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Posts from the ‘Incarnational’ Category

By His Wounds

Easter 2A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what are we to do with this? How are we to heal and become healers? It’s the same as when you injure yourself. Just breathe. As Jesus stood among the disciples he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”. The word for Jesus’ breath here is the same word used in Genesis 2, where God breathed life into the nostrils of the man and he became a living being. It’s the word used in Ezekiel 37, where God breathed life into the dry bones so that they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Jesus breathed life into the disciples and they discovered what they had perceived to be the end was really just the beginning. By his wounds he has healed us. Jesus has taught us how to live.

No More Fear

Easter Sunday A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Matthew 28:1-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the Doorway

Passion Sunday A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lent 5A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now We See

Lent 4A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


The man born blind’s move from darkness into light has long been part of the church’s celebration of the power of new life begun in baptism. His expulsion from the synagogue mirrored the experience of early Christians whose families were torn apart by their allegiance to Christ. The blind man’s journey of faith mirrors that of many today who somehow felt they belonged with Jesus before they came to believe, in contrast to when we once assumed everyone believed before choosing where to belong. The blind man’s story also serves as a reminder that faith springs from trust in Jesus before confession of any theological system, religious tradition, or rigid orthodoxy.

Images that depict the blind man’s story appear in second-century frescoes in the catacombs of Rome (as does the story of the Samaritan woman at the well from last week). These stories have been part of our Lenten baptismal liturgies dating at least as far back as the fourth and fifth centuries. The blind man’s words echo in the famous hymn we sing today, “Amazing Grace”: “I once was blind, but now I see.” (John 9:25b)

Christians see things differently. St. Paul encouraged first century Christians living in Ephesus saying, “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light”. (Ephesians 5:8-14) This light gives new sight. Living with the eyes of faith can sometimes make us feel like Don Quixote. But rather than tilt at windmills we confront the gusty winds of fear and anger so common today with the sacred shelter of hope and grace God creates in, among, and between us and our neighbor.

Christians see differently and this leads them to live differently. The light of God calls and equips us to be God people—regardless of your regrets, despite your failures, overlooking the pile of mistakes you accumulated in the past.

We must see and live differently now because each of us may literally be the place where people in the world encounter God. The blind man washed in the pool called Sent. Likewise we are sent into the world to be God people. At the end of every liturgy we are sent out in both to be Christ and to meet Christ. We must help one another across that spiritual threshold as we leave here today.

I remember a time preparing for ministry that opened my eyes to the gift and power of being a God person. It was a horrible scene. After years of addiction, a man was slowly dying, choking on his own blood. An intensive care nurse suctioned it out as best she could through a large clear plastic hose. Yet somehow, because I was there in the name of Christ, the dying man could concentrate on being a husband; and the frantic woman could be a wife; the shocked young people could be children, and they could all be a family together while they acknowledged how much they loved each other and said their goodbyes.

We caught a glimpse of the crazy diverse beloved community of God-people together at Evening Prayer last Tuesday at St. Ita’s Catholic church. The small space between kids and their tutors as they huddle over worksheets and assignments every Monday night is sacred ground.   Your warm welcome to guests who come here throughout the week for various programs and ministries engenders heartfelt gratitude among many of our neighbors. Like the man born blind, now we see how much God longs to be incarnated in us and through us, and what a joy it is for us to let God do so.

Our gospel today is such a long story, and yet Jesus appears only at the beginning and the end. Only after hearing the blind man had been driven out, did Jesus go looking for him. It’s not a question of whether we, sighted or blind, find Jesus. Jesus comes searching for us no matter where we are.

Finally, I must say a word about what this story has to say about why bad things happen to good people—and what it does not. (You may want to flip to the back page of your worship folder here.) Many scholars agree it is unfortunate our translation of the bible (the NRSV) adds the words in verse three a “he was born blind,” which is not in the Greek text and tends to suggest the man’s blindness is an “excuse” for God to show God’s power. A more accurate translation would be “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that God’s works might be revealed in him it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me … ” This translation conclusively affirms that, at least in this case, there is no connection between sickness and sin. Therefore, Jesus must do the work of God and heal the man. (David Lose)

The gospel of John tells this story and used these images of seeing and not seeing, believing and not believing, to help an early Christian community “see” themselves more clearly. Where do we see ourselves in this story?

God said to the prophet Samuel that “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). When we put on the spectacles of Christ, we see that each of us has been clothed in God’s grace. We are now children of God. Once we were blind to this reality, but now we see.

Living Water

Lent 3A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May the door of this synagogue be wide enough

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


May it welcome all who have cares to unburden,

thanks to express, hopes to nurture.


May the door of this synagogue be narrow enough

to shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity.


May its threshold be no stumbling block

to young or straying feet.


May it be too high to admit complacency,

selfishness and harshness.


May this synagogue be, for all who enter,

the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.

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

Jesus Passed the Test

Lent 1A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

After baptism by John, ‘Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness’ accompanied by God’s word (Matthew 4:1). Jesus withstood the devil’s temptations with the power of Hebrew scripture. How often has reading scripture been a source of centering strength and peace for us in the midst of struggle and chaos?

Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Or Psalm 121, “I lift my eyes to the hills from where will my help come?” Or Isaiah 55, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.” You probably have your own beloved passages. Meditation upon scripture can sow calm in a hospital room, nursing home, or living room. It is a sober tonic for those needing to be emotionally present in stressful situations or who struggle to make difficult decisions.

If you already picked up a copy of the Lenten devotional, Free Indeed, this week you’ve been reading Luther’s Small Catechism, beginning with the Ten Commandments. Jesus fought off the devil and temptation with reference to the first two Commandments: “You shall have no other gods”; “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.”

Jesus’ dispute with Satan to corresponds with arguments he will have with the Jewish leaders at the end of his ministry before going to the cross. You could say that conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world is the plot of the whole gospel of Matthew. God is the hidden actor, and Satan is the hidden opponent throughout the gospel. Satan, though defeated, continues to tempt Jesus throughout his ministry (16:23) Scripture and prayer are Jesus’ sword and shield.

While we live in a State without a budget, while families in the neighborhood fear deportation and/or violent discrimination, as the politics of spin gives way to outright lies in our nation’s capital—on top of everything else we are coping with just to keep our families and ourselves together, let scripture and prayer be your sword and shield too!

The wilderness into which Jesus goes is no national park. It is a place of isolation and death. Today’s gospel is a remarkably detailed tour of temptations set before Jesus by an articulate, Torah-toting, scripture-quoting devil. After baptism, the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the desert for forty days. He goes alone, without fanfare, or survival gear. He doesn’t even have time to pack a suitcase or an extra pair of sandals.

In the ancient imagination, the desert is a place infested with demons. It is an untamed and unknown place entered at great risk. To be in the “wild” was to be where one may become lost or die. This is the root of our word “bewildered,” which goes back to the physical and emotional state of being lost. (Rebecca Lyman. Rebecca is the Garrett Professor of Church History)

In goes Jesus to the desert to be bewildered. Jesus enters a lethal hall of mirrors, where his power and identity will be tested. The devil tempts Jesus to claim what is rightfully his as the beloved Son of God namely, food, safety, and authority. All three of Satan’s tests tempt Jesus to betray his identity and misuse his power. Jesus passes the test.

The devil tempts Jesus to deny who he really is. Later, Jesus will turn a couple fish and five barley loaves into a feast for 5000. But now he refuses to use that same power to transform stones into bread to feed himself. Later, Jesus will walk on water, calm the stormy seas, and pass through the violent mob at Nazareth. But now, he refuses to jump from the top of the temple just to prove himself to the devil. Later, angels will pronounce Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords—the alpha and omega. But here, Jesus refuses to take any shortcuts toward his final goal. Jesus passed the test.

Later, bystanders will repeat the same challenge shouting from the foot of the cross. ‘If you are the Son of God, save yourself and come down from that cross, so that we may believe in you’ (Matthew 27:40). But Jesus won’t jump from the top of the temple. He won’t come down from the cross either. Jesus won’t misuse his power to show off or to benefit himself.

Jesus passed the test. That’s why we can trust him. In our reading from Genesis, as soon as their eyes are opened Adam and Eve sew loincloths to hide their nakedness from each other and from God. In worship today, our lengthy confession leaves us standing naked before God. People may dress for worship in their Sunday best but confession strips all people, revealing the depth of sin and the deep human need all people have for God. Even as we stand naked before God, Jesus clothes us with his righteousness.

In the early 1900s famed explorer Ernest Shackleton led an expedition to travel by land some 1,700 miles across the South Pole. To recruit a crew for the journey he placed the following ad in the local papers: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.”

Historians doubt the authenticity of this story. Maybe it’s a myth. Still, it raises the question, how might an honest ad for the church read? “Servants wanted for hazardous journey. Must be generous in all ways, enduring all things, hoping all things. Must be able to forgive seventy-seven (or more) times. Constant temptation, long months in the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus will travel with you.”

As St. Paul wrote, we struggle while knowing “…that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)

Jesus passed the test by being faithful to God. That faith proved to be the strength to overcome the bewildering power of death and the grave, to shatter the bonds of sin and the devil, to fill darkness with light, to drive out fear from our hearts, and to refresh our sin-sick souls. God leads us into life and the abundance of life, beyond mere survival. Because Jesus stands with us in the deserts of our all-too-human lives, we are confident that the Spirit of God walks with us now and in all the uncertain days ahead.

Wait, Watch, and Listen

Transfiguration Sunday A-17

February 26, 2017


Wait, watch, and listen. The last thing we hear Jesus say is be quiet (Matthew 17:9). We will not know the truth about today’s lesson right away –not until after Jesus has been raised from the dead.

Imagine that you have a dream in which you join Jesus and his disciples in their early morning climb up high mount Horeb. Like the disciples, the valley below is where you grew up, where you experienced pain and made many mistakes. You are trying to transcend and leave this place by reaching the summit of Jesus’ transfiguration, on which you hope to be sublimely holy and one with God.

As the summit comes into view, the wind rising from the valley brings with it the sound of a child crying in distress. You realize you have no choice. You go down the mountain to find and help the hurting child. Turning back, you descend into the valley. Following the child’s cries, you arrive at the very home you tried to leave behind.

You gently open the door and look inside. Sitting in the corner on the floor is your own wounded child-self, that part of you that holds feelings of powerlessness and shame. You sit down next to the child on the floor. For a long time you say nothing. Then a most amazing thing happens. As you put your arms around this child, you suddenly realize you are on the lofty summit of union with God!

The mountaintop and the valley are not different places in God. They are one. There is no longer either or but both and. And now, the healing compassion you have discovered for your wounded self begins to grow and extend outward to include others. The mountaintop and the valley are one place. Slowly we learn that we are all part of One life. (James Finley, Daily Meditation, Center for Action and Contemplation, 2/24/17)

St. Paul writes God dwells in “unapproachable light” (1 timothy 6:16).   This light illuminates the darkness of human minds. We wait, watch and listen for illumination. We must not be in a rush to build monuments to misunderstanding like Peter.

On the mountaintop, God revealed Jesus is more than meets the eye. It’s as if the energy of the universe became localized in his mortal frame.  The way of the cross and the empty tomb will reveal still more. Jesus radiates with the divine energy of incarnation and resurrection. The dazzling light of God reveals God’s vision for the universe.  God seeks justice and wholeness in all things. Among mortals power corrupts. It becomes capricious, coercive, and threatening.

But the absolute power of God is different. The life of God draws all places together.  The love of God draws all people into one. The grace of God works toward the healing of the nations, establishes just relationships, and spiritual illumination. (Bruce Epperly) Little by little and all at once we discover God is with us where ever we go.

Episcopal Archbishop and Noble Prize Winner Desmond Tutu once described something like the process of ascending the mountain of Jesus’ transfiguration in terms of the daily practice of Morning Prayer. In an interview with Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, Tutu said, “I have come to realize more and more that prayer is just being in the presence deeply of one who loves you with a love that will not let you go. And so, when I get up in the morning I try to spend as much time as I can in the sense of being quiet in the presence of this love. And its often like saying I want to be sitting—it’s a cold day and I’m sitting in front of a warm fire. I don’t have to do anything. The fire warms me. All I have to do is to lay in front of the fire. And after a while, I may have the qualities of the fire change me. So I have the warmth of the fire. I may have the glow of the fire. And it is so also with me and God. That I just have to be there. Quiet.”

Wait, watch, and listen. 19th Century British pastor Alexander Maclaren called it sitting silent before God. Warmed by the light of God’s grace pray that our fisted minds and hands may be opened to one another and therefore also to compassion and understanding that truly solves difficult problems.

Late last year teenagers got into a fight was over a pair of gym shoes. It happened at night on the south side. And this is what came of it: one teenager faces years in prison. Another, a boy of just 15, is dead. The incident may not have even made the news except that the victim was the grandson of Congressmen Danny Davis. At a press conference Congressmen Davis did something unusual. He grieved, not just for his own grandson but also for his grandson’s killer.

Congressman Davis said, “I grieve for my family. I grieve for the young man who pulled the trigger. I grieve for his family. His parents. His friends. Some of whom will never see him again. It is so unfortunate when these tragedies continue to occur and re-occur and some how or another our society has not been able to find and exact the answers and solutions.”

2016 Chicago had the highest number of killings in two decades. 762 were murdered. What can be done? Well, One community group called BAM (short for Becoming A Man) has an unusual idea. It believes violence can be stopped with a breath, a few moments, and a tiny tweak to the way we think. A randomized controlled study showed BAM reduce arrest rates by 44%, make kids more likely to come to class, get better grades, and less likely to drop out of school.

Jens Ludwig a University of Chicago Economist who has closely studied patterns of youth violence said about the perpetrators, “Very, very often, if they could only take back five minutes of their life, a lot of these kids, a lot of the people locked up, would have a very different life.”

While we tend to think these killings occur because of thuggish drug buys, gang hits, cold blooded murder, the records reveal a laundry list of slights—someone stepped on some else’s shoe, or stole a coat, or lobbed an insult. From that tiny spark things escalated into violence and murder. It’s the very definition of senseless.

BAM counselors check in with participants, talk about feelings, and encourage new habits. According to Ludwig, “The problem of violence in Chicago is not driven by bad people but by bad decisions in the moment… Changing the way we behave can change the way we think, and changing the way we think can change our lives.” (Shankar Vedantum, Hidden Brain, The Knife’s Edge, 2/20/17)

Wait, watch, listen, pray so that Jesus’ transfiguration may become our own transfiguration. The gift of God’s grace is freely given to transform our hearts for the renewal the world. We who have been transformed and “enlightened” are blessed to carry a little bit of the light from God’s mountain within us to be the human presence of Jesus to help fearful people stand tall and to help find answers that only become visible when we have love in our hearts.

The Pursuit of Perfection

Epiphany 7A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus said, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) In the operating room, surgeons have a saying, ‘perfect is the enemy of good.’ Trying to make good enough better can result in something even worse. In the classroom, educators say perfection is the enemy of learning. This may be especially true of adults. Embarrassment at the possibility of looking foolish is a barrier to building new skills with language, a musical instrument, sports, or almost anything that takes you beyond your comfort zone. In religious circles perfection is virtually a synonym for self-righteousness. No one is perfect, least of all those who think they are.

So why does Jesus lay this challenge to be perfect on us? The definition of a SMART goal is that it must be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. I’m not sure Jesus’ admonition is any of these.

The Founding Fathers agreed perfection may not be attainable but, nevertheless, they thought we are right to pursue it. The idea is enshrined in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Way back in 1787 our forefathers said striving for an ever more perfect union is an essential part of the American experiment in democracy. Without that striving, the project is at an end.

I don’t really know any perfect people. Neither does God. Jesus said, ‘no one is good but God’ (Matthew 19:17). I take it, that’s the whole point about grace. On Thursday in the side chapel we were studying Paul’s letter to the Romans with our friends from St. Gertrude Catholic Church as part of our recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We encountered a quote from bible scholar N.T. Wright that helped us unravel some meaning from the super-dense thicket of words in chapters 6 and 7. About grace Wright says, “God accepts us where we are, but God does not intend to leave us where we are. Justification is by grace alone, through faith alone. But grace is always transformative.”

In Christ, with Christ, through Christ, little by little and sometimes all at once we are being transformed through the renewal of our hearts and minds. As surely as water finds its way to the sea, so grace works tirelessly to lift us ever deeper into God’s embrace. We are carried on currents of grace in the direction of perfection.

The word Jesus used for “perfect” is the Greek word “telos.” Telos is less about where you are than in is about where you end up. The telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target. The telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches. The telos for us is to be the person and community God created us to be.

Jesus’ words are less command than promise. “God sees more in you than you do. God has plans and a purpose for you. God intends to use you to achieve something spectacular. And that something spectacular is precisely to be who you were created to be and, in so doing, to help create a different kind of world.” (David Lose, Working Preacher)

“Be perfect just as God is perfect.” There are two temptations here. The first is to not take the challenge seriously. We Lutherans tend to flee for refuge in grace too quickly instead of wrestling with these more difficult sayings of Jesus. We must face up to challenges of really changing our behavior in order to better reflect the image of God that is in us. The second temptation is to take these words too seriously. As in, believing we’ve got it in us to do all this. The result is less tragic but more deadly. Religious people who forget to be humble quickly become arrogant, judgmental and exclusive rather than generous, welcoming and open.

Martin Luther once said that the Christian life is not about arriving but always about becoming. “We are not now what we shall be, but are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.”

Jesus calls the new world being patiently, persistently, passionately made in us the kingdom of God – where violence doesn’t always breed more violence and hate doesn’t always kindle more hate. Can we do this – turn the other cheek, love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us? No, not perfectly. Some days, maybe not at all. But that’s not really the point. It’s not our job to bring in the kingdom; Jesus does that. It’s our job to live like we are already part of God’s kingdom, and to practice living like Jesus’ disciples and citizens of this new kingdom in the meantime.

Remember, Jesus’ sermon was directed to a small and powerless community, in which it was easy to give up hope and want revenge. Jesus proclaimed that God is present in the lives of the oppressor and enemy, and that although we are small our love can be transformative.

You heard Paul remind us, you are God’s temple. We strive to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace. Therefore take care not to deface the holiness and divinity in yourself or others. Let God’s Spirit shine forth in your life and support the emergence of this same Spirit in others. In order to be perfect as God is perfect, we humbly ask ourselves three critical questions: What can I do? What can you do? What can we do together?

We do not forget or even minimize the presence of sin in us or in the world. But neither do we assume God is limited by our sin. Rather, we are always being called by Jesus to be more than we ever thought we could be. Jesus’ challenge to reach for perfection is an invitation to claim our identity as God’s chosen and beloved people.

May God bless this house from roof to floor. May God bless each pilgrim seeking refuge at our door. May God fill every room with peace and grace, so that all who sojourn here may find healing in this place.” (from This House of Peace, Ralph M. Johnson, Earthsongs)

From Chaos, Peace

Epiphany 6A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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