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The Road Home

Advent 2C-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth” (Luke 3:5).

Ancient words about roads like these don’t sound miraculous anymore. Modern roads everywhere make the way straight and smooth.  Bridges raise valleys and tunnels level mountains. Yet, to our forebears in faith, Isaiah’s roadway was an answer to prayer, an interstate highway home through the dangerous desert wilderness, straight and fast, from Babylon to Israel, from slavery to freedom, from death to life.

In my younger years, the road home led south on I-35 to Des Moines, and west along I-80.  I remember driving between Minnesota and Colorado late at night in the middle of a winter storm.  I could only see the dotted center line to my left and the solid white line to my right. With the foolishness of youth, I just aimed the car between those two lines and trusted the road to be there through miles of open country, over hills and rivers, in the darkness, through blinding snow.

Perhaps we take roads for granted.  In the wilderness, once you find a road, you find your way.  You’re no longer lost. Isaiah’s royal highway led people home without a map, without exhausting themselves, without special knowledge.  They didn’t have to do anything but follow the road home.

Next to God’s kingdom, there should be a sign that reads, ‘If you lived here, you would be home by now.’ God’s kingdom is already, always, everywhere, here and now.  Our truest home travels with us.  It’s never far away.  John stands signaling at the on-ramp for the lost to be found, for those stumbling in deep darkness to find light, for the hungry to find food and for those who thirst to find living water to drink.

It’s John the Baptist, after all, and not St. Nick whom Luke calls “prophet of the Most High” (Luke 1:76).  It’s the wild and wooly John whom God appointed to prepare the way for the infant Jesus. So, we should listen when John announces there is something more than a messy pile of wripped boxes and wrapping paper coming into our lives.  God is coming. Grace un-folding and abounding is making a way again to us.  A royal highway is being prepared. God in Christ Jesus will bring low the high obstacles. Christ will straighten the crooked pathways. Christ is working out a way to you and to bring you home again, amid shouts of joy.

In the fifteenth year of an Emperor, when governor so-and-so and two other rulers had authority, and the high priesthood of (blank) and of (blankety-blank) were in charge in Jerusalem, the word of God came—not to any of them—but to John, son of nobody you’ve heard of, in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2). Luke’s gospel is a shot across the bow to political and religious wind-bags and despots everywhere. God’s holy highway breaks through the wilderness, from the margins, among the lowly. The voice in the wilderness cries out for the way of God to be prepared with relentless urgency.

The wilderness is a place that exposes our need for God. It’s also a place that calls us to repentance. For 21st century Christians like us though, “sin” and “repentance” are weaponized words we fear will lead, not to liberation, but to humiliation.

So, what is sin?  Growing up, we were taught that sin is “breaking God’s laws.”  Or “missing the mark,” as an archer misses his target.  Or “committing immoral acts.”  These definitions are incomplete. They imply sin is a problem only because it angers God.  But God’s temper is not what God is worried about.

“Sin is a problem because it kills.  It kills us.  Why?  Because sin is a refusal to become fully human.  It’s anything that interferes with the opening up of our whole hearts to God, to others, to creation, and to ourselves…Sin is estrangement, disconnection, sterility, disharmony.  Sin is apathy.  Care-less-ness.  A frightened resistance to an engaged life.  Sin is the opposite of creativity, the opposite of abundance, the opposite of flourishing.  It is a walking death.  And it is easier to spot, name, and confess a walking death in the wilderness than it is anywhere else.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, From the Wilderness, 12/02/18)

Maybe the biggest surprise is that the road to heaven Christ opens has also linked us with each other.  The pathway to God runs through, not over, our fellow human beings.  As if by some miracle we reach our destination in a moment, all in an instant, not by coming to the end of the road but simply by being on the road.  Walking the way of Christ, we are in Christ.  Christ is with us and we are with one another.

That’s why people matter, justice matters, how we live makes a difference not only for those around us but for us too. The peaceable kingdom is more than a dreamy vision of heaven. It is God’s dream for the world.  If ever once you’ve lived there then you know you’re already home no matter where you travel.

The apostle Paul was a living example. The church in Philippi, located on the coast of northern Greece, was of particular delight to Paul.  It was the first church he established among the Gentiles of ancient Macedonia.  Lydia, a successful businesswoman, a trader in ‘purple cloth’ was his first convert there. It seems Paul and Silas stayed in Philippi quite a while.  Paul wrote, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.” (Phil. 1:3-4).  Paul’s words are particularly striking given that he wrote this letter to his brothers and sisters in Philippi while he was still in prison.

What did Paul find to be so joyful about?  Living conditions in an ancient jail left much to be desired.  Yet, across the miles, Paul continued a deep relationship with the Philippians.  Their mutual affection strengthened them and was a source of grace despite the locks, walls, and obstacles between them.

John Wesley once observed there is no such thing as a solitary Christian.  Through the gift of baptism into Christ’s body, we have all received the gift by which we, like Paul and the Philippians, are bound together into one family of God. It comes without shiny paper, ribbons or bows.  It comes with Christ’s promise, announced by John the Baptist: “every mountain and hill shall be made low”.

It comes as we move forward in faith, keeping the dotted line of compassion and forgiveness for one another on our left, and the solid line of God’s steadfast love on the right.  You don’t need anything more.  You don’t need any special knowledge or skill.  You don’t have to know where you are to find your way home and into the loving arms of God.

The church is the gathering of those once scattered. Diverse and different, we are one in Christ.  The church is also a sending forth of those gathered. We are right where we need to be—we dwell securely in the house of the Lord—as we stay on the move, walking the way of the cross as Jesus did.  The one who came, and is coming draws us together, holds us together.  We are together in our life in God, moving together toward the consummation of all things.  (William Willimon) Rich and poor, slaves and free, male and female, young and old, gay and straight, Jew and gentile, Christians and non-Christians. All are welcome.  We are joined in one great communion by the Advent of our God. Let the people say, Amen!

Be the Already

Advent 1C-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

And so, our story begins. This first Sunday in Advent our gospel comes from St. Luke as will be our custom throughout the coming year.  Notice, the Church begins its new year when the days are still getting darker.  Advent is not a season for the faint of heart. In place of swaddling clothes, twinkly stars, and fleecy lambs — each year we begin the story of God looking fiercely and honestly at the world as it really is, here and now.  Gorgeous, fragile, and falling apart.

“People with faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:26).  In prophetic language that sounds distressingly contemporary, Jesus describes a world reeling in pain. “When you see these things,” Jesus says, don’t turn away.  Don’t hide.  Why?  Because it’s only when we embrace reality — when we acknowledge and welcome the “here” of human suffering — that we experience the nearness of God.

In Advent, endings and beginnings run together. Ancient truths and dreams of the future teach a single startling truth: our creator and redeemer are one and the same. Our living God, the Ancient of Days, is our Alpha and Omega, our beginning and our end.  Today, and in this season, the past and future join hands to guide us in navigating the difficulties of this present moment and lead us into the loving embrace and the ongoing work of God that is already, always, and at all times everywhere.

This present moment is all we ever actually own in life. Yet it can be really hard to focus solely on the here and now. American novelist Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.”  That’s precisely what Jesus does in his prophetic wake-up call in our gospel today.  He shouts, he draws startling figures, and he uses every rhetorical device at his disposal to snap his listeners to attention.  “Be on guard,” he warns his disciples.  “Be alert.”  “Stand up and raise your heads.”  Look.

It is hard for people today, reading this gospel today, not to think the end-times Jesus is talking about is only about the future—possibly even the distant future—when Christ returns to the world again in glory from on high.  We forget the most important part of this message: the apocalypse is also now. Lutheran theologians are fond of saying the kingdom of God is already and not yet. Christ our king is already here. The victory is won but the struggle with the power of fear and death continues. Somehow we focus on the ‘not-yet,’ and  neglect the ‘already.’ The hopeful message of Advent is watch, wait, look, be part of the already!

Lauren Wright Pittman is an artist and Presbyterian pastor who created the beautiful image we have in our worship folders today entitled, “Raise Your Head.” She writes, “Jesus says to respond to these apocalyptic signs with staggering hope and confidence. When it feels like the very foundations of the heavens are crumbling, we are to stand up. When the roaring sea and the waves confuse us, when the sun, moon, and stars come tumbling out of the sky, we are to raise our heads. When the news cycle feels like an endless fire hose, people pour into the streets in protest, families are separated, and fires blaze through neighborhoods, we are to stand up and confidently usher in and claim the redemption that God promises.”

Be the already.  Focus on what’s not yet makes us into passive spectators, leads us down blind alleys and into fruitless speculation.  “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).  Instead, the meaning of the cross and of the resurrection is that you can be part of God’s already.

Advent calls for brutal honesty, even when honesty leads us straight to lamentation. In Advent, we are invited to describe life “on earth as it is,” and not as we mistakenly assume our religion requires us to render it.  We are invited to shout forth our pain and bewilderment.  To name the seeming absence of God.  Advent is an invitation to yearn.  That is, to name the “here” of our desires without shame or reservation.  Advent is the season when longing makes sense.  Advent is an invitation to imagine.  In Advent, we are called to hope creatively.   To hope against the grain.  Or as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, we’re called to trust that “darkness does not come from a different place than light; it is not presided over by a different God.”

“Advent is an antidote to illusion.  It cuts to the chase.  It insists on the truth.  It lays us bare.  Advent invites us to dwell richly in the here, precisely because here is where God dwells when the oceans heave, the ground shakes, and our hearts are gripped by fear.  “When you see these things,” Jesus says, hope fiercely and live truthfully.  Deep in the gathering dark, something tender continues to grow.  Yearn for it, wait for it, notice it, imagine it.  Something beautiful — something for the world’s saving — waits to be born.” (Debie Thomas, “When You See These Things,” Journey with Jesus, 11/25/18)

Former President George H. Bush died Friday.  He was 94.  A reporter for the New York Times, Peter Baker gave this accounting of his final hours. “George Bush had been fading in the last few days. He had not gotten out of bed, he had stopped eating and he was mostly sleeping. For a man who had defied death multiple times over the years, it seemed that the moment might finally be arriving.

His longtime friend and former secretary of state, James A. Baker III, arrived at his Houston home on Friday morning to check on him.

Mr. Bush suddenly grew alert, his eyes wide open.

“Where are we going, Bake?” he asked.

“We’re going to heaven,” Mr. Baker answered.

“That’s where I want to go,” Mr. Bush said.

Barely 13 hours later, Mr. Bush was dead. The former president died in his home in a gated community in Houston, surrounded by several friends, members of his family, doctors and a minister. As the end neared on Friday night, his son George W. Bush, the former president, who was at his home in Dallas, was put on the speaker phone to say goodbye. He told him that he had been a “wonderful dad” and that he loved him. “I love you, too,” Mr. Bush told his son. Those were his last words.” (Peter Baker, “George Bush’s Final Days,” NYT, 12/01/18)

I never voted for him, but from the perspective Advent provides, his kinder, gentler style of leadership looks like something essential we must reclaim for ourselves going forward. For mortals, our beginning and ending inevitably come together. See! They lead us to the same place. “The bridegroom comes! Awake.  Rise, prepare the feast to share; go meet the bridegroom who draws near.” (ELW #436)  Together, let us be the Already.

Truth Unveiled

Proper 28B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Do you see these walls, these windows, that great red granite cross?  Jesus said, “not one stone will be left here upon another” (Mark 13:2b).

On this penultimate Sunday of the church year, our gospel lens on God’s grace widens out to take a cosmic perspective. It reminds me of an exhibit at the Adler Planetarium.  We move in an imaginary rocket from earth to planets, to nearby stars, and finally to other galaxies.  The last three Sundays of the church year are sometimes called kingdomtide.  Our focus shifts from a single point in history to the whole story of God and creation. Here alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, are held together.  Here is the sweep of human history, the rise, and fall of nations, the wreck and ruin of civilizations, and the shadowy echoes of human endeavor long since forgotten by everyone but God.

From here, just beneath the gates of heaven, the world looks small. From here, the question naturally arises, “What’s it all for?”  Why this desperate striving to store up treasures for ourselves that do not last?

Some of you may remember I once rode a rented a horse named Chocolate along the edges of the Egyptian desert near Cairo to Sakkara, ancient Egypt’s first pyramid.  Sakkara is part of the great necropolis of Memphis, the capital of the Old Kingdom. It continues to be studied by swarms of Egyptologists. Even more memorable to me was the ruin of a small unmarked out-of-the-way place I happened upon on my way back from the pyramid.  It looked like it was once a place of worship.  Apparently, it was of no interest even to the Egyptologists—or at least—not when I was there in the fall of 1984.

I steered my horse through the front door, down the center aisle, across the spot where I imagined the altar would be, and out a hole in the back wall. What sacrilege I must have committed that day to those who built that place. I wonder, will there be a day, do you think, someone ages and ages from now will wander through whatever remains of Immanuel?

What comes of all our striving?  What echo of our lives will persist in those days, when the very stones with which our church is assembled have turned to sand?

This passage from Mark’s Gospel is often described by scholars as a mini-apocalypse. It may leave us feeling rather bleak and sad. The author’s intention is quite different. Ancient people loved reading apocalyptic literature as much as people today love science fiction or romantic comedies because it inspired hope. The word ‘apocalypse’ means ‘unveiling.’ A Christian apocalypse draws back the veil to reveal the sure and loving hand of God at work in the world. We are meant to see what is truly eternal and what is passing.  We glimpse the truth that will set us free. But of course, sometimes truth, no matter how liberating, can be quite painful and disorienting.

In Jesus’ day, the temple in Jerusalem was one of the most impressive sights in the world.  Torn down twice since King Solomon built it, the second rebuilding was undertaken by Herod before Jesus’ birth. It was not finished until after his crucifixion.

That is to say, when Jesus and the four disciples sat opposite the temple across the Kidron valley upon the Mount of Olives, looking down upon the temple, they were looking at a brand-new building. It was clad with so much gold, looking at it directly could literally be blinding.

What they see is an architectural marvel.  It’s the biggest, boldest, and most unshakeable symbol of God’s presence they can imagine.  Those massive stones hold religious memory. They bolstered a colonized people’s identity. They offered the faithful a potent symbol of spiritual glory, pride, and worthiness.  In short, what takes their breath away as they gaze at the temple is the religious certainty and permanence those glittering stones display to the world.

That’s what the disciples see.  But what does Jesus see?  He sees ruins.  Rubble.  Destruction.  Fragility, not permanence.  Loss, not glory.  Change, not eternity.  “Not one stone will be left here upon another,” Jesus tells the stunned disciple. “All will be thrown down.”

In her collection of sermons, God in Pain, Episcopal pastor and author Barbara Brown Taylor argues that disillusionment is essential to the Christian life.  “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion — about ourselves, about the world, about God — and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.”

Part of our pain today is that so much ugliness we thought was a thing of the past has revealed itself to be very much with us. Pulling back the veil we see sexual violence, gender discrimination, racism, hatred, and mass extinction. Author and social activist Adrienne Maree Brown offered words of hope in speaking about racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016: “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered.  We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”

God’s word does not wither.  God’s will shall not be in vain.  Every life is precious.  When truth is shaken, and nations make war, and imposters preach alluring gospels of fear, resentment, and hatred—don’t give in to terror.  Don’t despair. Avoid hasty, knee-jerk judgments.  Be perceptive, not pious.  Imaginative, not immature.  Make peace, choose hope, cultivate patience, and incarnate love as the world reels and changes. Let the Spirit of God that passes all understanding lead and guide you. All that is not pure will be burned away. Let’s dare to see what Jesus sees. What is great and what is small in the kingdom of God are not the same as what is counted as great and small in the world.

Pastor Debie Thomas writes, “In this troubling context, it’s easy to despair.  Or to grow numb.  Or to let exhaustion win.  But it’s precisely now, now when the world around us feels the most apocalyptic, that we have to respond with resilient, healing love.  It’s precisely now when systemic evil and age-old brokenness threaten to bring us to ruin that we have to “hold each other tight” and allow the veil to part, the walls to fall.  What’s happening, Jesus promises at the end of this week’s Gospel reading, is not death, but birth.  Something is struggling to be born.  Yes, the birth pangs hurt.  They hurt so appallingly much.  But God is our midwife, and what God births will never lead to desolation.  Yes, we are called to bear witness in the ruins, but rest assured: these birth pangs will end in joy.” (Debie Thomas, Not One Stone, Journey with Jesus, 11-11-18)

From Death into Life

All Saints B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus wept. In fact, scripture says, he wailed. “When Jesus weeps, he legitimizes human grief. When Jesus cries, he assured Mary not only that her beloved brother is worth crying for, but also that she is worth crying with. Through his tears, Jesus calls all of us into the holy vocation of empathy.” (Debie Thomas, When Jesus Weeps, Journey with Jesus, 10/28/18)

When Jesus weeps, he shows that he understands that all is not as it should be.  Things here on earth are not as they are in heaven. When Jesus weeps, he shows us that sorrow is a powerful catalyst for change. The pernicious intoxicating allure of hatred is an evil that cannot be met without wisdom born of love that unites us all. When Jesus weeps, he stands shoulder to shoulder with us in sweeping back the tides that would swamp us.

It sounded a bit cheesy.  One of the interesting people we met in Ottawa, Canada last weekend announced he was wearing Griffindor socks.  We were at a workshop on baptismal living talking about the covenant God makes with us through the waters of baptism. The image of faith of Christians now, he said, is like the wizards of Hogwarts lifting their wands together to shine a light in courageous defiance of the evil Lord Voldemort.  That light created a protective shield over and around them within which they could prepare to battle.

Today, at the feast of All Saints, we hear words of comfort and compassion to dry our tears, bind our wounds, and strengthen us to engage with God in works of love.  Never forget we are gathered here in the presence of the Holy Spirit and our Lord Jesus with the great company of all the saints in light.  What we do in faith-filled acts of worship and praise matters, for this is where we learn how to heal and renew the world. Tikkun olam. With our Jewish brothers and sisters, we hear the call to be workers with God in repairing the world.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16) Let the exercise of gratitude we forge today with the paper in your worship folder be another small way to bind our hearts in Thanksgiving.  For that is how we create a protective shield over and around us to keep the tides of hate and violence from swamping or overwhelming us.

The prophet Isaiah invites us to a feast upon God’s holy mountain, the new Jerusalem. In Revelation, we read that the vision of God’s holy city, the new Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelation 21:2) God will remove the heart of stone in us and replace it with a heart of flesh. Joined together with all the saints of God in Christ, we move from grief into joy, from scarcity into generosity, from fear into courage, transforming death into life.

When Jesus wept, he showed that each of us is gifted by grace to carry the healing power and likeness of God to all those in need. We are God’s children, called to confront the fear-mongering powers of darkness with the joyous light and glory of grace.

“Let us go to Judea again”, Jesus said. The disciples were astonished, “Rabbi,” they said, “the [religious authorities] were just now trying to stone you, are you going there again?” (John 11:7-8).

By the grace of God, Jesus accounts us as Saints even while we are still sinners. Jesus confronts our fear, our pride, and condescension.  Jesus confronts our greed and mindless consumption.  Jesus confronts our capacity to empty other people of their God-given dignity to justify systems of injustice that privilege ourselves. Jesus will not back down but calls us to follow him.

When he arrived after four days at the tomb of Lazarus there was already a stench. At home, we have a five-gallon bucket to collect food waste for compost. We get a new one each week. Day one it’s in the kitchen. By day four it’s in the garage for as Martha said, ‘Lord, it stinketh.’ The story of poor Lazarus is the story of our own smelly rebirth as Saints in light. Lazarus was dead in the grave. Lazarus could do nothing for himself. All he could do was receive the gift of new life in God.  The story of Lazarus assures us—do not be ashamed, do not be afraid of the steps you take to health and wellbeing that are off-putting or smell bad to others. Come, take your place beside all the angels in light to shield us from the power of hatred and violence.

You’ll notice that while Jesus commanded Lazarus to come out, he also commands the community to unbind him.  The Christian community is the place where we are called to lovingly, carefully, help each other with our grave clothes. We do God’s work with our own hands.  Without judgment, without recoil, with the great love that comes only from God, we help one another with our grave clothes to be dressed again in the bright garment that is our new life in Christ. Jesus and all the saints beckon us from death into life as we passed through the waters of baptism, just as today, God calls little Greta Soo Schuchhardt a child of God.

Because God has set you apart, claimed you and calls you holy anything you do in faith can be called holy –like changing the diapers of our kids, or the diapers of someone else’s kids; or volunteering as a tutor; or creating a home where laughter resounds; or caring for a sick parent; or deliberating about which candidate to vote for and casting that vote; or being faithful in our duties at home or work; or visiting a neighbor who has a hard time getting out; or befriending a kid at school that other kids pick on; or anything else you do in faith. There is precious little in our life that can’t be a place where God is at work to heal, comfort, and restore because God has called us to be saints.  Never forget you are not alone in this work. God in Christ has commanded us out from the grave and gifted us with the challenge to help one another be free of our grave clothes.

When Jesus wept, he showed he stands with us. As St. Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, therefore “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35, 37-39)

No One is a Nobody

Proper 22B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

No one is a nobody. With striking and welcome unity all the readings for worship today align to focus our attention on the essential indelible value of all people, including animals, by affirming God’s creative purpose in creation. We are fashioned in God’s image. We are made for embrace.  We are invited into a love story that yields the delicious fruit of justice and righteousness.  Even now, God opens our hardened hearts to grace-filled compassion, that is without guile or calculation, that is love for all people, beginning with those accounted by others as unimportant.  No one is a nobody.

You observant listeners will notice I am skipping over the long history of the ways Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Mark has been so tragically used in the church that goes against this original liberating message.

I can remember a time in the 1970’s when parents of my childhood friend got a divorce. The church they belonged to was at the center of their lives. Yet when my friend’s mom announced her intention to remarry, church elders pronounced judgment upon her, not their blessings.  Rather than share in her joy, they labeled her an adulteress (no doubt citing authority from today’s gospel) and drove her out of the church.

Thanks be to God things have changed in the church. Curiously, as the institutional strength, authority, and status of the mainline church has declined, the gospel message of welcome, hospitality, and compassion of God in Jesus Christ has increased.

We find our way back to Jesus’s original message, as we always do, by listening for the plain meaning of the text.  Not in what we hear but in learning what the people of Jesus day noticed upon first hearing it.  In those days the Pharisees allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, cast his wife out of the house and into abject poverty.  In those days Children had no status or power.  Children and divorced (and widowed) women were non-persons. They were nobodies.  Yet “…it is to such as these,” Jesus said, “that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14).

No one is a nobody.  When Jesus heard the disciples were literally ‘shoving away’ nobodies from getting close he became angry.  The two stories in our gospel are linked together to demonstrate a new reality: Women and children are accepted and valued, not dismissed as inferior to adult men. (#Metoo.  #Lovethechildren.) Sadly, we are still learning this lesson.

Once again Jesus was teaching the disciples to give up ordinary calculations of greatness to unlock the great gate that opens into the kingdom of God.  Like the disciples, we continue to allow God’s grace to soften the hardness of our hearts, to open us to understanding no one is a nobody so that God’s love might finally flow through us, among us, and back to us through full participation in the rule of God.

The gospel calls us to press against the hardness in our hearts we bear toward the suffering of those whom society calls a nobody, #Blacklivesmatter.  Are you listening to this?  We ignore the gospel at our own peril. The serious damage done to erode the public trust so essential for the Chicago police to be effective in their core mission to protect and to serve  cannot be repaired until the hardness in our hearts of systemic racism directed toward people of color is softened and opened by grace, because God insists—no one in my creation is a nobody.

Friday afternoon the city held its breath.  When it was announced the jury in the Jason Van Dyke trial had reached a decision, about 90 minutes before it was read out, businesses closed, schools went on lockdown, people were advised to go home and “stay indoors.” Rather than justice, people were expecting a riot.  But then something unexpected happened. The system that labeled Laquan McDonald a nobody, that dismissed his murder as unimportant, that was bracing against the violent backlash, broke down. Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and sixteen counts of aggravated assault –one for each bullet he fired into 17-year old Laquan McDonald’s body in 2014.

For thirteen months the system worked to prevent people from seeing the police dash cam video. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel withheld it until after his re-election campaign when a court finally ordered its release.  Officer Van Dyke was not arrested and charged until after the video’s release contradicted the official story and made the city and his fellow officers appear complicit in helping to cover it up.

The evidence against Van Dyke was overwhelming, but that was no reason to assume he would be convicted. According to the Chicago Tribune, a Chicago police officer hasn’t been convicted of murder in “half a century.” New York Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo was never charged in the death of Eric Garner, despite video of him choking Garner to death. Cleveland Police Officer Timothy Loehmann was never charged for killing 12-year old Tamir Rice, despite the video showing him firing only moments after pulling up to the scene. Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted in the shooting of Philando Castile as he reached for his identification, despite video showing the aftermath of the confrontation. These are all examples of the system working, because this is what the system is actually designed to do: provide impunity to police, no matter what harm they cause. (Adam Serwer, “Something Went Wrong in Chicago,” The Atlantic Magazine, 10/05/18,)

But God has another system. No one is a nobody. The human dignity of any one cannot be denied without damaging our own claim to being human.  This truth will reveal itself because we are fashioned in God’s image.  We are made for embrace.  Thanks be to God things are changing in our society.  Healing will come to Chicago when we finally acknowledge our own complicity, whether as people of privilege, as citizens, or members of this church we love, in the sin of systemic racism. We are called to do God’s work with our hands. We are called to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace as we lean our shoulders against the hardness in our hearts and our eyes opened to the particularly brutal reputation of the Chicago police, which has paid out more than $500 million in abuse settlements over the past decade, and which has a long legacy of illegal detention, corruption, discrimination and even torture.  Because no one is a nobody it is time once again to let the cleansing waters of justice roll down and for righteousness to flow like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24). It is time for us again, like the disciples of old, to let God’s grace to carry us to a better brighter future.

Through the Back Door

Proper 21B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). Jesus declares he is officially non-partisan. It doesn’t matter what the score is or what team you play for. Winning at all costs is less important than the welfare of the people on both sides. Whenever we draw an artificial line and declare we don’t care who is on the other side we all suffer.  Jesus stands for both sides and for all people.

It was so refreshing to see the flicker of bi-partisanship return to our nation’s capital this week.  Just as one team was ready to score a historic win for their side, they paused for the sake of limiting the damage their victory could do to inflame the divisions tearing at the fabric of our country.

No matter how certain you are about being right, none of us has the whole story. That’s the truth. That’s the way God made us. Once we deny it, it’s surprising how quickly we find ourselves in hell. It’s better to lose a hand or an eye than to lose ourselves and those we love to yet another war between tribes, clans, parties, factions, and religions.  Jesus showed us the way. Jesus gives us an alternative—the way of the cross.

Have you heard the old joke? Saints Peter and Paul are talking at the Pearly Gates. Paul asked Peter how things are going. “Well,” says Peter, “not good. I carefully interview everyone. I double-check for their name in the Book of Life.  I turn away everyone not worthy to enter into heaven, but then I turn around and see those very people wandering around on the inside!  What’s going on?”  “Oh. That’s Jesus” replied Paul.  “Those people you turn away – he keeps letting them in through the back door.”

Martin Luther championed the slogan, sola gratia, by grace alone we are saved. Grace is the key that unlocks the Pearly Gates.  Grace is the undeserved answer to our longing, the lucky break we need to make something of ourselves. Grace is the knife to slice away the tangled mess we’ve made of our lives, and for cutting through the gruesome and hyperbolic sayings in our reading today to reveal the good news of the gospel.

Among some Christians, these verses have a long and cruel history of literal interpretation and application.  We are all witnesses of the tragic power of people to insult, to maim, and even commit murder in the name of being right. Closer to home, who among us doesn’t know someone deeply hurt by the church, or by someone claiming religious authority?  Religion without grace is a terrible, mean thing that has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus.

Catholic theologian and Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr God intends for us to be punished by our sins; whereas Western religions tend to teach that you are punished for your sins.”  It is not for us to mete out judgment or to administer punishments.  Instead, if we would call ourselves Christians, we are called to dispense mercy and forgiveness, just as we ourselves have received mercy and forgiveness by grace through faith. Goodness is its own reward and evil is its own punishment.

Even so, none of us gets through this life unscathed.  We have lost hands and legs. We are the blind and the lame.  We have striven and have failed. We have searched and found no way out, no way past the persistent reality of evil and sin, no way to unlock the Pearly Gates but through grace.  We stand in need.  We are all beggars.  Whatever sacrifice is required of our time, treasure, talents, ego, or lifestyle to get past the stumbling blocks that keep mercy, forgiveness, generosity, and joy—the fruits of grace—from growing in our lives is worth it.

So, it is with thankful joyous hearts we remember that our Lord said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Matthew 7:7)

This grace makes us salty. Salt of the Spirit protects the community from spoiling and from infection.  The apostle John ran to Jesus saying, “We saw this unknown, un-credentialed healer doing spectacular things and using your name even though he is not one of us.”  The disciples wanted Jesus to prevent someone from doing what they have just failed to do (a few chapters before).

“Envy and jealousy are near-sighted sins. They limit our vision and focus our attention on ourselves and our status” (Culpepper, p. 323).  The salt of the Holy Spirit plucks out of us those things that spoil good community.

It was Martin Luther who reminded us to look for the Christian gospel anywhere and everywhere at work in the world, in anyone or anything. Luther said, ‘whatever preaches Christ is the pure and salty gospel, even if Judas Iscariot said it.  Conversely, whatever doesn’t preach Christ is not the gospel, even if Saints Peter or Paul said it.’  It is the salty heart of faith that recognizes the truth about our brothers and sisters in Christ –even when we disagree, even when they play for the opposing team, even though we belong to different tribes.

We pray the salty wisdom of today’s gospel will be poured out upon our city when the verdict in the Jason Van Dyke trial is handed down in the coming days. We pray for the men and women on the jury who carry the enormous weight for us of making a just decision. We remember all of us were hustled in through the back door into the circle of abundant grace because Jesus was willing to break the rules for us. Wisdom begins in the knowledge we all stand in need of grace.

God can use whatever flavor you bring to season the world.  With the salt of grace, God prepares a banquet from the meager stuff of our lives. Bring me who you are.  Bring me your weaknesses.  I will strengthen them. Bring me your doubts.  I will quiet them.  Bring me your shortcomings and your limitations. I will fill your life with abundance.

Like salt, we have been poured out of the salt-shaker and into the world.  Let us embrace the things that make us different not so that we stand apart, but so that we might better stand together.  Let us follow Christ Jesus on the way of the cross.  Let us be salty so that the whole world may know of God’s grace.

What God Cares About

Proper 17B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus words sounded flip and scandalous to religious people in his time. But the underlying question is alive today.  What does God care about? I mean really?  Being about what God cares about could be the central the objective of any religion.  It’s disheartening that Christians share the same bible yet have such different answers.

In college, I was on a Christian outreach team.  At the invitation of congregations throughout the mid-west, we drove out to spend a weekend with high school youth and often also led worship. We wrote our own skits. One, in particular, inspired by today’s gospel, always went over well we thought. My job was to do the sound effects.  With each word, I cracked my belt really loud. Out of the hearts of men comes fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and folly” (Mark 7:22).  With each one, it appeared as though Jesus was being whipped.

These things defile us and are what God cares about. Yet I also wonder if in our youthful enthusiasm to be dramatic whether we somehow implied that following Christ was all about being nice. As if you can be a good Christian simply by being polite. As if walking the way of Jesus’ cross was about inter-personal morality rather than justice.  Using this gospel to justify it, we Christians fall right into the same trap the Pharisees found themselves in mostly because it makes religions so much easier.  I don’t have to worry about how my food is produced as long as I’m nice.  I don’t have to think about where my clothes are made and who makes them as long as I treat others respectfully.  I don’t have to change my lifestyle and I can buy all the stuff I want at Walmart just as long as I never use foul language.  But really, is that all God cares about?

I read an Op-ed piece in the paper this week entitled, “Can the Catholic church be redeemed?”  Stories of child sexual abuse are sickening.  We in the Lutheran might feel a little too satisfied that we don’t have that problem.  Yet the loss of trust in the Church as a place of wisdom and guidance is so widespread as to include us all.  As Christendom in North America emerges from decades happily embracing the brand of mainline religion, cozied up to political authorities and proudly carrying the banner of American patriotism and civil religion are we surprised now to see so many people around us have come to judge that what church people care about and what God cares about are not the same?  Integrity.  Our walk matches our talk.  It’s one of our ten core values.  It is gospel medicine, like this gospel today, calling the whole Church, to focus on what God cares about.  Can we, can this congregation, be part of that answer? Can we identify ways we’re already doing that? I believe we can.

We are not afraid to learn something from the world outside the church. We know the arena for living our faith is the world. (Another one of our core values.)  When we go outside, we are not surprised to find God already at work there. We are not afraid to follow the Holy Spirit.  We do not retreat into moralism and forsake social justice. We will not circle the wagons of traditionalism as if somehow God is to be found in the past and not in the present, or that God cares more about preserving past glories than in working to ensure all life continues to survive and flourish in the future.  We can do this because this is what God cares about.  We can do this because God gives us the inspiration and the will to do them.  We’ve got our work cut out for us.

We read today from the Letter of James, religion that is pure and undefiled before God, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:27).  Jesus was critical of that way of being religious that wants to judge, and ‘lord it over’ others. Instead, Jesus taught that what really matters to God is to have compassion and to forgive one another.

As Scholar Marcus Borg wrote, Jesus deliberately substituted the Hebrew standard from Leviticus “be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2) with the call to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).  Catholic journalist and author Gary Wills writes, therefore, “No outcasts were cast out far enough in Jesus’ world to make him shun them—not Roman collaborators, not lepers, not prostitutes, not the crazed, not the possessed. Are there people now who could possibly be outside his encompassing love?”  Of course, the answer is no. (Gary Wills, What Jesus Meant)

God is more concerned with how human beings treat one another, and what they say to one another than with religious rules about what we eat or drink, or whether we wash our hands. God is more interested that we live by the gospel than with how well we pray or how often we read the bible. Jesus challenged religious people of his time and of today to remember what truly matters is our neighbor’s well-being.  This is the living edge of our religious traditions, not our own sense of purity or defilement.

I say God doesn’t care how often you read the bible, but God does care that you live the gospel.  We can’t live this gospel without Jesus.  That’s another trap Christians can fall into sometimes called easy grace.  As if the gospel is simply about being a good person.  That’s only half of it.  We can’t be the person we are created to be without God’s help and inspiration to walk the way of Jesus’ cross.  We must keep returning to the center—to the table and the font—in order to return again into who truly we are and to what we are called to be. Now, that’s what God cares about.

When people of faith confuse devotion to God with focus on narrow-minded rules for righteousness or lock-step allegiance to some particular aspect of our religious tradition, they begin a dangerous transition from being hospitable and compassionate to being cold and judgmental.  History alone should be enough to teach us always to be humble.  To listen and talk things out with one another, and always to listen more than we talk. To know what matters about being Christian we must keep our eyes focused on Jesus and not each other.

Simply stated, the cure for sin, and for bad religion is Jesus. Biblical commands never take precedence over what is compassionate and caring. Jesus has proclaimed God’s forgiveness.  Who you are and what you might have done is not as important as who you are becoming. Through water and Word, bread and wine, we are on the way, dying to the little things, opening to the bigger things.  By grace, God enters our lives through Christ Jesus and makes us new from the inside out—and that’s all that really matters.

Not Going Anywhere

Proper 16B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Because of the flesh and blood, many disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.  So, Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ (John 6:66-67). It all could have ended right there. It was coming down to brass tax. They’ve reached a fork in the road. The cross looms over this reading from the background, more threat than promise. Following Jesus was becoming a profound risk to life and treasure. At some time or another, or perhaps many times over throughout our lives we’ve faced the same question. What keeps us coming back?

Simon Peter’s words, so often filled with bluster and over-confidence, here sound almost melancholy. They echo through the generations in our liturgy and in our hearts.  “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Peter knows where he belongs and because of that, he wasn’t going anywhere that wasn’t at Jesus’ side.

It’s interesting to me that at this critical moment, Jesus didn’t try to lay down the law. He didn’t hand them a set of rules. He didn’t insist they accept a morality code or systematic theology. He just invites us to follow him.  He pushes his learners to think beyond compliance with authority into a much harder space of morality –to be loved and therefore to become love; to accept grace and strive to be graceful; to receive hate and return mercy; to partake of the flesh and blood and become enfleshed (or incarnate) in the One Life; to live and walk the way of the cross.

How is this possible?  Not by our own power or will but by embracing our savior as one whom we love and in whom we have faith as Peter did. This is what it means to be Christian: that you have looked upon Jesus and seen some glimpse of the creator in whose image you were created.  Such love is a mystery. We can crave it, or we can claim it, but never control it. Yet, who would deny its power to change us or to shape events in the world?

Lutheran pastor and writer, Walter Wangerin, wrote about finding his son with a pile of stolen comic books, not once, but three times. Obviously, his approach to discipline wasn’t working. So, after the third time, he told his son he was going to spank him—not a common practice in the Wangerin household.  Five spanks later, his head hanging in shame, the boy was holding back tears.  The father excused himself, stepped out of the room and sobbed.

Years later the son and his mother were reminiscing about those days.  “After the incident with Dad, I never stole anything again,” he said.  “I’m sure that spanking cured you,” his mother said. “Oh no,” he replied, “it was because when Dad stepped out of the room I could hear him crying.”  (Heidi Husted, The Christian Century, August 2-9, 2000, p. 791)

Love is a more powerful motivator than fear or the threat of violence. We live every moment encircled in God’s love, who like a loving parent broods over us, counsels us and teaches us, and yes—who occasionally cries over us. This is why we’re here and, like Peter, we’re not going anywhere.

From time to time, I do marriage counseling.  One of the things I am sure to say to each couple is I don’t have the power to marry them.  The marriage covenant is built on something far more substantial than anything I say during the course of the wedding.

Marriage isn’t something transacted between the pastor and the couple. It is something that happened between them, hopefully, long before their wedding day. Possibly not at the same moment, probably not at the proposal, perhaps without words, each of them crossed a line within themselves –this person is different, this person I cherish without condition, regardless of the cost, in loyalty to their greater good even at the expense of my own. That is the bedrock upon which new families can be confidently made and through which our lives may find a higher purpose in the vow: I will not leave you.  In marriage, we pledge ourselves to love one person in the complete and unconditional way God loves us all. I don’t have to tell you, how poorly we all manage to do this—but also how bravely, and how well.  We are joined by God in every effort to better love our families and friends.

Love is glorious, and it is also a hard road. When the disciples turned away because his teaching was “too hard,” Jesus didn’t chase after them or make excuses. He never offers them “Christ Lite” or “Jesus for Dummies.” No, he let them wander off with their questions unanswered and their doubts unresolved. Yes, this teaching is hard.  It’s also life-giving, it’s also blessed, but it’s hard.

Jesus wants us to participate in transformation, beginning with ourselves. Who wants that? Such a transformation is too costly. Why can’t Jesus just do the good work in the world while we watch?  The difference is between watching those in love and actually being in love. To follow Jesus is to give yourself over to falling in love.

“Follow Jesus means “eating” his very essence, taking the Incarnation so deeply into our own bodies and souls that we exude the flavor of Christ to the world.  It means doing what Jesus did and living as Jesus lived.  It means turning the other cheek.  It means loving our enemies.  It means walking the extra mile.  It means losing our lives in order to gain them.  It means trusting that the first will be last and the last first.  It means seeking God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness.  It means denying ourselves” (Debie Thomas, Choose This Day, Journey with Jesus, 8/19/18). It means following the cross because of the promise it offers and looking past the threat. It means we’re not going anywhere that isn’t at Jesus’ side.

In Celtic tradition, pilgrims drew a circle around themselves before embarking on a journey.  While standing still, they used their index finger to draw an imaginary circle around themselves in a clockwise direction while praying.

This way of practicing incarnation was called the caim (or the encircling).  It reminded travelers that God surrounded them wherever they went. A Celtic prayer of encircling attributed to St. Patrick is a beautiful statement of incarnation:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in the mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity.  Amen.

In Flesh and Blood

Proper 15B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

To begin to explain communion the gospel of John points to the cross. Jesus said, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51b) Jesus did indeed give his pound of flesh on the cross. He will hand over his flesh and blood to the full power and ingenuity of the Roman Empire to inflict pain and to sow fear. On the cross, Jesus walked straight into the death-dealing jaws of worldly power, to reveal the greater life-giving power of grace

On the cross, once-and-for-all, Jesus proved God’s love cannot be broken despite how awful you are or whatever evil we have committed. Once-and-for-all Jesus revealed that glory is ours and God is beside us when we give our own flesh and blood for the sake of the suffering. Once-and-for-all Jesus showed us where we belong. We dwell in unity with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit today and forever. Therefore, following Jesus’ example, we here highly dedicate our flesh and blood in solidarity with victims of collective violence wherever and whenever they exist. For the first three centuries, before Constantine, the church more easily identified with the oppressed having sometimes been the victim of the Empire’s collective violence itself.

This is the life of which we partake. This is the true food we consume at the Table to nourish and to give soul to our poor flesh and blood. The cross is Jesus’ answer to the question of what kind of life the bread and wine incarnate in us. The cross is a sign of the kind of life the waters of baptism even now are working to reveal.  The cross is a stark sign of incarnation. Somehow, the Christian gift and message of the incarnation sounds sweeter and less threatening in Advent in Mary’s Magnificat or in barren Elizabeth’s joy in conceiving. But the message is the same. “If in your heart you make a manger for his birth, then God will once again become a child on earth.” (Ana Hernandez)

After the resurrection, Jesus’ words at the end of John, chapter 6, will sound different and more intelligible to the disciples too. But for now, they are scandalous.

In Hebrew culture “an eater of flesh” is another name for the devil. The drinking of blood is forbidden by God’s law. Even today keeping kosher means there’s no blood in your food.  On top of all this, Jesus uses a word for eating that’s especially crude.  It was used to describe the way animals eat. Jesus’ phrase ‘eat my flesh’ translated literally sounds like a command to loudly chew or to gnaw his flesh –disgusting!

It sounded like blasphemy. It sounded like idolatry. Worse, it sounded like cannibalism.  Upon hearing Jesus’ words, a dispute broke out among his followers (John 6:52).  Scripture implies it was a serious conflict, perhaps even physical. The argument was intense and bitter.

Up to now, great crowds of people had followed Jesus’ every move.  They ran ahead to arrive at his destination before he could. But now they said, “this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (vs. 60) …and because of this many who were following him, turned back and no longer went about with him’ (vs. 66) because of the flesh and blood.

Flesh and blood—because of the flesh and blood—people rejected Jesus. Indeed, the shock and scandal of the incarnation continued to be a difficult teaching for Christians throughout the history of the church. In our theology, ecclesiology, and daily practice of faith we turn and twist it to avoid confronting its full meaning.

When we partake of one flesh, let’s face it, there are always going to be some people we want to exclude. Flesh and blood are our family-right?  Flesh and blood are the people who look like us, who come from the same place, who share the same history.  Your flesh and blood are the people you don’t have to explain yourself to. They’re the ones to whom we’re especially devoted, obliged to be loyal, who call on us when times are tough, and with whom we share our wealth in life and in death.  Wrong. In Christ all people of every nation are included in God’s family—even strangers—worse, even enemies!  Jesus’ friends and family from his hometown of Nazareth were so shocked and scandalized when they heard Jesus’ inclusive message they moved as one to throw him over a cliff.

It’s been the same ever since. Christians with all their rules and heavy expectations deny access to the kingdom train at the front door, while Jesus lets everyone in at the back door. If we followed Jesus way of the cross, there wouldn’t be a difference.  Every congregation would be united and as diverse as are all the children of humanity.

It doesn’t stop there. Discomfort with strangers is just the beginning. The shock and scandal of the incarnation calls upon us do something, that for most of us, is even more difficult—to love our own fleshy, bloody, messy bodies. The gospel of Christ calls upon us to turn and embrace what we so fiercely reject in ourselves—namely our mortality, our limitations, our flaws, our vulnerabilities, our shame, and shortcomings.  This is the plain meaning of the incarnation: the fullness of God is pleased to dwell in, with, and under us and everything that surrounds us.  The material world is infused with Spirit.

Through its history, the church has side-stepped the radical inclusion of the incarnation to make things easier and to make the Christian life less threatening.  Every time we slice a little bit of our humanity off from the blessing of incarnation we have hell to pay for it. We have said, yes, God is fully present –but only among the male gender, or especially in the ordained, or only among baptized Christians, or most tragically, only among those the celibate. The unholy interlocking triangle of gender, celibacy, and ordination contributes to a culture of secrecy and sexual abuse. Pain and tragedy results when we call anyone or anything unclean that God has made good. (Acts 10:15)

The depth of our sinfulness obscures and hides the gift of incarnation in us. We are wise to be humble, to listen, to pray, and discern together how to walk the way the cross. The cross must not become a cheap and easy way to crucify or to judge others but used for that which Jesus’ intends it –as the means of transforming our own flesh and blood to better reflect the divine image endowed and incarnate in us by our creator.

We abide together, one flesh, one blood, one body. The verb translated in our gospel, ‘to abide’ occurs 40 times in John and 29 times in John’s letters.  It can mean to remain, stay, live, dwell, last, endure, or continue.   As a noun, it means a dwelling place, room, or home.  Jesus’ shocking, off-putting words are an invitation to enter into wisdom. Enter into the life of the Trinity. In this new understanding of our body and our life—of where and to whom we belong—we begin to act differently.  We make different choices.  We value different things.  Our mission at Immanuel is rooted in this.  Together, our vision and our prayer is to become a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Table Fellowship

Proper 14B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

One day Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with the disciples. When he looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward them, he bid them sit down. (John 6:3) There were people of every station, nation, and denomination.  Seated near Jesus was Matthew the tax collector who had once made a living by cooperating with the occupying Roman army.  Nearby by was another disciple, Simon the Zealot, who once conspired with revolutionaries for the violent overthrow of Rome.  Political opposites seated together. Red and blue united in communion with Jesus.

In the crowd were others we might have recognized, like the man formerly known as the Gerasene demoniac, or perhaps the leper who returned to say thanks, or the woman healed of the hemorrhage she suffered for twelve years. The Samaritan woman could have been there, as could Jairus the synagogue leader. Maybe even Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea –along with Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, Salome, and the other Mary’s who used to financially support Jesus’ ministry.

Many who shared the feast were deeply, personally connected to Jesus. Most were there because they were hungry, or because they were curious, or because they wanted to see someone famous. Whatever their reasons for being there. It didn’t matter. Gathered together were people there of faith, of no faith, and of different faiths. Yet each person was welcomed. Each person one was fed.  What are we to make of it?

This is week three of five in which we meditate upon the 6thchapter of John’s gospel.  There’s a lot going on.  You could get a Ph.D. picking through all the details.  Don’t neglect to see the big picture. This is what Eucharist looks like. The entire scene is meant as inspiration and guidance for us in what it means to be Christian, to be the body of Christ, united in holy communion with the cosmic Christ, fed at his table to become food for others—bread for the world.

This might be Jesus’ most often repeated teaching.  Jesus mostly taught from the table. He was constantly eating in new ways and with new people, encountering those who were oppressed or excluded from the system. Through table fellowship, Jesus was teaching us what family means. He was always trying to broaden the circle.

By one side, he was criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10-11, for example); by the other side, he was judged for eating too much (Luke 7:34) or for eating with the Pharisees and lawyers (Luke 7:36-50, 11: 37-54, 14:1). He ate with both sides. He ate with lepers (Mark 14:3), he received a woman with a bad reputation at a men-only dinner (Luke 7:36-37), and he even invited himself over to a “sinner’s” house (Luke 19:1-10). He didn’t please anybody, it seems, always breaking the rules and making a bigger table.

Here is the New Jerusalem.  There, seated en mass on the mountain, and at table in home after home was the Kingdom of God.   This is what Eucharist means. This is what holy communion looks like. We must be careful not to miss the point.

As Christianity developed and communion moved from being an inclusive meal with open table fellowship to the relatively safe ritual meal we call the Eucharist, unfortunately, that ritual itself became a way to categorize people into groups of insiders and outsiders in terms of worthiness and unworthiness—just the opposite of Jesus’ intention! Jesus continually interprets the Law of Holiness from the Hebrew Bible in terms of the God whom he has met—and that God is always compassion and mercy. We emphasized the priest as the “transformer” instead of the people as the transformed.

Eucharist is more than a theological statement that requires intellectual assent. “It is an invitation to socially experience the shared presence of God and to be present in an embodied way(Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, The Shape of the Table, 7/22/18). Eucharist is both deeply personal and profoundly communal.  That’s the point, in our own small way, of moving back and forth from the rail in Advent and Lent to standing together before the altar each summer. More importantly, eucharist should help us to recognize the people who flood into Immanuel each week, in some cases, for more than thirty years for playgroups, tutoring, and the Cooperative Nursery school are a lot like the crowd that gathered around Jesus in John chapter 6.  Jesus instructed the disciples then, as he continues to encourage us today–just give them something to eat.

When you are really present with our guests then you will experience the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist for yourself.

In the Eucharist, we slowly learn how to surrender to the Presence in one place, in one thing, in one focused moment. The priest holds up the Host and says, “See it here, believe it here, get it here, trust it here.” Many Christians say they believe in the Presence in the Eucharist, but they don’t get that it is everywhere—which is the whole point! They don’t seem to know how to recognize the Presence of God when they leave the church when they meet people who are of a different religion or race or sexual orientation or nationality. They cannot also trust that every person is created in the image of God. Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry trying to break down the false distinctions between “God’s here” and “God’s not there.” He dared to see God everywhere, even in sinners, in enemies, in failures, and in outsiders.”  Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Eucharist, 7/27/18) We are not always capable of seeing that, but fortunately God is patient with all of us and with history itself.

This, now, here is the bread of live present always and everywhere.  Taste it here and now.  Chew on it and meditate upon it, so that you may better see and greet Christ in your neighbor and to become food that nourishes the soul.

The Iona Abbey, on an obscure island off the coast of a narrow peninsula in Scotland, where Christianity thrived for hundreds of years throughout the Dark Ages of Europe, put the invitation to Eucharist this way:

The table of bread and wine is now to be made ready. It is the table of company of Jesus, and all who love him. It is the table of sharing with the poor of the world, with whom Jesus identified himself. It is the table of communion with the earth, in which Christ became incarnate. So, come to this table, you who have much faith and you who would like to have more; you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time; you who have tried to follow Jesus, and you who have failed; come. It is Christ who invites us to meet him here. (Iona Abbey Worship Book (Wild Goose Publications: 2001)

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