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Posts from the ‘Human Family’ Category

In Flesh and Blood

Proper 15B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

To begin to explain communion the gospel of John points to the cross. Jesus said, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51b) Jesus did indeed give his pound of flesh on the cross. He will hand over his flesh and blood to the full power and ingenuity of the Roman Empire to inflict pain and to sow fear. On the cross, Jesus walked straight into the death-dealing jaws of worldly power, to reveal the greater life-giving power of grace

On the cross, once-and-for-all, Jesus proved God’s love cannot be broken despite how awful you are or whatever evil we have committed. Once-and-for-all Jesus revealed that glory is ours and God is beside us when we give our own flesh and blood for the sake of the suffering. Once-and-for-all Jesus showed us where we belong. We dwell in unity with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit today and forever. Therefore, following Jesus’ example, we here highly dedicate our flesh and blood in solidarity with victims of collective violence wherever and whenever they exist. For the first three centuries, before Constantine, the church more easily identified with the oppressed having sometimes been the victim of the Empire’s collective violence itself.

This is the life of which we partake. This is the true food we consume at the Table to nourish and to give soul to our poor flesh and blood. The cross is Jesus’ answer to the question of what kind of life the bread and wine incarnate in us. The cross is a sign of the kind of life the waters of baptism even now are working to reveal.  The cross is a stark sign of incarnation. Somehow, the Christian gift and message of the incarnation sounds sweeter and less threatening in Advent in Mary’s Magnificat or in barren Elizabeth’s joy in conceiving. But the message is the same. “If in your heart you make a manger for his birth, then God will once again become a child on earth.” (Ana Hernandez)

After the resurrection, Jesus’ words at the end of John, chapter 6, will sound different and more intelligible to the disciples too. But for now, they are scandalous.

In Hebrew culture “an eater of flesh” is another name for the devil. The drinking of blood is forbidden by God’s law. Even today keeping kosher means there’s no blood in your food.  On top of all this, Jesus uses a word for eating that’s especially crude.  It was used to describe the way animals eat. Jesus’ phrase ‘eat my flesh’ translated literally sounds like a command to loudly chew or to gnaw his flesh –disgusting!

It sounded like blasphemy. It sounded like idolatry. Worse, it sounded like cannibalism.  Upon hearing Jesus’ words, a dispute broke out among his followers (John 6:52).  Scripture implies it was a serious conflict, perhaps even physical. The argument was intense and bitter.

Up to now, great crowds of people had followed Jesus’ every move.  They ran ahead to arrive at his destination before he could. But now they said, “this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (vs. 60) …and because of this many who were following him, turned back and no longer went about with him’ (vs. 66) because of the flesh and blood.

Flesh and blood—because of the flesh and blood—people rejected Jesus. Indeed, the shock and scandal of the incarnation continued to be a difficult teaching for Christians throughout the history of the church. In our theology, ecclesiology, and daily practice of faith we turn and twist it to avoid confronting its full meaning.

When we partake of one flesh, let’s face it, there are always going to be some people we want to exclude. Flesh and blood are our family-right?  Flesh and blood are the people who look like us, who come from the same place, who share the same history.  Your flesh and blood are the people you don’t have to explain yourself to. They’re the ones to whom we’re especially devoted, obliged to be loyal, who call on us when times are tough, and with whom we share our wealth in life and in death.  Wrong. In Christ all people of every nation are included in God’s family—even strangers—worse, even enemies!  Jesus’ friends and family from his hometown of Nazareth were so shocked and scandalized when they heard Jesus’ inclusive message they moved as one to throw him over a cliff.

It’s been the same ever since. Christians with all their rules and heavy expectations deny access to the kingdom train at the front door, while Jesus lets everyone in at the back door. If we followed Jesus way of the cross, there wouldn’t be a difference.  Every congregation would be united and as diverse as are all the children of humanity.

It doesn’t stop there. Discomfort with strangers is just the beginning. The shock and scandal of the incarnation calls upon us do something, that for most of us, is even more difficult—to love our own fleshy, bloody, messy bodies. The gospel of Christ calls upon us to turn and embrace what we so fiercely reject in ourselves—namely our mortality, our limitations, our flaws, our vulnerabilities, our shame, and shortcomings.  This is the plain meaning of the incarnation: the fullness of God is pleased to dwell in, with, and under us and everything that surrounds us.  The material world is infused with Spirit.

Through its history, the church has side-stepped the radical inclusion of the incarnation to make things easier and to make the Christian life less threatening.  Every time we slice a little bit of our humanity off from the blessing of incarnation we have hell to pay for it. We have said, yes, God is fully present –but only among the male gender, or especially in the ordained, or only among baptized Christians, or most tragically, only among those the celibate. The unholy interlocking triangle of gender, celibacy, and ordination contributes to a culture of secrecy and sexual abuse. Pain and tragedy results when we call anyone or anything unclean that God has made good. (Acts 10:15)

The depth of our sinfulness obscures and hides the gift of incarnation in us. We are wise to be humble, to listen, to pray, and discern together how to walk the way the cross. The cross must not become a cheap and easy way to crucify or to judge others but used for that which Jesus’ intends it –as the means of transforming our own flesh and blood to better reflect the divine image endowed and incarnate in us by our creator.

We abide together, one flesh, one blood, one body. The verb translated in our gospel, ‘to abide’ occurs 40 times in John and 29 times in John’s letters.  It can mean to remain, stay, live, dwell, last, endure, or continue.   As a noun, it means a dwelling place, room, or home.  Jesus’ shocking, off-putting words are an invitation to enter into wisdom. Enter into the life of the Trinity. In this new understanding of our body and our life—of where and to whom we belong—we begin to act differently.  We make different choices.  We value different things.  Our mission at Immanuel is rooted in this.  Together, our vision and our prayer is to become a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Come Away with Me

Proper 11B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessing of Rest

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

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

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

Jan Richardson, Painted Prayerbook.

Christ, The Way

Proper 10B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Elizabeth and Zechariah were overjoyed at the birth of their son.  Zechariah struck dumb for doubting God in the temple, found that his tongue was loosed at his birth.  “His name is John,” he finally said. What joy they had for their son, this man of God, the last of the great prophets. But look what it’s come to. John the Baptist landed in prison for speaking truth to power; he suffers doubt and despair about the Messiah he thought he knew; he received no solace, no rescue from God and gets his head chopped off during a birthday party to appease a clueless girl, a cruel-hearted queen, and a cowardly king. What can we say about this old weary world—but that sometimes some truly stupid, senseless, crap happens.

We’ve all heard good Christians friends reach for some redemptive meaning to be found in tragedy:  “God never gives anyone more than they can bear.” Or, “God has a plan,” and “For everything, there is a season.  A time to be born and a time to die.”  I confess I’ve said things like this, and that I do find some comfort in these familiar sayings.  Yet, the true answer to tragedy is the cross. The strong message of the cross is God can always find a way to make something beautiful from the manure we make of our lives.

Faithful words hung in a frame above our bed are not jagged enough; they’re too easy and polite.  There’s a hazard in moving to closure, redemption, and triumph too quickly.  But here, in today’s gospel, is a Christian story that looks true horror in the face. Here is the Christian story that will sit with us in the darkness and help us trust that God is there, too.  Instead of reaching too quickly and compulsively for brightness, here is a gospel story about injustice, a travesty, a desecration. The head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.

We’ve heard examples of this kind of story from everywhere, from hospital rooms, opioid clinics and the streets of Chicago. We hear about the brave Muslim men, called the White Helmets. We see them run into bombed and burning buildings in Syria, pulling out children covered in ash and entire families when suddenly, the building collapses and some of them are killed too. We hear this story from families fleeing violence, facing death from dehydration at the border and now from toddlers who don’t recognize their parents after separation.

We need strong gospel medicine if we are going to withstand such losses and not lose heart. Starting with the fact that we don’t need to slap some transcendent purpose or meaning on all human experience. Christian friends our faith doesn’t require that we believe everything is part of a Divine plan, some things are just plain horrible.  Period. The cross was not God’s plan A.  It was plan B, or maybe plan C or D.  Rather, faith is knowing God will not abandon us. Faith is trusting God to bring salvation and grace even out of horror—when all the evidence leads us to conclude otherwise.

How much more credible and relevant we, his followers, would be, if we’d follow Jesus’s example as we confront the world’s ongoing horrors?  Some things are too terrible for words. We take them to the cross. Some hurts can’t be salvaged with a neat story.  “So, honor the silence.  Create space for grief.  Mourn freely.  And when you’re ready, feed the people around you whatever you’ve got.  Somehow it will be enough, even if you can’t explain how or why.  This is how we make the sorrows bearable.” (Debie Thomas, “Bearable Stories,” Journey with Jesus, 7/08/18) This is how grace heals the world. Not everything happens for a reason, but somehow, God makes beautiful sense of the jagged and bloodied pieces of our lives anyway.

Mark insists that we see this. Mark’s gospel intertwines the story of John and Jesus almost from the very beginning.  There’s something important Mark wants us to know about the timing of Jesus’ ministry and John’s arrest.  All the way back in chapter one, Mark told us it was “…after John was arrested, [that] Jesus came to Galilee, [following his baptism by John] proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!” (Mark 1:14).

Furthermore, in his very first sentence, Mark called his work “a gospel.”  This is easy for us to miss because now, we refer to all four evangelists as “gospels.”  Yet Mark was the first and only one to explicitly do so. The word Evangelion meaning “gospel” or “good tidings,” was used for imperial announcements such as the birth of royalty, the ascension of an emperor, or a military victory.  Mark’s word choice undermined the caprice of political-military power by appropriating its language and infusing it with new, deeper, and transcendent meanings (William H. Willimon).   Mark not only invented a whole new literary genre, “the gospels,” but in doing so he challenged the powers of this world and pointed to the power of the kingdom that is coming in Christ Jesus by way of the cross.

For us, it means that faith in Jesus and the end of the death-dealing social-political-economic order cannot be completely separated.  The death of John the Baptist foreshadows Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  The death of both John and of Jesus are an indication to us of the potential costs of discipleship. Things do not always, or even very often, go God’s way. But the way of the cross is the way of Life toward which, ultimately, all life must flow.

The death of John the baptizer opened a window through which to glimpse the stark contrast between the gospel of Christ and the ways of power in the world. Mark’s “flashback” to John’s imprisonment and senseless, brutal death, comes just as Jesus sent out the disciples, two by two, without bread or bag or money, to preach the good news.  Herod had sent out hired men to arrest and to bind John, while Jesus sent out disciples to bring life and wholeness to others.  Herod gave an extraordinary banquet for the rich and powerful with well-prepared foods in abundance.  Yet, Herod’s banquet became an occasion for bitterness and betrayal.  It exposed his foolishness, his precarious grip on power and lack of control.  By contrast, as the disciples returned, Jesus bid ordinary people of every type and description sit on the green grass and provided a feast of abundance for 5,000 men and their families from five loaves of bread and two fish.  It became an occasion for generosity and joy.  It exposed the wisdom of Christ’s gospel and the power of grace to unlock human hearts in relationship to Christ Jesus. Christ Jesus showed us the way to respond to senselessness is to love our enemies and feeding them.

Our Christian faith is more than simply learning about Jesus.  It is more than admiring Jesus.  It is more than gladly hearing the Word. King Herod did all that, but the Word sown in his life did not bear fruit.  The cares of the world choked it out.  Christianity is not knowledge about Jesus, it is knowing God as revealed in Jesus.  It is about having a relationship with God through Jesus.  Our faith is about knowing and being known by God, trusting in God to bring harmony and blessing in abundance when we are broken and lost.

Unlikely Heroes

Proper 9B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Whole Story

Proper 8B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Summer of 2018

Proper 7B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gospel of Fools

Proper 6B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

The Kingdom of God is like when the smallest of seeds grows up, puts forth large branches so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade (Mark 4:31-32). Jesus’ parable recalls images of the tree of life.  We might expect a great Cedar or Sequoia.

In Glacier National Park in Montana, the Trail of the Cedars is a short walk from the road. Their massive trunks can soar up to two hundred feet high. Some are as much as 400 years old. The canopy of interlacing branches creates an awe-inspiring interior space worthy of a great cathedral. In fact, the magnificent Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain is inspired by a forest. Architect Antoni Gaudi duplicates structures found in nature. The width of the pillars undulates and branch out like tree trunks. Standing inside the Basilica looks more like it grew there than was built there.

It is easy to imagine the kingdom of God in an old growth forest or grand cathedral. But Jesus surprises us. Jesus says the presence and power of God is better revealed in a tiny, no-account seed. This is not the way we expect divine activity to look.  Honestly, it’s not what we wanted either.

The people packed beside the sea listening to Jesus would have known, just as any farmer in the Midwest does, a mustard plant doesn’t have large branches.  It doesn’t grow into a tree.  It’s not suitable for birds to nest in. In fact, mustard isn’t good for much of anything. It’s a common weed.

A rule of thumb for interpreting parables is if they don’t offend you, you’re probably not understanding it.  Until we hear the parable as Jesus own audience did we can’t begin to know what he meant.

Here then this parable of Jesus. ‘The kingdom of God flourishes like crabgrass or dandelions, or the creeping Charlie growing in your yard, next to the sidewalk, and underneath the L platform. The Spirit of God is like a weed.  A weed is by definition, a plant nobody wants.  A weed is a plant that grows everywhere, without tending to it. It just takes over – “so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:32).

Here Jesus topples any self-importance we might have nurtured about our piety and empties all pompous notions about our prized traditions, institutions, culture, refinement, and the arts. The response to Jesus’ message was decisive. The world flung out the parables and gospel of Jesus onto a garbage pile outside Jerusalem and violently put both him and his message to death on a cross. To which God responded creatively, gracefully and just as decisively with a resurrection for Jesus and also for us.  In him was life. God’s free gift poured out upon all people.

To bind ourselves to this gospel is to take our place beside people, places, and things the world has thrown away—starting with yourself.  Whatever flaws or faults you think you have, whatever shame you carry, regardless of the bad choices you made, or the tangled mess your daily life has become, the first step in our disciples’ journey is simply to prayerfully open ourselves and let the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus infuse, encircle, uplift, and heal you. You must learn to love yourself before you can truly love others. Here Jesus surprises us again.  Once we stop running away from what is broken and become reconciled to God in Christ, fear and anger give way to generosity and joy.

Here is the tree of life sown in us like a tiny mustard seed.  Here is the cross around which we gather, the tree into which we are grafted through baptism, the true vine that nourishes us with its fruit in the cup we share today at the altar. It did not appear all that impressive at first, but while nobody was looking it grows like a weed with a creative tenacity and power beyond our understanding. Even now God is bringing something new to life from ordinary discarded people and things that otherwise seem impossible.

The parables of Jesus teach us to see the world with new eyes. When the prophet Samuel went to the house of Jesse to anoint a new king to replace Saul he was sure he had found him the moment he saw Eliab.  But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)   Instead, God directed Samuel to anoint the youngest, the littlest, and by all outward accounts, the least likely to succeed.  Yet, King David became the greatest king in the long history of Israel.

So, I ask you, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, what do you see?  What do you notice as the fever dream of fear and violence begins to subside by the grace of God?  Where does the spirit of generosity and joy encourage you to do God’s work with your hands and voice?

For three Sundays now, we’ve brought our collective attention to focus on the border and the plight of people in the world who live beyond it.  Jesus led the disciples across borders and boundaries. Jesus lead them beyond their fear, beyond their wants from death into life.  The love of God doesn’t stop at the border. Can we imagine a world where safety, justice, and abundance are so widely shared we will no longer have a need to defend the borders between nations, peoples, and religions?

What would happen to us, our households, our workplaces, our neighborhood, and our nation if we took Jesus’ crazy parables seriously? What if we embraced the parable of the mustard seed as a model for how we live life?  What if we follow this gospel of fools would we see it is not only about the surprising character of God and grace, but an invitation to be planted like seed, to be plunged into the dark earth and there to die alone, in order that our lives might be broken open and our gifts multiplied like bread for the world?  These parables are an invitation to walk with Jesus the way of the cross.

Be the seed. You may find yourself in rocky soil, on the path, or among thorns. It doesn’t matter. Be the seed.  God will give the growth.  Each of you is rooted in the garden of grace fed and watered through faith. Be the seed. Let yourself be planted in whatever place you find yourself.

Four thousand years ago human civilization was born in the land that today we call Iraq. Civilization began with the invention of agriculture and the cultivation of seed.  Today, we multiply them, splice them, and harvest them in air-conditioned cabs guided by global positioning satellites, fertilized precisely according to the need of each plant with the help of drones.  We know all about the bounty created by seeds –are we ready to let ourselves be the seed?

In baptism, the grace of God was sown in us so we might become like seeds of the kin-dom of God in the world.  Thanks be to God.  “For the wonders that astound us, the truths that still confound us, most of all, that love has found us, thanks be to God.” (ELW # 679)

Our Hearts, Broken and Joined

Proper 4B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Door to Awe and Wonder

Holy Trinity B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Disciple’s Great Discovery

Pentecost Sunday B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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