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Posts from the ‘Incarnational’ Category

What God Cares About

Proper 17B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus words sounded flip and scandalous to religious people in his time. But the underlying question is alive today.  What does God care about? I mean really?  Being about what God cares about could be the central the objective of any religion.  It’s disheartening that Christians share the same bible yet have such different answers.

In college, I was on a Christian outreach team.  At the invitation of congregations throughout the mid-west, we drove out to spend a weekend with high school youth and often also led worship. We wrote our own skits. One, in particular, inspired by today’s gospel, always went over well we thought. My job was to do the sound effects.  With each word, I cracked my belt really loud. Out of the hearts of men comes fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and folly” (Mark 7:22).  With each one, it appeared as though Jesus was being whipped.

These things defile us and are what God cares about. Yet I also wonder if in our youthful enthusiasm to be dramatic whether we somehow implied that following Christ was all about being nice. As if you can be a good Christian simply by being polite. As if walking the way of Jesus’ cross was about inter-personal morality rather than justice.  Using this gospel to justify it, we Christians fall right into the same trap the Pharisees found themselves in mostly because it makes religions so much easier.  I don’t have to worry about how my food is produced as long as I’m nice.  I don’t have to think about where my clothes are made and who makes them as long as I treat others respectfully.  I don’t have to change my lifestyle and I can buy all the stuff I want at Walmart just as long as I never use foul language.  But really, is that all God cares about?

I read an Op-ed piece in the paper this week entitled, “Can the Catholic church be redeemed?”  Stories of child sexual abuse are sickening.  We in the Lutheran might feel a little too satisfied that we don’t have that problem.  Yet the loss of trust in the Church as a place of wisdom and guidance is so widespread as to include us all.  As Christendom in North America emerges from decades happily embracing the brand of mainline religion, cozied up to political authorities and proudly carrying the banner of American patriotism and civil religion are we surprised now to see so many people around us have come to judge that what church people care about and what God cares about are not the same?  Integrity.  Our walk matches our talk.  It’s one of our ten core values.  It is gospel medicine, like this gospel today, calling the whole Church, to focus on what God cares about.  Can we, can this congregation, be part of that answer? Can we identify ways we’re already doing that? I believe we can.

We are not afraid to learn something from the world outside the church. We know the arena for living our faith is the world. (Another one of our core values.)  When we go outside, we are not surprised to find God already at work there. We are not afraid to follow the Holy Spirit.  We do not retreat into moralism and forsake social justice. We will not circle the wagons of traditionalism as if somehow God is to be found in the past and not in the present, or that God cares more about preserving past glories than in working to ensure all life continues to survive and flourish in the future.  We can do this because this is what God cares about.  We can do this because God gives us the inspiration and the will to do them.  We’ve got our work cut out for us.

We read today from the Letter of James, religion that is pure and undefiled before God, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:27).  Jesus was critical of that way of being religious that wants to judge, and ‘lord it over’ others. Instead, Jesus taught that what really matters to God is to have compassion and to forgive one another.

As Scholar Marcus Borg wrote, Jesus deliberately substituted the Hebrew standard from Leviticus “be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2) with the call to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).  Catholic journalist and author Gary Wills writes, therefore, “No outcasts were cast out far enough in Jesus’ world to make him shun them—not Roman collaborators, not lepers, not prostitutes, not the crazed, not the possessed. Are there people now who could possibly be outside his encompassing love?”  Of course, the answer is no. (Gary Wills, What Jesus Meant)

God is more concerned with how human beings treat one another, and what they say to one another than with religious rules about what we eat or drink, or whether we wash our hands. God is more interested that we live by the gospel than with how well we pray or how often we read the bible. Jesus challenged religious people of his time and of today to remember what truly matters is our neighbor’s well-being.  This is the living edge of our religious traditions, not our own sense of purity or defilement.

I say God doesn’t care how often you read the bible, but God does care that you live the gospel.  We can’t live this gospel without Jesus.  That’s another trap Christians can fall into sometimes called easy grace.  As if the gospel is simply about being a good person.  That’s only half of it.  We can’t be the person we are created to be without God’s help and inspiration to walk the way of Jesus’ cross.  We must keep returning to the center—to the table and the font—in order to return again into who truly we are and to what we are called to be. Now, that’s what God cares about.

When people of faith confuse devotion to God with focus on narrow-minded rules for righteousness or lock-step allegiance to some particular aspect of our religious tradition, they begin a dangerous transition from being hospitable and compassionate to being cold and judgmental.  History alone should be enough to teach us always to be humble.  To listen and talk things out with one another, and always to listen more than we talk. To know what matters about being Christian we must keep our eyes focused on Jesus and not each other.

Simply stated, the cure for sin, and for bad religion is Jesus. Biblical commands never take precedence over what is compassionate and caring. Jesus has proclaimed God’s forgiveness.  Who you are and what you might have done is not as important as who you are becoming. Through water and Word, bread and wine, we are on the way, dying to the little things, opening to the bigger things.  By grace, God enters our lives through Christ Jesus and makes us new from the inside out—and that’s all that really matters.

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.

Table Fellowship

Proper 14B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

One day Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with the disciples. When he looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward them, he bid them sit down. (John 6:3) There were people of every station, nation, and denomination.  Seated near Jesus was Matthew the tax collector who had once made a living by cooperating with the occupying Roman army.  Nearby by was another disciple, Simon the Zealot, who once conspired with revolutionaries for the violent overthrow of Rome.  Political opposites seated together. Red and blue united in communion with Jesus.

In the crowd were others we might have recognized, like the man formerly known as the Gerasene demoniac, or perhaps the leper who returned to say thanks, or the woman healed of the hemorrhage she suffered for twelve years. The Samaritan woman could have been there, as could Jairus the synagogue leader. Maybe even Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea –along with Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, Salome, and the other Mary’s who used to financially support Jesus’ ministry.

Many who shared the feast were deeply, personally connected to Jesus. Most were there because they were hungry, or because they were curious, or because they wanted to see someone famous. Whatever their reasons for being there. It didn’t matter. Gathered together were people there of faith, of no faith, and of different faiths. Yet each person was welcomed. Each person one was fed.  What are we to make of it?

This is week three of five in which we meditate upon the 6thchapter of John’s gospel.  There’s a lot going on.  You could get a Ph.D. picking through all the details.  Don’t neglect to see the big picture. This is what Eucharist looks like. The entire scene is meant as inspiration and guidance for us in what it means to be Christian, to be the body of Christ, united in holy communion with the cosmic Christ, fed at his table to become food for others—bread for the world.

This might be Jesus’ most often repeated teaching.  Jesus mostly taught from the table. He was constantly eating in new ways and with new people, encountering those who were oppressed or excluded from the system. Through table fellowship, Jesus was teaching us what family means. He was always trying to broaden the circle.

By one side, he was criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10-11, for example); by the other side, he was judged for eating too much (Luke 7:34) or for eating with the Pharisees and lawyers (Luke 7:36-50, 11: 37-54, 14:1). He ate with both sides. He ate with lepers (Mark 14:3), he received a woman with a bad reputation at a men-only dinner (Luke 7:36-37), and he even invited himself over to a “sinner’s” house (Luke 19:1-10). He didn’t please anybody, it seems, always breaking the rules and making a bigger table.

Here is the New Jerusalem.  There, seated en mass on the mountain, and at table in home after home was the Kingdom of God.   This is what Eucharist means. This is what holy communion looks like. We must be careful not to miss the point.

As Christianity developed and communion moved from being an inclusive meal with open table fellowship to the relatively safe ritual meal we call the Eucharist, unfortunately, that ritual itself became a way to categorize people into groups of insiders and outsiders in terms of worthiness and unworthiness—just the opposite of Jesus’ intention! Jesus continually interprets the Law of Holiness from the Hebrew Bible in terms of the God whom he has met—and that God is always compassion and mercy. We emphasized the priest as the “transformer” instead of the people as the transformed.

Eucharist is more than a theological statement that requires intellectual assent. “It is an invitation to socially experience the shared presence of God and to be present in an embodied way(Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, The Shape of the Table, 7/22/18). Eucharist is both deeply personal and profoundly communal.  That’s the point, in our own small way, of moving back and forth from the rail in Advent and Lent to standing together before the altar each summer. More importantly, eucharist should help us to recognize the people who flood into Immanuel each week, in some cases, for more than thirty years for playgroups, tutoring, and the Cooperative Nursery school are a lot like the crowd that gathered around Jesus in John chapter 6.  Jesus instructed the disciples then, as he continues to encourage us today–just give them something to eat.

When you are really present with our guests then you will experience the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist for yourself.

In the Eucharist, we slowly learn how to surrender to the Presence in one place, in one thing, in one focused moment. The priest holds up the Host and says, “See it here, believe it here, get it here, trust it here.” Many Christians say they believe in the Presence in the Eucharist, but they don’t get that it is everywhere—which is the whole point! They don’t seem to know how to recognize the Presence of God when they leave the church when they meet people who are of a different religion or race or sexual orientation or nationality. They cannot also trust that every person is created in the image of God. Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry trying to break down the false distinctions between “God’s here” and “God’s not there.” He dared to see God everywhere, even in sinners, in enemies, in failures, and in outsiders.”  Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Eucharist, 7/27/18) We are not always capable of seeing that, but fortunately God is patient with all of us and with history itself.

This, now, here is the bread of live present always and everywhere.  Taste it here and now.  Chew on it and meditate upon it, so that you may better see and greet Christ in your neighbor and to become food that nourishes the soul.

The Iona Abbey, on an obscure island off the coast of a narrow peninsula in Scotland, where Christianity thrived for hundreds of years throughout the Dark Ages of Europe, put the invitation to Eucharist this way:

The table of bread and wine is now to be made ready. It is the table of company of Jesus, and all who love him. It is the table of sharing with the poor of the world, with whom Jesus identified himself. It is the table of communion with the earth, in which Christ became incarnate. So, come to this table, you who have much faith and you who would like to have more; you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time; you who have tried to follow Jesus, and you who have failed; come. It is Christ who invites us to meet him here. (Iona Abbey Worship Book (Wild Goose Publications: 2001)

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.

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.

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.

Encircled by Love

Easter 7B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

The only American artist to exhibit her work with the French Impressionists was Mary Cassatt. She was born in May 1844, grew up near Pittsburgh, PA but lived most of her adult life in France, where she befriended artists such as Edgar Degas.

Cassatt is best known for a series of expertly drawn, warmly observed, and unselfconscious paintings on the theme of mother and child. She’s famous, for me, because my mom hung a print one of her paintings in our home.  I bet someone here has it too –or that most of you would recall having seen it. The original now hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Child’s Bath, 1893, is one of Cassatt’s masterworks.  In it, mother and young daughter are lovingly absorbed in the mundane bodily routine of bathing.  The vantage point allows us to observe, but not to participate, in this most intimate scene. Somehow Cassatt invokes in us the memory, or perhaps, inspires in us the feeling of loving protection emanating from good mothering providing sturdy shelter to young lives and strong enough to encircle an entire house and make it a home. Cassatt brings us inside this circle of tender care.

The painting of Marry Cassatt offers us beautiful imagery for Mother’s Day.  I bring it up because her work also offers us a way into today’s gospel.  Cassatt invites the observer out of their narrow self-interest and into the expansive, other-focused and fully human selves God created and calls us to be in Christ Jesus. Abide in me, Jesus prayed, so that you may be one with one another, just as Jesus and the Father are one in the Spirit. (John 17:11)

Jesus invites us to live inside the circle of the Trinity, together with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The 14thcentury anchoress, mystic, and theologian, Julian of Norwich used a little-known old English word to refer to the kind of enveloping and protective love that Mary Cassatt makes the subject of her paintings. She called it “Oneing.” Julian used it to describe the human encounter with God.

Notice how different this “oneing” is from the vision many of us grew up with of an angry God who must be appeased by Jesus so humankind will not be destroyed. Notice how different our faith lives become when we understand Jesus’ prayed so that we might be fully one with God now and not after we die.

This healing vision of union with the living God frees us from the prison of us against them thinking. The old familiar understanding always divided the world into mine and yours, one and other, same and different, better and worse. But Jesus prayed to move us

beyond that dualism so that mine and yours are reconciled into ours. One and other are transformed into one anotherSame and different are harmonized without being homogenized or colonized. Us and them are united without loss of identity and without dividing walls of hostility.

God the Father includes the Son in full equality. Christ Jesus mirrors the Father’s self-giving and self-emptying love. The Holy Spirit is not subordinated as an inferior but is honored and welcomed as equal too, do you see what that means? God is characterized by equality, empathy, and generosity rather than subordination, patriarchy, and hierarchy.  Jesus prayed that we might be made one with this divine life now.

On the night he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus prayed.  “Holy Father, protect them in your name so that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11) These chapters in John, after the Passover meal and before leaving for the garden are sometimes called the other lord’s Prayer, or perhaps, Jesus’ high priestly prayer.  Jesus prays for us, the disciples, and his church just as the High Priest did on behalf of the people once a year inside the fabulous temple in Jerusalem, from behind the curtain within the holy of holies, and in the full presence of God. Now, according to today’s gospel, you are people for whom Jesus prays.

When might you have experienced this oneing kind of love? If we are lucky, perhaps we experienced it from our parents as a child. If you’ve ever been part of Immanuel’s prayer circle, David’s chain, when you knew people were praying for you each day when you’ve been at your lowest or facing a great challenge, then you know what a comfort it is to be bathed in the tenderness and compassion of prayer.

When might you have observed this kind of community where differences are transcended and what matters most is unity in Christ?  Perhaps it was last Thursday as ECT youth led us in worship for the Ascension at Unity Lutheran?  Young people of the church and the neighborhood, of different ages, abilities, racial groups and backgrounds were one with each other and in their joy in serving the gospel.

Or perhaps you glimpsed the oneing love of God last Sunday afternoon at the ONE Northside convention where diverse people from throughout the north side came together, united by their common values of the common good and of social justice to demand our elected leaders support affordable housing, police accountability, and mental health services.

Jesus prayed so that people might see the one life being lived in God now in us. Jesus prayed so that we might reveal the likeness of the divine image in which we are continually being created in this community.  He prayed that others might recognize in us God’s standing invitation to enter the powerful protective circle of God’s life so as to surround their entire lives starting now with grace and be made whole.

This is the kind of alternative community embraced by the disciples and the first Christians that turned the Roman empire on its head. It is the same type of unity in diversity, joining heaven and earth together, Jesus calls us to embody now.

Jesus prayer for oneing is an urgent plea for what some call the Great Turning when society finally turns away from violence, guns, racism, poverty, prisons, war, and environmental destruction to seek a viable alternative right here—one heart, one home, and one block at a time.

In other words, on the night he was betrayed, while the rest of Jerusalem slept, Jesus prayed his little band of followers would become a church. He prays this for us now. In an obscure room, while no one was watching, something timelessly old and radically new was being unleashed upon the world. Like ripples from a stone, we are joined today in a great wave moving through history beginning with the disciples and carried forward today. The seed of grace God planted in you opens a door to oneing. Be joined to one another. Take shelter and rejoice within God’s encircling love now and for always. Amen.

Stil Wondering

Easter 2B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

At times, like today, the lectionary can be confusing.  We’ve jumped into the middle of a longer story. You and I are two weeks from Easter Sunday, but in the gospel, it’s only a few hours since the resurrection. Let’s review.

The women discovered the empty tomb, saw two angels, and become the first to hear the good news: Alleluia! Christ is risen (Response).  These faithful women are apostles to the apostles.  Peter ran to check it out for himself, but he and the small band of Jesus-followers dismissed their story as an idle tale.

Later, the risen Christ accompanied two former followers as they head home from Jerusalem despite hearing the good news. In their grief, sense of failure, and fear of violent reprisal, the Jesus comes to walk beside them. They don’t recognize him, and instead of recrimination, he opens their minds to understand the scriptures on the road to Emmaus.  These intimate friends finally recognized him as he broke bread with them at suppertime.

Just as suddenly as they realized it was Jesus, he disappeared.  Immediately they hurry back to Jerusalem, and discovered that day Jesus also appeared to Peter, who had convinced them all that Jesus was indeed alive!

It’s at this very moment that we join today’s gospel. All the disciples are noisily and excitedly still talking about these things when Jesus startles and terrifies them. He says, “Sorry, did I scare you? Peace be with you,” and showed them his wounds, invited them to touch him, then went rummaging for food, found a piece of broiled fish and ate it.

In recounting the details of their packed and busy day our gospel records this incredible line. In their joy, the disciples were “disbelieving and still wondering.”

It is striking to me that centuries later, how much we’re like those first disciples, gathered here today, still wondering about the things we’ve heard, and wrestling with the fundamental question, as Martin Luther put it, “What does this mean?”

I wonder what does it mean for us living in a world of climate change, gun violence, chemical weapons, and the threat of nuclear war that Jesus offer them his peace? I wonder how it makes a difference Jesus showed them his wounds? Or that after three days, descending to the dead, and rising again that Jesus was hungry? Or that he required the disciples’ hospitality?

In March of 2009 sociologist and theologian, Nancy Eiesland died. She was just 44.  At 13, she had had 11 operations for the congenital bone defect in her hips. She lived with pain her whole life. In her 1994 book, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, Nancy told us what she thought it means for all of us that Jesus came back to life with his body visibly broken. She wrote, “The foundation of Christian theology is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Yet seldom is the resurrected Christ recognized as a deity whose hands, feet, and side bear the marks of profound physical impairment.”  “In presenting his impaired body to his startled friends,” she continues, “the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God.”  His injuries remain an essential part of his resurrected identity, neither a divine punishment nor an opportunity for further healing.

“What would it be like for us to follow in the footsteps of a disabled God?  What would it be like to lead with our scars, instead of enslaving ourselves to society’s expectations of piety and prettiness?  Jesus proved that he was alive and approachable by risking real engagement.  Real presence.  As in: “Here is how you can recognize me.  By my hands and my feet.  See?  I have scars.  I have baggage.  I have history.  I am alive to pain, just as you are.  I am not immune; I am real.”” (Debie Thomas, Scarred and Hungry, Journey with Jesus, April 8, 2018)

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Only a suffering God can help.”Supposedly a prison guard found the line scribbled on a piece of paper and smuggled it out of Bonhoeffer’s cell shortly before his death.

Jesus invites us to follow his way of the cross through the testimony of his wounds. He showed them his scars. “The paradox of resurrection is that Jesus’s scarred body comforted his disciples.  His wounded hands and feet pulled them out of disbelief and into radical, life-altering faith.” (Debie Thomas) Lo, here is a great mystery.  As theologian James Alison puts it, Jesus didn’t simply erase death, he carried death’s “shell” on his living body, rendering his scars a trophy — a sign of life’s ultimate and lasting victory.  “What type of life is it,” Alison asks in awe, “that is capable not of canceling death out, which would be to stay on the same level as it, but to include it, making a trophy of it, allowing it to be something that can be shown to others in order to diminish their fears?”

In their joy, the very first Christians still wondered just as we do. They were journeying, questioning, fearing, but also feeding and being fed, listening for and receiving God’s call, and, of course, like any good church community, doing Bible study.

There were about 120 Christians crowded around Jesus that first day—wide-eyed, their mouths open.  Today’s gospel means our 21stcentury experience of the resurrection is not second-rate.  We too have encountered the wounded and risen Christ while gathered at his table, in the living waters of baptism, and in his ever-present word proclaimed by brothers and sisters.  We are witnesses to these things.

God reversed the course of human history.  Because God in Christ Jesus, endured all the violence and rejection that can be wrought from human hands and did not rejected us, we are a community fueled by joy. Because the resurrected Christ was wounded and hungry we are a community grounded in loving and serving human bodies, without denying the reality of suffering, without embarrassment, without apologizing for our mortality, yet also no longer afraid to live life to its fullest. It is a joy that challenges us to wonder, to question, and playfully explore.  How shall we extend to this generation the spirit of God’s blessing upon all people and upon all life?

Gifts of Peace, Spirit, and Doubt

Easter 2B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Toppling Stones

Easter Sunday B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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