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How Can We Live?

Proper 18A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

September 10, 2017

Five years after invasion destroyed Jerusalem, followed by exile and slavery in Babylon, the Prophet Ezekiel asked, “How then can we live?” (Ezekiel 33:10)

These words resonate with me this week as we watch four hurricanes in a row, one that swamped Houston, one that churned through Mexico, one that is tearing through Florida right now, and another following close behind. This morning our prayers are with the all the people devastated by these storms and whose lives are threatened.

Lost in news about Irma, record setting wildfires are burning throughout the West.  Flakes of ash fell like snow covering Portland this week.  Smoke is making the air toxic.  “At one point last month, the air quality in the Seattle region was likened to that of Beijing at its worst, a threat to the old and the young, and those with respiratory problems.” (Henry Fountain, NYT, SEPT. 8, 2017)

“In 1893, the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch completed his most famous painting, “The Scream,” with its haunting vibe of existential dread. [According to legend] The nightmare image, with its swirls of deep reds and blues, was inspired by Munch’s experience, a decade earlier, of witnessing an unearthly sunset, created in part by airborne particulates emitted by the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Krakatau, on the other side of the planet. All of the ash from the volcano scattered the blue-violet wavelengths of light, just as the smoke blanketing the West is doing now. At the sight of ruptured sky, Munch said he felt “a great, unending scream piercing through nature.”” (Jason Mark, NYT, SEPT. 9, 2017)

What Munch intuited at the outset of the industrial revolution, we are beginning to see as facts wrought in the earth and the sky and the water that now impinge upon modern life from all sides. Under the weight of the brokenness we experience in our lives and in the world around us, we recognize the ways we have messed up in our own lives and we bear the burden of systemic and corporate failures, too. When we face so much need in the world and recognize our own complicity in it, we might also ask that question: “How then can we live?”

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says God called the Christian community into being out of nothingness to become a community of healers and reconcilers.  St. Paul writes that ‘we have become ambassadors for Christ.’  We are called into being to reconcile people to each other and to God. (2 Cor. 5:20). In the gospel today from Matthew 18, Jesus suggests one path forward for dealing with sin and conflict on an interpersonal level. Always, we must speak the truth as we know it in love. (Ephesians 4:15)

Yet we must admit even this is not easy for us every time we encounter broken relationships. Often our attempts to resolve our own messes only create more mess.

And the church, which is given as a place to hold and mediate conflict, is itself filled with conflict and divisions – a reality we confront as we observe the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. How then can we hope to address the really big systemic challenges we face wrought by the devastating and self-defeating storms of racism, economic injustice, terrorism, and climate change? How then, can we live?

Today, we set out to be God’s hands in the world with brothers and sisters at Unity, and Ebenezer to praise God and break bread with neighbors in Rogers Park. We face into the challenge knowing that ours is a world in which violence is in our homes, our streets, and in faraway war zones. Ours is a world with refugees and migrants who need hospitality and support in our local communities. Ours is a world in which people are hungry and without shelter. Ours is a world where the earth is littered with garbage and the air we breathe is polluted. We face so much that needs mending and also the reality that even sometimes our best-intended service comes with impure motives or unintended consequences. How then can we live?

In our reading from Romans today Paul offers us the answer—put on our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 13:14) Literally put on the life of Christ like you would put on a new suite of clothes. We put on the armor of light in order to lay aside the works of darkness. The answer is here in the waters of baptism with which we baptize little Autumn Victoria Woods today. We must die to our old way of life so Christ may live in us and through us. We must be transformed in this way so that our daily life and habits can finally be changed.

If we rely on our acts of service today or any other day, then we will fail. We can’t save the world or ourselves, unless Christ lives in us. We can confront our own role in the brokenness of the world because of Christ’s forgiveness poured out. We can face the problems that exist around us because in Christ’s death and resurrection the victory of life, of love, of hope is assured. We can live because God has claimed us in baptism, uniting us to Christ’s death and resurrection. We have faced the worst and seen God’s bringing us to life again. We have the presence of Christ in our gathered community – wherever two or three are gathered – working new life out of our mess.

We will need to put on Christ as we engage the question of our future with Families Together Cooperative Nursery School (FTCNS).  In two weeks, we will meet to decide whether to commit ourselves to an analysis of the building in light of city and state building codes for an extra or third classroom for the school and to sharing the costs of whatever changes would be required to make that happen provided it seems reasonable to us.

One question I keep hearing is why we should go through all this effort since FTCNS is secular and not religious. The assertion is we don’t share the same mission.  I see it differently.  For decades at least, and knowing some of the history of this church, probably from the beginning, Immanuel has served the needs of everyone in the community regardless of whether they share the same faith, belong to a different faith, or no faith. For more than thirty years, it has been our mission to serve children and youth in this way through play groups, tutoring, and after-school programs involving hundreds of families and generations of neighbors. FTCNS is an extension of this mission of service.  In fact, that’s why we searched them out and invited them here twenty years ago.  Since that time, they have been consistent and reliable good partners with us in this space.  Going forward they offer a strong alliance to continue extending our mission of service to the neighborhood and maintaining this building.

Every week hundreds of children and families walk in our doors, play on the front lawn, or pray in our sanctuary, and call Immanuel their home.  If our concern is the school’s presence has not contributed enough to the size of our worshipping community I’d say that’s on us.  We are working to be better evangelists.  Most congregations have to go out into the community in order to meet people to invite to church.  We are blest to have them in our own rooms and hallways.  So, yes, I think partnership with the school fits very well with our mission and that’s why I support working with the school to expand.

How then can we live?  We shall live in Christ, through Christ, by Christ. We dwell in Christ through unceasing prayer. Live in Christ with a song in your hearts.  Cleave to new life in Christ like a shipwrecked sailor clinging to a life raft. Rather than cling to our old bitterness, we must let go in order to bind ourselves more closely to Christ.  Brothers and sisters, you know what time it is.  You can read the signs on the wind and the water. Our salvation draws near. The time is now here to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Saying Yes to God’s No

Proper 17A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

September 3, 2017

Scripture says Mary pondered on Jesus and treasured all the things people said in her heart (Luke 2:19). When she said, ‘Here am I, Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:38), I’m pretty sure she assumed God had a good plan. I wonder if later, Mary didn’t have a few questions for God.

A son, born to a poor family in a backwater town, in an out of the way province, in a no-name nation on the margins of the Roman Empire would become the Messiah? And this would be accomplished through that shameful means of state execution reserved for the worst criminals, on the cross?  I wonder, “Could not God have saved the world in some other way?” (Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, p. 40)

And today, we read that God’s unlikely plan wasn’t just for Jesus. It’s God’s plan for all of us too.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) It hardly seems like an appealing way to start a new religion.

Yet this is just what Jesus said to the disciples.  He told them he would have to suffer and die –and that they would too. “For those,” he said, “who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). In case we think this saying about losing our lives is some kind of mistranslation or aberration of Matthew’s gospel –Jesus says pretty much the same thing in all four Gospels (Mark 8:35; Matt 10:39; Luke 17:33; John 12:25)

Take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says.  The past two days were beautiful examples of service and sacrifice in our church. People worked together to honor Kathy Anderson’ life and accompany her that last mile into the arms of our Lord. But here in our gospel today it is clear to Peter and the disciples Jesus is talking about something more. In the world that Jesus knew, crucifixion was not a metaphor for servant leadership. He would actually be crucified. His was making a connection between himself and the world of people suffering and being tortured. Jesus’ words foster an honest awareness that the path to life leads into suffering—among the poor, among the sick, among victims of war, disease, and/or famine.

Imagining Christian faith and Jesus’ way of the cross leads to a privileged freedom from suffering and sacrifice, or maybe a ride on Joel Osteen’s yacht, is pointless fantasy. Jesus’ words call us out of both privilege and fantasy, and reveal the teaching of many religious circles for what they are: escapist and irresponsible.

Your idea about who and what you are is too small, Jesus says. Let me show you who you were created to be.  Let go of your petty fears, your love of comfort, and your egoistic striving to succeed.  Let go of your small “self,” and awaken to the grandeur of yourself rooted in God.

Life does not consist in holding on to what you have, but in being a gift for others.  As we enlarge ourselves we expand our vision to becoming God’s partner in healing the world. The path to this greater self goes to and through the cross.

Briefed on God’s grand plan for personal and cosmic transformation, Peter spoke for the disciples and for every Christian ever since when he quietly took Jesus aside and told him, ‘No!  There’s got to be some other way.”  There has to be an easier way than the way of the cross.  It doesn’t make any sense.  They’ll kill you, Jesus. They’ll throw your body on the trash heap.  Everything you stand for will be forgotten.  Everything we’ve worked for will be wasted.

Peter’s not a bad guy. He’s not a bad Christian.  As we read last Sunday, Peter is the rock upon which the church is founded. But here, he becomes a stumbling block. Peter is like a lot of us with our own ideas about how to make the church great success.

Jesus said, “No.”  Jesus says “no” to us.  The cross says “no.” The cross is God’s no to our small self and a pathway to becoming part of a much greater self that includes God and God’s love for the world.  The unconditional gift of God’s love is powerful medicine.  It comes with a sharp rebuke for the way we live our life now.   Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12.2) 

Take up your cross and follow me. The resurrected life we are promised awaits us on the other side of our baptismal death in which we are transformed into the likeness and image of the living God. The way to abundant life does not necessarily lead to a prosperous life.  Jesus’ vocation involves suffering as well as glory.  If you love one another as I have loved you, Jesus warns, it’s going to cost you some hurts and disappointments.  You’re likely going to experience some grief and rejection.  You may even be reviled and betrayed. Life is about more than where to live; what to do; and who to live with.  The central question is who and whose we shall be.  We are called to dwell together in God all the days of our mortal life and beyond. We are a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Salvation comes not to those who call Jesus “Lord,” but to those who do what he says (7:21-29).  Jesus’ Great Commission includes teaching people “to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:20).  To be Jesus disciple is to trust in God’s dream for a better world, no matter how unlikely or how foolish that dream for peace may sound to worldly ears.

The tension between being respectable and being faithful is a tale as old as time.  In our first reading today, forty years of faithfulness to God’s call won the prophet Jeremiah a beating (20:2), death threats (26:8), imprisonment (37:15), being thrown down a well (38:6), and being derided as an unpatriotic traitor. He was an isolated man of “reproach” among his own people (15:15).  Maybe that’s why early Christians thought of Jeremiah as a Christ-figure: in dying to self we live to God and for others. In losing our life we find it.

Can we say yes to God’s no? With a song on our lips and love in our hearts, we pray for Christ to walk by our side and make us his servants. We carry his cross and to share all his burdens and tears. Then with the family of each generation saved by Christ’s love, with the earth and the sea and the sky we’ll sing to the dawn of the Lord’s day. And let God’s people say, Amen. (ELW #808)

Stilling the Storm

Proper 14A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


“…The boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.” (Matthew 14:24)

The Sea of Galilee is tiny compared to Lake Michigan, only seven miles across at its widest point. Yet it was absolutely vital as a source of fresh water and food in a dry land.  It had provided work and stable livelihoods to sustain entire communities for centuries by the time Jesus came along. The Sea was also an important national border between people of different nationalities, races, and religions. Jews lived on the Eastern shore, others lived on the West.  By going back and forth across the Sea, Jesus was crossing boundaries and stirring controversy.  He was mixing politics, religion, and economics in new unsettling ways. The blowback from the gospel was starting to get ugly.

This scripture was addressed to a fledgling Christian community struggling to survive.  They told and retold this story to rekindle their courage and bolster their faith while it seemed that chaos and disarray everywhere threatened to swamp them.  This story gave them a sense of direction as they continued to struggle against the wind and the waves of resistance, rejection and outright persecution.

Modern Christians tend to miss the boat in reading this famous gospel as if it were a story about defying the law of gravity –Jesus and Peter walk on water.  Christians of Jesus’ day understood it better. They held up this story to share its astonishing promise: Christ has power to still the storm—to cancel out the threat of chaos through the power of his cross.

The ugly violence this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia was one of the bloodiest fights over the campaigns across the South to remove Confederate monuments. It reminds us what can happen whenever the undercurrents of long-standing division and hatred are confronted. It reminds us where we still must to go.

We have rowed all night Lord, but we are nowhere near the shore.  These waves threaten to swamp us.  We are tired. Our hope is waning. Matthew’s gospel says literally the boat was “being tortured or tormented” (basanizo) by the wind (v. 24). Then, as if to add insult to injury, as Jesus approached, the disciples think they see a ghost.  It’s terror all around. The disciples seem to be afraid of their own shadow.

The strength of the church is not that we are heroes, but that we are a community. We find shelter where our burdens and fears may be shared, and thereby reduced. Our strength to face life’s storms is rekindled and our hope restored.

The church is called to traverse the boundary between strangers, to forge authentic bonds of peace and stability, to uncover our common connections, and to use our God-given gifts to calm the storm. Today’s gospel is about the nature of faith.  Over the centuries this passage has fed the imagination of Christians about what it means to walk faithfully in fearful circumstances.  It raises the question, “Can we believe that Jesus is with us always (our Immanuel?), even when all evidence suggests he is not?” (Matthew L. Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary Huffington Post)

Perhaps our faith is never more tested than when we confront the storms that are a natural part of our own mortality—as when our lives, or those whom we love are lost or threatened.

Two weeks ago, I was in Yankton, South Dakota enjoying a warm sunny day with family at the beach having a picnic.  At some point, my sons Sam and Joe set out on paddle boards.  I watched move quickly and easily, gliding along the shore just beyond their sister, cousin, and uncle swimming in the lake.

By the time they turned to go farther out they were already out of earshot.  You don’t have life-jackets I would have said.  You don’t have ankle-straps, I would have said. You don’t have shirts, shoes, or coats. I watched them paddle out into the middle of the lake like they were walking on water.  At one point, they stopped and sat down to look around and have a conversation. After that would have been a good time for them to head back.  Instead they were drawn toward the same site famously noted by the explorers Lewis and Clarke who noted some part of the same rock formation on their map, naming it “White Bear Cliff.” Sam and Joe stood up on their boards turned and headed out of sight toward the white chalkstone ridge on other side.

Lake Yankton is a damned stretch of the Missouri river 25 miles long and over a mile wide. By now, I’m sure you know where this story is heading.  The weather turned quickly. By the time they headed back, the wind and waves made it impossible. The rain made it freezing cold. They could no longer stand on their boards but clung to them, kneeling or laying on their stomach. They were pushed by three foot waves back to the opposite shore when Joe fell, hit his head, and watched his board fly out of reach.  Sam paddled and Joe swam until he could reach the oar outstretched in Sam’s hand.  They clung together. Joe hung onto Sam’s legs. Finally, they managed to make it back to the cliffs, stash their board, pick their way up, and through the forest on their bare feet until they reached a row of cabins.  At the second one they found someone who took them in and drove them home.

Of course, Kari and I didn’t know any of this. Kari and her brother Craig searched the other shore by car.  I watched the storm and searched the horizon parked beside the head Ranger. My prayers, hope, and attention was focused on tiny red and green flashing lights bobbing on the waves from two patrol boats –one from the State Park, and the other from the State Police slowly working their way along the distant shore moving in opposite directions. All the what-ifs and the horrific scenarios ran through our heads. Please God, be with my boys!   Bring them home safe.

We can’t walk on water.  Gravity wins.  Exposure to the cold brings hypothermia.  Water suffocates and kills. Loved ones die.  Tragedies happen.  Change and mortality is inescapable.  War and rumors of war continue to plague us.

Like the early church, we feel ourselves gripped by powers stronger than we are, helpless to do anything to save ourselves.  It’s only human, just like poor, very human Peter and the disciples, to feel despair and panic. And yet we also know how it feels for the power of Jesus, reaching out to us, to give us strength, to fill us with calm, confidence, and endurance.

God was there with my boys when I could not be.  God was there in the bond between them that kept them working together.  God was there in the courage of those officers who went into the storm to search for them.  God was there in the man and his 9-year-old son who opened their door and drove them home.  God was there in our prayers as we watched and waited.

Maybe that’s the lesson that Peter offers us today.  As he stepped out of the boat and onto the waves, he’s not trying to be Jesus, he’s just trying to be with Jesus. Peter’s discovery is that Jesus is there in the midst of the storm, whenever boundaries between heaven and earth, saints and sinners, insiders and outsiders, life and death are being redrawn.  Jesus is there for us to still the storm even when it appears that chaos is about to get the upper hand. You and I are called and empowered in Jesus’ name to enter into life’s storms.

The wind and the waves that tear at the fabric of life in society are strong today.  But the grace of God we have in Christ Jesus is stronger. Do not be afraid.  The Lord Jesus is with us.  The storm shall not prevail but even now is being undone by the grace God kindles in your hearts while we stand together as Christ’s church alive and at work in the world.

A Banquet in The Wilderness


10th Sunday of Pentecost

The Rev. James Kegal

August 6, 2017




Do you ever get discouraged? I know I do. I have a hard time making decisions without second guessing. Two weeks ago we decided to buy a house in Omaha and signed the papers to put in an offer. Early the next morning I called the realtor and asked her to take back the offer. I was second-guessing the decision. I have received calls from congregations to be their pastor and turned them down because I was not sure it was the right thing.

I even had one to St. Martin’s Lutheran Church in Austin Texas, one of our largest congregations, in one of the fastest growing and most desirable cities in the nation and I turned it down. It may have been the right thing or it may not have but I just wasn’t sure. I prayed and reasoned and was not sure. It is fairly discouraging to be so uncertain of God’s will or the right thing to do.

Kimberly was our education director and her husband, Daniel, a religion professor at the University of Oregon. He received a job offer to Durham, England to be a professor at the university. It was one of the most prestigious positions in his field—and the bishop of Durham, his friend, N.T.Wright—he called him Tom—wanted him to come. We talked and prayed and wondered what God’s will was for them. What was God’s will? We agreed that perhaps God had not only one will and that God would bless any decision. They turned it down. And I must say that afterwards I thought he was quite discouraged.

I suppose the problem is really our lack of trust in God and God’s promises. We are not alone in our anxiety and indecisiveness and discouragement. I remember reading a story about Norman Vincent Peale, longtime pastor at Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan and author of many books on positive thinking and confident Christianity. He writes, “The bottom seemed to fall out of my life and ministry. I became very discouraged. My wife and I decided go to England and get away form it all. I kept telling Ruth how badly things were going, how little I amounted to and why did I get into this situation anyway. I filled her poor ears with such misery. Finally she sat me down on a bench and said, ‘Norman, I don’t know what to make of you. You’re my husband but also my pastor. I sit in the congregation and listen to you talk about faith, the power of the Holy Spirit and what Jesus Christ can do in a human life. Are these merely words for you or do you really mean it?’ ‘Of course I believe it,’ Peale said.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘you’re not acting like it. You hold it as kind of an intellectual belief but haven’t you really been converted?’ ‘Of course I was converted,’ he said.

‘Well, it has worn off,’ Ruth replied. ‘Now I’ll tell you what I am going to do. I am going to make you sit on this bench until you surrender your life, your future, your church, your everything to Jesus Christ’.” Peale wrote, “I did just that. I started crying and said to my wife,  ‘Let’s go home and go back to work’.”

Or Billy Graham, “Once when I was going through a dark period, I prayed and prayed but the heavens seemed to be brass. I felt as though God had disappeared and that I was all alone with my trial and burden. It was a dark night for my soul. I wrote my mother about the experience and will never forget her reply. ‘Son, there are many times when God withdraws to test your faith. God wants you to trust Him in the darkness. Now, Son, reach up by faith in the fog and you will find His hand to be there’. In tears I knelt by my bed and experienced an overwhelming sense of God’s presence.”

It has often been said that the preacher preaches to himself or herself. I need to be reminded that God is with me in the transitions of life; that God will not leave  or forsake me. Jesus reminds us, “Do not be anxious, do not worry, about your life what you will eat or what you will drink or about your body what you will wear. Is life not more than food and the body more than clothing. Look at the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns but your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these…do not worry…Do not worry.”

Jesus says to us, “Come to me all you who are burdened and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Peter gives good advice, “Cast all your anxieties on God for God cares about you.” God understands us and cares about us. God will provide.

Which finally brings us to our Gospel text for this morning. Jesus has crossed the Sea of Galilee to a deserted spot. John the Baptist has just been killed by King Herod.  Jesus and the disciples want to get away—out of fear, perhaps or from grief and discouragement. Our text is best understood when we remember that just before in the Gospel of Matthew, King Herod has had a birthday feast in which Salome requested the head of John on a platter. The sumptuous banquet, the palace intrigue and schemes, the pride and arrogance resulted in murder. There is a banquet in our text set in the wilderness with five loaves and two fish. The people attending were not the great and powerful but the lowly; the “crowds” in Matthew are the simple people. Jesus has compassion on them, pity, the word in the Greek means “his heart went out to them.” They were like sheep without a shepherd. The word to describe them is used only once in the New Testament, here by Matthew, and can be translated “the wretched.” And these are they who receive healing for their infirmities and food that satisfies their hunger.

There are many interpretations of this miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. Some have seen the miracle as an allegory where the loaves and fish really represent something else. Some have seen the miracle more as magic—but  Jesus takes common ordinary things, material things at hand—five loaves and two fish and uses those to and satisfy the hunger of the people. He does not use a magic wand. Some have interpreted this as a miracle of sharing—maybe these simple people really had food in their backpacks but weren’t sharing. We should not try to explain what happened but just say that there was enough food that all were satisfied. We can say that the disciples were of little faith, as we so often are, but Jesus was in charge. We can say that God does not scold us when we are weak—I would have felt like scolding those who came out and spent the day and didn’t pack a sandwich. We can say that the power of God comes to us through means—through the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper to give life and salvation and that the church, like the disciples, are those who bring the God’s gifts to the world even when we are weak and discouraged, doubting God’s power and forgetting God’s love.

ALL ATE AND WERE FILLED AND THEY TOOK UP WHAT WE LEFT OVER OF THE BROKEN PIECWES, TWELVE BASKETS FULL. There was enough and more than enough. Jesus taught and healed and fed. He cared about the life of the people no matter who they were or what they had done. “Jesus took the bread and the fish, looked up into heaven and blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples and the disciples gave them to the crowds.” This is a Eucharist: taking, blessing, breaking, giving—the Lord’s Supper. The loaves and fish fed the crowd and sustained them. The bread and wine are enough to sustain us on our journey as the manna in the wilderness had sustained the wandering Israelites on their way to the Promised Land. The Lord’s Supper is our daily bread for life and strength, forgiveness of sins, and promise of everlasting life. Jesus cared for the spiritual needs of the people and for their physical needs, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, having a heart full of compassion for the simple, the lowly, the despised and rejected. We are reminded that we can come to the Lord with our needs and cares. God loves us and cares for us. God will never leave us or forsake us. We can cast our anxieties on the Lord.

In closing, I would like to share some good advice for you and for me from St Francis de Sales. He writes, “Do not look forward to the changes and chances of this life in fear. Rather look forward to them with full hope that as they arise, God, whose you are, will deliver you out of them. God has kept you so far and as you hold fast to God’s dear hand, God will lead you safely through all things and when you cannot stand, God will bear you in His arms. Do not look forward to what may happen tomorrow the same everlasting Father who care for you today, will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Either God will shield you from suffering or God will give you the strength to bear it. Be at peace then.”

God cares for you and me. God has compassion and gives us each day our daily bread enough and more than enough. God sent Jesus to teach and heal, to feed richly and abundantly. God sent Jesus to suffer and die for us and rise again to be with us always. God cares and will provide. Amen.

Our Christian Vocation

Pentecost Sunday A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


This day of Pentecost is an occasion of profound initiation. It is an awakening of the Divine spark within you.  With the gift of spirit and flame, God uncovers the image of God’s own self that has always been and will always be the essential ingredient of who truly you are.

It can feel like a paradox. We are always just ourselves—but this initiation and awakening to who we are in Christ has changed us profoundly. The community Jesus formed, fired, and prepared, was propelled onto a new stage.  They were an ordinary group of people and not large in number. The Book of Acts tells us there were just 122 in all.

122 people. They were not learned.  For the most part, they were not wealthy.  Most were not charismatic.  Not even St. Paul, who’s letters comprise most of the New Testament, said of himself he was not a good public speaker.  They didn’t have a lot of social capital.  Yet what they discovered at Pentecost is that following the Way of Christ and his cross is how ordinary people uncover their dignity, their worthiness, their beauty, and their power.  An awakening of Spirit that was already within them enabled this simple, humble, salt of the earth group of people to change the world, not by their own skill or power but by the power of the living God working through them. God knit them together and gave them a home with each other.  They discovered their true self by being a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Like a clay vessel in the furnace of a kiln, the followers of Jesus received the transformation of their hearts. They were no longer simply a rag-tag group of believers, but a catalyzed community, a single body of 120 people enlivened by the Spirit to continue the work of Christ. (Jan Richardson, The Painted Prayerbook)

This great initiation and awakening of Jesus’ flowers at Pentecost was like a birthday. They were born again.  Their lives found a new trajectory.  They uncovered different and higher purposes for their lives in the ordinary everyday things they said and did.

When is your birthday in Christ?  The first answer for any Christian is the day of our baptism.  But it may also be any day you recognized the gifts of the Spirit working in you. Today those who have been On The Way will complete a journey they’ve been on together since Advent as we name for them the spiritual gifts we see operating in them later today in the rite of Christian Vocation.  In my experience, it is easy to name the gifts of others, but not so easy to name them for myself.  One of the best birthday gifts we offer each other in Christ is naming the gifts of the Spirit we see in one another.  In that way we experience a little of the joy of discovering we are not alone but part of a large community in which our unique gifts reinforce and enrich one another.

There are a great many ways we are called to share the gift of God’s grace with one another.  Yet sadly, sometimes in the history of the Church, Christians have narrowed this list to serve their own purposes.  In Luther’s time, people thought only church related activities such as prayer and fasting and alms giving could be truly God pleasing. Luther was adamant.  He wrote, “the Christian life is not about what the monks claim—that it means sending people into the wilderness or cloister.  On the contrary, the Christian life leads you to those who need your works. (Martin Luther, “Sermon on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, 1529). Each of us is blessed with a unique mix of skills, talents and opportunities to serve God in daily life.  Awakening to who God has created and is calling us to be is uncovering our own unique Christian vocation.

Luther saw a God who is present, a God who is deeply intertwined with creation. Each of us are equipped and called to earthly service as faithful followers of Christ.  The Spirit issues a call against poverty, injustice, and desecration of the environment; and a call to be good friend, parent, spouse, neighbor, church member, worker, and citizen.  All these involve the arts of discretion, negotiation, compromise, and forgiveness.  We must be good listeners, learners, and participants.  There is nothing very glamorous about any of this.  Our vocation is a difficult calling to live up to. Yet, there is joy in heaven whenever and wherever simple love abounds.

Today, at Pentecost, we are joined together in Holy Communion with the living, moving Spirit of God.  Like water, wind and fire, our new life in Christ must continually reach toward God’s future.  It is the awakening of our true selves that can be both frightening and fascinating.

In her book Reinventing Eve, Kim Chernin describes our initiation into Christ this way: “Initiation is not a predictable process. It moves forward fitfully, through moments of clear seeing, dramatic episodes of feeling, subtle intuitions, vague contemplative states. Dreams arrive, bringing guidance we frequently cannot accept. Years pass, during which we know that we are involved in something that cannot easily be named. We wake to a sense of confusion, know that we are in dangerous conflict, [yet] cannot define the nature of what troubles us. All change is like this. It circles around, leads us [on] a merry chase, starts us out it seems all over again from where we were in the first place. And then suddenly, when we least expect it, something opens a door, discovers a threshold, [and] shoves us across.”

The Greek word for church is ecclesia –it means literally “the called out.”  To be in the church is to be called out and set apart from the world. It is not the intention of the Holy Spirit who does this great work to create a closed club of insiders (William H. Willimon).  Instead, we are called out of the world for the sake of the world.  At the table and the font, our hearts are transformed to become bearers of living water for all those who are thirsty.  We are called into the streets and marketplaces to declare  “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1). This is the way.  In this we find life. We are born again and uncover our true selves. In this way, “The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:11).

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.

What Does Easter Look Like?

Easter 4C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


My father once told me a story I’ll never forget. He lived on dairy farm as a boy. Driving tractors and trucks came at an early age on a working farm. One day he was told to go get the family car and pull it up in front of the house, which he happily proceeded to do.

It was an old car with a manual transmission. The gearshift sprouted from the steering wheel. Three on the tree, they called it. Anyway he went and started the car, put it in gear, and gave it some gas. He was looking backward through the rear window when the car lurched forward breaking the wall in the back of the garage.

My dad was sure he was in BIG trouble! Relaying the terrible bad news, however, surprised him. Instead of yelling at him, his dad (my grandfather), a hard old German Swede, told him it was okay.   You can’t get in trouble for doing your best, even when a terrible accident is the result.

I don’t remember how I messed up to provoke him telling me this story. I only remember the life-lesson my dad drew from it. It’s a lesson I’ve already passed down to my own kids on more than one occasion.

I’m not going further into the details of the fire last night in the ministry center. We haven’t seen the full report. However, we do know all three agencies called out to investigate, the Chicago Police Department, Chicago Fire Department, and a Federal agent from Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms all agreed the fire was an accident. No one acted willingly or carelessly to start it. Unfortunately, it was one of those accidents that sometimes happen even when we are doing our best.

What I do want to tell you about, is how so many of our friends and neighbors responded with efficiency, experience, competence and compassion. Leaders of this church poured out on the sidewalk. They worked late into the night. It was obvious how much people, including our neighbors, care about this place. But more important, it is obvious how much we all cared for one another. It was a proud moment for your pastor.

According to 3rd century theologian Tertullian, the ancient Romans used to remark about Christians, “Look, see how much they love one another.” That’s where we find connection in our scriptures for today. When Tabitha, also called Dorcas, died the prayers and compassionate actions of a loving community surrounded and cared for her body. The lives of early Christians’ lives were affected, transformed by the compassion and service of Tabitha, and they in turn offered prayers, presence, and tears, but they also took action for the sake of the one who could do nothing, at this point, for herself. Their faith went to work, and amazing things followed.

This is what Easter looks like. This is how the resurrected life works. Jesus is risen. Saul became Paul. Tabitha lives. Immanuel moves forward in mission to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace, because we belong to the same risen life in Christ.

Tabitha sounds very much like a living saint, very much like many of the living saints in our churches today, who spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources in ministry to those in need Often overlooked is the fact Luke refers to Tabitha as “a disciple.” She is the only woman explicitly identified as a disciple in the Book of Acts. Elsewhere Junia is called an apostle. Other women were leaders, financiers and pillars of their communities. But this is the only occurrence of the feminine form of ‘disciple’ anywhere in the New Testament. The counter-cultural egalitarian and inclusive quality of the early Christian community was breathtaking—but again that’s what resurrection looks like when it takes hold and gives direction to our lives.

Resurrection means there is reason to hope even when we think that there is no possibility of resolution, restoration, or resolution. While everyone else lives in a “Humpty Dumpty” world in which everyone is convinced that things can not be put back together again, the gospel tells a different story, about people “empowered to ‘turn the world upside down.” (Acts 17:6) The world is not as it should be, and God is at work, often through us, putting it right again. (Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews, Sermon Seeds, 4/17/16) Early Christians operated out of the optimism of grace, that was their starting point, because that’s what the resurrection looks like when it takes hold of our community and us.

Resurrection becomes reflected in how we think. Easter becomes part of how we feel. Together, these direct what we do. Noted Catholic theologian Thomas Groome describes this as the comprehensive three-fold pattern of discipleship:

  • Christian faith is a way of the head. It demands a discipleship of faith seeking understanding with personal conviction, sustained by study, reflecting, discerning, and deciding, all toward spiritual wisdom for life.
  • Christian faith is a way of the heart. It demands a discipleship of right relationships and right desires, community building, hospitality and inclusion, trust in God’s love, and prayer and worship.
  • Christian faith is a way of the hands. It demands a discipleship of love, justice, peacemaking, simplicity, integrity, healing, and repentance.

Many people think having faith only means “to believe in Jesus.” Yet, faith, as revealed and lived among Tabitha’s community did not consist in an affirmation of a creed, an intellectual acceptance of God, or believing certain doctrines to be true or orthodox. God refuses to be known intellectually. God can only be loved and known in the act of love; God can only be experienced in communion. Faith constantly calls us to be a part of something, to participate in caring for something or someone as much as ourselves. Mind, heart, hands working together for the sake of love, that’s what resurrection and Easter looks like.

At the end of the second century, another theologian, Irenaeus wrote, ‘God passed into humanity so that humanity might pass over into God.’” We are invited by Christ to accompany him inside the living sanctuary of the Holy Trinity, and to dwell there with him forever. We are called to participate in the very nature of God, which is Love. Now that’s what resurrection and Easter look like. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations)

The Beginning of the Good News

Advent 3C-15

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) After the month we’ve had, the invitation to rejoice couldn’t come at a better time. By tradition, joy and rejoicing is the tone for this third Sunday of Advent.

For sure, we heard the welcome cry of jubilation from Paris yesterday as nations of the world reached an historic climate change agreement. One commentator said, “This agreement won’t save the planet, not even close. But It’s possible that it saves the chance of saving the planet–if movements push even harder from here on out.” We needed a little good news.

While Americans are once again as afraid of terrorist attacks as they were in the days immediately following 9/11; while our state budget is in crisis; while vital services and programs are cut or ended; while our city is reeling from the American original sin of racism; as a political culture of cover-ups and hypocrisy that runs deep is exposed; and while many of us are trying to cope with our own grief, job losses and financial pressures—we really need of some good news.

Our gospel says John proclaimed good news to the people but John’s fire and brimstone seems a far cry from rejoicing—at least to us. (Luke 3:18) John came preaching a message of challenge and exhortation in a time when the Roman Emperor, Tiberius, his governor Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, and even the high priests Annas and Caiaphas were all part of a unified world order by which the elite, through force and greed, commanded the lion’s share of power and material wealth for themselves. (Kate Huey, Sacred Seeds)

In other words, the people in John’s day needed some good news too. The wrath of John’s axe struck at the root of the whole system, including the reigning religious authorities of the day. John’s message in the wilderness about forgiveness of sins through baptism in the Jordan bypassed the Temple and its elaborate system of atonement run by its powerful priests. It made them unnecessary.

“Rulers like [the high priests] Caiaphas and Annas,” William Herzog writes, “abused their position to increase the debt load on the people of the land. Rather than forgiving debt, they were increasing debt” (New Proclamation 2006).

They held the world upside down. Their abuse of position and power for profit was as common in Jesus time as it is today. (Kate Huey, Sacred Seeds). John’s message was good news. People flocked to the dessert to hear him and be baptized. The world was about to turn.

Dressed in camel’s hair, eating wild locusts and honey, John’s message was just the beginning of the good news. You are baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire. (v.16) The Lord rejoices over you with gladness, he renews you in his love; he exults over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. (Zephaniah 3:17a- 18) In wonder and mystery, grace upon grace is being knit together in you, among you, and through you. In the manger of our faithful hearts Christ will once again be born a child on earth.

Christ is born in us as we embody the hope and grace of Jesus to become a living sanctuary that keeps out the driving rain of fear and the drafty ways of greed that undermine dignity, drain our spirits, and that would make us be human resources rather than human beings. But we are filled with spirit and with fire so that no form of injustice or oppression can stand for long. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees.

Our gospel today is one of a few that specifically address the topic of faith and work. Fifteen centuries before Martin Luther, John the Baptist seems to have promoted the idea that all people, regardless of their job description, can equally be of service to God. Luther taught that all of us have a vocation, or calling, by virtue of our baptism. The theologian Jürgen Moltmann has said Luther’s concept of vocation is “the third great insight of the Lutheran Reformation,” after word and sacrament.

Before Luther, only priests and monks could have a vocation or higher calling. Luther insisted that “[e]very occupation has its own honor before God, as well as its own requirements and duties.” “Just as individuals are different, so their duties are different; and in accordance with the diversity of their callings, God demands diverse works of them.” Luther taught what makes a job into a higher calling is not the money you make or the satisfaction you earn by doing it, but how many people you serve, and how much you help them.

Every task becomes a high calling when we do God’s work with our hands. Every time you welcome a child or a family through our doors is a chance to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace in a weary world that needs it. Each time you help a child with homework, make a gift of food, greet a new parent or caregiver, or give praise to God in song and sacrament is the beginning of the good news for us, and through your hands, our neighborhood and for Edgewater.

By joining faithful hands with our neighbors, at ONE Northside more than a thousand people have homes today who would be homeless this Christmas because the city ordinance we passed a year ago prevented single-room occupancy hotels (SRO’s) from being eliminated.

As the Christian author and activist Shane Claiborne has said, “Prophets and poets lead us into a new world, beyond simply yelling at the old one.” People filled with Spirit and fire fill the weary world with hope. It is the beginning of the good news.

Starting with the Hebrew prophets of old, including a wild-eyed preacher in the wilderness, and all of us today. Because over and over again, the world gets it wrong, we rejoice in the ways God sets it right again. Bullies and terrorists will be defeated by the advent of defiant hope.

What has been born in us is love. Perfect love casts out fear. Perfect love lifts our spirits. Perfect love kindles our joy, and renews our hope. The grace of God has set our life right side up so all the world may enter the kingdom of God, by becoming the kingdom of God. This indeed, is good news.

The Advent of Grace

Advent 1C-15

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


This gospel could have been ripped from today’s headlines. People are fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. There are wars and rumors of wars. There were Black Friday protesters on the Magnificent Mile. There is a frightening tone in the national political debate. Terrorists –both foreign and domestic—undermine our security. There are signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. (Luke 21:25)

These ancient words from Luke are reassuring if only because they tell us times like these are not unique in human history even if we have been privileged enough to say they are unfamiliar to us. These are days when our faith is most important. These are times that reveal who we are and what we truly believe. As comedian and political satirist Jon Stewart has said, “If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values: they’re hobbies.”

The season of Advent we begin today is about clarifying our values. Jesus taught us to read the signs. As we come face to face with human brokenness and the depth of our sin in Advent, Jesus teaches us how to live by the small light of hope rather than be driven by the strong force of fear. Some will ask why we need Advent when we’ve got such a lovely, joyous celebration like Christmas waiting in the wings?

Why Advent? To help us see beyond our suffering. Why Advent? To give us a lens through which to see God at work when it seems only evil gets the spotlight. Why Advent? To assure us God has secured a future for us all unfolding in, with, and under the present moment, even if we cannot see it now. (Karoline Lewis, Working Preacher) Why Advent? So that by God’s merciful protection we are alerted ‘to the threatening dangers of our sins, and are redeemed for Jesus’ life of justice.’ (Prayer of the Day, Advent 1C, RCL) Advent is the strong medicine of grace we need to move toward life together in the new Jerusalem God has prepared for us.

For me, one of the most memorable lines from the movie, Spotlight, in theaters now about the cover-up of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church, was, ‘[They say] it takes a village to raise a child. It [also] takes a village to abuse them. ‘ The story unfolds from allegations against one Priest, to thirteen, to eighty-seven and ultimately 247 Priests in the Boston area who abused children over a period of 30 years. That’s thousands of children, tens of thousands of family members, and hundreds of police officers, lawyers, social workers, school officials, politicians, and church leaders in Boston alone who all knew about the problem and did nothing about it—not to mention others in hundreds of cities around the world.

When reporters at the Boston Globe finally broke the story in 2001 people asked, “Why now? Why did it take so long? They had no good answer. The light of God’s grace can be like water finding its way through rock in us. It takes time to break free but once it does, there is no going back.

Civil rights litigator and legal scholar Michelle Alexander talks about a similar slow and painful process of realization in her important book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010). It took years of careful research to get to the startling conclusion. “Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration [in America today] operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.” While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.

Police abuse of power is only the tip of the spear we wield together as a society to control, separate and punish people of color. But by the advent of God’s grace, that fact is coming to light too. It can be summed up in one simple phrase: Black Lives Matter. Praise God. Hallelujah!

As we begin a new year in the church calendar—a year of reading Luke—there is special grace-filled irony in the fact that Luke and the community who helped produce this gospel were all Syrians. They lived in the ancient city of Antioch, which is the modern Turkish city of Antakya. As our nation debates whether and how to welcome Syrian refugees fleeing from violence and terror, Christians across the country and throughout the world are spending the year seeking the face of God by reading a Syrian gospel.

Jesus said, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise

your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28) It does not surprise us the bible’s most common metaphors for the Holy Spirit all point to a kind of natural and inevitable force: living water, blowing wind, descending flames, and alighting doves. Advent is the season to undergo God.

The waiting, the preparing of the mind, the softening of the heart, the deepening of intention and desire, the readiness to really let go, the recognition that I really don’t want to let go, then finally, the actual willingness to change—our readiness before God is the work of weeks, months, and years of opening ourselves to by grace for grace.

As Gerald G. May points out in The Dark Night of the Soul, we must be willing to endure dark periods of feeling that God isn’t here, that nothing is happening, that God has given up on you. The season of Advent makes it clear. God must often perform the work of grace in secret, in darkness. If God let you know what’s going on, you may try to control the process yourself and thereby destroy it; or you may try to stop it altogether because you are afraid of the immense freedom and spaciousness God is leading you toward. It’s only the wise, broken ones who allow themselves to “undergo God” and to trustingly “let go and let God.”” (Thesis of Gerald G. May as summarized by Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Undergoing God, 11/27/15)

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) But there are times we do glimpse what God is doing among us. This past week, Pastor Carol McVetty of North Shore Baptist Church wrote about it in a letter to the editor that appeared in Thursday’s Chicago Sun-Times.  She wrote: “There were no news cameras present at St. Gertrude Catholic Church yesterday (Nov. 22) as Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood gathered for its annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Service. That was to be expected. There is nothing alarming, sensational, or particularly newsworthy about several hundred people gathering in a church on a Sunday afternoon to sing and pray. But in this anxious moment in our national life, a wider audience might benefit from knowing what went on there. Muslims, Jews, and Christians gathered to give thanks, together….

This is the world I live in here in Chicago. This is the community for which I give thanks to God. This is the kind of neighborhood I pray will be multiplied across our nation and around the world.” (Rev. Carol McVetty, North Shore Baptist Church, 5244 N. Lakewood Ave., Chicago, IL 60640)

For Advent we celebrate the work that God is doing in and through us to build a living sanctuary of hope and grace. Sometimes God performs this work in ways we can see. But most of the time it is done in secret. The Advent of grace quietly, steadily, then all at once reveals new strengths and new pathways to advance the cause of love, mercy and justice. We are strengthened by grace for grace—and to have the wisdom and courage to perform grace through our own hands and voices.

Restoring Hope Among Ruins and Tombstones

Proper 28B-15

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


Trees around Immanuel had a rough week. Winds up to 30 miles an hour blew through on Thursday and Friday that knocked most of the leaves down. I noticed Oaks and Maples fared the best. Even so, we know the brilliant yellows and flaming reds of fall must soon give way to winter. The fall leaves are quiet and gentle reminders of more challenging realities we mortals face.

Impermanence and evil are fierce and heartless foes. Jesus said, ‘Not one stone will be left upon another. All will be thrown down’ (Mark 13:2). It’s one thing when people and places we love come to their natural end. It’s ten times worse when death and destruction comes by our own human hands.

In Paris, terrorists again kicked the legs out from under whatever hope we might have that our 14-year war on terror was ending. In Greenland a glacier the size of Manhattan but four times taller than any skyscraper fell into the sea this July. (on July 23, 2015). Not three miles from here in Uptown late Tuesday, the naked infant body of a baby girl found lying in a patch of grass near Weiss hospital knocks the wind out of us. Events like these can empty our spirit. They literally knock the ruach and penuma out of us. They leave us gasping for the sacred breath of God. There is not one stone left upon another in us. All is thrown down. Our gospel challenges us a very hard question: where can we find hope even among the ruins and tombstones of our very own lives and dreams?

In our gospel reading, Jesus and the disciples are leaving the city of Jerusalem, just hours before his arrest and crucifixion. As they walk, the disciples are delighting at the splendor of the temple and of many other tall buildings they see in the city. They are unprepared for the bewilderment they will experience when they lose Jesus, and some four decades later, when they will the temple is destroyed.

In Jesus’ day, the temple in Jerusalem was one of the most impressive sights in the world.   The second rebuilding led by King Herod had been underway since before Jesus’ birth. It was not finished until after his crucifixion. When Jesus and the disciples sat looking at the temple from across the Kidron valley upon the Mount of Olives, they were speaking of a brand new building.

By all accounts, it was staggeringly large and opulent. The temple had a perimeter circumference of two-thirds of a mile. Its marble walls stood 150 feet high and were constructed of blocks weighing many tons. The temple was both religiously and architecturally the center of Jewish life. It is no small wonder that Jesus’ prediction that the temple would be destroyed became the basis of their legal case against him (Mk. 14:58).   To the Jewish leaders and the followers of Jesus, the temple appeared to be indestructible. Its demolition was physically an symbolically unthinkable. Yet, the Roman army brought it down in 70 C.E.

How do we rekindle our hope sitting among ruins and tombstones? Jesus taught us there is but one place to store up our treasure. Only one place where moth and rust cannot destroy and thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:19). The house that time and sinful violence cannot bring down is built stone by stone as we say yes and let the Holy Spirit build us into a living sanctuary of hope and grace. We become a temple made without human hands (Mark 14:58) through our baptism into Christ. Our hearts of stone are replaced with hearts of flesh as we feast at the Lord’s Table (Ezekiel 36:26). The terrible human capacity for death and destruction has become in us an even greater power of life and love.

We experience evidence of God’s grace at work in our own despair and anguish in the face of tragic loss. We see the power that builds community rather than destroys it in the courage of first responders, the listening compassion of caring friends, and the prayers of people of faith around the world. The late great and gentle Presbyterian pastor and TV personality Fred Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” There we will find hope to fill our empty hearts again. We find strength to restore our soul.

Research confirms what we already kinda knew—families that thrive and marriages that last are created day by day from just two building materials: kindness and generosity. St. Paul wrote, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

Kindness, generosity and the fruits of the spirit are the building materials we will need to repair the breach, to restore our hope, to fulfill our mission to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace. Of course, in order to do this building work we need certain tools. Fortunately, I just happen to have one of them here. (A child’s snow shovel).

Yes—the snow is about to fly again in Chicago, but I daresay this won’t help you much. No—I am not about to suggest that when you find yourself deep in number 2 God hands you a child-sized shovel. But some of you might recognize this shovel. It stood by the front door of the church along with three or four others just like it most of last winter. In the right hands it is a powerful tool to build a sanctuary to withstand life’s storms from simple kindness and generosity. This one of the shovels pre-school and play group children use to help our Sexton, Luis Vargas clear the snow. One of my favorite memories of Luis is watching him laughing and thanking children zooming up and down the front ramp, some holding their shovels backwards, pushing and pulling the snow. Just one look at this shovel, or if you’ve ever tried do a job with very young children, and you’ll know, help isn’t really the right word to use for what they managed to accomplish. It is but one example of the kindness and generosity of spirit with which Luis has welcomed guests, young and old, to Immanuel for nearly 20 years. We are going to miss him.

Vincent van Gogh, is supposed to have said, “To believe in God for me is to feel that there is a God, not a dead one, or a stuffed one, but a living one, who with irresistible force urges us towards more loving.”

God’s word does not wither. God’s will shall not be in vain. The book of Daniel and the gospel of Mark show us that Jesus’ message was meant to kindle hope even while we stand among the ruins and tombstones of our lives. It is a call to embody the undying life of God’s grace. It is the gift and call to become the distributive justice-compassion that God intends for the world. It is a call to build a living sanctuary from simple acts of kindness and generosity wrought from our own hands and imagination. You are part of the incarnation, the personification of God’s Kingdom – together with anyone who participates in the struggle to make it real here and now. As in days of old, it is now, our sure and certain hope rests upon it.


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