down the mountain.  It leads into the world. It steers us closer to those who are suffering.  The God we worship is immanent and transcendent—incarnate and mysterious.  For reasons that only love can explain, though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped but came down, was born of human flesh, and lived among us, full of grace and truth. (Philippians 2:6 & John 1:14).

Incarnation is the ultimate journey downward. We finally see who Christ is not on the mountain, but decisively revealed at Golgotha on the cross.  The cross is where we learn that nothing, not even our most evil deeds, can break the bond with the indwelling and life-giving grace of God.  Not even death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  God has chosen what we would not.  Thanks be to God.

This story is ongoing.  It didn’t end all those years ago but continued. It is the never-ending story of God’s miraculous embrace which now includes our poor lives and the world around us.  In the arms of God, we undergo our own transfiguration, as we journey downward with God and walk the way of Jesus’ cross.  See, the veil between us and God is being lifted.  St. Paul writes, ‘we are being transformed by the image of God we all carry within us, from one degree of glory to another by faith. (1 Corinthians 3:18).  Our journey with Jesus, is an unveiling of the gospel, so that what is inmost and truest about who we are, may to some degree become manifest in us—not just upon our faces or in our eyes, but also so that it might be realized in our family, community, society and the world in which we live.

God has chosen what we would not.  This is the news that is too good to be true: God has sought us and rescued us, not despite the world, but for the sake of the world.  The prayer our Lord taught us is now our mission –that God’s name be made holy and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Of course, all this can be and often is, too much for us.  The glare of God’s love burns too brightly.  It asks too much so that we, like the children of Israel standing before the radiant face of Moses, want to veil the gospel.  We become like Pinocchio lamenting that “He’s got no strings!” Over time, whether it is our culture, our religion, or simply we ourselves give in to the temptation to shroud what God has unveiled.  We make choices God would not.

I’m embarrassed to think now how I might have thought a few years ago for examples of this veiling in third-world countries or unfamiliar situations that mostly involved other people—not us.  If there is a silver lining to what we are experiencing today, it is that we know we are personally connected and unavoidably involved in this willful avoidance of the truth.

What a week it has been.  (I feel like I say that to myself every week.)  We could make a list.  One you may not have noticed that deeply grieves many of us was the decision by our Methodist brothers and sisters to renew their centuries-old discrimination of LGBTQI people. We in the ELCA have been full communion partners with the United Methodist Church for ten years.  We stand together in affirming the sacred worth of all God’s children of every orientation, gender identity, and/or biological make-up.

Following the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, we quite obviously also extend this affirmation of human dignity and sacred worth to people of color.  I don’t think there’s a person in this room who would deny that. But what is also manifestly obvious is that just saying it won’t make it true.  The vestiges of the old racial animus remain intact and operating in our legal system, our educational system, our banking system, our political system, in our cultural institutions, and in our church.  So-called ‘color blindness’ has become a convenient way for us to hide what we don’t wish to see.  Systematic racism cannot be wished away but must be dismantled.

This Lent I invite you to journey down the mountain with Jesus and gaze deeply into the face of human sorrows reflecting together on the plague of systematic racism.  You can join the conversation by signing up for one of the book discussion groups or attending one of the sessions planned at the forum.  You can make it a focus in your prayer and fasting, and/or your giving.  Let us do this to renew our church and to make it more welcoming as Jesus would have us do.

Debby Irving tells the story of her own journey in her book Waking Up White: Finding our Place in the Story of Race.  Born into a wealthy, privileged white family of New Englanders that pridefully traces its roots all the way back to the Mayflower, Irving encourages us to begin our own journey by examining whiteness, not class, as a key to understanding racism.  She humbly asserts that, if she can do it, anybody can.

This Lent let us choose what God has chosen. As living members of the body of Christ let us all become part of Christ’s glory so we, with unveiled faces, reflect the glory of the Lord Jesus, as we are being transformed into his likeness, walking with confidence following after him down the mountain bearing the light of Christ into a dark and weary world.  Amen.

Fish Out of Water

Epiphany 5C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A More Excellent Way

Epiphany 4C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

They were filled with rage and drove him out of town so that they might hurl him off the cliff (Luke 4:28-29).

What made the hometown hero a hated villain? What made old friends and family switch from adulation to hate in the span of a few minutes or hours?  Within the space of seven verses, their curiosity turned to contempt. Delight gave way to violence.  How does Jesus go from being the admired insider to the ultimate outsider?

Everything goes wrong when Jesus says, “I am not yours. I don’t belong to you. I am not yours to claim or contain. I don’t play for your team.

Jesus does this by recounting God’s long history of prioritizing the outsider, the foreigner, the stranger, even our enemies.  The Spirit of God plays among edge-people called to bear witness in edge-places, and occasionally, in the temple. Elijah was sent to care for the widow at Zarephath, Jesus reminds them. He wasn’t sent to the widows of Israel. Elisha was instructed to heal Naaman the Syrian, not the numerous lepers in Israel. In other words, God has always been in the business of working on the margins. Of crossing borders. Of doing new and exciting things in remote and unlikely places. Far from home. Far from the familiar and the comfortable. Far from the centers of power and piety. (Debie Thomas)

We good Lutherans ask, ‘what does this mean? Is it possible that if the Jesus we worship never offends us, it’s not really Jesus we worship?  When was the last time Jesus made you that angry—let alone filled you with rage?

We, the Church, are the modern-day equivalent of Jesus’s ancient townspeople. We’re the ones who think we know Jesus best. We’re the ones most in danger of domesticating him. We’re the ones most likely to miss him when he shows up in faces we don’t recognize or revere. What will it take to follow him into new and uncomfortable territory? To see him where we least desire to look? How can we be sure our religion gives life? Our worship makes disciples?

The answer? You all know the answer. The answer, of course, is love.  Our second reading today from, 1 Corinthians 13, is Paul’s great anthem to love. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” ( verse 1)  Love is the yardstick to measure the true depth of our faith.  Love is the plumb bob that instantly reveals when our religion is out of whack.  Love is the color swatch from the paint store.  Whatever has the tinge of love in it bears truth and the gospel. If your religion doesn’t match its time to change your heart and renew your mind.  Following the path of love will show us a more excellent way.

Recently, a colleague of mine, another ELCA pastor, recalled the story of being judged in her own very religious family—for years.  They would not recognize her ordination. In fact, they were pretty sure she was going to hell despite the fact she has given her life to serving the Church.  Through teenage years and into young adulthood, their religious differences made holidays and family events increasingly tense. Arguments, especially with her mother, she said, became sharp, heated, and hurtful. Visiting home was painful and infrequent.  Then something changed thanks be to God.  Without telling her, her mom began counseling with her pastor.  At some point, he had said, ‘So it looks like you have a choice. You can be right, or you can have your daughter.”  She chose rightly.  She chose her daughter. My friend reports that it’s still not always easy, but she rejoices that her family is being restored. ‘Love is patient; love is kind; love does not insist on its own way, but rejoices in the truth.’ (1 Corinthians 13:4-8) Personally, I pray for the day saying that someone is ‘very religious’ means they are wise, patient, listening, compassionate rather than judging or intolerant.

Love was in the news this past week. The stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt got into a war of words with Michael Beatty a Twitter troll who had targeted him online with slurs, lies, and threats of violence for Oswalt’s criticism of President Donald Trump. It was all pretty typical and dreadful stuff.  Then, something changed thanks be to God.  Oswalt discovered Beatty struggled with poor health.  So he invited followers to contribute to a GoFundMe page to for Beatty and kicked things off with a $2,000 donation of his own. Beatty’s original fundraising goal was $5,000, but thanks to Oswalt, he’s now topped more than $47,000 in donations.

Beatty, a Vietnam vet, spent eight days in a coma in December due to complications from diabetes and had only raised about $600 toward his expenses before Oswalt stepped in. “I would never have [imagined this] based on what I tweeted to him,” Beatty said in an interview with the Washington Post. “If anything, I expected a scathing retort or just to be ignored, but that’s not what happened.”  Beatty said he is reevaluating friendships and productive dialogue regardless of political affiliation. ‘Oswalt is a good man and I hope that I can meet him one day to cement a relationship.’‘Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing.’ If our politics are not driven by love, it’s time to change our politics.

Jesus’ enraging message in Nazareth invites us to consider that God loves enemies because God has loved us. We friends of Jesus come to realize that we have behaved as enemies and are in need of the same grace as those we demonize. Again, love is the light that illumines this path of self-discovery, repentance, and renewal.

One more love story. In the 1970s, before he was assassinated, Harvey Milk, the mayor of San Francisco appealed to closeted gays to come out to their families, friends, and co-workers so the straight world might stop demonizing an abstract idea. So many people braved their fears and just said, “This is who I am,” because of the prescience of Harvey Milk’s vision, it became harder and harder to pretend that gay people are completely apart from “us.”

Beware when society perpetuates a dualistic worldview of who is like us and who isn’t. Not only does seeing the world in these terms keep us at arm’s length from other people, and it places our own sense of who we are in a box. Harvey Milk’s vision and the courage of countless queer people changed our families, our country, and our church—all through the power of love.

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now, we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:11-13)

Alive Together in Christ

Epiphany 3C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Nazareth was a small town struggling through lean times.  So, people there were eager to hear about Jesus’ success at Capernaum.  For his homecoming, they would have packed the synagogue. ‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.’ (Luke 4:22a) “Is not this Joseph’s son? (Luke 4:22b), they proudly ask one another.

In the synagogue of Nazareth, among friends and kinsfolk, Jesus announced his mission statement.  “I have come to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of jubilee” (Luke 4:18-19).  Jubilee came once every 50 years.  It was a tradition in ancient Israel when debts were forgiven, and the land reverted to its original owner.

Modern Christians are startled to realize Jesus’ mission statement doesn’t say anything about getting to heaven.  These are revolutionary words for oppressed people. They are words of a liberator.  These words focus on today, and not some future day. Today, God comes to unlock, release, heal and proclaim. Today, the kingdom of God is at hand and within reach (Mark 1:15). Jesus’ mission reveals he is focused on the here and now—not the great bye-and-bye.

Ancient listeners were startled too, but for different reasons.  Jesus’ kinsfolk heard to be part of his inner circle included standing with people on the outside of life, the wrong side of the tracks, the other side of the border (Luke 4:21-30). Jesus challenged them to switch sides.  Did they stand for people of Nazareth, or with people in need, including even their enemies?

Their hostility in reply would seem predictable (more about that next Sunday when we read the rest of the story).  Yet it would be hard for us to understate the outrage Jesus’ message provoked. Being a local boy from the hill country of ancient Palestine carried important social obligations, including unquestioned preference and priority for one’s own.  It’s how the people of Nazareth had survived. They had eked out a subsistence through generations of hard-scrabble living by scrupulously stockpiling and sharing resources exclusively among themselves.  Loyalty to insiders brought security, opportunity, and authority.  In this system, social standing was as good as gold.  It could be spent like shekels or Roman coins. The people of Nazareth thought they were insiders with Jesus.  His fame, power, and standing boosted their own—but Jesus called them to share these gifts and everything else they owned with the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed.

Both ancient and modern readers of today’s gospel are startled by the realization: The captives Jesus is intent upon freeing are all of us.  Jesus unrolled the scroll of Isaiah to announce that he intends to unlock hearts and minds captive to the idea that peace comes through domination, legalized violence, and/or the elimination of enemies. The drive to dominance has led the great powers of this world to destruction. It is killing us along with the planet.  Instead, Jesus’ mission, as Mary sings in the Magnificat, involves God bringing down the powerful (Luke 1:52-53) and lifting up the lowly. (Luke 4:18).  The Roman empire used crosses to punish rebels and instill fear and submission among the oppressed: Jesus will use a cross to expose the cruelty and injustice of those in power and instill hope and confidence in the oppressed. (Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, pp. 123-24)

To be “born again” into “life abundant” means participation in a new Genesis, a new creation, interrupting our captivity to the downward death spiral of violence and counterviolence to join an upward, regenerative movement of the Spirit. Following Jesus means a new Exodus.  It means passing through the waters once again (this time, by baptism instead of the Red Sea), eating a new Passover meal (the Eucharist), and helping one another to become liberated from the principalities and powers that oppress and enslave. To enter into the “kingdom of God” means becoming a citizen of a new kingdom, the peaceable kingdom imagined by the prophets and inaugurated in Christ, learning its ways (as a disciple) and demonstrating in word and deed its presence and availability to all (as apostles).  (Adapted from Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, p. 140)

The most striking single element of Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom at the synagogue in Nazareth may have been “The time has come!”

“The kingdom of God is not a distant reality to wait for someday, Jesus proclaims; the kingdom is at hand, within reach, near, here, now (Mark 1:15). Everyone agrees the poor and downtrodden should be helped someday, oppression and exploitation should be stopped someday, the planet should be healed someday, we should study war no more someday. But for Jesus, the dream of Isaiah and the other prophets — of a time when good news would come to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, and the indebted — was not five hundred or a thousand years in the future: the dream was being fulfilled today(Luke 4:18-21). The time has come today to cancel debts, to forgive, to treat enemies as neighbors, to share your bread with the hungry and your clothes with the naked, to invite the outcasts over for dinner, to confront oppressors not with sharp knives, but with unarmed kindness. No wonder Jesus called people to repent: if the kingdom is at hand, we need to adjust our way of life and join in the joyful, painful mission of reconciliation right now, ASAP!” (McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, p. 140)

Languishing in the valley of the dry bones God asked the prophet Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3)  We ask, is such a life possible?  Can we be freed from our bondage to racism, materialism, militarism and our captivity to fear and death?  Can we become the stories we tell? Can we hope to stand beside Jesus over and against tribe, nation, family, or clan?

In answer, St. Paul offers a vivid description in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth.  Sinew and flesh are joined to bone as we come alive together in the body of Christ.  Each of us is different, as the nose is to the ear, or as hands are to the feet, yet we find common purpose united by the Spirit with Christ as our head.  The new life of liberation and freedom from bondage offered to us now today in Christ will require the death of the old Adam, the old Eve. Yet in this loss, we gain our true self. Through our work together as the body of Christ, the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the thirsty are refreshed, wounds are being healed, and old conflicts find balm to remedy them.  Yes, these bones can live. We come alive together in Christ, forever. Amen.

Divine Interruption

Epiphany 2C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Are Mine

Baptism of our Lord, C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I read an old pastor joke about a young man who wanted to be baptized.  The pastor met with him and asked, “Baptism is a serious step; are you prepared for this?”  “I think so,” the young man said.  “My wife picked out appetizers, and we have a caterer to serve the meat and vegetables.”  “That’s not what I meant,” said the pastor. “I mean, are you prepared in spirit?” “Definitely,” the young man said. “We have both red and white wine.”

We conclusion we can immediately draw from this is that old pastor jokes are lame—and a little bit judgy.  Yet, another lesson might be that for an inherited faith like Christianity, sometimes cultural expectations can keep us from seeing what is most important.  We mix up the chaff with the kernels of wheat.

Martin Luther said, “A truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued” (Large Catechism).  Every day, deep within us and mostly without our knowing, wheat is being folded into our chaff.  Baptism is an event and a process. The baptismal process of saint-i-fi-ca-tionis gradual, but the effect of the event is immediate.  We are indelibly marked with the cross of Christ once and for all. This sign, given in baptism, is today, given to those On The Way. The sign of the cross marks the spot where the treasure is buried. All people carry the spark of the divine image. Everyone is a beloved child of God.

From the prophet Isaiah we read the Lord who created you, who formed you, the lord of the cosmos, the author of Life, stoops to whisper directly in your ear: ‘Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I know you by name, you are mine’ (Isaiah 43:1)

This is the season of Epiphany.  It is the season we celebrate the many and various ways God has spoken to us—by the prophets and the Word; by water, wine and bread, through brothers and sisters down through the ages.  Epiphany means God is not content to remain in, with, and under all things.  God urgently desires to make herself known.

I’m still smiling at the memory of the children’s Epiphany pageant last Sunday.  Didn’t they do a great job?  Once again, we were inspired and moved by the story of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus in the manger at Bethlehem, of the wild start and of the wise men.  No less charming or profound was the child who took a big bite out of the communion bread before the procession. He was dressed like a lamb, but according to his understanding, he was really a wolf in sheep’s clothing! And then there were the wise men who managed to give baby Jesus just one of the three wonderful exotic gifts they had toted from afar—because they broke the other two. I wonder did the real wise men have parents who quickly and quietly cleaned up after them too? Or could we, like children, have become careless with the gifts of grace, discarding some of the precious wheat with the chaff?

In a world filled with war, cruelty, hunger, and disease; in a time when people everywhere are riven into warring clans and political tribes, isn’t it clear we need to hear again not only that we are beloved of God, but so is our enemy? This is the kernel that sprouts into wheat and yields fruit in us, thirty, sixty, and one hundred-fold. This is wisdom to repair our broken hearts and rebuild communion with one another.

Being beloved and knowing others are too means we can face together and begin to dismantle the legacy of systematic racism that afflicts us.  We can face with open eyes and hearts the truth that gender and sexual orientation are much more fluid and diverse than we previously thought.  We can start to build a new economy that is more sustainable.  We can become better family members, friends, and neighbors. Our baptism becomes more than words on a certificate or fancy cake. Baptism becomes more than fire insurance. It is a fire to separate the chaff from the wheat, to help us distinguish what is vital from what is dead.

“Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” (ELW p. 231) These words go beyond merely re-assuring us because these are not merely human words, but a divine Word.  God’s declaration of love carries power to break the grip of fear and shame.  The announcement that you are God’s child has potency to break even the bonds of death.

In Marilynn Robinson’s lovely book, Gilead, a dying old preacher writes a long letter to his very young son for when the boy grows up, long after he is gone.  He writes, “There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time”

A lot of us have been confused about this.  Baptism does not add to the divine spark God invests in our lives.  It brings it into sharper focus. We do not baptize so that God will love and accept us as children.  Baptism is not a pre-requisite to a relationship with God.  Instead, it is a lesson that God is active in with and under every person, plant, animal, and thing that lives.  Jesus commanded we be baptized so that we might finally and forever know who we are and what our life is really worth (Matthew 28).  We baptize to participate more fully in the mysterious presence of the undying life that has already joined us to each other.

Now our ignorance is ended, our awareness expanded, and wisdom has been planted so that the old ways of war and death might be replaced with God’s ways of peace and shalom, so that wheat may grow from the chaff.  Whether we remember our baptismal day is less important than remembering that we too are blessed and beloved. Even if we have not yet been baptized, we can rejoice that we are blessed and beloved, for baptism, as Gilead’s narrator reminds us, is a blessing that doesn’t make us or our lives sacred but acknowledges, recognizes that we are [all] being filled with God’s abundant grace.

The Road Home

Advent 2C-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth” (Luke 3:5).

Ancient words about roads like these don’t sound miraculous anymore. Modern roads everywhere make the way straight and smooth.  Bridges raise valleys and tunnels level mountains. Yet, to our forebears in faith, Isaiah’s roadway was an answer to prayer, an interstate highway home through the dangerous desert wilderness, straight and fast, from Babylon to Israel, from slavery to freedom, from death to life.

In my younger years, the road home led south on I-35 to Des Moines, and west along I-80.  I remember driving between Minnesota and Colorado late at night in the middle of a winter storm.  I could only see the dotted center line to my left and the solid white line to my right. With the foolishness of youth, I just aimed the car between those two lines and trusted the road to be there through miles of open country, over hills and rivers, in the darkness, through blinding snow.

Perhaps we take roads for granted.  In the wilderness, once you find a road, you find your way.  You’re no longer lost. Isaiah’s royal highway led people home without a map, without exhausting themselves, without special knowledge.  They didn’t have to do anything but follow the road home.

Next to God’s kingdom, there should be a sign that reads, ‘If you lived here, you would be home by now.’ God’s kingdom is already, always, everywhere, here and now.  Our truest home travels with us.  It’s never far away.  John stands signaling at the on-ramp for the lost to be found, for those stumbling in deep darkness to find light, for the hungry to find food and for those who thirst to find living water to drink.

It’s John the Baptist, after all, and not St. Nick whom Luke calls “prophet of the Most High” (Luke 1:76).  It’s the wild and wooly John whom God appointed to prepare the way for the infant Jesus. So, we should listen when John announces there is something more than a messy pile of wripped boxes and wrapping paper coming into our lives.  God is coming. Grace un-folding and abounding is making a way again to us.  A royal highway is being prepared. God in Christ Jesus will bring low the high obstacles. Christ will straighten the crooked pathways. Christ is working out a way to you and to bring you home again, amid shouts of joy.

In the fifteenth year of an Emperor, when governor so-and-so and two other rulers had authority, and the high priesthood of (blank) and of (blankety-blank) were in charge in Jerusalem, the word of God came—not to any of them—but to John, son of nobody you’ve heard of, in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2). Luke’s gospel is a shot across the bow to political and religious wind-bags and despots everywhere. God’s holy highway breaks through the wilderness, from the margins, among the lowly. The voice in the wilderness cries out for the way of God to be prepared with relentless urgency.

The wilderness is a place that exposes our need for God. It’s also a place that calls us to repentance. For 21st century Christians like us though, “sin” and “repentance” are weaponized words we fear will lead, not to liberation, but to humiliation.

So, what is sin?  Growing up, we were taught that sin is “breaking God’s laws.”  Or “missing the mark,” as an archer misses his target.  Or “committing immoral acts.”  These definitions are incomplete. They imply sin is a problem only because it angers God.  But God’s temper is not what God is worried about.

“Sin is a problem because it kills.  It kills us.  Why?  Because sin is a refusal to become fully human.  It’s anything that interferes with the opening up of our whole hearts to God, to others, to creation, and to ourselves…Sin is estrangement, disconnection, sterility, disharmony.  Sin is apathy.  Care-less-ness.  A frightened resistance to an engaged life.  Sin is the opposite of creativity, the opposite of abundance, the opposite of flourishing.  It is a walking death.  And it is easier to spot, name, and confess a walking death in the wilderness than it is anywhere else.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, From the Wilderness, 12/02/18)

Maybe the biggest surprise is that the road to heaven Christ opens has also linked us with each other.  The pathway to God runs through, not over, our fellow human beings.  As if by some miracle we reach our destination in a moment, all in an instant, not by coming to the end of the road but simply by being on the road.  Walking the way of Christ, we are in Christ.  Christ is with us and we are with one another.

That’s why people matter, justice matters, how we live makes a difference not only for those around us but for us too. The peaceable kingdom is more than a dreamy vision of heaven. It is God’s dream for the world.  If ever once you’ve lived there then you know you’re already home no matter where you travel.

The apostle Paul was a living example. The church in Philippi, located on the coast of northern Greece, was of particular delight to Paul.  It was the first church he established among the Gentiles of ancient Macedonia.  Lydia, a successful businesswoman, a trader in ‘purple cloth’ was his first convert there. It seems Paul and Silas stayed in Philippi quite a while.  Paul wrote, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.” (Phil. 1:3-4).  Paul’s words are particularly striking given that he wrote this letter to his brothers and sisters in Philippi while he was still in prison.

What did Paul find to be so joyful about?  Living conditions in an ancient jail left much to be desired.  Yet, across the miles, Paul continued a deep relationship with the Philippians.  Their mutual affection strengthened them and was a source of grace despite the locks, walls, and obstacles between them.

John Wesley once observed there is no such thing as a solitary Christian.  Through the gift of baptism into Christ’s body, we have all received the gift by which we, like Paul and the Philippians, are bound together into one family of God. It comes without shiny paper, ribbons or bows.  It comes with Christ’s promise, announced by John the Baptist: “every mountain and hill shall be made low”.

It comes as we move forward in faith, keeping the dotted line of compassion and forgiveness for one another on our left, and the solid line of God’s steadfast love on the right.  You don’t need anything more.  You don’t need any special knowledge or skill.  You don’t have to know where you are to find your way home and into the loving arms of God.

The church is the gathering of those once scattered. Diverse and different, we are one in Christ.  The church is also a sending forth of those gathered. We are right where we need to be—we dwell securely in the house of the Lord—as we stay on the move, walking the way of the cross as Jesus did.  The one who came, and is coming draws us together, holds us together.  We are together in our life in God, moving together toward the consummation of all things.  (William Willimon) Rich and poor, slaves and free, male and female, young and old, gay and straight, Jew and gentile, Christians and non-Christians. All are welcome.  We are joined in one great communion by the Advent of our God. Let the people say, Amen!

Peace. Shalom. Salaam.

Christ the King B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Peace. Shalom. Salaam.  It was apocalypse now last Sunday.  People of faith throughout Edgewater streamed to the throne of God as foretold in the book of Revelation for the annual ECRA Thanksgiving Service.  Looking out at the large, diverse, happy crowd assembled at the Ismaili Center, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky read the Thanksgiving Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln and said, “I haven’t felt so at peace in a very long time.”

Let we who were there testify. At the-end-of-days people of God sat on metal folding chairs. Among the Saints of God are some who sing well and many who don’t. There are some that are concise and articulate and many who are long-winded. For the apocalypse, worship will run long but there is guaranteed to be a spirit of joy, generosity, and thanksgiving. As modeled by our hosts at the Ismaili Center, at the end times, there will be a dedicated and devoted attention to hospitality. Each and every person will find a welcome to rival the Prodigal Son.

Could the world be about to turn?  Could it finally be the end of this old tired world?  Could the reign of hatred, fear, and division ever possibly end?  “Peace. Shalom. Salaam,” we sang.  These words are like a prayer that echoes an ancient gospel long forgotten and seldom proclaimed anymore from tens of thousands of Christian pulpits, and ten thousand times ten thousand Christian communities. Christ our king does not build a wall to separate us from people different faiths or no faith at all, but a bridge.  Christ our king reigns from a throne not in heaven but here on earth. The end-of-days is now. See! The kingdom has already come like a child waiting to be born in us. These are the days of the birth pangs. The evidence is all around us.

Midway airport was mostly quiet last night in stark contrast to the crush of holiday travelers and the approaching winter storm expected to hit there today. I went to meet Leah who flew home alone after spending Thanksgiving with family in Los Angeles.  I remembered a time, not so many years ago, we watched together as the first snow of the season gently fell across Chicago.  Leah was thrilled –and in that remarkable way a young child sees the world—she said, “I can’t believe how God makes every snowflake different.  I get tired cutting out paper ones.”  We both agreed.  We’d stop making new patterns of snowflakes at about twelve.

The first three verses of the gospel of John read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him, nothing came to be.”  (John 1:1-3) Snowflakes, trees, blades of grass, and people—each one unique for all time—this is the kind of king we have.  Standing under guard before Pilate, we must admit he is not the sort of king we expected.  Mocked, abused and crucified, he’s probably not the kind of king we wanted.  Jesus wields power made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor. 12:9) Jesus rules with love, justice and mercy, and forgiveness. Again and again, we are tempted to doubt his power. [Yet] What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. (John 1:4) Peace. Shalom. Salaam.

The ancient gospel proclaimed by early Christians in the Book of Acts declare the same thing. They preached “Jesus is the [Eternal] Christ” (2:36, 9:22) and therefore the deepest pattern for everything that preceded and followed him. Jesus is God’s divine Logos, the blueprint by which the universe was made, and through which it is now being sustained.  As the Book of Revelation puts it, the Christ is “the Alpha and the Omega” of all history and of all creation (1:8, 21:6, 22:13).  Let the end times begin with us.

Many of us are taught Christ is God’s plan B.  Jesus came into the world to solve the persistent problem of human sin. We were taught that is was God and not us who demanded Jesus had to die. Yet as he stands in the Roman Praetorium, ready to take the throne of his cross, now we see the full truth.  Christ is God’s plan A. From the very beginning, Jesus the Christ is the very meaning, purpose, direction, beauty, joy, goal, and fulfillment of the whole divine adventure. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, 11/2/15) Jesus is the revealer of the One “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:8)

Peace. Shalom. Salaam. We will have to radically expand our idea of king and ruler to take in what this means. “With this perspective, Christianity need not compete with other religions; rather, authentic Christians can see and respect the Christ Mystery wherever and however it is trying to reveal itself–which is all the time and everywhere, and not just in my group.”  Martin Luther said whatever preaches Christ is the gospel regardless of who said it or where you encounter it.  For the apocalypse to be now all tribalism becomes impossible.

In Another Turn of the Crank, the Kentucky sage, Wendell Berry, writes, “I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.”[Wendell Berry, as quoted in Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, ed. (The Golden Sufi Center: 2013), 77.]

Christ our king leads the way. We will not know God, ourselves, each other, or anything else that exists except by entering into communion. To try to know something without first loving it is not to know it very well at all. Our failure to understand Christ our King in this fundamental way has made much of the Christian search for truth brutal, arrogant, divisive, the possession of a few, and confined almost entirely to our heads.  I take joy in the fact that as we move deeper into the 21stcentury, Christians seem to be re-discovering the way of Christ our king is the way of incarnation, the way proclaimed by the very name of our dear congregation.  Immanuel is the way we become a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

The French-born author Anais Nin famously once said, “We don’t see things as they are.  We see them as we are.”  We must be changed, renewed, refreshed, refashioned, reformed and resurrected.  In Christ, the old world is passing away. See! A new kingdom has begun. We join our prayers with those of every place and generation. “Let your kingdom come and your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven!  Let our eyes be opened, our ears be unstopped. Let our hearts of stone be replaced with hearts of flesh starting now. Peace. Shalom. Salaam. Let the apocalypse begin right here, right now, among us.  Yes, this Jesus is a different kind of king.  Let the people say …Amen!

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