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Come and See. Follow Me.

Epiphany 2B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus found Philip.  Philip found Nathanael. They joined Andrew, Simon Peter, and others in declaring eureka! “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:41).  The English translation is dry by comparison.  There is joy, amazement, and disbelief in their voice.  Can anything good come out of s–holes like Nazareth? Come and see. Follow me.

Great adventures often begin—because of what see calling us to explore. Longs Peak in Colorado is something like that.  If you’ve ever been to Denver you’ve seen it. Longs Peak is the highest mountain on the horizon. It took me three tries to reach the top.

You get out of bed at 3:00 am to be on the trail by 6:00 in order to reach the summit by 12 noon before the lightning storms roll in. The final third of the hike has is no real trail. There are boulders to climb over, a scree field at a 45-degree incline, and a narrow ledge across a vertical rock face. At 14,259 feet above sea level, the air becomes thin and breathing is difficult. The top is the size of about two football fields and just as flat. Mathematicians calculate you can see 150 miles. It seems farther. I remember someone driving golf balls over the diamond-shaped cliff.  I remember a sailplane appearing as if by magic and circling the summit.  I remember catching sight of the tiny glint of the parking lot where we left our car and wondering if I had enough left in me to make it back down. We stopped for pizza that night and I could barely lift the pieces to my mouth.  We could see it. That’s why we had to climb it.

Who you follow defines what you do and who you become.  We followed a trail most of the way to the top of Longs Peak, but the road to get there was longer. It involved planning and preparation. Following that path meant defining our goals, focusing our energy, organizing our calendar and the commitment of financial resources.  Following gives direction to your life.

Philip, Nathanael, Andrew, and Simon Peter didn’t know they were Christians. They just knew they were thirsty and hungry for something better. They didn’t know they were disciples, or followers until they saw Jesus.  He said to them come and see.  Follow me. He was a walking epiphany, an awakening.  The disciples were among the first in the human family to see something in Jesus that answered their own deepest longing that drew them to follow.

The American Catholic Monk, mystic, and writer Thomas Merton compared baptism to spiritual mountain climbing.  The original, but censored, beginning of his famous autobiographical book about coming to faith and becoming a monk, The Seven Storey Mountain reads, “When a man [or woman] is conceived, when a human nature comes into being as an individual, concrete, subsisting thing, a life, a person, then God’s image is minted into the world. A free, vital, self-moving entity, a spirit informing flesh, a complex of energies ready to be set into fruitful motion begins to flame with love, without which no spirit can exist…” The disciples saw this in Christ Jesus.

Our baptism tells us what we are. Baptism means each of us is created in the image of God and that’s why we’re restless and searching until we begin to conform our lives into the likeness of that image. Baptism means we are loved and accepted as God’s own child just as we are, and yet called by that same love to be and do more than we ever thought possible. Baptism is the beginning of a spiritual adventure.  To say that we are Christians means that Jesus is our epiphany.  We have seen and heard in him who and what we are. Because we have glimpsed the divine and have seen God’s eternal love for all creation in Jesus we follow him in the way that he lived.  Like a mountain beaconing on the distant horizon, Jesus makes visible a new way of living we have learned to call the way of the cross.

Like climbing a mountain, the way of the cross is the slow, painstaking process of faith becoming lived faith in us. The way of the cross is the life-long struggle to transform beliefs into lifestyles and habits with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit. We do not make this climb alone. Although it is deeply personal and intimate the way of the cross is not merely a project in self-improvement.  It must be communal. It involves us with one another. The way of the cross is learning to beat our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks by fashioning communities of justice and peace. Come and see, Jesus says.  Follow me.

Jesus’ invitation to discipleship is also an invitation to wellness.  The old preacher W.C. Coffin wrote, “The incarnation says as much about what we are to become as it does about what God has become.”  “The Word became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1:14).  We are called to love and serve the Lord, with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Somehow, the poisonous idea that discipleship must force a wedge between our spiritual life and our earthly selves has crept into Christian consciousness.  Yet scripture could not be clearer.  We are not disembodied souls. We are bodies.  As St. Paul reminds us today in 1 Corinthians, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Cor. 6:19).  Paul admonishes us, therefore, that the life of discipleship calls us to be good stewards of our bodies. Exercise is part of your spiritual work.  Respect your bodily needs and learn to love your limitations for these are what make us appreciate one another.

We are embarked upon a spiritual adventure by our baptism into Christ.  It will call upon us to plan and to make preparations. Following the path revealed by Jesus means defining our goals, focusing our energy, organizing our calendar and the commitment of our financial resources.

Here at Immanuel, we measure progress toward this goal to the extent that we together are a living sanctuary of hope and grace.  This is why we do what we do that gives purpose and direction to everything we undertake and to what we strive to become. A living sanctuary is a place people feel safe.  It is a place to renew trust and become a community of mutual respect and care. Sanctuary is a place where we come to know the depth of our own human dignity and hear the still small voice of God.  Sanctuary is the place we make together for others to see and hear the living Christ in us. Sanctuary is a beacon inviting and welcoming the poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

We’re keeping ourselves honest and telling the story of ways we’re making progress toward this goal in a piece in today’s This Week and the E-newsletter called This Is Us.  Sometime later today look for it to read testimonies of young people in the ECT youth group.

Jesus extends an invitation to discipleship and the way of the cross that is not a command.  Each of us must hear God’s call for ourselves, wrestle with the obstacles, and respond in faith with the lived faith we do together. Come and see.  Follow me, Jesus says.

Love is God in Me

Baptism of our Lord B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1). Biblical cosmology was inspired by cutting-edge work by the ancient philosophers of Babylon.  They pictured a flat earth standing on pillars.  Underneath was the realm of the dead.  Sitting on top they imagined a large dome separating the heavens from the earth.  The stars were said to be small holes in the dome through which the light of heaven could be seen to be shining through.

It sounds ridiculous to us, of course, but to this very day every time you hear someone say ‘heaven is up’ and ‘hell is down’, this is the understanding of how the universe is organized they’re talking about. And this is exactly the kind of universe, Mark says, was torn apart when Jesus was baptized.

From the very beginning of Mark’s gospel, the heavens were ripped open as Jesus burst free from beneath the waters of baptism.  God broke the barrier between heaven and earth.

Now what is opened can be closed again.  But what has been torn apart must remain open for all time. Through Christ Jesus, Mark says, the realms of heaven and the realms of earth have become mixed together.  God is now everywhere up close in, with, and under us throughout the world.

God is with you.  It’s a theme Mark repeats as Jesus first breaks upon the scene and when he leaves it, Jesus’ entrance and exit.  At the moment of Jesus’ death on a cross, as Jesus breathed his last, the curtain in the Temple that separates the profane from the Holy of Holies was torn in two from top to bottom (Mark 15:38).

It means that God cannot be contained in our holy spaces. God is loose in the land.  God’s presence fills the world.  God’s light shines from the darkness of human hearts.  It means the church cannot set conditions for God’s involvement with you. Baptism is not an if-then. If you are baptized then God will be part of your life.  God is already always and everywhere part of every life.  Period.  When will these old discredited ideas be finished among us?

Your baptism is not for God but for you.  Baptism is God’s gift, not a prerequisite. Just as the spirit of God moved and brooded upon the waters of creation, so God creates order and blessing from the chaos of our lives. The Spirit of God intercedes and prays for us without ceasing. God is not too big or too busy to care. The Sacraments are a way of speaking that goes beyond mere words to become an indelible part of our identity: Behold, God says, you are my beloved child.

From baptism, we learn that it is God’s very own voice that speaks to us of the dignity of every human life.  It is God’s own life that gives our own its infinite depth.  It is God who counsels and guides us in the quiet, dark hours.  It is God who pushes and cajoles us toward our calling and mission as artists of grace. It is God who shines the light of creative grace upon our feet and casts a light on our path.  It is God who has brought us together –God who strengthens and prepares us to work in concert with the Spirit as members of the living body of Christ at work in the world.

It is part of the majesty and glory of God that God is not only the creator.  God is a creator of co-creators.  God is a lover of artists. God delights to see what new and beautiful things we can make from what God has given and God laments the tragedies wrought from our ignorance and evil—forever.  What we do, or do not do, or allow to be done in our name, has real consequences. Our identity as baptized believers in Christ is our call to work together to fashion communities of hospitality and grace.

Jesus baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry.  Likewise, our baptism has a public dimension for us to become peacemakers.  Jesus, the lamb of God, became a scapegoat.  He took the blame for upsetting the social order and was sacrificed for us on a cross in order to end all scapegoating, violence born of vengeance, jealousy, fear, and disloyalty.  Jesus appears to the disciples and said, peace be with you.  My peace be upon you. I refuse to be part of your sin accounting game anymore. At his baptism, Jesus ripped apart the ability of any religious or secular authority to separate people whether by gender, race, color, ethnicity, morality, religion or zip code. Community in Christ is not based on fear of our enemies or anger at outsiders, but rather the unity we share as children of God.

Baptism makes explicit what already is. You are a child of God among a diverse family of God with many brothers and sisters.  Baptism is God’ invitation to work together to make our lives and our communities ever more closely reveal the likeness of God in whose image we are created and whose mark we indelibly bear. Behold, the manger of the infant Christ is prepared within you.

The Catholic Italian author Carlo Carreto (1910-1988) wrote, “Love is God in me.
Yes, love is God in me, and if I am in love I am in God, that is, in life, in grace: a sharer in God’s being…If charity is God in me, why look for God any further than myself? And if God is in me as love, why do I change or disfigure God’s face with acts or values which are not love? (“Love Is for Living”, quoted from Carlo Carretto: Essential Writings, Robert Ellsberg)

In Christ Jesus, God tore apart what we had come to believe was how the world is organized and how it works.  “So [by baptism] if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Praise and Thanksgiving

Christmas Eve – 2017

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Ah, dearest Jesus, holy child, prepare a bed, soft, undefiled, a quiet chamber in my heart, that you and I may never part” (From Heaven Above, ELW #268 ).  A newborn’s precocious four-year-old sibling tells her parents, “I want to talk to my new little brother alone.” The parents put their ears to the door and hear the little girl saying to her baby brother, “Quick, tell me who made you. Tell me where you came from. I’m beginning to forget!”

A child’s strange intuition finds affirmation in Christian tradition and scripture. People of every time and place share the same address and zip code. Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the home we came from and the final resting place toward which we inevitably must travel. If all this were not mysterious enough, scripture casts the circle of oneness even wider. Our bible conceives humankind shares cosmic union with all life, including rocks and trees, earth and sky, meadows and mountains.

Words of the psalmist we sang a few moments ago proclaim:

“O sing to the Lord a new song;

sing to the lord, all the earth.

Sing to the Lord, bless his name;

tell of his salvation from day to day.

Declare his glory among the nations,

his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (96:1-3)

 

The prophet Isaiah declares:

12 For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. (Isaiah 55:12)

 

The story of Jesus’ birth is about union with God, one another, and all creation. With the incarnation, God was not content to dwell merely in you, or only in us, but the Spirit of God is poured out and fills all things with beauty and grace. The angel declared good news of great joy to poor shepherds for all people, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.”

In response “All the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all the peoples. Have we forgotten?  How have we missed this?  Scripture teaches us to listen for the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; watch for the field to exult, and everything in it, and “then all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the Lord’s coming (Psalm 96:11-12). The whole earth resonates with magnificent music at the Lord’s coming to restore the good order of creation and to teach the peoples how to live in harmony with that order and indeed, to teach them “the truth.”

Somehow, we have lost the sense of enchantment that came naturally to ancient peoples and persists to this day in cultures of the East and also among native Americans among others. The message of Christmas offers the perfect antidote. Incarnation means everything sparkles with the fullness and presence of God.  Matter is not empty, but everything speaks of the one life we share.

Re-enchantment born of incarnation is urgently needed among us to restore us to health and balance.  When we become so disconnected from the enchanted world we inhabit that forests, meadows, mountains, oceans, sky—indeed entire species—are regarded as meaningless, immaterial, and irrelevant to our welfare is it any wonder that people too can be treated as mere refuse to be held out of sight, isolated, and discarded?

This Christmas story is powerful gospel medicine. To follow where it leads means listening to mere shepherds and to those on the margins of society today.  It means learning to listen again to what makes both heaven and earth sing –Gloria! Gloria! Gloria!

Journalist Stephanie Saldaña, writing for the New York Times yesterday (12/22/17), has told us where to look if we want to find Jesus this Christmas.

“In the city of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, Christmas is approaching. A tree on the main square is alight in blue; a Nativity scene has Mary and Joseph standing vigil beside the baby Jesus. Locals are busily shopping for gifts and sipping coffee at cafes.

Just 15 minutes up the road, at the refugee and migrant camp called Moria, it is not Christmas but winter that is approaching. More than 6,000 souls fleeing the world’s most violent conflicts — in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo — are crowded in a space meant for 2,330. The scene is grim: piles of trash, barbed wire, children wailing, rows of cheap summer tents with entire families crammed inside and fights regularly breaking out on the camp’s periphery. The stench is overwhelming.

I have visited many refugee camps in the Middle East, but never have I seen anything like Moria, a place Pope Francis has likened to a concentration camp. I have also never understood the true meaning of Christmas — a story in which Jesus was born into a family that became refugees — until I visited the people who are now forced to call it home.” Today Moria is Bethlehem. Those stranded inside are not humans to be disposed of, but Emmanuel, God with us.  (By STEPHANIE SALDAÑA, NYT, 12/22/17)

The gifts of God are an inescapable part of life.  But our response to them is not.  According to Luke’s Nativity, we have three choices in response to grace.  First, we can be like the Romans and the religious leaders who do not play a role in the story of Jesus’ birth except by their absence.  Implicitly, their response to grace it to reject and condemn it.  Or, second, we can be like the shepherds who rushed to Bethlehem to find their angelic sign verified in the manger.  They glorified and praised God.  They were amazed by the events that took place before them. They told others what had happened and all were astonished.  But then they left the scene.  They had a good story to tell but did not have faith.  Raymond Brown points out that they were like those in the parable of the seed who “hear the word, receive it with joy, but have no root” (Matt. 13:20-21).

But lastly, we can be like Mary, who Luke tells us “treasured and pondered all that was said about Jesus in her heart” (Luke 2:19).  Among those in the manger, only Mary followed Jesus to the cross.  In the parable of the seed, she is like those who upon hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart (Matt. 13:23).

The birth of Jesus, invites us, again and again, to give ourselves to the in-breaking of God’s rule in our midst.  It comes in unexpected ways.  The gift of God’s Immanuel invites us to become a new creation (Willi Marxsen p.73).

The Christmas story invites you to step into the manger and give yourself over to joy.  See, there is a place for you right next to baby Jesus. Risk yourself along with him to loving.  You and I, together with Mary, are gifted and challenged this night to open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to behold –a gift wrapped in swaddling clothes and nestled on the straw which is the fullness and presence of the living God! –given for you.  Let the whole creation cry. Amen!

Freedom Road

Advent 3B-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Prepare the way of the Lord. Open your ears to the words of the prophets. The true light, which enlightens everyone, is coming into the world (John 1:9).

Like a signal fire or improvised landing strip, clearing a path for God was a rescue plan for the ancient Israelites. The way of the Lord would lead them home from generations of bondage and slavery into freedom.

Our Advent prayer to prepare the way, therefore, is not like the house cleaning we do to be ready for holiday guests.  Instead, it’s our own plea for rescue. We pray that God would pluck us out of our homes, take us out of this culture, bring an end to the world as it is, to a new home in Christ.  We pray for a new way of life in community, in the diverse harmonious beautiful world as it was created to be.  Our intercessions implore God to lead us toward life in the world as it should be.  We become pilgrims in Advent. Walking freedom’s rescue road fills our hearts with peace and joy, not because of greeting cards or pasted on holiday smiles, but because we are finally on the way to a new life not of our own making.

In the readings of Advent, you can almost hear the earth-moving equipment, the road graders, the bridge builders, the demolition crew, and the road pavers of the Spirit urgently, diligently at work to break a way through to you.  Every year, for two December Sundays in a row, scripture stops to introduce us to the strange construction engineer of our spiritual rescue.  John the Baptist is the “voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” (John 1:23)

John got the job because apparently, he is the inventor of a new technology in salvation road building.  John preached a new message of radical inclusion and offered the new religious rite of baptism to open the way of redemption to a whole raft of previously lowly and excluded people.  Before John, no one had ever heard of a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  The simple act of immersion combined with a prayerful plea for God’s mercy made salvation accessible to shepherds, women, tax collectors and all those otherwise excluded from redemption at the temple in Jerusalem, or via the complex rules of daily living advocated by the Pharisees.

Today, John the Baptist toils in the wilderness.  John is engineering the salvation road to break through to reach each of us in the secret lonesome broken places of our lives.  We must not turn our back on the places within us, the emotions and memories that hurt. In the case of old trauma or abuse, we may need to find a trusted guide to help us get there safely. It is there that God comes.

It’s no accident.  For the Hebrew people, the desert wilderness was a place of chaos and disorder as well as repentance and renewal.  It was both—and that made it important as a way of speaking about how to renew relationship with God.

Our ancestors in faith knew the wilderness was a dangerous place of hunger, thirst, and privation.  Unsettled, windswept, haunted by noxious beasts and demons, echoing with frightful noises, it is the domain of Cain, Ishmael, Esau, and raiders such as the Arabs, Midianites, and Amalekites.  Apart from nomads and the lawless, only the mad inhabit the wilderness or outcasts with no other recourse.

On the other hand, the Hebrew people never forgot that God’s proper dwelling place was not the great temple in Jerusalem but the simple tent that had housed the ark of the covenant during the Exodus.  The people of Israel spent nearly two generations in the desert fleeing slavery in Egypt before entering the promised land. It was in the wilderness that God gave them the Ten Commandments at Sinai.  It was time in the wilderness that taught them to trust in God and brought them to maturity in the faith.

The tradition of the redeeming desert runs throughout scripture.  King David was accustomed to the barren places having been a shepherd.  It was to the wilderness and lonely places that Jesus went regularly to pray.  After his baptism, before beginning his public ministry, Jesus spent 40 days and nights fasting alone in the desert with only the devil for company.

God has opened a royal highway to you through baptism into Christ.  You don’t need money or pay a toll on the John the Baptist Expressway.  Don’t need to be holy.  Don’t need to be anything you aren’t already.  God in Christ Jesus is coming straight for the wilderness in our lives.

This wilderness cannot be pointed to on a map.  It’s topography and features cannot be photographed—except as it registers on the face and in the eyes. The wilderness of our lives exists within our hearts and minds. It is a poverty of the soul which plagues us, cuts us off from God and each other. We take our first baby steps on salvation road as we move from faith into action, letting our beliefs begin to shape our behavior.

We quickly discover that the wilderness is holy ground and the road to God links to everything and everyone else.  Theologian Sallie McFague writes, “In sum, we are not called to love God or the world. Rather, we are called to love God in the world. We love God by loving the world. We love God through and with the world.”  This turns out to be a self-emptying, sacrificial kind of love following the way of Jesus. It turns out, redemption road is the way of the cross.  (Sallie McFague, Blessed Are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint (Fortress Press: 2013)

What are the signs that we are walking the right road?  By grace, the broken places of our lives become like a watered garden, a colorful fragrant meeting place for encounter and connection.  As the modern-day prophet, Bryan Stevenson has said, we find meaning and redemption as we become more proximate with people who are suffering. God’s freedom road connects us to all life. I begin to see myself in my neighbor—there but for God’s grace go I.

Last, we know that walking the right road helps us stay hopeful.  In the midst of war or the rumor of war, in the midst of the twin global crisis of climate change and massive income inequality, Advent teaches us to stay hopeful knowing the future belongs to God and without hope we can do nothing.

John the Baptist called the people into the desert surrounding the river Jordan so God might lead them out of the wilderness of their souls.  Likewise, we are called to make our hearts ready to walk Christ’s way. Even now God is working to punch through. See, the entrance to freedom road stands open before you.  We have stood here before.  This year, let us walk just a little farther down this road, translating our faith into action, our belief into new behavior, so Christ may again be born in our hearts and enough muck of the world-as-it-is may be washed away to reveal again the seed and genesis of everything that exists, the image and reflection of the loving God.

The Highway Leads Home

Advent 2B-17

 

We had 13 at the house for Thanksgiving.  My mom, sisters, nieces, and nephews came for the week.  Sam and Joe were back from college. That meant lots of food and catch-up conversations.  Both of my sisters have new jobs.  One of them is living in a new city.  The children changed so much since I last saw them.  And of course, one unavoidable by-product of hosting family in a city like Chicago is driving.

I did lots of driving—three trips to Midway and five to O’Hare. I drove people downtown, to the mall, to a play, and to the movies.  These days I use this (phone). Apps on my phone tell me how to get where I want to go and the best way to avoid the traffic. Even so, I sat in a lot of traffic jams. Sometimes my Apps sent me down streets I’ve never seen before and may never see again.  Technology did not make my paths straight, as John the Baptist proclaimed, but hopefully, it did make them faster.  Of course, there’s really no way to tell. All I can say is whenever I thought I knew better than the almighty apps on my phone it didn’t go well.  It really hurts to be wrong—with everyone in the car looking at you—with a mixture of humor and frustration on their faces.

Needless to say, there was no GPS or phone app to guide people home from Babylon to Palestine 2,5000 years ago. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1).  The prophet’s words were an answer to prayer brimming with hope and healing for the people of Judah whose homes had been destroyed and whose families were ripped apart. Virtually the whole population was carted off across the desert to Babylon where they lived in slavery for 49 years—fully two generations. This story from Isaiah is the tale of a second Exodus.

Once, God had freed their ancestors from slavery in Egypt; now they were again held captive, imprisoned by a foreign king, and separated from their home by another cruel and harsh desert.  Into this bleak reality the words from Isaiah 40 broke like water in a dry land. In the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make his pathway straight” (Isaiah 40:3).  A royal highway would lead them home.

Lift up every valley. Make every mountain low.  Make the uneven ground level and the rough places into a plain.  Remove every barrier that separates my people from their home.

Technology makes it hard to appreciate the full impact of these words. When the energy required to get home come from your own body, you have a visceral sense what is involved. The fastest way is always the straight path.

When you find a path in the wilderness the walking is easy. When you find a path in the wilderness, you don’t have to worry about getting lost. When you find a path in the wilderness, you are not alone. Soon, there will be others to share the road with you. When you find a path in the wilderness, you are mindful of the thanks you owe to others who toiled to build it.

Advent is a double-entendre referring both to our deepest longing and to the fact that something new is already underway.  The second Exodus was the beginning of the good news for the ancient Israelites. For us today, the beginning of the good news and our own exodus into freedom is a retelling of this story by John the Baptist.  It is a gift wrapped in camel’s hair, mixed with locusts and wild honey.  The peace of God that surpasses all understanding has cleared away every obstacle on a path straight to your heart and renew your spirit as the world around us remains locked in fear and darkness.

Chaplain Liz Milner works in the Santa Clara County jail. Over the past month, she and other volunteers have worked with the inmates in writing workshops, to reflect on themes of hope, waiting, and freedom. Their poetry from prison help us illuminate and reflect on this beautiful season. When the trimmings are stripped away from Christmas and the holiday season, what do we find worth waiting for? Is there more than gifts, candy, big dinners, and time off work?

One inmate writes:

“I am waiting for freedom

I am waiting for a really Big Slurpy

I am waiting for my Self to see

I am waiting for love ever after

I am waiting for a better time

I am waiting for the day I Meet God

I am waiting on waiting!”

 

Another writes:

“I am waiting for hope to shed some light

I am waiting for God to stop saying not yet

I am waiting for the light to get a little brighter

I am waiting for the new me to be fully out

I am waiting for my wife to say we will fulfill our vows

I am waiting for my chance to show God I’m ready.”

 

Over two million Americans are incarcerated today. The United States imprisons more people than any nation in the world, including Russia and North Korea. Chaplain Milner reflects, “The readings this week imply that we are waiting for something, someone, profound and holy. They urge us to anticipate with excitement, with hope, and while we wait, to prepare, not our homes, but our hearts. Working in the jail is a gift because it places in front of me each day men and women who are waiting for deeply sacred gifts: healing, freedom, restoration, transformation, love, and on and on.” (Poetry from Prison: Advent Waiting, Journey with Jesus, 12/03/2017)

For all the hurting people in all the broken places of the world, Advent flickers with hope.  The barren branches of the Jesse tree proclaim ancient wisdom from of old: new life comes again even after humanity has done its worst to hurt, kill, and destroy. Systems of oppression and pernicious cycles of violence even now are being undone by the way of Christ’s cross.  The cross marks the way, the path that leads out of the wilderness and into deeper connection and community with each other, and will all people.

Listen, to John, the Voice Crying in the Wilderness. He alone knows the way to Bethlehem. Bethlehem lies beyond the trail of tears. Our tears. And it arises in mystical time, in a moment that is forever available, and never easy to find.  (Nancy Rockwell, The Bite in the Apple)

This is our destiny.  This is the point of convergence where we meet each other and we recognize each other as seekers of Advent awakening, including those of different religions. You don’t need no phone app or technology.  The way of Christ leads straight home to God. We can be there in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, in less time than it takes to say, ‘Amen.’

Paul writes, “May the mind that is in Christ Jesus also be in you” (Philippians 2:5). This is how we gain entrance to the royal highway prepared for you. “It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace, are not meant for this earth and for this history—[instead Advent declares] This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers [of every nation and religion] shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.” (From Testimony: The Word Made Flesh, by Daniel Berrigan, S.J. Orbis Books, 2004.)

Hear and See Jesus

All Saints A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

On an arid dusty mountain in the rolling hills of northern Israel, somewhere near the Sea of Galilee, Jesus sat down among the disciples and a great crowd.  Some came from the eastern region known as the Decapolis (or ten cities) of the Gentiles beyond the Jordan, others from throughout Galilee, Judea, and Samaria.

Some came because they were curious; some to be a part of the action. They came to see for themselves because somebody told them they would see a miracle. They came because they were desperate.  They came on behalf of beloved friends or family. The sick and the lame came from all around wondering if Jesus could heal them. They came daring to hope Jesus could be the beginning of the good news, the end of capricious power, the repairer of the breach, the restorer of cities and streets to live in (Isaiah 58:12). Some came who had left everything behind to follow him.

Together, they were a great crowd, trudging, clanging, and banging their way through the wilderness, lugging bags, supplies, and the infirm up a mountain behind Jesus.  The earth in that part of the world is so fine every step generates a cloud of dust.  It was not easy.  Clearly, they were not seeking comfort but something more elusive, more powerful, more important.  They came hoping for hope. They gathered amidst dust hanging in the air, covering their bodies, catching in their eyes, choking their throats. They came to hear and see Jesus. What do you hear and see?  It may be one of the simplest definitions of our faith.  A Christian is a person who hears and sees the living God revealed in the person, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Others may use a different name, or other words, to say who God is. Or, they may have no words. We call ourselves Christians because Jesus opens a window for us to glimpse the face and character of God operating in, with, and under creation—in everything, every place, and every event that is.What we have glimpsed in Christ Jesus is a loving God in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28) as St. Paul described to the philosophers of Athens.  Somehow, we were like fish swimming desperately in search of water. We did not realize there is no separation between us and God. It is Christ Jesus who invited us finally to quench our thirst, open our hearts, transform our minds, and extend a hand to be part of the One Life we all share in God.

What we have glimpsed in Christ Jesus is a loving God in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28) as St. Paul described to the philosophers of Athens.  Somehow, we were like fish swimming desperately in search of water. We did not realize there is no separation between us and God. It is Christ Jesus who invited us finally to quench our thirst, open our hearts, transform our minds, and extend a hand to be part of the One Life we all share in God.   The scripture abounds with metaphors to help and guide us.  We are called to take our place at the heavenly banquet, to count ourselves among the nations flowing to the throne of God, to let ourselves be built into a living sanctuary, a temple not made with hands; to be joined together as vine and branches, and become part of the body of Christ.  We literally enact this God-given reality in worship each week through Word and Sacraments.  This is the basis of our hope and celebration today on the feast of All Saints. We are joined with the living and the dead in the waters of baptism, at the Lord’s Table, and in song and praise.

The scripture abounds with metaphors to help and guide us.  We are called to take our place at the heavenly banquet, to count ourselves among the nations flowing to the throne of God, to let ourselves be built into a living sanctuary, a temple not made with hands; to be joined together as vine and branches, and become part of the body of Christ.  We literally enact this God-given reality in worship each week through Word and Sacraments.  This is the basis of our hope and celebration today on the feast of All Saints. We are joined with the living and the dead in the waters of baptism, at the Lord’s Table, and in song and praise.

St. Paul writes, “And [God] has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:22-23). The Eucharist offers Christians the message in a condensed form so we can struggle with it in a very concrete way. You cannot think about such a universal truth logically; you can only slowly digest it! “Eat it and know who you are,” St. Augustine said.

For most of us, like the crowds surrounding Jesus on that dusty hilltop, the truth reveals itself slowly. The unbelievable does not become believable in an instant. The Body of Christ is not up there, or over there; it’s in you—more precisely—it is here in us. It is us whenever we are gathered in Christ’s name.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Slowly, little by little and sometimes, all at once, you and I are literally the second coming of Christ. We do God’s work with our hands.

Jesus declared us Blessed, not when we are achieving things, and not when our lives are going splendidly, but as we become more lost and lonely and loveless even as we become more engaged and passionate, and in love with the world. The fruit of your labors will be multiplied thirty, sixty, and one hundredfold.

The Beatitudes, we read today, may be among the first words ever written about Jesus. As a literary genre, the Sermon on the Mount is intended to epitomize or summarize the entire gospel in as few words as possible.

You are the saints of God, Jesus said and always seemed to be saying, when injustice and uncaring or sheer bad luck have trampled your spirit, caused you to suffer sacrifice or loss, humiliated you, and left you hungry and thirsting for righteousness. You are the saints of God, Jesus said and always seemed to be saying, whenever you respond with mercy and simplicity of heart to restore peace and well-being, and whenever you are persecuted for being disciples of Christ.

Where have you seen and heard Jesus? Having seen and heard Jesus enables us more confidently identify God at work in others. By their fruits you shall know them, Jesus said.

This Friday Brian Ibsen and I traveled with Allen Stryczek and his wife Suzanne of St. Gertrude Catholic church to Rolling Meadows at the invitation of friends from the Ismaili Center who invited us and several faith leaders from Edgewater to celebrate with them the 60th anniversary of their Imam, the Aga Khan’s spiritual leadership.  We were two Lutherans and two Catholics in a car discussing whether it was strange or not that a religious community would identify a single person to be the spokesperson for God.

We learned about humanitarian work being done by the Ismaili community throughout the world, especially in Africa, to build schools, hospitals, universities, cultural centers and economic development projects such as hydro-electric dams and public parks.

As the late great Fred Rogers used to say, when bad things happen, don’t concentrate on those who hurt and destroy, look for the helpers.  There are always helpers.   The community of Ismaili Shia Muslims are helpers, working to make the world a better place.

They asked, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ People of God come from all tribes and peoples and languages were standing before the throne of the Lamb.  I would not be surprised to learn there are Muslims among them like my friends at the Ismaili Center. For the feast of All Saints, we stand against those who would use hate and fear to divide us. We who have heard and seen the living God in Christ Jesus can recognize the fruits of God’s grace when we hear and see it in others.

‘From earth’s wide bounds, from oceans farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, let us sing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!’ (ELW #422)

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.

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