Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Incarnational’ Category

Let Love Happen

Proper 15A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Matthew 15:10)

What a week to read this gospel.  White supremacist, KKK and Nazi groups shocked America. Emboldened by the words of the President and elected leaders, they gathered in surprising numbers to chant their racist hate-filled slogans and violently confront their so-called enemies.  One news commentator had told us to expect.  ‘When you blow enough dog whistles you shouldn’t be surprised when the dogs come around.’

Words and intentions matter. They matter to God.  It makes a difference to God whether our intention is to hate or to oppose hate. Perhaps what is most sickening about the week’s events is that every hateful word came from the mouth of a child of God.

Hate is like an infectious disease.  Whenever we hate, we betray our birthright.  We undermine our humanity.  We obscure the image of the living God, the imago Dei, in which we were created.  Whenever our intention is to degrade, dismiss, deny, or harm another human being we are working at cross purposes with God.

It seems straightforward, but this is an especially tough lesson for us as we become increasingly locked in polarizing political debates. It is a tough lesson for the church considering its historical role in turning a blind eye toward slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, or in some cases, providing bad theology to undergird it. This is a tough lesson when it feels like the whole country is going to the dogs.  The trouble is people on both sides of the debate agree with that statement.  Name calling is evidence you and I may be coming down with the hate disease.

Just look at Jesus in our gospel today. In an amazing role reversal, this time, Jesus is the pupil and not the teacher. Jesus called the Canaanite woman a dog. The disciples begged Jesus tell her to go away. He insulted her and said he’s not here for her and her kind. I’m so thankful to Matthew that he includes this story.

It’s not an excuse, but it happened on vacation. For the past three Sundays, we’ve seen Jesus in retreat.  After the death of John the Baptist he sailed across the Sea but the people followed him along the shore. After feeding and caring for them, Jesus sent the crowds away and walked up a nearby mountain to pray while the disciples headed out across the Sea of Galilee by boat.

And today we find Jesus 70 miles further north in the district of Tyre and Sidon, cities of Lebanon. He is traveling where no self-respecting Jewish person would go, someplace he expected privacy.  He is at least 50 miles north of the border. Perhaps he was searching for a place where he might prepare himself and the disciples for what was coming next in Jerusalem.

Yet even here news of his ministry had spread. He was recognized on sight.

Matthew uses the word “great” 20 times, but only once in connection to faith. Ultimately, Jesus commended this Canaanite woman whom he called a dog for her great faith.

Matthew goes out of his way to tell us she was a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28). The label is strange. In Jesus’ lifetime, nobody was still called a “Canaanite.” It was part of ancient history even then. The region of the Canaanites no longer existed on the map.  It would be as if Matthew were calling New York City by its old name New Amsterdam!  Matthew calls her a “Canaanite” on purpose: it meant that she is not only an outsider, but she is part of an enemy people.

Love your enemies, Jesus says.  Everybody knows that.  But it’s never easy, not even for Jesus. Our gospel today challenges us to look beyond artificial boundaries and borders of ethnicity, nation, and creed that naturally divide people into insiders and outsiders –making us feel safe with some people and afraid of others.

Often in scripture, it is the outsider who turns out to be the true insider. One of the defining characteristics of grace is that we are surprised to see it where we found it. Christ is revealed in those whom we are expecting only to serve, and/or among those whom we are prepared to hate.

Over the years, Christians have tried endlessly to soften this story. Jesus was only trying to teach the disciples they say, or Jesus was merely having some fun in verbal sparring, or he wasn’t calling her a bad dog, but a cute cuddly sort of dog. These explanations fall short I think.

This encounter marked the turning point in Jesus’ own consciousness, confronting his limited perception of the wider mission at hand beyond the tribes of Israel, including people of every nation. The Canaanite woman proves she is not only worthy of Jesus’ mercy; in this instance, she is his teacher and preacher. Down through the centuries she offers a timely rebuke to political, racial, and religious divisions. We are reminded, “There’s a wideness in God’s Mercy, like the wideness of the sea” (ELW #588).

Words matter. Whenever religion becomes more about external regulations and observances it is going down the wrong road. Jesus’ iconoclastic teaching canceled out all the food laws of the Old Testament. It set people of faith on a new footing with God and each other. There is only one rule, the Golden Rule, love our neighbors as ourselves. In Christ, we are called to love even our enemies and pray for them.

If any rule, no matter how pious sounding, leads you to violate the Golden Rule then break that rule.  If exclusion becomes the rule –break the rule. If ‘I win and you lose’ is the rule—break that rule. If the rule is ‘need more to be more’ –break that rule. If white supremacy is the rule –break that rule.

Jesus commandment moves us beyond believing the faith as a way to the afterlife to practicing the faith in ways that make a difference in the here and now. Let love happen. You don’t even have to be good at it—just try.

While the world swirls around us there are always people, places, and opportunities to let love happen in answer. Later today there will be a short 30 minute Memorial service for a man named Aaron at our ECT sister congregation, Unity Lutheran Church.

Aaron was a 19 year old who happened by on Tuesday August 8th, interacted with other youth participants of a summer program run by RefugeeONE, and later committed suicide on the Unity front lawn. No one knew Aaron from RefugeeONE, from Unity, or the neighborhood. Neither he, or his family, have so far been identified. He left nothing but a few notes in his pocket and a chalk-drawing on the sidewalk of a cross, the Star of David, and a crescent moon—the three symbols of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Pastor Fred and friends at Unity will offer prayers, scripture readings, and sing hymns to remember his life before God. One or two mental health social workers will offer thoughts on suicide prevention and overcoming stigma.

“In Christ,” Paul writes, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Christians are radical egalitarians when it comes to the inclusive love of God. We are all equidistant from the heart of God—including our friends, our enemies, and the strangers among us who just happen by.  In every case our call is the same. Let love happen.   It’s hard for us to keep an open mind toward strangers about whom we’re afraid.  But Jesus has shown the way. He showed us he could be changed. Can we?

The Way of the Cross

Proper 7A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Leo Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina with the words “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Becoming a follower of Jesus was painful for early Christians. Imagine, what would it take for you to disown your children—or your parents?  Yet, these were the kinds of choices many were forced to make. “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;” (Matthew 10:35).

This sword is not one of violence but of decision. We must decide to put Christ first before family in order to find our family.  We must decide to speak truth to power in order to honor those in authority. The decision to walk the way of Christ’s cross calls us to be bold even as our path leads us more deeply into the troubles, difficulties and sorrows of our families and of this world in order to find joy and purpose in serving.

Two paintings by Caravaggio hang opposite one another in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome: The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1600). The contrast reveals Matthew’s transformation from tax collector to martyr.  The paintings depict the beginning and the end of Matthew’s life following Christ and powerfully illustrate Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words: “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” In the Martyrdom, as tradition tells us, Matthew is shown as he is being murdered by agents of the disgruntled king of Ethiopia as he baptizes new people into the faith. While Matthew’s gesture in the Calling suggests hesitancy, his hand in the Martyrdom shows confidence, reaching toward a laurel from heaven, even as it has been seized by his accuser.

In facing our fear of God’s truth and grace, change and transformation, what is lost in us is spiritual narrowness.  What dies is our fear of others, whether as competitors or enemies.  What is born is compassion and freedom. “Those who find their life will lose it,” Jesus said, “and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39)

Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador is another famous example of the kind of compassion and freedom we find in Christ when first we decide to follow him. Archbishop Romero was killed by extremists while standing behind the altar celebrating Holy Communion in 1980. He said, “Those who, in the biblical phrase, would save their lives—that is, those who want to get along, who don’t want commitments, who don’t want to get into problems, who want to stay outside of a situation that demands the involvement of all of us—they will lose their lives. What a terrible thing to have lived quite comfortably, with no suffering, not getting involved in problems, quite tranquil, quite settled, with good connections politically, economically, socially—lacking nothing, having everything. To what good? They will lose their lives.” (Oscar Romero 1917-1980)

I suppose today we would be amiss not to mention another example of courage and faithfulness central to our own history as Lutherans.  On this day in 1530 German and Latin editions of the Augsburg Confession were presented to the Emperor Charles of the Holy Roman Empire. The Augsburg Confession was written by Philipp Melanchthon and endorsed by Martin Luther, and consists of a brief summary of points in which the reformers saw their teaching as either agreeing with or differing from that of the Roman Catholic Church of the time.  Today is the feast day in our liturgical calendar celebrated by the whole Church of both Philipp Melanchthon and the Augsburg Confession.

We might happily talk for hours about what Tolstoy meant by his beautifully evocative opening sentence.  From a Christian perspective, this teaching is true. Happiness is like a flower that grows to scent our homes with compassion, truth and love when Christ is at the center, while the unhappiness in our homes arises from all the many ways we depart from Christ and his gospel.

Our pursuit of happiness will be more successful in our homes and in our society as we learn when to accept and when to challenge the authority others have over us, and also learn how to embrace and to properly exercise the authority we have been given.

The fourth commandment, “Honor your father and mother”, and our gospel, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”, stand in creative tension.  Our understanding of each is made more profound when viewed from the perspective of the other.

To honor father and mother, Luther says, we must do more than love them.  We are to serve and obey our parents, treat them with great deference, humility, and respect.  Parenthood, according to Luther, is a divine office given special distinction.  Parents are literally God’s representatives in their families.

Luther broadened this commandment to include all those who are in authority –we should honor our boss, government officials, police officers, school teachers –and crossing guards –anyone who is in a position to issue commands.  The command to honor our parents compels us to honor the authority of all those in power.

Luther writes, “Through civil authority, as through our own parents, God gives us food, house and home, protection and security” (LC 385 [150]).  Christians have long recognized the vital importance of good order, both in the home and in society, for creating the conditions which makes lives of faith and praise possible.  Here lies the biblical rationale for authority, as well as the principle that defines its limitations.

It is God who sets the standards for the proper use of authority.  It is God and the purposes of God toward which our authority is properly applied.  Do not think, Jesus says, that I have come to bring peace, when through your misdeeds or your oversight you have neglected my children, brought them pain or fear, made them to feel small, or taught them how to hate. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword whenever a child goes hungry; not peace but a sword, wherever another person in the world dies of a curable disease; not peace but a sword, wherever another species becomes extinct because of your unbridled desire to consume; not peace but a sword wherever there is someone who does not know they are a beloved child of God. For my house is not built to glorify you, says the Lord, but so that all people may know that I am God, and that you may know each and every human being is my beloved son and daughter—for I have counted even the hairs on their head.

If we see someone we love acting destructively, confronting their behavior may provoke a hostile, angry reaction.  That is why we often decide not to speak even though their behavior is contrary to everything Christ teaches us.  We keep silent because we ‘want to keep the peace’, or because somebody counsels us to ‘just let it be’.  But the peace our silence buys is not an authentic peace.  It is a simmering volcano: the landscape looks peaceful and the same as before, but there are tremors underneath, and down deep, we are frightened that our shaky world will one day, blow up.  What happiness, peace, and joy is ours when we choose to walk the way of Christ and his cross.

Called by Compassion

Proper 6A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

[Jesus] “had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36) This is the third of three sermons exploring Martin Luther’s theology of Christian vocation in recognition of the approaching 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  How does Jesus our Good Shepherd call us to be good citizens?

The question has special resonance here in Chicago where we are experiencing the perfect storm of political dysfunction in our City, our State, and Federal governments all at the same time.  The question only deepens as we lift our eyes beyond our borders and consider the plight of people around the world ravaged by poverty, war, and natural disasters.  Since we were little children we learned to pledge allegiance to the flag but to what extent has our baptism made us citizens of the world? Or put another way, does citizenship in the kingdom of God take precedence over loyalty to country?

Of course, the short answer is yes.  Luther wrote, “God is the kind of Lord who does nothing but exalt those of low degree and put down the mighty from their thrones, in short, break what is whole and make whole what is broken.” (LW 21:288-300)  We are called to speak truth to power, to be a voice for the voiceless, to strive for the greater good, to put the human in our humanity, to protect and defend the life of all creatures, and to do all this as far as the light of our shared faith and conscience will guide us, trusting in God’s forgiveness and mercy when we fail. Love of the other and our neighbor became our calling starting with baptism.  We live out our calling whether at home, at work, or in the world cleaving to the grace that embraces us just as we are regardless of what we do and at the same time calls us to be than we have ever been. Like Jesus, we become who God created us to be when we are moved by compassion for the harassed and helpless.

As many of you know, this was a frenzied week in the Johnson household. We went two for two high school graduations and all the events that go with it. This week it was Sam’s turn to graduate. The ceremony was at the Auditorium Theater in downtown Chicago.  He dropped off his books, paid his fees, picked up his cap and gown, and eight commencement tickets on Wednesday afternoon. In a few hours all the tickets were gone —lost!  He left them on CTA redline train.  It looked like two grandmas, a grandpa, mom and dad, step-mom and step-dad were all going to have to find something else to do Thursday night because we weren’t going to get in to be seated at the graduation.

But as grace (not luck) would have it, the tickets were found by a CTA conductor who saw they were graduation tickets for Jones College Prep High School, went online to the Jones website, somehow recognized one of the senior students, contacted them through Facebook—who then contacted another friend who knows Sam, who then went to the station and picked up the tickets.  That conductor was moved by compassion and that made all the difference for our family.

What would a compassionate budget for our state, our nation, or our city look like and who would pay for it?  As U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky frequently points out, the United States has never been more wealthy at any point in its history than it is today.  We can afford to be more compassionate for the harassed and helpless and maybe that is how our nation, our state and our city will find its true calling again and help restore our civic life to health.

Greed is one of the seven deadly sins squeezing the life out of our neighborhoods and communities.  Evening parking in the lot across from Sam’s school is usually $8.  I suspect you won’t be surprised that for graduation the rates go up.  You want to guess how much?  We paid more than 300% the usual rate or $25.

Many people know Martin Luther protested about the abuse of Pope Leo using fear of God to extract money from the poor throughout Germany and the rest of Europe to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Lessor known are his complaints about the newly forming business community. Luther writes, “The merchants have a common rule which is their chief maxim: ‘I may sell my goods as [costly] as I can.’ They think this is their right.  Thus occasion is given for avarice, and every widow and door to hell is opened.” (The Forgotten Luther: Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation, Edited by Carter Lindberg and Paul Wee, p. 34)

Luther famously taught the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of the world are separated by God with Christ ruling in the one, and civil authorities ruling in the other.  But this does not mean God intends for people of faith to be passive in the political realm or to respond to the needs of the harassed and helpless only with our charity. We are called to battle injustice with clarity about our values, the dignity God affords every human life, and the call of grace to be people of compassion just as Jesus was and is.

And here we must go beyond what Luther taught if we are to be consistent with his vision of our Christian vocation as citizens operating by grace out in the world.  We must become more aware of the original sin of the United States of America and how we have all either benefited or have been diminished, and often a combination of the two.  I’m speaking here about the deep and pernicious sin of racism.   As Bishop Miller said at last week’s Synod Assembly, racism is the text, the subtext, and the context of any meaningful conversation about justice. We must be going about the difficult and honest work of raising our awareness and rooting out racism within the powers, principalities, institutions, political parties and economic systems in which we live, beginning with our congregation and our church.    (The 2 1/2 anti-racism training sponsored by our Synod is the envy of our church across the nation.  If the Spirit is moving you in any way toward this opportunity you should know the Immanuel Council is resolved to pick up the fee.  All it will cost you is your time.)

As Jesus said “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” (Matthew 9:37) You are called and equipped.  You are filled with the Spirit and are able.  With your hands, your words, your listening, your actions God is ready to fill you with an animating compassion so none of us have to live like sheep without a shepherd, but all shall dwell in peace and in dignity in the house of the lord—because we are a living sanctuary of hope and grace!

The Called Life

Holy Trinity Sunday

June 4, 2017

 

Today is the second of three Sundays to explore Luther’s theology of Christian vocation.  What if anything, does it help us understand about how we live out our Christian calling in the workplace?  Let’s start by looking at the front cover of your worship folder.

This is Trinity Sunday —as in the Holy Trinity.  Trinity is not a word you will find in the Bible.  The Trinity is not a teaching of Jesus.  Yet Trinity is the name for God in which we baptize.  Since the early fourth century, it has been the Church’s name for God.  The name says something essential about who God is.

About 100 years before Martin Luther published his “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, also known as the 95 theses, the Russian artist and iconographer Andrei Rublev painted the famous image you see today called “The Trinity.”  Inspired by the story of Abraham entertaining the three angels who visited Abraham and Sarah as they camped beside the Oak of Mamre (Genesis 18:1-8), the icon depicts the Holy One in the form of Three eating and drinking, in infinite hospitality and utter enjoyment between themselves.

The Father, in the foreground on the left, is wearing a golden robe, depicting for Rublev perfection, fullness, and wholeness. In the middle, Jesus wears a blue robe over a brown shirt. They are the colors of earth, sky, and water. His hand resting on the table makes a two finger gesture to tell us he has put spirit and matter, divinity and humanity together within himself —and for us!  On the right, the Holy Spirit is dressed in green. “Hildegard of Bingen, the German Benedictine abbess, musical composer, writer, philosopher, mystic and overall visionary, living three centuries before Rublev, called the Spirit’s endless fertility and fecundity veriditas —a quality of divine aliveness that makes everything blossom and bloom in endless shades of green.” Likewise Rublev chose green to represent the divine photosynthesis that grows deep within us transforming the light of God’s grace into itself. (Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance)

Notice, the hand of the Holy Spirit is pointing toward the open and fourth place at the table!—for you!  As magnificent as the fellowship among Father, Son and Holy Spirit is—there’s something missing. The Three are circling around a shared table, and if you look on the front of the table there appears to be a little rectangular hole painted there.  Most people pass right over it, but art historians say that the remaining glue on the original icon indicates that there was perhaps a mirror glued to the front of the table!  Standing before this icon, peering into the divine life existing in, with, and under the entire universe, Rublev intended us to see the reflected image of ourselves!

This image is our starting point today.  The Holy Trinity where we begin to find answers about our Christian calling in the workplace and anyplace, because this is where we find our true self—living in community and communion inside the circle of the divine life of God. Here at Immanuel, we repeat the same mantra in the statement of our mission to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace. 

Dwelling in Christ, quickly dispels two fallacies about our vocation that persist today.  The first being the our vocation is synonymous with whatever we do to make a living.  Luther’s understanding of vocation is much broader.  It includes whatever we do to advance the cause of God’s grace.   Because we abide in Christ, we strive to do our work well and with fairness.  We

have concern and compassion for colleagues, employees, employers, clients, and customers.  We find more delight in serving than demanding. Mindful of any opportunity to glorify God we invite others to find a seat at the heavenly banquet table beside us.  We evangelize not to conquer others but to share the gift of grace by which God has set us free and made us all part of one life in God. This is our Christian vocation whether at home or at work or really, any place we find ourselves. Our vocation may change depending upon opportunities and circumstances, but it the aim always the same —to love and serve others as we have been loved and served and to invite all people into community with us in God.

The second fallacy Luther’s theology of vocation demolishes is a misunderstanding about the gospel that has persisted and even thrived among people of faith for centuries right up to today. It is sometimes called called “moralistic, therapeutic deism.”  It sounds abstract but I think you’ll all recognize the idea. It boils down to the belief that God will reward good people with heaven and send bad people to hell. Also, the main object of faith is to enable you to feel good about yourself. And finally, God is “out there” somewhere, but not very involved in daily life.”

Just about every point of this perspective contradicts Luther’s understanding of vocation. We see in Rublev’s image of The Trinity, God’s grace does not divide the world up into “good” and “bad” people. Rather, all have fallen short of God’s glory and depend solely on God’s mercy. Further, the point of religion is not to make you feel good about yourself. That turns faith into something that is basically self-serving. The point of religion is to love God (something enabled by God) and serve the neighbor. The view that God is simply indifferent and aloof from creation and human affairs is a vast distance from Luther’s belief that God “daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, fields livestock, and all property—along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life.” And it certainly is in dramatic tension with the teaching that, in Christ, God has entered deeply into human flesh and human experience.” (Mark D. Tranvik. “Martin Luther and the Called Life.”)

We do God’s work with our hands.  God uses our callings to tend to the needs of the world. Bread does not happen without the work of the farmer, miller, baker, and merchant. Luther says that people function as God’s “masks” to accomplish God’s will on earth. It is God at work in vocation. We are God’s instruments. God is not absent, but hidden behind the various gift and talents of the laborers.

God is One in Three.  Face-to-face-to-face we enter into community, mystery, Love for the other and the other’s love for us, when we enter into relationship with God through faith.  This divine life shatters the sins of empire, opens our eyes to hate and racism, and teaches us how to forgive and be reconciled. This transformation becomes our joy, our vocation and our work and our mission.

So rise, shine you people.  See how God sends the powers of evil realing.  God brings us freedom, light and life and healing.  All men and women who by guilt are driven now are forgiven.  Tell how the Spirit calls from every nation God’s new creation.  (ELW # 665, Rise, Shine you People!)

A Glorious Life

Easter 7A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Memorial Day means the end of school is near. For lots of families, it means graduation. Yesterday evening Kari and I spent about an hour filling our phones with prom photos. I took pictures of Sam and his date in a locked condo courtyard near Chinatown. Kari snapped memories of Joe and his date in the backyard of somebody’s home in Evanston.

Joe’s baseball team is in the playoffs. When they face off against archrival New Trier this Wednesday, it will likely be Joe’s very last baseball game after twelve years of organized play. Sam, who attends CPS, still has finals. The next three weeks on our family calendar include two commencement ceremonies and one shared graduation party.   We will have caps and gowns, valedictory addresses, and well wishes times two.   The end of school, of course, is only the beginning for both of them. The are already planning their next big thing. Joe is heading off to Colorado State in my hometown, Ft. Collins, Colorado; while Sam will be attending DePaul here in Chicago. Within this community there are six High School graduates this year—all of them headed of to college. In addition to Sam and Joe, congratulations are due to Katie Brink, Savita Gupta, Ruby Massey, and Allison McDonough.

The high priestly prayer in our gospel today is a kind of commencement address for the early church and the apostles on the night of his arrest following the Last Supper. Jesus prayed his death and resurrection would be just the beginning of zoe ionias, or life eternal (John 17:3). Here Jesus himself explains what this phrase means: “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus the Messiah whom you have sent.”

Jesus’ commencement prayer is that we may have an abundant life starting today. In the Hebrew context, the great project of God’s redemption was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay. (NT Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, pp. 44-45) Jesus’ wish for abundant life is different than what most parents say they most want for their kids.

Years ago I was involved in the peaceable schools project at Lyons Township High School in La Grange, Illinois near St. James Lutheran Church, which was my first call. At that time, parents became concerned that their race for greater academic achievement and higher test scores was having ugly and unintended consequences contributing to bullying and racism.

In extensive surveys parents said over and over what they most wanted for their kids was not Harvard or a high-flying career. They just wanted for their kids to be happy. This insight provided clarity about the importance of taking time within the school day to teach conflict resolution, teamwork, service and citizenship skills to support growth in emotional maturity among young people at LTHS. But as an over-arching life goal it turns out, just wishing our kids to be happy in life is not enough.

Generations of youth launched with this heart felt advice have sought meaning in being constantly entertained and pampered. They’ve sought salvation on cruise ships, adventure vacations, and in Las Vegas –not to mention food, drugs, alcohol, sex, and massive quantities of new stuff mostly bought on credit only to discover this does not make them happy but depressed, stressed, and alone. Jesus did not die so you and I could live worse in a bigger house. Jesus’ commencement prayer was that we might have abundant life by dwelling in relationship with God.

We have met life itself. He has told us his name is Jesus. Jesus is the key that turns the tumblers in us to open the way to abundant life and our true self. By the way, Christians do not own the copyright on this Jesus. In John’s gospel Jesus is the revealer of all life on earth and throughout the universe. Therefore, if any religion is true, it is true only to the extent it reveals the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus—whether in the name of Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, Vishnu or any other name.

Jesus prayer for us, and all God’s children, is not happiness but glory. It is a life full and overflowing, a higher life centered in interactive relationship with God and with Jesus. Glory, not happiness, is Jesus’ ultimate goal for us and in a great insult to our ego it comes as God’s free gift and not by anything we can do or achieve. Among the gifts God imparts for glory I’ll name three—compassion, forgiveness and wisdom.

From God the Father we receive the gift of steadfast love and compassion. “The Hebrew word for compassion whose singular form means ‘womb,’ is often used of God in the Old Testament.” (Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 48). To say God is compassionate is to say that God is womblike. Like a womb, God is the one who gives birth to us. As a mother loves her children and feels for them, so God loves and feels for us. One who is alive in Christ dwells in God the Father abides in compassion and reflects this love for all life.

From Christ Jesus we receive the gift of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. Jesus prayed that we might all be one (John 17:11). Jesus came among his betrayers and imparted his peace. Forgiveness is the great gift of glory that breaks the endless circle of vengeance and acrimony and leads us out beside the still waters of belonging and community. By this gift we find resilience in relationship and the ability both to impart strength and to receive strength from one another.

From the Holy Spirit receive the gift of wisdom. In scriptures, lady Wisdom or Sophia, is like a master worker, working with God to bring all things into service of grace. Factors that promote wise reasoning spring from humility, an openness to other perspectives, and the ability to compromise. Wisdom often flows from adopting third-person perspective that places our own well-being in the same framework with that of others.

Jesus’ prayed that we may have zoe ionias. The eternal and abundant life Jesus desires for us is a glorious life often filled with happiness, but also sorrow and a willingness to tolerate pain and sacrifice.

We can glimpse what glory looks like in Facebook videos posted this past week of ten people on marching on our behalf along lonely stretches of the historic highway route 66 on their way from Chicago to Springfield. They’ve carried on now for 14 days through wind, rain and generally miserable weather since we sent them off with cheers and a rally on May 15th from the James R. Thompson Center. They’ll arrive on Tuesday like the ragtag bunch Joshua led around the walls of Jericho hoping to bring down the walls of inaction, greed, and hard-heartedness that’s led to the budget impasse in our State that has stretched on now for 1 year, 10 months and 27 days. On Tuesday they’ll deliver a people and planet first budget that generates billions in new revenue by closing tax loopholes for corporations, eliminating the flat tax, and placing a small fee on financial transaction. I plan to be there with them when they do and I invite all of you to come with me.

The great 14th century English saint and mystic Julian of Norwich said of God: “I am the one who makes you to love; I am the one who makes you to long; I am the one, the endless fulfilling of all true desires.” As we yet linger in these days after the ascension and before Pentecost and prepare to commence in discipleship and the long season of being the church, a living sanctuary of hope and grace in the world, Jesus has called us beyond mere happiness and to reach for glory. We strain forward for glory knowing that even if it eludes our grasp the mere pursuit of it fills our hearts and illumines our lives with dignity. We live the good life by living the life Jesus lived. It is the glorious life for you and me. Life eternal and abundant, the life of the Father to the Son, the life of the Spirit of our ascended Savior, life in God, now and forever. Amen.

Love Your Enemy

Easter 5A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Death by stoning is a horrible way to die. Yet despite the hostile violence wrought against him, Stephen prayed for his enemies. “He knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.” (Acts 7:60)

Hatred is a powerful thing. Cain hated Abel for being more admired by God than himself, so he killed him. King Saul hated David for becoming more popular with the people and tried to kill him every chance he got. Saul of Tarsus hated the followers of Jesus because he thought they were blasphemers and heretics and made a career of rounding them up so they could be stoned to death like Stephen. Horrible self-deception about our own righteousness can be deadly, not to mention the effects it has on families and relationships.

Today’s scriptures offer us a lesson in resiliency and reconciliation. Learning to repair relationships damaged by hate and violence is not a luxury. Learning forgiveness is the way we return to what has been taken from us and restore the love and kindness and trust that has been lost.

Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. It is a tall order even so.  Jesus lived this kind of life. Even now, Jesus lives this kind of life in us so the way of forgiveness and reconciliation is not impossible for us.

Many people know Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa for the leadership he provided with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the process of racial justice following the end of apartheid. Less well known is his own personal struggle to overcome the damage wrought by violence. He writes:

“There were so many nights when I, as a young boy, had to watch helplessly as my father verbally and physically abused my mother. I can still recall the smell of alcohol, see the fear in my mother’s eyes, and feel the hopeless despair that comes when we see people we love hurting each other in incomprehensible ways. …If I dwell in those memories, I can feel myself wanting to hurt my father back, in the same way he hurt my mother, and in the ways of which I was incapable as a small boy.” (Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World, p. 15)

The traumas we have witnessed or experienced live on in our memories. Even years later they can cause us fresh pain each time we recall them. It is perfectly normal to want to hurt someone back when you have been hurt. But hurting back rarely satisfies. It does not lesson the pain but makes it deeper, less conscious, and spreads it around to infect others. “Without forgiveness, we are tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound with chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped.” (Tutu, p. 16) Even when we realize our interconnectedness, the common humanity of victims and perpetrators, our need for healing and for grace, forgiveness can still be a difficult path for us. There is a Gaelic proverb which states “Nothing is easy for the unwilling.”   Willingness is the first work of the Holy Spirit. “Without willingness, this journey will be impossible. Before compassion comes the willingness to feel compassion. Before transformation there must be the belief that transformation is possible, and the willingness to be transformed. Before forgiveness there must be a willingness to consider forgiving.” (Tutu, P. 8-9)

Like Jesus on the cross, Stephen proved willing to forgive his murderers even as they were killing him. Somehow he could see his shared humanity with them even as he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus. Somehow, I wonder whether these two things are connected. And what could be more revealing of Jesus’ power to forgive and to heal our bitter, hard-won divisions than the story of Saul who would become Paul?

Scripture says, “The witnesses [to the stoning of Stephen] laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” This is the first mention of the great missionary apostle whom Jesus will knock from his horse and claim for himself. In 8:1 we are told that this Saul “approved of their killing of [Stephen],” with the implication that Saul himself may have had a hand in instigating the entire event. Yet this same man would become the apostle to the gentiles, spreading the gospel message to many “even to the ends of the earth.” The good news of Jesus Christ is that the risen victim of unspeakable violence declared an end to the cycle of violence, enmity, bitterness, and contempt.   Christ Jesus returns again and again to us who rejected and betrayed him with the gift of shalom—peace—that is the seed of willingness planted in us that can lead to forgiveness, compassion, transformation, and reconciliation so that trust is restored and kindliness may abound.

Like Stephen and like Paul, we begin this journey from wherever we are. The heavens stand open before us and our common humanity is revealed when we come to dwell in the mystical and living sanctuary of the body of Christ. The gospel of John tells us this over and over again. The little verb “meno” appears 69 times in the gospel of John.   It means to “stay,” “remain,” “abide,” or “dwell.” Jesus is on a mission to reveal the source of his glory is to abide in the Father and the Father in him, and to invite us to do the same. As we come to dwell in God, God’s love and light comes to dwell in us. Desmond Tutu has said the willingness to forgive grows into the capacity to tell the truth, name the hurt, and in either renewing or releasing relationship. We can do this with grace and mercy while we abide together in Christ the true vine, the one body, the temple not made with hands, the living sanctuary of hope and grace in which heaven and earth are one.

We cannot create a world without pain or loss or conflict or hurt feelings, but with God’s grace we can create a world of forgiveness. We can create a world of forgiveness that can allow us to love our enemies, to heal our losses and repair our lives and relationships. But ultimately, no one can tell you to forgive. We, and the Holy Spirit, can only ask. You and I are invited on this journey. All of us must walk our own path and go at our own pace to discover the power forgiveness has to change your life and change the world.

Our Gate and Shepherd

Easter 4A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Jesus said, “I AM the gate for the sheep.” (John 10:7). “I AM the good shepherd.” (John 10:11) These are not throwaway lines in the gospel of John, but icons. We are meant to look through them like windows that open into the inner life of God. Every time Jesus uses the phrase ego eimi,” I AM, he is connecting his own identity with the great I AM—Yahweh—whom Moses heard after he took off his shoes beside the burning bush because he was standing on holy ground.

It sounds as if Jesus has mixed his metaphors. It’s hard to imagine in what way Gates and Shepherds go together. That is, until we understand ancient sheepfolds didn’t have a door. Once all the sheep were safely inside, the shepherd would lie down in the opening and literally become the gate to the enclosure. The shepherd’s body was the gate. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Jesus says. (v. 11b) The shepherd placed his body between the sheep and anything that might harm them.

Ancient shepherds routinely lead their sheep into a pen, or “sheepfold” with lots of other sheep belonging to other shepherds. It was a safe place to keep them from harm, prevent them from wandering off, or getting lost. When it came time to leave, there wasn’t any problem sorting out the sheep of various shepherds. Once the sheep heard the voice of their shepherd, they sorted themselves out and followed, because over time they had learned to trust in the care and compassion of their particular shepherd.

Jesus is the door that closes to protect us, and the door that opens out beside still waters. Jesus the gate frees us from the prison of scarcity mentality. Jesus the shepherd shows us the path to abundant life, which has nothing to do with what we buy, put in our body, what we wear, or how we look. Trust in Jesus breaks us out of that pen.

Abundant living is a matter of walking through the right doors. The life to which Jesus call us is life that passes through the grace of God. Phony grace, false security, and make-believe shepherds abound—and so do misleading doorways.

Pastor Peter Marty has said, “The idea of Jesus being the access door to a new world of living and being is something that people in bondage tend to appreciate more easily. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once noted the advantage of celebrating Easter from inside a prison cell. You become entirely aware, he reasoned, that the door is the only way out. More than that: The door of a cell can only be opened from the outside. When Jesus speaks of saving those who pass through the door, he has rescue in mind. Those who find that door are saved not only from the pernicious activity of phony shepherds on the outside aggressively seeking their soul; they’re also saved from a potentially much worse enemy on the inside—themselves.” (Adaptations from Peter W. Marty, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Kansas City, MO)

For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” (1 peter 2:25) Both his shepherding and his sheepfold are essential elements of Jesus’ care for us. But in these bewildering times, perhaps we are more aware of our need for safe places where we can rest and be strengthened in the shelter of one another. In this unexpected era of alternative facts and shifting narratives, I am increasingly aware that I need sanctuary where God may strengthen me, create in me a clean heart, and put a new and right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

In the middle ages, Christians who entered a radical form of solitary life, seeking the experience of God through prayer and interceding for the world, were called “anchorites.” In her wonderful book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard explained her own experience with that image: “An Anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchorhold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock,” Dillard wrote. “I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at the anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does.”

We need to find places and persons who will become our anchor-hold. We must examine where we will go, what we will do, and whose company we will seek to provide a steadfast, trustworthy experience that connects our lives indissolubly to God’s love. We need places where we can be constantly re-rooted in the knowledge that “resurrection is not a one-time miracle that proved Jesus was God. Jesus’ death and resurrection name and reveal what is happening everywhere and all the time in God and in everything God creates. Reality is always moving toward resurrection.” (Richard Rohr, “Dying into Life,” Daily Meditation, 5/7/17

Theologian Scott Hahn has said, “memory is more than just a psychological exercise of data retrieval,” but the “faculty that tells us who we are.” We need the Sacraments to remind us of the deep communion we share with all living things; and the abiding solidarity God has fostered among us, claiming and naming all people his beloved children.

Recently, Dorothy Butler Bass, who wrote a book called The Practicing Congregation, described what intentional communities of Christian practice look like. They are communities that focus their energies on supporting one another to enter into the sacred relationships—the sheepfolds—of their lives through the Jesus gate and not by any other way. They are communities that draw upon the experiences of other Christian brothers and sisters, both here and now and around the globe, but also especially those accumulated through the long history of the church, which are time-tested to be effective shaping our faith.

Practicing congregations become communities where people are constantly practicing –rehearsing the way of Jesus –by living simply, by seeking justice, by learning how to pray regularly, by worshiping ardently, by helping one another to share their stories that testify and give witness to Grace, by supporting one another to make personal, one-to-one connections, by remembering the Sabbath, and by observing other spiritual disciplines as seem fitting for you.

Let us create and name our anchor-hold. With the Holy Spirit, let us be a living sanctuary of hope and grace rising from these stones and becoming a sacred shelter among and between us, arising from us and moving beyond us, and flowing to us from those whom God has gathered in other places. Let the our hearts and minds be renewed so that our lives, our families, our society, and our world may be restored. Alleluia. Christ is Risen! R: Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Let’s Go for a Walk

Easter 3A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

“While they were walking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” (Luke 24:15) Today’s gospel offers very good advice. When stressed, go for a walk. When bewildered, walk with a friend—and don’t be surprised that Christ walks with you.

On the road to Emmaus, the disciples learn what resurrection means: Christ is present in, with, under, and among us. C.S. Lewis once observed, “The human search for God is like speaking of a mouse’s search for the cat.” The disciples’ do not find the risen Christ, but rather, they are found.

The 19th Century English poet Francis Thompson famously told the short story of what it is like to be found by the risen one. He wrote:

“Once upon a time, a carefree young girl who lived at the edge of a forest and who loved to wander in the forest became lost. As it grew dark and the little girl did not return, her parents became worried. They began calling for the little girl and searching in the forest. As it grew darker, they returned home and called the neighbors to help with the search.

Meanwhile, the little girl continued wandering in the forest and became very worried when she could not find her way home. She tried one path and then another and became very tired. Finally, she came upon a clearing in the forest where she laid down and fell asleep.

 Her frantic parents and neighbors scoured the forest. They shouted the little girl’s name. Many of the searchers became exhausted and returned to their own homes. But the little girl’s father continued searching through the night.

Finally, early in the morning, the father came to the clearing where the little girl had lain down to sleep. When he saw her, he came running and yelling with such relief and excitement that he woke the little girl up. When she saw him, she shouted out in great joy, ‘Daddy, I found you!”” (The Spirituality of Imperfection, p. 108)

St. Paul proclaimed to the philosophers of Athens, “In him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28). Our entire lives are lived in God. There is no place we can go outside the loving and eternal circle of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the living sanctuary in which we dwell which gives inspiration to our mission at Immanuel. Dwelling in the shelter of God and one another, we seek to open and extend this welcome to those who have yet to discover that they too are so deeply embraced, accompanied and loved.

It’s a well-worn story, the day-long walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, hours of plodding along on sore feet by disciples with sore souls. A stranger joins them early, drawing them out of their silent brooding, getting them to talk.

Jesus places their sad journey in a new frame. He opens the scriptures for them to reorient their minds. He points to a Messiah who, through suffering on behalf of the people, brings freedom from bondage and victory over anything and anyone that oppose God’s work in the world. Suffering, death, even death on a cross, and resurrection are not mutually exclusive, but are act one and act two of the Messiah’s ongoing journey, and of theirs as his disciples.

But the day is spent in victim mode, as the disciples spill out all that has been done to Jesus and to them. The stranger interjects rays of hope, but they are overshadowed by the gray grief of the grieving men.

And then, at sunset, in a roadside Inn, the stranger breaks bread and vanishes before their eyes. And the disciples suddenly know that Christ had been with them, all that day.

Letting go then, of everything they had known: terror, tears, suffering, death, silence, life’s love lost; sore feet, sore hearts; their need for rest and their fear of the open road at night: letting go of all this, they ran back to Jerusalem. And they were filled with sunshine, hope, and joy, as they sped along the unseeable road into an unknowable story. (Nancy Rockwell, The Bite in the Apple, 4/27/17)

Brothers and sisters, let’s go for a walk. Once again, we Christians find ourselves living in bewildering days. Recent events put us in an unfamiliar landscape. Many of us feel lost. Set aside politics for a moment, regardless whether you identify as a Republican or a Democrat, the presidential election has opened our eyes to some ugly truths about Christianity in America that I believe are instructive for us all.

We now see that many Christians are terrified by the fact that by 2042 the majority of Christians in America will be people of color. We see that many Christians have trouble separating the cross and the flag. We see how many of our brothers and sisters have trouble envisioning an America that is not a uniquely Christian nation. We see how many Christians today believe their material prosperity is evidence of God’s blessing.

Seeing these things makes it easier for us to confront them. Raised awareness helps refocus our hearts and minds on Christ. Broken traditions and shattered dreams are a necessary prelude for renewal.

As we journey together toward a new church and a new country we can be confident that Christ travels with us to restore our hopes and set our sights once again what is good and holy. We are not afraid to become part of a Beloved Community that includes people of all races and nations. We do not reject an America shared by people of good faith representing all religions. We embrace the challenge to live more simply and tread more lightly upon the earth in harmony with all life. We do not count our blessings by balancing our checkbook, but rather in accounting for the people we have loved, the lives we have made better, and the opportunities for faith and service we have helped to open for others.

The Risen Lord walks by our side to lead us now on a journey into the unseen and unknowable future. Yet, the breath of Christ will continue to flow into our hearts to dispel our despair and reframe our aimless, anxious journeys according to his Way, the way of the cross, the way of abundant life for all thing living. Come, let’s walk together.

By His Wounds

Easter 2A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No More Fear

Easter Sunday A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Matthew 28:1-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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