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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?

Gifts of Peace, Spirit, and Doubt

Easter 2B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

             The wise men traveled from afar and bestowed three gifts upon the infant Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  On Easter evening the resurrected Christ gave three gifts to the disciples to be shared equally with all humankind: peace, spirit, and doubt. 

             Of these gifts, of course, doubt gets a bum rap. Doubt is honesty.  Doubt is a necessary part of faith. We live by faith, not certainty. God calls us to be people who listen, question, learn, and grow. Whenever you hear someone who has doubt disparaged, a red flag should go up.   

            Every year the joy and triumph of Easter are followed one week later by a very honest look at human grief, fear, and doubt from John chapter 20. The fearful disciples, still hiding in Jerusalem, are united in their grief. Jesus’ resurrection confronts the sadness and loneliness of Thomas’s doubt.  Doubting Thomas, we call him.  But our gospel never uses that word, not once. Thomas’s questions ring true and familiar to people down through the centuries and to us today.  After all the evidence is in it still requires faith to follow the way of Jesus’ cross.  

God gives permission to learn wisdom and humility from our doubts and failings, and not just to repress them out of fear. To reach the goal of Christian maturity it will be necessary for us to be immature. (Little Henry, who will be baptized today, didn’t hear that.) God is an expert at working with mistakes and failure. In fact, that is about all God does. Mistakes do not seem to be a problem for God; they are only a problem for our ego that wants to be perfect and self-sufficient. We first tend to do things wrong before we even know what right feels like. I am not sure there is any other way. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation series on Human Bodies)

Jesus gives permission to doubt. There are two other gifts Jesus’ bestows upon his fallible frail fledgling community.  He gives them his peace. He infuses them with Spirit. Neither is quite what you’d expect.

Amazingly, Jesus bestowed peace on the disciples despite their betrayal and the crucifixion. Peace is the gift of reconciliation with God and one another. The gift of peace is like a multi-use tool.  From peace, Christians learn how to wage forgiveness, mercy, compassion, solidarity, and companionship –fundamental tools for building and sustaining any healthy community.  

The peace Christ gives is not just the absence of conflict; it’s also the presence of justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. once distinguished between ‘the devil’s peace’ and God’s true peace. A counterfeit peace exists when people are pacified or distracted or so beat up and tired of fighting that all seems calm. But true peace does not exist until there is justice, restoration, forgiveness. . . . Peacemaking begins with the transformation of ourselves by the gift of God’s indwelling spirit. But it doesn’t end there. We are called and equipped to be peacemakers in a world riddled with violence. That means interrupting violence with imagination and without judgment, on our streets and in our world” (Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, Zondervan, 2012, Pocket Edition, pp. 58–59) 

            The gift of God’s spirit is what makes all this possible for us.  It is the only thing that can.

Jesus came, stood among them, breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”.  In Greek, the word is ‘emphusao’.  It’s the only occurrence of this word in the whole New Testament.  It is the same word used in Genesis 2, where God breathed life into the nostrils of the man and he became a living being.  It’s the same word used in Ezekiel 37, where God breathed life into the dry bones so that they stood on their feet and lived a vast multitude.  It is Pentecost and creation rolled into one.   

God’s urgent persistent will is incarnation. Human flesh is inspirited. The Divine Spirit is enfleshed.  God is patiently determined to put matter and spirit together, almost as if each is not complete without the other. The Lord of life desires a perfect but free unification between body and soul. Amazingly, God appears willing to wait for you to desire and choose this unity yourself—or it remains unrealized. God never forces or dominates, but only allures and seduces. (Rohr)

            We must reclaim the incarnation as the beginning point of the Christian experience of God.  God’s gift of Spirit poured into human flesh should give us renewed and profound respect for human bodies. These frail earthly vessels in which we dwell are a privileged and holy place of encounter with the living God.

            Jesus appeared to the disciples and showed them his wounds. Even in this wounded and wounding world we are able to share in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). Resurrection is saying something about Jesus, but it is also saying a lot about us, which is even harder to believe. “It is saying that we also are larger than life, Being Itself, and therefore made for something good, united, and beautiful…The problem is not that you have a body; the problem is that you think you are separate from others—and from God. And you are not!” (Richard Rohr) 

            On the evening of his resurrection Christ Jesus freely gave three powerful gifts to be shared equally among all humanity which the powers and principalities of this world, tragically often including even the church itself, have felt compelled to take away and lock up for safe-keeping ever since: the three ennobling gifts of doubt, peace, and spirit. Saint Irenaeus of Lyon, who lived about one hundred years after Jesus’ died, wrote a poem for us about the Christian life we share that he called, Capable Flesh.

The tender flesh itself
        will be found one day
—quite surprisingly—
        to be capable of receiving,
and yes, full
        capable of embracing
the searing energies of God.
        Go figure. Fear not.
For even at its beginning
        the humble clay received
God’s art, whereby
        one part became the eye,
another the ear, and yet
        another this impetuous hand.
Therefore, the flesh
        is not to be excluded
from the wisdom and the power
        that now and ever animates
all things. His life-giving
        agency is made perfect,
we are told, in weakness—
        made perfect in the flesh.

 

—Saint Irenaeus of Lyon (c.130-c.202) Adapted and translated by Scott Cairns, Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life (Paraclete Press: 2007), 5-6.

Toppling Stones

Easter Sunday B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

It might be the first April fool’s joke. The angel said to the woman, “He is not here! But go and tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:6b-7). (Alleluia. Christ is risen!)

But on their way to the empty tomb, the only thing they talked about was how to move the heavy stone. Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome quietly went to Jesus that first Sunday morning to anoint a corpse, not to witness a resurrection.  They went to the tomb early on Easter morning, but in their minds, it was still a Good Friday world.  They were preoccupied, not with hopeful anticipation, but with the obstacles they had to overcome. They seem to have all but forgotten, or at least to have discounted, what Jesus had told them: “After I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mark 14:28).

I confess, as we enter this Easter season, the tension in my belly often makes me more mindful of the heavy stones being piled up against us than the message handed down from of old of trusting in God’s amazing grace.  Another mass shooting; another person of color murdered by police in their own back yard; another threat against immigrants, Muslims, or Jews; another rule to save us from ecological or financial ruin undone;  another shady deal to personally enrich politicians or to suppress the vote; another blatant attack on truth; another war, on top of the threat of war, on top of constant war since 911 feel like so many heavy stones—not to mention whatever struggles we might be coping with for housing, health, work or love.

This Wednesday, April 4th will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King.  Had he lived, he would be 89 years old today.  I am mindful of the heroes and prophets we have lost.

No doubt, Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome were feeling something like this that first Easter morning.  They were thinking about death and the crushing weight of the threat of death mounded up against them by the Roman Empire, the religious authorities, and perhaps even old friends and neighbors to whom they could no longer safely go home.

Fear is like a heavy stone. This peculiar Easter story without a resurrection scene, with no reassuring words to strangely warm their unknowing hearts, in which the last word “phobos,” or fear seems to almost linger in the air, reminds us that fear was the disciple’s undoing again and again.

Peter walks on the water beside Jesus, until fear sent him sinking beneath the waves (Matthew 14:29).  Out of fear, the disciples failed to recognize Jesus authority over the storming wind and waters, (4:40-41).  Out of fear, Peter suggested they build booths on the mountain of Christ’s transfiguration (9:6).  Jesus’ predictions of suffering and death elicited much fear and consternation (9:32).  In every case, fear isolated the disciples from Jesus. Fear gets in the way of God’s plan for them and for us. “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8) But, I John writes, “Perfect love casts out fear. (I John 4:18).  Perfect Love is of God.  It falls on everyone and everything like the morning sun or like life-giving rain.

Scholars say, Mark wrote for a church that was small and, on the margins, feeling expendable, and suffering from religious and economic persecution.  To them, the message that God triumphed in Christ despite the dim-witted failures of the first disciples must have come as quite a relief.  I admit, it kindles hope in me too.  After all, here we are two thousand years later. Mark’s gospel is incontrovertible evidence that God can bring faith even out of human weakness, fear, and failure.

Mark draws attention away from the last sentence to reflection on the first one: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).  It’s the beginning of the good news, not the whole story, it’s not even most of the story because it doesn’t end there. You and I are the continuing gospel of the gospel of Jesus Christ. (Nadia Bolz Weber)

Mark’s gospel removed the last barrier to the abounding of grace in us: the fear of failure.  The women’s terrified response to the angel’s invitation to “Go to Galilee” brings us face to face with a great mystery of our faith: somehow God’s work will be accomplished through our hands and hearts, despite our own worst fears, and tragic failings.  (Alleluia! Christ is risen.)

The seed of the gospel is sown on good soil.  We tend and toil in the field, but God gives the growth. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Almost always the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.”  There were not many Christians who supported civil rights but the movement prevailed.  There were not many Lutherans in Germany who opposed Hitler, but the words and witness one Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer prevailed.  Not many people of faith favored an end to slavery, but a faithful minority made it impossible to sustain.  There are so few Christians in America today who support the inclusion of the immigrant, the Muslim, the LGBTQI community, and the poor; who support democracy; and who urgently call for care of the earth that we seem invisible to the media and the wider culture. But the stones piled against us will come toppling down like the walls of Jericho. We have courage and confidence in our convictions because we know how this story ends.  We know the love of God triumphs over every narcissistic tendency and evil.

The victory is won but the battle continues. It just didn’t matter how often or how miserably the disciples failed him.  Jesus always called them back.  Jesus opens a way to the future.  Jesus opens our eyes and sets us again on the pilgrim path to God. Again, and again, Jesus drives out fear and writes a new script for our lives as we become joined to the undying life of God in the waters of baptism.

This is the hope to which the gospel calls us: regardless how often we have failed, however imperfect our faith is or has been; how many times we were silent when we should have spoken out; no matter how hard our hearts have been against compassion for those who suffer—the outstretched hand of Jesus opens to us today.

The angel’s words are not information but a commission for everyone who hears the call to follow him.  Hear the invitation to continue the kingdom-building work that remains to be done—for that is where we encounter the risen Christ.  Jesus goes ahead of us to Galilee.  He is not in the tomb.  Jesus who casts out fear and leads us deeper into abundant life can be found among the suffering, the needy, the oppressed, and estranged. He lives among us now.  Jesus is with all who share their bread, who give a cup of water, who receive the little children, who protect the vulnerable, care for widows, attend to the environment, and keep widening the circle of a living sanctuary of grace and hope for all.  (R. Alan Culpepper, Mark, p. 596-97) Alleluia, Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!)

Truth Stranger than Fiction

Maundy Thursday B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Passover and the Last Supper form a magnificent backdrop for worship on Maundy Thursday.  We have the deliverance story around which the whole Hebrew Bible revolves, paired with the Passion of the Christ, the story which is the beating heart of the Christian New Testament. These twin stories set the stage for our entire salvation history. Set before us is God’s inexhaustible desire to communicate with the human race through millennia, centuries, decades and years. The eternal, universal, perfect and divine seeks communion with the mortal, finite, flawed, and personal.  Here it is again.  “This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you.”

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you.”  The Great Story from of old told in scripture, courageously, lovingly handed down from our ancestors in faith is presented now to us in these Three Days, not to read, but to be read into.  Our personal stories find their plot and their highest purpose in becoming part of God’s universal and continually unfolding story of hope, grace, truth, beauty, mercy, reconciliation, harmony, and forgiveness.

The legend of the Holy Grail is one of the most enduring in Western European literature and art. The Grail was said to be the cup of the Last Supper and at the Crucifixion to have received blood flowing from Christ’s side. According to legend, it was brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea, where it lay hidden for centuries. Famously, the search for the became the principal quest of the knights of King Arthur from which we have countless poems, fables, books, movies, and even a few good comedy sketches. As much fun and inspiration as these stories provide.  They’re a good example of how misplaced devotion can lead us astray. Somehow it is easier to believe in the miraculous healing powers of a lost and obscure object than comprehend what God and Christ Jesus have been trying to tell us—and everyone else—all along.  The truth is stranger than fiction. Jesus is our bread and we are his body. Jesus is our wine and we are filled with his life.  Jesus is our host and our table. We are his holy grail. We are the vessel into which Christ continues to pour out his life for a hungry and thirsty world.

Jesus humbled himself, took off his outer robe, tied a towel around himself taking the role of a lowly servant, and washed the disciple’s feet. For Maundy Thursday Jesus’ call to wash one another’s feet just might be the truth that is stranger than fiction for us.  (John 13:14).  Peter’s admonition, “You will never wash my feet!” Sounds like it comes straight from our own mouth.  I remember hearing the same kind of complaint years ago about weekly communion.  Holy Communion, people said, is really, really special –so we should hardly ever do it.  I’m thankful for how Communion practices have changed in our church.  It wouldn’t feel like worship without it.  Could lack of familiarity be the same kind of roadblock to experiencing foot washing for us today?  I leave it for you to ponder as we prepare to invite you to humble yourself as Jesus did –both to serve and to be served in this humble-tender way.  (Also, I offer this small suggestion: it is enough to wash only one foot using only a small amount of water. Just as Communion is a spiritual feast but isn’t a full meal; so too foot washing is a profound sign of God’s love for you but isn’t a full bath.)

Blessing the Bread, The Cup —by Jan Richardson

For Holy Thursday

Let us bless the bread

That gives itself to us

With its terrible weight,

Its infinite grace.

 

Let us bless the cup

Poured out for us

With a love

That makes us anew.

 

Let us gather

Around these gifts

Simply given

And deeply blessed.

 

And then let us go

Bearing the bread,

Carrying the cup,

Laying the table

Within a hungering world.

We Wish to See Jesus

Lent 5B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Some Greeks approached Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21).  These outsiders ask the disciples whether they too might be included in the fellowship with Jesus and with God.  At some point, it’s a question we all ask, not once but probably many times, “Am I included? Do I belong here? Is it possible God wants something to do with me?” We wish to see Jesus.

The church answers this question every Sunday in Word and Sacrament. Each week we approach the church doors needing to hear an answer to this question.  Our wayfaring hearts search to find home again through shared gospel stories, hymns and prayers, ancient rites and rhythms, and in the particular fellowship we find here in each other. We need to see Jesus.

Every Sunday flings wide the door into the divine life with God in Christ Jesus. But one week, in particular, takes us to the heart of the Christian message. Today, we stand on the cusp of Holy Week.  Next Sunday we begin early. This year we step off at 10:15 to parade into the neighborhood with palm branches in our hands following after Jesus heading into Jerusalem. We return here and at the usual time 10:30, we hear again the full story of his betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, and shameful death.  Whenever we recite the Apostles’ Creed we say he “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead.  On the third day, he rose again…”  For Holy Week, we slow down to walk with Jesus and the disciples in real time for the Three Days.  Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter join the rhythm of our daily lives with the ancient story of Christ Jesus.  We move together with him from death into life by walking the way of his cross.  We do it because we need to see Jesus.

These five Sundays in Lent we have had heard God make five covenants with us.  Five promises that embolden us to confront our illusions, our frailties, and faults so we may turn to God and be healed.  Noah, Abraham, the Ten Commandments, the serpent in the wilderness and today, the prophet Jeremiah, walk us into an encounter with God’s promise to accompany us even in the deepest, most intimate inward struggles of mind and heart.  We borrow God’s courage and hope to confront the realities of life in preparation for the radical new beginning of resurrection and transformation God is preparing for us this Easter.

These promises of God are like water on dry ground, bringing forth life out of death. God’s promises are like a mighty fortress to surround and protect us when life threatens to beat us down in one of its many storms.  God says, ‘See my rainbow and know that I fight, not against you, but with you.’  ‘If you count the stars in the night or the grains of sand beside the sea, they do not exceed the gifts with which I will bless you.’  ‘While you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, look upon me and live. Look upon me and be healed.  Look to me to be forgiven and to learn how to forgive.’  We who long to see Jesus hear God say, I see Jesus in you.  I am with you always. Take up your cross and follow me.

The Lord God has made this new covenant with us –not like the one that we broke.  But this covenant is written within us. We eat and drink it at the Lord’s table.  We bath in it at our baptism.   It is a covenant not written on stone tablets or on paper in a book.  Instead, it is written upon our heart.  ‘I will be your God and you shall be my people’ (Jeremiah 31:33).  I promise.

By his death, Jesus taught us how to live.  St. Francis of Assisi summed up the gospel in this way, “it is in giving that we receive; it is in dying that we are born again.”  It seems counter-intuitive.  But it is the way of things.  Like seed scattered upon the earth, Christ is revealed in us as we dedicate ourselves to loving one another as Christ loved us.

900 years ago, St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) taught through music, art, poetry, medicine, gardening, and reflections on nature to see Jesus in creation. For Hildegard, nature was not merely a scenic backdrop for human activity. Creation is a full participant in human transformation. The outer world is an accurate mirror to guide exploration of our true inner world. The Christian Sacraments ultimately lead us to see that the whole world is a sacrament! It changes the way we see everything when we learn to see Jesus in all things.

Jesus said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). This saying of Jesus was so central to his mission and message that it occurs in all four gospels (and twice in Luke).  It is the life-giving way of the cross.

A seed sown in soil does not literally die when germinates; but it does become something other than a seed, as the new plant begins to take form, the husk is burst, and the stored nutrients become part of the growing plant’s body. The seed must cease to be a seed in order to become a plant; ceasing to be one thing in order to bear fruit as a new thing is a kind of death and resurrection, a perishing and re-formation as a new creation in God.

At Immanuel, I see proof of this when I see Christ in you through outreach to our neighbors in beautiful sacred music. I see Christ in you through the invitation to neighborhood children and youth to come and learn, and by extension, through our partnership with the Families Together Cooperative Nursery School.  As we strive together to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace, we who come each week to see Jesus might find it strange that others encounter Christ through us but then this is exactly what Jesus promised.  It is a truth rooted in the nature of all things.

Joined together in the Body of Christ, God’s self-revelation in Jesus is being made real again in our lives.  The husk of our old life is being opened to become nutrients for the growing life of Christ alive and at work in our lives and the world.  Look, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Corinthians 5:17)  Thanks be to God.

Turning Point

Lent 2B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

According to the often-quoted wisdom of Yogi Berra, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  Today, the disciples reach a fork in the road in their journey with Jesus.  We’re at the midpoint of Mark’s gospel.  It’s the pivot point upon which Jesus takes a decisive turn to the cross.

The disciples walked with Jesus throughout Galilee.  They witnessed his ministry of preaching and healing (6:7-13, 30).  They watched his fame and favor grow so that Jesus could no longer visit cities and towns without attracting a crushing crowd.  He called, they followed, but now their novitiate is over. Jesus reveals his way of serving God will not be to become the kind of warrior-king David was whom they had all hoped for. Jesus will rule not from a throne, but from the cross.  He calls us to wield the power of love rather than the sword. The disciples (and Peter) do not yet understand that suffering born of love lies at the heart of Jesus’ mission.

Jesus has seen where obedience to the loving God will take him.  The road leads to Jerusalem.  The path of faithful service will lead directly into the grinding jaws of the Roman Empire, and the gnashing teeth of powerful, corrupt religious leaders.  The disciples, however, are shocked and confused.  They didn’t see this choice coming—now, they don’t know which way to turn.

We must pause a moment to make one thing clear.  Our Bible does not say that God takes any delight in human suffering.  Jesus’ healing miracles, his compassion for the crowds, and his miraculous feeding of the hungry multitudes are enough to show us that.  God is good.  Jesus came that we might experience life fully and share in this abundance widely.  Yet our life in Christ is no antidote to suffering and grief.  In fact, to embrace the call of Christ is to walk along with him on our own Via Dolorosa (which means the way of suffering), that was Jesus’ path in his final day in Jerusalem to the cross.  We do this, not out of morbid duty but in a spirit of generosity and joy because as children of God the slings and arrows of this world can no longer reach us.

Yet the disciples have no clue that Jesus aims to heal the world by subjecting himself to human savagery in order to expose its ugly face and break its hold and power.  Upon hearing this plan, Peter rejected Jesus’ words.  He took him aside and rebuked him as though he were casting a demon out.  Perhaps Peter was beginning to wonder, as Mark’s gospel tells us members of Jesus’ own family did, whether Jesus was not going a little bit crazy.

But Jesus would have none of it.  He turned to the crowds who followed him and said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

These are puzzling words, to say the least.  We lose by saving.  We save by losing –but how could this be?  The disciples have witnessed Jesus’ power.  Jesus controls the cosmic forces –even the wind and the water obey him.  How could Jesus permit his enemies to succeed, who wish to destroy him just as they had already destroyed John the Baptist?  St. Paul is right to insist the gospel of the cross makes a mockery of all our human conceptions of success (1 Cor. 1:18-25). In a pain-killer culture like ours, it’s tough to imagine anything good can come from agony –let alone to understand how suffering might actually be a path to healing and redemption.

We all know that this world can be a dangerous place. We all know only too well the reality of human savagery means that life for many born to this world should come with the same written warning as that seen posted at the entrance of an African game reserve: “Advance and be bitten.”

Logic dictates that evil must be met with force –right?  ‘Human kingdoms advance by force and violence and with falling bombs and flying bullets, but God’s kingdom advances by stories, riddles, and tales that are easily ignored and easily misunderstood.’ (Brian McClaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, p. 49).

This Lent, we are learning together about the call and power of forgiveness. How can we turn from vengeance to reconciliation? How can our anger and suffering be channeled into wisdom and healing rather than fear and violence?  How can we break the endless cycle of violence? How can we pivot from following the ways of the world to walk in the demanding, life-giving way of the cross instead?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said forgiveness begins with telling our story and in naming the hurt. “There is no way of living with other people without, at some point, being hurt… The response to hurt is universal.  Each of us will experience sadness, pain, anger, or shame. What so often happens is we step unaware into the revenge cycle… If we cannot admit our own woundedness, we cannot see the other as a wounded person who harmed us out of ignorance. We must reject our common humanity.”  (Desmond Tutu, The Book of Forgiving, pp. 49-51)  By telling our stories and naming our hurt we are able to face our suffering. When we face into and accept our pain we start to recognize that we don’t have to stay stuck in our story.  In the way of the cross, Jesus has shown us how to metabolize our hurts and suffering to strengthen the bonds connection and community among us.

Look, even now, the world is being remade—not by force, but by the grace that is poured out like fast-running water through a relationship with God and one another as we gather here in Jesus’ name. The difference between Jesus and the disciples—the answer that ends our befuddlement at Jesus’ words about the call to save our lives by losing them—is that Jesus dwells in the undying kingdom of God, while we (and the disciples) believe we still live in the dog-eat-dog world where might makes right, rather right making might.  Forgiveness is a key to unlocking the door that opens into the kingdom of God here in our midst.

Life in God’s kingdom opens us to a way of living that is radically different from the way people lived in Jesus’ day and in our own time.  In our gospel today Jesus announces that this world is under attack.  The land is subject to an invasion.  “We are under a gentle, compassionate assault by a kingdom of peace and healing and forgiveness and life” (McClaren, p. 60).  God’s kingdom comes, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven –not through simple formulas, or lists of information, and not through angry threats or ultimatums, but like a treasure hidden in a field, like a seed hidden in soil, like yeast hidden in dough, beginning with the bravery to become vulnerable, the courage to face into our hurts and tell our story, the acceptance of the path of forgiveness, the way of the cross.

The kingdom of God spreads from person to person, to person like a virus, like a flame, like water moving downhill.  Jesus’ scandalous message of the kingdom of God reveals the weakness of the apparently powerful and the power of the apparently weak (McClaren, p. 68). German quantum theorist and Nobel prize winner Max Planck once said, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”  The cross of Christ certainly changes how we look at life. Love is an abstraction and impossible without one another.  By way of the cross, Jesus has shown us what we are. We are already one.  Knowing this, we need never walk alone but courage comes with the sound of Christ’s steps by our side.” (ELW #808)

An End to Violence

Lent 1B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Hurt people hurt people.  Victims will claim their vengeance.  An eye for an eye makes everyone blind.  The message of baptism and Lent stand in stark contrast.  They remind us that there can be no peace without justice, no joy which cannot be shared by all; no light found in the dark dreams of our hearts; and no prosperity that is wrung from the sweat of other human beings.

The gospel of Jesus put a decisive end to all scape-goating on the cross. It is a sign that Christianity has lost sight of the way of Christ when it begins to be part of the sin-accounting game rather than a dispensary of grace and mercy.

The ancient Romans used to say, “Si vis Pacem para bellum.”  If you want peace, prepare for war.  Pope Paul the VI’s summarized the gospel of Jesus as a counterpoint to the so-called wisdom of the world, “If you want peace, work for justice.” More guns will never be an answer to reducing gun violence. Only peace begets true peace.

The way to break the endless cycle of violence rolling over us begins with forgiveness.

The fourfold path of forgiveness as taught by Archbishop Desmond Tutu has the potential to free our hearts and break the cycle of violence regardless of which end of the sword –the handle or the blade—we are on. That’s important because, if we have lived long enough, we know we have been both the perpetrators and the victims of violence.

Desmond Tutu tells this story (he tells many interesting stories in this little, easy to read, book):

“YES, SIR. RIGHT THIS WAY, MADAM,” the policeman responded to our query. My wife, Leah, and I knew exactly where we were going. We had no need to ask directions of this fresh-faced London bobby so eager to help us. But after the rudeness and harassment, we had come to expect as our due at the hands of the police in our native South Africa, these encounters with English policemen were a sublime pleasure. Police in South Africa were the frontline agents of the apartheid state. Their role was to enforce every indignity in the racist arsenal. So, it was quite a shock when we landed in England and found the London bobbies so polite and eager to help us.

Our time in England was in so many ways a haven of civility and hospitality. It was an oasis from the constant prejudice, chaos, and violence we had come to know at home. For four years we were able to eat in any restaurant, go to any theater, and board any bus. It was liberating and life-changing to experience. And then the call came.

Leah and I talked about what it would mean to go back to South Africa after this second period in England. The first time around I had come as a student. This time I had worked for three years for the World Council of Churches in the Theological Education Fund. The children, older now, would have to go back to boarding schools across the border in Swaziland. I could see how much Leah dreaded breaking up our family. I could see how much she dreaded the return to second-class status. But I felt drawn to this new role. I would become the dean of Johannesburg, the senior resident cleric at St. Mary’s Cathedral where I had been ordained. I would be the first black person to fill that role. I pressed. Leah has always supported my ministry.

She, reluctantly, agreed. It was one of the times that most strained our marriage.

At home in South Africa, in the face of the viciousness of apartheid, I could not be silent. And then the death threats came. I would see Leah or one of the children slowly hang up the phone with a distant look of fear on her face and I knew that it had been another one of those vile threatening calls. I asked Leah then if I should stop speaking up. Quite incredibly, she said to me that she would be happier with me on Robben Island, where Mandela and so many other anti-apartheid stalwarts were imprisoned, than silent outside. This emboldened me more than I can say. But each time I saw her or one of our children shaking in rage or fear after answering one of those phone calls, I knew my actions were the cause of their pain.

We make choices that affect others even when we do not mean to hurt them. Many years later I asked Leah whether she would forgive me for the impact my work had had on her and our family. She smiled at me, perhaps grateful for the acknowledgment of her sacrifice. “I forgave you a long time ago.”

(Excerpt from Desmond Tutu & Mpho Tutu. “The Book of Forgiving.” Chapter 8 “Needing Forgiveness,” pages 165-167)

From whom do you need forgiveness? What have you done? Have you hurt someone you love? Does the guilt or shame gnaw at you? Have you caused pain and anguish? Are you trapped in the wreckage of your actions with no visible means of escape?”

The way that leads into the season of Lent takes us on a winding path over the edge of a dark chasm that goes deep into the human heart.  The ancient Priestly writer of Genesis 6:11 says God’s reason for flooding the earth in Noah’s time was that “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” It was to wash away the violence of earth that God allowed the waters to burst from their confinement above the heavens and flood the dry land.  “In anger and regret, God made the rains to fall, and the waters to rise, and the waves to beat.  The water rose and obliterated every living thing.  Only one family was preserved, one family and their small collection of creatures.  Noah’s family was preserved on the ark” (William Willimon, Vol. 34, No 1, Year B).  In the Noah story, God did what we would expect any benevolent power to do –God used violence to root out violence.

But then this story of God takes a remarkable and unexpected turn.  The Priestly writers say God saw answering destructiveness with destruction, attempting to deal with corruption simply by erasing its effects, could not get at the root cause of corruption, nor would it heal the inclination toward violence.  The flood could not cure the virus of hatred and sin in us.  So, God placed a rainbow in the sky as a promise and a reminder, not for us, but for God.

The rainbow means that God put down his bow and arrow.  God laid down his weapon.  God has put an end to all hostilities between us, although we had no power to demand it, or any right to expect it.

This covenant God made with us now becomes our mission.  With the covenant to never again destroy all life with a flood, God promised to deal with the problem of sin and evil by more creative means than simply wiping us out. Pastor and theologian Paul Nancarrow writes ‘God chose to be a Redeemer, above and beyond being Creator and Destroyer.’ (Paul Nancarrow).  Now you and I are God’s plan.

In baptism, God does not merely wipe our slate clean, as one removes “dirt from the body” (I Peter 3:19), but begins a new relationship with us with the power to get at the root cause of corruption.  God’s rainbow, like Christ’s baptism, represents the unbreakable promise to always be with us even as we confront the power of evil that threatens our lives and the world.  God’s gift is the power of forgiveness. This lent comes at a time when we most urgently need this wisdom.  In this season of Lent, we remind ourselves and each other Jesus’ story is not simply his own—it must be ours as well.  We are baptized into a death like his so that now we might share in the abundance of a life like his.

The Abundant Life

Epiphany 5B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

From the prophet Isaiah, we read, “Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). These ancient prophetic words, now more than 2,000 years old, are not about the outcome of today’s Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles. Instead, they echo a promise, found throughout scripture that life goes well, or at least better, for people of faith as compared to those without faith.  He came that we may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10b).

In today’s gospel, Jesus is a miracle worker.  He begins with healing Peter’s mother-in-law and proceeds, within the span of four verses, to work through the population of an entire city—healing the sick and casting out demons before heading out to a deserted place the next morning, all alone, to pray. (Mark 1:31-34)

If we are honest sometimes passages like today’s Gospel feel cruel, or at least inaccessible.  What are we supposed to do with Jesus’s healing stories?  Have things changed so drastically since Jesus walked the earth ushering in God’s kingdom with all manner of miraculous signs and wonders?  Where has all the magic gone?

“The problem with miracles,” Episcopal preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “is that it is hard to witness them without wanting one of your own.  Every one of us knows someone who is suffering.  Every one of us knows someone who could use a miracle, but miracles are hard to come by.”

There is a cottage industry today led by the false prophets of the prosperity gospel who would lead us astray with promises of wealth and success if we could only learn to pray like them.  Yet we know where this path leads.  Sooner or later, real life intercedes. People die, or become injured, chronic illness and old age eat away at precious talents and abilities, and others today will become victims of violence or injustice.

We are confused about what the promise of the abundant life means and also compassionate so like the false comforters of Job sometimes we say silly things —or at least, I certainly have.  Have you heard people say, “God is using this sickness to build your character.”  “God never gives you a test that’s too great.” “Satan is testing you — stay strong!” “God’s timing is different from ours — be patient.”  Or here’s a good one “Have you tried fasting?”  In addition, there a plenty on TV telling you “Send me/my church/my ministry money, and God will heal you for sure!”

A closer look at scripture and today’s gospel offers some help.  we see Jesus is not very interested in magic.  The urgency of his message is an invitation to live with the mystery of the ‘already-and-not-yet.”  Yes, the kingdom of God has come, and its in-breaking is even now revealed in Christ Jesus. Yet Jesus healed only a small number of people in one tiny part of the world before he died.  He came to proclaim the kingdom of God, not to eliminate the world’s disease and despair.  The abundant life we receive does not make us impervious to loss or rescue us from frailty and finitude. Becoming One with the undying life of God is not freedom from pain, but freedom despite pain.

Our Christian ancestors understood this.  Their embrace of finitude and no longer being afraid their own mortality is what made them different. Because they were confident in the resurrection, fear was replaced with compassion. Because they stood with the sick, the poor, the oppressed, they learned to be healers. They suffered with them.  Their newfound freedom from fear of pain contributed to the beginning of Western medicine and hospitals.  The gospel freed them to participate in improving their lives and those around them.  Unity in the Undying Life of God led them further on the path to abundant life following the way marked by the cross of Christ Jesus.

The early Syrian Fathers Ephrem and Simeon actually proposed that tears be a sacrament in the Church. Saint Ephrem went so far as to say until you have cried you don’t know God. Jesus said blessed are those who weep (Luke 6:21). In this Beatitude, Jesus praised those who can enter into solidarity with the pain of the world and not try to remove or isolate themselves from its suffering. This is why Jesus says the rich person often can’t see the Kingdom because they spend too much time trying to make tears unnecessary and even impossible. (Richard Rohr, Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, 2/01/18)

Solidarity with the suffering is the counter-intuitive sign of the abundant life.  It makes us hungry for justice. True systemic change requires a willingness to be self-critical.  I’ve read one of the commercials to be aired during the Super Bowl today will urge citizens to “Please stand up” for the flag and national anthem.  I’m curious what it says about our national pastime that we want to prevent NFL players from exercising their constitutional right to free speech? Their solidarity with the suffering is regarded as sacrilege in our temples of civic religion—where patriotism, nativism, and bad religion are mixed together in a tasty adulterated stew.

But we are called out.  Members of the ekklesia, the church, have been literally “called out” of the world in order to live free of its dictates and to belong fully, at every moment, to God and to one another. To live a just and abundant life in this world is to identify with the longings and hungers of the poor, the meek, and those who weep. This identification and solidarity is in itself a profound form of social justice. (Rohr)

Righteousness is not something we do in private or by being polite; it sums up the global responsibility of the human community to make sure every human being has what they need, that everyone pursues a fair sense of justice for every other human being, and that everyone lives in right relationship with one another, creation, and God.

In our gospel today, Jesus showed us how to follow him into this abundance. Early in the morning, Jesus sought out a deserted place, alone, to pray. The English writer and Catholic teacher Edwina Gateley’s beautiful poem is full of wise advice:

Be silent.

Be still.

Alone.

Empty

Before your God.

Say nothing.

Ask nothing.

Be silent.

Be still.

Let your God look upon you.

That is all.

God knows.

God understands.

God loves you

With an enormous love,

And only wants

To look upon you

With that love.

Quiet.

Still.

Be.

Let your God—

Love you.

Yes, God is infinite and Wholly Other, while we remain finite and deeply known and therein lie the mysteries, as compared to the magic, of prayer. Change, pain, birth, and death are the way of all life along with grace, beauty, love, and joy forever.  This precious and abundant life God has given us all.

Look and Listen

Epiphany 4B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Anna Kamieńska belonged to a generation of Polish poets born in the 1920’s who came of age during the brutal Nazi occupation, years of post-war turmoil, and the suffocating entrenchment of Communist rule. In spite of this, or perhaps, because of it, she became a woman of faith. “I was looking for the dead,” she writes, “and I found God.”

“Even when I don’t believe

There is a place in me

Inaccessible to unbelief

A patch of wild grace…”

Something in us is always searching, listening for the still small voice of God. Like Siri, or Alexa, or ok google I’d like to think my heart is always listening to receive and embrace God’s grace.  But I think just as often, or perhaps more so, there is something over my heart always listening to defend itself against God and to hold grace at bay.

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (Mark 1:24) The man with an unclean spirit immediately sees and hears what the others do not. He recognizes Jesus. “I know who you are, Holy One of God.”  Jesus entered the synagogue in Capernaum. It was among the oldest in the world. By all accounts, it was beautiful, large, and successful. The people are astounded at Jesus’ teaching. They were “ekplessomai,” literally, they were “blown out of their minds.”

Immediately a voice of condemnation arises from among the people. A demon residing there recognized danger. “Have you come to destroy us?”  Jesus provoked an unclean spirit watching and listening to defend itself. The community had a lot to lose after all if the political-economic-religious world they were accustomed to were suddenly to change.

Something in us always watching and listening wants to survive—to defend itself against the gospel.  How often do we recognize the power of the gospel first because of the way it provokes us to say no?  Not just no but hell no. The power of rebellion and sin runs deep in us. Often, we are deaf and blind to its presence.  Yet, again and again, the spirit of God bids us come and wash in the word, be cleansed through contrition and prayer, restore a right heart and mind through baptism, and renew our strength for service with good food from the Lord’s table.

When we are made clean in the spirit we can hear and see the truth again. Healthy religion is not a reward system.  It is not an evacuation plan to another world. It is not fire insurance. When we say “Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20) we are announcing our commitment to Jesus’ upside-down world where “the last are first and the first are last” (Matthew 20:16) over any other power system or frame of reference. It means we have changed our loyalties from power, success, money, ego, and control to the imitation of a Vulnerable God where servanthood, surrender, and simplicity reign.

Every generation has its epiphany. Every generation gets a chance to open its eyes and ears to hear and see how unclean spirits have taken hold to dwell among of us.  Today we are being led by young women of color like Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi founders of Black Lives Matter, or Tarana Burke founder of the #metoo movement, and by the dreamers who call us to reclaim our heritage as a nation of immigrants.  They are prophets among us.  There are always prophets among us to call us back to the right road. We must listen to our prophets.

If Jesus is Lord and head of the church, there is a radically changed religious typography. Rules for who and what is clean and unclean, moral and immoral, righteous and unrighteous must change.  What counts is love and mercy more than piety and appearances.

But this process is slow, painstaking, bewildering, and often painful. The price for real transformation is high. Yet there is something in us deeper and beyond sin and rebellion always listening and searching for exactly this. We are thankful for whatever progress can be made to renew our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

People of faith stumble forward into a dark future they cannot fully see. To follow the leading of the Spirit we must learn to use our peripheral vision rather than look straight ahead because that is how we see best at night. Scripture says Moses saw the burning bush out of the corner of his eye. (Exodus 3:3).

Some part of us is always looking and listening. If Jesus is Lord our selfish selves must die too, which Jesus exemplified on the cross. This is what is called the Good News!  And here is a wonderful surprise: We can surrender to God without losing ourselves! The irony is that we find ourselves when lose our lives in God.

Again, Anna Kamieńska in a poem called Transformation found in a book of selected poems called Astonishments, writes:

To be transformed

to turn yourself inside out like a glove

to spin like a planet

to thread yourself through yourself

so that each day penetrates each night

so that each word runs to the other side of truth

so that each verse comes out of itself

and gives off its own light

so that each face leaning on a hand

sweats into the skin of the palm

 

So that this pen

changes into pure silence

I wanted to say into love

 

To fall off a horse

to smear your face with dust

to be blinded

to lift yourself

and allow yourself to be led

like blind Saul

to Damascus

Something in us was always looking and listening for this.  Something in us already knows. To lead, we must first be led. To build a living sanctuary, we must first be “undone. “To resist ego, orthodoxy, and empire can be accomplished only by the gift of a fearless faith, one that shatters all our illusions, one that knocks us off our horse, one that allows us to be led, like blind Saul to Damascus.” (Robin Meyers, Spiritual Defiance) Then we are like leaven that God has hidden in the imperial loaf. “We are salt and light and seed, and all we have to do is walk straight into that light—the same light that is breaking through these very windows at this very moment. See how it falls on our faces? Do not turn away.” (Robin Meyers, Spiritual Defiance) Look and listen and for the love of God, follow and be clean.

Good News

Epiphany 3B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). Before they were disciples, Simon, Andrew, James, and John were disillusioned.  They lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire.  Probably, they worked as independent contractors not entitled to the profits of their labor. The covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah, the gift of the promised land and the dream of becoming a light to the nations was sinking behind a sea of disappointment and failure. Politics and religion (which, at the time, was pretty much the same thing) were co-opted and discredited by hypocrisy and corruption. The national longing for a Messiah was already centuries old the day Jesus passed along beside the Sea and saw Simon and his brother Andrew trawling for fish.

Artists and musicians today have coined a name for this feeling of chronic restlessness, longing, and dissatisfaction with the status quo. They call it “the great discontent.” Discontent for is what drives them to dream and sacrifice for what could be.

Disillusionment and discontent might be a necessary pre-condition for receiving the gospel as Good News.  It seems incredible to us these men were ready to respond to Jesus’ call to completely disrupt and re-order their lives at a moment’s notice.  It was incredible, but the time was ripe to be fulfilled.

Jesus said “the kairos has come” (v. 15). We don’t have a good English equivalent of the Greek word kairos, but we know the feeling.  Kairos denotes a critical moment, a divine appointment or intervention when an opportunity to act opens and closes again. In contrast to chronos or every day “clock time,” kairos time are those hinge-points in life that call for a radical response, an urgent choice, or a fundamental reorientation. Kairos invites us to “repent,” says Mark, to change our minds and actions, just like the Ninevites did in our reading from Jonah. In our reading from First Corinthians, written about thirty years after Jesus, Paul used remarkably similar language: “The kairos is short… this world in its present form is passing away.”

So often God uses our failure to teach us something new. Disillusionment, discontent, and failure helped make moment right for disciples to hear the Good News.   Jesus said to them, the time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Change your hearts and have faith in the good news or evanggelion.  God’s good news was Jesus himself.

Here again, English fails us.  The word for Good News, evanggelion and its derivatives, occur about eighty times in the Greek New Testament. (That’s one reason why Martin Luther thought “evangelical” was the perfect word to describe his radical movement that spread like wildfire across sixteenth-century Europe.)  Yet, in Jesus’ time, the evanggelion or ‘good news’ was never a religious message but a political proclamation from the Roman emperor who understood themselves to be the lords, saviors, and redeemers of the world.

Messages issued by the emperor were called in Latin evangelium, regardless of whether or not their content was cheerful and pleasant.  The idea was that what comes from the emperor is a saving message, that it is not just a piece of news, but a change of the world for the better.

When Jesus came announcing the “Good News of God,” the point was unmistakable even to simple discontented fisherman. God is the one who saves, not the emperor. God’s word is both word and deed. Here, in Christ Jesus, God does what the emperors merely assert, but cannot actually perform. For here, in Christ, the real Lord of the world — the living God — goes into action.

The early Christian confession that “Jesus is Lord” thus included an implicit political claim: Caesar is not Lord. Jesus announced, lived, and inaugurated a new social order, an alternative to violence, exclusion, and separation. He called it the Reign or Kingdom of God.  It is the guiding image of Jesus’ entire ministry. When we pray “Your kingdom come” we are also saying “My kingdom go.”

In contrast to the emperor, God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good. Nothing we can do will either decrease or increase God’s eternal and infinite eagerness to love!  This is precisely what makes the call to follow Jesus so threatening and disruptive to the powers and principalities of this world—as the prophet Jonah, John the Baptist, and our Lord Jesus can attest.

The time is ripe. The time is now here for our discontent and disillusionment to be answered by the good news of the gospel.  The moment to act is upon us. The call to respond is urgent.  We shall not live in fear.  We will not be divided.  We stand together.  We are a living sanctuary in Christ.  By the work of our hands, we have given birth and together now raise our children, grace, and hope.  By grace, our neighbors find a welcome here every the week. By hope, our neighborhood children are strengthened by learning to flourish. At folding tables, coffee tables, kitchen tables and the Lord’s table we are fed and are feeding by the one who is our host and our food.

This is us. (You can read about the work being done with and by our young people in This Week.) This is us. Twenty-five brothers and sisters gathered in retreat to be strengthened and refreshed in prayer yesterday led by Bishop Stephen Bouman, through them the whole community was being strengthened and refreshed. This is us. People who do not neglect to gather here each week to teach and be taught how to forgive and to love again.   This is us.  People striving to love God, love neighbors, and be disciples who make disciples.  This is us. We have glimpsed the living God in Christ Jesus and are witnesses to the resurrecting power and presence of Jesus born again in our hearts. This is us. The Lord has called each of us by name. Now with the first disciples, we seek other seas. We fish for others like us, the disillusioned and discontent. We wait for the just the right moment to act. We know failure is not the end but the beginning of joy. Death is not the conclusion but the beginning. Our story finds its proper place in the timeless and saving story of God’s love and grace at work in the world.  Follow me, Jesus says. Now we follow.

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