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Posts from the ‘Law’ Category

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.

Wait, Watch, and Listen

Transfiguration Sunday A-17

February 26, 2017

 

Wait, watch, and listen. The last thing we hear Jesus say is be quiet (Matthew 17:9). We will not know the truth about today’s lesson right away –not until after Jesus has been raised from the dead.

Imagine that you have a dream in which you join Jesus and his disciples in their early morning climb up high mount Horeb. Like the disciples, the valley below is where you grew up, where you experienced pain and made many mistakes. You are trying to transcend and leave this place by reaching the summit of Jesus’ transfiguration, on which you hope to be sublimely holy and one with God.

As the summit comes into view, the wind rising from the valley brings with it the sound of a child crying in distress. You realize you have no choice. You go down the mountain to find and help the hurting child. Turning back, you descend into the valley. Following the child’s cries, you arrive at the very home you tried to leave behind.

You gently open the door and look inside. Sitting in the corner on the floor is your own wounded child-self, that part of you that holds feelings of powerlessness and shame. You sit down next to the child on the floor. For a long time you say nothing. Then a most amazing thing happens. As you put your arms around this child, you suddenly realize you are on the lofty summit of union with God!

The mountaintop and the valley are not different places in God. They are one. There is no longer either or but both and. And now, the healing compassion you have discovered for your wounded self begins to grow and extend outward to include others. The mountaintop and the valley are one place. Slowly we learn that we are all part of One life. (James Finley, Daily Meditation, Center for Action and Contemplation, 2/24/17)

St. Paul writes God dwells in “unapproachable light” (1 timothy 6:16).   This light illuminates the darkness of human minds. We wait, watch and listen for illumination. We must not be in a rush to build monuments to misunderstanding like Peter.

On the mountaintop, God revealed Jesus is more than meets the eye. It’s as if the energy of the universe became localized in his mortal frame.  The way of the cross and the empty tomb will reveal still more. Jesus radiates with the divine energy of incarnation and resurrection. The dazzling light of God reveals God’s vision for the universe.  God seeks justice and wholeness in all things. Among mortals power corrupts. It becomes capricious, coercive, and threatening.

But the absolute power of God is different. The life of God draws all places together.  The love of God draws all people into one. The grace of God works toward the healing of the nations, establishes just relationships, and spiritual illumination. (Bruce Epperly) Little by little and all at once we discover God is with us where ever we go.

Episcopal Archbishop and Noble Prize Winner Desmond Tutu once described something like the process of ascending the mountain of Jesus’ transfiguration in terms of the daily practice of Morning Prayer. In an interview with Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, Tutu said, “I have come to realize more and more that prayer is just being in the presence deeply of one who loves you with a love that will not let you go. And so, when I get up in the morning I try to spend as much time as I can in the sense of being quiet in the presence of this love. And its often like saying I want to be sitting—it’s a cold day and I’m sitting in front of a warm fire. I don’t have to do anything. The fire warms me. All I have to do is to lay in front of the fire. And after a while, I may have the qualities of the fire change me. So I have the warmth of the fire. I may have the glow of the fire. And it is so also with me and God. That I just have to be there. Quiet.”

Wait, watch, and listen. 19th Century British pastor Alexander Maclaren called it sitting silent before God. Warmed by the light of God’s grace pray that our fisted minds and hands may be opened to one another and therefore also to compassion and understanding that truly solves difficult problems.

Late last year teenagers got into a fight was over a pair of gym shoes. It happened at night on the south side. And this is what came of it: one teenager faces years in prison. Another, a boy of just 15, is dead. The incident may not have even made the news except that the victim was the grandson of Congressmen Danny Davis. At a press conference Congressmen Davis did something unusual. He grieved, not just for his own grandson but also for his grandson’s killer.

Congressman Davis said, “I grieve for my family. I grieve for the young man who pulled the trigger. I grieve for his family. His parents. His friends. Some of whom will never see him again. It is so unfortunate when these tragedies continue to occur and re-occur and some how or another our society has not been able to find and exact the answers and solutions.”

2016 Chicago had the highest number of killings in two decades. 762 were murdered. What can be done? Well, One community group called BAM (short for Becoming A Man) has an unusual idea. It believes violence can be stopped with a breath, a few moments, and a tiny tweak to the way we think. A randomized controlled study showed BAM reduce arrest rates by 44%, make kids more likely to come to class, get better grades, and less likely to drop out of school.

Jens Ludwig a University of Chicago Economist who has closely studied patterns of youth violence said about the perpetrators, “Very, very often, if they could only take back five minutes of their life, a lot of these kids, a lot of the people locked up, would have a very different life.”

While we tend to think these killings occur because of thuggish drug buys, gang hits, cold blooded murder, the records reveal a laundry list of slights—someone stepped on some else’s shoe, or stole a coat, or lobbed an insult. From that tiny spark things escalated into violence and murder. It’s the very definition of senseless.

BAM counselors check in with participants, talk about feelings, and encourage new habits. According to Ludwig, “The problem of violence in Chicago is not driven by bad people but by bad decisions in the moment… Changing the way we behave can change the way we think, and changing the way we think can change our lives.” (Shankar Vedantum, Hidden Brain, The Knife’s Edge, 2/20/17)

Wait, watch, listen, pray so that Jesus’ transfiguration may become our own transfiguration. The gift of God’s grace is freely given to transform our hearts for the renewal the world. We who have been transformed and “enlightened” are blessed to carry a little bit of the light from God’s mountain within us to be the human presence of Jesus to help fearful people stand tall and to help find answers that only become visible when we have love in our hearts.

Children of Salt and Light

Epiphany 5A-17

Immanuel, Chicago

You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world. (Mtt. 5:13a & 14a)

These metaphors of grace are best explained by the answers you carry within your own body. Any athlete who has experienced “hitting the wall” knows full well what it feels like to run out of sodium, basic electrolytes, and nutrients. This past month has been so gloomy in Chicago we also know how we quickly we become hungry for light.

On Tuesday, the seniors and I were sitting talking in the library with Parish Nurse, Marcia Smith when suddenly sunlight came bursting through the windows. It was as if God herself entered the room! We stopped, smiled, and laughed like maybe it was an omen to pay extra close attention to what Marcia was saying.

We have a physical response to daylight. It feels like nourishment. It uplifts our spirit. It dispels fear and kindles hope. The candle flame feels alive and present to us. We light candles to sustain our prayers for however long they continue to burn.

God has placed this same light and salt within you. Mixing salty tears with light-hearted hospitality is the universal recipe for joy. There is no border, no boundary, no line separating nations, no longitude no latitude that divides human beings from the blessings bestowed by God. We are all God’s children—children of salt and light.

Over 100 million people are expected to sit before the blue light of their television sets this afternoon.   Marketers forecast we are going to consume more than 11 million pounds of salty chips watching the Super Bowl. We know the salt and light Jesus is talking about can’t be whatever we want.

Jesus chose these metaphors long ago because salt and light were central images for the people of Israel: “You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God…” (Lev. 2: 13) Light appears often in the Old Testament: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Ps. 119: 105)

To be salt and light means to be shaped by the ancient, life-giving law of God. Jesus said it plainly: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.” We can’t tear Jesus’ metaphors of grace from their roots in Hebrew scriptures.  (Rev. Barbara Lundblad On Scripture, Odyssey Network, 2/5/17)

In our first lesson today the Prophet Isaiah helped us sketch out Jesus’ meaning. These verses come after the people of Israel returned from exile in Babylon. The last chapters of Isaiah are filled with visions of hope and urgent warnings. God asks, don’t you already know the best way to praise and worship me?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

When you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up quickly… (Isaiah 58:6-8a)

This teaching might feel like a switcheroo to some of us older folks. We were taught being a follower of Christ meant being respectable, not using foul language in mixed company, and moderating interpersonal sins –but here God says our civic and social sins are what matter most. Salt and light testify within us about justice.

People today bump and bruise themselves against the edges of this indelible truth again and again just as our ancestors did for generations.   The American claim to be a shining city on a hill will always be rudely contradicted by our everyday lives as long as a majority of Americans remain in denial about the reality of race and racism. Jim Wallis and Bryan Stevenson have called racism America’s original sin. The late great James Baldwin said, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” The American dream will continue to be elusive as long as we remain blind to the suffering and sacrifice that our rush to material gain has extracted from people and the planet.

We would like to be a colorblind society. We would like to be finished with this conversation. We are in denial. We quickly become defensive. But the truth is something we can feel in our bones because God made us children of salt and light.

As Isaiah called it, the sin of racism is about hiding ourselves from our own kin. Our children are systematically denied access to housing, to health care, to credit, and to education. Our mothers and fathers face unreasonable barriers in exercising their constitutional right to vote. Our beloved aunts and uncles are instantly incriminated—distrusted on sight—by people who are otherwise mostly rational and kind-hearted.

We know this because we can feel this, because have seen and heard this. We know this because we do this. Maybe now is the time for God again to save us. Maybe now in this time of ubiquitous cell phone videos the light of God’s grace can finally reveal to the truth that a man, is a man, is a man, is a man whatever their color, race, or religion. We are all children of salt and light.

This month our nation remembers the story of Black history that began in America in August of 1619 when 20 slaves disembarked from a ship in Jamestown, Virginia, and the captain traded them for provisions of food. By 1860, the United States census identified four million slaves.

Now nearly 400 yeas later, we acknowledge that neither the Civil War, nor the Emancipation Proclamation, nor the Thirteenth Amendment, nor the Voting Rights Act of 1965, nor the election of our first black president Barack Obama fully abolished what Abraham Lincoln called the “monstrous injustice” of slavery.

If there is one thing you choose this month to once again open your heart and mind to this topic, I suggest you go out and see a movie now playing in theaters: I Am Not Your Negro. The witness of James Baldwin is even more prescient, prophetic, and timely now 50 years after he wrote and spoke them.

So rise, shine you people—Christ our Lord has entered our human story. The path to transformation consonant with the renewal and rebirth God brings to our lives is often painfully slow and filled with sacrifice. We cannot forget the sacrifice of so many who brought us where we are today. We have come this far by faith, because we are salt and light. Salt can never lose its saltiness. Light cannot fail to illuminate. Again and again, God produces the transforming gifts of salt and light from deep within us.

For Times Like These

Epiphany 4A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

The church was made for times like these because the church was born in times like these.

In today’s first reading, God takes people of faith to court and testifies against them. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” (Micah 6:3). Like a shrewd prosecutor God examines their actions, recounting the signs of mercy and loving kindness shown to them from generation to generation, searching for a sign that they are living up to who God has called them to be. God has set the same standard for faithful living for everyone: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.

Christians too are called literally to embody this same tradition. A Latin American prayer asks: “Lord, to those who hunger, give bread. And to those who have bread, give the hunger for justice.” Here God surrounds us with reminders of who and whose we are in the waters of baptism through which we are brought to new life in the word; as we gather around the table to be fed and forgiven through bread and wine. Our spiritual hunger is satisfied and a hunger for justice is kindled. We are sent out blessed and broken to feed the hunger of others as, together, we dwell in the living sanctuary of hope and grace.

The grace of Christ exposes the lie in the ways of the world.   We cannot be full while others are hungry. We cannot become wealthy while we empty the land of resources. The greatest power is not the power to control but the power to include. This was the reforming spirit by which people of Christ swam against the tide of greed and Empire in Roman times. Over decades and centuries, including many failures and tragedies, the faith of God’s people inspired laws, institutions and cultural norms: hospitals, schools, and an equal regard for all life. That’s why we may be so bold to say the church was made for times like these because the church was born in times like these.

Twenty years ago (in 1997) Apple Computer invested millions in television, print, billboards and posters counseling people to “Think Different.” “We’re here to put a dent in the universe,” Steve Jobs once said, “otherwise, why else even be here?”  In a 1994 interview with PBS called One Last Thing, Jobs explained his revolutionary-rebel theme: “That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it. …Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” (Daniel Clendenin, Live Different: the Beatitudes of Jesus, Journey with Jesus, February 2014)

Ten years ago (in 2007) Apple introduced the iphone and the world really did change. Of course the deep irony is Apple’s admonition to “Think Different” only lead us into a new conformity. If we really dared to “think different,” would we continue to use Facebook and Twitter, and always have our smart phone?

The fourth century desert monk Saint Anthony (d. 356) commented upon the stark contrast between authentic creativity and group conformity: “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; [because] you are not like us.'”

The Beatitudes we read today (Matthew 5-7) describe a genuinely counter-cultural style of life. In a world of wealth and war, says Jesus, blessed are the poor and the peacemakers. Instead of violence and vengeance, blessed are the mournful, the meek, and the merciful. To live the Beatitudes is to “live different,” as well as to ‘think different’ and to live as one of the true “crazy ones.” Loving our neighbors as ourselves and regarding the resident alien among us as equal to any citizen of our country (as Leviticus teaches 19:18 & 34), sounds almost as radical today as it did in ancient times.

The church was made for times like these because the church was born in times like these. In October of last year Pope Francis said, “It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help… If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.” (Pope Francis, Catholic News Service, 10/13/16)

St. Paul too reminds us today that walking the way of true wisdom is foolishness in the eyes of the world. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

Like the cross, the beatitudes and the courtroom scene depicted by the prophet Micah makes foolish the wisdom of the world. God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. The wisdom of God exposes the foolishness of human ways.

God does not demand these things from us then leave us to do the impossible all by ourselves. No. God’s spirit dwells in us. God’s grace embraces us in a bond we share that cannot be broken. Though we walk through the darkest valley, God is with us. The guidance and counsel of God directs us. (Psalm 23:4)

So we may remain confident and hopeful in realizing that for the first time since World War II, there are more than 60 million people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes due to war, violence, and persecution. We stand together with God in protest that 15 families including 14 children, who were scheduled to arrive at O’Hare in the next three weeks were stopped. These refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Uganda, were to be welcomed by their co-sponsors and Refugee ONE. Instead, even those granted permanent residents status holding green cards were detained at airports across the country on Friday as they returned to the U.S. from routine trips for work or visiting family abroad.

The church was made for times like these because the church was born in times like these. The beatitudes are not guidelines telling us how to behave—or else.   They are Jesus’ promise to be with us in our grief, in our struggles to be faithful, in our longing for a better world. Jesus is with us even in our failures. When everybody else is against us, Jesus is with us when we are derided and persecuted for righteousness sake. Jesus our living sanctuary is here in this place in Word and Sacrament. Jesus is with you as you journey along life’s path in life. There is nowhere you and I can go that is not filled to overflowing with the love and grace of God.

Taken Up In Christ

Advent 1A-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Jesus sat and spoke to the disciples. He is somewhere on the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron valley from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The time and manner of his coronation as Lord and King remain unimaginable and largely unanticipated to his little band of followers. The disciples still don’t know what’s about to hit them although Jesus had told them on three separate occasions.

The Day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night. The kingdom arrives like the floodwaters that bore up Noah’s ark. (Matthew 24: 38, 43) Like the first winter storm, these scriptures for the First Sunday of Advent disrupt the lengthy Pentecost season of ordinary Sundays. Advent presents a sharp contrast to spiritual and religious things that have become familiar to us. We may have settled for our current reality, gotten too comfortable with it. We may be dangerously close to accepting the ordinary as normative. Advent shocks us from complacency. In the life of faith, Advent counsels us expect the unexpected.

The people who lived in the days of Noah or the unlucky person whose house is about to be robbed were not singled out by Jesus because they are especially sinful, but because they are a bit too comfortable with business as usual. They’re resigned to thinking nothing will change, at least not for a while.

They risk accepting politics as usual, of accepting lies as truth, of becoming complacent in the face of injustice, of recklessly blaming victims and outsiders, of becoming cynical, or thinking too small. They risk becoming completely unaware of the precariousness of their position before God. The purpose of Advent texts is to wake us up from resignation to the status quo. Advent is strong gospel medicine to opens our eyes, hearts and hands to the surprising presence of God in our midst.

Simply “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” (24:38) as they did in days of Noah will not put us in the sheep line as opposed to the goat line on the day of Christ’s final judgment. Isaiah’s prophecy is shockingly bold: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Measuring our progress as a civilization against this goal reveals just how far we still have to go.

Expect the unexpected. The lesson of Advent is not that life is capricious—although it often is. Rather, it is a reminder to turn our attention to the things that endure, to look for God at work and play all around us, to free our imagination, and to ready ourselves to follow when the moment comes.

Little by little and all at once the gospel trains us to expect the unexpected just as Joseph did in responding to the Angel Gabriel’s re-assurances and in reconciling with Mary—or just as Noah before the rains came—or as the disciples did in following Jesus. Be open to the spirit moving in unexpected ways in your life and in our life together to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

This passage from Matthew has been badly abused by silly talk about God the so-called rapture—the non-biblical idea that some of us will disappear or be taken into the air to meet a descending Christ when he comes again. It’s interesting the bible never uses the phrase, second coming, but we are already in Christ. The Greek in our gospel does not mean, “to go up” or “to meet”, but rather “to go along with” as in to take someone along on a journey. To be taken by the coming Jesus isn’t about floating up into the air. Rather, Jesus is saying, ‘Come follow me. Let’s walk down this road together.’

Today we begin again an intentional time of faith growth and renewal we call On The Way inspired by this idea. Christianity is incarnational. To be left behind or taken up is always primarily about whether we embody the Spirit of Christ in our very own flesh and blood.

So often, we don’t act until life brings us up short. Today, Jesus has set a deadline. Each of us receives a report card, but will never know when the grading period ends or the bill comes due. Therefore, the mission of Christ must be a everyday way of life, not a hurry up when the Lord comes, or I’ll save it for later kind of project. The message of Advent carries urgency. “Wake up!” Rise from your cynical slumbers. Open your eyes. Get to work.  Practice now the deeds of love and mercy that will count in the final judgment. Advent is about the transformation of our hearts for the way we live our ordinary, everyday lives. Jesus explains with unmistakable clarity that when the Son of man returns, we will be judged on how we tended to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.

A few years ago, Methodist Pastor Kermit L. Long told a story of what expecting the unexpected and being taken up into Christ is all about. It happened right here in Chicago on Christmas Eve. He writes, “A gentle snowfall added to the already magical, mystical beauty of the season…a young boy of about seven or eight came into a flower shop. His clothes were torn, and his tennis shoes had holes in them. He asked the shopkeeper, ‘Do you have any roses for my mother for 10 cents?’ The man replied, ‘Wait just a moment. Let me see what I can do for you.’ After serving other customers, the owner turned back to the little boy and said, I have good news for you. On Christmas Eve, we have a special deal on roses for young fellows who want to buy them for their mothers. The boy traded his dime for a dozen long-stemmed roses. With a big smile on his face the boy left the flower shop and headed home.”

Pastor Long concluded, “Those of us who looked on were warmed by what we had seen, and I know the shopkeeper felt the blessing of God for his generosity.”

In second lesson, Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, “…you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…” (Romans 13:11-12a).

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