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Posts from the ‘Law’ Category

Table Fellowship

Proper 14B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Hearts, Broken and Joined

Proper 4B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

The American author Anne Lamott tells a lovely Hasidic story “of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?” The rabbi answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.” (Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith)

When your hearts break, holy words fall inside. The good news is not good news to anyone who has never been broken-hearted. A broken heart provides good soil for the gospel to take root. What grows from a broken heart filled with the Word of God is compassion and wisdom, the life-giving fruits of healthy religion.

In today’s gospel, Jesus grieved at the hardness of heart of the Pharisees who would rather let a man suffer than heal him on the Sabbath (Mark 3:5). The hardness of hearts is a refrain that plays throughout Mark’s gospel.

“When our hearts are hardened, we cannot see the grace and the gift of the Sabbath or of the law.  When our hearts are hardened, we stop seeing the freedom and healing of another as important. When our hearts are hardened, we are blind to the depth of the truth of who Jesus is and what he is up to in the world.”  Unless our hearts are broken religion becomes a deadly enterprise for hardened hearts hell bent on control, exclusion, and maintaining privilege.  Look, Jesus and disciples do not keep the Sabbath as they should.  Look, Jesus does not obey the authorities.  So, immediately, they conspire together how to destroy him. (Mark 3:6)

God’s love for you is deep and never-ending. “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) Each of you is utterly unique, blessed, and created in the image of the divine. At the same time, each of us only finds our humanity fulfilled, our joy made complete, and our life filled through belonging and connection, joined together as flesh is joined with bone. This is the wisdom God grows from our broken hearts.

The word ‘religion’ comes from the same root as ‘ligament.’ Ligaments connect muscle and bone. Our bodies could not operate without connective tissue. Likewise, human life does not work without a connection to all living things that surround us.

Religion is the task of putting our divided realities back together: human and divine, male and female, heaven and earth, sin and salvation, mistake and glory, matter and spirit. If it isn’t then re-check your religion.

The body is firmly joined together but also flexible. Our bodies hold everything in its place and also ready to move in an instant.   In Jesus’ day, the prevailing religion was stiff and unyielding. Despite good intentions, their resistance to Jesus is proved ignorant, dangerous and deadly—the work of self-contented and hardened hearts. Just look at what else is going on in the third chapter of Mark’s gospel.

Jesus goes home, and people are confused about who he is. Scribes sent from Jerusalem to investigate describe Jesus as being possessed by a demon. Members of his own family are so concerned they staged an intervention. According to Mark, they go out and try to “restrain him.” Jesus’ family believed what they were doing was in his best interest.  They seem convinced he has lost his mind. The scribes add fuel to the fire by describing Jesus’ ministry as the work of Satan and accusing him of being possessed by a demon. They say he casts out demons by the ruler of demons.

It’s an unnerving story. How do we keep our hearts open to God’s Word in our own time of great change to the religion we hold dear? “It’s a story about Jesus walking through the sacred fields in our lives and plucking away what we hold dear.  It’s a story about Jesus seeing people we’re too holy to notice, and healing people we’d just as well leave sick.  It’s a story about a category-busting God who will not allow us to cling to anything less bold, daring, scary, exhilarating, or world-altering than love.” (Debie Thomas, Lord of the Sabbath, Journey with Jesus, 5/27/18)   There is a single yardstick by which we can take the measure of our faith, our church, our religious institutions, and traditions. It is measured in the compassion we have for others.  Our broken hearts break for all those who suffer.

Apparently, nothing is more sacred to Jesus than compassion.  “The true spirit of the Sabbath — the spirit of God — is love.  Love that feeds the hungry.  Love that heals the sick.  Love that sees and attends to the invisible.  If we truly want to honor the Lord of the Sabbath, then we have to relativize all practices, loyalties, rituals, and commitments we hold dear — even the ones that feel the most “Christian.”  There is only one absolute, and it is love. (Debie Thomas)

Perhaps we too, like the Pharisees and disciples and saints before us, have hardened hearts. But the graceful truth is that in spite of our hardened hearts, life and the Spirit conspire so that eventually, they will be cracked wide open, for grace and love and gentleness to fill and heal them again.

The beautiful story from 1 Samuel shows the resiliency and strength God brings from our broken hearts.  Eli realizes God’s call to Samuel means he’s fired. Eli is being passed over for allowing his sons to dishonestly use temple offerings to enrich themselves. Yet Eli does something unexpected. He does not conspire against Samuel but guides and encourages him. Open hearts produce open hands.  Compassion has the wisdom to know we are always part of something greater than ourselves.

Why would anyone bring the business of a synagogue to a grinding halt on a Sabbath morning?  Why would a man risk his own life to heal a stranger’s withered hand? Why have we gathered here on a Sunday morning?  Why do we, year after year, open our hearts to friends and neighbors, children and youth of this community?   Because God is here, our broken hearts find comfort and open. “Here, [we] servants of the Servant seek in worship to explore what it means in daily living to believe and to adore” (ELW # 526). We cannot live without God’s Word. Joined together in one body, as muscle is joined to bone, we live and move, and have our being.

The Disciple’s Great Discovery

Pentecost Sunday B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

What’s important about Pentecost? It is one of the three great festivals of the church with Christmas and Easter.  That’s interesting—to some of us—but not very important.  Sometimes Pentecost is called the birthday of the church. Luke says it’s when God poured out the Holy Spirit on the disciples after Jesus ascended into heaven. We all enjoy a good party and, judging from what we read in the Book of Acts, it sounds like it was a good one.  But a party for other people, in this case, an ancient institution, is not what makes Pentecost important.

What does this young man, Ethan, who will affirm his faith and take his place among us today as a full member of this community, need to know about Pentecost?  It’s the disciple’s discovery about how life works.  It was a eureka moment that unlocked the secrets to living a good and abundant life not only for them, but for us, and for everyone.

The Presbyterian theologian Frederick Buechner says “there are basically two kinds of law: (1) law as the way things ought to be, and (2) law as the way things are. An example of the first is “No Trespassing.” An example of the second is the law of gravity.”

Mostly, churchly people have talked about God’s law in terms of category no. 1, a list of dos and don’ts. These dos and don’ts are the work of moralists and, when obeyed, serve the useful purpose of keeping us from doing too much damage to one other. They can’t make us human, but they can help keep us honest.

What’s so important about Pentecost and the bible is that it offers us more than good advice about ethics.  God’s law in itself, comes under category no. 2 and is the work of God. It has been stated in seven words: “Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). Like it or not, that’s how it is. If you don’t believe it, you can always put it to the test just the way if you don’t believe the law of gravity, you can always step out a tenth-story window. (In the following passage, Buechner describes God’s Law.  (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking and again in Beyond Words)

That day in a small room somewhere in Jerusalem where about 120 Jesus followers were hiding the disciples learned that by trying to save their lives they would lose them and those who lost their lives for the sake of Christ are alive forever.  We are grafted into the One life in God. Therefore, be not afraid to give your limited number of days fully to something that matters—because it’s the only thing that really does.

Bible scholar Bill Kellerman points out, “The story in Acts 2 begins in the upper room and ends in the streets of Jerusalem…after what’s been done to Jesus, you’d have to be either drunk or crazy to be shouting his name in the streets and pointing accusing fingers at the executioners.”

They were wanted criminals for being co-conspirators of an executed political instigator.  They were people who knew they had failed.  They could count all the ways they had ignored, misunderstood, dismissed, rejected, and betrayed Jesus when he was alive.

The disciples discovered God doesn’t care about dishing out punishments or giving us what we deserve. What’s important about Pentecost is that God has poured out and continues to pour out the gift of the Holy Spirit upon you

Long ago, nearly a thousand years before Jesus was born, the people of God tell in the Hebrew Bible how the Shekinah glory of Yahweh (fire and cloud from heaven) descended and filled King Solomon’s Temple on its dedication day in 950 BCE (1 Kings 8:10-13).  Before that, they tell how fire and cloud had also filled the portable temple, or Tent of Meeting (Exodus 40:34-35) during the Exodus.

Today for Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2:1-13) we hear how fire and wind from heaven descended, not on a tent or on a building, but on God’s people! You received this spirit you at your baptism (Acts 2:38-41) God intends to make of all peoples, of every nation a new sanctuary of living stones. The new temple of God is the human person. “You are that Temple!” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 6:16; and Ephesians 2:21-22).  We, individual humans, have become the very Body of Christ alive in the world (1 Corinthians 12:14-30).  The great Shekinah fire and wind of the Spirit transformed fearful fugitives into bold public witnesses.

At Pentecost, we proclaim and celebrate this Spirit of the living God poured out on us today to give us courage, to rekindle our hope, to fill us with compassion, generosity, and the capacity to love—everything we need to live a good and abundant life.

Ethan, I look at you and take the measure of how long I have been here at Immanuel.  You were a toddler when we sat every Sunday in a circle of carpet squares, sang bible songs with Kathy Anderson, and talked about Jesus downstairs in the Olin Center.

It’s no mistake the signs of God’s grace –fire, wind, and water, are all the things that have the power to shape the landscape, sculpt the earth, and literally to move mountains.  That’s how God’s Spirit works in us.  Quietly, mostly subconsciously, little by little, and sometimes, all at once, Sunday by Sunday, the Spirit moves mountains in our soul.  Through belonging together at Immanuel, we are working together, shaping and softening, opening and closing, striving with the Spirit to become a better reflection of God’s peaceable kingdom.  We can’t find inner peace without learning to live with one another in love.

Pentecost is important for teaching us We are all “walking around like the sun” as Thomas Merton says.  A church does not offer a fire insurance policy for the next world. Instead, it’s a place to gain a life assurance policy for each day of our lives.  At church, we learn that our job is not to suppress the Shekinah fire of the human spirit but to be that fire. The night he was betrayed, Jesus prayed to God, “For as you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world. (John 17:18)   So now, ready or not, the Holy Spirit sends us.

Look and Listen

Epiphany 4B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Anna Kamieńska belonged to a generation of Polish poets born in the 1920’s who came of age during the brutal Nazi occupation, years of post-war turmoil, and the suffocating entrenchment of Communist rule. In spite of this, or perhaps, because of it, she became a woman of faith. “I was looking for the dead,” she writes, “and I found God.”

“Even when I don’t believe

There is a place in me

Inaccessible to unbelief

A patch of wild grace…”

Something in us is always searching, listening for the still small voice of God. Like Siri, or Alexa, or ok google I’d like to think my heart is always listening to receive and embrace God’s grace.  But I think just as often, or perhaps more so, there is something over my heart always listening to defend itself against God and to hold grace at bay.

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (Mark 1:24) The man with an unclean spirit immediately sees and hears what the others do not. He recognizes Jesus. “I know who you are, Holy One of God.”  Jesus entered the synagogue in Capernaum. It was among the oldest in the world. By all accounts, it was beautiful, large, and successful. The people are astounded at Jesus’ teaching. They were “ekplessomai,” literally, they were “blown out of their minds.”

Immediately a voice of condemnation arises from among the people. A demon residing there recognized danger. “Have you come to destroy us?”  Jesus provoked an unclean spirit watching and listening to defend itself. The community had a lot to lose after all if the political-economic-religious world they were accustomed to were suddenly to change.

Something in us always watching and listening wants to survive—to defend itself against the gospel.  How often do we recognize the power of the gospel first because of the way it provokes us to say no?  Not just no but hell no. The power of rebellion and sin runs deep in us. Often, we are deaf and blind to its presence.  Yet, again and again, the spirit of God bids us come and wash in the word, be cleansed through contrition and prayer, restore a right heart and mind through baptism, and renew our strength for service with good food from the Lord’s table.

When we are made clean in the spirit we can hear and see the truth again. Healthy religion is not a reward system.  It is not an evacuation plan to another world. It is not fire insurance. When we say “Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20) we are announcing our commitment to Jesus’ upside-down world where “the last are first and the first are last” (Matthew 20:16) over any other power system or frame of reference. It means we have changed our loyalties from power, success, money, ego, and control to the imitation of a Vulnerable God where servanthood, surrender, and simplicity reign.

Every generation has its epiphany. Every generation gets a chance to open its eyes and ears to hear and see how unclean spirits have taken hold to dwell among of us.  Today we are being led by young women of color like Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi founders of Black Lives Matter, or Tarana Burke founder of the #metoo movement, and by the dreamers who call us to reclaim our heritage as a nation of immigrants.  They are prophets among us.  There are always prophets among us to call us back to the right road. We must listen to our prophets.

If Jesus is Lord and head of the church, there is a radically changed religious typography. Rules for who and what is clean and unclean, moral and immoral, righteous and unrighteous must change.  What counts is love and mercy more than piety and appearances.

But this process is slow, painstaking, bewildering, and often painful. The price for real transformation is high. Yet there is something in us deeper and beyond sin and rebellion always listening and searching for exactly this. We are thankful for whatever progress can be made to renew our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

People of faith stumble forward into a dark future they cannot fully see. To follow the leading of the Spirit we must learn to use our peripheral vision rather than look straight ahead because that is how we see best at night. Scripture says Moses saw the burning bush out of the corner of his eye. (Exodus 3:3).

Some part of us is always looking and listening. If Jesus is Lord our selfish selves must die too, which Jesus exemplified on the cross. This is what is called the Good News!  And here is a wonderful surprise: We can surrender to God without losing ourselves! The irony is that we find ourselves when lose our lives in God.

Again, Anna Kamieńska in a poem called Transformation found in a book of selected poems called Astonishments, writes:

To be transformed

to turn yourself inside out like a glove

to spin like a planet

to thread yourself through yourself

so that each day penetrates each night

so that each word runs to the other side of truth

so that each verse comes out of itself

and gives off its own light

so that each face leaning on a hand

sweats into the skin of the palm

 

So that this pen

changes into pure silence

I wanted to say into love

 

To fall off a horse

to smear your face with dust

to be blinded

to lift yourself

and allow yourself to be led

like blind Saul

to Damascus

Something in us was always looking and listening for this.  Something in us already knows. To lead, we must first be led. To build a living sanctuary, we must first be “undone. “To resist ego, orthodoxy, and empire can be accomplished only by the gift of a fearless faith, one that shatters all our illusions, one that knocks us off our horse, one that allows us to be led, like blind Saul to Damascus.” (Robin Meyers, Spiritual Defiance) Then we are like leaven that God has hidden in the imperial loaf. “We are salt and light and seed, and all we have to do is walk straight into that light—the same light that is breaking through these very windows at this very moment. See how it falls on our faces? Do not turn away.” (Robin Meyers, Spiritual Defiance) Look and listen and for the love of God, follow and be clean.

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)

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.

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.

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