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Posts from the ‘Manna’ Category

Impossible Possibilities

Advent 2A-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Lions and lambs lying down together make a nice Christmas card, but we know what would happen—not a pretty ending for the poor little lamb.   A shoot growing from the stump of Jesse, who was King David’s father, provides inspiration for the Advent custom of the Jesse trees like the raw wooden branches we have decorating our chancel. But what actually comes from a stump? Nothing! You cut down the tree. The roots die. Eventually the stump rots, is eaten by insects, and turns into mulch.

From beginning to end Isaiah’s poetic prophecy describes impossible possibilities. Lions and lambs cannot lie down together. Stumps do not produce shoots. Death cannot produce life. It’s impossible—right?

Aggression and domination fuel the process of natural selection. It’s what makes the great wheel of evolution go ‘round. But Isaiah doubles down. The day will come when little children will play with poisonous snakes—what! Maybe in Disney movies, otherwise any child playing with poisonous snakes isn’t long for this world.

But then, Isaiah isn’t talking about this world. Isaiah is talking to this world, about a very different world. Could the impossible become a possibility? In many ways Isaiah lived in the same world we do. It was a world of corruption, violence, and injustice. Powerful nations conquered weaker ones. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen to the invading Assyrians. The rulers of God’s people trusted in military might more than they trusted God. Those in power saved themselves. Those who needed protection most received the least.

We know this world. It is a world where everyday people are killed in drive-by shootings and by suicide bombers. It is a world where walls are erected between people and hatred is on the rise. Poisonous snakes take many forms. It is a world in which the richest nation, today more wealthy than it has ever been in its entire history, has billions for bombs but less and less to offer the hungry and the homeless.

Into this violent fallen world Isaiah paints a picture of peace—an impossible possibility. It is a picture of creation—restored. A world God once again deems fit to call “very good.” It is a picture of life—transformed.   Dog-eat-dog survival of the fittest gives way to the world as God intended it to be. It is a world of people who rely solely upon grace. “God will wipe every tear from their eyes:” and “death will be no more.” (Revelation 21:4)

Actually, we have not one but two Advent prophets in today’s scriptures. We have Dreamy Isaiah, and Fiery John the Baptist. In this season of warm-fuzzies, John makes us a little uncomfortable. You won’t find any Christmas cards with him on the cover. He’s another one who is hard to figure out.

“John planted himself in the middle of nowhere. He set up shop in the wilderness, and anyone who wanted to hear what he had to say had to go to a lot of trouble to get there…” and not just trouble, but plenty of danger too. (Barbara Brown Taylor)

To hear John preach about repentance and baptism, a pilgrim from Jerusalem had to take that treacherous Jericho road, made famous in the parable of the Good Samaritan. They had to trek through blazing desert, carrying all their own food and water, traversing hills and lonely canyons infested with bandits to Jericho and then beyond—to the wilderness beside the Jordan far away from everything.

Ask yourself. Who would have made such a journey? Who would risk it? Who would be so desperate? I bet you know. They were people hungry and thirsting for justice. People fed up and impatient with the world as it is, eager to be part of the world as it should be—the world as even now it struggles to be. They are people who know God fills the world to overflowing with promise and grace. They went to the desert to become midwives of a new creation of impossible possibilities. In other words, they were people like you and me.

Many had nothing left to lose. Their lives counted for very little. They had lost hope of building a life for themselves. Often God’s little ones are the first to hear the angels or to follow the leading star. They were people like we hear so much about in scripture—people on the margins, outcasts, thieves, and sinners who flocked to hear John the Baptist—and right behind them came a second group of people—those sent out to keep tabs on the people who live on the margins, to be sure things didn’t get out of hand.

That sets the scene of our gospel today. John announces the Lord’s coming. He calls the religious leaders a brood of vipers. He speaks of fiery judgment, and of wrath to come. Clearly, John the Baptist didn’t get the memo on having a very merry Christmas.

John’s Baptism of fire is bad news to those in authority and anyone peddling Christmas like a commodity, but good news to the poor, the grieving, the victims of violence, those who suffer injustice, and anyone longing for the kingdom of God.

Isaiah’s dream and John’s baptism is impossibly good news for everyone. Isaiah and John boldly declare God’s peaceable kingdom is closer than we realize –even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. The old ways are passing away. Even now, God is bringing something new out of the old, making what was impossible possible. A branch now grows from the dead stump of Jesse. See there is something that sparkles now among these dead branches. Lions may lay down with lambs. Death has given way to life.

In his little book, called Peace, bible scholar Walter Brueggemann writes about Isaiah, “…the effect of the poem is to expose the real abnormalities of life, which we have taken for granted. We have lived with things abnormal so long that we have gotten used to them and we think they are normal.”

 John and Isaiah reveal the nearness of God’s reign –and expose the upside-down dreams our so-called common sense is built on. Isaiah and John awaken us instead to be a part of God’s dream for this world.

In a time when we can’t seem to agree anymore even about the facts, John and Isaiah have clearly set out the goals: strive for justice and peace. We can find the truth among our wildly different social and political policies by measuring how effective each is in helping us make progress toward realizing the peaceable kingdom—end of story. But they also warn, “The peaceable kingdom for which we long may require that we put an ax to resentments and biases that are rooted in our hearts. We may have to winnow our greed and overindulgence; we may have to let God burn away the chaff of our impatience. Only then will the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, the child and the cobra find rest under widespread branches of a sheltering tree in the peaceable kingdom” (Dianne Bergant). Only then will we find a new way of life between the already and the not yet—find the opening, by God’s grace, to what is possible hidden within the impossible.

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.

 

What is it?

Proper 13B-15

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Last Sunday Jesus invited them to ‘come and eat.’ So naturally, the very next question becomes what is it? We’ve all been there. Could there be anything more universal than the dinner table and the interchange of excitement and apprehension between cooks and those they cook for?

Try it you’ll like it. It’s good for you. Isn’t that what our parents said? Sometimes it worked. Other times we flat out refused.

The Israelites asked Moses. What is it? They had been through so much together. God set them free from their lives as slaves. But how quickly they began to long for what they had back in Egypt. Pangs of hunger conjured memories of meat and bread. Wasn’t it better than wandering in the wilderness on some endless camping trip? So they grumbled. They complained.

Scripture says God heard the Israelite’s complaining and rained down bread from heaven. Manna. Scholars believe manna was the sweet substance secreted by insects on the leaves of the tamarisk shrub. It drops to the ground and becomes firm. Gathered early each morning, it can indeed be a tasty treat.

When the people saw the food God had provided, they asked what is it? The root of the word manna is man huwhat is this? Despite their obvious skepticism this manna was a hit. The people liked it. But with this strange food came a new spiritual challenge. Manna was perishable. It only lasts a day before it spoils. Try to gather more than you need for the day, it would rot. Give us our daily bread, we pray. But we want more. How easy it is to try to stockpile and hoard the gifts of God, the gifts of life.

It takes us a while to learn what’s best, what food satisfies and what leaves us empty. We confuse needs and wants. Our economy is market-driven. Give the people what they want! Whatever people will buy is good. But any cook knows that isn’t true. Anyone who has gotten sick eating too much cake and ice cream knows what we want isn’t the best gauge for what we need. We have more and more, but our hearts still go hungry.

We have 21 candidates for president (and counting) gorging themselves with record amounts of money from newly created Super-PACs. But democracy is undermined when according to news reports, “Fewer than four hundred families are responsible for almost half the money raised in the 2016 presidential campaign, a concentration of political donors that is unprecedented in the modern era.” (Small Pool of Rich Donors Dominates Election Giving, Nicholas Confessore, Sarah Cohen and Karen Yourish, The New York Times, 8/1/15)

Empty calories, foolish consumption, shallow politics, hungry hearts. Jesus fed the five thousand beside the sea, afterwards the clamoring crowd followed him. They wanted more of that miraculous wonder bread. But they missed the point. Jesus told them, Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life. It wasn’t Moses who gave you the true bread from heaven, but my Father. I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:27; 32; 35)  For a month of Sundays, literally, this will be our message at worship. Jesus implores us to see that our spiritual hunger for the bread of heaven is satisfied only as we join with God in providing bread for the world.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus roamed the gentle hills of Galilee. He went among the cities of ancient Israel. He saw people were hungry—just like us. The people attempted to fill the God-shaped longing within them with whatever they could find—wealth, power, fame, alcohol, drugs, uncommitted sex—but nothing worked. Jurgenn Moltmann (via St. Augustine) wrote, ‘the God-shaped space in ourselves can only be properly filled by God. When we try to fill that God-space with something else we become ill.

Grace is to human life what yeast is to a good, fragrant loaf of bread. Yeast, a tiny one-celled organism that grows and metabolizes its own food with great speed –work the dough—slightly fermenting it and releasing gases so that the bread begins to rise. Jesus, the bread of life, is released and energized in each of us through the work of the divine yeast of the Holy Spirit at Eucharist.

For a month of Sundays (through August 23rd) our worship takes us into the kitchen with Jesus learning how to prepare and to eat food that builds our body. Each week, we share in the Eucharistic meal of bread and wine as a source of nourishment, sustenance and transformation.

What is it we’re eating? It is a diet rich in forgiveness and tender-heartedness, to quote Ephesians. It is a diet rich in gratitude, filling our lives and this community with thanksgiving for the blessings of life. It is a diet rich in stewardship, calling us to use well what God has given us. It is a diet rich in sharing, inviting us to share our bread with the hungry; our love, our resources, our hope with those in need. It is a diet rich in struggle for justice and peace as we become united in one body with the marginalized, the oppressed, the profiled, the unjustly prosecuted and persecuted, the demeaned and dehumanized, with both the victims and the perpetrators of violence. In solidarity and humility we feed one another this bread of life that makes us all stronger, wiser, less anxious and more balanced within ourselves.

The Sri Lankan evangelist and hymn writer D.T. Niles wrote, “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread”. What is God trying to say to us today through this gospel, if only we had ears to listen? Where are we to find the true Bread of Life? We must help one another find Jesus.

“I am the bread of Life”, Jesus said. Let my life become yours. Do like I do. Feast on my gospel. Let God’s holy Word re-fashion and transform you deep within. As a baker kneads dough, so my words, my life shall re-work you. Give me what you are able. Give me your trust and your faith, and I will multiply it. See, I return your life to you with your heart filled to overflowing. Jesus satiates and satisfies us with the good things of God we crave body and soul.

We come together each Sunday for bread that gives us energy for the tasks ahead and hope for whatever is to come. We feast on Christ, our living bread, our daily bread. Christ lives among us, in us, through us, and for us. Come, eat and live!