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Posts from the ‘Law’ Category

Let Love Happen

Proper 15A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way of the Cross

Proper 7A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

Today, In Paradise

Christ the King C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) Jesus’ gracious words of forgiveness to the criminal hanging beside him mean the door to heaven is wide open for us.

A ruthless Empire of occupation, a corrupt religious hierarchy, a blind, feckless people, faithless friends and betrayers threw their very worst at Jesus and still his heart is full and his hands are open. On the cross, Jesus teaches there is nothing you can do to make God not love you. ‘You can disappoint me,’ God says, ‘break my heart, and grieve my Spirit.’ Still, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus the king of kings and Lord of Lords reigns from his throne upon the cross, (Revelation 19:16)

Jesus is a different kind of king to be sure. All four gospels contrast the way of Jesus with the way of Judas. Judas avoids capture. Jesus is seized into custody. Judas is given free passage. Jesus is beaten and sentenced to death. Judas stands alone. Jesus stands with everyone and for the other. Judas turns a tidy profit –30 pieces of silver. Jesus gives all that he has –even to losing his life on the cross.   (Pastor David Henry)

Millions of people just voted to make America great again. Christ our king offers no path to glory that sidesteps humility, surrender, and sacrificial love.  The Lord does not grant me permission to secure my prosperity at the expense of another’s suffering.  There is no tolerance for the belief that holy ends justify debased means.  Truth telling is not optional.  In God’s kingdom favors the broken-hearted over the cynical and contemptuous. Christ’s church will not thrive when it aligns itself with brute power. Where does this leave us?  I think it leaves us with a king who makes us uncomfortable.  (Debie Thomas, A King for This Hour, Journey with Jesus, 11/13/16)

The powers that be washed their hands confident they finally put an end to this Jesus business once and for all. The gospel is foolishness in the eyes of the world. To all but one, it was obvious. The savior would fail and die. Life would return to normal: survival of the fittest; domination of the strong over the weak; the privileged lording it over the few. Yet there was one who saw it differently, “Jesus,” he said, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replied, “…today you will be with me in paradise.”

We know the cross was not the end, but the beginning. Death is inevitable—yes. We cannot avoid it. Yet Christ has shown us we need not fear it. Life isn’t about survival, but about how you live. The choices we make to incarnate love and mercy, in spite of the hatred all around us, that’s what matters. In Jesus Paul tells us, we have glimpsed the invisible hand of God operating in with and under the whole universe.

Our king was a dead man walking.  His chosen path to glory was the cross.  To all observers, the cross looked like the very opposite of good news for Jesus. Yet, if paradise was anywhere, it was with him, only and exactly where his oppressors left him to die.  Today.  With Me.  Paradise.

Jesus hung in the gap between one man’s derision and another man’s hunger. This is our king.  My prayer for this hard season in America’s history is that we will find ways to walk as Jesus walked — to spend ourselves for love of the Other—to listen, to protect, to endure, to bless and to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace. 

There are good reasons for anger, good reasons for grief.  But we are not a people bereft of hope.  We are not abandoned.  We know where to look for paradise.  We have the right king for this hour.  The truth is, the Church has always proven itself in times of peril.  Peril brings forth prophets.  It lights holy fires.  It teaches us the radical nature of love.  This is our opportunity to testify. (Debie Thomas)

John envisioned a great multitude such that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, worshipping God. (Revelation 7:9) Later today we will glimpse something like this heavenly body when the interfaith Edgewater religious community gathers here to sing, pray, and share sacred stories. Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders will reflect on the meaning of thanksgiving. Eight choirs will sing praises to God. We will share from our abundance with our hungry neighbors. Then we will linger in fellowship over a potluck potpourri of desserts. It brings a smile to my face to think this must be what God sees every week.

President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday on October 3, 1863 by issuing a proclamation. The full text will be read today by Illinois State Senator Heather Steans. Although the Civil War would continue for another 19 months, Lincoln wrote, “The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

As much as divides us today, it is worth remembering we’ve faced tougher days and prevailed. America emerged from war between the States with a renewed sense of mission and purpose to end slavery and expand the tent of freedom to include people of every race and nation. Our American forebears did so because they did not forget who they were. They did not forget to give thanks. They opened their hands and hearts to their enemies in a spirit of reconciliation and solidarity just as our savior did on the cross. Opening our ears, speaking the truth in love as we know it, defending the poor, and standing vigilant against injustice will is what we must be dedicated to now.

St. Paul told Timothy to pray for the king and all those in authority. (1 Timothy 2:1-4) Likewise we pray for the president elect and all our leaders in the name of Jesus who was executed by the authorities. We pray, we give, we love, we bless, we forgive because Christ our King enthroned upon a cross has shown us the Way of Life leads through and beyond death. Our paradise, enlightenment, nirvana, eternal life begins now and continues into eternity while we dwell together with God in Christ Jesus.


Win By Losing

Proper 25C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


What a weekend to be a Cubs fan! I can’t help but think of all the dedicated Cubs fans who kept the faith their whole lives without seeing what you and I are seeing. (e.g. Chester Larson, Howard Morton, Theresia and Steve Klos)

They say baseball is a humbling game. The numbers bear that out. Batters at the pinnacle of success reach first base just 30% of the time. The only team that won more than 60% of their games this year was the Chicago Cubs at 64%.

Former historian, professional player, coach, manager and scout of baseball, Wesley Westrum once said, “Baseball is like church: many attend, but few understand.” So I wouldn’t be surprised to see baseball players who devote hours a day, nearly every day of the year, for a decade or more to experience stretches of failure at the plate like an 0-for-20 streak, nod their heads in agreement to hear Jesus say, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14b)

Jesus said, ”I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Luke 5:32) His words echo the accusation of his enemies: “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2) The gospels tell us that many sinful people followed Jesus. Today, we could call them “failures.” Failures flocked to Jesus. They felt safe, somehow sheltered rather than judged, valued rather than dismissed, called rather than belittled, transformed rather than labeled.

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke contrasts two characters.  They’re polar opposites, and set in bold relief two ways of being religious. One way is death-dealing, the other is life-giving. The winner loses and the loser wins.

The Pharisee was religiously righteous, the taxman extorted revenue for the Roman oppressors. The religious expert was smug and confident, the outsider was anxious and insecure. The saint paraded to the temple, the sinner “stood at a distance” from the sacred building—a nonverbal expression of his spiritual alienation. The righteous man stood up, the sinful man looked down. In an act of shocking narcissism, the Pharisee prayed loudly “about himself”; whereas the tax collector could barely pray at all. The Pharisee puffed out his chest in pride; the publican beat his breast in sorrow.

Yet, Jesus said, the respectable, reputable believer, so competent and accomplished, who had done everything right, was rejected, whereas the secular sinner — the disreputable, inadequate, and incompetent failure — “went home justified before God.” (Daniel Clendenin)

What happened? It’s hard to imagine a more earnestly religious person than the Pharisee. He prayed often, he fasted regularly, and he gave generously to the poor. His spiritual regimen was stringent. But he made two tragic mistakes in his religious life: first, he “looked down on everybody else,” and second, he thought he could justify himself, thanking God he was “not like other people.” Somehow, we imagine that in judging others we validate ourselves, or that at least we will compare favorably in the eyes of God.

We’ll invoke almost anything to justify ourselves — intelligence (GPA and SAT), alma mater (“This is where I went to school thirty years ago”), money (“I’m frugal toward myself and generous to others”), family (“Great kids!”), sports (“I’m in shape, you’re a slob”), politics (“My vote is enlightened, yours is ideological”), and work (“I work at X; what do you do?”). A common form of self-justification invokes your zip code (“Where do you live?”), a transparent insinuation that net worth equals self worth. (Daniel Clendenin, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, 10/16/16)

Like the Pharisee, we keep trying to make religion a way to climb higher up the ladder of spiritual success. But self-justification doesn’t work, and it isn’t necessary, for in the words of the famous hymn, God accepts me “just as I am.”  Full stop. We have a hard time accepting that God comes down to us, which is the meaning of the Incarnation (see Philippians 2:5-8); somehow we think we’ve got to go up to God. We start running up the down escalator! And we miss Jesus on the way—as he descends into our so very ordinary world.

Christians have named this mystery—as the path of descent, the Way of the Cross, or the paschal mystery. Although we name and symbolize it quite well, we have not lived it much better than many other religions and cultures. All humble, suffering souls often learn this by grace.

Jesus, however, brings it front and center. A “crucified God” became the logo and central image of our Christian religion: a vulnerable, dying, bleeding, losing man. If that isn’t saying you win by losing, what is it going to take for us to get the message? How often do we have to look at the Crucified and miss the point? Why did we choose that as our symbol if we’re not going to believe it? Life is all about winning by losing—losing with grace and letting our losses teach and transform us. And yes, this is somehow saying that God suffers—and our suffering is also God’s suffering, and God’s suffering is ours (Colossians 1:24). That has the power to transform the human dilemma of tragedy, absurdity, and all unjust suffering. (Richard Rohr, The Paschal Mystery, 10/16/16)

Follow Jesus on this pathway of descent. Walk the way of his cross. Learn the wisdom of winning by losing so that you may be more kind, that you may be a better listener, that you may grow thicker skin, be more compassionate, more ready to cry foul when others suffer injustice, that you may be more generous, more welcoming, more hospitable, that you may be a better lover, friend, parent, spouse, sibling, and neighbor.

To get to that place, Jesus says we need only seven words — those mumbled by the tax collector as he stood at a distance from the Temple and stared at the ground: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13) The Orthodox famously named these seven words “The Jesus Prayer.”  It may be the only prayer you’ll ever really need—because it proceeds from a clear-eyed appraisal of our human condition and, more importantly, from confidence in the character of a God who welcomes sinners and eats with them.  (Clendenin)

We win by losing. We stand transformed before God and each other. All our pretentions and strivings are ended. Our humble and abundant life begins.

Pray Always

Proper 24C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. (Luke 18:1)

Back in seminary, I knew I had a problem with prayer, specifically, with praying out loud. I loved my classes. I enjoyed the debates and discussions. But at the end of the day, I worried about what kind of pastor I would be if I couldn’t say a decent prayer?

When we pray, we put our faith on the line, don’t we? Is there a God or not? Is God listening?   Does God care? What do we ask for? How do we expect God to respond? What do we think we are doing when we pray? Prayer brings all these very personal and frightening questions to the surface. Praying out loud just made it all more intense for me. Yet I learned a lot about my feelings, my theology, my faith, and myself in this way. Praying out loud keeps it real. Maybe that’s why researchers say married couples who pray out loud for each other are more likely to report being happy in their marriage. Maybe it could be helpful in strengthening relationships with the rest of our family and friendships too. After all, prayer is certainly central to cement and deepen relationship with God.

Like anything, prayer becomes more natural with practice. You have to be O.K. with feeling awkward. Long ago, Paul exhorted Christians living Thessaloniki to rejoice always, give thanks in all circumstances and pray without ceasing for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17) Even so, we may become weary in the face of so many struggles.

Anyone who takes a life a prayer seriously experiences long stretches- years, or maybe a lifetime, when “nothing happens”: no miracles, no voices or fluttering of angel wings, no perceived coincidences, no sign of reciprocity from the Divine. (Suzanne Guthrie, At the Edge of the Enclosure) Or we may become weary with confronting injustice, abuse, racism, gender discrimination, poverty and hunger –you name it. A faithful Christian is tempted to give up.

The disciples felt the same tension. Earlier in Luke’s gospel, they implored Jesus “increase our faith.” (Luke 17:5) Much of what follows here in chapter 18 (this week and next) is an answer to that plea. What is Jesus’ answer? Faith is strengthened through prayer.

In prayer we encounter the love and mercy of God to forgive our shortcomings, heal our wounds, and renew our courage. In prayer, we encounter the life and mind of Christ that calls us from shallow self-centeredness and sets us again on the path toward a meaningful life well lived. In prayer, we find insight, inspiration, and readiness to act when the moment is right. Through prayer we learn compassion and solidarity with those who suffer. Through prayer in public worship we learn the quality and depth of our collective faith life can be measured by the decrease of suffering and injustice in our society and in the world.

The persistent widow in today’s gospel is a good example for us. In order to answer yes to the call of the gospel, pray night and day like she did to be tireless in nagging people in authority who neither love God nor have any respect for people to do what is right.

Widows in Jesus’ day not only lost the financial support of their husbands when they died, but could not inherit their husband’s estate. (By the way, this remained the law up until about a century ago.) This parable teaches the faithful to examine society’s care for widows, orphans, and strangers in our midst. It warns us not to link God’s providence with God’s compassion. It serves as a graphic lesson on the importance of prayer and patient endurance, and challenges us to examine quality and vitality of our faith. Can we doubt that God will vindicate the little ones against those who inflict hardship upon them or fail to do what is in their power to ease their plight?

This widow is tough. Our bible says the judge feared the widow would ‘wear him out’ with her complaining. Actually, the Greek uses a term from boxing: the judge is worried the widow will give him a black eye –perhaps physically, or through publically shaming him—or both.

Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Luke 11:9) Ask and keep asking even when the answers are no or you are being ignored. Search and keep searching even when the answers are hidden behind secrets. Knock and keep knocking, even after your knuckles become raw.

This week people throughout the southeast are cleaning up and assessing the damage caused by hurricane Matthew. In Haiti, misery was deepened by human failure. According to eyewitnesses, entire towns are in ruins; thousands of people are without food, water or shelter; clothes and belongings are strewn across the landscape; the dead buried in mass graves. Nearly seven years after an earthquake wrecked Haiti, killing perhaps 200,000 people, disaster has struck again. This time it was wind and waves that brought devastation. Perhaps 1,000 people have died. (The Economist, 10/15/16)

The story of the poverty and vulnerability of the Haitian people is already many decades old. In a wonderful inspiring book called Mountains Beyond Mountains (Random House, 2003), Tracy Kidder tells the story of Dr. Paul Farmer’s tireless work in Haiti to eradicate tuberculosis and other diseases. Farmer says, “I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don’t dislike victory… We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.”

How long must the widow stand and knock at the door? How long must we cope with the hungry, the tortured, the homeless, the refugees and all those whose only prayer is their own existence in need? How long will our own unresolved grief and suffering cry out with the widow?

To all those suffering now, our gospel is full of promise. God does answer, more surely than does the self-assured judge. God does offer blessing. By our wounds we uncover the capacity to heal and to impart wisdom. Our assembly gathers each Sunday to hear and remember that final merciful judgment and to encourage each other to live on the grounds of grace even when it doesn’t appear to be effective in the world. But listen to Paul’s letter to Timothy: Continue, abide, and dwell in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus so that you may “always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully” (2 Timothy 4:5) and may we at Immanuel be strengthened to carry out our mission, to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

With Clean Hearts and Dirty Hands

Proper 20C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Clean hearts and dirty hands.   Jesus offers two lessons about discipleship today (Luke 16: 1-13). The first isn’t a surprise. “You cannot serve God and wealth”.  The second is a bit of a shocker.  Jesus chides, ‘Why can’t each of you be as shrewd as the dishonest manager?’

The parable of the dishonest steward should come with a warning. If we were to take Jesus literally it could lead to arrest—or a fine at least. But could we be more crafty for Jesus?

Here’s what I hear Jesus saying in today’s rather confusing gospel: my disciples must have clean hearts and dirty hands. Can we use worldly strategies to promote the Gospel? Could we be more cunning in dismantling the powers and principalities arrayed against God in the pursuit of justice? Can we care for the poor not merely with our charity, but also by fostering good public policy? How might our wisdom in the ways of the world be use to promote the good news of Jesus Christ?

To do this, the first but only partial answer is, we must have a clean heart. By legend King David wrote psalm 51 after Nathan exposed the truth about what he had done to murder Uriah the Hittite in order to take Bathsheba for himself. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)

The renewal of our mind begins with reorientation of our heart. We are too good at lying to ourselves, making up reasons for what we want, and rationalizing our sinful desires as if they were something good.

A clean heart comes as an underserved gift from God as the old me is put to death, drowned in the baptismal font and a new heart is fed with heavenly food at the Lord’s Table. A new heart requires an “identity transplant.” As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “I live no longer, not I, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) You know you are close when each human being you encounter in need you say, there but for the grace of God grace go I. A clean heart beats with the same profound empathy and solidarity as we have found in the heart of God.

If we could put all the Christians of the last hundred years in a room with Christians of the first three hundred years, I wonder how surprised they’d be about how distant God has become for us? I think they might try to tell us, God is not an object out there located in one place or time. Rather, God is always the Divine Subject who must be encountered, experienced, known only in part, and trusted from within.

Perhaps an obstacle to creating a clean heart in us is that for so long we have operated with a static and imperial image of God. God as Supreme Monarch who is mostly living in splendid isolation from what he (and God is always and exclusively envisioned as male in this model) has created. This God is seen largely as a Critical Spectator, and his followers must do their level best to imitate their Creator. Early Christians might warn us, “We always become what we behold; the presence that we practice matters.” (adapted from Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation 9/14/16)

Although they did not have the word until the fourth century, the presence early Christians practiced was the God who became known to us as Holy Trinity, a divine presence inviting us to join hands and move together as one in the great circle dance of life.

With clean hearts from God we are called and sent into the world, extending our hands in invitation for still more people to join in this dance. With warmth, welcome, joy, hospitality, generosity, and joy we find the courage in our new hearts to not hold back but to draw close and get involved. Together with Christians of every age, with hands dirty, we open ourselves to the chaotic and unpredictable, go beyond our comfort zone, and let ourselves become vulnerable for the sake of loving one another as we ourselves desire to be loved.

Where have you seen people of faith being shrewd for Jesus? Parents must often be shrewd. Co-workers might be shrewd in helping their friends. Activists are shrewd in the pursuit social justice. I think chef Mary Ellen Diaz, a former member of Ebenezer Lutheran, who now resides in Switzerland with her wife and two kids, showed her clean heart and dirty hands in creating the First Slice Pie Shop, a self-funded charity now providing over 4,000 meals a month to feed the hungry.

Diaz, who grew up in Virginia with mom, dad, four sisters and a brother, trained in France and worked at multi-starred restaurants such as the North Pond cafe, and with Richard Melman at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.

She was on a leave of absence after she and her partner adopted their second child, when she began volunteering at soup kitchens, stirring her culinary experience into the meals. “It only took one night of making meals amazing for people in need and seeing the smiles that made me realize I could do something here,” Diaz said.

In the restaurants where she’d worked, “the first slice of pie was always served to the staff. … So this symbol of pie as community was important as was the first slice being the most important.” Today First Slice funds its efforts with a “shareholders program.” Hundreds of subscriber families receive home-cooked, restaurant-quality meals each week. Funds from those subscriptions are used to make the same quality meals for people in need distributed through several social service organizations, such as Streetwise.

“We all feel much more driven if our mission is based on us sort of rolling up our sleeves and cooking for every dollar,” she says, whether it’s for the subscription program or the cafes. “We find a lot of joy in that and that’s why we’re sort of a different organization. You can come in and have good food, and other people can have good food too.”

Sometimes you need to feed the soul. And sometimes feeding others salads of local greens and fresh tomatoes, maybe spinach-squash lasagna and chocolate-peanut butter pie does just that, even for the cook.(Judy Hevrdejs, Tribune Newspapers, Featured Article Chicago Tribune, 7/15/12)

With clean hearts and dirty hands, faith makes us ready to love in real time. In a complicated world our choices will never be simple.  I think in today’s gospel Jesus encourages us not to be ‘So heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.’  But “See,” Jesus says, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). And know that I am always with you –even to the end of the age.