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Posts from the ‘Incarnational’ Category

The Road Home

Advent 2C-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth” (Luke 3:5).

Ancient words about roads like these don’t sound miraculous anymore. Modern roads everywhere make the way straight and smooth.  Bridges raise valleys and tunnels level mountains. Yet, to our forebears in faith, Isaiah’s roadway was an answer to prayer, an interstate highway home through the dangerous desert wilderness, straight and fast, from Babylon to Israel, from slavery to freedom, from death to life.

In my younger years, the road home led south on I-35 to Des Moines, and west along I-80.  I remember driving between Minnesota and Colorado late at night in the middle of a winter storm.  I could only see the dotted center line to my left and the solid white line to my right. With the foolishness of youth, I just aimed the car between those two lines and trusted the road to be there through miles of open country, over hills and rivers, in the darkness, through blinding snow.

Perhaps we take roads for granted.  In the wilderness, once you find a road, you find your way.  You’re no longer lost. Isaiah’s royal highway led people home without a map, without exhausting themselves, without special knowledge.  They didn’t have to do anything but follow the road home.

Next to God’s kingdom, there should be a sign that reads, ‘If you lived here, you would be home by now.’ God’s kingdom is already, always, everywhere, here and now.  Our truest home travels with us.  It’s never far away.  John stands signaling at the on-ramp for the lost to be found, for those stumbling in deep darkness to find light, for the hungry to find food and for those who thirst to find living water to drink.

It’s John the Baptist, after all, and not St. Nick whom Luke calls “prophet of the Most High” (Luke 1:76).  It’s the wild and wooly John whom God appointed to prepare the way for the infant Jesus. So, we should listen when John announces there is something more than a messy pile of wripped boxes and wrapping paper coming into our lives.  God is coming. Grace un-folding and abounding is making a way again to us.  A royal highway is being prepared. God in Christ Jesus will bring low the high obstacles. Christ will straighten the crooked pathways. Christ is working out a way to you and to bring you home again, amid shouts of joy.

In the fifteenth year of an Emperor, when governor so-and-so and two other rulers had authority, and the high priesthood of (blank) and of (blankety-blank) were in charge in Jerusalem, the word of God came—not to any of them—but to John, son of nobody you’ve heard of, in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2). Luke’s gospel is a shot across the bow to political and religious wind-bags and despots everywhere. God’s holy highway breaks through the wilderness, from the margins, among the lowly. The voice in the wilderness cries out for the way of God to be prepared with relentless urgency.

The wilderness is a place that exposes our need for God. It’s also a place that calls us to repentance. For 21st century Christians like us though, “sin” and “repentance” are weaponized words we fear will lead, not to liberation, but to humiliation.

So, what is sin?  Growing up, we were taught that sin is “breaking God’s laws.”  Or “missing the mark,” as an archer misses his target.  Or “committing immoral acts.”  These definitions are incomplete. They imply sin is a problem only because it angers God.  But God’s temper is not what God is worried about.

“Sin is a problem because it kills.  It kills us.  Why?  Because sin is a refusal to become fully human.  It’s anything that interferes with the opening up of our whole hearts to God, to others, to creation, and to ourselves…Sin is estrangement, disconnection, sterility, disharmony.  Sin is apathy.  Care-less-ness.  A frightened resistance to an engaged life.  Sin is the opposite of creativity, the opposite of abundance, the opposite of flourishing.  It is a walking death.  And it is easier to spot, name, and confess a walking death in the wilderness than it is anywhere else.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, From the Wilderness, 12/02/18)

Maybe the biggest surprise is that the road to heaven Christ opens has also linked us with each other.  The pathway to God runs through, not over, our fellow human beings.  As if by some miracle we reach our destination in a moment, all in an instant, not by coming to the end of the road but simply by being on the road.  Walking the way of Christ, we are in Christ.  Christ is with us and we are with one another.

That’s why people matter, justice matters, how we live makes a difference not only for those around us but for us too. The peaceable kingdom is more than a dreamy vision of heaven. It is God’s dream for the world.  If ever once you’ve lived there then you know you’re already home no matter where you travel.

The apostle Paul was a living example. The church in Philippi, located on the coast of northern Greece, was of particular delight to Paul.  It was the first church he established among the Gentiles of ancient Macedonia.  Lydia, a successful businesswoman, a trader in ‘purple cloth’ was his first convert there. It seems Paul and Silas stayed in Philippi quite a while.  Paul wrote, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.” (Phil. 1:3-4).  Paul’s words are particularly striking given that he wrote this letter to his brothers and sisters in Philippi while he was still in prison.

What did Paul find to be so joyful about?  Living conditions in an ancient jail left much to be desired.  Yet, across the miles, Paul continued a deep relationship with the Philippians.  Their mutual affection strengthened them and was a source of grace despite the locks, walls, and obstacles between them.

John Wesley once observed there is no such thing as a solitary Christian.  Through the gift of baptism into Christ’s body, we have all received the gift by which we, like Paul and the Philippians, are bound together into one family of God. It comes without shiny paper, ribbons or bows.  It comes with Christ’s promise, announced by John the Baptist: “every mountain and hill shall be made low”.

It comes as we move forward in faith, keeping the dotted line of compassion and forgiveness for one another on our left, and the solid line of God’s steadfast love on the right.  You don’t need anything more.  You don’t need any special knowledge or skill.  You don’t have to know where you are to find your way home and into the loving arms of God.

The church is the gathering of those once scattered. Diverse and different, we are one in Christ.  The church is also a sending forth of those gathered. We are right where we need to be—we dwell securely in the house of the Lord—as we stay on the move, walking the way of the cross as Jesus did.  The one who came, and is coming draws us together, holds us together.  We are together in our life in God, moving together toward the consummation of all things.  (William Willimon) Rich and poor, slaves and free, male and female, young and old, gay and straight, Jew and gentile, Christians and non-Christians. All are welcome.  We are joined in one great communion by the Advent of our God. Let the people say, Amen!

Be the Already

Advent 1C-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

And so, our story begins. This first Sunday in Advent our gospel comes from St. Luke as will be our custom throughout the coming year.  Notice, the Church begins its new year when the days are still getting darker.  Advent is not a season for the faint of heart. In place of swaddling clothes, twinkly stars, and fleecy lambs — each year we begin the story of God looking fiercely and honestly at the world as it really is, here and now.  Gorgeous, fragile, and falling apart.

“People with faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:26).  In prophetic language that sounds distressingly contemporary, Jesus describes a world reeling in pain. “When you see these things,” Jesus says, don’t turn away.  Don’t hide.  Why?  Because it’s only when we embrace reality — when we acknowledge and welcome the “here” of human suffering — that we experience the nearness of God.

In Advent, endings and beginnings run together. Ancient truths and dreams of the future teach a single startling truth: our creator and redeemer are one and the same. Our living God, the Ancient of Days, is our Alpha and Omega, our beginning and our end.  Today, and in this season, the past and future join hands to guide us in navigating the difficulties of this present moment and lead us into the loving embrace and the ongoing work of God that is already, always, and at all times everywhere.

This present moment is all we ever actually own in life. Yet it can be really hard to focus solely on the here and now. American novelist Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.”  That’s precisely what Jesus does in his prophetic wake-up call in our gospel today.  He shouts, he draws startling figures, and he uses every rhetorical device at his disposal to snap his listeners to attention.  “Be on guard,” he warns his disciples.  “Be alert.”  “Stand up and raise your heads.”  Look.

It is hard for people today, reading this gospel today, not to think the end-times Jesus is talking about is only about the future—possibly even the distant future—when Christ returns to the world again in glory from on high.  We forget the most important part of this message: the apocalypse is also now. Lutheran theologians are fond of saying the kingdom of God is already and not yet. Christ our king is already here. The victory is won but the struggle with the power of fear and death continues. Somehow we focus on the ‘not-yet,’ and  neglect the ‘already.’ The hopeful message of Advent is watch, wait, look, be part of the already!

Lauren Wright Pittman is an artist and Presbyterian pastor who created the beautiful image we have in our worship folders today entitled, “Raise Your Head.” She writes, “Jesus says to respond to these apocalyptic signs with staggering hope and confidence. When it feels like the very foundations of the heavens are crumbling, we are to stand up. When the roaring sea and the waves confuse us, when the sun, moon, and stars come tumbling out of the sky, we are to raise our heads. When the news cycle feels like an endless fire hose, people pour into the streets in protest, families are separated, and fires blaze through neighborhoods, we are to stand up and confidently usher in and claim the redemption that God promises.”

Be the already.  Focus on what’s not yet makes us into passive spectators, leads us down blind alleys and into fruitless speculation.  “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).  Instead, the meaning of the cross and of the resurrection is that you can be part of God’s already.

Advent calls for brutal honesty, even when honesty leads us straight to lamentation. In Advent, we are invited to describe life “on earth as it is,” and not as we mistakenly assume our religion requires us to render it.  We are invited to shout forth our pain and bewilderment.  To name the seeming absence of God.  Advent is an invitation to yearn.  That is, to name the “here” of our desires without shame or reservation.  Advent is the season when longing makes sense.  Advent is an invitation to imagine.  In Advent, we are called to hope creatively.   To hope against the grain.  Or as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, we’re called to trust that “darkness does not come from a different place than light; it is not presided over by a different God.”

“Advent is an antidote to illusion.  It cuts to the chase.  It insists on the truth.  It lays us bare.  Advent invites us to dwell richly in the here, precisely because here is where God dwells when the oceans heave, the ground shakes, and our hearts are gripped by fear.  “When you see these things,” Jesus says, hope fiercely and live truthfully.  Deep in the gathering dark, something tender continues to grow.  Yearn for it, wait for it, notice it, imagine it.  Something beautiful — something for the world’s saving — waits to be born.” (Debie Thomas, “When You See These Things,” Journey with Jesus, 11/25/18)

Former President George H. Bush died Friday.  He was 94.  A reporter for the New York Times, Peter Baker gave this accounting of his final hours. “George Bush had been fading in the last few days. He had not gotten out of bed, he had stopped eating and he was mostly sleeping. For a man who had defied death multiple times over the years, it seemed that the moment might finally be arriving.

His longtime friend and former secretary of state, James A. Baker III, arrived at his Houston home on Friday morning to check on him.

Mr. Bush suddenly grew alert, his eyes wide open.

“Where are we going, Bake?” he asked.

“We’re going to heaven,” Mr. Baker answered.

“That’s where I want to go,” Mr. Bush said.

Barely 13 hours later, Mr. Bush was dead. The former president died in his home in a gated community in Houston, surrounded by several friends, members of his family, doctors and a minister. As the end neared on Friday night, his son George W. Bush, the former president, who was at his home in Dallas, was put on the speaker phone to say goodbye. He told him that he had been a “wonderful dad” and that he loved him. “I love you, too,” Mr. Bush told his son. Those were his last words.” (Peter Baker, “George Bush’s Final Days,” NYT, 12/01/18)

I never voted for him, but from the perspective Advent provides, his kinder, gentler style of leadership looks like something essential we must reclaim for ourselves going forward. For mortals, our beginning and ending inevitably come together. See! They lead us to the same place. “The bridegroom comes! Awake.  Rise, prepare the feast to share; go meet the bridegroom who draws near.” (ELW #436)  Together, let us be the Already.

Peace. Shalom. Salaam.

Christ the King B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Peace. Shalom. Salaam.  It was apocalypse now last Sunday.  People of faith throughout Edgewater streamed to the throne of God as foretold in the book of Revelation for the annual ECRA Thanksgiving Service.  Looking out at the large, diverse, happy crowd assembled at the Ismaili Center, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky read the Thanksgiving Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln and said, “I haven’t felt so at peace in a very long time.”

Let we who were there testify. At the-end-of-days people of God sat on metal folding chairs. Among the Saints of God are some who sing well and many who don’t. There are some that are concise and articulate and many who are long-winded. For the apocalypse, worship will run long but there is guaranteed to be a spirit of joy, generosity, and thanksgiving. As modeled by our hosts at the Ismaili Center, at the end times, there will be a dedicated and devoted attention to hospitality. Each and every person will find a welcome to rival the Prodigal Son.

Could the world be about to turn?  Could it finally be the end of this old tired world?  Could the reign of hatred, fear, and division ever possibly end?  “Peace. Shalom. Salaam,” we sang.  These words are like a prayer that echoes an ancient gospel long forgotten and seldom proclaimed anymore from tens of thousands of Christian pulpits, and ten thousand times ten thousand Christian communities. Christ our king does not build a wall to separate us from people different faiths or no faith at all, but a bridge.  Christ our king reigns from a throne not in heaven but here on earth. The end-of-days is now. See! The kingdom has already come like a child waiting to be born in us. These are the days of the birth pangs. The evidence is all around us.

Midway airport was mostly quiet last night in stark contrast to the crush of holiday travelers and the approaching winter storm expected to hit there today. I went to meet Leah who flew home alone after spending Thanksgiving with family in Los Angeles.  I remembered a time, not so many years ago, we watched together as the first snow of the season gently fell across Chicago.  Leah was thrilled –and in that remarkable way a young child sees the world—she said, “I can’t believe how God makes every snowflake different.  I get tired cutting out paper ones.”  We both agreed.  We’d stop making new patterns of snowflakes at about twelve.

The first three verses of the gospel of John read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him, nothing came to be.”  (John 1:1-3) Snowflakes, trees, blades of grass, and people—each one unique for all time—this is the kind of king we have.  Standing under guard before Pilate, we must admit he is not the sort of king we expected.  Mocked, abused and crucified, he’s probably not the kind of king we wanted.  Jesus wields power made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor. 12:9) Jesus rules with love, justice and mercy, and forgiveness. Again and again, we are tempted to doubt his power. [Yet] What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. (John 1:4) Peace. Shalom. Salaam.

The ancient gospel proclaimed by early Christians in the Book of Acts declare the same thing. They preached “Jesus is the [Eternal] Christ” (2:36, 9:22) and therefore the deepest pattern for everything that preceded and followed him. Jesus is God’s divine Logos, the blueprint by which the universe was made, and through which it is now being sustained.  As the Book of Revelation puts it, the Christ is “the Alpha and the Omega” of all history and of all creation (1:8, 21:6, 22:13).  Let the end times begin with us.

Many of us are taught Christ is God’s plan B.  Jesus came into the world to solve the persistent problem of human sin. We were taught that is was God and not us who demanded Jesus had to die. Yet as he stands in the Roman Praetorium, ready to take the throne of his cross, now we see the full truth.  Christ is God’s plan A. From the very beginning, Jesus the Christ is the very meaning, purpose, direction, beauty, joy, goal, and fulfillment of the whole divine adventure. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, 11/2/15) Jesus is the revealer of the One “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:8)

Peace. Shalom. Salaam. We will have to radically expand our idea of king and ruler to take in what this means. “With this perspective, Christianity need not compete with other religions; rather, authentic Christians can see and respect the Christ Mystery wherever and however it is trying to reveal itself–which is all the time and everywhere, and not just in my group.”  Martin Luther said whatever preaches Christ is the gospel regardless of who said it or where you encounter it.  For the apocalypse to be now all tribalism becomes impossible.

In Another Turn of the Crank, the Kentucky sage, Wendell Berry, writes, “I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.”[Wendell Berry, as quoted in Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, ed. (The Golden Sufi Center: 2013), 77.]

Christ our king leads the way. We will not know God, ourselves, each other, or anything else that exists except by entering into communion. To try to know something without first loving it is not to know it very well at all. Our failure to understand Christ our King in this fundamental way has made much of the Christian search for truth brutal, arrogant, divisive, the possession of a few, and confined almost entirely to our heads.  I take joy in the fact that as we move deeper into the 21stcentury, Christians seem to be re-discovering the way of Christ our king is the way of incarnation, the way proclaimed by the very name of our dear congregation.  Immanuel is the way we become a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

The French-born author Anais Nin famously once said, “We don’t see things as they are.  We see them as we are.”  We must be changed, renewed, refreshed, refashioned, reformed and resurrected.  In Christ, the old world is passing away. See! A new kingdom has begun. We join our prayers with those of every place and generation. “Let your kingdom come and your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven!  Let our eyes be opened, our ears be unstopped. Let our hearts of stone be replaced with hearts of flesh starting now. Peace. Shalom. Salaam. Let the apocalypse begin right here, right now, among us.  Yes, this Jesus is a different kind of king.  Let the people say …Amen!

From Death into Life

All Saints B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus wept. In fact, scripture says, he wailed. “When Jesus weeps, he legitimizes human grief. When Jesus cries, he assured Mary not only that her beloved brother is worth crying for, but also that she is worth crying with. Through his tears, Jesus calls all of us into the holy vocation of empathy.” (Debie Thomas, When Jesus Weeps, Journey with Jesus, 10/28/18)

When Jesus weeps, he shows that he understands that all is not as it should be.  Things here on earth are not as they are in heaven. When Jesus weeps, he shows us that sorrow is a powerful catalyst for change. The pernicious intoxicating allure of hatred is an evil that cannot be met without wisdom born of love that unites us all. When Jesus weeps, he stands shoulder to shoulder with us in sweeping back the tides that would swamp us.

It sounded a bit cheesy.  One of the interesting people we met in Ottawa, Canada last weekend announced he was wearing Griffindor socks.  We were at a workshop on baptismal living talking about the covenant God makes with us through the waters of baptism. The image of faith of Christians now, he said, is like the wizards of Hogwarts lifting their wands together to shine a light in courageous defiance of the evil Lord Voldemort.  That light created a protective shield over and around them within which they could prepare to battle.

Today, at the feast of All Saints, we hear words of comfort and compassion to dry our tears, bind our wounds, and strengthen us to engage with God in works of love.  Never forget we are gathered here in the presence of the Holy Spirit and our Lord Jesus with the great company of all the saints in light.  What we do in faith-filled acts of worship and praise matters, for this is where we learn how to heal and renew the world. Tikkun olam. With our Jewish brothers and sisters, we hear the call to be workers with God in repairing the world.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16) Let the exercise of gratitude we forge today with the paper in your worship folder be another small way to bind our hearts in Thanksgiving.  For that is how we create a protective shield over and around us to keep the tides of hate and violence from swamping or overwhelming us.

The prophet Isaiah invites us to a feast upon God’s holy mountain, the new Jerusalem. In Revelation, we read that the vision of God’s holy city, the new Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelation 21:2) God will remove the heart of stone in us and replace it with a heart of flesh. Joined together with all the saints of God in Christ, we move from grief into joy, from scarcity into generosity, from fear into courage, transforming death into life.

When Jesus wept, he showed that each of us is gifted by grace to carry the healing power and likeness of God to all those in need. We are God’s children, called to confront the fear-mongering powers of darkness with the joyous light and glory of grace.

“Let us go to Judea again”, Jesus said. The disciples were astonished, “Rabbi,” they said, “the [religious authorities] were just now trying to stone you, are you going there again?” (John 11:7-8).

By the grace of God, Jesus accounts us as Saints even while we are still sinners. Jesus confronts our fear, our pride, and condescension.  Jesus confronts our greed and mindless consumption.  Jesus confronts our capacity to empty other people of their God-given dignity to justify systems of injustice that privilege ourselves. Jesus will not back down but calls us to follow him.

When he arrived after four days at the tomb of Lazarus there was already a stench. At home, we have a five-gallon bucket to collect food waste for compost. We get a new one each week. Day one it’s in the kitchen. By day four it’s in the garage for as Martha said, ‘Lord, it stinketh.’ The story of poor Lazarus is the story of our own smelly rebirth as Saints in light. Lazarus was dead in the grave. Lazarus could do nothing for himself. All he could do was receive the gift of new life in God.  The story of Lazarus assures us—do not be ashamed, do not be afraid of the steps you take to health and wellbeing that are off-putting or smell bad to others. Come, take your place beside all the angels in light to shield us from the power of hatred and violence.

You’ll notice that while Jesus commanded Lazarus to come out, he also commands the community to unbind him.  The Christian community is the place where we are called to lovingly, carefully, help each other with our grave clothes. We do God’s work with our own hands.  Without judgment, without recoil, with the great love that comes only from God, we help one another with our grave clothes to be dressed again in the bright garment that is our new life in Christ. Jesus and all the saints beckon us from death into life as we passed through the waters of baptism, just as today, God calls little Greta Soo Schuchhardt a child of God.

Because God has set you apart, claimed you and calls you holy anything you do in faith can be called holy –like changing the diapers of our kids, or the diapers of someone else’s kids; or volunteering as a tutor; or creating a home where laughter resounds; or caring for a sick parent; or deliberating about which candidate to vote for and casting that vote; or being faithful in our duties at home or work; or visiting a neighbor who has a hard time getting out; or befriending a kid at school that other kids pick on; or anything else you do in faith. There is precious little in our life that can’t be a place where God is at work to heal, comfort, and restore because God has called us to be saints.  Never forget you are not alone in this work. God in Christ has commanded us out from the grave and gifted us with the challenge to help one another be free of our grave clothes.

When Jesus wept, he showed he stands with us. As St. Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, therefore “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35, 37-39)

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.

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