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Posts from the ‘Good News’ Category

Fish Out of Water

Epiphany 5C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A More Excellent Way

Epiphany 4C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divine Interruption

Epiphany 2C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Are Mine

Baptism of our Lord, C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be the Already

Advent 1C-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

And so, our story begins. This first Sunday in Advent our gospel comes from St. Luke as will be our custom throughout the coming year.  Notice, the Church begins its new year when the days are still getting darker.  Advent is not a season for the faint of heart. In place of swaddling clothes, twinkly stars, and fleecy lambs — each year we begin the story of God looking fiercely and honestly at the world as it really is, here and now.  Gorgeous, fragile, and falling apart.

“People with faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:26).  In prophetic language that sounds distressingly contemporary, Jesus describes a world reeling in pain. “When you see these things,” Jesus says, don’t turn away.  Don’t hide.  Why?  Because it’s only when we embrace reality — when we acknowledge and welcome the “here” of human suffering — that we experience the nearness of God.

In Advent, endings and beginnings run together. Ancient truths and dreams of the future teach a single startling truth: our creator and redeemer are one and the same. Our living God, the Ancient of Days, is our Alpha and Omega, our beginning and our end.  Today, and in this season, the past and future join hands to guide us in navigating the difficulties of this present moment and lead us into the loving embrace and the ongoing work of God that is already, always, and at all times everywhere.

This present moment is all we ever actually own in life. Yet it can be really hard to focus solely on the here and now. American novelist Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.”  That’s precisely what Jesus does in his prophetic wake-up call in our gospel today.  He shouts, he draws startling figures, and he uses every rhetorical device at his disposal to snap his listeners to attention.  “Be on guard,” he warns his disciples.  “Be alert.”  “Stand up and raise your heads.”  Look.

It is hard for people today, reading this gospel today, not to think the end-times Jesus is talking about is only about the future—possibly even the distant future—when Christ returns to the world again in glory from on high.  We forget the most important part of this message: the apocalypse is also now. Lutheran theologians are fond of saying the kingdom of God is already and not yet. Christ our king is already here. The victory is won but the struggle with the power of fear and death continues. Somehow we focus on the ‘not-yet,’ and  neglect the ‘already.’ The hopeful message of Advent is watch, wait, look, be part of the already!

Lauren Wright Pittman is an artist and Presbyterian pastor who created the beautiful image we have in our worship folders today entitled, “Raise Your Head.” She writes, “Jesus says to respond to these apocalyptic signs with staggering hope and confidence. When it feels like the very foundations of the heavens are crumbling, we are to stand up. When the roaring sea and the waves confuse us, when the sun, moon, and stars come tumbling out of the sky, we are to raise our heads. When the news cycle feels like an endless fire hose, people pour into the streets in protest, families are separated, and fires blaze through neighborhoods, we are to stand up and confidently usher in and claim the redemption that God promises.”

Be the already.  Focus on what’s not yet makes us into passive spectators, leads us down blind alleys and into fruitless speculation.  “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).  Instead, the meaning of the cross and of the resurrection is that you can be part of God’s already.

Advent calls for brutal honesty, even when honesty leads us straight to lamentation. In Advent, we are invited to describe life “on earth as it is,” and not as we mistakenly assume our religion requires us to render it.  We are invited to shout forth our pain and bewilderment.  To name the seeming absence of God.  Advent is an invitation to yearn.  That is, to name the “here” of our desires without shame or reservation.  Advent is the season when longing makes sense.  Advent is an invitation to imagine.  In Advent, we are called to hope creatively.   To hope against the grain.  Or as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, we’re called to trust that “darkness does not come from a different place than light; it is not presided over by a different God.”

“Advent is an antidote to illusion.  It cuts to the chase.  It insists on the truth.  It lays us bare.  Advent invites us to dwell richly in the here, precisely because here is where God dwells when the oceans heave, the ground shakes, and our hearts are gripped by fear.  “When you see these things,” Jesus says, hope fiercely and live truthfully.  Deep in the gathering dark, something tender continues to grow.  Yearn for it, wait for it, notice it, imagine it.  Something beautiful — something for the world’s saving — waits to be born.” (Debie Thomas, “When You See These Things,” Journey with Jesus, 11/25/18)

Former President George H. Bush died Friday.  He was 94.  A reporter for the New York Times, Peter Baker gave this accounting of his final hours. “George Bush had been fading in the last few days. He had not gotten out of bed, he had stopped eating and he was mostly sleeping. For a man who had defied death multiple times over the years, it seemed that the moment might finally be arriving.

His longtime friend and former secretary of state, James A. Baker III, arrived at his Houston home on Friday morning to check on him.

Mr. Bush suddenly grew alert, his eyes wide open.

“Where are we going, Bake?” he asked.

“We’re going to heaven,” Mr. Baker answered.

“That’s where I want to go,” Mr. Bush said.

Barely 13 hours later, Mr. Bush was dead. The former president died in his home in a gated community in Houston, surrounded by several friends, members of his family, doctors and a minister. As the end neared on Friday night, his son George W. Bush, the former president, who was at his home in Dallas, was put on the speaker phone to say goodbye. He told him that he had been a “wonderful dad” and that he loved him. “I love you, too,” Mr. Bush told his son. Those were his last words.” (Peter Baker, “George Bush’s Final Days,” NYT, 12/01/18)

I never voted for him, but from the perspective Advent provides, his kinder, gentler style of leadership looks like something essential we must reclaim for ourselves going forward. For mortals, our beginning and ending inevitably come together. See! They lead us to the same place. “The bridegroom comes! Awake.  Rise, prepare the feast to share; go meet the bridegroom who draws near.” (ELW #436)  Together, let us be the Already.

Truth Unveiled

Proper 28B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah’s Great Discovery

Proper 24B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through the Eye of a Needle

Proper 23B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). Despite this, or maybe because of it, today we baptize little Salma and little Antonio so God may do for them what we who love them cannot.

We baptize them to receive new life by drowning.  We baptize them to become children of a new humanity, to be born from above, to live like fish out of water, and to pass through the eye of the needle. We baptize in faith and hope that what is impossible for mortals is indeed possible for God.

Spiritual writer Anne Lamott writes about baptism, “Christianity is about water for God’s sake,” she remarks. It’s about immersion, about falling into something elemental and wet. Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry; looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain and rivers and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time, it’s also holy and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving into all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched.” In baptism, we are delivered from the shallow birdbath of culture and the daily news and immersed in the waters of life that go way over our heads.

These past five Saturdays I had the privilege of learning with Christians brothers and sisters taking part in Diakonia (the two-year adult study of scripture and theology in the Metro Chicago Synod). We examined the five phrases in the single sentence that is the covenant we affirm in baptism. “Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism: to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?” To which we respond, “I do, and I ask God to help and guide me.” (ELW, p. 1164)

It’s going back a few years now, but I’m remembering a scene in the Broadway musical, A Chorus Line. In that grueling audition, one of the dancers, named Michael, tells a story about what drives him to perform. His big sister got all the dance lessons, while he had to insist and to prove and convince everyone “I can do that. I can do that. I can do that!”  It was the beginning of a professional career in dance.

In baptism, our career in Christ begins by admitting exactly the opposite. The key that unlocks and swings open the great gate turns as we switch from I can to I can’t. The day Martin Luther died his wife and children prepared his body for burial. They found a small handwritten note in his pocket. It read: “We are all beggars.”  We stand in need of grace to draw us into the life we were created to live. We move through the eye of the needle to and through the way of the cross, into the abundant and forever life we share in Christ starting today and into eternity. We can’t do this, but God can.

This might be the great question in every life. How do we get there from here? I imagine a man sitting on a bench in the park across the street watching his children play. He finished college in four years.  Got married at 24.  He realizes his biggest accomplishment in life is that he is reliable, responsible and respectable.  He neither gives nor causes offense.  You can take him anywhere without worry.  He is a good neighbor, a good husband, a good father, even an occasional church-goer. But he wonders, is this all there is to my life?

Imagine a woman who decides to come to church with a friend. She is a citizen of the world.  She is careful to turn off lights before leaving a room.  She buys local and eats organic.  She enjoys a warm circle of creative, left-of-center friends.  She wants to contribute to the creation of an alternative culture.  She hopes that she is making the world a better place, but she wonders with all the hatred and division how is it possible?

Each of them is like the young man in our gospel today.  He is bothered by life’s ultimate questions. He is restless and unsatisfied.  He kept the faith his whole life. He has amassed a fortune.  Yet despite his righteous reputation and accumulated riches, he comes before Jesus as a needy man.

Notice, he waited until the last moment.  As Jesus is about to leave, he ran up, knelt before him and asked the big question. It is the honest, sincere question of a man dedicated to conforming his life to God’s will and doing what is best. “Good Teacher”, he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)

The man in across the street wonders what he should do to make his life more fulfilling. The woman in church just for fun with her friend wonders if what she does really matters.  The wealthy sincere young man wonders what he can do to eliminate the nagging feeling there is something that he is missing.

Our gospel says Jesus looked at the young man intently and loved him.  This is the only person in the gospel of Mark Jesus is said to love. Yet Jesus’ answer is both wonderful and terrifying.  What can you do, Jesus asks?  What can you do to make your life better?  Nothing.  But see, God brings everything you are, but nothing you possess, through the eye of the needle.

The text says the man “was shocked and went away grieving.”  I imagine it was sticker shock. The abundant life in Christ proved unaffordable.  He considered his wealth an entitlement — a symbol not only of his worldly accomplishments but also of God’s favor.  How terrible to be told that his best credential was a liability and a burden.  How grievous to realize that God’s kingdom was not custom designed for his ease — that he might not like it, or agree with its priorities, or find common cause with its inhabitants.  How shocking to encounter a God who is so scandalously honest — a God who strips us of our entitlements and freely hands us reasons to walk away. (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus)

The key that unlocks the great gate is “I can’t” rather than “I can.” Through the eye of the needle, although we lose all our possessions, we receive gifts of the spirit. By gifts such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, we become reconciled to God and to one another (Galatians 5:22). These gifts sustain our community here at Immanuel.  These gifts nourish love in our families and kindle warmth between neighbors.  These gifts have the power to repair the breach in our democracy and restore dignity to our civic life. Through the eye of a needle, in the waters of baptism, from lament into glory, from death into life, “I can’t” becomes “we can.”   For little Salma and Antonio, for the man across the street, and the woman visiting the church with her friend, for you and for me, this is what God has done that we could not. Praise be to God.

No One is a Nobody

Proper 22B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through the Back Door

Proper 21B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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