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Posts from the ‘God’s Family’ Category

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!

Truth Unveiled

Proper 28B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Do you see these walls, these windows, that great red granite cross?  Jesus said, “not one stone will be left here upon another” (Mark 13:2b).

On this penultimate Sunday of the church year, our gospel lens on God’s grace widens out to take a cosmic perspective. It reminds me of an exhibit at the Adler Planetarium.  We move in an imaginary rocket from earth to planets, to nearby stars, and finally to other galaxies.  The last three Sundays of the church year are sometimes called kingdomtide.  Our focus shifts from a single point in history to the whole story of God and creation. Here alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, are held together.  Here is the sweep of human history, the rise, and fall of nations, the wreck and ruin of civilizations, and the shadowy echoes of human endeavor long since forgotten by everyone but God.

From here, just beneath the gates of heaven, the world looks small. From here, the question naturally arises, “What’s it all for?”  Why this desperate striving to store up treasures for ourselves that do not last?

Some of you may remember I once rode a rented a horse named Chocolate along the edges of the Egyptian desert near Cairo to Sakkara, ancient Egypt’s first pyramid.  Sakkara is part of the great necropolis of Memphis, the capital of the Old Kingdom. It continues to be studied by swarms of Egyptologists. Even more memorable to me was the ruin of a small unmarked out-of-the-way place I happened upon on my way back from the pyramid.  It looked like it was once a place of worship.  Apparently, it was of no interest even to the Egyptologists—or at least—not when I was there in the fall of 1984.

I steered my horse through the front door, down the center aisle, across the spot where I imagined the altar would be, and out a hole in the back wall. What sacrilege I must have committed that day to those who built that place. I wonder, will there be a day, do you think, someone ages and ages from now will wander through whatever remains of Immanuel?

What comes of all our striving?  What echo of our lives will persist in those days, when the very stones with which our church is assembled have turned to sand?

This passage from Mark’s Gospel is often described by scholars as a mini-apocalypse. It may leave us feeling rather bleak and sad. The author’s intention is quite different. Ancient people loved reading apocalyptic literature as much as people today love science fiction or romantic comedies because it inspired hope. The word ‘apocalypse’ means ‘unveiling.’ A Christian apocalypse draws back the veil to reveal the sure and loving hand of God at work in the world. We are meant to see what is truly eternal and what is passing.  We glimpse the truth that will set us free. But of course, sometimes truth, no matter how liberating, can be quite painful and disorienting.

In Jesus’ day, the temple in Jerusalem was one of the most impressive sights in the world.  Torn down twice since King Solomon built it, the second rebuilding was undertaken by Herod before Jesus’ birth. It was not finished until after his crucifixion.

That is to say, when Jesus and the four disciples sat opposite the temple across the Kidron valley upon the Mount of Olives, looking down upon the temple, they were looking at a brand-new building. It was clad with so much gold, looking at it directly could literally be blinding.

What they see is an architectural marvel.  It’s the biggest, boldest, and most unshakeable symbol of God’s presence they can imagine.  Those massive stones hold religious memory. They bolstered a colonized people’s identity. They offered the faithful a potent symbol of spiritual glory, pride, and worthiness.  In short, what takes their breath away as they gaze at the temple is the religious certainty and permanence those glittering stones display to the world.

That’s what the disciples see.  But what does Jesus see?  He sees ruins.  Rubble.  Destruction.  Fragility, not permanence.  Loss, not glory.  Change, not eternity.  “Not one stone will be left here upon another,” Jesus tells the stunned disciple. “All will be thrown down.”

In her collection of sermons, God in Pain, Episcopal pastor and author Barbara Brown Taylor argues that disillusionment is essential to the Christian life.  “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion — about ourselves, about the world, about God — and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.”

Part of our pain today is that so much ugliness we thought was a thing of the past has revealed itself to be very much with us. Pulling back the veil we see sexual violence, gender discrimination, racism, hatred, and mass extinction. Author and social activist Adrienne Maree Brown offered words of hope in speaking about racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016: “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered.  We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”

God’s word does not wither.  God’s will shall not be in vain.  Every life is precious.  When truth is shaken, and nations make war, and imposters preach alluring gospels of fear, resentment, and hatred—don’t give in to terror.  Don’t despair. Avoid hasty, knee-jerk judgments.  Be perceptive, not pious.  Imaginative, not immature.  Make peace, choose hope, cultivate patience, and incarnate love as the world reels and changes. Let the Spirit of God that passes all understanding lead and guide you. All that is not pure will be burned away. Let’s dare to see what Jesus sees. What is great and what is small in the kingdom of God are not the same as what is counted as great and small in the world.

Pastor Debie Thomas writes, “In this troubling context, it’s easy to despair.  Or to grow numb.  Or to let exhaustion win.  But it’s precisely now, now when the world around us feels the most apocalyptic, that we have to respond with resilient, healing love.  It’s precisely now when systemic evil and age-old brokenness threaten to bring us to ruin that we have to “hold each other tight” and allow the veil to part, the walls to fall.  What’s happening, Jesus promises at the end of this week’s Gospel reading, is not death, but birth.  Something is struggling to be born.  Yes, the birth pangs hurt.  They hurt so appallingly much.  But God is our midwife, and what God births will never lead to desolation.  Yes, we are called to bear witness in the ruins, but rest assured: these birth pangs will end in joy.” (Debie Thomas, Not One Stone, Journey with Jesus, 11-11-18)

Isaiah’s Great Discovery

Proper 24B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“…We accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted….[yet] Upon him was the punishment that made us whole.” “By his bruises, we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5).

This is no prosperity gospel. The prophet Isaiah offers hard-won wisdom, born of exile and slavery in Nineveh and Babylon. The people of Israel used to measure their righteousness before God in the value and number of their possessions.  But five hundred years before Christ they began to sing a new song—like the servant song we read today.  They began to see that righteous suffering could become part of God’s ongoing work by contributing to the healing and well-being of the nations that enslaved them.

I know. It sounds like crazy talk.  Yet, the prophet Isaiah claims to have glimpsed a path that leads us past our own pain.  First, we must dispel a common myth about suffering. In his classic book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “The conventional explanation, that God sends us the burden because [God] knows that we are strong enough to handle it, has it all wrong. Fate, not God, sends us the problem. When we try to deal with it, we find out that we are not strong. We are weak; we get tired, we get angry, overwhelmed. . . . But when we reach the limits of our own strength and courage, something unexpected happens. We find reinforcement coming from a source outside of ourselves. And in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God is on our side, we manage to go on. . . .”  (Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Avon Books: 1983), 129, 131.)

Isaiah’s discovery is not talking about carrying on in an abusive relationship.  It’s not about keeping deadly painful secrets out of loyalty to those we love.  It’s not about suffering out of fear and intimidation. Instead, it’s about the pain we endure for the sake of grace, truth, hope, and justice.

Knowing and naming brokenness is essential in the journey toward wholeness. As the 12thcentury German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, and Christian mystic, Hildegard of Bingen [1098–1179] once said, we need two wings with which to fly. One is the “knowledge of good,” and the other is the “knowledge of evil.” If we lack one or the other, we will be like an eagle with only one wing. We will fall to the ground instead of rising to the heights of vision. . . . (Hildegard of Bingen, Letter to Wibert of Gembloux. See Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs, ed. Matthew Fox (Bear & Company: 1987), 350.)

The great discovery our ancestors in faith pass down to us, the insight born of suffering, slavery, and oppression, is that we discover people around us, and God beside us, and strength within us to help us survive the accidents, tragedies, and traumas of life.  Taste and see the Lord is good.  Eventually, this hypothesis is tested in every human life.

Many people rightly question how God can be good or just in the presence of so much evil and suffering in the world—about which God appears to do nothing. Statisticians reassure us, the number of people living in poverty is going down in the world. But advances in communications, radio, television, and now the internet, has also brought more awareness of the suffering endured by people around the globe than ever before.

In answer to this, we proclaim in Jesus. Jesus reveals that God is suffering love. If we are created in God’s image, and if there is so much suffering in the world, then God must also be suffering. How else can we understand the revelation of the cross? Why else would the Christian logo be a naked, bleeding, suffering divine-human being? Jesus reveals God doesn’t just watch human suffering from a safe distance up in heaven; God is somehow at the center of human suffering, with us and for us. The triune God—creator, redeemer, and sanctifier—includes our suffering in the co-redemption of the world, as “all creation groans in one great act of giving birth” (Romans 8:22).

Jesus picked up and amplifies Isaiah’s great discovery in our gospel today. By now the disciples have heard Jesus say not once but twice, “whoever wishes to be first among you must be last and servant of all” (Mark 10:31). They’ve heard Jesus say three times that in Jerusalem he will be condemned, mocked, rejected, spit upon, flogged and executed.

But something about this idea doesn’t compute.  We hear but do not listen.  We look but do not see.  In some type of fever-dream, we imagine our faith, church and religion will put us on a path to greatness.  James and John envisioned themselves seated in glory beside Jesus, one at his right and one at his left, elevated above the rest of the disciples, as they drove the Roman armies out, ruled all of Israel, perhaps even the whole world.

But God does not glory in greatness. God shows no partiality between us; makes no distinction between those inside and those outside. God does not call us owners, but stewards of our lives. Our ancestors in faith offer this surprising message. God calls us out of places of security, privilege, and comfort to meet the suffering and pain within ourselves, and in people around us. Strangely, wonderfully, unbelievably, in this, we discover we are not alone.  We are not victims, but in sharing our weaknesses we are made stronger. In shared foolishness we find wisdom. In sharing our lives, we find true shelter.  We become a living sanctuary of hope and grace. This is not only Immanuel’s tagline but also a lifeline.

Opening ourselves to pain and suffering mirrors God’s work of grace upon entering the world to live among us.  In this way, we open ourselves to hard-won truths beyond regular knowing. We tap into the wisdom of God operating deeply in with and under all things.

In recognition of the St. Luke, the physician, we take extra time in our service today for prayers and anointing for healing.  During the prayers of the people, along with thanksgiving and supplication, members our church stationed throughout the sanctuary, will offer personal prayers of healing for you. May God somehow transform our pain into compassion and wisdom so that rather than transmit or project our suffering onto others we may instead become wounded healers working with Christ to reconcile the world.

Isaiah saw that healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain, with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust and the undeserved—all of which eventually come into every lifetime. Likewise, Jesus now calls and leads into wholeness by way of his life-giving cross.

No One is a Nobody

Proper 22B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through the Back Door

Proper 21B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). Jesus declares he is officially non-partisan. It doesn’t matter what the score is or what team you play for. Winning at all costs is less important than the welfare of the people on both sides. Whenever we draw an artificial line and declare we don’t care who is on the other side we all suffer.  Jesus stands for both sides and for all people.

It was so refreshing to see the flicker of bi-partisanship return to our nation’s capital this week.  Just as one team was ready to score a historic win for their side, they paused for the sake of limiting the damage their victory could do to inflame the divisions tearing at the fabric of our country.

No matter how certain you are about being right, none of us has the whole story. That’s the truth. That’s the way God made us. Once we deny it, it’s surprising how quickly we find ourselves in hell. It’s better to lose a hand or an eye than to lose ourselves and those we love to yet another war between tribes, clans, parties, factions, and religions.  Jesus showed us the way. Jesus gives us an alternative—the way of the cross.

Have you heard the old joke? Saints Peter and Paul are talking at the Pearly Gates. Paul asked Peter how things are going. “Well,” says Peter, “not good. I carefully interview everyone. I double-check for their name in the Book of Life.  I turn away everyone not worthy to enter into heaven, but then I turn around and see those very people wandering around on the inside!  What’s going on?”  “Oh. That’s Jesus” replied Paul.  “Those people you turn away – he keeps letting them in through the back door.”

Martin Luther championed the slogan, sola gratia, by grace alone we are saved. Grace is the key that unlocks the Pearly Gates.  Grace is the undeserved answer to our longing, the lucky break we need to make something of ourselves. Grace is the knife to slice away the tangled mess we’ve made of our lives, and for cutting through the gruesome and hyperbolic sayings in our reading today to reveal the good news of the gospel.

Among some Christians, these verses have a long and cruel history of literal interpretation and application.  We are all witnesses of the tragic power of people to insult, to maim, and even commit murder in the name of being right. Closer to home, who among us doesn’t know someone deeply hurt by the church, or by someone claiming religious authority?  Religion without grace is a terrible, mean thing that has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus.

Catholic theologian and Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr God intends for us to be punished by our sins; whereas Western religions tend to teach that you are punished for your sins.”  It is not for us to mete out judgment or to administer punishments.  Instead, if we would call ourselves Christians, we are called to dispense mercy and forgiveness, just as we ourselves have received mercy and forgiveness by grace through faith. Goodness is its own reward and evil is its own punishment.

Even so, none of us gets through this life unscathed.  We have lost hands and legs. We are the blind and the lame.  We have striven and have failed. We have searched and found no way out, no way past the persistent reality of evil and sin, no way to unlock the Pearly Gates but through grace.  We stand in need.  We are all beggars.  Whatever sacrifice is required of our time, treasure, talents, ego, or lifestyle to get past the stumbling blocks that keep mercy, forgiveness, generosity, and joy—the fruits of grace—from growing in our lives is worth it.

So, it is with thankful joyous hearts we remember that our Lord said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Matthew 7:7)

This grace makes us salty. Salt of the Spirit protects the community from spoiling and from infection.  The apostle John ran to Jesus saying, “We saw this unknown, un-credentialed healer doing spectacular things and using your name even though he is not one of us.”  The disciples wanted Jesus to prevent someone from doing what they have just failed to do (a few chapters before).

“Envy and jealousy are near-sighted sins. They limit our vision and focus our attention on ourselves and our status” (Culpepper, p. 323).  The salt of the Holy Spirit plucks out of us those things that spoil good community.

It was Martin Luther who reminded us to look for the Christian gospel anywhere and everywhere at work in the world, in anyone or anything. Luther said, ‘whatever preaches Christ is the pure and salty gospel, even if Judas Iscariot said it.  Conversely, whatever doesn’t preach Christ is not the gospel, even if Saints Peter or Paul said it.’  It is the salty heart of faith that recognizes the truth about our brothers and sisters in Christ –even when we disagree, even when they play for the opposing team, even though we belong to different tribes.

We pray the salty wisdom of today’s gospel will be poured out upon our city when the verdict in the Jason Van Dyke trial is handed down in the coming days. We pray for the men and women on the jury who carry the enormous weight for us of making a just decision. We remember all of us were hustled in through the back door into the circle of abundant grace because Jesus was willing to break the rules for us. Wisdom begins in the knowledge we all stand in need of grace.

God can use whatever flavor you bring to season the world.  With the salt of grace, God prepares a banquet from the meager stuff of our lives. Bring me who you are.  Bring me your weaknesses.  I will strengthen them. Bring me your doubts.  I will quiet them.  Bring me your shortcomings and your limitations. I will fill your life with abundance.

Like salt, we have been poured out of the salt-shaker and into the world.  Let us embrace the things that make us different not so that we stand apart, but so that we might better stand together.  Let us follow Christ Jesus on the way of the cross.  Let us be salty so that the whole world may know of God’s grace.

Together On The Way

Proper 19B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What God Cares About

Proper 17B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus words sounded flip and scandalous to religious people in his time. But the underlying question is alive today.  What does God care about? I mean really?  Being about what God cares about could be the central the objective of any religion.  It’s disheartening that Christians share the same bible yet have such different answers.

In college, I was on a Christian outreach team.  At the invitation of congregations throughout the mid-west, we drove out to spend a weekend with high school youth and often also led worship. We wrote our own skits. One, in particular, inspired by today’s gospel, always went over well we thought. My job was to do the sound effects.  With each word, I cracked my belt really loud. Out of the hearts of men comes fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and folly” (Mark 7:22).  With each one, it appeared as though Jesus was being whipped.

These things defile us and are what God cares about. Yet I also wonder if in our youthful enthusiasm to be dramatic whether we somehow implied that following Christ was all about being nice. As if you can be a good Christian simply by being polite. As if walking the way of Jesus’ cross was about inter-personal morality rather than justice.  Using this gospel to justify it, we Christians fall right into the same trap the Pharisees found themselves in mostly because it makes religions so much easier.  I don’t have to worry about how my food is produced as long as I’m nice.  I don’t have to think about where my clothes are made and who makes them as long as I treat others respectfully.  I don’t have to change my lifestyle and I can buy all the stuff I want at Walmart just as long as I never use foul language.  But really, is that all God cares about?

I read an Op-ed piece in the paper this week entitled, “Can the Catholic church be redeemed?”  Stories of child sexual abuse are sickening.  We in the Lutheran might feel a little too satisfied that we don’t have that problem.  Yet the loss of trust in the Church as a place of wisdom and guidance is so widespread as to include us all.  As Christendom in North America emerges from decades happily embracing the brand of mainline religion, cozied up to political authorities and proudly carrying the banner of American patriotism and civil religion are we surprised now to see so many people around us have come to judge that what church people care about and what God cares about are not the same?  Integrity.  Our walk matches our talk.  It’s one of our ten core values.  It is gospel medicine, like this gospel today, calling the whole Church, to focus on what God cares about.  Can we, can this congregation, be part of that answer? Can we identify ways we’re already doing that? I believe we can.

We are not afraid to learn something from the world outside the church. We know the arena for living our faith is the world. (Another one of our core values.)  When we go outside, we are not surprised to find God already at work there. We are not afraid to follow the Holy Spirit.  We do not retreat into moralism and forsake social justice. We will not circle the wagons of traditionalism as if somehow God is to be found in the past and not in the present, or that God cares more about preserving past glories than in working to ensure all life continues to survive and flourish in the future.  We can do this because this is what God cares about.  We can do this because God gives us the inspiration and the will to do them.  We’ve got our work cut out for us.

We read today from the Letter of James, religion that is pure and undefiled before God, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:27).  Jesus was critical of that way of being religious that wants to judge, and ‘lord it over’ others. Instead, Jesus taught that what really matters to God is to have compassion and to forgive one another.

As Scholar Marcus Borg wrote, Jesus deliberately substituted the Hebrew standard from Leviticus “be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2) with the call to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).  Catholic journalist and author Gary Wills writes, therefore, “No outcasts were cast out far enough in Jesus’ world to make him shun them—not Roman collaborators, not lepers, not prostitutes, not the crazed, not the possessed. Are there people now who could possibly be outside his encompassing love?”  Of course, the answer is no. (Gary Wills, What Jesus Meant)

God is more concerned with how human beings treat one another, and what they say to one another than with religious rules about what we eat or drink, or whether we wash our hands. God is more interested that we live by the gospel than with how well we pray or how often we read the bible. Jesus challenged religious people of his time and of today to remember what truly matters is our neighbor’s well-being.  This is the living edge of our religious traditions, not our own sense of purity or defilement.

I say God doesn’t care how often you read the bible, but God does care that you live the gospel.  We can’t live this gospel without Jesus.  That’s another trap Christians can fall into sometimes called easy grace.  As if the gospel is simply about being a good person.  That’s only half of it.  We can’t be the person we are created to be without God’s help and inspiration to walk the way of Jesus’ cross.  We must keep returning to the center—to the table and the font—in order to return again into who truly we are and to what we are called to be. Now, that’s what God cares about.

When people of faith confuse devotion to God with focus on narrow-minded rules for righteousness or lock-step allegiance to some particular aspect of our religious tradition, they begin a dangerous transition from being hospitable and compassionate to being cold and judgmental.  History alone should be enough to teach us always to be humble.  To listen and talk things out with one another, and always to listen more than we talk. To know what matters about being Christian we must keep our eyes focused on Jesus and not each other.

Simply stated, the cure for sin, and for bad religion is Jesus. Biblical commands never take precedence over what is compassionate and caring. Jesus has proclaimed God’s forgiveness.  Who you are and what you might have done is not as important as who you are becoming. Through water and Word, bread and wine, we are on the way, dying to the little things, opening to the bigger things.  By grace, God enters our lives through Christ Jesus and makes us new from the inside out—and that’s all that really matters.

In Flesh and Blood

Proper 15B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

To begin to explain communion the gospel of John points to the cross. Jesus said, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51b) Jesus did indeed give his pound of flesh on the cross. He will hand over his flesh and blood to the full power and ingenuity of the Roman Empire to inflict pain and to sow fear. On the cross, Jesus walked straight into the death-dealing jaws of worldly power, to reveal the greater life-giving power of grace

On the cross, once-and-for-all, Jesus proved God’s love cannot be broken despite how awful you are or whatever evil we have committed. Once-and-for-all Jesus revealed that glory is ours and God is beside us when we give our own flesh and blood for the sake of the suffering. Once-and-for-all Jesus showed us where we belong. We dwell in unity with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit today and forever. Therefore, following Jesus’ example, we here highly dedicate our flesh and blood in solidarity with victims of collective violence wherever and whenever they exist. For the first three centuries, before Constantine, the church more easily identified with the oppressed having sometimes been the victim of the Empire’s collective violence itself.

This is the life of which we partake. This is the true food we consume at the Table to nourish and to give soul to our poor flesh and blood. The cross is Jesus’ answer to the question of what kind of life the bread and wine incarnate in us. The cross is a sign of the kind of life the waters of baptism even now are working to reveal.  The cross is a stark sign of incarnation. Somehow, the Christian gift and message of the incarnation sounds sweeter and less threatening in Advent in Mary’s Magnificat or in barren Elizabeth’s joy in conceiving. But the message is the same. “If in your heart you make a manger for his birth, then God will once again become a child on earth.” (Ana Hernandez)

After the resurrection, Jesus’ words at the end of John, chapter 6, will sound different and more intelligible to the disciples too. But for now, they are scandalous.

In Hebrew culture “an eater of flesh” is another name for the devil. The drinking of blood is forbidden by God’s law. Even today keeping kosher means there’s no blood in your food.  On top of all this, Jesus uses a word for eating that’s especially crude.  It was used to describe the way animals eat. Jesus’ phrase ‘eat my flesh’ translated literally sounds like a command to loudly chew or to gnaw his flesh –disgusting!

It sounded like blasphemy. It sounded like idolatry. Worse, it sounded like cannibalism.  Upon hearing Jesus’ words, a dispute broke out among his followers (John 6:52).  Scripture implies it was a serious conflict, perhaps even physical. The argument was intense and bitter.

Up to now, great crowds of people had followed Jesus’ every move.  They ran ahead to arrive at his destination before he could. But now they said, “this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (vs. 60) …and because of this many who were following him, turned back and no longer went about with him’ (vs. 66) because of the flesh and blood.

Flesh and blood—because of the flesh and blood—people rejected Jesus. Indeed, the shock and scandal of the incarnation continued to be a difficult teaching for Christians throughout the history of the church. In our theology, ecclesiology, and daily practice of faith we turn and twist it to avoid confronting its full meaning.

When we partake of one flesh, let’s face it, there are always going to be some people we want to exclude. Flesh and blood are our family-right?  Flesh and blood are the people who look like us, who come from the same place, who share the same history.  Your flesh and blood are the people you don’t have to explain yourself to. They’re the ones to whom we’re especially devoted, obliged to be loyal, who call on us when times are tough, and with whom we share our wealth in life and in death.  Wrong. In Christ all people of every nation are included in God’s family—even strangers—worse, even enemies!  Jesus’ friends and family from his hometown of Nazareth were so shocked and scandalized when they heard Jesus’ inclusive message they moved as one to throw him over a cliff.

It’s been the same ever since. Christians with all their rules and heavy expectations deny access to the kingdom train at the front door, while Jesus lets everyone in at the back door. If we followed Jesus way of the cross, there wouldn’t be a difference.  Every congregation would be united and as diverse as are all the children of humanity.

It doesn’t stop there. Discomfort with strangers is just the beginning. The shock and scandal of the incarnation calls upon us do something, that for most of us, is even more difficult—to love our own fleshy, bloody, messy bodies. The gospel of Christ calls upon us to turn and embrace what we so fiercely reject in ourselves—namely our mortality, our limitations, our flaws, our vulnerabilities, our shame, and shortcomings.  This is the plain meaning of the incarnation: the fullness of God is pleased to dwell in, with, and under us and everything that surrounds us.  The material world is infused with Spirit.

Through its history, the church has side-stepped the radical inclusion of the incarnation to make things easier and to make the Christian life less threatening.  Every time we slice a little bit of our humanity off from the blessing of incarnation we have hell to pay for it. We have said, yes, God is fully present –but only among the male gender, or especially in the ordained, or only among baptized Christians, or most tragically, only among those the celibate. The unholy interlocking triangle of gender, celibacy, and ordination contributes to a culture of secrecy and sexual abuse. Pain and tragedy results when we call anyone or anything unclean that God has made good. (Acts 10:15)

The depth of our sinfulness obscures and hides the gift of incarnation in us. We are wise to be humble, to listen, to pray, and discern together how to walk the way the cross. The cross must not become a cheap and easy way to crucify or to judge others but used for that which Jesus’ intends it –as the means of transforming our own flesh and blood to better reflect the divine image endowed and incarnate in us by our creator.

We abide together, one flesh, one blood, one body. The verb translated in our gospel, ‘to abide’ occurs 40 times in John and 29 times in John’s letters.  It can mean to remain, stay, live, dwell, last, endure, or continue.   As a noun, it means a dwelling place, room, or home.  Jesus’ shocking, off-putting words are an invitation to enter into wisdom. Enter into the life of the Trinity. In this new understanding of our body and our life—of where and to whom we belong—we begin to act differently.  We make different choices.  We value different things.  Our mission at Immanuel is rooted in this.  Together, our vision and our prayer is to become a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Table Fellowship

Proper 14B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

One day Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with the disciples. When he looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward them, he bid them sit down. (John 6:3) There were people of every station, nation, and denomination.  Seated near Jesus was Matthew the tax collector who had once made a living by cooperating with the occupying Roman army.  Nearby by was another disciple, Simon the Zealot, who once conspired with revolutionaries for the violent overthrow of Rome.  Political opposites seated together. Red and blue united in communion with Jesus.

In the crowd were others we might have recognized, like the man formerly known as the Gerasene demoniac, or perhaps the leper who returned to say thanks, or the woman healed of the hemorrhage she suffered for twelve years. The Samaritan woman could have been there, as could Jairus the synagogue leader. Maybe even Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea –along with Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, Salome, and the other Mary’s who used to financially support Jesus’ ministry.

Many who shared the feast were deeply, personally connected to Jesus. Most were there because they were hungry, or because they were curious, or because they wanted to see someone famous. Whatever their reasons for being there. It didn’t matter. Gathered together were people there of faith, of no faith, and of different faiths. Yet each person was welcomed. Each person one was fed.  What are we to make of it?

This is week three of five in which we meditate upon the 6thchapter of John’s gospel.  There’s a lot going on.  You could get a Ph.D. picking through all the details.  Don’t neglect to see the big picture. This is what Eucharist looks like. The entire scene is meant as inspiration and guidance for us in what it means to be Christian, to be the body of Christ, united in holy communion with the cosmic Christ, fed at his table to become food for others—bread for the world.

This might be Jesus’ most often repeated teaching.  Jesus mostly taught from the table. He was constantly eating in new ways and with new people, encountering those who were oppressed or excluded from the system. Through table fellowship, Jesus was teaching us what family means. He was always trying to broaden the circle.

By one side, he was criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10-11, for example); by the other side, he was judged for eating too much (Luke 7:34) or for eating with the Pharisees and lawyers (Luke 7:36-50, 11: 37-54, 14:1). He ate with both sides. He ate with lepers (Mark 14:3), he received a woman with a bad reputation at a men-only dinner (Luke 7:36-37), and he even invited himself over to a “sinner’s” house (Luke 19:1-10). He didn’t please anybody, it seems, always breaking the rules and making a bigger table.

Here is the New Jerusalem.  There, seated en mass on the mountain, and at table in home after home was the Kingdom of God.   This is what Eucharist means. This is what holy communion looks like. We must be careful not to miss the point.

As Christianity developed and communion moved from being an inclusive meal with open table fellowship to the relatively safe ritual meal we call the Eucharist, unfortunately, that ritual itself became a way to categorize people into groups of insiders and outsiders in terms of worthiness and unworthiness—just the opposite of Jesus’ intention! Jesus continually interprets the Law of Holiness from the Hebrew Bible in terms of the God whom he has met—and that God is always compassion and mercy. We emphasized the priest as the “transformer” instead of the people as the transformed.

Eucharist is more than a theological statement that requires intellectual assent. “It is an invitation to socially experience the shared presence of God and to be present in an embodied way(Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, The Shape of the Table, 7/22/18). Eucharist is both deeply personal and profoundly communal.  That’s the point, in our own small way, of moving back and forth from the rail in Advent and Lent to standing together before the altar each summer. More importantly, eucharist should help us to recognize the people who flood into Immanuel each week, in some cases, for more than thirty years for playgroups, tutoring, and the Cooperative Nursery school are a lot like the crowd that gathered around Jesus in John chapter 6.  Jesus instructed the disciples then, as he continues to encourage us today–just give them something to eat.

When you are really present with our guests then you will experience the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist for yourself.

In the Eucharist, we slowly learn how to surrender to the Presence in one place, in one thing, in one focused moment. The priest holds up the Host and says, “See it here, believe it here, get it here, trust it here.” Many Christians say they believe in the Presence in the Eucharist, but they don’t get that it is everywhere—which is the whole point! They don’t seem to know how to recognize the Presence of God when they leave the church when they meet people who are of a different religion or race or sexual orientation or nationality. They cannot also trust that every person is created in the image of God. Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry trying to break down the false distinctions between “God’s here” and “God’s not there.” He dared to see God everywhere, even in sinners, in enemies, in failures, and in outsiders.”  Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Eucharist, 7/27/18) We are not always capable of seeing that, but fortunately God is patient with all of us and with history itself.

This, now, here is the bread of live present always and everywhere.  Taste it here and now.  Chew on it and meditate upon it, so that you may better see and greet Christ in your neighbor and to become food that nourishes the soul.

The Iona Abbey, on an obscure island off the coast of a narrow peninsula in Scotland, where Christianity thrived for hundreds of years throughout the Dark Ages of Europe, put the invitation to Eucharist this way:

The table of bread and wine is now to be made ready. It is the table of company of Jesus, and all who love him. It is the table of sharing with the poor of the world, with whom Jesus identified himself. It is the table of communion with the earth, in which Christ became incarnate. So, come to this table, you who have much faith and you who would like to have more; you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time; you who have tried to follow Jesus, and you who have failed; come. It is Christ who invites us to meet him here. (Iona Abbey Worship Book (Wild Goose Publications: 2001)

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