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Posts from the ‘Incarnational’ Category

Come and See. Follow Me.

Epiphany 2B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus found Philip.  Philip found Nathanael. They joined Andrew, Simon Peter, and others in declaring eureka! “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:41).  The English translation is dry by comparison.  There is joy, amazement, and disbelief in their voice.  Can anything good come out of s–holes like Nazareth? Come and see. Follow me.

Great adventures often begin—because of what see calling us to explore. Longs Peak in Colorado is something like that.  If you’ve ever been to Denver you’ve seen it. Longs Peak is the highest mountain on the horizon. It took me three tries to reach the top.

You get out of bed at 3:00 am to be on the trail by 6:00 in order to reach the summit by 12 noon before the lightning storms roll in. The final third of the hike has is no real trail. There are boulders to climb over, a scree field at a 45-degree incline, and a narrow ledge across a vertical rock face. At 14,259 feet above sea level, the air becomes thin and breathing is difficult. The top is the size of about two football fields and just as flat. Mathematicians calculate you can see 150 miles. It seems farther. I remember someone driving golf balls over the diamond-shaped cliff.  I remember a sailplane appearing as if by magic and circling the summit.  I remember catching sight of the tiny glint of the parking lot where we left our car and wondering if I had enough left in me to make it back down. We stopped for pizza that night and I could barely lift the pieces to my mouth.  We could see it. That’s why we had to climb it.

Who you follow defines what you do and who you become.  We followed a trail most of the way to the top of Longs Peak, but the road to get there was longer. It involved planning and preparation. Following that path meant defining our goals, focusing our energy, organizing our calendar and the commitment of financial resources.  Following gives direction to your life.

Philip, Nathanael, Andrew, and Simon Peter didn’t know they were Christians. They just knew they were thirsty and hungry for something better. They didn’t know they were disciples, or followers until they saw Jesus.  He said to them come and see.  Follow me. He was a walking epiphany, an awakening.  The disciples were among the first in the human family to see something in Jesus that answered their own deepest longing that drew them to follow.

The American Catholic Monk, mystic, and writer Thomas Merton compared baptism to spiritual mountain climbing.  The original, but censored, beginning of his famous autobiographical book about coming to faith and becoming a monk, The Seven Storey Mountain reads, “When a man [or woman] is conceived, when a human nature comes into being as an individual, concrete, subsisting thing, a life, a person, then God’s image is minted into the world. A free, vital, self-moving entity, a spirit informing flesh, a complex of energies ready to be set into fruitful motion begins to flame with love, without which no spirit can exist…” The disciples saw this in Christ Jesus.

Our baptism tells us what we are. Baptism means each of us is created in the image of God and that’s why we’re restless and searching until we begin to conform our lives into the likeness of that image. Baptism means we are loved and accepted as God’s own child just as we are, and yet called by that same love to be and do more than we ever thought possible. Baptism is the beginning of a spiritual adventure.  To say that we are Christians means that Jesus is our epiphany.  We have seen and heard in him who and what we are. Because we have glimpsed the divine and have seen God’s eternal love for all creation in Jesus we follow him in the way that he lived.  Like a mountain beaconing on the distant horizon, Jesus makes visible a new way of living we have learned to call the way of the cross.

Like climbing a mountain, the way of the cross is the slow, painstaking process of faith becoming lived faith in us. The way of the cross is the life-long struggle to transform beliefs into lifestyles and habits with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit. We do not make this climb alone. Although it is deeply personal and intimate the way of the cross is not merely a project in self-improvement.  It must be communal. It involves us with one another. The way of the cross is learning to beat our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks by fashioning communities of justice and peace. Come and see, Jesus says.  Follow me.

Jesus’ invitation to discipleship is also an invitation to wellness.  The old preacher W.C. Coffin wrote, “The incarnation says as much about what we are to become as it does about what God has become.”  “The Word became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1:14).  We are called to love and serve the Lord, with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Somehow, the poisonous idea that discipleship must force a wedge between our spiritual life and our earthly selves has crept into Christian consciousness.  Yet scripture could not be clearer.  We are not disembodied souls. We are bodies.  As St. Paul reminds us today in 1 Corinthians, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Cor. 6:19).  Paul admonishes us, therefore, that the life of discipleship calls us to be good stewards of our bodies. Exercise is part of your spiritual work.  Respect your bodily needs and learn to love your limitations for these are what make us appreciate one another.

We are embarked upon a spiritual adventure by our baptism into Christ.  It will call upon us to plan and to make preparations. Following the path revealed by Jesus means defining our goals, focusing our energy, organizing our calendar and the commitment of our financial resources.

Here at Immanuel, we measure progress toward this goal to the extent that we together are a living sanctuary of hope and grace.  This is why we do what we do that gives purpose and direction to everything we undertake and to what we strive to become. A living sanctuary is a place people feel safe.  It is a place to renew trust and become a community of mutual respect and care. Sanctuary is a place where we come to know the depth of our own human dignity and hear the still small voice of God.  Sanctuary is the place we make together for others to see and hear the living Christ in us. Sanctuary is a beacon inviting and welcoming the poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

We’re keeping ourselves honest and telling the story of ways we’re making progress toward this goal in a piece in today’s This Week and the E-newsletter called This Is Us.  Sometime later today look for it to read testimonies of young people in the ECT youth group.

Jesus extends an invitation to discipleship and the way of the cross that is not a command.  Each of us must hear God’s call for ourselves, wrestle with the obstacles, and respond in faith with the lived faith we do together. Come and see.  Follow me, Jesus says.

Love is God in Me

Baptism of our Lord B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1). Biblical cosmology was inspired by cutting-edge work by the ancient philosophers of Babylon.  They pictured a flat earth standing on pillars.  Underneath was the realm of the dead.  Sitting on top they imagined a large dome separating the heavens from the earth.  The stars were said to be small holes in the dome through which the light of heaven could be seen to be shining through.

It sounds ridiculous to us, of course, but to this very day every time you hear someone say ‘heaven is up’ and ‘hell is down’, this is the understanding of how the universe is organized they’re talking about. And this is exactly the kind of universe, Mark says, was torn apart when Jesus was baptized.

From the very beginning of Mark’s gospel, the heavens were ripped open as Jesus burst free from beneath the waters of baptism.  God broke the barrier between heaven and earth.

Now what is opened can be closed again.  But what has been torn apart must remain open for all time. Through Christ Jesus, Mark says, the realms of heaven and the realms of earth have become mixed together.  God is now everywhere up close in, with, and under us throughout the world.

God is with you.  It’s a theme Mark repeats as Jesus first breaks upon the scene and when he leaves it, Jesus’ entrance and exit.  At the moment of Jesus’ death on a cross, as Jesus breathed his last, the curtain in the Temple that separates the profane from the Holy of Holies was torn in two from top to bottom (Mark 15:38).

It means that God cannot be contained in our holy spaces. God is loose in the land.  God’s presence fills the world.  God’s light shines from the darkness of human hearts.  It means the church cannot set conditions for God’s involvement with you. Baptism is not an if-then. If you are baptized then God will be part of your life.  God is already always and everywhere part of every life.  Period.  When will these old discredited ideas be finished among us?

Your baptism is not for God but for you.  Baptism is God’s gift, not a prerequisite. Just as the spirit of God moved and brooded upon the waters of creation, so God creates order and blessing from the chaos of our lives. The Spirit of God intercedes and prays for us without ceasing. God is not too big or too busy to care. The Sacraments are a way of speaking that goes beyond mere words to become an indelible part of our identity: Behold, God says, you are my beloved child.

From baptism, we learn that it is God’s very own voice that speaks to us of the dignity of every human life.  It is God’s own life that gives our own its infinite depth.  It is God who counsels and guides us in the quiet, dark hours.  It is God who pushes and cajoles us toward our calling and mission as artists of grace. It is God who shines the light of creative grace upon our feet and casts a light on our path.  It is God who has brought us together –God who strengthens and prepares us to work in concert with the Spirit as members of the living body of Christ at work in the world.

It is part of the majesty and glory of God that God is not only the creator.  God is a creator of co-creators.  God is a lover of artists. God delights to see what new and beautiful things we can make from what God has given and God laments the tragedies wrought from our ignorance and evil—forever.  What we do, or do not do, or allow to be done in our name, has real consequences. Our identity as baptized believers in Christ is our call to work together to fashion communities of hospitality and grace.

Jesus baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry.  Likewise, our baptism has a public dimension for us to become peacemakers.  Jesus, the lamb of God, became a scapegoat.  He took the blame for upsetting the social order and was sacrificed for us on a cross in order to end all scapegoating, violence born of vengeance, jealousy, fear, and disloyalty.  Jesus appears to the disciples and said, peace be with you.  My peace be upon you. I refuse to be part of your sin accounting game anymore. At his baptism, Jesus ripped apart the ability of any religious or secular authority to separate people whether by gender, race, color, ethnicity, morality, religion or zip code. Community in Christ is not based on fear of our enemies or anger at outsiders, but rather the unity we share as children of God.

Baptism makes explicit what already is. You are a child of God among a diverse family of God with many brothers and sisters.  Baptism is God’ invitation to work together to make our lives and our communities ever more closely reveal the likeness of God in whose image we are created and whose mark we indelibly bear. Behold, the manger of the infant Christ is prepared within you.

The Catholic Italian author Carlo Carreto (1910-1988) wrote, “Love is God in me.
Yes, love is God in me, and if I am in love I am in God, that is, in life, in grace: a sharer in God’s being…If charity is God in me, why look for God any further than myself? And if God is in me as love, why do I change or disfigure God’s face with acts or values which are not love? (“Love Is for Living”, quoted from Carlo Carretto: Essential Writings, Robert Ellsberg)

In Christ Jesus, God tore apart what we had come to believe was how the world is organized and how it works.  “So [by baptism] if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Praise and Thanksgiving

Christmas Eve – 2017

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Ah, dearest Jesus, holy child, prepare a bed, soft, undefiled, a quiet chamber in my heart, that you and I may never part” (From Heaven Above, ELW #268 ).  A newborn’s precocious four-year-old sibling tells her parents, “I want to talk to my new little brother alone.” The parents put their ears to the door and hear the little girl saying to her baby brother, “Quick, tell me who made you. Tell me where you came from. I’m beginning to forget!”

A child’s strange intuition finds affirmation in Christian tradition and scripture. People of every time and place share the same address and zip code. Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the home we came from and the final resting place toward which we inevitably must travel. If all this were not mysterious enough, scripture casts the circle of oneness even wider. Our bible conceives humankind shares cosmic union with all life, including rocks and trees, earth and sky, meadows and mountains.

Words of the psalmist we sang a few moments ago proclaim:

“O sing to the Lord a new song;

sing to the lord, all the earth.

Sing to the Lord, bless his name;

tell of his salvation from day to day.

Declare his glory among the nations,

his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (96:1-3)

 

The prophet Isaiah declares:

12 For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. (Isaiah 55:12)

 

The story of Jesus’ birth is about union with God, one another, and all creation. With the incarnation, God was not content to dwell merely in you, or only in us, but the Spirit of God is poured out and fills all things with beauty and grace. The angel declared good news of great joy to poor shepherds for all people, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.”

In response “All the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all the peoples. Have we forgotten?  How have we missed this?  Scripture teaches us to listen for the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; watch for the field to exult, and everything in it, and “then all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the Lord’s coming (Psalm 96:11-12). The whole earth resonates with magnificent music at the Lord’s coming to restore the good order of creation and to teach the peoples how to live in harmony with that order and indeed, to teach them “the truth.”

Somehow, we have lost the sense of enchantment that came naturally to ancient peoples and persists to this day in cultures of the East and also among native Americans among others. The message of Christmas offers the perfect antidote. Incarnation means everything sparkles with the fullness and presence of God.  Matter is not empty, but everything speaks of the one life we share.

Re-enchantment born of incarnation is urgently needed among us to restore us to health and balance.  When we become so disconnected from the enchanted world we inhabit that forests, meadows, mountains, oceans, sky—indeed entire species—are regarded as meaningless, immaterial, and irrelevant to our welfare is it any wonder that people too can be treated as mere refuse to be held out of sight, isolated, and discarded?

This Christmas story is powerful gospel medicine. To follow where it leads means listening to mere shepherds and to those on the margins of society today.  It means learning to listen again to what makes both heaven and earth sing –Gloria! Gloria! Gloria!

Journalist Stephanie Saldaña, writing for the New York Times yesterday (12/22/17), has told us where to look if we want to find Jesus this Christmas.

“In the city of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, Christmas is approaching. A tree on the main square is alight in blue; a Nativity scene has Mary and Joseph standing vigil beside the baby Jesus. Locals are busily shopping for gifts and sipping coffee at cafes.

Just 15 minutes up the road, at the refugee and migrant camp called Moria, it is not Christmas but winter that is approaching. More than 6,000 souls fleeing the world’s most violent conflicts — in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo — are crowded in a space meant for 2,330. The scene is grim: piles of trash, barbed wire, children wailing, rows of cheap summer tents with entire families crammed inside and fights regularly breaking out on the camp’s periphery. The stench is overwhelming.

I have visited many refugee camps in the Middle East, but never have I seen anything like Moria, a place Pope Francis has likened to a concentration camp. I have also never understood the true meaning of Christmas — a story in which Jesus was born into a family that became refugees — until I visited the people who are now forced to call it home.” Today Moria is Bethlehem. Those stranded inside are not humans to be disposed of, but Emmanuel, God with us.  (By STEPHANIE SALDAÑA, NYT, 12/22/17)

The gifts of God are an inescapable part of life.  But our response to them is not.  According to Luke’s Nativity, we have three choices in response to grace.  First, we can be like the Romans and the religious leaders who do not play a role in the story of Jesus’ birth except by their absence.  Implicitly, their response to grace it to reject and condemn it.  Or, second, we can be like the shepherds who rushed to Bethlehem to find their angelic sign verified in the manger.  They glorified and praised God.  They were amazed by the events that took place before them. They told others what had happened and all were astonished.  But then they left the scene.  They had a good story to tell but did not have faith.  Raymond Brown points out that they were like those in the parable of the seed who “hear the word, receive it with joy, but have no root” (Matt. 13:20-21).

But lastly, we can be like Mary, who Luke tells us “treasured and pondered all that was said about Jesus in her heart” (Luke 2:19).  Among those in the manger, only Mary followed Jesus to the cross.  In the parable of the seed, she is like those who upon hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart (Matt. 13:23).

The birth of Jesus, invites us, again and again, to give ourselves to the in-breaking of God’s rule in our midst.  It comes in unexpected ways.  The gift of God’s Immanuel invites us to become a new creation (Willi Marxsen p.73).

The Christmas story invites you to step into the manger and give yourself over to joy.  See, there is a place for you right next to baby Jesus. Risk yourself along with him to loving.  You and I, together with Mary, are gifted and challenged this night to open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to behold –a gift wrapped in swaddling clothes and nestled on the straw which is the fullness and presence of the living God! –given for you.  Let the whole creation cry. Amen!

Homemakers or God-Bearers?

Advent 4B-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

I’m going to make a prediction.  I bet on average right about now Christmas stress is reaching its peak.  Time is running out. To-do lists are reaching the breaking point. Once Christmas finally comes we might settle in to enjoy whatever preparations did or did not materialize.  But today we’re still cramming for Christmas.

We feel the pressure to be home-makers.  Living rooms, kitchens, and front doors look like a photo shoot for Better Homes and Gardens—or, at least, we try.  Christmas brings a whole season of decorating, preparing meals, special desserts, parties, cards and letters to write (can I just say, snail mail is so unbelievably time-consuming!) and of course, there are the gifts to purchase, wrap, and display before the big day with family and friends.  Adding to all this are the ghosts of merry Christmases past, now lost, or Christmases present that disappoint us; or perhaps the ghost of Christmases future that haunts us with the dread fear of being alone.

Just when all your effort to make everything perfect threatens to overwhelm you, just when all your losses and regrets mount up to make celebrating a merry Christmas in your own home seem impossible, the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary comes like water in a dry land, or like a light in the darkness. Christmas home-making is not your job, but God’s free and generous gift.  Our Savior’s birth marks the moment in human time when God became flesh. In Christ, God makes a home within you. Through community in Christ, we have become a temple of the living God—a living sanctuary of hope and grace.  You and I are God-bearers by our baptism into Christ.

It seems we all start out thinking of God as “out there.” Yet today, along with Mary, we learn God is always also “in here.” This is Mary’s great discovery.  God is here and everywhere.  It’s remarkable when you think that our enlightenment should come from such an unlikely place and circumstance.  Mary, the mother of our Lord, was a peasant.  Probably, she was not more than 12 or 13 years old. She lived in a little, back-water, behind-the-tracks kind of place, in Nazareth of Galilee. A place you’d never see in Better Homes and Gardens.

“If Mary’s ears had been less keen and her soul less willing, she might not have understood [Gabriel’s announcement].  If her eyes had been able to see only the broad outlines of trial, tragedy, rejection, and hardship, she might not have sensed the divine presence or heard God’s word of grace and favor.  But she [did hear] and [she] responded, even to such an odd call in such a common hour of life” (Rev. Byron L. Rohrig, “Mary as Role Model”, The Christian Century, November 26, 1986, p.1062).

Gabriel called her the ‘favored one.’  Is this the special honor God bestows upon his “favored ones?” It is a strange blessing.  Divine favor does not equate with wealth, health, comfort, or ease. Mary’s favored status led her straight from the blessings of a normal loving family life into scandal, danger, and the trauma of her son’s crucifixion. God’s call required her to be profoundly countercultural, to trust an inner vision that flew in the face of everything her community expected of her.

No doubt, some of this went through Mary’s mind while she listened to the angel Gabriel tell her about God’s plan.  In a sermon on today’s gospel, Martin Luther noticed something in Mary’s response to the Angel that is instructive about faith.  Faith isn’t about knowing the facts, he said.  Faith is the willingness to stake “goods, life and honor” upon the promise of God’s love and the hope that springs from it. Faith always involves at least some risk and vulnerability.  (Is the gift of faith on your list this Christmas?) Mary shows us faith must follow the way of the cross as we journey from belief into action.

But this is what’s so terrifying about the incarnation.  Faced with Mary’s choice to be God-bearers or homemakers of lovely, respectable, successful, enviable Christian homes—we chose the stress of being home-makers.  We chose religious self-improvement and moral achievement rather than the way of the cross.  It seems harder to be vulnerable to suffering or to expose ourselves to the criticism of going God’s way rather than the world’s way.  Or anyway, much less comfortable—and when we are home-makers, at least then, we can claim credit for our deeds.

This dilemma runs deep in our sacred story.  A thousand years before Gabriel stood in the quiet night talking to Mary, God had a similar conversation with King David as recorded in our first reading from the book of Second Samuel (2 Samuel 7:1-11,16).  David’s dramatic rise going from being the least notable member of a family of lowly shepherds to a military genius and world leader, made him look upon the simple tent that had been home to the arc of the covenant since the time of the Exodus from Egypt with embarrassment.  Could he really be great while the religious symbols at the center of his kingdom were so humble?

 

King David of Israel looked ‘round him one day,

turned to Nathan, the prophet, and was heard to say,

“I’m living now in a house built of cedar wood.

God dwells in a tent; that just doesn’t seem good!”

I’ll build God a temple so people might see

That Yahweh is God of a great king like me.

But God did not wish for a temple as home;

God wanted a different space for to roam.

God wanted the world, both its width and its breadth,

God found it again in a small town called Nazareth.

Just the right size of room!

My true dwelling place—a young virgin’s womb.

I’ll live within them

In the believer’s heart.  I’ll give them my breath.

This Christmas, we along with Mary are called once again to be what the desert fathers and mothers called Theotokos, the bearers of God’s life and presence in the world.  According to the 14th century German Mystic Meister Eckhart, “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? Then, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.”  “If in your heart you make a manger for his birth, then God will once again become a child on earth.”  So, let our Christian homemaking be fun and cheerful, or else let it be less than nothing.  Trust God to decorate our hearts with enough beauty and grace to fill the season with joy.  Trust God to give you all the peace and strength that comes from a kind and loving home as you journey forward in faith.  Merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Freedom Road

Advent 3B-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Prepare the way of the Lord. Open your ears to the words of the prophets. The true light, which enlightens everyone, is coming into the world (John 1:9).

Like a signal fire or improvised landing strip, clearing a path for God was a rescue plan for the ancient Israelites. The way of the Lord would lead them home from generations of bondage and slavery into freedom.

Our Advent prayer to prepare the way, therefore, is not like the house cleaning we do to be ready for holiday guests.  Instead, it’s our own plea for rescue. We pray that God would pluck us out of our homes, take us out of this culture, bring an end to the world as it is, to a new home in Christ.  We pray for a new way of life in community, in the diverse harmonious beautiful world as it was created to be.  Our intercessions implore God to lead us toward life in the world as it should be.  We become pilgrims in Advent. Walking freedom’s rescue road fills our hearts with peace and joy, not because of greeting cards or pasted on holiday smiles, but because we are finally on the way to a new life not of our own making.

In the readings of Advent, you can almost hear the earth-moving equipment, the road graders, the bridge builders, the demolition crew, and the road pavers of the Spirit urgently, diligently at work to break a way through to you.  Every year, for two December Sundays in a row, scripture stops to introduce us to the strange construction engineer of our spiritual rescue.  John the Baptist is the “voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” (John 1:23)

John got the job because apparently, he is the inventor of a new technology in salvation road building.  John preached a new message of radical inclusion and offered the new religious rite of baptism to open the way of redemption to a whole raft of previously lowly and excluded people.  Before John, no one had ever heard of a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  The simple act of immersion combined with a prayerful plea for God’s mercy made salvation accessible to shepherds, women, tax collectors and all those otherwise excluded from redemption at the temple in Jerusalem, or via the complex rules of daily living advocated by the Pharisees.

Today, John the Baptist toils in the wilderness.  John is engineering the salvation road to break through to reach each of us in the secret lonesome broken places of our lives.  We must not turn our back on the places within us, the emotions and memories that hurt. In the case of old trauma or abuse, we may need to find a trusted guide to help us get there safely. It is there that God comes.

It’s no accident.  For the Hebrew people, the desert wilderness was a place of chaos and disorder as well as repentance and renewal.  It was both—and that made it important as a way of speaking about how to renew relationship with God.

Our ancestors in faith knew the wilderness was a dangerous place of hunger, thirst, and privation.  Unsettled, windswept, haunted by noxious beasts and demons, echoing with frightful noises, it is the domain of Cain, Ishmael, Esau, and raiders such as the Arabs, Midianites, and Amalekites.  Apart from nomads and the lawless, only the mad inhabit the wilderness or outcasts with no other recourse.

On the other hand, the Hebrew people never forgot that God’s proper dwelling place was not the great temple in Jerusalem but the simple tent that had housed the ark of the covenant during the Exodus.  The people of Israel spent nearly two generations in the desert fleeing slavery in Egypt before entering the promised land. It was in the wilderness that God gave them the Ten Commandments at Sinai.  It was time in the wilderness that taught them to trust in God and brought them to maturity in the faith.

The tradition of the redeeming desert runs throughout scripture.  King David was accustomed to the barren places having been a shepherd.  It was to the wilderness and lonely places that Jesus went regularly to pray.  After his baptism, before beginning his public ministry, Jesus spent 40 days and nights fasting alone in the desert with only the devil for company.

God has opened a royal highway to you through baptism into Christ.  You don’t need money or pay a toll on the John the Baptist Expressway.  Don’t need to be holy.  Don’t need to be anything you aren’t already.  God in Christ Jesus is coming straight for the wilderness in our lives.

This wilderness cannot be pointed to on a map.  It’s topography and features cannot be photographed—except as it registers on the face and in the eyes. The wilderness of our lives exists within our hearts and minds. It is a poverty of the soul which plagues us, cuts us off from God and each other. We take our first baby steps on salvation road as we move from faith into action, letting our beliefs begin to shape our behavior.

We quickly discover that the wilderness is holy ground and the road to God links to everything and everyone else.  Theologian Sallie McFague writes, “In sum, we are not called to love God or the world. Rather, we are called to love God in the world. We love God by loving the world. We love God through and with the world.”  This turns out to be a self-emptying, sacrificial kind of love following the way of Jesus. It turns out, redemption road is the way of the cross.  (Sallie McFague, Blessed Are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint (Fortress Press: 2013)

What are the signs that we are walking the right road?  By grace, the broken places of our lives become like a watered garden, a colorful fragrant meeting place for encounter and connection.  As the modern-day prophet, Bryan Stevenson has said, we find meaning and redemption as we become more proximate with people who are suffering. God’s freedom road connects us to all life. I begin to see myself in my neighbor—there but for God’s grace go I.

Last, we know that walking the right road helps us stay hopeful.  In the midst of war or the rumor of war, in the midst of the twin global crisis of climate change and massive income inequality, Advent teaches us to stay hopeful knowing the future belongs to God and without hope we can do nothing.

John the Baptist called the people into the desert surrounding the river Jordan so God might lead them out of the wilderness of their souls.  Likewise, we are called to make our hearts ready to walk Christ’s way. Even now God is working to punch through. See, the entrance to freedom road stands open before you.  We have stood here before.  This year, let us walk just a little farther down this road, translating our faith into action, our belief into new behavior, so Christ may again be born in our hearts and enough muck of the world-as-it-is may be washed away to reveal again the seed and genesis of everything that exists, the image and reflection of the loving God.

A Different Kind of King

Christ the King A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

“Tell us, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?” (Matthew 25:38). It can be frustrating. Why must God be such an open secret?  Every proof for God ending in a leap of faith?

We may wish it to be otherwise but certainty is exactly what scripture does not offer us. Instead, the bible ushers us into an entirely different way of knowing: an intimate relationship, a dark journey, a path where we are always On The Way to discover for ourselves that grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness are absolutely necessary and sufficient for survival in an uncertain world. Yes, we really are saved by faith alone. Jesus is a different kind of king.

The hiddenness of God is an ancient idea. It runs deep through Luther’s writing too, including famous Christmas sermon which is both humorous and shocking in its frankness. Imagine waking up to these words on Christmas morning: “There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: if only I had been there [at Christ’s birth].  How quick I would have been to help the baby! I would have washed his linen.  How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!  Yes, you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at the time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. Childish and silly thoughts are these!  Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor.  You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.”

Scripture admonishes, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels.” (Hebrews 13:2) Faith is measured by loving service and acceptance of the weak, the lost, the grieving, the meek, the persecuted, the tearful and distraught—starting with the brokenness in yourself and moving out to encircle the whole world. Jesus is a different kind of king.

The hiddenness of God is a result of radical, pervasive incarnation. Franciscan author and theologian Richard Rohr writes, “The presence of God is infinite, everywhere, always, and forever. You cannot not be in the presence of God. There’s no other place to be. It is we who are not present to Presence. We’ll make any excuse to be somewhere else than right here. Right here, right now never seems enough. It actually is, but it is we who are not aware enough yet.”

Because God is the water we swim in, it takes something more than our physical senses to detect this presence. Jesus praises God for “hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them only to the little ones” (Matthew 11:25). Well, what is it that the learned and the clever often cannot see?  The presence of God always hidden in, with, and under each moment is found and observed using the more sensitive and finely tuned faculties of the human heart rather than the senses alone. Jesus is a different kind of king.

When the Spirit within you connects with God’s Spirit given from outside you, you are finally home. Now you know that your deepest you is reflected in the image and likeness of God, and Christ is living his life in you and through you and with you.  Only God’s grace has the power to turn the inward spiral of the self out toward others. This dwelling in grace is what Jesus called the kingdom of God. Here we find unity not in conformity but in our differences. Jesus is a different kind of king.

We come to know God by loving God, and in knowing God we come to love our neighbors as ourselves. For some time now people of faith have been confused about this. The Good News is not about being correct but about being connected.  Beyond personal morality, the gospel calls for mercy and forgiveness. Beyond acts of charity and kindness, the gospel calls for justice. There is great urgency in re-learning this lesson. Like the prophet Micah before him, today’s gospel (Matthew 25:14-30) admonishes us to Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

Later today, I am talking about the social and economic teachings of Martin Luther as part of our on-going reformation series at the Forum.  From his earliest days in Wittenberg when he saw the adverse effects of the emerging market economy on the common people and was overwhelmed by the sheer number of beggars on the streets, Luther committed a great deal of theological energy and passion to the issue of persistent poverty.

With words that sound as if they could be written today Luther wrote, “The poor are defrauded every day, and new burdens and higher prices are imposed. They all misuse the market in their own arbitrary, defiant, arrogant way as if it were their right and privilege to sell their goods as high as they please without criticism” (from the Large Catechism). According to Luther, “God does not care even if you never build a church if you only love and serve your neighbor.” “If you want to love and serve me [God says,] do it through your neighbor. He needs your help, I don’t.”

The hidden God is encountered by faith not reason. Likewise, Luther acknowledged, there is no single, biblically-mandated economic model, no direct line from the biblical witness to any specific economic institution, political party or system. Instead, the gift of reason, God-given creativity, and freedom find their proper place in striving answer how best to live out what St. Paul called “faith active in love.” Faith active in love is something we do together by reasoning, listening, and learning how best to support the common good.

Jesus is a different kind of king. We are saved by grace and not by merit. But according to Luther, “Faith is followed by works as a body is followed by its shadow.”  God’s love for us moves us toward works that embody love toward the neighbor. We do these works despite knowing we are a mixture of sheep and goats, weeds and wheat and we always will be. As Martin Luther put it, we are simul justus et peccator. We are simultaneously saint and sinner.

So, as we set out to do God’s work we do so with humility, boldly calling upon God’s mercy when we get it wrong. To accept that we can be goats doesn’t mean we say, “It’s okay to be ignorant and evil.” It means we have some real wisdom about ourselves. You can see your weeds and acknowledge when you are not compassionate or caring. You have to name the goat as a goat. I’m not perfect; you’re not perfect; the church is not perfect; America is not perfect. Together let us strive for a more perfect union –as the preamble to the U.S. Constitution says so brilliantly.

It takes uncommon humility to carry both the dark and the light side of things. The only true perfection available to humans is the honest acceptance of our imperfection. Only God in us can love imperfect and broken things. By ourselves, we largely fail. By faith in grace alone, we are saved.

“Though some would make their greatness felt and lord it over all, [Christ] said the first must be last and the last and service be our call.  O Christ, in workplace, church, and home, let none to power cling; for still, through us, you come to serve, a different kind of king.” (ELW #431)

A Complicated Thanksgiving

Proper 28A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The holiday season is upon us.  The interfaith ECRA Thanksgiving service is 3:00 o’clock today at the North Shore Baptist church.  I’m sure many of you have plans to travel or welcome guests this week.  Some of you have already started planning the holiday meal. Growing up, I remember that my mother (who is here today) made everyone around the table say something they were grateful for before we could eat.  She made sure we put some thanksgiving in our Thanksgiving.

This year I am thankful for many things.  I am grateful for all of you, for this congregation, for home and family arriving this week, for the food we will prepare and share, and for the fact that I, unlike too many in this city and across the world, never have never had to worry about when my next meal is coming.

I am thankful for many things, but this year my list of thanksgivings feels more complicated. The daily news out of Washington gives me such a belly-ache.  So, one thing for which I am aware that I am grateful is that things haven’t gotten any worse.  I am just holding my breath hoping our luck doesn’t run out, just waiting for things to fall apart. This year my Thanksgiving is complicated by worries, tension, and dread.

It makes me thankful and hopeful that for some, this dread has become like an alarm clock.  People woke up in defense of women, of immigrants, for the sick and those in need of healthcare.  People woke up to confront the malignant disease of racism and to cultural indifference to sexual harassment. People woke up to the ecological dangers we face as the inevitable consequences of our economy.   I am grateful, especially for young people already living in and making diverse communities of hopeful change and resistance.

New biblical scholarship on today’s gospel lesson, the parable of the talents, has woke up too. It leads us to reassess what Jesus may be trying to teach us.  The first task of any preacher or biblical scholar in understanding as best they can what the bible says is to spell out the plain meaning of scripture.  What did Jesus’ words mean to those who first heard it?

I have a drawer full of sermons on this parable of the talents. All of them identifying with the first two slaves who risked their talents to create even more.   However, it’s probably most likely that Jesus’ original audience would have identified most strongly with the third servant, the one who buried his talent in the ground and thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 25:30).

The landowner is “a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” The average peasant listening to Jesus’ parable did not look kindly on wealthy people who multiplied their wealth ‘without sowing,’ i.e., without honest labor. He is the very opposite of the God of Israel who brought God’s people into a land flowing with milk and honey, drinking from cisterns they did not dig and reaping harvests that they did not plant. It’s not like the God who tells harvesters to harvest badly, leaving the edges of the wheat, leaving dropped sheaves behind, not stripping the vines or shaking the olive trees, so that those who have nothing to sow can reap anyway. It’s not like the sower Jesus tells about who goes out and throws seed wastefully all over the place, knowing that whatever lands on the good soil will produce beyond one’s wildest dream.

In fact, according to religious teaching at that time, the prudent and just thing to do in caring for another’s wealth was precisely to bury it. Jesus’ audience would have given a thumbs-up to the actions of the third servant, because he is the one who said no.  I will not participate, I will not cooperate, I refuse to be part of your system.

The ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person (Jerome, In Heiremiam 2.5.2; Corpus Cristianorum Series Latina, LXXIX, 61). In the first-century Mediterranean world, the common belief was that the economic pie was “limited” and already distributed, so an increase in the share of one person automatically meant a loss for someone else. Acquisition was, by its very nature, understood as stealing. Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion or fraud.

Honorable people, therefore, were interested only in what was rightfully theirs and would have no desire to gain anything more, that is, to take what was another’s. The notion of an honest rich man was a first-century oxymoron. (Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels)

Perhaps the third servant’s appraisal of his master as a “hard” man (v. 24), with which the master does not disagree, indicates that he had no feelings towards the poor who got poorer as the first two servants got richer. That is, the first two servants were as hard and uncaring towards the poor as their master, which is why they were able to make so much more money — yet that is why they are praised. In the kingdom of God, in which Jesus has called us to dwell starting now and forever, the highest praise is reserved for those who make of themselves a gift to others. “To whom much is given, much will be required” (Lk 12:48).

The so-called “lazy” servant said no to the ways of the world, the ways of Empire and dog-eat-dog competition, and so, was cast out just as Jesus was. The way of Jesus leads to the cross. If we truly want to ‘make America great again,’ we could start by shoring up the traditional civic value that those who have more should pay more in support of our common life and society.  Throughout the 1950’s the top federal income tax rate was 91%.  Such progressive tax policy seems shocking today, especially in Illinois, which is one of only 8 States to have a flat income tax, placing a proportionally higher burden on those with less.

If there is a silver lining to these days, it is that we are waking up to the fact that democracy is not inevitable or self-perpetuating. It requires involvement, it requires that we be a nation of laws that protect minorities and defend the value of truth.

The third slave said “no” to his master because he said “yes” to God.  We too, said “yes” in our baptism.  We have vowed to renounce the devil, the powers of this world, and the ways of sin that draw us from God.  We have vowed to live among God’s faithful people, to serve all people following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. This is not a burden, but the source of our joy and thanksgiving.  Even now the kingdom of God is breaking in all around us, in us, and through us, and among us.   Thanks be to God.

Wisdom and Folly

Proper 27A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Jesus told them to keep awake.

At age 26, author, journalist, and long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad gained national attention when she swam 28 miles around the island of Manhattan. Four years later, she nearly quadrupled that effort by swimming 102 miles across open ocean from the Bahamas to Florida. In 2013, on her fifth attempt and at age 64, she became the first person confirmed to swim 110 miles from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage.

These accomplishments required grit, skill, and bravery. Nyad has exhibited all these strengths in another way too, by detailing her life-long confusion and shame beginning at age 14, when she began to be sexually assaulted by a trusted swim coach.

“My particular case mirrors countless others, ”Nyad writes. “I was 14. A naive 14, in 1964. I don’t think I could have given you a definition of intercourse.” She explains in vivid, heartbreaking detail the times her coach violated her trust and her body, robbing her, forever, of her childhood. For years, she kept the secret. Finally talking has been the profoundly healing medicine for her and for us.

We seem to have awakened to the widespread sin of sexual harassment and sexual abuse this fall. So many stories have surfaced under the #MeToo. Four in 10 working women report experiencing sexual harassment within any two-year period at work (Scientific American Blog, “Do Sexual Harassment Prevention Trainings Really Work?” 11/10/17). One-in-six American women have been the victim of rape; people who are transgender are sexually assaulted at a much higher rate than females who are not trans. (See “Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics,” Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence)

What causes this behavior and what can be done about it? As the nation brings its attention to finally listen and respond to the victims we in the church are also challenged to awaken to our role in perpetuating this problem. The Bible contains many names and metaphors for God, yet Christians historically have claimed to know and proclaim God as a single gender.

We heard God proclaimed differently this morning in our first reading. “Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her” (Wisdom 6:12). Here God goes by the name, Sophia (Greek for wisdom).  She is “the fashioner” and “mother” of all good things and:

. . . a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all. (Wisdom 7:22-23)

These are, of course, female attributes of God. How does it change our relationship with God and each other when God is viewed through a feminine lens? When we over-emphasize masculine traits of the divine, many women, transgender, and intersex persons feel less-than, that their voices and bodies don’t matter as much as men’s, that God’s image is not in them. Male images of God are often associated with power, authority, and judgment. When used exclusively, they most often create an image of a punitive God.

“Female images of God suggest something different. God is the one who gave birth to us and all that is. God wills our well-being, as a mother wills the well-being of the children of her womb. God is attached to us with a love that is tender and that will not let us go. And like a mother who sees the children of her womb threatened and oppressed, God can become fierce.” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, 11/8/17)

According to theologian Marcus Borg, “When John writes that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus, he could just as well have said that Sophia became flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus. Jesus is the Wisdom/Sophia of God incarnate.”

In an age when we are bombarded with information we desperately need more wisdom not simply more knowledge. In just the past ten years, there is a resurgence in wisdom research. The scientific method, society’s most useful tool, is finally being used in pursuit of society’s most hard-won prize.  At the University of Chicago’s Center for Practical Wisdom, multi-disciplinary teams of psychologists, neuroscientists and sociologists ask themselves what is the way to the good life?  How can we teach our children to integrate emotion and intelligence; be open to a broad range of perspectives; navigate uncertainty; learn to take their time, be more empathetic, and consider the common good?

Sophia is smiling.  There is a re-awakening to the spirit of Sophia today. Is it amazing in our eyes?  Today’s gospel (Matthew 25:1-13) invites us to go even further down this path.

In Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem, he told a parable about five foolish bridesmaids and five who were wise.  At first glance, they look the same. All ten came to the wedding; all ten have their lamps aglow with expectation; all of them, presumably, have on their bridesmaid gowns.  Jesus prompts us to stop and reflect, how do we choose between what is foolish and what is wise when the oil in our lamps is running low?

Did not all ten bridesmaids prove themselves to be foolish—five because they would not share the extra oil they brought, and five because they thought the groom would not accept them if their lamp was empty?  Jesus dire warning to the disciples and to us is to stay awake – to be ready for what is at hand, to be engaged with his presence, as the presence of the kingdom of heaven. Yet, very soon, the disciples too will fall asleep in the garden of Gethsemane.

What they are trying to quantify at the University of Chicago, Sophia has taught us from of old. We all stand in need of grace.  We who are foolish become wise as God in Christ Jesus dwells in us. This is how we gain admittance to the wedding feast and join the party.  We who are male and female and transgender, find unity despite our diversity in becoming one with our creator who goes by many names but whose one unchanging attribute is defined by love. You are beyond the metaphor of male and female; you are a child of the Resurrection, a creature of Eternal Life. As Paul courageously puts it, “There is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This is the beginning of wisdom for us, for our children, and our society. It is for the healing of victims of violence everywhere. It is the spirit of awakening to which we are now called.  The spirit of Christ/Sophia awaits us.

The Five Virgins – a poem by Thomas Merton
There were five howling (or scatter-brained) virgins
Who came
To the Wedding of the Lamb
With their disabled motorcycles
And their oil tanks
Empty.
But since they knew how
To dance
A person says to them
To stay anyhow.
And there you have it,
There were five noisy virgins
Without gas
But looking good
In the traffic of the dance. (but well-involved in the action of the dance)
Consequently
There were ten virgins
At the Wedding of the Lamb.

From Death into Life

Reformation A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

“Comforter of priceless worth, send us peace and unity on earth… Lead us from death into life.” (ELW #517)

500 years ago, on October 31st, 1517 Martin Luther ushered in a period of radical reform and renewal. Historian Stephen Ozment has said, “[Luther] removed the barrier which had put priests nearer to God than lay people.  Under Luther’s reforms, priests were encouraged to marry.  Ordained ministry became defined by the tasks of preaching and teaching rather than acting as civil judge, tax collector, or steward of large estates.” Ozment continues, “Perhaps this helps explain one of the lessor known consequences of the Reformation.  By the 1540’s and 50’s the overall number of clergy in Protestant cities dropped by as much as two-thirds.”  Priesthood became less profitable.  Empty monasteries became hospitals, hospices, or schools. The faithful could serve God just as well being a good shoemaker or blacksmith as by being a priest.

Theologian Diana Butler Bass is equally sanguine. “The heart of Protestantism is the courage to challenge injustice and to give voice to those who have no voice.  Protestantism opened access for all people to experience God’s grace and God’s bounty, not only spiritually but actually. The early Protestants believed that they were not only creating a new church, but they were creating a new world, one that would resemble more fully God’s desire for humanity. The original Protestant impulse was to resist powers of worldly dominion and domination in favor of the power of God’s spirit to transform human hearts and society.  Protestants were not content with the status quo. They felt a deep discomfort within. They knew things were not right.  And they set out to change the world.” (Diana Butler-Bass, A Great Awakening, 10/28/2011)

For much of my life Reformation was observed as a kind of “Lutheran Pride Day.” Indeed, this Sunday is packed with beautiful images, deep-seeded ideas, and a rich history. I am proud that our Church affirms and embraces that it is fallen and in continual need of reform.

Yet, slowly the Holy Spirit drew us out of our cozy religious silo and into ecumenical dialogue. We have begun to change our tune. Our pride is tempered by stories of pain. The Reformation sparked wars of religion from 1524 to 1648 that consumed many lives and much treasure throughout Europe. The conflicts ended with the Peace of Westphalia recognizing three separate Christian traditions in the Holy Roman Empire: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism, otherwise known as the Reformed tradition.

Today we cannot celebrate, but we recognize this 500th anniversary after working more than forty years to heal wounds caused, for example, by the brutal persecution of Mennonites at Lutheran hands.  In 2010, ELCA Presiding Bishop and Lutheran World Federation President, Mark Hanson begged forgiveness on behalf of all Lutherans in a service of repentance. He said the church’s repentance is part of the “ministry of reconciliation” Christians are called to as “ambassadors for Christ.”  The ELCA is now in full communion with six Protestant Churches, including, The Presbyterian Church, USA; The Reformed Church in America; The United Church of Christ; The Episcopal Church; The Moravian Church; and the United Methodist Church. Bilateral talks continue with four others.

This work of reconciliation continues in a small way here today. We are blessed to welcome our neighbor Greg Krohm from the Catholic Archdiocese as part of our Reformation series. Greg’s timely topic is Healing the Wounds.

In 1965, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council under the leadership of Pope John the 23rd ushered in a new era of ecumenism and liturgical renewal across the Church.   On May 13, 1989, the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Archdiocese of Chicago entered a historic covenant, the nation’s first such accord. On October 31st, 1999, in Augsburg, Germany, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. That agreement was celebrated in congregations around the world, including right here at Immanuel Lutheran by Cardinal Francis George and Bishop Ken Olsen. Last October, we celebrated another agreement, Declaration on the Way, with 32 statements of consensus where Catholics and Lutherans find essential agreement. On Tuesday night, Metro-Chicago Bishop Wayne Miller and Cardinal Blase Cupich will renew the covenant of agreement we have enjoyed locally between our two churches for 28 years, at Holy Name Cathedral.

Throughout these 500 years, the Spirit of truth has lead the church to deeper reconciliation and renewal, from death into life. Our Reformation scriptures testify that this spirit of truth lives in each of us. I have written the truth upon your hearts. “If you continue in my word…you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. (John 8:31).  At the same time, we know the truth is often painful.  The truth is not always welcome at Thanksgiving dinner. In our politics today, telling the truth might not get you re-elected. Truth is a measuring stick. The extent to which truth is uncomfortable is a measure the dysfunction in our families, the church, our community, culture, civic, and political life.

As we confront so many challenges today, the daily news brings a belly ache and our hope begins to fade, we can draw inspiration knowing that Christians through the centuries and around the world have faced more dire circumstances. They too were under threat and confused. They lost confidence in worldly leaders. Belief in their own talent, power, and abilities to end violence and make a better future was at an end. They placed their trust in the leading power of God’s grace rather than democracy, progress, or worldly wisdom. They walked in truth just by keeping to Jesus’ way.  They had no light to show them the way but the light of Christ.

The American Catholic writer, theologian and mystic, Thomas Merton, said, “the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it.”  The human soul is like a crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it. When God’s infinitely love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of thing takes place.  And that is the life called sanctifying grace. (Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain, p. 170)

We come here to be renewed and reformed in mind and spirit.  We come here to stand again in the light of grace, to measure our lives against the standard of God’s truth, to be embraced and healed, to be filled again with God’s light through prayers, hymns, silence, confession, and by Word and sacraments, so that we and the world might be transformed from the inside out, filled with bright colors and shine once again with some small portion of the image and likeness of God our creator. That is our truth. This is our freedom.  This is the life to which we are called.  This is the source of our undying hope. This is how God who formed and reforms us by way of his cross will lead us from death into life.  Amen.

The Mind of Christ

Proper 21A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Which son did the will of his father?  I know who has my vote.  As father to four children, three of them sons, I feel delighted when one of them helps out around the house regardless of what they might have said before.  The example Jesus gives is common to our everyday lives.  But the context is not.

The stakes were high when the Priests and Pharisees confronted Jesus in the Temple.  The day before, Jesus entered the city in triumph.  Crowds lined the road, shouting “hosanna!” Afterword, he fashioned a whip of cords and violently drove the moneychangers out from the Temple.

Now he directly confronts the religious authorities. The controversy draws everyone’s attention, much like a new post on Twitter from President Trump—except that for Jesus, the argument will cost him his life.

You would be hard pressed to find better examples of religious devotion than the Priests and Rabbis of Jesus’ day.  They knew the bible back and forth.  But their religion had become less about loving people and serving God than about protecting their own power and self-interests.

They ask a good question but are not open to Jesus’ answer. They are hoping he will claim to be a God, or a king, or anything they can take to the Romans to get him out of the way.  The religious leaders may be saying yes to God, but they are living in a way that says no. Their walk doesn’t match their talk.

Research indicates this is a common complaint among millennials about the church today.  We talk about social justice but settle for charity.  We preach love but remain quiet about child abuse, poverty, animal suffering, or you name it.  We hear Christians on television talk about God’s abundance and prosperity who are reluctant to put their bodies in gear or get their hands dirty, or who talk about mercy and forgiveness with folded arms, pronouncing judgements God will not own as if hurricanes and life tragedies were evidence of divine punishment for bad behavior or proof of our own moral superiority.  Millennials take the church’s words seriously and for that reason feel they must reject belonging to a church.

Like Jesus’ story of the two sons, young people today are skeptical about our words and want proof of what we believe in concrete actions and life style choices. Don’t tell me about the good news.  Show me the good life. Jesus said even the tax collectors and prostitutes put themselves far ahead of the chief priests and elders who professed their love and obedience to God but failed at works of love and mercy.

Over the centuries, Son number one—who said no but lived yes—has become an icon of what it means for us to be faithful followers of Jesus. God welcomes the service of sinners even while their hearts and minds remain divided. Truth be told, none of us say yes and live yes all the time.  We have all rejected the will of God in both words and deeds, whether in outright opposition or through ignorance.  If we can’t accept this deeply humbling truth about ourselves we can’t enter the vineyard of God’s grace.  Hold onto your pride or embrace God’s mercy.  You can’t do both.

For the chief priests this meant the price of admission into God’s vineyard was too high.  But to those who recognize their need for grace Jesus’ fellowship is a lifeline –a way out of the disasters that so often befall our mortal lives.

But here’s where the trouble begins. No sooner do we enter the vineyard ready to spring into action than we notice a whole bunch of people who don’t agree on the work that needs to get done.  In fact, they may go so far as to actually undo the work others have faithfully done.  It’s enough to make a grateful tax collector or repentant prostitute throw up their hands and walk away from the whole grace loving—vineyard tending—kingdom building, thing. Once we say yes to God, it’s not clear how, or in what ways, we are to live yes—either with our deeds or our words.

God intends the church to be a living sign of grace. Travelers need good road signs.  Otherwise, they’re liable to confuse where they are with where they’re going, or wind up in the ditch. Millennials and others who try to build a better world without reference to inherited wisdom quickly find themselves working alone, or in danger of losing hard won knowledge, or getting lost on the way to the vineyard.

The chief priests asked Jesus by what authority he did the things he chose to do to serve God and neighbor.  It was a good question, if only they had had the courage to really pursue it.

What authority do we claim for ourselves today?  Given all we know we are wise to be humble.   As we go about our work in the vineyard, we must remember how we got here—that none of us could make sense of our lives on our own.  We listen before we speak, and listen more than we speak.

More precisely, we Christians are hoping both our words and our deeds will more and more be taken over and transformed by the living Word of God.  In our second reading from Philippians, Paul reminded us we do not labor alone.  More profound than any work we do for God is the work the Holy Spirit does for us, in us and through us. Martin Luther wrote, “It is as if a wolf devoured a sheep and the sheep were so powerful that it transformed the wolf and turned him into a sheep.  So, when we eat Christ’s flesh physically and spiritually, the food is so powerful that it transforms us.”

Saying yes to God is not the end but just the beginning of learning to say yes to God with lives that become road signs of grace. We work out our own salvation “with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).  Paul isn’t talking about our personal salvation but about the corporate “health” or “well-being” of the believing community and society as a whole.   The salvation we work out in fear and trembling entails our work together to fashion a community characterized by mutual love, harmony, humility, and unselfishness (2:2–4). Rivalry, conceit, and selfishness are evaded, as well as grumbling and complaining (2:3–4, 14).  Our salvation, therefore, is not simply and solely the activity of God upon us as passive human objects, but is a work of the transforming power of God’s grace and faithful human activity working together.

At the font and at the table, through water, bread and wine, through Word and witness, we trust in God’s word dwelling in us will provide guidance and counsel to all of God’s children—regardless if we are more like the first son or the second one – even as we struggle to ask all the right questions.  Yet in welcoming Christ we receive strength to go into the vineyard of God’s creation, saying “yes” and living “yes,” all of our days.

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