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By His Wounds

Easter 2A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Jesus showed them his wounds. He invited Thomas to touch the mark of the nails in his hands and the gash in his side. (John 20:27) Few things focus our minds on mortality than our own injuries.

I was playing sardines at a youth lock-in when I slipped on a small patch of black ice and dislocated my kneecap on the raised corner of a cement sidewalk. Years later, my right knee still bears the scar from the surgery. I vividly remember the moment I fell onto my back looking up into the dark night sky. Suddenly the universe felt very big and empty, and I felt very alone. Theodicy is not an abstract question when we are in pain, but suddenly urgent and very concrete –why God?

Of course there have been other wounds that have left a mark on various parts of my body too. Sometime it might be interesting to share our life stories as recorded in the history of our scars. Scars marking old wounds, tell a story. Emotional scars caused by trauma, loss or humiliations can tell a lot about us too when finally they, either with courage or a lot of therapy or both, are allowed to speak.

There’s an 8X10 photo of Leah in our kitchen from when she was about three. Trails of tears are still fresh on her face. She is holding up the new band aid on her finger accusingly at the photographer, as if to say, ‘Ok, I don’t want to have to go out find a new parent—cause what just happened is never happening again right?’

Being wounded is an inescapable part of life. For the most part, our bodies respond in ways that go far beyond our understanding to repair and even eliminate the damage. Bones are said to become even stronger after a break. But not always, when the damage is too big we are left with a scar, or some other permanent impairment.

Sometimes the scars we bear can tell us about wider social issues or problems with our society. A compelling new book out this month by author and photographer Kathy Shorr, is simply called SHOT: 101 Survivors of Gun Violence in America (powerHouse Books, 4/4/17) who show us in a photo and their own words what surviving gun violence looks like. The book portrays 101 survivors, aged 8 to 80, from all races and many ethnicities. Most were photographed in the location where they were shot. Their shattered bodies have led to profoundly different lives but these wounded ones refuse to be called victims, instead they are the representatives of what they call “survivorhood.”

“Beauty, fortitude, new civic commitment and many other positives can emerge from near disaster. Many of the gun-violence survivors in Shorr’s new book SHOT have recovered against odds, put their lives back together and now taking an active role in inviting a public back into the tough dialogue about American gun violence.” (Cary Benbow, F-Stop Magazine, April 18, 2017)

I have a drawer full of sermons about this gospel. They say Doubting Thomas gets a bad rap. In fact, the word “doubt,” is not used in our gospel. They say Thomas is like many modern believers who seek evidence before they can commit to faith. They say the proof of the resurrection was never just about what happened to the body of Jesus but also about what has happened to us.

That’s part of the beauty and power of the gospels. The meaning we find in them cannot be exhausted. Like any profound work of art, there is always something more they have to say. Jesus showed them his wounds. They prove it was him. He showed them his wounds to teach them hate was not the end. He showed them his wounds to prove nothing, not even the worst, could make God stop loving them. He showed them his wounds to show how frail flesh is the vessel of incarnation. He showed them his wounds to teach how their mortal body was now part of the one body of Christ. He showed them his wounds to prove how grace can heal us all. He showed them his wounds to teach how wounds once healed by grace can become a source of compassion and healing for others. He showed them his wounds to convince us we have nothing left to fear from death. Sin and violence may wound us. It may leave a permanent mark, but it is never the end of the story.

I was sitting and thinking about this yesterday in a coffee shop on the boulevard in Logan Square. The place was very thrift-store chic. People sat on mismatched found furniture. A hand-written reminder to reduce, re-use, and recycle encouraged patrons to think twice before deciding whether they really needed a straw, stir-stick, or plastic lid. There was clever, creative-expressive graffiti on every surface in the men’s bathroom, including the mirror. Original photography and artwork lined the walls. Alternative Indie music played through old speakers. I asked Siri and she told me the song “Left Hand Suzukie Method” by Gorillaz. Pretty sure you know the type of place I’m talking about. I might like to apply for membership to this tribe someday but I’m pretty sure my application would be denied.

We live in a culture where disruption is valued over continuity. We prefer to deconstruct, mix and match traditions rather than create one. It’s not surprising that cynicism and a lot of good dystopian fiction is the result. Injury and damage is a natural part of life, but then life doesn’t get stuck there. By his wounds Jesus shows us how things torn apart can also go back together through grace. Jesus breaks through the walls of isolation and death. He comes to stand in the midst of our hurts and fears to proclaim a word of peace. Henri Nouwen (by way of Carl Jung) echo this teaching. Our wounds may become a profound source of wisdom, compassion, and capacity in us not only for healing ourselves but for the healing others.

So what are we to do with this? How are we to heal and become healers? It’s the same as when you injure yourself. Just breathe. As Jesus stood among the disciples he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”. The word for Jesus’ breath here 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 word used in Ezekiel 37, where God breathed life into the dry bones so that they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Jesus breathed life into the disciples and they discovered what they had perceived to be the end was really just the beginning. By his wounds he has healed us. Jesus has taught us how to live.

No More Fear

Easter Sunday A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Matthew 28:1-10

My earliest memory of Easter morning comes from a black and white photograph my mother took. It features me as big brother in a white-pressed shirt and narrow black tie, escorting my younger twin sisters in their new Easter dresses across the front lawn on a bright Easter morning before church. This tradition is alive and well today judging by the good looks of all of you. My daughter Leah was so insistent on having a new Easter dress she spent her own money to procure one—and it looks great.

Because Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox, it is mostly a cheerful day made all the more happy by the good news. Alleluia! Christ is risen. (He is risen indeed. Alleluia!) But the light-hearted spirit of Easter comes after some hard won experience.   The bright colors and spring flowers are the unimaginable surprise ending God brings out of death, despair, and desolation. Alleluia, “God be praised,” an expression of rejoicing, is the right word for Easter because that’s really all you can say after hopelessness has given way to new life.

Today, we find ourselves rushing before sunrise with Mary Magdalene and the other Mary through the Jerusalem Market, past sleeping dogs and horses, through the cool pre-dawn air, out the gates of the ancient walled city, the Ganneth Gate, deserted at this hour, but for the soldiers on top of the wall. Outside this gate is the countryside, except for a large stone quarry, looking like a huge gravel pit, off to our left. From this quarry many slaves provided stone blocks for building the city. To this quarry the two Marys go through the morning darkness with their grief.

These women shared in Jesus’ ministry. They and other women, like Joanna and Susanna, traveled throughout Israel with the other disciples. Scripture says that they provided for them out of their means (Lk. 8:3). These independent women of means are going to the place where their hopes were dashed, where their dreams had died, where their worst fears were realized.

They pass beneath the clifftop where the two men who had been crucified with Jesus still hang on wooden crosses against the sky to be devoured by birds and dogs. Around and beneath the men, small mounds of garbage lay strewn about, hauled out in simple carts and dumped at random. The women go to a far corner of the quarry to a garden, where the cliff-side has row upon row of hand-hewn caves, tombs for the dead.

There should be a check point here for us on the way to the tomb. Each one of us should answer a question before proceeding. The question is, do you have fear in your life? Are you now or have you ever been really afraid? If not, then turn back. It’s okay. This tomb, this story will wait for a time when you do. We need not trouble ourselves with this difficult Easter business if you have never been afraid of the approach of death, or the loss of a loved one, or the total unraveling of your life. What person reaches for the pruning shears in January, or the garden hose in February, or for Christmas lights in April? Philosophers are right to say there is nothing more useless than the answer to a question you have not asked yet.

On the other hand, this path to the tomb is for you for anyone who has dreams that have ended, hopes that have died. Come with the two Mary’s if you know what it means to be unrecognized, or if you’ve lost a job, a good friend, a child, or a spouse. The tomb should be our destination if we are anxious about what to do for the poor or what we are doing to destroy life on earth. Whatever fears we hold, come to the tomb.

Kate Sawford is now 36 years old. When she was fourteen, she published a book of photographs telling her story of when she had cancer, when she had to have part of her leg amputated, and the lower part of her leg rotated and re-attached. She writes in her book: “Days of my life I’d like to forget: the day the doctors told me I was sick. The day I had to tell my friends I had cancer. The day my hair fell out.   The first day after surgery. These are also the days I will always remember.” (Kate’s Story, Candlelighter’s Childhood Cancer Foundation, 1995) Young Kate has been to the tomb.

Kate Sawford has been fortunate in having been cured. Yet even more important than a cure, Kate has discovered what we all need when we are afraid. We need not to be mocked. We need something more than idle hope. We need more than casual optimism, “Cheer up, everything will be alright.” We need what God offers at Easter. We need blessed divine re-assurance that what we fear or thought was the end is not the whole picture. The story continues. A new day will come. We have a future forever in God that makes it possible to live and love without fear today.

But listen to the voice of angels who have incredible good news. Whatever fears you may have brought to this place, regardless of the heavy burdens in your path that block our way, are rolled away like the stone from Jesus’ tomb, or like storm clouds that must give way to the sun. For Easter we wear bright colors and shout alleluia because God interrupts our fear, calls us by name, speaks to our mortal lives from beyond eternity, and has given us a permanent dwelling place with God that travels in with and under us wherever we go. It is strong enough to withstand any calamity that might befall us. The hearth fire of rekindled hope warms this sacred place. Therefore, joy is never far from our hearts and even the vaults of heaven resounds, Christ has triumphed! He is living! Alleluia! Christ is risen. (He is risen indeed. Alleluia!)

At the Doorway

Passion Sunday A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Some said he was John the Baptist, others thought he was Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Matthew 16:14) Peter and a growing circle of followers called him the Messiah.

They threw they their cloaks on the ground and their voices into the air. They cut palm branches and spread them on the road. They understood they were something new and rarely seen before—a radically egalitarian misfit band of Galileans, Samaritans, Judeans, and Assyrians. They were fishermen, tax collectors, widows, slaves, and women of the street, panhandlers, the chronically ill and mentally unstable. Together they paraded behind the Son of David from the Mount of Olives and through the Kidron Valley as he rode into the walled city of Jerusalem on a humble donkey from the East to reclaim Jerusalem for all Israel. While, that very same day Pilate and his army, displayed their overwhelming military power to suppress any unrest that should arise during the Passover, rode into Jerusalem from the West.

Like us the merry band of Jesus followers had many different reasons for joining the parade. Like us, and countless generations of pilgrims who with their bodies and shuffling feet have added to their number through 2,000 years, they were filled with hope and expectation at what was about to happen. But not one of them could have predicted what actually did happen.

They thought Jesus might restore the kingdom of David and throw the Roman invaders out. They thought he might ordain from the royal throne which of them would rule on his left and at his right. They thought he might be the beginning of the end of the world. At best, they had it partly right.

We palm and passion pilgrims today know more than our early ancestor in Christ because we have heard the gospels. We know where this story leads. We have read through the twists and turns, the cliffhangers and the shocking ending.

Yet, we like them, have arrived upon the threshold of holy week and still wonder what comes next for us.   Not unlike Jesus’ first followers, I’m pretty sure that some or most of what we think we know about God and Jesus going into this week will not fit or even be all that helpful to interpret our experience of what God is doing now. Like them, we must be ready to step into the uncertainty and mystery that always comes with love, compassion, justice and grace as it is being lived now in relationships that require we must risk ourselves, body, mind, and soul to another and to all creation. Perhaps it is a timeless truth that some of our time honored traditions and theological concepts will not survive this encounter.

Each Sunday before worship, the pastors and ministers, and often the lectors, ushers, altar guild members, the Cantor and the choir talk through the day’s service so that each person knows how they fit into the whole. Then after talking it through we walk it through. You’ve seen us—or you’ve done it yourself. The cross, torches, ministers, pastors, lectors, ushers, and anyone else involved in worship literally walk through the service moving through the church from the back to the front. They stand where they’re going to stand. They read aloud what they are about to read. We must experience with our bodies what we trying to grasp with our minds before we truly learn something for ourselves.

Holy week, is when we talk through and walk through the Christian gospel so we might be changed, so that our minds may be opened, so that our hearts may grasp a little bit of what God is doing now in our lives and in the world. Every Sunday, but especially Holy week, is an opportunity to talk through and then to walk through the meaning and message of the gift of God’s grace dwelling deep within you proclaiming that you and all creation have been created in the image God and it is good, it is good, it is very, very good. (Genesis 1:31)

Today, more than most Sundays, is the talk through. We will read the entire passion according to Matthew. Yet, today we have also begun the walk-through. We enter into the mystery of this holy week following behind Jesus and our ancestors in Christ. This week symbols, rituals, stories, songs, and prayers that speak to us of the living God will surround us. We will get up from our chairs and act out this gospel at the table and the font and through profound vulnerable gestures like foot washing or venerating the cross. This is the week that gives rhythm to the entire year.

Finally, let me say one more thing about this week that comes more from neuroscience than the bible, although our bible comprehends it. That is there are two main pathways to transformation. One pathway to wisdom we all know comes through pain, grief, and even tragedy. God who is always with us is with us in our suffering. Our brain works like Velcro to grab onto the lessons learned through pain. Apparently our brains operate more like Teflon in the second instance where we can be transformed to grasp new and lasting insights that come through the appreciation of beauty, praise, generosity, thanks, and happiness. These things can change us too –but we must ponder on them, savor, and meditate on them for at least 15 seconds.   When something moves or strikes you with beauty this week, remember to linger on it long enough for it to sink in.

His hour has begun. Our time has come. Let us enter with joy into contemplation of the mighty acts of grace whereby God has given life and abundance to us all. “For in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) Where can we go away from God? Or, where can we flee from God’s presence? (Psalm 139:7) We jump into the depths of mystery of God’s love.   Let ourselves be carried on the wings of the Holy Spirit to some new place, some new way of living with one another, with strangers, and with God that is at least a little better than the kind of community and togetherness we already know, to a place and life beyond our imagining within the living sanctuary of our life in God through Christ Jesus. Amen.

Hope

Lent 5A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Yesterday I had the honor of attending the memorial service of an old friend and colleague, Pat Lingo. Pat was the church secretary since before anyone can remember at St. James Lutheran Church in Western Springs (near La Grange). In forty plus years on the job she served every pastor but one. She was in the office all week and in the pew every Sunday. Lovingly known as Mother Superior, she embodied institutional memory and continuity. Pat worked, sang, laughed, cried, and prayed for us all even when we didn’t all get along. She was a great partner, counselor, and spiritual guide for me in my first call straight out of seminary. If you asked her how she was doing she’d be apt to say she was somewhere between “Thanks be to God and Lord have mercy!”

When Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb he stumbled out into a faith community that cared for him and loved him. They unwrapped his funeral clothes and welcomed him home with their tears. I couldn’t help but feel that old familiar warmth of Christian community yesterday at St. James. It is the same spirit that binds us together here at Immanuel.   God’s family is really big. It links together people in our hometowns, former congregations, throughout Chicago and around the world. Now wherever you go you can be confident to find family. People to share life’s ups and downs and walk with us through all our losses and our grief.

Our readings today are a survival kit packed and waiting for when the time comes, as it inevitably will come, that we most need them. When our daily life is spent living in the valley of dry bones from horizon to horizon that’s all we can see. When those we love are four days dead like Lazarus. When hope dies and darkness closes in, these readings have been prepared for us by our forebears in faith who knew what we would need before we did, in order to rekindle our hope. You always have a seat prepared for you at the table. As one of God’s children you are part of a large family. You are not alone but are always perfectly accompanied by God in Christ who weeps with you and has power to call you out even from the shadows of death even after we realize what a rotten mess we’ve made of our lives.

Here in John 11, we are so near to Jerusalem. To Jerusalem, and Calvary, and the cross. In fact, the gospel says we are “two miles away,” in this place of death and mourning, at the grave and with those who gather nearby, troubled in spirit. Here, we join the family and friends of Lazarus, including Jesus. Now we are, in church time, only two weeks away from the Empty Tomb. How fitting, then, and how challenging, to read, on this Fifth Sunday of Lent, this text of the raising of Lazarus set firmly within, even entangled with, the controversy and plots that swirl around Jesus. (Sermon Seeds by Kathryn Matthews)

When we most need to hear it, the gospel opens to us like a fragrant Easter flower fresh and beautiful still dripping with the morning dew. Jesus’ words to Martha echo down through the centuries the very same declaration of God whom Moses encountered in the burning bush who declared his name to be “I AM WHO I AM–YAHWEH”. Just as God led his people to freedom, so now Jesus has made us free to live a new life. Now we are ready to see John’s gospel is full of these God statements. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). I am light for your path. “I am the bread of Life” (John 6:35). I will answer your deepest hunger and yearning. “I am the gate” (John 10:7,9). In me you will find the door that opens into eternity and unity with all life. “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11,14). Follow me. “I am the true vine” (John 15:1,5). I have made my dwelling place within you. “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). God has transformed us through faith in Christ Jesus. This finally is the foundation of our rekindled hope even in the faith of death that calls and emboldens us to new life now.

Flipping through channels this week I saw that famous scene in the old movie, The Hunger Games. Donald Sutherland in his role as President Snow asked the game master, “Do you know why don’t we just kill them all? Hope” he said. “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine as long as it’s contained.”

A lot of hope is dangerous to the powers and principalities of injustice arrayed against us, to the overwhelming problems that seem impossible to change, to the cynicism and indifference the world would teach us to embrace.

Why talk about resurrection in Lent if not because there’s something important about the good news that will become more difficult to hear once we’re surrounded again by bright colors, the promise of warmer weather, the joy of singing alleluia, and the festival of Easter? Here in Lent we know the promise of resurrection is not about going on living forever just as we are now except in a bigger house. Resurrection comes through transformation. Usually, we talk about these two words as synonyms. Now, in the midst of Lent, we may count the cost and know this transformation is worth everything we have. Hope is like a seed planted in us getting ready to crack open.

The poet Maya Spector puts it this way: “It’s time to break out —Jailbreak time. Time to punch our way out of the dark winter prison. Lilacs are doing it in sudden explosions of soft purple, And the jasmine vines, and ranunculus, too. There is no jailer powerful enough to hold Spring contained. Let that be a lesson. [A lesson about hope.] Stop holding back the blossoming! Quit shutting eyes and gritting teeth, curling fingers into fists, hunching shoulders. Lose your determination to remain unchanged. All the forces of nature want you to open, Their gentle nudge carries behind it the force of a flash flood. Why make a cell your home when the door is unlocked and the garden is waiting for you?”   (“Jailbreak” by Maya Spector)

Living Water

Lent 3A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Many of you have noticed there’s something different about Lent this year. We have Cabernet Sauvignon. There is Cabernet at communion.   Cabernet goes down well paired with heavy food, but it leaves something to be desired as a stand-alone drink. I’m not sure what the worship team was thinking, but for me, Lenten cabernet makes me wonder. Is this what my prayers taste like in God’s mouth when mixed with the bitterness of my own selfishness and sin?

Today’s gospel offers a wonderful reminder of the abundant and refreshing gift of grace poured out for us in baptism like living water in a thirsty world. Yet sadly, it also reflects the timeless sin repeated again and again by all the world’s religions: God with us begins to mean God is not with you. The purity of God’s grace becomes embittered. This is not the living water that is our birthright.

In nature, water that does not flow soon becomes stagnant and unhealthy to drink. Religion that does not open our hands, hearts and fisted minds to welcome the stranger as we would welcome Christ is no longer healthy religion.

Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well was shocking in part because it transgressed time honored religious lines. Like it says in today’s gospel, “Judeans, of course, do not associate with Samaritans.” (John 4:9b) Samaritans were of Jewish ancestry mixed with other races and practiced an unorthodox religion. Once again Jesus exhibits his tendency to fraternize with all the wrong people.

Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus will tell a famous parable about a Good Samaritan of extraordinary kindness (Luke 10:25-37). He will single out a Samaritan among a group of ten lepers for having faith in giving thanks to God for being healed (Luke 17:11-19). He will rebuke the disciples for wanting to send hell fire to destroy a Samaritan village (Luke 9:52-56). Today Jesus travels through Samaria (already odd because he did not detour around it as was the custom) and surprises both the disciples and a Samaritan women (breaking another taboo about gender) by talking to her directly, engaging her in a conversation about deep spiritual matters (John 4:4-42).

It’s not just the Samaritans who find favor with Jesus, of course. The Syrophoenicians living north of Israel were also considered outsiders and pagans. But when a Syrophoenician woman, desperate for her daughter to be healed, appealed to Jesus he also praised her for her great faith (Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:22-28). Jesus welcomed tax collectors, and sinners and ate with them.

While affirming God’s special relationship with Israel, Jesus demonstrates God’s grace toward and inclusion of people of all backgrounds. Historically, we Christians make a mistake when we see Jesus as a wall and not a bridge to fellowship with other communities of faith.   It’s the miracle of Canna in reverse. We turn living water into bitter wine.

As Christians and Disciples of Christ, that’s why we bear a special burden to oppose anti-Semitism and cannot ignore its recent rise. Although we may never know the motives of the terrorist who phoned in a bomb threat Tuesday, March 7th to Emanuel Congregation and Day School, we can safely assume it had something to do with a tragically misinformed Christian theology. The bitter death-dealing wine of religious terrorism is not in keeping with the spirit the God we know, whether it is perpetrated in name of Christ, Muhammad, or Moses.

It was good to see so many of you Friday night for Shabbat at Emanuel Congregation –and so many from our diverse faith communities in Edgewater—to stand with our brothers and sisters of faith in solidarity against hate. The spirit of God’s grace and hospitality was poured out on us there like living water.

The focus of our Lenten devotions this week was the Apostles Creed, were we read that all people are created in the image of God. Rozella Haydée White wrote, “Believing that God created all makes a difference in how we interact with each other and with creation. We begin to see that everything and everyone is sacred, reflecting the beauty, depth, and breadth of God. Sometimes this reality is easier for me to grasp than another one—that I too am not only created by God but actually created in God’s image. This truth can be daunting because I struggle with my own worth and enoughness. To believe that a bit of the divine resides in me means that the totality of my existence has the capacity to reflect the love, compassion, and humility that define the very character of God.” (Free Indeed, Devotions for Lent 2017, p. 27)

As author and poet Madeleine L’Engle wrote in Walking on Water, “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”

We were talking about the political strains in our country, our state, and our city when one of my pastoral colleagues this week loudly announced she was giving up despair for Lent. After talking with Jesus, the woman at the well left her water jar and went into the city bearing living water she shared freely with anyone she met (John 4:28). Five gallons of water weigh more than forty pounds. This nameless woman in our gospel has pretty much everything stacked against her: she is a Samaritan in this Jewish story, a woman in a male-dominated world, has lived a challenging and probably tragic life, and is very likely dependent on others. And yet after her encounter with Jesus she leaves her water jar behind to live a new and different life and to share with others what God has done for her.” (David Lose)

She leaves the weight of her past at the well. She exchanged stigma and hopelessness for joy. She gave up despair for Lent. She preached good news to thirsty people in the city and a new community in Christ was born.

We, who are thirsty for God, find living water here in our baptism. The old bitterness is flushed away. Here, Christ comes among us in word and meal. Never forget we have good news of great joy to share. In sharing it we are repairing the world in some small way, we become a living sanctuary of hope and grace and this task has only become more urgent in these days.

On Friday night, our hope and joy was rekindled as we sang and prayed led by our friends at Emanuel Congregation. On page 124 of the Jewish prayer book I noticed one in particular that could be a re-statement of our own mission and a way for the living water of the gospel to flow freely among us, through us, and from us:

 

May the door of this synagogue be wide enough

to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for friendship.

 

May it welcome all who have cares to unburden,

thanks to express, hopes to nurture.

 

May the door of this synagogue be narrow enough

to shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity.

 

May its threshold be no stumbling block

to young or straying feet.

 

May it be too high to admit complacency,

selfishness and harshness.

 

May this synagogue be, for all who enter,

the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.

(Mishkan T’Filah: A Reform Siddur, p. 124)

From Chaos, Peace

Epiphany 6A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

You have heard it said from days of old, in the beginning God swept over the face of the waters, God created order out of chaos. Even now, God works to bring order out of disorder. Chaos and darkness were the norm before humanity was invited to be in relationship with the divine. From ancient times we either live in God’s love, or continue down the road to hellish violence

Today we are living in a time when some praise chaos as being a shrewd political strategy. Others worry it is evidence of deep dysfunction. Regardless, we are all pulled into playing a part in the confusion. A friend of mine said, “On Facebook everybody’s a politician and everybody’s right.”

We come by our self-righteousness honestly. Our anger is well founded. We deserve to be dismissive. It’s feels good to stand together and fight when we know how much we are right and they are wrong.

But this path leads in only one direction. The longer we stay here the chaos that threatens us only gets bigger. The outcomes are stark. As we speak facts are erased and replaced with tribal loyalty. Our common humanity is divided among insiders and outsiders. Moses set before the people life and prosperity, death and adversity. (Deuteronomy 30:15) As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King once named it, we must choose between chaos or community.

A pastor wrote about a young mother she knew who was severely abused as a child. She and her children lived in daily chaos. She was getting help but a pattern that kept appearing. Just when her life began to “stabilize,” she created a situation that caused her to be thrown into chaos again. It was almost as if chaos was her place of comfort, control, power, and security. It was where she found her identity.  (Rev. Jolene Bergstrom Carlson, Executive Director/President Ministry Mentors, 2/07/17)

Whether you like it or not, whether you watch television or read the newspaper, regardless of party affiliation, we are all becoming part of a crazy national family system. Experienced Twelve-steppers know the symptoms. From outside and all around us we are increasingly compelled to do three things: don’t trust, don’t talk, and don’t feel. The question is how we renew and root ourselves in the Holy Spirit so we can begin to create community that trusts, talks and feels again?

People in Jesus’ time had a similar problem, although for very different reasons. The threat to the beloved community wasn’t disorder but an overly rigid religious system that taught people to do all the wrong things for all the right reasons.

Our ancestors in faith joined God’s project bringing order from chaos with gusto. The first five books of the bible (or Torah) became the basis of their legal code and cultural norms. The bible was their creed, covenant, and constitution all rolled into one. Christians are familiar with the Ten Commandments. By Jesus’ time these commandments mushroomed into 613 rules to live by, all based on scripture—and all this order and clarity wasn’t working.

The laws couldn’t make people actually love each other. It only made people judge each other –and of course—just like today, there were clear winners and losers, insiders and outsiders. In today’s gospel Jesus is talking about replacing the law with unconditional love. Jesus expects us to love as we have been loved.

Jesus said, ‘You have heard it said of old, do not murder, but I say to you if you are angry you will be liable for judgment’ (vs. 21). “You have heard it said, do not commit adultery, but I say to you anyone who has looked at a women lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (vs. 27, 28). Again and again Jesus takes commands too many of us already do not keep and raises the bar. “I tell you,” Jesus says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

What’s going on here? If you live by the law you die by the law. Jesus opens the door to see inside our hearts and minds to examine the swelter of internal dynamics going on there: anger, derision, slander, false generosity, litigiousness, arrogance, lust, temptation, alienation, divorce, and religious speech.

Most of us are content if we can avoid doing bad things. But Jesus has raised the bar on what it means to be a good, godly person cause the alternative is violence, division, and chaos. We religious people get it all wrong. God is not in the judging business but business of grace and mercy. The way to restoring community that is once again able to trust, talk, and feel begins with seeing each person at the foot of the cross, in need of grace, just like us, and just like us, finding the warmth of God’s love and embrace.

The cross of Christ reveals that God is present in communion with victims of hatred and violence, not the perpetrators of it. You and I may decide to have enemies, but then we must know the consequence of that choice is that God stands against you with them.

Elie Wiesel illustrates this with his gripping story called “Night.” A child hangs from an SS gallows and the question goes up, “Where is God?” Wiesel writes: “And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is … He is hanging here on this gallows.’” (Night, Bantam Books, 1982, pp. 61-62.)

Jesus brings an end to end all our judging and blaming and smug self-righteousness in order to turn for grace. The way of Jesus brings an end to the bitter divisions afflicting our lives today by orienting us toward the needs of our neighbor. Jesus came to teach us how to live in God’s love, so we don’t have to keep going down the disastrous roads that our anger and lust lead us on.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Through violence you may murder a murderer but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that.”

(Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community?)

It’s the perfect life for imperfect people. Jesus has opened the way to life that is more Godly –more peaceful, joyful, and purposeful. We are called and equipped for this absurdly blessed life. God bless this house from roof to floor. God bless each pilgrim who seeks refuge at our door. God fill every room with peace and grace, that all who sojourn here find healing in this place.” (from This House of Peace, Ralph M. Johnson, Earthsongs)

Children of Salt and Light

Epiphany 5A-17

Immanuel, Chicago

You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world. (Mtt. 5:13a & 14a)

These metaphors of grace are best explained by the answers you carry within your own body. Any athlete who has experienced “hitting the wall” knows full well what it feels like to run out of sodium, basic electrolytes, and nutrients. This past month has been so gloomy in Chicago we also know how we quickly we become hungry for light.

On Tuesday, the seniors and I were sitting talking in the library with Parish Nurse, Marcia Smith when suddenly sunlight came bursting through the windows. It was as if God herself entered the room! We stopped, smiled, and laughed like maybe it was an omen to pay extra close attention to what Marcia was saying.

We have a physical response to daylight. It feels like nourishment. It uplifts our spirit. It dispels fear and kindles hope. The candle flame feels alive and present to us. We light candles to sustain our prayers for however long they continue to burn.

God has placed this same light and salt within you. Mixing salty tears with light-hearted hospitality is the universal recipe for joy. There is no border, no boundary, no line separating nations, no longitude no latitude that divides human beings from the blessings bestowed by God. We are all God’s children—children of salt and light.

Over 100 million people are expected to sit before the blue light of their television sets this afternoon.   Marketers forecast we are going to consume more than 11 million pounds of salty chips watching the Super Bowl. We know the salt and light Jesus is talking about can’t be whatever we want.

Jesus chose these metaphors long ago because salt and light were central images for the people of Israel: “You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God…” (Lev. 2: 13) Light appears often in the Old Testament: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Ps. 119: 105)

To be salt and light means to be shaped by the ancient, life-giving law of God. Jesus said it plainly: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.” We can’t tear Jesus’ metaphors of grace from their roots in Hebrew scriptures.  (Rev. Barbara Lundblad On Scripture, Odyssey Network, 2/5/17)

In our first lesson today the Prophet Isaiah helped us sketch out Jesus’ meaning. These verses come after the people of Israel returned from exile in Babylon. The last chapters of Isaiah are filled with visions of hope and urgent warnings. God asks, don’t you already know the best way to praise and worship me?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

When you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up quickly… (Isaiah 58:6-8a)

This teaching might feel like a switcheroo to some of us older folks. We were taught being a follower of Christ meant being respectable, not using foul language in mixed company, and moderating interpersonal sins –but here God says our civic and social sins are what matter most. Salt and light testify within us about justice.

People today bump and bruise themselves against the edges of this indelible truth again and again just as our ancestors did for generations.   The American claim to be a shining city on a hill will always be rudely contradicted by our everyday lives as long as a majority of Americans remain in denial about the reality of race and racism. Jim Wallis and Bryan Stevenson have called racism America’s original sin. The late great James Baldwin said, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” The American dream will continue to be elusive as long as we remain blind to the suffering and sacrifice that our rush to material gain has extracted from people and the planet.

We would like to be a colorblind society. We would like to be finished with this conversation. We are in denial. We quickly become defensive. But the truth is something we can feel in our bones because God made us children of salt and light.

As Isaiah called it, the sin of racism is about hiding ourselves from our own kin. Our children are systematically denied access to housing, to health care, to credit, and to education. Our mothers and fathers face unreasonable barriers in exercising their constitutional right to vote. Our beloved aunts and uncles are instantly incriminated—distrusted on sight—by people who are otherwise mostly rational and kind-hearted.

We know this because we can feel this, because have seen and heard this. We know this because we do this. Maybe now is the time for God again to save us. Maybe now in this time of ubiquitous cell phone videos the light of God’s grace can finally reveal to the truth that a man, is a man, is a man, is a man whatever their color, race, or religion. We are all children of salt and light.

This month our nation remembers the story of Black history that began in America in August of 1619 when 20 slaves disembarked from a ship in Jamestown, Virginia, and the captain traded them for provisions of food. By 1860, the United States census identified four million slaves.

Now nearly 400 yeas later, we acknowledge that neither the Civil War, nor the Emancipation Proclamation, nor the Thirteenth Amendment, nor the Voting Rights Act of 1965, nor the election of our first black president Barack Obama fully abolished what Abraham Lincoln called the “monstrous injustice” of slavery.

If there is one thing you choose this month to once again open your heart and mind to this topic, I suggest you go out and see a movie now playing in theaters: I Am Not Your Negro. The witness of James Baldwin is even more prescient, prophetic, and timely now 50 years after he wrote and spoke them.

So rise, shine you people—Christ our Lord has entered our human story. The path to transformation consonant with the renewal and rebirth God brings to our lives is often painfully slow and filled with sacrifice. We cannot forget the sacrifice of so many who brought us where we are today. We have come this far by faith, because we are salt and light. Salt can never lose its saltiness. Light cannot fail to illuminate. Again and again, God produces the transforming gifts of salt and light from deep within us.

For Times Like These

Epiphany 4A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

The church was made for times like these because the church was born in times like these.

In today’s first reading, God takes people of faith to court and testifies against them. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” (Micah 6:3). Like a shrewd prosecutor God examines their actions, recounting the signs of mercy and loving kindness shown to them from generation to generation, searching for a sign that they are living up to who God has called them to be. God has set the same standard for faithful living for everyone: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.

Christians too are called literally to embody this same tradition. A Latin American prayer asks: “Lord, to those who hunger, give bread. And to those who have bread, give the hunger for justice.” Here God surrounds us with reminders of who and whose we are in the waters of baptism through which we are brought to new life in the word; as we gather around the table to be fed and forgiven through bread and wine. Our spiritual hunger is satisfied and a hunger for justice is kindled. We are sent out blessed and broken to feed the hunger of others as, together, we dwell in the living sanctuary of hope and grace.

The grace of Christ exposes the lie in the ways of the world.   We cannot be full while others are hungry. We cannot become wealthy while we empty the land of resources. The greatest power is not the power to control but the power to include. This was the reforming spirit by which people of Christ swam against the tide of greed and Empire in Roman times. Over decades and centuries, including many failures and tragedies, the faith of God’s people inspired laws, institutions and cultural norms: hospitals, schools, and an equal regard for all life. That’s why we may be so bold to say the church was made for times like these because the church was born in times like these.

Twenty years ago (in 1997) Apple Computer invested millions in television, print, billboards and posters counseling people to “Think Different.” “We’re here to put a dent in the universe,” Steve Jobs once said, “otherwise, why else even be here?”  In a 1994 interview with PBS called One Last Thing, Jobs explained his revolutionary-rebel theme: “That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it. …Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” (Daniel Clendenin, Live Different: the Beatitudes of Jesus, Journey with Jesus, February 2014)

Ten years ago (in 2007) Apple introduced the iphone and the world really did change. Of course the deep irony is Apple’s admonition to “Think Different” only lead us into a new conformity. If we really dared to “think different,” would we continue to use Facebook and Twitter, and always have our smart phone?

The fourth century desert monk Saint Anthony (d. 356) commented upon the stark contrast between authentic creativity and group conformity: “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; [because] you are not like us.'”

The Beatitudes we read today (Matthew 5-7) describe a genuinely counter-cultural style of life. In a world of wealth and war, says Jesus, blessed are the poor and the peacemakers. Instead of violence and vengeance, blessed are the mournful, the meek, and the merciful. To live the Beatitudes is to “live different,” as well as to ‘think different’ and to live as one of the true “crazy ones.” Loving our neighbors as ourselves and regarding the resident alien among us as equal to any citizen of our country (as Leviticus teaches 19:18 & 34), sounds almost as radical today as it did in ancient times.

The church was made for times like these because the church was born in times like these. In October of last year Pope Francis said, “It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help… If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.” (Pope Francis, Catholic News Service, 10/13/16)

St. Paul too reminds us today that walking the way of true wisdom is foolishness in the eyes of the world. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

Like the cross, the beatitudes and the courtroom scene depicted by the prophet Micah makes foolish the wisdom of the world. God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. The wisdom of God exposes the foolishness of human ways.

God does not demand these things from us then leave us to do the impossible all by ourselves. No. God’s spirit dwells in us. God’s grace embraces us in a bond we share that cannot be broken. Though we walk through the darkest valley, God is with us. The guidance and counsel of God directs us. (Psalm 23:4)

So we may remain confident and hopeful in realizing that for the first time since World War II, there are more than 60 million people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes due to war, violence, and persecution. We stand together with God in protest that 15 families including 14 children, who were scheduled to arrive at O’Hare in the next three weeks were stopped. These refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Uganda, were to be welcomed by their co-sponsors and Refugee ONE. Instead, even those granted permanent residents status holding green cards were detained at airports across the country on Friday as they returned to the U.S. from routine trips for work or visiting family abroad.

The church was made for times like these because the church was born in times like these. The beatitudes are not guidelines telling us how to behave—or else.   They are Jesus’ promise to be with us in our grief, in our struggles to be faithful, in our longing for a better world. Jesus is with us even in our failures. When everybody else is against us, Jesus is with us when we are derided and persecuted for righteousness sake. Jesus our living sanctuary is here in this place in Word and Sacrament. Jesus is with you as you journey along life’s path in life. There is nowhere you and I can go that is not filled to overflowing with the love and grace of God.

Given For You

Christmas Eve A-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The prophet Mohamed, peace be upon him, describes the nativity scene at the birth of Jesus in the Quran (Surah 19) featuring a great tree. It’s the first Christmas tree if you will—centuries before the tradition developed among Christians. The tree is a date palm, rather than an evergreen. Mary and baby Jesus rest beneath the shade of its branches. Fresh dates from the tree restore Mary’s strength after delivery and a spring miraculously flowing from the base of the tree provides water for her to drink.

To me what’s striking about the Islamic nativity is first—that the story exists at all—and second how it reflects a very non-European cultural setting. I wonder, has Christmas as we know it in the West, become disconnected from its Middle Eastern roots? Jesus was born in the city of David called Bethlehem. Our gospel was likely written in the ancient city of Antioch of Syria (which today is part of Turkey). It is just sixty-five miles from Aleppo.

I wonder, might we have more natural empathy with the suffering of people throughout the Middle East if our Christmas celebrations had less to do with snow, holly, and conifer and instead helped us “turn back” toward the birthplace of the nativity? (See Mariam Sheikh Hakim, “The Little-Known Story Of The Islamic Christmas Tree” Huffington Post, 12/16/16)

Like the ones waiting for us under the tree, the gift of Christmas must be un-wrapped before we learn what it is. When we peel away two millennia of culture and tradition—we re-discover the surprising/challenging/wonderful message—Christ Jesus and the holy family are refugees (!) fleeing violence, desperately seeking safety, and welcome like so many others today.

To be sure, each of you will find a gift God has chosen specifically for you at Christmas. Each of us finds welcome, belonging, joy and love to warm our soul beneath the Big Tent of incarnation, but we can only remain there in God’s abiding presence while we keep the doors open for others –including our Muslim brothers and sisters.

That’s why the strength and beauty of this church is renewed each week in our mission to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace as we open our doors and draw close with the dying whose family lives far away; with families and playgroups hungry for community connection, with children eager to learn who find here a patient teacher as well as something under the tree; with neighbors through ONE Northside, who this week helped make sure the men’s shelter at People’s Church in Uptown did not close yesterday as planned, but will remain open at least until winter’s end.

Once again the savior goes knocking in search of shelter. Each Christmas we hear how the unfeeling innkeeper turned him away. But, of course, the gospel really is addressing us—will the Lord Jesus continue to find welcome in our hearts, our lives, our community, in this congregation? We find Christ as we open to one another and lay claim to our common humanity as beloved children of God. From the people of the world learn to hear again the true meaning of Christmas.

There’s a wonderful Latino Christmas tradition called Las Posadas. Las Posadas literally means “hotels”, or “inns” and traditionally involves a procession through the neighborhood, stopping at each house to plead for shelter. For nine evenings, from December 16th to the 24th, Christians in Mexico, Guatemala, and parts of the Southwestern United States go door-to-door asking for shelter reenacting Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem. It lasts nine days to represent the nine months of pregnancy in which Mary played host and shelter to the infant Christ. Mary was the first person to say yes to the incarnation.

The answer at every home, of course is, “No!” There is no room at the inn and the door is ceremonially slammed in the face of the faithful procession. Then residents at each stop come out from their homes to add to the parade. Finally, the night ends with singing, prayer and a party as Mary and Joseph do a find room.

The story ends happily for Mary and Joseph. But we know the search for sanctuary and welcome is on-going for many thousands of families tonight who are still without shelter. Our mission is timely and urgent. Where would Mary and Joseph find room today? Where will the Christ child find room among us this Christmas?

Christmas is never about the lights we light, the decorations we make, the gifts we give, or anything we do to attempt to make things perfect. It’s about the wonder and mystery of God’s light already within all people, all places, all things—no matter how lowly, desperate, or forlorn they seem. This is the true source of Christmas joy –the surprise at discovering the fullness of the presence of God that is always already pleased to dwell in fullness within each moment of our lives. As we unwrap the gift of Christ at Christmas we find instructions for how to love God and ourselves by better loving one another, across cultures, religions, and nations.

Earlier today, across Russia this Christmas Eve Orthodox Christians fasted until the first star appeared. As darkness fell believers contemplated the star that led the magi to Bethlehem, and Christ the Daystar who illumines our lives. The early church taught Christians to look for the Light coming into the world at the darkest time of the year – nine months after the spring equinox. This gentle, obscure light emerges from the darkness in the most fragile form of a newborn baby, born into poverty, a refugee seeking shelter in a foreign nation.

You and I, together with Joseph and Mary, are gifted and challenged this night to open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to behold—a gift wrapped in swaddling clothes and nestled upon straw who fills our life to overflowing with the presence of God that is given today—for you.

Impossible Possibilities

Advent 2A-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Lions and lambs lying down together make a nice Christmas card, but we know what would happen—not a pretty ending for the poor little lamb.   A shoot growing from the stump of Jesse, who was King David’s father, provides inspiration for the Advent custom of the Jesse trees like the raw wooden branches we have decorating our chancel. But what actually comes from a stump? Nothing! You cut down the tree. The roots die. Eventually the stump rots, is eaten by insects, and turns into mulch.

From beginning to end Isaiah’s poetic prophecy describes impossible possibilities. Lions and lambs cannot lie down together. Stumps do not produce shoots. Death cannot produce life. It’s impossible—right?

Aggression and domination fuel the process of natural selection. It’s what makes the great wheel of evolution go ‘round. But Isaiah doubles down. The day will come when little children will play with poisonous snakes—what! Maybe in Disney movies, otherwise any child playing with poisonous snakes isn’t long for this world.

But then, Isaiah isn’t talking about this world. Isaiah is talking to this world, about a very different world. Could the impossible become a possibility? In many ways Isaiah lived in the same world we do. It was a world of corruption, violence, and injustice. Powerful nations conquered weaker ones. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen to the invading Assyrians. The rulers of God’s people trusted in military might more than they trusted God. Those in power saved themselves. Those who needed protection most received the least.

We know this world. It is a world where everyday people are killed in drive-by shootings and by suicide bombers. It is a world where walls are erected between people and hatred is on the rise. Poisonous snakes take many forms. It is a world in which the richest nation, today more wealthy than it has ever been in its entire history, has billions for bombs but less and less to offer the hungry and the homeless.

Into this violent fallen world Isaiah paints a picture of peace—an impossible possibility. It is a picture of creation—restored. A world God once again deems fit to call “very good.” It is a picture of life—transformed.   Dog-eat-dog survival of the fittest gives way to the world as God intended it to be. It is a world of people who rely solely upon grace. “God will wipe every tear from their eyes:” and “death will be no more.” (Revelation 21:4)

Actually, we have not one but two Advent prophets in today’s scriptures. We have Dreamy Isaiah, and Fiery John the Baptist. In this season of warm-fuzzies, John makes us a little uncomfortable. You won’t find any Christmas cards with him on the cover. He’s another one who is hard to figure out.

“John planted himself in the middle of nowhere. He set up shop in the wilderness, and anyone who wanted to hear what he had to say had to go to a lot of trouble to get there…” and not just trouble, but plenty of danger too. (Barbara Brown Taylor)

To hear John preach about repentance and baptism, a pilgrim from Jerusalem had to take that treacherous Jericho road, made famous in the parable of the Good Samaritan. They had to trek through blazing desert, carrying all their own food and water, traversing hills and lonely canyons infested with bandits to Jericho and then beyond—to the wilderness beside the Jordan far away from everything.

Ask yourself. Who would have made such a journey? Who would risk it? Who would be so desperate? I bet you know. They were people hungry and thirsting for justice. People fed up and impatient with the world as it is, eager to be part of the world as it should be—the world as even now it struggles to be. They are people who know God fills the world to overflowing with promise and grace. They went to the desert to become midwives of a new creation of impossible possibilities. In other words, they were people like you and me.

Many had nothing left to lose. Their lives counted for very little. They had lost hope of building a life for themselves. Often God’s little ones are the first to hear the angels or to follow the leading star. They were people like we hear so much about in scripture—people on the margins, outcasts, thieves, and sinners who flocked to hear John the Baptist—and right behind them came a second group of people—those sent out to keep tabs on the people who live on the margins, to be sure things didn’t get out of hand.

That sets the scene of our gospel today. John announces the Lord’s coming. He calls the religious leaders a brood of vipers. He speaks of fiery judgment, and of wrath to come. Clearly, John the Baptist didn’t get the memo on having a very merry Christmas.

John’s Baptism of fire is bad news to those in authority and anyone peddling Christmas like a commodity, but good news to the poor, the grieving, the victims of violence, those who suffer injustice, and anyone longing for the kingdom of God.

Isaiah’s dream and John’s baptism is impossibly good news for everyone. Isaiah and John boldly declare God’s peaceable kingdom is closer than we realize –even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. The old ways are passing away. Even now, God is bringing something new out of the old, making what was impossible possible. A branch now grows from the dead stump of Jesse. See there is something that sparkles now among these dead branches. Lions may lay down with lambs. Death has given way to life.

In his little book, called Peace, bible scholar Walter Brueggemann writes about Isaiah, “…the effect of the poem is to expose the real abnormalities of life, which we have taken for granted. We have lived with things abnormal so long that we have gotten used to them and we think they are normal.”

 John and Isaiah reveal the nearness of God’s reign –and expose the upside-down dreams our so-called common sense is built on. Isaiah and John awaken us instead to be a part of God’s dream for this world.

In a time when we can’t seem to agree anymore even about the facts, John and Isaiah have clearly set out the goals: strive for justice and peace. We can find the truth among our wildly different social and political policies by measuring how effective each is in helping us make progress toward realizing the peaceable kingdom—end of story. But they also warn, “The peaceable kingdom for which we long may require that we put an ax to resentments and biases that are rooted in our hearts. We may have to winnow our greed and overindulgence; we may have to let God burn away the chaff of our impatience. Only then will the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, the child and the cobra find rest under widespread branches of a sheltering tree in the peaceable kingdom” (Dianne Bergant). Only then will we find a new way of life between the already and the not yet—find the opening, by God’s grace, to what is possible hidden within the impossible.