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Posts from the ‘Incarnational’ Category

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!)

Truth Stranger than Fiction

Maundy Thursday B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Passover and the Last Supper form a magnificent backdrop for worship on Maundy Thursday.  We have the deliverance story around which the whole Hebrew Bible revolves, paired with the Passion of the Christ, the story which is the beating heart of the Christian New Testament. These twin stories set the stage for our entire salvation history. Set before us is God’s inexhaustible desire to communicate with the human race through millennia, centuries, decades and years. The eternal, universal, perfect and divine seeks communion with the mortal, finite, flawed, and personal.  Here it is again.  “This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you.”

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you.”  The Great Story from of old told in scripture, courageously, lovingly handed down from our ancestors in faith is presented now to us in these Three Days, not to read, but to be read into.  Our personal stories find their plot and their highest purpose in becoming part of God’s universal and continually unfolding story of hope, grace, truth, beauty, mercy, reconciliation, harmony, and forgiveness.

The legend of the Holy Grail is one of the most enduring in Western European literature and art. The Grail was said to be the cup of the Last Supper and at the Crucifixion to have received blood flowing from Christ’s side. According to legend, it was brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea, where it lay hidden for centuries. Famously, the search for the became the principal quest of the knights of King Arthur from which we have countless poems, fables, books, movies, and even a few good comedy sketches. As much fun and inspiration as these stories provide.  They’re a good example of how misplaced devotion can lead us astray. Somehow it is easier to believe in the miraculous healing powers of a lost and obscure object than comprehend what God and Christ Jesus have been trying to tell us—and everyone else—all along.  The truth is stranger than fiction. Jesus is our bread and we are his body. Jesus is our wine and we are filled with his life.  Jesus is our host and our table. We are his holy grail. We are the vessel into which Christ continues to pour out his life for a hungry and thirsty world.

Jesus humbled himself, took off his outer robe, tied a towel around himself taking the role of a lowly servant, and washed the disciple’s feet. For Maundy Thursday Jesus’ call to wash one another’s feet just might be the truth that is stranger than fiction for us.  (John 13:14).  Peter’s admonition, “You will never wash my feet!” Sounds like it comes straight from our own mouth.  I remember hearing the same kind of complaint years ago about weekly communion.  Holy Communion, people said, is really, really special –so we should hardly ever do it.  I’m thankful for how Communion practices have changed in our church.  It wouldn’t feel like worship without it.  Could lack of familiarity be the same kind of roadblock to experiencing foot washing for us today?  I leave it for you to ponder as we prepare to invite you to humble yourself as Jesus did –both to serve and to be served in this humble-tender way.  (Also, I offer this small suggestion: it is enough to wash only one foot using only a small amount of water. Just as Communion is a spiritual feast but isn’t a full meal; so too foot washing is a profound sign of God’s love for you but isn’t a full bath.)

Blessing the Bread, The Cup —by Jan Richardson

For Holy Thursday

Let us bless the bread

That gives itself to us

With its terrible weight,

Its infinite grace.

 

Let us bless the cup

Poured out for us

With a love

That makes us anew.

 

Let us gather

Around these gifts

Simply given

And deeply blessed.

 

And then let us go

Bearing the bread,

Carrying the cup,

Laying the table

Within a hungering world.

God Sticks It Out With Us

Passion Sunday B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“And a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).  If Christmastime is the festival of the incarnation, when God took on flesh to dwell with us; then Passiontide is the feast of the persistence of that incarnation despite the horror of the cross. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” but not so you could kill him. (John 3:16).  The cross is one of the most ingenious and cruel inventions in human history, designed to torture, humiliate, and dehumanize its victims to the utmost. Yet through the power of resurrection God has transformed the cross with the stubborn persistence of grace into a sign of life’s way shown to us by our Lord Jesus Christ that leads into abundance and joy for any who with the eyes of faith have the will to follow him.  God will not abandon you even though you may be and do your worst.

Yesterday’s historic events are the perfect preamble to Passiontide.  (No, I’m not talking about the miraculous run of the Loyola Ramblers who advanced to the Final Four.) I’m talking about the courageous and prophetic youth who took the stage in Washington D.C., before an international audience, in the March for Our Lives.  As hundreds of thousands gathered in rallies across the country the young people of Marjorie Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida took the whole nation to church. Big money manipulation of our politics and blindness to the depth and reality of racism is killing us.  The devastating consequences of continuing to do nothing can be counted in human lives.

We can begin the work of Passiontide with taking the log out of our own eye—by working to rid Christianity and our theology of all violence.  We must honestly reckon with the many and pernicious ways our religion has been weaponized against women, or to legitimate violence against Native Americans, Jews, Muslims, and outsiders.  Walking in the way of the cross will put an end to using religion to prop up self-righteousness, justify xenophobia, or legitimize exploitation of the natural world. We can start with the sober recognition that God didn’t want Jesus to die, we did. God loves us anyway.

Today we followed Jesus with palm branches in our hands and shouts of Hosanna on our lips into the jaws of death.  This week, and through the Three Days, we proclaim, “Death, you will not have the last word.  Death, you will not prevail!”

The Rev. Martin Luther King once wrote, “The Beloved Community is the framework for the future.” The cross and empty tomb proclaim the victory is won but the struggle continues. This is not the end but the beginning of the end. You must know this Holy week is about more than your own personal salvation.  This ground, this day, this week, is made sacred by those who have died to make a better world and by all those who are the victims of senseless violence.  We have been called into the struggle against death and violence by making a living sanctuary.  We must keep enlarging the circle of hope and grace until it includes this whole community, the city of Chicago, and the whole world.  Amen.

We Wish to See Jesus

Lent 5B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Some Greeks approached Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21).  These outsiders ask the disciples whether they too might be included in the fellowship with Jesus and with God.  At some point, it’s a question we all ask, not once but probably many times, “Am I included? Do I belong here? Is it possible God wants something to do with me?” We wish to see Jesus.

The church answers this question every Sunday in Word and Sacrament. Each week we approach the church doors needing to hear an answer to this question.  Our wayfaring hearts search to find home again through shared gospel stories, hymns and prayers, ancient rites and rhythms, and in the particular fellowship we find here in each other. We need to see Jesus.

Every Sunday flings wide the door into the divine life with God in Christ Jesus. But one week, in particular, takes us to the heart of the Christian message. Today, we stand on the cusp of Holy Week.  Next Sunday we begin early. This year we step off at 10:15 to parade into the neighborhood with palm branches in our hands following after Jesus heading into Jerusalem. We return here and at the usual time 10:30, we hear again the full story of his betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, and shameful death.  Whenever we recite the Apostles’ Creed we say he “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead.  On the third day, he rose again…”  For Holy Week, we slow down to walk with Jesus and the disciples in real time for the Three Days.  Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter join the rhythm of our daily lives with the ancient story of Christ Jesus.  We move together with him from death into life by walking the way of his cross.  We do it because we need to see Jesus.

These five Sundays in Lent we have had heard God make five covenants with us.  Five promises that embolden us to confront our illusions, our frailties, and faults so we may turn to God and be healed.  Noah, Abraham, the Ten Commandments, the serpent in the wilderness and today, the prophet Jeremiah, walk us into an encounter with God’s promise to accompany us even in the deepest, most intimate inward struggles of mind and heart.  We borrow God’s courage and hope to confront the realities of life in preparation for the radical new beginning of resurrection and transformation God is preparing for us this Easter.

These promises of God are like water on dry ground, bringing forth life out of death. God’s promises are like a mighty fortress to surround and protect us when life threatens to beat us down in one of its many storms.  God says, ‘See my rainbow and know that I fight, not against you, but with you.’  ‘If you count the stars in the night or the grains of sand beside the sea, they do not exceed the gifts with which I will bless you.’  ‘While you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, look upon me and live. Look upon me and be healed.  Look to me to be forgiven and to learn how to forgive.’  We who long to see Jesus hear God say, I see Jesus in you.  I am with you always. Take up your cross and follow me.

The Lord God has made this new covenant with us –not like the one that we broke.  But this covenant is written within us. We eat and drink it at the Lord’s table.  We bath in it at our baptism.   It is a covenant not written on stone tablets or on paper in a book.  Instead, it is written upon our heart.  ‘I will be your God and you shall be my people’ (Jeremiah 31:33).  I promise.

By his death, Jesus taught us how to live.  St. Francis of Assisi summed up the gospel in this way, “it is in giving that we receive; it is in dying that we are born again.”  It seems counter-intuitive.  But it is the way of things.  Like seed scattered upon the earth, Christ is revealed in us as we dedicate ourselves to loving one another as Christ loved us.

900 years ago, St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) taught through music, art, poetry, medicine, gardening, and reflections on nature to see Jesus in creation. For Hildegard, nature was not merely a scenic backdrop for human activity. Creation is a full participant in human transformation. The outer world is an accurate mirror to guide exploration of our true inner world. The Christian Sacraments ultimately lead us to see that the whole world is a sacrament! It changes the way we see everything when we learn to see Jesus in all things.

Jesus said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). This saying of Jesus was so central to his mission and message that it occurs in all four gospels (and twice in Luke).  It is the life-giving way of the cross.

A seed sown in soil does not literally die when germinates; but it does become something other than a seed, as the new plant begins to take form, the husk is burst, and the stored nutrients become part of the growing plant’s body. The seed must cease to be a seed in order to become a plant; ceasing to be one thing in order to bear fruit as a new thing is a kind of death and resurrection, a perishing and re-formation as a new creation in God.

At Immanuel, I see proof of this when I see Christ in you through outreach to our neighbors in beautiful sacred music. I see Christ in you through the invitation to neighborhood children and youth to come and learn, and by extension, through our partnership with the Families Together Cooperative Nursery School.  As we strive together to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace, we who come each week to see Jesus might find it strange that others encounter Christ through us but then this is exactly what Jesus promised.  It is a truth rooted in the nature of all things.

Joined together in the Body of Christ, God’s self-revelation in Jesus is being made real again in our lives.  The husk of our old life is being opened to become nutrients for the growing life of Christ alive and at work in our lives and the world.  Look, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Corinthians 5:17)  Thanks be to God.

Life Everlasting

Lent 4B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not perish but may have the life of God’s new age” (John 3:16, trans. By N.T. Wright).  Martin Luther said John 3:16 is the gospel in miniature. Yet, despite being so well loved and remembered, this famous verse is also mostly misunderstood.

Former Anglican Bishop and New Testament scholar NT Wright has said he assumed at least until his thirties, this verse and the whole point of Christianity was for people to “go to heaven when they died.”  He writes, “It never dawned on us that “heaven and hell” was a construction of the High Middle Ages.”  It comes as a surprise to us that what mattered for people in Jesus’ time was not “saved souls” being rescued from the world and taken to a distant “heaven,” but the coming together of heaven and earth in a great act of cosmic renewal in which all people were likewise being renewed. (N. T. Wright. Paul: A Biography)

Old-time religion is giving way to very old-time religion. 16th century Christianity must surrender its honored place on the pedestal to 1st Century faith.  As in the turbulent days of the Reformation, Christians today are recovering the early Jewish sense of being firmly grounded in history and creation that reorients would-be disciple’s like us to focus on this life while the afterlife recedes into the background.

The ancient Jews to which Jesus preached were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay.

So, if only for just a moment, we can clear away some of our deeply held assumptions about salvation, the meaning of this beloved verse, and indeed the entire gospel, a new question naturally arises. If John 3:16 and the Bible are not about getting into heaven what are they about?

Following Jesus is no longer a program for self-improvement or a golden ticket to pass through the Pearly Gates; it’s an invitation to a new community. We are uprooted from a network of relationships that perpetuates injustice, death, and alienation and grafted by God’s Spirit into a network of relationships that brings healing, reconciliation, and abundant life rooted in eternal life itself.

Think about how many things have been determined about your life by the accident of where you happen to have been born. Where we are born accustoms us to unjust privilege or prevents us from access to clean water, education, and the chance to live to adulthood. We are born in families in which we are loved or in families that teach us we are deeply inadequate. We are born with a skin color that conditions our sense of who we are, what we deserve, whom we may love, or fear. This world is set up in ways that lock us into patterns of relationship based on our birth — patterns that separate us from one another and from God.

John 3:16 is Jesus’ invitation to instead be “born from above.” Jesus offers us freedom from relationships that ensnare, and the choice to relate to one another, and all living things, as beloved children of one loving God. It’s a gift and a choice for us to take a new name, enter a new world of healthy relationships, a joy-filled and abundant life that begins now and stretches into forever.

With this new framework of faith, we see forgiveness is not merely something to add to your spiritual resume.  It’s an essential tool every Christian must master if we are to advance our life’s work together of bringing in the kin-dom of God. After forgiveness there is peace.  After forgiveness, our enemies are reduced. After forgiveness, the cycle of violence is broken. This lent we are focused together on learning how each of us can get better at wielding this powerful gift we received in baptism, the power to forgive.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was president of the All Africa Conference of Churches when he made a pastoral visit to Rwanda in 1995 one year after the genocide. He writes, “I broke down… I went to Ntarama, a town where hundreds of Tutsis had fled to the church for safety and sanctuary. But the Hutu Power movement had respected no church. Strewn across the floor were the remains of the horror. Clothing and suitcases were still littered among the bones. The small skulls of children remained shattered on the floor. Skulls outside the church still had machetes and knives in them. The stench was beyond anything I can describe. I tried to pray, but I could not. I could only cry. Rwanda, like the Holocaust and other genocides before it, stands as a testament to our capacity for unconscionable evil, and yet our ability to forgive and heal stands as a rejoinder that we are not made for evil but for goodness.”  (Desmond Tutu & Mpho Tutu. “The Book of Forgiving.” )

We are not made for evil but for goodness.  Tell me, do you believe that? Against the backdrop of that small church in Natuarama, such a statement sounds preposterous and unbelievable.  Except for Christians, the cross and empty tomb of Christ proclaim to us the very same message.  The “world” God loves so much that he sent his only Son includes the enemies of God.  All creatures great and small: empathetic, cute and sweet as well as the hard-hearted, repugnant, and evil are loved by God, transformed and reconciled through the power of love and forgiveness.

Tutu writes, “We can’t create a world without pain or loss or conflict or hurt feelings, but we can create a world of forgiveness. We can create a world of forgiveness that allows us to heal from those losses and pain and repair our relationships. The Book of Forgiving shares the path to finding forgiveness, but ultimately no one can tell you to forgive. We can ask you to do so. We can invite you on the journey. We can show you what has worked for others. We can tell you that the healing we have seen from those who have walked the Fourfold Path is humbling and transformative.” (Desmond Tutu & Mpho Tutu. “The Book of Forgiving,” p. 224)

All of us must walk our own paths at our own pace knowing as we do so, we walk with God. God loves you. For God so loved the world Christ Jesus has made it possible for his followers to be dwelling places of God’s presence in the world, places where heaven and earth come together to renew everything through the powers of love and forgiveness. You have heard it said God’s house has many dwelling places: Yes! God is at home right here in each one of us and in people around the world.  “Salvation unto us has come by God’s free grace and favor” (ELW # 590). See, we are a new creation!

A Living Sanctuary

Lent 3B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Jesus spoke to them about the Temple, which meant his message had to do with God herself. The Jerusalem temple was “the house,” or “the place”: the place where Israel’s God promised to put her name, her presence, her glory, the place the One God promised to defend. The place where heaven and earth met, where they were linked, and where they enjoyed a glorious though highly dangerous commerce. Only the High Priest was allowed into the Holy of Holies where the fullness of the presence of God dwelt and then only once a year. It took generations to build, yet Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up” (John 2:19).

What Jesus did with an improvised whip of cords made a mess, disrupted business before Passover the busiest time of the year, and must have cost a lot of money.  But what Jesus said upended the religious, political, economic, and cultural foundations of their whole life. Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body (John 2:21).

It must have sounded crazy. Yet the incarnation is fundamental to our faith.  Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?  (1 Corinthians 6:19) “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)

God incarnate within and among us is the new foundation upon which to securely build our lives among the shifting sands of the world. I can expect Christ to be revealed in my neighbor, in the stranger, in my enemy, and especially among the poor. I can expect God is here whenever two or three are gathered in his name. I can expect to find the fullness of the presence of God within me.  We are a temple not made with hands, a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

In my part of the world, Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, we have a word for this—ubuntu.  “It is the essence of being human.  We say a person is a person through other persons.  I can’t be human in isolation.  I need you to be all you can be so that I can become me and all that I can be.”  This is what makes forgiveness and reconciliation such an essential life skill, without it our lives become needlessly diminished by conflict and the perpetual cycle of violence.

As people of incarnation we are called to look, to see, to break bread, share wine, and wash feet to enter into the temple of God. How can we learn to see our mortal embodied lives, our frailties, and failings a sacred threshold opening into of the divine life?

In her book, An Altar in the World, Episcopal pastor and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes that once we see that God is prepared to meet us within the sacred space in our body where we live it is not possible to lean into God’s love without simultaneously recognizing that God loves “all bodies everywhere.”  The “bodies of the hungry children and indentured women along with the bodies of sleek athletes and cigar-smoking tycoons.”  “One of the truer things about bodies,” Taylor concludes, “is that it is just about impossible to increase the reverence I show mine without also increasing the reverence I show yours.”  In other words, once I value my own body as God’s temple, as a site of God’s pleasure, delight, and grace, how can I stand by while other bodies suffer exploitation, poverty, discrimination, or abuse

Apparently, Jesus could not.  He interrupted worship for the sake of justice.  He moved from compassion to righteous anger to decisive action, because he would not stand for the violation of sanctuary.  He would not tolerate blocked access to his Father’s house.  He would not stomach any version of unfairness and cruelty towards the most vulnerable and beleaguered people in his society. (Debie Thomas, The Temple of his Body, Journey with Jesus, 2/25/18)

The incarnation of the holy spirit fills us with hope for a better world. St. Augustine wrote that “Hope has two beautiful daughters: Anger, so that what must not be cannot be; and Courage, so that what can be will be.”  In the temple, Jesus teaches us the proper use of our anger.  Anger shows what you really care about.  Anger can bring about change.  Anger re-negotiates boundaries.  Cold anger, emptied of the will to extract vengeance, is powerful and creative rather than merely destructive.

As Disciples of Christ, we must not be afraid to listen and respond to our anger.  The cleansing of the temple is a stark warning against any and every false sense of security. Misplaced allegiances, religious presumption, pathetic excuses, smug self-satisfaction, spiritual complacency, nationalist zeal, political idolatry, and economic greed in the name of God.  These are only some of the tables that Jesus would overturn in his own day and in ours. (Dan Clendenin, Subtle as a Sledge Hammer: Jesus “Cleanses” the Temple, March 19, 2006)

Good is the flesh that the Word has become.  Do we believe this?  Do we believe it enough to honor bodies — all bodies — as precious temples of God?  We dare not say “yes” glibly because as John Dominic Crossan reminds us, the cost involved is steep: “Those who live by compassion are often canonized.  Those who live by justice are often crucified.”  No, it’s not either-or.  It’s both-and; we are called to both compassion and justice.  But as the 10th-century Byzantine monk and poet Symeon the New Theologian expressed it so eloquently a thousand years ago, it is our love for Christ’s body that will compel us to both:

For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body

where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,

and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed

and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.

This is what the Christian Good News is truly about. In a great act of cosmic renewal, heaven and earth are joined together today in the body of Christ. We are a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

An End to Violence

Lent 1B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Hurt people hurt people.  Victims will claim their vengeance.  An eye for an eye makes everyone blind.  The message of baptism and Lent stand in stark contrast.  They remind us that there can be no peace without justice, no joy which cannot be shared by all; no light found in the dark dreams of our hearts; and no prosperity that is wrung from the sweat of other human beings.

The gospel of Jesus put a decisive end to all scape-goating on the cross. It is a sign that Christianity has lost sight of the way of Christ when it begins to be part of the sin-accounting game rather than a dispensary of grace and mercy.

The ancient Romans used to say, “Si vis Pacem para bellum.”  If you want peace, prepare for war.  Pope Paul the VI’s summarized the gospel of Jesus as a counterpoint to the so-called wisdom of the world, “If you want peace, work for justice.” More guns will never be an answer to reducing gun violence. Only peace begets true peace.

The way to break the endless cycle of violence rolling over us begins with forgiveness.

The fourfold path of forgiveness as taught by Archbishop Desmond Tutu has the potential to free our hearts and break the cycle of violence regardless of which end of the sword –the handle or the blade—we are on. That’s important because, if we have lived long enough, we know we have been both the perpetrators and the victims of violence.

Desmond Tutu tells this story (he tells many interesting stories in this little, easy to read, book):

“YES, SIR. RIGHT THIS WAY, MADAM,” the policeman responded to our query. My wife, Leah, and I knew exactly where we were going. We had no need to ask directions of this fresh-faced London bobby so eager to help us. But after the rudeness and harassment, we had come to expect as our due at the hands of the police in our native South Africa, these encounters with English policemen were a sublime pleasure. Police in South Africa were the frontline agents of the apartheid state. Their role was to enforce every indignity in the racist arsenal. So, it was quite a shock when we landed in England and found the London bobbies so polite and eager to help us.

Our time in England was in so many ways a haven of civility and hospitality. It was an oasis from the constant prejudice, chaos, and violence we had come to know at home. For four years we were able to eat in any restaurant, go to any theater, and board any bus. It was liberating and life-changing to experience. And then the call came.

Leah and I talked about what it would mean to go back to South Africa after this second period in England. The first time around I had come as a student. This time I had worked for three years for the World Council of Churches in the Theological Education Fund. The children, older now, would have to go back to boarding schools across the border in Swaziland. I could see how much Leah dreaded breaking up our family. I could see how much she dreaded the return to second-class status. But I felt drawn to this new role. I would become the dean of Johannesburg, the senior resident cleric at St. Mary’s Cathedral where I had been ordained. I would be the first black person to fill that role. I pressed. Leah has always supported my ministry.

She, reluctantly, agreed. It was one of the times that most strained our marriage.

At home in South Africa, in the face of the viciousness of apartheid, I could not be silent. And then the death threats came. I would see Leah or one of the children slowly hang up the phone with a distant look of fear on her face and I knew that it had been another one of those vile threatening calls. I asked Leah then if I should stop speaking up. Quite incredibly, she said to me that she would be happier with me on Robben Island, where Mandela and so many other anti-apartheid stalwarts were imprisoned, than silent outside. This emboldened me more than I can say. But each time I saw her or one of our children shaking in rage or fear after answering one of those phone calls, I knew my actions were the cause of their pain.

We make choices that affect others even when we do not mean to hurt them. Many years later I asked Leah whether she would forgive me for the impact my work had had on her and our family. She smiled at me, perhaps grateful for the acknowledgment of her sacrifice. “I forgave you a long time ago.”

(Excerpt from Desmond Tutu & Mpho Tutu. “The Book of Forgiving.” Chapter 8 “Needing Forgiveness,” pages 165-167)

From whom do you need forgiveness? What have you done? Have you hurt someone you love? Does the guilt or shame gnaw at you? Have you caused pain and anguish? Are you trapped in the wreckage of your actions with no visible means of escape?”

The way that leads into the season of Lent takes us on a winding path over the edge of a dark chasm that goes deep into the human heart.  The ancient Priestly writer of Genesis 6:11 says God’s reason for flooding the earth in Noah’s time was that “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” It was to wash away the violence of earth that God allowed the waters to burst from their confinement above the heavens and flood the dry land.  “In anger and regret, God made the rains to fall, and the waters to rise, and the waves to beat.  The water rose and obliterated every living thing.  Only one family was preserved, one family and their small collection of creatures.  Noah’s family was preserved on the ark” (William Willimon, Vol. 34, No 1, Year B).  In the Noah story, God did what we would expect any benevolent power to do –God used violence to root out violence.

But then this story of God takes a remarkable and unexpected turn.  The Priestly writers say God saw answering destructiveness with destruction, attempting to deal with corruption simply by erasing its effects, could not get at the root cause of corruption, nor would it heal the inclination toward violence.  The flood could not cure the virus of hatred and sin in us.  So, God placed a rainbow in the sky as a promise and a reminder, not for us, but for God.

The rainbow means that God put down his bow and arrow.  God laid down his weapon.  God has put an end to all hostilities between us, although we had no power to demand it, or any right to expect it.

This covenant God made with us now becomes our mission.  With the covenant to never again destroy all life with a flood, God promised to deal with the problem of sin and evil by more creative means than simply wiping us out. Pastor and theologian Paul Nancarrow writes ‘God chose to be a Redeemer, above and beyond being Creator and Destroyer.’ (Paul Nancarrow).  Now you and I are God’s plan.

In baptism, God does not merely wipe our slate clean, as one removes “dirt from the body” (I Peter 3:19), but begins a new relationship with us with the power to get at the root cause of corruption.  God’s rainbow, like Christ’s baptism, represents the unbreakable promise to always be with us even as we confront the power of evil that threatens our lives and the world.  God’s gift is the power of forgiveness. This lent comes at a time when we most urgently need this wisdom.  In this season of Lent, we remind ourselves and each other Jesus’ story is not simply his own—it must be ours as well.  We are baptized into a death like his so that now we might share in the abundance of a life like his.

The Abundant Life

Epiphany 5B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

From the prophet Isaiah, we read, “Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). These ancient prophetic words, now more than 2,000 years old, are not about the outcome of today’s Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles. Instead, they echo a promise, found throughout scripture that life goes well, or at least better, for people of faith as compared to those without faith.  He came that we may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10b).

In today’s gospel, Jesus is a miracle worker.  He begins with healing Peter’s mother-in-law and proceeds, within the span of four verses, to work through the population of an entire city—healing the sick and casting out demons before heading out to a deserted place the next morning, all alone, to pray. (Mark 1:31-34)

If we are honest sometimes passages like today’s Gospel feel cruel, or at least inaccessible.  What are we supposed to do with Jesus’s healing stories?  Have things changed so drastically since Jesus walked the earth ushering in God’s kingdom with all manner of miraculous signs and wonders?  Where has all the magic gone?

“The problem with miracles,” Episcopal preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “is that it is hard to witness them without wanting one of your own.  Every one of us knows someone who is suffering.  Every one of us knows someone who could use a miracle, but miracles are hard to come by.”

There is a cottage industry today led by the false prophets of the prosperity gospel who would lead us astray with promises of wealth and success if we could only learn to pray like them.  Yet we know where this path leads.  Sooner or later, real life intercedes. People die, or become injured, chronic illness and old age eat away at precious talents and abilities, and others today will become victims of violence or injustice.

We are confused about what the promise of the abundant life means and also compassionate so like the false comforters of Job sometimes we say silly things —or at least, I certainly have.  Have you heard people say, “God is using this sickness to build your character.”  “God never gives you a test that’s too great.” “Satan is testing you — stay strong!” “God’s timing is different from ours — be patient.”  Or here’s a good one “Have you tried fasting?”  In addition, there a plenty on TV telling you “Send me/my church/my ministry money, and God will heal you for sure!”

A closer look at scripture and today’s gospel offers some help.  we see Jesus is not very interested in magic.  The urgency of his message is an invitation to live with the mystery of the ‘already-and-not-yet.”  Yes, the kingdom of God has come, and its in-breaking is even now revealed in Christ Jesus. Yet Jesus healed only a small number of people in one tiny part of the world before he died.  He came to proclaim the kingdom of God, not to eliminate the world’s disease and despair.  The abundant life we receive does not make us impervious to loss or rescue us from frailty and finitude. Becoming One with the undying life of God is not freedom from pain, but freedom despite pain.

Our Christian ancestors understood this.  Their embrace of finitude and no longer being afraid their own mortality is what made them different. Because they were confident in the resurrection, fear was replaced with compassion. Because they stood with the sick, the poor, the oppressed, they learned to be healers. They suffered with them.  Their newfound freedom from fear of pain contributed to the beginning of Western medicine and hospitals.  The gospel freed them to participate in improving their lives and those around them.  Unity in the Undying Life of God led them further on the path to abundant life following the way marked by the cross of Christ Jesus.

The early Syrian Fathers Ephrem and Simeon actually proposed that tears be a sacrament in the Church. Saint Ephrem went so far as to say until you have cried you don’t know God. Jesus said blessed are those who weep (Luke 6:21). In this Beatitude, Jesus praised those who can enter into solidarity with the pain of the world and not try to remove or isolate themselves from its suffering. This is why Jesus says the rich person often can’t see the Kingdom because they spend too much time trying to make tears unnecessary and even impossible. (Richard Rohr, Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, 2/01/18)

Solidarity with the suffering is the counter-intuitive sign of the abundant life.  It makes us hungry for justice. True systemic change requires a willingness to be self-critical.  I’ve read one of the commercials to be aired during the Super Bowl today will urge citizens to “Please stand up” for the flag and national anthem.  I’m curious what it says about our national pastime that we want to prevent NFL players from exercising their constitutional right to free speech? Their solidarity with the suffering is regarded as sacrilege in our temples of civic religion—where patriotism, nativism, and bad religion are mixed together in a tasty adulterated stew.

But we are called out.  Members of the ekklesia, the church, have been literally “called out” of the world in order to live free of its dictates and to belong fully, at every moment, to God and to one another. To live a just and abundant life in this world is to identify with the longings and hungers of the poor, the meek, and those who weep. This identification and solidarity is in itself a profound form of social justice. (Rohr)

Righteousness is not something we do in private or by being polite; it sums up the global responsibility of the human community to make sure every human being has what they need, that everyone pursues a fair sense of justice for every other human being, and that everyone lives in right relationship with one another, creation, and God.

In our gospel today, Jesus showed us how to follow him into this abundance. Early in the morning, Jesus sought out a deserted place, alone, to pray. The English writer and Catholic teacher Edwina Gateley’s beautiful poem is full of wise advice:

Be silent.

Be still.

Alone.

Empty

Before your God.

Say nothing.

Ask nothing.

Be silent.

Be still.

Let your God look upon you.

That is all.

God knows.

God understands.

God loves you

With an enormous love,

And only wants

To look upon you

With that love.

Quiet.

Still.

Be.

Let your God—

Love you.

Yes, God is infinite and Wholly Other, while we remain finite and deeply known and therein lie the mysteries, as compared to the magic, of prayer. Change, pain, birth, and death are the way of all life along with grace, beauty, love, and joy forever.  This precious and abundant life God has given us all.

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