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Posts from the ‘Good News’ Category

Come Away with Me

Proper 11B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

‘Come rest awhile’ (Mark 6:31). Jesus’ invitation has special resonance for me this week, as my family and I prepare to head out to Northern Illinois and then to see my mom in Colorado.  The wisdom and importance of Sabbath-keeping is a message that runs throughout scripture.

The disciples have just returned from their first tour of ministry — they are officially now apprentice apostles. They are exhilarated and exhausted, filled with stories — thrilling accounts of healings, exorcisms, and effective evangelism. Perhaps there are darker stories in of failure and rejection to share as well.  Hard stories they needed to process privately with their Teacher.

Meanwhile, as we read about last Sunday, Jesus has just lost John the Baptist, his beloved cousin, and prophet, the one who baptized him and spent a lifetime in the wilderness preparing his way.  Worse, Jesus has lost him to murder, a terrifying reminder that God’s beloved are not immune to violent, senseless deaths.  Maybe Jesus’ own end feels closer.  In any case, he’s heartbroken.

Whatever the case, Jesus senses the disciples need a break.  They’re tired, overstimulated, underfed, and in significant need of solitude. ‘Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile,’ Jesus said to his disciples as crowds push in around them at the edge of the Sea of Galilee. ‘Come away with me,’ is how another translation puts it.” There is both tenderness and longing in those words.  (Debie Thomas)

Here, we find a Jesus who recognizes, honors and tends to his own tiredness.  We encounter a teacher who notices his disciples’ exhaustion and responds with tenderness.  I appreciate passages like this if nothing else than for the simple fact they are not shy of telling us that Jesus was a real human being.

Passages like Luke 5:16: “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”  Or Mark 11:12: “The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.”  Or Matthew 8:24: “Jesus was sleeping.”  Or Mark 7:24: “He didn’t want anyone to know which house he was staying in.” These “minor” verses offer essential glimpses of Jesus’ human life — the life we can most relate to—his need to withdraw, his desire for solitary prayer, his physical hunger, his sleepiness, his inclination to hide.

“These glimpses take nothing away from Jesus’ divinity; they enhance it, making it richer and all the more mysterious.”  They are a reminder that the doctrine of the Incarnation is truly Christianity’s best gift to the world.  “God — the God of the whole universe — hungers, sleeps, eats, rests, withdraws, and grieves.  In all of these mundane but crucial ways, our God is like us.” (Debie Thomas, “Come Away with Me,” Journey with Jesus, 7/12/15)

So why should we deny ourselves sleep, food, exercise, and retreats?  Biologists are in the news again underscoring the importance of eight hours of sleep and the improved attention and decision making that follow a short break during work hours. There is a harshness we have toward our mortal ourselves that God does not abide. We must help one another to be kind to ourselves and attended to our limits and needs.

Come away with me, Jesus invites us. The first part of Sabbath keeping is the graceful invitation to take a break.  The second part is also essential and not to be neglected—we need time with Jesus. We need the rhythm of gathering around Word and Sacrament. We need time to love and praise God.  We need time to be re-joined in the Spirit. We need God’s help to separate noisy thoughts from the signal call of grace. We need God’s living Word to be that compass that always points north.  Otherwise, soon we are like sheep gone astray.  I believe when we are rooted in grace it is easier to experience joy; it is more likely to notice the things for which I am thankful and to feel gratitude.  These are surely gifts of the Spirit of which there are many.  Yet another gift of Sabbath keeping highlighted by our gospel today is the gift of compassion.

We see Jesus is also like us in that sometimes, his best-laid plans go awry. According to St. Mark, Jesus’ retreat-by-boat idea fails.  The crowds anticipate his plan and follow on foot.

Does Jesus turn the boat around and sail away?  No.  As Mark puts it, “Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat and had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.  So, he began to teach them many things.” (Mark 6:34)

Afterward, Jesus second attempt at vacation is also interrupted. According to Mark 6:53-56, the crowds anticipate Jesus’ plan, and word spreads.  As soon as the boat lands at Gennesaret, the crowds go wild, pushing and jostling to get close to Jesus.  They carry their sick to him on mats.  In every village and city, Jesus approaches, swarms of people needing healing line the marketplaces.  They press against him.  They plead.  They beg to touch the fringe of his robe and receive healing.

“Jesus’ response?  Once again, his response is compassion.  “All who touched him were healed.”  On the one hand, Jesus was unapologetic about his need for rest and solitude.  He saw no shame in retreating when he and his disciples needed a break. On the other hand, he never allowed his weariness to overwhelm his compassion. Err on the side of compassion.  Jesus did.” (Debie Thomas)  Joy, generosity, but most of all, compassion are the fruits of Sabbath-keeping and the gifts of baptism. These are the happy ingredients we need for putting together a well-lived life. I’ll tell you a secret. They all come from God.

I leave you today with a poem from Jan Richardson, entitled “Blessing of Rest.”

Blessing of Rest

Curl this blessing
beneath your head
for a pillow.
Wrap it about yourself
for a blanket.
Lay it across your eyes
and for this moment
cease thinking about
what comes next,
what you will do
when you rise.

Let this blessing
gather itself to you
like the stillness
that descends
between your heartbeats,
the silence that comes
so briefly
but with a constancy
on which
your life depends.

Settle yourself
into the quiet
this blessing brings,
the hand it lays
upon your brow,
the whispered word
it breathes into
your ear
telling you
all shall be well
all shall be well
and you can rest
now.

Jan Richardson, Painted Prayerbook.

Unlikely Heroes

Proper 9B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

He was a lifelong Republican and an ordained Presbyterian minister. He graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He never had a church, but millions of young congregants watched him on tv from the late 1960s until the turn of the century. Fred Rogers show was an expression of the type of mainline Protestantism that was once the dominating morality in American life.

Mr. Rogers is preaching to America again.  Fred Rogers, who died in 2003, is the subject of two major movies, one starring Tom Hanks coming out next year, and the other is a documentary playing now, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”  For decades, his message was essentially one of grace: You are special just the way you are. God’s grace means you are loved just as you are; and at the same time, God’s grace means you are called and equipped to become more than you ever dreamed you could be.

On a trip to California in 1998, Mr. Rogers met a 14-year-old boy whose cerebral palsy left him sometimes unable to walk or talk. Mr. Rogers asked the boy to pray for him. The boy was stunned. He had been the object of many prayers, but nobody had asked him to pray for them. He promised he would try.

Afterward, a reporter named Tom Junod from Esquire Magazine complimented Rogers on finding a clever way to boost the boy’s self-esteem, but Rogers didn’t look at the situation that way at all: “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”

And here is the gospel radicalism that infused that show: that the child is closer to God than the adult; that the sick are closer than the healthy; that the poor are closer than the rich and the marginalized closer than the celebrated. “In the gospel of Fred Rogers, children are our superiors in the way they trust each person they in the way they trust each person they meet, the way they lack guile, the way a child can admit simple vulnerability.” (By David Brooks, “Fred Rogers and the Loveliness of the Little Good,” NYT, July 5, 2018)

Famously, on May 1, 1969, Fred Rogers went before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications to argue against a proposed funding cut to Public Broadcasting System (PBS). Sen. John O. Pastore, the subcommittee chairman, had never heard of Mr. Rogers or seen any of his shows, but after only six minutes of testimony (including one song, recited from memory, about anger management), the politician went from being a dismissive foe to a lifelong fan. Morgan Neville, who directed the documentary in theaters now said, “Many people would call Fred a wimp, but what you realize in that moment is that Fred was the most iron-willed person out there… It’s Mister Rogers goes to Washington. It’s the perfect example of somebody speaking truth to power and winning.”

Fred Rogers was an unlikely hero just like every other hero in the bible.  King David was the least regal of Jesse’s sons. The Apostle Paul wasn’t a good public speaker.  His own townspeople dismissed Jesus as a simple carpenter, the son of Mary—implying Joseph was dead or had fled the scene, or perhaps that they knew about Jesus’ questionable parentage.  (Mark 6:3)

Each of us is born into a place and story that identifies who we are and sets boundaries on who we can become.  But rather than identify with any of these stories, our bible heroes instead live out the story of who they are—who each of us is—in God.

St. Paul writes that in Christ “power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9) While the world jockeys for control, the church is called to reach out in service.  While others work furiously to become invulnerable, the church is called to open its hand and heart to the least among us. While everyone else strives to be strong, the church prays for that power perfected in weakness, for power rooted in compassion and love. Only this kind of power can inspire trust and kindle faith.  Only this kind of power builds up, draws people together, and makes room for the work of our hands for ourselves and each other.

Jesus, remember your place.  You’re no Rabbi.  You’re no Messiah! Barbara Brown Taylor calls our gospel and un-miracle story.  The sad and astonishing thing about this story is that the townspeople’s resentment diminished Jesus’s ability to work on their behalf.  “He could do no deed of power there,” Mark writes grimly. In some mysterious and disturbing way, the people’s small-mindedness, their lack of trust, and their inability to embrace Jesus life and mission kept them in spiritual poverty.  We too must guard against becoming too certain in what we think we know to let ourselves be drawn by the Spirit into what we don’t. We too must continually cultivate the curiosity, openness, and vulnerability of a child.

First Jesus was rejected by those he loved and grew up with. Then he sent out the disciples to risk rejection for the sake of those God loves too. Jesus sent the disciples out even though they’re amateurs. Peter has not yet said, “You are the Messiah.” They have not yet experienced the Lord’s supper, or the crucifixion, or witnessed the resurrection. They have not yet been anointed by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus called the twelve and sent them out two by two to preach and heal and call others to repentance. They didn’t really know what they were doing, but Jesus sent them anyway, to learn by doing and by failing. And so, it is with life, we are all amateur human beings. We bumble along generation by generation and sometimes stumble into our humanity. Not by being safe. But by trying to emulate the one who gave his life in compassion. (Debie Thomas)

Holiness is often confused with personal power. A holy person is construed as one who is disciplined. He or she is a person with a rigorous code of conduct. Holiness is believed to be the expression of religious fervor, the measurement of oneself and others by a demanding litany of religious criteria. The problem with this way of seeing holiness is that it misses the very heart of what holiness is all about in the first place. (Daniel Clendenin, Journey with Jesus)

Don’t think you need a lot of special equipment or training in holiness to accomplish this task.  You are the equipment.  You and the Spirit within you to open your heart and fill you with the curiosity and compassion of a child.

With ordinary words and a gentle welcoming spirit, Mr. Rogers proclaimed the gospel. He taught us the last shall be first. We hear so much today that winners are better than losers, the successful are better than the weak. Somehow morality got reversed by an achievement-oriented success culture. But now there’s someone new in the neighborhood, someone who knows you and welcomes you like an old friend.  Someone who loves you just as you are and calls you to become more than you ever thought it possible to become. “In Christ is our calling, in Christ may we grow.” (ELW # 575) In Christ is our home, our family, and nation. Like, little children, we pray that it may be so.  Amen.

The Whole Story

Proper 8B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Summer of 2018

Proper 7B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

The Summer of 2018 is three days old, yet its legacy may already be written. History will record unforgettable images and the sounds of inconsolable children as families are forced to part. 2018 is the summer of children with no one to hug them or comfort them spirited away in the middle of the night to secret shelters in cities across the U.S.  2018 is the summer of the President of the United States of America and cabinet officials being caught in a bold-faced lie. It’s the summer of state-sanctioned child abuse as a political bargaining chip, or perhaps to send a message to immigrants to stop crossing the border.

A character in a Terry Pratchett novel offers this definition of sin: “Sin, young man, is when you treat people like things.” (Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum (Harper Torch: 1998), 278.) 2018 is the summer when treating people like things became official U.S. policy. It’s easy to treat people like things while we call them animals or criminals.  But the Summer of 2018 is barely underway and already we now see that they are not animals but brown children, brown mothers, and brown fathers. They are desperate people fleeing violence and poverty that can often be directly linked to the results of America’s foreign policy decisions and domestic drug use right here in the United States.

It’s the summer of 2018, and like every other year, it began with two obscure feast days. The Annunciation to Mary, and the birth of John the Baptist which we acknowledge today, feature Bible stories we read with great joy every Advent in snowy December. Here they are, Mary and Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth, in late May and mid-June, nine months before Christmas. These stories teach us that it was in times such as this when no one was looking when the world was busy with itself, hell-bent on the pursuit of self-defeating goals, that God was quietly at work preparing the ground for good news of great joy for all the people. News proclaimed to poor shepherds and foreign wise men that “a child is born to us, a son is given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). He is the anointed one “to bring good news to the poor and to proclaim release to the captives” (Luke 4:18). And welcome to the immigrant just as the holy family were once refugees and wanderers.

It’s the summer of 2018. We cling to our passports and give thanks to God for the good fortune of being born in America. We who are a nation of immigrants; we who are grafted into Christ who himself was a brown child, a refugee whose family fled terrible violence in his own country to seek welcome and hospitality in another.

By baptism, we have become citizens of new heaven and a new earth. We have died to the old ways and are risen with Christ and joined to the One Undying Life in God.  We who have cast our lot with Jesus, find ourselves this morning in the same boat with Jesus and the disciples, as they head across the border to people and places unknown.

Four times in Mark’s gospel Jesus orders his disciples into a boat.  In today’s story, Jesus orders them in at night, amidst a threatening sky.  The terrible storm in the middle of the Sea “reminds us of that primal boat, the ark, that braved the great flood and preserved humanity and the animals, two by two” (William Willimon). It reminds us that the church is now this boat. Here, once again, we’re on the sea, joined in Jesus’ saving mission, traveling across borders to bring liberation to those on the other side.

St. Paul writes, we have become ambassadors of reconciliation by our baptism into Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20).  We are called to traverse the dangerous boundaries between hostile peoples.  We are called to journey into life’s storms. We who cross the Great Divide between peoples discover our solidarity with the residents of both sides of the sea. The church-boat is built with a purpose to enter life’s storms, to rescue those torn apart by fear and violence, to bring all people to the other side of hate, to bring them to that distant shore of forgiveness, to the promised land of reconciliation. To be a disciple of Jesus is to get into this boat having faith Jesus has the power to still the storm. “Peace, be still,” Jesus said.

Sitting in the dead calm waters of the sea, Mark writes, the disciples “fear a great fear.” They finally ask each other, “Who is this man? Even the wind and waves obey him!” Living in the church boat with Jesus, fear of the world is slowly, little by little and all at once replaced with awe and wonder at the marvelous grace and power of God.

Wisdom born of fearless awe and wonder is what’s urgently needed today. In the summer of 2018, it’s all-hands-on-deck for faithful swash-bucklers of every stripe and nation to confront the dark clouds looming over our nation and the world. We are challenged to have social progress that matches our technical progress. Practical wisdom born of grace is urgently needed to respond to the emerging modern technologies that offer so much promise but also that threaten our jobs, security, privacy, relationships, our sense of self, and even human survival itself.

We get in this church boat knowing there are other people in other boats who travel with us. We get in this boat knowing that at times it will be scary. We get in this boat knowing it will not always be clear God is paying attention. Sometimes we might even wonder whether anybody cares how we have put ourselves in danger.

Jesus was asleep while the storm raged around them. Being in this church-boat with Jesus clarifies our values real quick. Heading out into life’s storms we will soon find ourselves in over our heads.  We’ll be willing to toss all our baggage, everything we possess overboard just to stay afloat. Getting in the same boat with Jesus we suddenly realize, everything we have, all that we are comes God.

After time in this church boat we come to learn there will always be dangerous storms of resistance, sabotage, and recrimination anytime we hoist a sail propelled by the winds of love, anytime we are so bold as to risk the perilous journey across borders, among strangers, and between peoples. But we come to trust church was made for this. Slowly, with the first disciples, we draw confidence that our Lord is the master of the wind and the sea.  “The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing! All things are mine since I am his! How can I keep from singing?” (ELW # 763)

Our Hearts, Broken and Joined

Proper 4B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

The American author Anne Lamott tells a lovely Hasidic story “of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?” The rabbi answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.” (Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith)

When your hearts break, holy words fall inside. The good news is not good news to anyone who has never been broken-hearted. A broken heart provides good soil for the gospel to take root. What grows from a broken heart filled with the Word of God is compassion and wisdom, the life-giving fruits of healthy religion.

In today’s gospel, Jesus grieved at the hardness of heart of the Pharisees who would rather let a man suffer than heal him on the Sabbath (Mark 3:5). The hardness of hearts is a refrain that plays throughout Mark’s gospel.

“When our hearts are hardened, we cannot see the grace and the gift of the Sabbath or of the law.  When our hearts are hardened, we stop seeing the freedom and healing of another as important. When our hearts are hardened, we are blind to the depth of the truth of who Jesus is and what he is up to in the world.”  Unless our hearts are broken religion becomes a deadly enterprise for hardened hearts hell bent on control, exclusion, and maintaining privilege.  Look, Jesus and disciples do not keep the Sabbath as they should.  Look, Jesus does not obey the authorities.  So, immediately, they conspire together how to destroy him. (Mark 3:6)

God’s love for you is deep and never-ending. “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) Each of you is utterly unique, blessed, and created in the image of the divine. At the same time, each of us only finds our humanity fulfilled, our joy made complete, and our life filled through belonging and connection, joined together as flesh is joined with bone. This is the wisdom God grows from our broken hearts.

The word ‘religion’ comes from the same root as ‘ligament.’ Ligaments connect muscle and bone. Our bodies could not operate without connective tissue. Likewise, human life does not work without a connection to all living things that surround us.

Religion is the task of putting our divided realities back together: human and divine, male and female, heaven and earth, sin and salvation, mistake and glory, matter and spirit. If it isn’t then re-check your religion.

The body is firmly joined together but also flexible. Our bodies hold everything in its place and also ready to move in an instant.   In Jesus’ day, the prevailing religion was stiff and unyielding. Despite good intentions, their resistance to Jesus is proved ignorant, dangerous and deadly—the work of self-contented and hardened hearts. Just look at what else is going on in the third chapter of Mark’s gospel.

Jesus goes home, and people are confused about who he is. Scribes sent from Jerusalem to investigate describe Jesus as being possessed by a demon. Members of his own family are so concerned they staged an intervention. According to Mark, they go out and try to “restrain him.” Jesus’ family believed what they were doing was in his best interest.  They seem convinced he has lost his mind. The scribes add fuel to the fire by describing Jesus’ ministry as the work of Satan and accusing him of being possessed by a demon. They say he casts out demons by the ruler of demons.

It’s an unnerving story. How do we keep our hearts open to God’s Word in our own time of great change to the religion we hold dear? “It’s a story about Jesus walking through the sacred fields in our lives and plucking away what we hold dear.  It’s a story about Jesus seeing people we’re too holy to notice, and healing people we’d just as well leave sick.  It’s a story about a category-busting God who will not allow us to cling to anything less bold, daring, scary, exhilarating, or world-altering than love.” (Debie Thomas, Lord of the Sabbath, Journey with Jesus, 5/27/18)   There is a single yardstick by which we can take the measure of our faith, our church, our religious institutions, and traditions. It is measured in the compassion we have for others.  Our broken hearts break for all those who suffer.

Apparently, nothing is more sacred to Jesus than compassion.  “The true spirit of the Sabbath — the spirit of God — is love.  Love that feeds the hungry.  Love that heals the sick.  Love that sees and attends to the invisible.  If we truly want to honor the Lord of the Sabbath, then we have to relativize all practices, loyalties, rituals, and commitments we hold dear — even the ones that feel the most “Christian.”  There is only one absolute, and it is love. (Debie Thomas)

Perhaps we too, like the Pharisees and disciples and saints before us, have hardened hearts. But the graceful truth is that in spite of our hardened hearts, life and the Spirit conspire so that eventually, they will be cracked wide open, for grace and love and gentleness to fill and heal them again.

The beautiful story from 1 Samuel shows the resiliency and strength God brings from our broken hearts.  Eli realizes God’s call to Samuel means he’s fired. Eli is being passed over for allowing his sons to dishonestly use temple offerings to enrich themselves. Yet Eli does something unexpected. He does not conspire against Samuel but guides and encourages him. Open hearts produce open hands.  Compassion has the wisdom to know we are always part of something greater than ourselves.

Why would anyone bring the business of a synagogue to a grinding halt on a Sabbath morning?  Why would a man risk his own life to heal a stranger’s withered hand? Why have we gathered here on a Sunday morning?  Why do we, year after year, open our hearts to friends and neighbors, children and youth of this community?   Because God is here, our broken hearts find comfort and open. “Here, [we] servants of the Servant seek in worship to explore what it means in daily living to believe and to adore” (ELW # 526). We cannot live without God’s Word. Joined together in one body, as muscle is joined to bone, we live and move, and have our being.

Door to Awe and Wonder

Holy Trinity B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Social psychologist, public theologian, author, and professor, Christena Cleveland had a problem.  After having lunch with her friend Peter, she couldn’t get the idea out of her head.

It was a noisy restaurant. No one was paying attention. Nevertheless, Peter had lowered his voice, leaned in, and whispered: “I am undocumented.” They were talking about his mother who lived in his home country. That day at lunch, Peter also told her his mother had a terminal illness.

He desperately wanted to visit but couldn’t.  He wouldn’t be allowed back in the country. Given his obligations to his young family in the U.S., Peter had made the heart-breaking decision not to visit his dying mom

Cleveland writes, “In many ways, Peter’s life was marked by sorrow and loss — and that was more evident than ever during our lunch conversation that day. While listening to him talk about his mom, I felt an urge to travel to his home country to visit her on his behalf.  In the course of being friends with Peter, I had begun to identify with him, his family, and his story.” (True Connection Requires our Bodies and Minds, On Being, 6/2/2017)

Lived experience teaches this is wisdom. Social psychologists know that becoming close friends with others literally expands our sense of self to include them in it.  This larger self-draws out our best instincts. Early Christian mystics understood that we are our best human selves when we are participating in mutual, interdependent relationships with people who are different from us.

Cleveland writes, “Once I saw the world from [Peter’s] perspective, my myopic, individualistic viewpoint was broadened to include his too. And that changed everything — how I viewed myself, how I was willing to spend “my” money and time, and the extent to which I felt connected to people with perspectives, problems, and homelands that were nothing like my own.” (True Connection Requires our Bodies and Minds, On Being, 6/2/2017)

Scripture teaches that all human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).  Therefore, it is no surprise that we find a higher purpose in connection with those who are different because mutual indwelling is at the heart of who God is.

Nearly three centuries after Christ, early Christian theologians used the Greek term perichoresis to describe the nature of the relationship among members of the Trinity — God the Creator, Christ the Liberator, and the Spirit the Comforter. Rather than hanging out as a threesome or merely collaborating with each other, perichoresis describes the mutual indwelling of the members of the Trinity.

English speakers are at a disadvantage to understand this.  We don’t have good equivalent words.  “Teamwork” or “collaborate” don’t go far enough.  Other languages get closer.  For example, the Nguni Bantu word for humanity, “Ubuntu,” is often translated with the strange but wise phrase: “I am because we are.” Ubuntu reflects a belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.

When we say God is the triune God, we are saying something about who God is beyond, before, and after the universe: that there is community within God. Our experience of this is reflected in Paul’s words today. When we pray to God as Jesus prayed to his Abba (or papa), the Spirit prays within us, creating between us and God the same relationship Jesus has with the one who sent him.

We are most human and most divine when we experience mutual and physical connections across cultural lines, in a way that costs us and changes us. Again, Christena Cleveland writes, “Four months after my lunch conversation with Peter, I traveled to his home country to visit his mom. I carried his blessing as well as an armful of gifts that he had sent with me to give to his family. I was simply the messenger, but I knew that I had been invited into a sacred space — a space that continues to call me out of individualism and into freedom.”

Our challenge to comprehend the wisdom of the Trinity is not only linguistic but probably also cultural. Individualistic Western society often impedes relationships with people who are culturally different. The dream of self-sufficiency cuts us off from others and leaves us lonely.

Enlightened Westerners who seek personal freedom and desire to do good in the world often go about it in an individualistic way. Somehow, we believe our racial biases will melt away if we listen to enough podcasts. We believe reading a good book about global inequality absolves us of our responsibility to actually do something about it –as if raising awareness trumps the need to take action. We believe world peace will come if we just do lovingkindness meditation surrounded by people who are racially and economically similar to us. Though helpful, these spiritual practices ultimately require very little of us and fall quite short of perichoresis.

Again, Christena Cleveland says she has begun to think of cross-cultural relationships as a simple, costly, and transformational spiritual practice. “This spiritual practice is simple but not for the faint of heart. It is through this practice that my privilege, internalized racism and colonialism, and attachment to comfort are brought to the surface and I am forced to reckon with them. We often idealize cross-cultural relationships, not recognizing ways in which privilege and power differences prevent us from truly connecting.”

Over the next three Sundays at Immanuel, we are planning teach-in on immigration.  Next week, we will hear stories from immigrants themselves.  The following Sunday, Mary Campbell of the ELCA’s accompaniment ministry with minors, AMMPARO will be here and Bishop Stephen Bouman will preach. On June 17th, Molly Castillo and friends will help us learn more about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA.

Printed on the back page of your worship folder you will find a small version of a very famous 15thCentury Russian Orthodox icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev. Three figures, Father, Son, and Spirit are seated around a table.  On the front of the table, you can just make out a rectangle shape to which, scholars say, a small mirror was once attached.  Standing before this image, the viewer could see themselves. In other words, the mutual indwelling and eternal communion of the Trinity includes a place for you.

Trinity means we are most able to participate in God when we participate in relationships that are also marked by mutual indwelling — such as intimate cross-cultural relationships in which we vulnerably open ourselves to being influenced by people who are culturally different than us. Or, as the Catholic priest and historian Thomas Berry (1914-2009) once wrote, “The universe is not a collection of objects, but a communion of subjects.”Trinity is the word Christians use to name that God is at once fully present here and beyond the stars.  Trinity is a door that opens everywhere into awe and splendor always, already hidden in plain sight just beneath the surface of things. See, it opens now for you.

The Disciple’s Great Discovery

Pentecost Sunday B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

What’s important about Pentecost? It is one of the three great festivals of the church with Christmas and Easter.  That’s interesting—to some of us—but not very important.  Sometimes Pentecost is called the birthday of the church. Luke says it’s when God poured out the Holy Spirit on the disciples after Jesus ascended into heaven. We all enjoy a good party and, judging from what we read in the Book of Acts, it sounds like it was a good one.  But a party for other people, in this case, an ancient institution, is not what makes Pentecost important.

What does this young man, Ethan, who will affirm his faith and take his place among us today as a full member of this community, need to know about Pentecost?  It’s the disciple’s discovery about how life works.  It was a eureka moment that unlocked the secrets to living a good and abundant life not only for them, but for us, and for everyone.

The Presbyterian theologian Frederick Buechner says “there are basically two kinds of law: (1) law as the way things ought to be, and (2) law as the way things are. An example of the first is “No Trespassing.” An example of the second is the law of gravity.”

Mostly, churchly people have talked about God’s law in terms of category no. 1, a list of dos and don’ts. These dos and don’ts are the work of moralists and, when obeyed, serve the useful purpose of keeping us from doing too much damage to one other. They can’t make us human, but they can help keep us honest.

What’s so important about Pentecost and the bible is that it offers us more than good advice about ethics.  God’s law in itself, comes under category no. 2 and is the work of God. It has been stated in seven words: “Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). Like it or not, that’s how it is. If you don’t believe it, you can always put it to the test just the way if you don’t believe the law of gravity, you can always step out a tenth-story window. (In the following passage, Buechner describes God’s Law.  (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking and again in Beyond Words)

That day in a small room somewhere in Jerusalem where about 120 Jesus followers were hiding the disciples learned that by trying to save their lives they would lose them and those who lost their lives for the sake of Christ are alive forever.  We are grafted into the One life in God. Therefore, be not afraid to give your limited number of days fully to something that matters—because it’s the only thing that really does.

Bible scholar Bill Kellerman points out, “The story in Acts 2 begins in the upper room and ends in the streets of Jerusalem…after what’s been done to Jesus, you’d have to be either drunk or crazy to be shouting his name in the streets and pointing accusing fingers at the executioners.”

They were wanted criminals for being co-conspirators of an executed political instigator.  They were people who knew they had failed.  They could count all the ways they had ignored, misunderstood, dismissed, rejected, and betrayed Jesus when he was alive.

The disciples discovered God doesn’t care about dishing out punishments or giving us what we deserve. What’s important about Pentecost is that God has poured out and continues to pour out the gift of the Holy Spirit upon you

Long ago, nearly a thousand years before Jesus was born, the people of God tell in the Hebrew Bible how the Shekinah glory of Yahweh (fire and cloud from heaven) descended and filled King Solomon’s Temple on its dedication day in 950 BCE (1 Kings 8:10-13).  Before that, they tell how fire and cloud had also filled the portable temple, or Tent of Meeting (Exodus 40:34-35) during the Exodus.

Today for Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2:1-13) we hear how fire and wind from heaven descended, not on a tent or on a building, but on God’s people! You received this spirit you at your baptism (Acts 2:38-41) God intends to make of all peoples, of every nation a new sanctuary of living stones. The new temple of God is the human person. “You are that Temple!” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 6:16; and Ephesians 2:21-22).  We, individual humans, have become the very Body of Christ alive in the world (1 Corinthians 12:14-30).  The great Shekinah fire and wind of the Spirit transformed fearful fugitives into bold public witnesses.

At Pentecost, we proclaim and celebrate this Spirit of the living God poured out on us today to give us courage, to rekindle our hope, to fill us with compassion, generosity, and the capacity to love—everything we need to live a good and abundant life.

Ethan, I look at you and take the measure of how long I have been here at Immanuel.  You were a toddler when we sat every Sunday in a circle of carpet squares, sang bible songs with Kathy Anderson, and talked about Jesus downstairs in the Olin Center.

It’s no mistake the signs of God’s grace –fire, wind, and water, are all the things that have the power to shape the landscape, sculpt the earth, and literally to move mountains.  That’s how God’s Spirit works in us.  Quietly, mostly subconsciously, little by little, and sometimes, all at once, Sunday by Sunday, the Spirit moves mountains in our soul.  Through belonging together at Immanuel, we are working together, shaping and softening, opening and closing, striving with the Spirit to become a better reflection of God’s peaceable kingdom.  We can’t find inner peace without learning to live with one another in love.

Pentecost is important for teaching us We are all “walking around like the sun” as Thomas Merton says.  A church does not offer a fire insurance policy for the next world. Instead, it’s a place to gain a life assurance policy for each day of our lives.  At church, we learn that our job is not to suppress the Shekinah fire of the human spirit but to be that fire. The night he was betrayed, Jesus prayed to God, “For as you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world. (John 17:18)   So now, ready or not, the Holy Spirit sends us.

Encircled by Love

Easter 7B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

The only American artist to exhibit her work with the French Impressionists was Mary Cassatt. She was born in May 1844, grew up near Pittsburgh, PA but lived most of her adult life in France, where she befriended artists such as Edgar Degas.

Cassatt is best known for a series of expertly drawn, warmly observed, and unselfconscious paintings on the theme of mother and child. She’s famous, for me, because my mom hung a print one of her paintings in our home.  I bet someone here has it too –or that most of you would recall having seen it. The original now hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Child’s Bath, 1893, is one of Cassatt’s masterworks.  In it, mother and young daughter are lovingly absorbed in the mundane bodily routine of bathing.  The vantage point allows us to observe, but not to participate, in this most intimate scene. Somehow Cassatt invokes in us the memory, or perhaps, inspires in us the feeling of loving protection emanating from good mothering providing sturdy shelter to young lives and strong enough to encircle an entire house and make it a home. Cassatt brings us inside this circle of tender care.

The painting of Marry Cassatt offers us beautiful imagery for Mother’s Day.  I bring it up because her work also offers us a way into today’s gospel.  Cassatt invites the observer out of their narrow self-interest and into the expansive, other-focused and fully human selves God created and calls us to be in Christ Jesus. Abide in me, Jesus prayed, so that you may be one with one another, just as Jesus and the Father are one in the Spirit. (John 17:11)

Jesus invites us to live inside the circle of the Trinity, together with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The 14thcentury anchoress, mystic, and theologian, Julian of Norwich used a little-known old English word to refer to the kind of enveloping and protective love that Mary Cassatt makes the subject of her paintings. She called it “Oneing.” Julian used it to describe the human encounter with God.

Notice how different this “oneing” is from the vision many of us grew up with of an angry God who must be appeased by Jesus so humankind will not be destroyed. Notice how different our faith lives become when we understand Jesus’ prayed so that we might be fully one with God now and not after we die.

This healing vision of union with the living God frees us from the prison of us against them thinking. The old familiar understanding always divided the world into mine and yours, one and other, same and different, better and worse. But Jesus prayed to move us

beyond that dualism so that mine and yours are reconciled into ours. One and other are transformed into one anotherSame and different are harmonized without being homogenized or colonized. Us and them are united without loss of identity and without dividing walls of hostility.

God the Father includes the Son in full equality. Christ Jesus mirrors the Father’s self-giving and self-emptying love. The Holy Spirit is not subordinated as an inferior but is honored and welcomed as equal too, do you see what that means? God is characterized by equality, empathy, and generosity rather than subordination, patriarchy, and hierarchy.  Jesus prayed that we might be made one with this divine life now.

On the night he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus prayed.  “Holy Father, protect them in your name so that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11) These chapters in John, after the Passover meal and before leaving for the garden are sometimes called the other lord’s Prayer, or perhaps, Jesus’ high priestly prayer.  Jesus prays for us, the disciples, and his church just as the High Priest did on behalf of the people once a year inside the fabulous temple in Jerusalem, from behind the curtain within the holy of holies, and in the full presence of God. Now, according to today’s gospel, you are people for whom Jesus prays.

When might you have experienced this oneing kind of love? If we are lucky, perhaps we experienced it from our parents as a child. If you’ve ever been part of Immanuel’s prayer circle, David’s chain, when you knew people were praying for you each day when you’ve been at your lowest or facing a great challenge, then you know what a comfort it is to be bathed in the tenderness and compassion of prayer.

When might you have observed this kind of community where differences are transcended and what matters most is unity in Christ?  Perhaps it was last Thursday as ECT youth led us in worship for the Ascension at Unity Lutheran?  Young people of the church and the neighborhood, of different ages, abilities, racial groups and backgrounds were one with each other and in their joy in serving the gospel.

Or perhaps you glimpsed the oneing love of God last Sunday afternoon at the ONE Northside convention where diverse people from throughout the north side came together, united by their common values of the common good and of social justice to demand our elected leaders support affordable housing, police accountability, and mental health services.

Jesus prayed so that people might see the one life being lived in God now in us. Jesus prayed so that we might reveal the likeness of the divine image in which we are continually being created in this community.  He prayed that others might recognize in us God’s standing invitation to enter the powerful protective circle of God’s life so as to surround their entire lives starting now with grace and be made whole.

This is the kind of alternative community embraced by the disciples and the first Christians that turned the Roman empire on its head. It is the same type of unity in diversity, joining heaven and earth together, Jesus calls us to embody now.

Jesus prayer for oneing is an urgent plea for what some call the Great Turning when society finally turns away from violence, guns, racism, poverty, prisons, war, and environmental destruction to seek a viable alternative right here—one heart, one home, and one block at a time.

In other words, on the night he was betrayed, while the rest of Jerusalem slept, Jesus prayed his little band of followers would become a church. He prays this for us now. In an obscure room, while no one was watching, something timelessly old and radically new was being unleashed upon the world. Like ripples from a stone, we are joined today in a great wave moving through history beginning with the disciples and carried forward today. The seed of grace God planted in you opens a door to oneing. Be joined to one another. Take shelter and rejoice within God’s encircling love now and for always. Amen.

Prune, Prune, Prune

Easter 5B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I am not a gardener, but I pretend to be one at home.  Raking out leaves and removing the dead sticks and bits of last year’s growth, I noticed the green shoots of this year have begun to form, despite the long cold spring we’ve had.

Growers tell me, good gardening is a ruthless task.  Pull out the weeds and uproot the weaker plants. Divide the thriving ones before they crowd everything else out. Pluck the heads from blooming flowers. Hunt for and destroy malicious bugs and prune, prune, prune everything down to the nub. Don’t worry about disturbing those root systems in the seedling packets: tearing, breaking, and chopping them stimulates their growth.

Of course, what seems like no big deal to do to plants is another thing entirely when done to us, but don’t say we were not warned.  The old Adam and Eve must be drowned in baptism.  We say it so casually. Yet if our gospel is to be understood, then death and resurrection is not something that happened only to Jesus, it’s what the Holy Spirit is busy doing right now—in us! Prune, prune, pruning us down to the nub.

Sooner or later, we realize that life is a pruner. The French composer Hector Berlioz once remarked, “Time is a great teacher. Unfortunately, it kills all its pupils.”  As the years and decades go by our failures start to go by the name, experience, an achievement that qualifies us to bear responsibility and dispense wisdom—truly!

We are rooted in the gospel, planted in the rich soil of Word and sacrament, nourished by tradition and fed by the community of faith. Probably, we don’t do enough to learn about who we are and what we’ve inherited in our scriptures, theology, and liturgy. Beneath the surface, our roots are deeply woven together, but above ground, today’s scriptures admonish us to prune, prune, prune back our expectations of what God is up to, what the future will bring, what it means to be the church and especially about who is included and who is excluded within the life of Christ.

We learn this lesson from Jesus’ follower Philip who was forced to quickly discern how to respond to the Ethiopian eunuch who was brought to him by the Holy Spirit. Philip mysteriously encountered a wealthy Ethiopian official seated in a fabulous chariot in the middle of the desert, in the noonday sun, reading aloud from a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. He was a black man. He was in charge of keeping the treasury for the whole Ethiopian kingdom.  He was very powerful, and he was a eunuch (Acts 8:26-40).

Jewish purity codes required that a eunuch must not be allowed to enter the Temple.  In fact, no one was allowed to talk with him, or have a meal with him, or even touch him, no matter how rich, and powerful he was (Deuteronomy 23:1).  (Clarice J. Martin “A Chamberlain’s Journey, and the Challenge of Interpretation for Liberation)

Tradition taught Philip to label him as a “dead branch,” someone outside of God’s reign and revelation. And yet, God had other plans to which Philip was open. In Christ, Philip reassessed his answer to the Ethiopian’s question: What is to prevent even me from being grafted into the vine, the living body of Christ?

In this brief encounter, we find the first real test of the inclusive vision of the early church.  We hear council to be open to the mysteries of growth that God brings. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth “Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7).

In our gospel today the disciples are gathered around Jesus while they sat at the table, just as they had done on many nights. They sat around Jesus and celebrated the Passover meal.  It was a night they knew was special, but it’s true meaning and import was revealed to them only as later as they looked back and recounted the events of that night and remembered Jesus’ last words.

I AM, Jesus had said.  “I AM,” he said it in a way that made the disciples think of Moses’ encounter with God in the desert at the burning bush. I AM WHO I AM, God had said.  They remembered other times Jesus had said, “I AM the bread of life”.  “I AM the resurrection and the life.” “I AM the way, the truth, and the life.” “I AM the door.”  “I AM the good shepherd.”  Now Jesus was saying, “I AM the true vine.”

Gathered at his feet at the last supper on the night he was betrayed, the disciples would have understood Jesus was connecting himself to a familiar image of ‘The True Vine,’ a symbol for the nation of Israel.

The prophet Hosea described Israel as “luxuriant vine” (Hosea 10:1). Jeremiah had described Israel as “a choice vine wholly of pure seed” (Jeremiah 2:21).  During the brief period of the Jewish revolt against Rome that began in 66 A.D. and ended with the death of the last hold-outs at the rocky fortress of Masada in 73 A.D., the national symbol of the state of Israel affixed to its coins and emblazoned upon their flags was the image of a vine.

In his last words to the disciples before his arrest, crucifixion, and death, Jesus pointed to this familiar religious image and filled it with new spiritual wine. In a vine branches are almost completely indistinguishable from one another; it is impossible to determine where one branch stops, and another begins. The church is a community connected to the living Word through water and wine. We are nourished by God through faith in Christ Jesus.  We are called to be in the world and for the world but not of the world. As Jesus broke bread, so we are broken for others; as Jesus poured out the fruit of the vine, so we are poured out for all those who are thirsty now.

Jesus told the disciples and tells us the path to a fruitful life “…arises from connection to Christ and to one another, through interrelationship, mutuality, and indwelling.” The communal life envisioned here raises a strong challenge to contemporary Western models of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency. Rooted in grace, God can bring fine wine from flinty soil.  God draws blessings out of the most tragic of events.  God bring new vitality to tired lives.  We draw sustenance from the source of life that is in Christ Jesus.

Each Fall a vine must be cut down to the stub of its trunk to remain healthy.  Each spring, even the new growth must be pruned in order that it may bear more fruit. This is exactly what God is doing now to us as we gather here, as we feast at this table, and hear the word. God, our gardener, prunes away everything getting in the way of our proper flourishing as a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Stil Wondering

Easter 2B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

At times, like today, the lectionary can be confusing.  We’ve jumped into the middle of a longer story. You and I are two weeks from Easter Sunday, but in the gospel, it’s only a few hours since the resurrection. Let’s review.

The women discovered the empty tomb, saw two angels, and become the first to hear the good news: Alleluia! Christ is risen (Response).  These faithful women are apostles to the apostles.  Peter ran to check it out for himself, but he and the small band of Jesus-followers dismissed their story as an idle tale.

Later, the risen Christ accompanied two former followers as they head home from Jerusalem despite hearing the good news. In their grief, sense of failure, and fear of violent reprisal, the Jesus comes to walk beside them. They don’t recognize him, and instead of recrimination, he opens their minds to understand the scriptures on the road to Emmaus.  These intimate friends finally recognized him as he broke bread with them at suppertime.

Just as suddenly as they realized it was Jesus, he disappeared.  Immediately they hurry back to Jerusalem, and discovered that day Jesus also appeared to Peter, who had convinced them all that Jesus was indeed alive!

It’s at this very moment that we join today’s gospel. All the disciples are noisily and excitedly still talking about these things when Jesus startles and terrifies them. He says, “Sorry, did I scare you? Peace be with you,” and showed them his wounds, invited them to touch him, then went rummaging for food, found a piece of broiled fish and ate it.

In recounting the details of their packed and busy day our gospel records this incredible line. In their joy, the disciples were “disbelieving and still wondering.”

It is striking to me that centuries later, how much we’re like those first disciples, gathered here today, still wondering about the things we’ve heard, and wrestling with the fundamental question, as Martin Luther put it, “What does this mean?”

I wonder what does it mean for us living in a world of climate change, gun violence, chemical weapons, and the threat of nuclear war that Jesus offer them his peace? I wonder how it makes a difference Jesus showed them his wounds? Or that after three days, descending to the dead, and rising again that Jesus was hungry? Or that he required the disciples’ hospitality?

In March of 2009 sociologist and theologian, Nancy Eiesland died. She was just 44.  At 13, she had had 11 operations for the congenital bone defect in her hips. She lived with pain her whole life. In her 1994 book, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, Nancy told us what she thought it means for all of us that Jesus came back to life with his body visibly broken. She wrote, “The foundation of Christian theology is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Yet seldom is the resurrected Christ recognized as a deity whose hands, feet, and side bear the marks of profound physical impairment.”  “In presenting his impaired body to his startled friends,” she continues, “the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God.”  His injuries remain an essential part of his resurrected identity, neither a divine punishment nor an opportunity for further healing.

“What would it be like for us to follow in the footsteps of a disabled God?  What would it be like to lead with our scars, instead of enslaving ourselves to society’s expectations of piety and prettiness?  Jesus proved that he was alive and approachable by risking real engagement.  Real presence.  As in: “Here is how you can recognize me.  By my hands and my feet.  See?  I have scars.  I have baggage.  I have history.  I am alive to pain, just as you are.  I am not immune; I am real.”” (Debie Thomas, Scarred and Hungry, Journey with Jesus, April 8, 2018)

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Only a suffering God can help.”Supposedly a prison guard found the line scribbled on a piece of paper and smuggled it out of Bonhoeffer’s cell shortly before his death.

Jesus invites us to follow his way of the cross through the testimony of his wounds. He showed them his scars. “The paradox of resurrection is that Jesus’s scarred body comforted his disciples.  His wounded hands and feet pulled them out of disbelief and into radical, life-altering faith.” (Debie Thomas) Lo, here is a great mystery.  As theologian James Alison puts it, Jesus didn’t simply erase death, he carried death’s “shell” on his living body, rendering his scars a trophy — a sign of life’s ultimate and lasting victory.  “What type of life is it,” Alison asks in awe, “that is capable not of canceling death out, which would be to stay on the same level as it, but to include it, making a trophy of it, allowing it to be something that can be shown to others in order to diminish their fears?”

In their joy, the very first Christians still wondered just as we do. They were journeying, questioning, fearing, but also feeding and being fed, listening for and receiving God’s call, and, of course, like any good church community, doing Bible study.

There were about 120 Christians crowded around Jesus that first day—wide-eyed, their mouths open.  Today’s gospel means our 21stcentury experience of the resurrection is not second-rate.  We too have encountered the wounded and risen Christ while gathered at his table, in the living waters of baptism, and in his ever-present word proclaimed by brothers and sisters.  We are witnesses to these things.

God reversed the course of human history.  Because God in Christ Jesus, endured all the violence and rejection that can be wrought from human hands and did not rejected us, we are a community fueled by joy. Because the resurrected Christ was wounded and hungry we are a community grounded in loving and serving human bodies, without denying the reality of suffering, without embarrassment, without apologizing for our mortality, yet also no longer afraid to live life to its fullest. It is a joy that challenges us to wonder, to question, and playfully explore.  How shall we extend to this generation the spirit of God’s blessing upon all people and upon all life?

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