Skip to content

Posts from the ‘God’s Family’ Category

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)

Forgiveness

Proper 17A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

How many times must I forgive?

I invite you to reflect for a moment.  When have you forgiven someone?  Who have you not forgiven?  When have you been forgiven by others?  When have you not been forgiven? Particularly in old relationships it can be difficult even to name what hurts.  Whenever we travel with my extended family—my sisters, my nieces and nephews, and my mom—my wife Kari often points out that something comes over me. I get crabby and short-tempered. When pain is not metabolized through forgiveness it lingers in the body like a motherless child.

Forgiveness.  We all know it was important to Jesus.  Peter knew it.  That’s why he asked.  Wanting to impress, he picked a really big number.  ‘How many times should I forgive someone? As many as seven times?’ (Matthew 18:21) Jesus answer was shocking.  “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” In other words, stop counting.  Stop keeping the score.

To underscore his point, Jesus offers Peter a hyperbolic parable and about a fictional king settling accounts with his servant.  10,000 talents was an enormous sum.  It is ten times the amount King Herod received every year from all his territories—which was around 900 talents (Brian P. Stoffregen, CrossMarks).  A talent was about 130 lbs. of silver and was the equivalent to about fifteen years of a laborer’s wages.  By contrast, the 100 denarius the servant is owed by his fellow servant is a tiny fraction—1/600,000 the size of the first.

This week we recognized the 16th anniversary of 911.  To be sure, 10,000 talent offenses like September 11th don’t come along that often, but 100 denarius offenses come at us every day.  Jesus urged the disciples and us to follow the example of a pagan king, a religious outsider, who showed grace and mercy even though he was owed a great debt, rather than the religious insider who proved stingy and withholding of mercy even though he was owed only a very small debt.

Like Peter, I suspect most of us are gracious enough to forgive neighbors, friends, or family members over and over again.  But, sooner or later, the ledger will mount up and the bearer of forgiveness can become the carrier of a grudge.  You may feel righteous and justified in carrying that grudge but the truth is, Jesus says, carrying that grudge eventually becomes its own offense. Stop keeping score.

Yet, somewhere in our bodies, shielded from every-day consciousness, we carry unforgiven hurts and slights within us.  Some of us carry traumatic memories of abuse or neglect, or violence. Somewhere, we carry the sins of society—of racism, injustice, and ecological devastation.  Somehow, we know Jesus’ teaching to forgive is not a command as much as it is a pathway to freedom.  Forgiveness is a way of life that leads to healing, recovery, and transformation.  But I’ll admit when confronted with the brokenness in my own life I don’t what I can do about it.  I just have to accept it, that’s the way it is.  This person doesn’t like that person. This one won’t talk to that one.  This person hasn’t been the same since that happened.

Old scores never settled, hurt, harm, or loss churn in us like an unstoppable wheel. It causes us pain and to inflict pain on others, or to see others as less-than and inhuman, or to seek revenge and payback, or to be the cause of violence or cruelty, which then becomes a source of hurt, harm or loss in someone else, and on it goes.  With all respect to George R. R. Martin and the other authors of The Game of Thrones, it is not Daenerys Targaryen who will break this wheel, because it has already been broken by our Lord Jesus Christ by way of the cross.

The cross was God’s critique of worldly power and all petty religious and moralistic score keeping.  On the cross God stands with the crucified, the cast-offs, the lynched, and the broken. By way of the cross, God has broken the wheel of vengeance and opened a pathway to healing and reconciliation. By way of the cross Jesus has shown us the way to resurrection, transformation, and new birth.

Jesus taught us how to love our enemies, pray for them, will good for them, and to see them as part of us—as children of shared humanity. This is possible for us because Jesus lived this kind of life and, even now, Jesus lives this kind of life in us so that the way of forgiveness and reconciliation is not impossible for us.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, leader of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and author of The Book of Forgiving (2014) tells us what forgiveness is not.  Forgiveness is not easy.  It requires hard work and a consistent willingness. Forgiveness is not weakness.  It requires courage and strength.  Forgiveness does not subvert justice.  It creates space for justice to be enacted with purity of purpose that does not include revenge. Forgiveness is not forgetting.  It requires a fearless remembering of the hurt.  Forgiveness is not quick. It can take several journeys through the cycles of remembering and grief before one can truly forgive and be free.

Forgiveness begins with a willingness born of the Holy Spirit to walk a fourfold path. On the way, we must tell our story.  We must name what hurts before we can grant forgiveness, by which Tutu means to see our abuser as part of a shared humanity. Only then can we either release or renew the relationship.  Then we can be free of the burden of our pain and strengthened with wisdom so we might begin to break the cycle of violence and prevent others from being harmed in the same way.

Next week, we will discuss and vote together about our future with the Families Together Cooperative Preschool (FTCNS) and our commitment to working with them to expand by adding a third classroom.  We have shared this home with them for twenty years. We’ve been very effective together in our common mission to improve the lives of children and families throughout Edgewater.  There is a strong sense of belonging and a warmth to these streets and in the homes surrounding our church that is traceable to the work we’ve done for decades emanating from this place.  Of course, as with any long relationship there have also been frustrations and disappointments. We have not always lived up to the partnership we set for ourselves.  We have made extra work for each other. Like any household, we get tired of looking at each other’s mess.  What might it look like to turn these slights and hurts into aspirations?  By the power of grace and forgiveness, can we learn from our past in order to make a different, more positive future as we contemplate the future together?  I’ve been listening to conversations about this for weeks now and believe we can make things work better for all our ministries even as FTCNS expands.

We cannot create a world without pain or loss or conflict or hurt feelings, but with God’s grace we can create a world of forgiveness.  We can create a world of forgiveness that can allow us to love our enemies, to heal our losses and repair our lives and relationships.  But ultimately, no one can tell you to forgive. We, and the Holy Spirit, can only ask.  You and I are invited on this journey.  All of us must walk our own path and go at our own pace to discover the power forgiveness has to change your life and the world.

Let Love Happen

Proper 15A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Matthew 15:10)

What a week to read this gospel.  White supremacist, KKK and Nazi groups shocked America. Emboldened by the words of the President and elected leaders, they gathered in surprising numbers to chant their racist hate-filled slogans and violently confront their so-called enemies.  One news commentator had told us to expect.  ‘When you blow enough dog whistles you shouldn’t be surprised when the dogs come around.’

Words and intentions matter. They matter to God.  It makes a difference to God whether our intention is to hate or to oppose hate. Perhaps what is most sickening about the week’s events is that every hateful word came from the mouth of a child of God.

Hate is like an infectious disease.  Whenever we hate, we betray our birthright.  We undermine our humanity.  We obscure the image of the living God, the imago Dei, in which we were created.  Whenever our intention is to degrade, dismiss, deny, or harm another human being we are working at cross purposes with God.

It seems straightforward, but this is an especially tough lesson for us as we become increasingly locked in polarizing political debates. It is a tough lesson for the church considering its historical role in turning a blind eye toward slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, or in some cases, providing bad theology to undergird it. This is a tough lesson when it feels like the whole country is going to the dogs.  The trouble is people on both sides of the debate agree with that statement.  Name calling is evidence you and I may be coming down with the hate disease.

Just look at Jesus in our gospel today. In an amazing role reversal, this time, Jesus is the pupil and not the teacher. Jesus called the Canaanite woman a dog. The disciples begged Jesus tell her to go away. He insulted her and said he’s not here for her and her kind. I’m so thankful to Matthew that he includes this story.

It’s not an excuse, but it happened on vacation. For the past three Sundays, we’ve seen Jesus in retreat.  After the death of John the Baptist he sailed across the Sea but the people followed him along the shore. After feeding and caring for them, Jesus sent the crowds away and walked up a nearby mountain to pray while the disciples headed out across the Sea of Galilee by boat.

And today we find Jesus 70 miles further north in the district of Tyre and Sidon, cities of Lebanon. He is traveling where no self-respecting Jewish person would go, someplace he expected privacy.  He is at least 50 miles north of the border. Perhaps he was searching for a place where he might prepare himself and the disciples for what was coming next in Jerusalem.

Yet even here news of his ministry had spread. He was recognized on sight.

Matthew uses the word “great” 20 times, but only once in connection to faith. Ultimately, Jesus commended this Canaanite woman whom he called a dog for her great faith.

Matthew goes out of his way to tell us she was a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28). The label is strange. In Jesus’ lifetime, nobody was still called a “Canaanite.” It was part of ancient history even then. The region of the Canaanites no longer existed on the map.  It would be as if Matthew were calling New York City by its old name New Amsterdam!  Matthew calls her a “Canaanite” on purpose: it meant that she is not only an outsider, but she is part of an enemy people.

Love your enemies, Jesus says.  Everybody knows that.  But it’s never easy, not even for Jesus. Our gospel today challenges us to look beyond artificial boundaries and borders of ethnicity, nation, and creed that naturally divide people into insiders and outsiders –making us feel safe with some people and afraid of others.

Often in scripture, it is the outsider who turns out to be the true insider. One of the defining characteristics of grace is that we are surprised to see it where we found it. Christ is revealed in those whom we are expecting only to serve, and/or among those whom we are prepared to hate.

Over the years, Christians have tried endlessly to soften this story. Jesus was only trying to teach the disciples they say, or Jesus was merely having some fun in verbal sparring, or he wasn’t calling her a bad dog, but a cute cuddly sort of dog. These explanations fall short I think.

This encounter marked the turning point in Jesus’ own consciousness, confronting his limited perception of the wider mission at hand beyond the tribes of Israel, including people of every nation. The Canaanite woman proves she is not only worthy of Jesus’ mercy; in this instance, she is his teacher and preacher. Down through the centuries she offers a timely rebuke to political, racial, and religious divisions. We are reminded, “There’s a wideness in God’s Mercy, like the wideness of the sea” (ELW #588).

Words matter. Whenever religion becomes more about external regulations and observances it is going down the wrong road. Jesus’ iconoclastic teaching canceled out all the food laws of the Old Testament. It set people of faith on a new footing with God and each other. There is only one rule, the Golden Rule, love our neighbors as ourselves. In Christ, we are called to love even our enemies and pray for them.

If any rule, no matter how pious sounding, leads you to violate the Golden Rule then break that rule.  If exclusion becomes the rule –break the rule. If ‘I win and you lose’ is the rule—break that rule. If the rule is ‘need more to be more’ –break that rule. If white supremacy is the rule –break that rule.

Jesus commandment moves us beyond believing the faith as a way to the afterlife to practicing the faith in ways that make a difference in the here and now. Let love happen. You don’t even have to be good at it—just try.

While the world swirls around us there are always people, places, and opportunities to let love happen in answer. Later today there will be a short 30 minute Memorial service for a man named Aaron at our ECT sister congregation, Unity Lutheran Church.

Aaron was a 19 year old who happened by on Tuesday August 8th, interacted with other youth participants of a summer program run by RefugeeONE, and later committed suicide on the Unity front lawn. No one knew Aaron from RefugeeONE, from Unity, or the neighborhood. Neither he, or his family, have so far been identified. He left nothing but a few notes in his pocket and a chalk-drawing on the sidewalk of a cross, the Star of David, and a crescent moon—the three symbols of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Pastor Fred and friends at Unity will offer prayers, scripture readings, and sing hymns to remember his life before God. One or two mental health social workers will offer thoughts on suicide prevention and overcoming stigma.

“In Christ,” Paul writes, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Christians are radical egalitarians when it comes to the inclusive love of God. We are all equidistant from the heart of God—including our friends, our enemies, and the strangers among us who just happen by.  In every case our call is the same. Let love happen.   It’s hard for us to keep an open mind toward strangers about whom we’re afraid.  But Jesus has shown the way. He showed us he could be changed. Can we?

Folly and Wisdom

Proper 9A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

They said John the Baptist had a demon’ and the Son of Man was a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’  Jesus chides the faithful for finding fault in God’s messengers regardless of their message. ‘To what will I compare this generation? [They are] like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:18 & 19)

I’m depressed thinking about how divisions among God’s people persist in our own day. In the red states and the blue States I wonder whether we are reading the same gospel?  How can we come to such different conclusions about women, about abortion, about sexual orientation, about our political leaders, about the stewardship of creation, about American exceptionalism, about capitalism, about the pernicious sin of racism, about Muslims, Jews, and people of other faiths, about what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ?

We all have the same starting place.  We believe God has revealed the character of creation, for all time and in all places in Jesus.  The material universe has a face.  The material universe is alive and we have glimpsed the character and quality of all life in Christ Jesus.  It is the life of the holy three that invites us to dwell, face, to face, to face, to face, even now, in one body with each other and with God.  Holding so much in common, you might think we would all reason to the same conclusions about life–but this unity will never be enough to insure uniformity of thought—quite the opposite.

Again, and again the scriptures teach us the greatest sin we can commit is not bothering to care. You’d have a hard time finding another Christian who doesn’t agree the command to love one another as we love ourselves is central to the gospel.  But how we love is up to each of us. Is there a right and a wrong way?  Sure—there are better and worse ways.  There is such wideness in God’s mercy as to leave the particulars of loving up to us.

Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. Pay attention and the school of life will be our teacher.  Stay hopeful, be willing to do things that are uncomfortable, step closer to those who are suffering and get ready to learn some humbling truths, “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” (Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy) Indifference might be the most toxic human emotion we can share.

We learn wisdom in hospital rooms, bedrooms, classrooms, and just sitting around the kitchen table.  We find wisdom in holy communion, wisdom in the waters of baptism, wisdom in prayer. We come to the community gathered by the Holy Spirit to hear a word of grace and to discern together how best to walk the way of the cross—in other words—to learn how to be better lovers.

Whether we are Statue of Liberty Americans, or build the wall Americans matters less than the fact that we all stand in need of grace and that we are all bearers of that grace for one another.  We will not find wisdom in uniformity of thought, but in the mutual respect that makes room for everyone, inside and outside the church, to express their thoughts freely and fully.  That is what’s so dangerous about the current political climate in which we find ourselves.  This is what the institution of the church is perfectly positioned to respond to with members in every community across the country.

It is part of the shared wisdom of our Church, enshrined in the constitution of every congregation in the ELCA, that every person who comes through our doors holds a part of the truth.  Each of us must faithfully bear witness to the truth as we understand it, and prayerfully, humbly listen as others do the same. We find wisdom in speaking, and in listening more than we speak. Therefore, it is imperative we respectfully leave room for a wide range of opinions if we are to do everything possible to follow Jesus.  Diversity of thought is not dividing, but enriching.  This is the basis for the covenants of full communion we share as Lutherans with six other denominational partners, including Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Episcopalians, the United Church of Christ, and the Reformed Church in America.

Today we hear Jesus declare, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

It seems counterintuitive to find rest in taking up the yoke of Jesus.  For most of us, I’d wager, a yoke connotes bondage and servitude –a diminishment of freedom and choice.  Indeed, Jesus was relentless in criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees for making the yoke of religion into a means to weigh people down with artificial demands of righteousness.

Jesus’ yoke is different from the religious zealots want to lay on you. It is the call to simply to love one another and bear one another’s burdens. In this we will discover the wisdom that is hidden from the wise and intelligent who rely on their own abilities.  They will not hear the gospel regardless if it is proclaimed by John the Baptist or by Jesus. Here is the wisdom written deep within creation: being good and kind is not a chore, but a natural and gracious response to the other.  It’s what we’re made for and in this we find our own humanity.

Each of us has different gifts for love and service.  For decades now, this congregation has had a special gift and passion for teaching and receiving children and young people.  Tutoring, after-school, play-groups, and the ECT youth group are examples of the way we at Immanuel wear the yoke of Jesus.  It’s why 20 years ago Immanuel’s leaders sought out and invited Families Together Preschool to come and partner with us. It’s why vacation bible school draws so many neighborhood families and children.  (I hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch the VBS slide show running in the narthex today.)

The yoke of Jesus is humility and concern for the despised. We bear the weight of this yoke in loving others.  This is how we bear the weight of the cross.  This is how we learn what wisdom is.  This is how we become disciples of Jesus.  This is how we heal our democracy. This is how we unburden ourselves from carrying our fear.  This is how we teach our children.  This is how we restore grace within our families.  This is how we find rest for our souls.  The yoke of Jesus is not a yoke of servitude, or of bondage but of connection, partnership, and sharing our burdens with one another and with Christ who labors alongside us.

On The Proper Use of Freedom

Proper 8A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

This holiday weekend we celebrate 241 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  We acknowledge with every rendition of our national anthem the struggle and sacrifice required by the founding generation, and nearly every generation since, to bring into being the opportunity for freedom we now enjoy as our birth rite. They died to make us free.

The American democratic experiment is not quite two and a half centuries old, but the question of how to properly use of our freedom within the span of a single human life is thousands of years old, perhaps as old as history itself.  It is the central question addressed by our bible in the great narratives of creation, of the Exodus, and of Christ. Each human being living under every permutation of governance ever devised or bumbled into has had to ask themselves what am I to do with the miracle of my life?

Paul writes, “…the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23) Chapters 5-8 of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome from which today’s second lesson was read is a majestic statement of some of Paul’s greatest themes: The love of God embodied in Jesus’ death; the hope, even during suffering, enjoyed by God’s people; Christian freedom from sin, the law and death itself; and the life-giving leading of the Spirit. Countless Christians, faced with times of struggle, have found strength and joy in Paul’s closing words: “Neither height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39) (N.T. Wright, Commentary on Romans)

For Paul, the difference between slavery and freedom is not whatever political system in which we find ourselves but in dying and rising to new life in solidarity with the ever-living Christ. The exodus, the story of coming out of slavery into freedom—with all the new puzzles and responsibilities that freedom brings!—is the story of the gospel.  In the Exodus the Jewish people discovered the character of their rescuing God.  Likewise the covenant faithfulness of this same God is fully unveiled in the paschal events of Golgatha and Easter. In Christ, God extends an invitation to all people to become children of a new humanity.  We find the true purpose of our freedom, the highest and most noble version of ourselves by walking the way of the cross.

We must give ourselves away to be free. Last Sunday, we heard Jesus tell the disciples, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39) By walking the way of the cross Jesus taught us our freedom is not about how well we follow religious rules either. For Jesus, our hard-won freedom in Christ is about a way of living in which we find ourselves willing to give someone a cup of cold water on a hot day. Our freedom has no higher purpose than that.

Many today are misled in believing that, if you are lucky or strong or bold or beautiful and powerful enough, freedom is about living without any obligations, any commitments, any requirements whatsoever. By contrast, Paul invited the Christians in Rome and each of us, to consider the choice we face is not between obedience or freedom, but rather a decision about what we will be freely obedient and dedicated to.

It is human nature to slide toward whatever seems easiest in the short run. Sacrificing short term gratification for long term happiness is always difficult for us.  That is why we cannot rely on will power alone to be truly free. The ability to strive for things that bring long term happiness and eternal blessings comes from God—and specifically—from dwelling in God as our small, selfish, frightened ego-self is transformed by connection to the One-life we have in God and to all the living things God has made.

For Paul, we find the power to be free in our baptism, in Christian community, and in the prayers of the Holy Spirit working in us too deep for words that draws us more closely into relationship with God and neighbor and serves to remind us that we are, indeed, God’s own children. (David Lose, Working Preacher)

From here, we can begin to see what makes service to others so central to the Christian message and to the exercise of true freedom. Ancient people were amazed and drawn to Christianity because they said, ‘See how they love each other.’  Hospitality is credited with being a big reason why Christianity spread and grew.  Yet, this was never just an outreach strategy.  The key component of our mutual welcome and service to one another comes from the presence of Jesus who has joined us all together. My self is become part of your self, your suffering has become part of my suffering, your joy part of my joy. Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40)

Here at Immanuel, we exercise our freedom in Christ by welcoming guests here to worship on Sunday, or to play groups, pre-school, tutoring, neighborhood meetings, or simply to come from the park across the street to use the restroom.  For Vacation Bible School this week we shared the humble, hospitable gospel with over thirty neighborhood children with the help of twenty adult volunteers. Yet Jesus’ call to hospitality doesn’t stop at our front door.  These past several weeks in worship we have read through the entire 10th chapter of Matthew’s gospel and know what Jesus is taking about here to the disciples is their charge to become missionaries.

We say our mission here at Immanuel is to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace.  Yet, we know this mission did not come from us, but from what God is already, always, and everywhere doing in the world. We exercise our freedom and walk the way of the cross not by always playing host, but also by relying upon the hospitality of others by being guests.  Not only by inviting people into our space, to eat our food, and use our bathrooms—but to go where we are sent into other’s homes, eating their food, navigating their customs, and using their bathrooms. One of the most difficult parts of hospitality is vulnerability.  Mutual hospitality –welcoming and being welcomed as we would welcome Christ—is how we abide in the One life of God and discover the true purpose of human freedom.

All people, all things, no matter how marginal, ugly, or shameful find a place of dignity in this welcome. Let me leave you with the words of Sara Miles, author of Take This Bread.  She writes, “What I heard, and continue to hear, [in this gospel] is a voice that can crack religious and political convictions open, that advocates for the least qualified, least official, least likely. It [Christianity] proclaims against reason that the hungry will be fed, that those cast down will be raised up, and that all things, including my own failures, are being made new. It offers food without exception to the worthy and unworthy, the screwed-up and pious, and then commands everyone to do the same. It doesn’t promise to solve or erase suffering but to transform it, pledging that by loving one another, even through pain, we will find more life. And it insists that by opening ourselves to strangers, the despised or frightening or unintelligible other, we will see more and more of the holy, since, without exception, all people are one body: God’s. (Sara Miles, Take This Bread: The spiritual memoir of a twenty-first century Christian)

 

The Way of the Cross

Proper 7A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Leo Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina with the words “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Becoming a follower of Jesus was painful for early Christians. Imagine, what would it take for you to disown your children—or your parents?  Yet, these were the kinds of choices many were forced to make. “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;” (Matthew 10:35).

This sword is not one of violence but of decision. We must decide to put Christ first before family in order to find our family.  We must decide to speak truth to power in order to honor those in authority. The decision to walk the way of Christ’s cross calls us to be bold even as our path leads us more deeply into the troubles, difficulties and sorrows of our families and of this world in order to find joy and purpose in serving.

Two paintings by Caravaggio hang opposite one another in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome: The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1600). The contrast reveals Matthew’s transformation from tax collector to martyr.  The paintings depict the beginning and the end of Matthew’s life following Christ and powerfully illustrate Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words: “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” In the Martyrdom, as tradition tells us, Matthew is shown as he is being murdered by agents of the disgruntled king of Ethiopia as he baptizes new people into the faith. While Matthew’s gesture in the Calling suggests hesitancy, his hand in the Martyrdom shows confidence, reaching toward a laurel from heaven, even as it has been seized by his accuser.

In facing our fear of God’s truth and grace, change and transformation, what is lost in us is spiritual narrowness.  What dies is our fear of others, whether as competitors or enemies.  What is born is compassion and freedom. “Those who find their life will lose it,” Jesus said, “and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39)

Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador is another famous example of the kind of compassion and freedom we find in Christ when first we decide to follow him. Archbishop Romero was killed by extremists while standing behind the altar celebrating Holy Communion in 1980. He said, “Those who, in the biblical phrase, would save their lives—that is, those who want to get along, who don’t want commitments, who don’t want to get into problems, who want to stay outside of a situation that demands the involvement of all of us—they will lose their lives. What a terrible thing to have lived quite comfortably, with no suffering, not getting involved in problems, quite tranquil, quite settled, with good connections politically, economically, socially—lacking nothing, having everything. To what good? They will lose their lives.” (Oscar Romero 1917-1980)

I suppose today we would be amiss not to mention another example of courage and faithfulness central to our own history as Lutherans.  On this day in 1530 German and Latin editions of the Augsburg Confession were presented to the Emperor Charles of the Holy Roman Empire. The Augsburg Confession was written by Philipp Melanchthon and endorsed by Martin Luther, and consists of a brief summary of points in which the reformers saw their teaching as either agreeing with or differing from that of the Roman Catholic Church of the time.  Today is the feast day in our liturgical calendar celebrated by the whole Church of both Philipp Melanchthon and the Augsburg Confession.

We might happily talk for hours about what Tolstoy meant by his beautifully evocative opening sentence.  From a Christian perspective, this teaching is true. Happiness is like a flower that grows to scent our homes with compassion, truth and love when Christ is at the center, while the unhappiness in our homes arises from all the many ways we depart from Christ and his gospel.

Our pursuit of happiness will be more successful in our homes and in our society as we learn when to accept and when to challenge the authority others have over us, and also learn how to embrace and to properly exercise the authority we have been given.

The fourth commandment, “Honor your father and mother”, and our gospel, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”, stand in creative tension.  Our understanding of each is made more profound when viewed from the perspective of the other.

To honor father and mother, Luther says, we must do more than love them.  We are to serve and obey our parents, treat them with great deference, humility, and respect.  Parenthood, according to Luther, is a divine office given special distinction.  Parents are literally God’s representatives in their families.

Luther broadened this commandment to include all those who are in authority –we should honor our boss, government officials, police officers, school teachers –and crossing guards –anyone who is in a position to issue commands.  The command to honor our parents compels us to honor the authority of all those in power.

Luther writes, “Through civil authority, as through our own parents, God gives us food, house and home, protection and security” (LC 385 [150]).  Christians have long recognized the vital importance of good order, both in the home and in society, for creating the conditions which makes lives of faith and praise possible.  Here lies the biblical rationale for authority, as well as the principle that defines its limitations.

It is God who sets the standards for the proper use of authority.  It is God and the purposes of God toward which our authority is properly applied.  Do not think, Jesus says, that I have come to bring peace, when through your misdeeds or your oversight you have neglected my children, brought them pain or fear, made them to feel small, or taught them how to hate. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword whenever a child goes hungry; not peace but a sword, wherever another person in the world dies of a curable disease; not peace but a sword, wherever another species becomes extinct because of your unbridled desire to consume; not peace but a sword wherever there is someone who does not know they are a beloved child of God. For my house is not built to glorify you, says the Lord, but so that all people may know that I am God, and that you may know each and every human being is my beloved son and daughter—for I have counted even the hairs on their head.

If we see someone we love acting destructively, confronting their behavior may provoke a hostile, angry reaction.  That is why we often decide not to speak even though their behavior is contrary to everything Christ teaches us.  We keep silent because we ‘want to keep the peace’, or because somebody counsels us to ‘just let it be’.  But the peace our silence buys is not an authentic peace.  It is a simmering volcano: the landscape looks peaceful and the same as before, but there are tremors underneath, and down deep, we are frightened that our shaky world will one day, blow up.  What happiness, peace, and joy is ours when we choose to walk the way of Christ and his cross.

Called by Compassion

Proper 6A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

[Jesus] “had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36) This is the third of three sermons exploring Martin Luther’s theology of Christian vocation in recognition of the approaching 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  How does Jesus our Good Shepherd call us to be good citizens?

The question has special resonance here in Chicago where we are experiencing the perfect storm of political dysfunction in our City, our State, and Federal governments all at the same time.  The question only deepens as we lift our eyes beyond our borders and consider the plight of people around the world ravaged by poverty, war, and natural disasters.  Since we were little children we learned to pledge allegiance to the flag but to what extent has our baptism made us citizens of the world? Or put another way, does citizenship in the kingdom of God take precedence over loyalty to country?

Of course, the short answer is yes.  Luther wrote, “God is the kind of Lord who does nothing but exalt those of low degree and put down the mighty from their thrones, in short, break what is whole and make whole what is broken.” (LW 21:288-300)  We are called to speak truth to power, to be a voice for the voiceless, to strive for the greater good, to put the human in our humanity, to protect and defend the life of all creatures, and to do all this as far as the light of our shared faith and conscience will guide us, trusting in God’s forgiveness and mercy when we fail. Love of the other and our neighbor became our calling starting with baptism.  We live out our calling whether at home, at work, or in the world cleaving to the grace that embraces us just as we are regardless of what we do and at the same time calls us to be than we have ever been. Like Jesus, we become who God created us to be when we are moved by compassion for the harassed and helpless.

As many of you know, this was a frenzied week in the Johnson household. We went two for two high school graduations and all the events that go with it. This week it was Sam’s turn to graduate. The ceremony was at the Auditorium Theater in downtown Chicago.  He dropped off his books, paid his fees, picked up his cap and gown, and eight commencement tickets on Wednesday afternoon. In a few hours all the tickets were gone —lost!  He left them on CTA redline train.  It looked like two grandmas, a grandpa, mom and dad, step-mom and step-dad were all going to have to find something else to do Thursday night because we weren’t going to get in to be seated at the graduation.

But as grace (not luck) would have it, the tickets were found by a CTA conductor who saw they were graduation tickets for Jones College Prep High School, went online to the Jones website, somehow recognized one of the senior students, contacted them through Facebook—who then contacted another friend who knows Sam, who then went to the station and picked up the tickets.  That conductor was moved by compassion and that made all the difference for our family.

What would a compassionate budget for our state, our nation, or our city look like and who would pay for it?  As U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky frequently points out, the United States has never been more wealthy at any point in its history than it is today.  We can afford to be more compassionate for the harassed and helpless and maybe that is how our nation, our state and our city will find its true calling again and help restore our civic life to health.

Greed is one of the seven deadly sins squeezing the life out of our neighborhoods and communities.  Evening parking in the lot across from Sam’s school is usually $8.  I suspect you won’t be surprised that for graduation the rates go up.  You want to guess how much?  We paid more than 300% the usual rate or $25.

Many people know Martin Luther protested about the abuse of Pope Leo using fear of God to extract money from the poor throughout Germany and the rest of Europe to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Lessor known are his complaints about the newly forming business community. Luther writes, “The merchants have a common rule which is their chief maxim: ‘I may sell my goods as [costly] as I can.’ They think this is their right.  Thus occasion is given for avarice, and every widow and door to hell is opened.” (The Forgotten Luther: Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation, Edited by Carter Lindberg and Paul Wee, p. 34)

Luther famously taught the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of the world are separated by God with Christ ruling in the one, and civil authorities ruling in the other.  But this does not mean God intends for people of faith to be passive in the political realm or to respond to the needs of the harassed and helpless only with our charity. We are called to battle injustice with clarity about our values, the dignity God affords every human life, and the call of grace to be people of compassion just as Jesus was and is.

And here we must go beyond what Luther taught if we are to be consistent with his vision of our Christian vocation as citizens operating by grace out in the world.  We must become more aware of the original sin of the United States of America and how we have all either benefited or have been diminished, and often a combination of the two.  I’m speaking here about the deep and pernicious sin of racism.   As Bishop Miller said at last week’s Synod Assembly, racism is the text, the subtext, and the context of any meaningful conversation about justice. We must be going about the difficult and honest work of raising our awareness and rooting out racism within the powers, principalities, institutions, political parties and economic systems in which we live, beginning with our congregation and our church.    (The 2 1/2 anti-racism training sponsored by our Synod is the envy of our church across the nation.  If the Spirit is moving you in any way toward this opportunity you should know the Immanuel Council is resolved to pick up the fee.  All it will cost you is your time.)

As Jesus said “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” (Matthew 9:37) You are called and equipped.  You are filled with the Spirit and are able.  With your hands, your words, your listening, your actions God is ready to fill you with an animating compassion so none of us have to live like sheep without a shepherd, but all shall dwell in peace and in dignity in the house of the lord—because we are a living sanctuary of hope and grace!

A Glorious Life

Easter 7A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Memorial Day means the end of school is near. For lots of families, it means graduation. Yesterday evening Kari and I spent about an hour filling our phones with prom photos. I took pictures of Sam and his date in a locked condo courtyard near Chinatown. Kari snapped memories of Joe and his date in the backyard of somebody’s home in Evanston.

Joe’s baseball team is in the playoffs. When they face off against archrival New Trier this Wednesday, it will likely be Joe’s very last baseball game after twelve years of organized play. Sam, who attends CPS, still has finals. The next three weeks on our family calendar include two commencement ceremonies and one shared graduation party.   We will have caps and gowns, valedictory addresses, and well wishes times two.   The end of school, of course, is only the beginning for both of them. The are already planning their next big thing. Joe is heading off to Colorado State in my hometown, Ft. Collins, Colorado; while Sam will be attending DePaul here in Chicago. Within this community there are six High School graduates this year—all of them headed of to college. In addition to Sam and Joe, congratulations are due to Katie Brink, Savita Gupta, Ruby Massey, and Allison McDonough.

The high priestly prayer in our gospel today is a kind of commencement address for the early church and the apostles on the night of his arrest following the Last Supper. Jesus prayed his death and resurrection would be just the beginning of zoe ionias, or life eternal (John 17:3). Here Jesus himself explains what this phrase means: “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus the Messiah whom you have sent.”

Jesus’ commencement prayer is that we may have an abundant life starting today. In the Hebrew context, the great project of God’s redemption was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay. (NT Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, pp. 44-45) Jesus’ wish for abundant life is different than what most parents say they most want for their kids.

Years ago I was involved in the peaceable schools project at Lyons Township High School in La Grange, Illinois near St. James Lutheran Church, which was my first call. At that time, parents became concerned that their race for greater academic achievement and higher test scores was having ugly and unintended consequences contributing to bullying and racism.

In extensive surveys parents said over and over what they most wanted for their kids was not Harvard or a high-flying career. They just wanted for their kids to be happy. This insight provided clarity about the importance of taking time within the school day to teach conflict resolution, teamwork, service and citizenship skills to support growth in emotional maturity among young people at LTHS. But as an over-arching life goal it turns out, just wishing our kids to be happy in life is not enough.

Generations of youth launched with this heart felt advice have sought meaning in being constantly entertained and pampered. They’ve sought salvation on cruise ships, adventure vacations, and in Las Vegas –not to mention food, drugs, alcohol, sex, and massive quantities of new stuff mostly bought on credit only to discover this does not make them happy but depressed, stressed, and alone. Jesus did not die so you and I could live worse in a bigger house. Jesus’ commencement prayer was that we might have abundant life by dwelling in relationship with God.

We have met life itself. He has told us his name is Jesus. Jesus is the key that turns the tumblers in us to open the way to abundant life and our true self. By the way, Christians do not own the copyright on this Jesus. In John’s gospel Jesus is the revealer of all life on earth and throughout the universe. Therefore, if any religion is true, it is true only to the extent it reveals the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus—whether in the name of Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, Vishnu or any other name.

Jesus prayer for us, and all God’s children, is not happiness but glory. It is a life full and overflowing, a higher life centered in interactive relationship with God and with Jesus. Glory, not happiness, is Jesus’ ultimate goal for us and in a great insult to our ego it comes as God’s free gift and not by anything we can do or achieve. Among the gifts God imparts for glory I’ll name three—compassion, forgiveness and wisdom.

From God the Father we receive the gift of steadfast love and compassion. “The Hebrew word for compassion whose singular form means ‘womb,’ is often used of God in the Old Testament.” (Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 48). To say God is compassionate is to say that God is womblike. Like a womb, God is the one who gives birth to us. As a mother loves her children and feels for them, so God loves and feels for us. One who is alive in Christ dwells in God the Father abides in compassion and reflects this love for all life.

From Christ Jesus we receive the gift of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. Jesus prayed that we might all be one (John 17:11). Jesus came among his betrayers and imparted his peace. Forgiveness is the great gift of glory that breaks the endless circle of vengeance and acrimony and leads us out beside the still waters of belonging and community. By this gift we find resilience in relationship and the ability both to impart strength and to receive strength from one another.

From the Holy Spirit receive the gift of wisdom. In scriptures, lady Wisdom or Sophia, is like a master worker, working with God to bring all things into service of grace. Factors that promote wise reasoning spring from humility, an openness to other perspectives, and the ability to compromise. Wisdom often flows from adopting third-person perspective that places our own well-being in the same framework with that of others.

Jesus’ prayed that we may have zoe ionias. The eternal and abundant life Jesus desires for us is a glorious life often filled with happiness, but also sorrow and a willingness to tolerate pain and sacrifice.

We can glimpse what glory looks like in Facebook videos posted this past week of ten people on marching on our behalf along lonely stretches of the historic highway route 66 on their way from Chicago to Springfield. They’ve carried on now for 14 days through wind, rain and generally miserable weather since we sent them off with cheers and a rally on May 15th from the James R. Thompson Center. They’ll arrive on Tuesday like the ragtag bunch Joshua led around the walls of Jericho hoping to bring down the walls of inaction, greed, and hard-heartedness that’s led to the budget impasse in our State that has stretched on now for 1 year, 10 months and 27 days. On Tuesday they’ll deliver a people and planet first budget that generates billions in new revenue by closing tax loopholes for corporations, eliminating the flat tax, and placing a small fee on financial transaction. I plan to be there with them when they do and I invite all of you to come with me.

The great 14th century English saint and mystic Julian of Norwich said of God: “I am the one who makes you to love; I am the one who makes you to long; I am the one, the endless fulfilling of all true desires.” As we yet linger in these days after the ascension and before Pentecost and prepare to commence in discipleship and the long season of being the church, a living sanctuary of hope and grace in the world, Jesus has called us beyond mere happiness and to reach for glory. We strain forward for glory knowing that even if it eludes our grasp the mere pursuit of it fills our hearts and illumines our lives with dignity. We live the good life by living the life Jesus lived. It is the glorious life for you and me. Life eternal and abundant, the life of the Father to the Son, the life of the Spirit of our ascended Savior, life in God, now and forever. Amen.

Living Water

Lent 3A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Many of you have noticed there’s something different about Lent this year. We have Cabernet Sauvignon. There is Cabernet at communion.   Cabernet goes down well paired with heavy food, but it leaves something to be desired as a stand-alone drink. I’m not sure what the worship team was thinking, but for me, Lenten cabernet makes me wonder. Is this what my prayers taste like in God’s mouth when mixed with the bitterness of my own selfishness and sin?

Today’s gospel offers a wonderful reminder of the abundant and refreshing gift of grace poured out for us in baptism like living water in a thirsty world. Yet sadly, it also reflects the timeless sin repeated again and again by all the world’s religions: God with us begins to mean God is not with you. The purity of God’s grace becomes embittered. This is not the living water that is our birthright.

In nature, water that does not flow soon becomes stagnant and unhealthy to drink. Religion that does not open our hands, hearts and fisted minds to welcome the stranger as we would welcome Christ is no longer healthy religion.

Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well was shocking in part because it transgressed time honored religious lines. Like it says in today’s gospel, “Judeans, of course, do not associate with Samaritans.” (John 4:9b) Samaritans were of Jewish ancestry mixed with other races and practiced an unorthodox religion. Once again Jesus exhibits his tendency to fraternize with all the wrong people.

Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus will tell a famous parable about a Good Samaritan of extraordinary kindness (Luke 10:25-37). He will single out a Samaritan among a group of ten lepers for having faith in giving thanks to God for being healed (Luke 17:11-19). He will rebuke the disciples for wanting to send hell fire to destroy a Samaritan village (Luke 9:52-56). Today Jesus travels through Samaria (already odd because he did not detour around it as was the custom) and surprises both the disciples and a Samaritan women (breaking another taboo about gender) by talking to her directly, engaging her in a conversation about deep spiritual matters (John 4:4-42).

It’s not just the Samaritans who find favor with Jesus, of course. The Syrophoenicians living north of Israel were also considered outsiders and pagans. But when a Syrophoenician woman, desperate for her daughter to be healed, appealed to Jesus he also praised her for her great faith (Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:22-28). Jesus welcomed tax collectors, and sinners and ate with them.

While affirming God’s special relationship with Israel, Jesus demonstrates God’s grace toward and inclusion of people of all backgrounds. Historically, we Christians make a mistake when we see Jesus as a wall and not a bridge to fellowship with other communities of faith.   It’s the miracle of Canna in reverse. We turn living water into bitter wine.

As Christians and Disciples of Christ, that’s why we bear a special burden to oppose anti-Semitism and cannot ignore its recent rise. Although we may never know the motives of the terrorist who phoned in a bomb threat Tuesday, March 7th to Emanuel Congregation and Day School, we can safely assume it had something to do with a tragically misinformed Christian theology. The bitter death-dealing wine of religious terrorism is not in keeping with the spirit the God we know, whether it is perpetrated in name of Christ, Muhammad, or Moses.

It was good to see so many of you Friday night for Shabbat at Emanuel Congregation –and so many from our diverse faith communities in Edgewater—to stand with our brothers and sisters of faith in solidarity against hate. The spirit of God’s grace and hospitality was poured out on us there like living water.

The focus of our Lenten devotions this week was the Apostles Creed, were we read that all people are created in the image of God. Rozella Haydée White wrote, “Believing that God created all makes a difference in how we interact with each other and with creation. We begin to see that everything and everyone is sacred, reflecting the beauty, depth, and breadth of God. Sometimes this reality is easier for me to grasp than another one—that I too am not only created by God but actually created in God’s image. This truth can be daunting because I struggle with my own worth and enoughness. To believe that a bit of the divine resides in me means that the totality of my existence has the capacity to reflect the love, compassion, and humility that define the very character of God.” (Free Indeed, Devotions for Lent 2017, p. 27)

As author and poet Madeleine L’Engle wrote in Walking on Water, “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”

We were talking about the political strains in our country, our state, and our city when one of my pastoral colleagues this week loudly announced she was giving up despair for Lent. After talking with Jesus, the woman at the well left her water jar and went into the city bearing living water she shared freely with anyone she met (John 4:28). Five gallons of water weigh more than forty pounds. This nameless woman in our gospel has pretty much everything stacked against her: she is a Samaritan in this Jewish story, a woman in a male-dominated world, has lived a challenging and probably tragic life, and is very likely dependent on others. And yet after her encounter with Jesus she leaves her water jar behind to live a new and different life and to share with others what God has done for her.” (David Lose)

She leaves the weight of her past at the well. She exchanged stigma and hopelessness for joy. She gave up despair for Lent. She preached good news to thirsty people in the city and a new community in Christ was born.

We, who are thirsty for God, find living water here in our baptism. The old bitterness is flushed away. Here, Christ comes among us in word and meal. Never forget we have good news of great joy to share. In sharing it we are repairing the world in some small way, we become a living sanctuary of hope and grace and this task has only become more urgent in these days.

On Friday night, our hope and joy was rekindled as we sang and prayed led by our friends at Emanuel Congregation. On page 124 of the Jewish prayer book I noticed one in particular that could be a re-statement of our own mission and a way for the living water of the gospel to flow freely among us, through us, and from us:

 

May the door of this synagogue be wide enough

to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for friendship.

 

May it welcome all who have cares to unburden,

thanks to express, hopes to nurture.

 

May the door of this synagogue be narrow enough

to shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity.

 

May its threshold be no stumbling block

to young or straying feet.

 

May it be too high to admit complacency,

selfishness and harshness.

 

May this synagogue be, for all who enter,

the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.

(Mishkan T’Filah: A Reform Siddur, p. 124)

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)