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Posts from the ‘Sabbath’ Category

Through the Eye of a Needle

Proper 23B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). Despite this, or maybe because of it, today we baptize little Salma and little Antonio so God may do for them what we who love them cannot.

We baptize them to receive new life by drowning.  We baptize them to become children of a new humanity, to be born from above, to live like fish out of water, and to pass through the eye of the needle. We baptize in faith and hope that what is impossible for mortals is indeed possible for God.

Spiritual writer Anne Lamott writes about baptism, “Christianity is about water for God’s sake,” she remarks. It’s about immersion, about falling into something elemental and wet. Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry; looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain and rivers and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time, it’s also holy and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving into all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched.” In baptism, we are delivered from the shallow birdbath of culture and the daily news and immersed in the waters of life that go way over our heads.

These past five Saturdays I had the privilege of learning with Christians brothers and sisters taking part in Diakonia (the two-year adult study of scripture and theology in the Metro Chicago Synod). We examined the five phrases in the single sentence that is the covenant we affirm in baptism. “Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism: to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?” To which we respond, “I do, and I ask God to help and guide me.” (ELW, p. 1164)

It’s going back a few years now, but I’m remembering a scene in the Broadway musical, A Chorus Line. In that grueling audition, one of the dancers, named Michael, tells a story about what drives him to perform. His big sister got all the dance lessons, while he had to insist and to prove and convince everyone “I can do that. I can do that. I can do that!”  It was the beginning of a professional career in dance.

In baptism, our career in Christ begins by admitting exactly the opposite. The key that unlocks and swings open the great gate turns as we switch from I can to I can’t. The day Martin Luther died his wife and children prepared his body for burial. They found a small handwritten note in his pocket. It read: “We are all beggars.”  We stand in need of grace to draw us into the life we were created to live. We move through the eye of the needle to and through the way of the cross, into the abundant and forever life we share in Christ starting today and into eternity. We can’t do this, but God can.

This might be the great question in every life. How do we get there from here? I imagine a man sitting on a bench in the park across the street watching his children play. He finished college in four years.  Got married at 24.  He realizes his biggest accomplishment in life is that he is reliable, responsible and respectable.  He neither gives nor causes offense.  You can take him anywhere without worry.  He is a good neighbor, a good husband, a good father, even an occasional church-goer. But he wonders, is this all there is to my life?

Imagine a woman who decides to come to church with a friend. She is a citizen of the world.  She is careful to turn off lights before leaving a room.  She buys local and eats organic.  She enjoys a warm circle of creative, left-of-center friends.  She wants to contribute to the creation of an alternative culture.  She hopes that she is making the world a better place, but she wonders with all the hatred and division how is it possible?

Each of them is like the young man in our gospel today.  He is bothered by life’s ultimate questions. He is restless and unsatisfied.  He kept the faith his whole life. He has amassed a fortune.  Yet despite his righteous reputation and accumulated riches, he comes before Jesus as a needy man.

Notice, he waited until the last moment.  As Jesus is about to leave, he ran up, knelt before him and asked the big question. It is the honest, sincere question of a man dedicated to conforming his life to God’s will and doing what is best. “Good Teacher”, he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)

The man in across the street wonders what he should do to make his life more fulfilling. The woman in church just for fun with her friend wonders if what she does really matters.  The wealthy sincere young man wonders what he can do to eliminate the nagging feeling there is something that he is missing.

Our gospel says Jesus looked at the young man intently and loved him.  This is the only person in the gospel of Mark Jesus is said to love. Yet Jesus’ answer is both wonderful and terrifying.  What can you do, Jesus asks?  What can you do to make your life better?  Nothing.  But see, God brings everything you are, but nothing you possess, through the eye of the needle.

The text says the man “was shocked and went away grieving.”  I imagine it was sticker shock. The abundant life in Christ proved unaffordable.  He considered his wealth an entitlement — a symbol not only of his worldly accomplishments but also of God’s favor.  How terrible to be told that his best credential was a liability and a burden.  How grievous to realize that God’s kingdom was not custom designed for his ease — that he might not like it, or agree with its priorities, or find common cause with its inhabitants.  How shocking to encounter a God who is so scandalously honest — a God who strips us of our entitlements and freely hands us reasons to walk away. (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus)

The key that unlocks the great gate is “I can’t” rather than “I can.” Through the eye of the needle, although we lose all our possessions, we receive gifts of the spirit. By gifts such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, we become reconciled to God and to one another (Galatians 5:22). These gifts sustain our community here at Immanuel.  These gifts nourish love in our families and kindle warmth between neighbors.  These gifts have the power to repair the breach in our democracy and restore dignity to our civic life. Through the eye of a needle, in the waters of baptism, from lament into glory, from death into life, “I can’t” becomes “we can.”   For little Salma and Antonio, for the man across the street, and the woman visiting the church with her friend, for you and for me, this is what God has done that we could not. Praise be to God.

Our Hearts, Broken and Joined

Proper 4B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Gate and Shepherd

Easter 4A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the Doorway

Passion Sunday A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Some said he was John the Baptist, others thought he was Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Matthew 16:14) Peter and a growing circle of followers called him the Messiah.

They threw they their cloaks on the ground and their voices into the air. They cut palm branches and spread them on the road. They understood they were something new and rarely seen before—a radically egalitarian misfit band of Galileans, Samaritans, Judeans, and Assyrians. They were fishermen, tax collectors, widows, slaves, and women of the street, panhandlers, the chronically ill and mentally unstable. Together they paraded behind the Son of David from the Mount of Olives and through the Kidron Valley as he rode into the walled city of Jerusalem on a humble donkey from the East to reclaim Jerusalem for all Israel. While, that very same day Pilate and his army, displayed their overwhelming military power to suppress any unrest that should arise during the Passover, rode into Jerusalem from the West.

Like us the merry band of Jesus followers had many different reasons for joining the parade. Like us, and countless generations of pilgrims who with their bodies and shuffling feet have added to their number through 2,000 years, they were filled with hope and expectation at what was about to happen. But not one of them could have predicted what actually did happen.

They thought Jesus might restore the kingdom of David and throw the Roman invaders out. They thought he might ordain from the royal throne which of them would rule on his left and at his right. They thought he might be the beginning of the end of the world. At best, they had it partly right.

We palm and passion pilgrims today know more than our early ancestor in Christ because we have heard the gospels. We know where this story leads. We have read through the twists and turns, the cliffhangers and the shocking ending.

Yet, we like them, have arrived upon the threshold of holy week and still wonder what comes next for us.   Not unlike Jesus’ first followers, I’m pretty sure that some or most of what we think we know about God and Jesus going into this week will not fit or even be all that helpful to interpret our experience of what God is doing now. Like them, we must be ready to step into the uncertainty and mystery that always comes with love, compassion, justice and grace as it is being lived now in relationships that require we must risk ourselves, body, mind, and soul to another and to all creation. Perhaps it is a timeless truth that some of our time honored traditions and theological concepts will not survive this encounter.

Each Sunday before worship, the pastors and ministers, and often the lectors, ushers, altar guild members, the Cantor and the choir talk through the day’s service so that each person knows how they fit into the whole. Then after talking it through we walk it through. You’ve seen us—or you’ve done it yourself. The cross, torches, ministers, pastors, lectors, ushers, and anyone else involved in worship literally walk through the service moving through the church from the back to the front. They stand where they’re going to stand. They read aloud what they are about to read. We must experience with our bodies what we trying to grasp with our minds before we truly learn something for ourselves.

Holy week, is when we talk through and walk through the Christian gospel so we might be changed, so that our minds may be opened, so that our hearts may grasp a little bit of what God is doing now in our lives and in the world. Every Sunday, but especially Holy week, is an opportunity to talk through and then to walk through the meaning and message of the gift of God’s grace dwelling deep within you proclaiming that you and all creation have been created in the image God and it is good, it is good, it is very, very good. (Genesis 1:31)

Today, more than most Sundays, is the talk through. We will read the entire passion according to Matthew. Yet, today we have also begun the walk-through. We enter into the mystery of this holy week following behind Jesus and our ancestors in Christ. This week symbols, rituals, stories, songs, and prayers that speak to us of the living God will surround us. We will get up from our chairs and act out this gospel at the table and the font and through profound vulnerable gestures like foot washing or venerating the cross. This is the week that gives rhythm to the entire year.

Finally, let me say one more thing about this week that comes more from neuroscience than the bible, although our bible comprehends it. That is there are two main pathways to transformation. One pathway to wisdom we all know comes through pain, grief, and even tragedy. God who is always with us is with us in our suffering. Our brain works like Velcro to grab onto the lessons learned through pain. Apparently our brains operate more like Teflon in the second instance where we can be transformed to grasp new and lasting insights that come through the appreciation of beauty, praise, generosity, thanks, and happiness. These things can change us too –but we must ponder on them, savor, and meditate on them for at least 15 seconds.   When something moves or strikes you with beauty this week, remember to linger on it long enough for it to sink in.

His hour has begun. Our time has come. Let us enter with joy into contemplation of the mighty acts of grace whereby God has given life and abundance to us all. “For in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) Where can we go away from God? Or, where can we flee from God’s presence? (Psalm 139:7) We jump into the depths of mystery of God’s love.   Let ourselves be carried on the wings of the Holy Spirit to some new place, some new way of living with one another, with strangers, and with God that is at least a little better than the kind of community and togetherness we already know, to a place and life beyond our imagining within the living sanctuary of our life in God through Christ Jesus. Amen.

Now We See

Lent 4A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


The man born blind’s move from darkness into light has long been part of the church’s celebration of the power of new life begun in baptism. His expulsion from the synagogue mirrored the experience of early Christians whose families were torn apart by their allegiance to Christ. The blind man’s journey of faith mirrors that of many today who somehow felt they belonged with Jesus before they came to believe, in contrast to when we once assumed everyone believed before choosing where to belong. The blind man’s story also serves as a reminder that faith springs from trust in Jesus before confession of any theological system, religious tradition, or rigid orthodoxy.

Images that depict the blind man’s story appear in second-century frescoes in the catacombs of Rome (as does the story of the Samaritan woman at the well from last week). These stories have been part of our Lenten baptismal liturgies dating at least as far back as the fourth and fifth centuries. The blind man’s words echo in the famous hymn we sing today, “Amazing Grace”: “I once was blind, but now I see.” (John 9:25b)

Christians see things differently. St. Paul encouraged first century Christians living in Ephesus saying, “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light”. (Ephesians 5:8-14) This light gives new sight. Living with the eyes of faith can sometimes make us feel like Don Quixote. But rather than tilt at windmills we confront the gusty winds of fear and anger so common today with the sacred shelter of hope and grace God creates in, among, and between us and our neighbor.

Christians see differently and this leads them to live differently. The light of God calls and equips us to be God people—regardless of your regrets, despite your failures, overlooking the pile of mistakes you accumulated in the past.

We must see and live differently now because each of us may literally be the place where people in the world encounter God. The blind man washed in the pool called Sent. Likewise we are sent into the world to be God people. At the end of every liturgy we are sent out in both to be Christ and to meet Christ. We must help one another across that spiritual threshold as we leave here today.

I remember a time preparing for ministry that opened my eyes to the gift and power of being a God person. It was a horrible scene. After years of addiction, a man was slowly dying, choking on his own blood. An intensive care nurse suctioned it out as best she could through a large clear plastic hose. Yet somehow, because I was there in the name of Christ, the dying man could concentrate on being a husband; and the frantic woman could be a wife; the shocked young people could be children, and they could all be a family together while they acknowledged how much they loved each other and said their goodbyes.

We caught a glimpse of the crazy diverse beloved community of God-people together at Evening Prayer last Tuesday at St. Ita’s Catholic church. The small space between kids and their tutors as they huddle over worksheets and assignments every Monday night is sacred ground.   Your warm welcome to guests who come here throughout the week for various programs and ministries engenders heartfelt gratitude among many of our neighbors. Like the man born blind, now we see how much God longs to be incarnated in us and through us, and what a joy it is for us to let God do so.

Our gospel today is such a long story, and yet Jesus appears only at the beginning and the end. Only after hearing the blind man had been driven out, did Jesus go looking for him. It’s not a question of whether we, sighted or blind, find Jesus. Jesus comes searching for us no matter where we are.

Finally, I must say a word about what this story has to say about why bad things happen to good people—and what it does not. (You may want to flip to the back page of your worship folder here.) Many scholars agree it is unfortunate our translation of the bible (the NRSV) adds the words in verse three a “he was born blind,” which is not in the Greek text and tends to suggest the man’s blindness is an “excuse” for God to show God’s power. A more accurate translation would be “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that God’s works might be revealed in him it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me … ” This translation conclusively affirms that, at least in this case, there is no connection between sickness and sin. Therefore, Jesus must do the work of God and heal the man. (David Lose)

The gospel of John tells this story and used these images of seeing and not seeing, believing and not believing, to help an early Christian community “see” themselves more clearly. Where do we see ourselves in this story?

God said to the prophet Samuel that “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). When we put on the spectacles of Christ, we see that each of us has been clothed in God’s grace. We are now children of God. Once we were blind to this reality, but now we see.

Jesus Passed the Test

Lent 1A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

After baptism by John, ‘Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness’ accompanied by God’s word (Matthew 4:1). Jesus withstood the devil’s temptations with the power of Hebrew scripture. How often has reading scripture been a source of centering strength and peace for us in the midst of struggle and chaos?

Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Or Psalm 121, “I lift my eyes to the hills from where will my help come?” Or Isaiah 55, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.” You probably have your own beloved passages. Meditation upon scripture can sow calm in a hospital room, nursing home, or living room. It is a sober tonic for those needing to be emotionally present in stressful situations or who struggle to make difficult decisions.

If you already picked up a copy of the Lenten devotional, Free Indeed, this week you’ve been reading Luther’s Small Catechism, beginning with the Ten Commandments. Jesus fought off the devil and temptation with reference to the first two Commandments: “You shall have no other gods”; “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.”

Jesus’ dispute with Satan to corresponds with arguments he will have with the Jewish leaders at the end of his ministry before going to the cross. You could say that conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world is the plot of the whole gospel of Matthew. God is the hidden actor, and Satan is the hidden opponent throughout the gospel. Satan, though defeated, continues to tempt Jesus throughout his ministry (16:23) Scripture and prayer are Jesus’ sword and shield.

While we live in a State without a budget, while families in the neighborhood fear deportation and/or violent discrimination, as the politics of spin gives way to outright lies in our nation’s capital—on top of everything else we are coping with just to keep our families and ourselves together, let scripture and prayer be your sword and shield too!

The wilderness into which Jesus goes is no national park. It is a place of isolation and death. Today’s gospel is a remarkably detailed tour of temptations set before Jesus by an articulate, Torah-toting, scripture-quoting devil. After baptism, the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the desert for forty days. He goes alone, without fanfare, or survival gear. He doesn’t even have time to pack a suitcase or an extra pair of sandals.

In the ancient imagination, the desert is a place infested with demons. It is an untamed and unknown place entered at great risk. To be in the “wild” was to be where one may become lost or die. This is the root of our word “bewildered,” which goes back to the physical and emotional state of being lost. (Rebecca Lyman. Rebecca is the Garrett Professor of Church History)

In goes Jesus to the desert to be bewildered. Jesus enters a lethal hall of mirrors, where his power and identity will be tested. The devil tempts Jesus to claim what is rightfully his as the beloved Son of God namely, food, safety, and authority. All three of Satan’s tests tempt Jesus to betray his identity and misuse his power. Jesus passes the test.

The devil tempts Jesus to deny who he really is. Later, Jesus will turn a couple fish and five barley loaves into a feast for 5000. But now he refuses to use that same power to transform stones into bread to feed himself. Later, Jesus will walk on water, calm the stormy seas, and pass through the violent mob at Nazareth. But now, he refuses to jump from the top of the temple just to prove himself to the devil. Later, angels will pronounce Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords—the alpha and omega. But here, Jesus refuses to take any shortcuts toward his final goal. Jesus passed the test.

Later, bystanders will repeat the same challenge shouting from the foot of the cross. ‘If you are the Son of God, save yourself and come down from that cross, so that we may believe in you’ (Matthew 27:40). But Jesus won’t jump from the top of the temple. He won’t come down from the cross either. Jesus won’t misuse his power to show off or to benefit himself.

Jesus passed the test. That’s why we can trust him. In our reading from Genesis, as soon as their eyes are opened Adam and Eve sew loincloths to hide their nakedness from each other and from God. In worship today, our lengthy confession leaves us standing naked before God. People may dress for worship in their Sunday best but confession strips all people, revealing the depth of sin and the deep human need all people have for God. Even as we stand naked before God, Jesus clothes us with his righteousness.

In the early 1900s famed explorer Ernest Shackleton led an expedition to travel by land some 1,700 miles across the South Pole. To recruit a crew for the journey he placed the following ad in the local papers: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.”

Historians doubt the authenticity of this story. Maybe it’s a myth. Still, it raises the question, how might an honest ad for the church read? “Servants wanted for hazardous journey. Must be generous in all ways, enduring all things, hoping all things. Must be able to forgive seventy-seven (or more) times. Constant temptation, long months in the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus will travel with you.”

As St. Paul wrote, we struggle while knowing “…that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)

Jesus passed the test by being faithful to God. That faith proved to be the strength to overcome the bewildering power of death and the grave, to shatter the bonds of sin and the devil, to fill darkness with light, to drive out fear from our hearts, and to refresh our sin-sick souls. God leads us into life and the abundance of life, beyond mere survival. Because Jesus stands with us in the deserts of our all-too-human lives, we are confident that the Spirit of God walks with us now and in all the uncertain days ahead.

Toppling Our Beloved Idols

Proper 5B-15

Immanuel, Chicago

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” Was there nothing too sacred for Jesus to challenge?

We’re just three chapters into this gospel. Jesus managed to alienate anyone that matters in a real big hurry. He’s already traveled from home, to the wilderness, to Galilee, to the sea, to Capernaum, to Simon’s house, to a deserted place, and back out to other towns of Galilee. Then Jesus went back to Capernaum, and to home, and then to the sea, and to Levi’s house, though the grain fields, to the synagogue, then back to the sea, and into a boat, before heading up the mountain where he chose the twelve apostles and then, finally, he goes home again.

During this short time he has broken the Sabbath laws, eaten with sinners, healed people and forgiven sins by his own authority. He offered himself as an image of God. He interpreted the scriptures in new and challenging ways. He encouraged people to forsake traditional ways of thinking about God and embrace their own experiences as better wisdom.

The people were excited, but reports about Jesus have not been good. So, even as Jesus continued to heal and to draw crowds and disciples, he has to skirt around in the border regions and escape to the mountains (3.1-19). The Pharisees and the Herodians are already conspiring how they can destroy him (Mark 3:7).

Jesus’ mother, brothers and sisters knew they had better do something before things got out of hand. In Jesus’ time, the extended family meant everything. It was how people knew who they were. Family was how everything was organized. Economic, religious, educational, and social networks required a password—that was your family name. Loss of connection to the family meant you could be denied access to these vital networks, including your connection to the land itself. (Malina and Rohrbaugh Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels)

Jesus was making a mess of everything. His gospel shook the very foundations of religious, political, economic, cultural and social life. Now in 2015 it’s happening all over again.

This Jesus and his gospel of baptismal water thicker than blood is messing things up for the church in our own day. If religion makes you feel more important than other people, knock it down. If your church spends more energy being a landlord than a servant of the Lord, its going the wrong way. If church makes you passionate about how communion is served, how long worship lasts, who left a mess in the kitchen, more than the destruction of the planet—then something has gone terribly wrong with the church. Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus is not an apologist for free-market capitalism. He is not a chaplain for the Jesus branch of the Jerusalem chamber of commerce. (Robin Meyers, The Underground Church, p. 6) We cannot be Jesus’ disciple with our creeds but not our deeds. Human beings are not commodities. People are not “human resources”. In the face of desperate need, abandoned children, and violence as a way of life, why are we spending so much time and energy debating how to save ourselves?

Who are my mother, my brothers and my sisters? Jesus’ simple, clarifying and transformative question puts the proper focus on people—right here, right now. This gospel would lead us “to oppose anything in the dominant culture that brings death and indignity to any member of the human family, or to creation itself.” (Robin Meyers, Spiritual Defiance, p. 7)

Let whatever does not help us focus on the lives of real people or gets in the way of that mission of compassion, forgiveness and transformation be toppled. Yes, if we take this gospel of Jesus Christ seriously, it will mess up everything. That’s the bad news –and also—it is the good news. It’s always been this way.

Preeminent scholar of religion, Phyllis Tickle thinks she sees a pattern that recurs every five hundred years or so, leading to renewal and rededication in church. The church holds a giant rummage sale. Rethinking everything, it decides by light of the gospel what must go and what will stay; what is essential and what is replaceable. Five centuries after the Protestant Reformation, we find ourselves passing through another time like this. The whole church is sorting through its theological cupboards and asking painful and disorienting questions about what to keep. Throughout this process, Jesus’ revolutionary and iconoclastic question reigns supreme: ‘Who are my mother, my brothers, my sisters?’

As this congregation reflected on how we shall go Forward in Faith to live our mission, vision, and values –among the goals we articulated was to open our hands and hearts even wider to children and families of our neighborhood through expansion of Monday night Tutoring and Tuesday IYO. For decades, these ministries have been among the ways Immanuel joined Jesus’ mission to love our mothers, brothers and sisters—not is some abstract way, but face to face, person to person. We now have a dream to explore ways grow these ministries (among others). [We will celebrate our leaders and volunteers of these ministries as they close out another year in worship today.]

I’ve read that in the great basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, where Francis is buried, there is a small bronze statue of Francis honoring the Holy Spirit. St. Francis’ posture here is very unusual. Instead of arms uplifted and looking toward the sky, Francis has his hands folded and is looking down into the earth.

The Holy Spirit and gospel of Christ would lead us into the world not out of it. Jesus emptied himself and became flesh (see Philippians 2). It was not a movement into the heavens but into the earth. Francis recognized the full and final implications of the incarnation.

Lutheran theology is incarnational. This means the dominant mode of God’s work is movement into the earth. God is embodied, enfleshed, and fully realized here and now, in human community, in the lowly, the marginalized and the poor—in, with and under all things, in the sacraments (bread, wine, water). All of these point into the world and speak to us of God. Baptismal water is thicker than blood. The light of Christ’s gospel enables us to see beyond this to an even greater truth.

If God became flesh and entered this world in Jesus, then the hiding place of God is this world, in the material, in the animals, in the elements, in the physical. These are the hiding places–and the revelation places–of God! (Richard Rohr) Brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers—the human family is God’s family. The human family is our own family. Let everything opposed be toppled.

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