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Posts from the ‘Good News’ Category

Love is God in Me

Baptism of our Lord B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Praise and Thanksgiving

Christmas Eve – 2017

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

“O sing to the Lord a new song;

sing to the lord, all the earth.

Sing to the Lord, bless his name;

tell of his salvation from day to day.

Declare his glory among the nations,

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

 

The prophet Isaiah declares:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homemakers or God-Bearers?

Advent 4B-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

I’m going to make a prediction.  I bet on average right about now Christmas stress is reaching its peak.  Time is running out. To-do lists are reaching the breaking point. Once Christmas finally comes we might settle in to enjoy whatever preparations did or did not materialize.  But today we’re still cramming for Christmas.

We feel the pressure to be home-makers.  Living rooms, kitchens, and front doors look like a photo shoot for Better Homes and Gardens—or, at least, we try.  Christmas brings a whole season of decorating, preparing meals, special desserts, parties, cards and letters to write (can I just say, snail mail is so unbelievably time-consuming!) and of course, there are the gifts to purchase, wrap, and display before the big day with family and friends.  Adding to all this are the ghosts of merry Christmases past, now lost, or Christmases present that disappoint us; or perhaps the ghost of Christmases future that haunts us with the dread fear of being alone.

Just when all your effort to make everything perfect threatens to overwhelm you, just when all your losses and regrets mount up to make celebrating a merry Christmas in your own home seem impossible, the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary comes like water in a dry land, or like a light in the darkness. Christmas home-making is not your job, but God’s free and generous gift.  Our Savior’s birth marks the moment in human time when God became flesh. In Christ, God makes a home within you. Through community in Christ, we have become a temple of the living God—a living sanctuary of hope and grace.  You and I are God-bearers by our baptism into Christ.

It seems we all start out thinking of God as “out there.” Yet today, along with Mary, we learn God is always also “in here.” This is Mary’s great discovery.  God is here and everywhere.  It’s remarkable when you think that our enlightenment should come from such an unlikely place and circumstance.  Mary, the mother of our Lord, was a peasant.  Probably, she was not more than 12 or 13 years old. She lived in a little, back-water, behind-the-tracks kind of place, in Nazareth of Galilee. A place you’d never see in Better Homes and Gardens.

“If Mary’s ears had been less keen and her soul less willing, she might not have understood [Gabriel’s announcement].  If her eyes had been able to see only the broad outlines of trial, tragedy, rejection, and hardship, she might not have sensed the divine presence or heard God’s word of grace and favor.  But she [did hear] and [she] responded, even to such an odd call in such a common hour of life” (Rev. Byron L. Rohrig, “Mary as Role Model”, The Christian Century, November 26, 1986, p.1062).

Gabriel called her the ‘favored one.’  Is this the special honor God bestows upon his “favored ones?” It is a strange blessing.  Divine favor does not equate with wealth, health, comfort, or ease. Mary’s favored status led her straight from the blessings of a normal loving family life into scandal, danger, and the trauma of her son’s crucifixion. God’s call required her to be profoundly countercultural, to trust an inner vision that flew in the face of everything her community expected of her.

No doubt, some of this went through Mary’s mind while she listened to the angel Gabriel tell her about God’s plan.  In a sermon on today’s gospel, Martin Luther noticed something in Mary’s response to the Angel that is instructive about faith.  Faith isn’t about knowing the facts, he said.  Faith is the willingness to stake “goods, life and honor” upon the promise of God’s love and the hope that springs from it. Faith always involves at least some risk and vulnerability.  (Is the gift of faith on your list this Christmas?) Mary shows us faith must follow the way of the cross as we journey from belief into action.

But this is what’s so terrifying about the incarnation.  Faced with Mary’s choice to be God-bearers or homemakers of lovely, respectable, successful, enviable Christian homes—we chose the stress of being home-makers.  We chose religious self-improvement and moral achievement rather than the way of the cross.  It seems harder to be vulnerable to suffering or to expose ourselves to the criticism of going God’s way rather than the world’s way.  Or anyway, much less comfortable—and when we are home-makers, at least then, we can claim credit for our deeds.

This dilemma runs deep in our sacred story.  A thousand years before Gabriel stood in the quiet night talking to Mary, God had a similar conversation with King David as recorded in our first reading from the book of Second Samuel (2 Samuel 7:1-11,16).  David’s dramatic rise going from being the least notable member of a family of lowly shepherds to a military genius and world leader, made him look upon the simple tent that had been home to the arc of the covenant since the time of the Exodus from Egypt with embarrassment.  Could he really be great while the religious symbols at the center of his kingdom were so humble?

 

King David of Israel looked ‘round him one day,

turned to Nathan, the prophet, and was heard to say,

“I’m living now in a house built of cedar wood.

God dwells in a tent; that just doesn’t seem good!”

I’ll build God a temple so people might see

That Yahweh is God of a great king like me.

But God did not wish for a temple as home;

God wanted a different space for to roam.

God wanted the world, both its width and its breadth,

God found it again in a small town called Nazareth.

Just the right size of room!

My true dwelling place—a young virgin’s womb.

I’ll live within them

In the believer’s heart.  I’ll give them my breath.

This Christmas, we along with Mary are called once again to be what the desert fathers and mothers called Theotokos, the bearers of God’s life and presence in the world.  According to the 14th century German Mystic Meister Eckhart, “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? Then, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.”  “If in your heart you make a manger for his birth, then God will once again become a child on earth.”  So, let our Christian homemaking be fun and cheerful, or else let it be less than nothing.  Trust God to decorate our hearts with enough beauty and grace to fill the season with joy.  Trust God to give you all the peace and strength that comes from a kind and loving home as you journey forward in faith.  Merry Christmas and a happy new year.

The Highway Leads Home

Advent 2B-17

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One inmate writes:

“I am waiting for freedom

I am waiting for a really Big Slurpy

I am waiting for my Self to see

I am waiting for love ever after

I am waiting for a better time

I am waiting for the day I Meet God

I am waiting on waiting!”

 

Another writes:

“I am waiting for hope to shed some light

I am waiting for God to stop saying not yet

I am waiting for the light to get a little brighter

I am waiting for the new me to be fully out

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisdom and Folly

Proper 27A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Jesus told them to keep awake.

At age 26, author, journalist, and long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad gained national attention when she swam 28 miles around the island of Manhattan. Four years later, she nearly quadrupled that effort by swimming 102 miles across open ocean from the Bahamas to Florida. In 2013, on her fifth attempt and at age 64, she became the first person confirmed to swim 110 miles from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage.

These accomplishments required grit, skill, and bravery. Nyad has exhibited all these strengths in another way too, by detailing her life-long confusion and shame beginning at age 14, when she began to be sexually assaulted by a trusted swim coach.

“My particular case mirrors countless others, ”Nyad writes. “I was 14. A naive 14, in 1964. I don’t think I could have given you a definition of intercourse.” She explains in vivid, heartbreaking detail the times her coach violated her trust and her body, robbing her, forever, of her childhood. For years, she kept the secret. Finally talking has been the profoundly healing medicine for her and for us.

We seem to have awakened to the widespread sin of sexual harassment and sexual abuse this fall. So many stories have surfaced under the #MeToo. Four in 10 working women report experiencing sexual harassment within any two-year period at work (Scientific American Blog, “Do Sexual Harassment Prevention Trainings Really Work?” 11/10/17). One-in-six American women have been the victim of rape; people who are transgender are sexually assaulted at a much higher rate than females who are not trans. (See “Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics,” Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence)

What causes this behavior and what can be done about it? As the nation brings its attention to finally listen and respond to the victims we in the church are also challenged to awaken to our role in perpetuating this problem. The Bible contains many names and metaphors for God, yet Christians historically have claimed to know and proclaim God as a single gender.

We heard God proclaimed differently this morning in our first reading. “Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her” (Wisdom 6:12). Here God goes by the name, Sophia (Greek for wisdom).  She is “the fashioner” and “mother” of all good things and:

. . . a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all. (Wisdom 7:22-23)

These are, of course, female attributes of God. How does it change our relationship with God and each other when God is viewed through a feminine lens? When we over-emphasize masculine traits of the divine, many women, transgender, and intersex persons feel less-than, that their voices and bodies don’t matter as much as men’s, that God’s image is not in them. Male images of God are often associated with power, authority, and judgment. When used exclusively, they most often create an image of a punitive God.

“Female images of God suggest something different. God is the one who gave birth to us and all that is. God wills our well-being, as a mother wills the well-being of the children of her womb. God is attached to us with a love that is tender and that will not let us go. And like a mother who sees the children of her womb threatened and oppressed, God can become fierce.” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, 11/8/17)

According to theologian Marcus Borg, “When John writes that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus, he could just as well have said that Sophia became flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus. Jesus is the Wisdom/Sophia of God incarnate.”

In an age when we are bombarded with information we desperately need more wisdom not simply more knowledge. In just the past ten years, there is a resurgence in wisdom research. The scientific method, society’s most useful tool, is finally being used in pursuit of society’s most hard-won prize.  At the University of Chicago’s Center for Practical Wisdom, multi-disciplinary teams of psychologists, neuroscientists and sociologists ask themselves what is the way to the good life?  How can we teach our children to integrate emotion and intelligence; be open to a broad range of perspectives; navigate uncertainty; learn to take their time, be more empathetic, and consider the common good?

Sophia is smiling.  There is a re-awakening to the spirit of Sophia today. Is it amazing in our eyes?  Today’s gospel (Matthew 25:1-13) invites us to go even further down this path.

In Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem, he told a parable about five foolish bridesmaids and five who were wise.  At first glance, they look the same. All ten came to the wedding; all ten have their lamps aglow with expectation; all of them, presumably, have on their bridesmaid gowns.  Jesus prompts us to stop and reflect, how do we choose between what is foolish and what is wise when the oil in our lamps is running low?

Did not all ten bridesmaids prove themselves to be foolish—five because they would not share the extra oil they brought, and five because they thought the groom would not accept them if their lamp was empty?  Jesus dire warning to the disciples and to us is to stay awake – to be ready for what is at hand, to be engaged with his presence, as the presence of the kingdom of heaven. Yet, very soon, the disciples too will fall asleep in the garden of Gethsemane.

What they are trying to quantify at the University of Chicago, Sophia has taught us from of old. We all stand in need of grace.  We who are foolish become wise as God in Christ Jesus dwells in us. This is how we gain admittance to the wedding feast and join the party.  We who are male and female and transgender, find unity despite our diversity in becoming one with our creator who goes by many names but whose one unchanging attribute is defined by love. You are beyond the metaphor of male and female; you are a child of the Resurrection, a creature of Eternal Life. As Paul courageously puts it, “There is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This is the beginning of wisdom for us, for our children, and our society. It is for the healing of victims of violence everywhere. It is the spirit of awakening to which we are now called.  The spirit of Christ/Sophia awaits us.

The Five Virgins – a poem by Thomas Merton
There were five howling (or scatter-brained) virgins
Who came
To the Wedding of the Lamb
With their disabled motorcycles
And their oil tanks
Empty.
But since they knew how
To dance
A person says to them
To stay anyhow.
And there you have it,
There were five noisy virgins
Without gas
But looking good
In the traffic of the dance. (but well-involved in the action of the dance)
Consequently
There were ten virgins
At the Wedding of the Lamb.

Hear and See Jesus

All Saints A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mind of Christ

Proper 21A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Which son did the will of his father?  I know who has my vote.  As father to four children, three of them sons, I feel delighted when one of them helps out around the house regardless of what they might have said before.  The example Jesus gives is common to our everyday lives.  But the context is not.

The stakes were high when the Priests and Pharisees confronted Jesus in the Temple.  The day before, Jesus entered the city in triumph.  Crowds lined the road, shouting “hosanna!” Afterword, he fashioned a whip of cords and violently drove the moneychangers out from the Temple.

Now he directly confronts the religious authorities. The controversy draws everyone’s attention, much like a new post on Twitter from President Trump—except that for Jesus, the argument will cost him his life.

You would be hard pressed to find better examples of religious devotion than the Priests and Rabbis of Jesus’ day.  They knew the bible back and forth.  But their religion had become less about loving people and serving God than about protecting their own power and self-interests.

They ask a good question but are not open to Jesus’ answer. They are hoping he will claim to be a God, or a king, or anything they can take to the Romans to get him out of the way.  The religious leaders may be saying yes to God, but they are living in a way that says no. Their walk doesn’t match their talk.

Research indicates this is a common complaint among millennials about the church today.  We talk about social justice but settle for charity.  We preach love but remain quiet about child abuse, poverty, animal suffering, or you name it.  We hear Christians on television talk about God’s abundance and prosperity who are reluctant to put their bodies in gear or get their hands dirty, or who talk about mercy and forgiveness with folded arms, pronouncing judgements God will not own as if hurricanes and life tragedies were evidence of divine punishment for bad behavior or proof of our own moral superiority.  Millennials take the church’s words seriously and for that reason feel they must reject belonging to a church.

Like Jesus’ story of the two sons, young people today are skeptical about our words and want proof of what we believe in concrete actions and life style choices. Don’t tell me about the good news.  Show me the good life. Jesus said even the tax collectors and prostitutes put themselves far ahead of the chief priests and elders who professed their love and obedience to God but failed at works of love and mercy.

Over the centuries, Son number one—who said no but lived yes—has become an icon of what it means for us to be faithful followers of Jesus. God welcomes the service of sinners even while their hearts and minds remain divided. Truth be told, none of us say yes and live yes all the time.  We have all rejected the will of God in both words and deeds, whether in outright opposition or through ignorance.  If we can’t accept this deeply humbling truth about ourselves we can’t enter the vineyard of God’s grace.  Hold onto your pride or embrace God’s mercy.  You can’t do both.

For the chief priests this meant the price of admission into God’s vineyard was too high.  But to those who recognize their need for grace Jesus’ fellowship is a lifeline –a way out of the disasters that so often befall our mortal lives.

But here’s where the trouble begins. No sooner do we enter the vineyard ready to spring into action than we notice a whole bunch of people who don’t agree on the work that needs to get done.  In fact, they may go so far as to actually undo the work others have faithfully done.  It’s enough to make a grateful tax collector or repentant prostitute throw up their hands and walk away from the whole grace loving—vineyard tending—kingdom building, thing. Once we say yes to God, it’s not clear how, or in what ways, we are to live yes—either with our deeds or our words.

God intends the church to be a living sign of grace. Travelers need good road signs.  Otherwise, they’re liable to confuse where they are with where they’re going, or wind up in the ditch. Millennials and others who try to build a better world without reference to inherited wisdom quickly find themselves working alone, or in danger of losing hard won knowledge, or getting lost on the way to the vineyard.

The chief priests asked Jesus by what authority he did the things he chose to do to serve God and neighbor.  It was a good question, if only they had had the courage to really pursue it.

What authority do we claim for ourselves today?  Given all we know we are wise to be humble.   As we go about our work in the vineyard, we must remember how we got here—that none of us could make sense of our lives on our own.  We listen before we speak, and listen more than we speak.

More precisely, we Christians are hoping both our words and our deeds will more and more be taken over and transformed by the living Word of God.  In our second reading from Philippians, Paul reminded us we do not labor alone.  More profound than any work we do for God is the work the Holy Spirit does for us, in us and through us. Martin Luther wrote, “It is as if a wolf devoured a sheep and the sheep were so powerful that it transformed the wolf and turned him into a sheep.  So, when we eat Christ’s flesh physically and spiritually, the food is so powerful that it transforms us.”

Saying yes to God is not the end but just the beginning of learning to say yes to God with lives that become road signs of grace. We work out our own salvation “with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).  Paul isn’t talking about our personal salvation but about the corporate “health” or “well-being” of the believing community and society as a whole.   The salvation we work out in fear and trembling entails our work together to fashion a community characterized by mutual love, harmony, humility, and unselfishness (2:2–4). Rivalry, conceit, and selfishness are evaded, as well as grumbling and complaining (2:3–4, 14).  Our salvation, therefore, is not simply and solely the activity of God upon us as passive human objects, but is a work of the transforming power of God’s grace and faithful human activity working together.

At the font and at the table, through water, bread and wine, through Word and witness, we trust in God’s word dwelling in us will provide guidance and counsel to all of God’s children—regardless if we are more like the first son or the second one – even as we struggle to ask all the right questions.  Yet in welcoming Christ we receive strength to go into the vineyard of God’s creation, saying “yes” and living “yes,” all of our days.

A Heart for Grace

Proper 20A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?”  Jonah’s answer, of course, is yes!  God’s little object lesson using a weed, a worm, and the wind did nothing to dispel Jonah’s bitterness. What made him so upset?

You remember the story, God said to Jonah, “Go at once to Ninevah, that great city…” (Jonah 1:2) and prophesy to it. It is a shocking mission. Ninevah (which is the modern city of Mosul in northern Iraq), was home to the enemy.  It was the capital city of Assyria, Israel’s traditional enemy and eventual conqueror.  With a population of 120,000 people, some classical accounts say that it was the largest city in the world in those days. Its pagan sinfulness was legendary, as was its cruelty:  The people of Ninevah were known to scorch their enemies alive to decorate their walls and pyramids with their skin (Jacques Ellul, The Judgment of Jonah, 1971, p. 26).

The Ninevites were bad.  Their policy of forced slavery and intermarriage were intended to annihilate the Jewish people. So when God told Jonah to go to Ninevah, he can’t believe his ears and he tries to run away.  He booked a trip to Tarshish –which is completely in the opposite direction, and about as far away from Ninevah as any person in the ancient world could get.

An interesting side note is Jonah comes up in our lectionary only twice every three years. But this week in addition to being read by Christians at worship across our city and around the world, it is also read in worship by Jews everywhere for the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur.  God offers Jonah forgiveness by which he may be purified and cleansed from all his sins before God. But notice, in typically Hebraic fashion, God doesn’t rebuke Jonah for his anger.  Instead, he playfully attempts to broaden Jonah’s horizons, so that Jonah will see the Ninevites as God sees them.

Jonah’s plan to run away from God is met with disaster.  No one is beyond the reach of God’s hand. He is thrown into the sea, gets tangled in weeds as he is about to drown, at the last moment is swallowed by a great fish and, finally, three days later, vomited out upon the sandy shore.  He doesn’t even have time to wipe himself off when he hears God repeat the command, ‘Get up, and go to Nineveh!’ (Jonah 3:2).

The only thing more preposterous than this big fish story is what happens next. When he finally arrives at Ninevah Jonah’s half-hearted preaching has amazing results.  The evil Assyrian king and all the people repent.  Even the animals repent!  They repent in the same way an observant Jewish person would –only much much better.

And rather than being overjoyed, Jonah complained bitterly: “I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).  God’s equal-opportunity mercy disgusted Jonah.

Disgust and rejection at God’s mercy could be the thread that binds our readings together. Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to an owner of a vineyard who hired day-laborers to take in the harvest.  Some worked twelve hours, some worked nine, others worked for six hours; while others only worked for three; and some for only one hour!  And yet, he paid them all the same, beginning with the last ones hired to the first. Then, to add insult to injury the landowner insisted on paying the workers in reverse order, thereby making sure that the first workers saw what the last received.  Wouldn’t it be easier to pay the all-day laborers first, sending them home before they could see what their “less deserving” counterparts received.  But no, the landowner wanted them to see what kind of vineyard he ran.  He wanted them to experience radical generosity.  He wanted them to surrender their envy and join the party.

Again scripture confronts our righteous indignation with question Is it right for you to be angry?” Are you envious because God is generous?   Whatever else it may be, the Kingdom of Heaven is not a meritocracy. God plays by different rules. Jesus’ way opens us to a life of grace and not merit, status reversal instead of status reverence, underserved generosity rather than pay for services rendered.

The parable of the generous land-owner offers a concrete example of living out Jesus’ Sermon the Mount. In the immortal words of Jimmy Buffet, it’s always five o’clock somewhere.  But rather than the start of cocktail hour, these words are a call to action and mercy for all those standing idle and at the margins at the marketplaces looking for useful work to do to support themselves and their families.

The story of Jonah teaches us that no matter our past behavior, God’s benevolence and mercy awaits us if we only repent full-heartedly and God’s grace covers all people, everywhere, no matter their religion or place of origin. The story stops short of telling us which way he turned in case Jonah’s heart is in some way our own heart.  In case in some way we also are more severe than God, begrudging the forgiveness God so freely extends.

The story of the miracle of the big fish and the miracle of Ninevah’s repentance ends just before crossing the threshold of the last and greatest miracle as the unloving barriers in our own hearts give way to the persevering compassion of God.

Do we have a right to be angry?  Are you envious because I am generous?  God leaves us to decide.

Writer Mary Gordon, in her book Reading Jesus, calls this “an impossible question, calling for an impossible honesty.”  Because yes, she writes: “I am envious because you are generous.  I am envious because my work has not been rewarded.  I am envious because someone got away with something.  Envy has eaten out my heart.”

We can appreciate Gordon’s candor, because really, if these scriptures don’t offend us at least a little bit, then we’re not paying attention.  After all, we know how the world is supposed to work.  Time is money, and fair is fair.  Equal pay for equal work is fair.  Equal pay for unequal work is NOT fair. But alas, God is not fair.  And God is not on our side but at everyone’s side.

Maybe, if God’s generosity offends us so much, it’s because we don’t have eyes to see where we actually stand in the line of God’s overflowing grace and kindness. (Debbie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, September 17, 2017)

God has given us the profound gift of unending love and mercy. Even now, little by little, and all at once, God is working to fashion a heart in all of us to match.  By God’s grace, the Holy Spirit is kindling in us a new humanity.  It’s not the old rat-race humanity.  It’s the new humanity we have through our baptism into Christ Jesus.  It is a humanity not rooted in fairness, but in grace. “O God, who gave yourself to us in Jesus Christ your Son, teach us to give ourselves each day until life’s work is done.” (ELW # 695)

Folly and Wisdom

Proper 9A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

They said John the Baptist had a demon’ and the Son of Man was a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’  Jesus chides the faithful for finding fault in God’s messengers regardless of their message. ‘To what will I compare this generation? [They are] like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:18 & 19)

I’m depressed thinking about how divisions among God’s people persist in our own day. In the red states and the blue States I wonder whether we are reading the same gospel?  How can we come to such different conclusions about women, about abortion, about sexual orientation, about our political leaders, about the stewardship of creation, about American exceptionalism, about capitalism, about the pernicious sin of racism, about Muslims, Jews, and people of other faiths, about what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ?

We all have the same starting place.  We believe God has revealed the character of creation, for all time and in all places in Jesus.  The material universe has a face.  The material universe is alive and we have glimpsed the character and quality of all life in Christ Jesus.  It is the life of the holy three that invites us to dwell, face, to face, to face, to face, even now, in one body with each other and with God.  Holding so much in common, you might think we would all reason to the same conclusions about life–but this unity will never be enough to insure uniformity of thought—quite the opposite.

Again, and again the scriptures teach us the greatest sin we can commit is not bothering to care. You’d have a hard time finding another Christian who doesn’t agree the command to love one another as we love ourselves is central to the gospel.  But how we love is up to each of us. Is there a right and a wrong way?  Sure—there are better and worse ways.  There is such wideness in God’s mercy as to leave the particulars of loving up to us.

Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. Pay attention and the school of life will be our teacher.  Stay hopeful, be willing to do things that are uncomfortable, step closer to those who are suffering and get ready to learn some humbling truths, “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” (Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy) Indifference might be the most toxic human emotion we can share.

We learn wisdom in hospital rooms, bedrooms, classrooms, and just sitting around the kitchen table.  We find wisdom in holy communion, wisdom in the waters of baptism, wisdom in prayer. We come to the community gathered by the Holy Spirit to hear a word of grace and to discern together how best to walk the way of the cross—in other words—to learn how to be better lovers.

Whether we are Statue of Liberty Americans, or build the wall Americans matters less than the fact that we all stand in need of grace and that we are all bearers of that grace for one another.  We will not find wisdom in uniformity of thought, but in the mutual respect that makes room for everyone, inside and outside the church, to express their thoughts freely and fully.  That is what’s so dangerous about the current political climate in which we find ourselves.  This is what the institution of the church is perfectly positioned to respond to with members in every community across the country.

It is part of the shared wisdom of our Church, enshrined in the constitution of every congregation in the ELCA, that every person who comes through our doors holds a part of the truth.  Each of us must faithfully bear witness to the truth as we understand it, and prayerfully, humbly listen as others do the same. We find wisdom in speaking, and in listening more than we speak. Therefore, it is imperative we respectfully leave room for a wide range of opinions if we are to do everything possible to follow Jesus.  Diversity of thought is not dividing, but enriching.  This is the basis for the covenants of full communion we share as Lutherans with six other denominational partners, including Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Episcopalians, the United Church of Christ, and the Reformed Church in America.

Today we hear Jesus declare, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

It seems counterintuitive to find rest in taking up the yoke of Jesus.  For most of us, I’d wager, a yoke connotes bondage and servitude –a diminishment of freedom and choice.  Indeed, Jesus was relentless in criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees for making the yoke of religion into a means to weigh people down with artificial demands of righteousness.

Jesus’ yoke is different from the religious zealots want to lay on you. It is the call to simply to love one another and bear one another’s burdens. In this we will discover the wisdom that is hidden from the wise and intelligent who rely on their own abilities.  They will not hear the gospel regardless if it is proclaimed by John the Baptist or by Jesus. Here is the wisdom written deep within creation: being good and kind is not a chore, but a natural and gracious response to the other.  It’s what we’re made for and in this we find our own humanity.

Each of us has different gifts for love and service.  For decades now, this congregation has had a special gift and passion for teaching and receiving children and young people.  Tutoring, after-school, play-groups, and the ECT youth group are examples of the way we at Immanuel wear the yoke of Jesus.  It’s why 20 years ago Immanuel’s leaders sought out and invited Families Together Preschool to come and partner with us. It’s why vacation bible school draws so many neighborhood families and children.  (I hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch the VBS slide show running in the narthex today.)

The yoke of Jesus is humility and concern for the despised. We bear the weight of this yoke in loving others.  This is how we bear the weight of the cross.  This is how we learn what wisdom is.  This is how we become disciples of Jesus.  This is how we heal our democracy. This is how we unburden ourselves from carrying our fear.  This is how we teach our children.  This is how we restore grace within our families.  This is how we find rest for our souls.  The yoke of Jesus is not a yoke of servitude, or of bondage but of connection, partnership, and sharing our burdens with one another and with Christ who labors alongside us.

The Called Life

Holy Trinity Sunday

June 4, 2017

 

Today is the second of three Sundays to explore Luther’s theology of Christian vocation.  What if anything, does it help us understand about how we live out our Christian calling in the workplace?  Let’s start by looking at the front cover of your worship folder.

This is Trinity Sunday —as in the Holy Trinity.  Trinity is not a word you will find in the Bible.  The Trinity is not a teaching of Jesus.  Yet Trinity is the name for God in which we baptize.  Since the early fourth century, it has been the Church’s name for God.  The name says something essential about who God is.

About 100 years before Martin Luther published his “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, also known as the 95 theses, the Russian artist and iconographer Andrei Rublev painted the famous image you see today called “The Trinity.”  Inspired by the story of Abraham entertaining the three angels who visited Abraham and Sarah as they camped beside the Oak of Mamre (Genesis 18:1-8), the icon depicts the Holy One in the form of Three eating and drinking, in infinite hospitality and utter enjoyment between themselves.

The Father, in the foreground on the left, is wearing a golden robe, depicting for Rublev perfection, fullness, and wholeness. In the middle, Jesus wears a blue robe over a brown shirt. They are the colors of earth, sky, and water. His hand resting on the table makes a two finger gesture to tell us he has put spirit and matter, divinity and humanity together within himself —and for us!  On the right, the Holy Spirit is dressed in green. “Hildegard of Bingen, the German Benedictine abbess, musical composer, writer, philosopher, mystic and overall visionary, living three centuries before Rublev, called the Spirit’s endless fertility and fecundity veriditas —a quality of divine aliveness that makes everything blossom and bloom in endless shades of green.” Likewise Rublev chose green to represent the divine photosynthesis that grows deep within us transforming the light of God’s grace into itself. (Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance)

Notice, the hand of the Holy Spirit is pointing toward the open and fourth place at the table!—for you!  As magnificent as the fellowship among Father, Son and Holy Spirit is—there’s something missing. The Three are circling around a shared table, and if you look on the front of the table there appears to be a little rectangular hole painted there.  Most people pass right over it, but art historians say that the remaining glue on the original icon indicates that there was perhaps a mirror glued to the front of the table!  Standing before this icon, peering into the divine life existing in, with, and under the entire universe, Rublev intended us to see the reflected image of ourselves!

This image is our starting point today.  The Holy Trinity where we begin to find answers about our Christian calling in the workplace and anyplace, because this is where we find our true self—living in community and communion inside the circle of the divine life of God. Here at Immanuel, we repeat the same mantra in the statement of our mission to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace. 

Dwelling in Christ, quickly dispels two fallacies about our vocation that persist today.  The first being the our vocation is synonymous with whatever we do to make a living.  Luther’s understanding of vocation is much broader.  It includes whatever we do to advance the cause of God’s grace.   Because we abide in Christ, we strive to do our work well and with fairness.  We

have concern and compassion for colleagues, employees, employers, clients, and customers.  We find more delight in serving than demanding. Mindful of any opportunity to glorify God we invite others to find a seat at the heavenly banquet table beside us.  We evangelize not to conquer others but to share the gift of grace by which God has set us free and made us all part of one life in God. This is our Christian vocation whether at home or at work or really, any place we find ourselves. Our vocation may change depending upon opportunities and circumstances, but it the aim always the same —to love and serve others as we have been loved and served and to invite all people into community with us in God.

The second fallacy Luther’s theology of vocation demolishes is a misunderstanding about the gospel that has persisted and even thrived among people of faith for centuries right up to today. It is sometimes called called “moralistic, therapeutic deism.”  It sounds abstract but I think you’ll all recognize the idea. It boils down to the belief that God will reward good people with heaven and send bad people to hell. Also, the main object of faith is to enable you to feel good about yourself. And finally, God is “out there” somewhere, but not very involved in daily life.”

Just about every point of this perspective contradicts Luther’s understanding of vocation. We see in Rublev’s image of The Trinity, God’s grace does not divide the world up into “good” and “bad” people. Rather, all have fallen short of God’s glory and depend solely on God’s mercy. Further, the point of religion is not to make you feel good about yourself. That turns faith into something that is basically self-serving. The point of religion is to love God (something enabled by God) and serve the neighbor. The view that God is simply indifferent and aloof from creation and human affairs is a vast distance from Luther’s belief that God “daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, fields livestock, and all property—along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life.” And it certainly is in dramatic tension with the teaching that, in Christ, God has entered deeply into human flesh and human experience.” (Mark D. Tranvik. “Martin Luther and the Called Life.”)

We do God’s work with our hands.  God uses our callings to tend to the needs of the world. Bread does not happen without the work of the farmer, miller, baker, and merchant. Luther says that people function as God’s “masks” to accomplish God’s will on earth. It is God at work in vocation. We are God’s instruments. God is not absent, but hidden behind the various gift and talents of the laborers.

God is One in Three.  Face-to-face-to-face we enter into community, mystery, Love for the other and the other’s love for us, when we enter into relationship with God through faith.  This divine life shatters the sins of empire, opens our eyes to hate and racism, and teaches us how to forgive and be reconciled. This transformation becomes our joy, our vocation and our work and our mission.

So rise, shine you people.  See how God sends the powers of evil realing.  God brings us freedom, light and life and healing.  All men and women who by guilt are driven now are forgiven.  Tell how the Spirit calls from every nation God’s new creation.  (ELW # 665, Rise, Shine you People!)

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