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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)

Come Away with Me

Proper 11B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

‘Come rest awhile’ (Mark 6:31). Jesus’ invitation has special resonance for me this week, as my family and I prepare to head out to Northern Illinois and then to see my mom in Colorado.  The wisdom and importance of Sabbath-keeping is a message that runs throughout scripture.

The disciples have just returned from their first tour of ministry — they are officially now apprentice apostles. They are exhilarated and exhausted, filled with stories — thrilling accounts of healings, exorcisms, and effective evangelism. Perhaps there are darker stories in of failure and rejection to share as well.  Hard stories they needed to process privately with their Teacher.

Meanwhile, as we read about last Sunday, Jesus has just lost John the Baptist, his beloved cousin, and prophet, the one who baptized him and spent a lifetime in the wilderness preparing his way.  Worse, Jesus has lost him to murder, a terrifying reminder that God’s beloved are not immune to violent, senseless deaths.  Maybe Jesus’ own end feels closer.  In any case, he’s heartbroken.

Whatever the case, Jesus senses the disciples need a break.  They’re tired, overstimulated, underfed, and in significant need of solitude. ‘Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile,’ Jesus said to his disciples as crowds push in around them at the edge of the Sea of Galilee. ‘Come away with me,’ is how another translation puts it.” There is both tenderness and longing in those words.  (Debie Thomas)

Here, we find a Jesus who recognizes, honors and tends to his own tiredness.  We encounter a teacher who notices his disciples’ exhaustion and responds with tenderness.  I appreciate passages like this if nothing else than for the simple fact they are not shy of telling us that Jesus was a real human being.

Passages like Luke 5:16: “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”  Or Mark 11:12: “The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.”  Or Matthew 8:24: “Jesus was sleeping.”  Or Mark 7:24: “He didn’t want anyone to know which house he was staying in.” These “minor” verses offer essential glimpses of Jesus’ human life — the life we can most relate to—his need to withdraw, his desire for solitary prayer, his physical hunger, his sleepiness, his inclination to hide.

“These glimpses take nothing away from Jesus’ divinity; they enhance it, making it richer and all the more mysterious.”  They are a reminder that the doctrine of the Incarnation is truly Christianity’s best gift to the world.  “God — the God of the whole universe — hungers, sleeps, eats, rests, withdraws, and grieves.  In all of these mundane but crucial ways, our God is like us.” (Debie Thomas, “Come Away with Me,” Journey with Jesus, 7/12/15)

So why should we deny ourselves sleep, food, exercise, and retreats?  Biologists are in the news again underscoring the importance of eight hours of sleep and the improved attention and decision making that follow a short break during work hours. There is a harshness we have toward our mortal ourselves that God does not abide. We must help one another to be kind to ourselves and attended to our limits and needs.

Come away with me, Jesus invites us. The first part of Sabbath keeping is the graceful invitation to take a break.  The second part is also essential and not to be neglected—we need time with Jesus. We need the rhythm of gathering around Word and Sacrament. We need time to love and praise God.  We need time to be re-joined in the Spirit. We need God’s help to separate noisy thoughts from the signal call of grace. We need God’s living Word to be that compass that always points north.  Otherwise, soon we are like sheep gone astray.  I believe when we are rooted in grace it is easier to experience joy; it is more likely to notice the things for which I am thankful and to feel gratitude.  These are surely gifts of the Spirit of which there are many.  Yet another gift of Sabbath keeping highlighted by our gospel today is the gift of compassion.

We see Jesus is also like us in that sometimes, his best-laid plans go awry. According to St. Mark, Jesus’ retreat-by-boat idea fails.  The crowds anticipate his plan and follow on foot.

Does Jesus turn the boat around and sail away?  No.  As Mark puts it, “Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat and had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.  So, he began to teach them many things.” (Mark 6:34)

Afterward, Jesus second attempt at vacation is also interrupted. According to Mark 6:53-56, the crowds anticipate Jesus’ plan, and word spreads.  As soon as the boat lands at Gennesaret, the crowds go wild, pushing and jostling to get close to Jesus.  They carry their sick to him on mats.  In every village and city, Jesus approaches, swarms of people needing healing line the marketplaces.  They press against him.  They plead.  They beg to touch the fringe of his robe and receive healing.

“Jesus’ response?  Once again, his response is compassion.  “All who touched him were healed.”  On the one hand, Jesus was unapologetic about his need for rest and solitude.  He saw no shame in retreating when he and his disciples needed a break. On the other hand, he never allowed his weariness to overwhelm his compassion. Err on the side of compassion.  Jesus did.” (Debie Thomas)  Joy, generosity, but most of all, compassion are the fruits of Sabbath-keeping and the gifts of baptism. These are the happy ingredients we need for putting together a well-lived life. I’ll tell you a secret. They all come from God.

I leave you today with a poem from Jan Richardson, entitled “Blessing of Rest.”

Blessing of Rest

Curl this blessing
beneath your head
for a pillow.
Wrap it about yourself
for a blanket.
Lay it across your eyes
and for this moment
cease thinking about
what comes next,
what you will do
when you rise.

Let this blessing
gather itself to you
like the stillness
that descends
between your heartbeats,
the silence that comes
so briefly
but with a constancy
on which
your life depends.

Settle yourself
into the quiet
this blessing brings,
the hand it lays
upon your brow,
the whispered word
it breathes into
your ear
telling you
all shall be well
all shall be well
and you can rest
now.

Jan Richardson, Painted Prayerbook.

Christ, The Way

Proper 10B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Elizabeth and Zechariah were overjoyed at the birth of their son.  Zechariah struck dumb for doubting God in the temple, found that his tongue was loosed at his birth.  “His name is John,” he finally said. What joy they had for their son, this man of God, the last of the great prophets. But look what it’s come to. John the Baptist landed in prison for speaking truth to power; he suffers doubt and despair about the Messiah he thought he knew; he received no solace, no rescue from God and gets his head chopped off during a birthday party to appease a clueless girl, a cruel-hearted queen, and a cowardly king. What can we say about this old weary world—but that sometimes some truly stupid, senseless, crap happens.

We’ve all heard good Christians friends reach for some redemptive meaning to be found in tragedy:  “God never gives anyone more than they can bear.” Or, “God has a plan,” and “For everything, there is a season.  A time to be born and a time to die.”  I confess I’ve said things like this, and that I do find some comfort in these familiar sayings.  Yet, the true answer to tragedy is the cross. The strong message of the cross is God can always find a way to make something beautiful from the manure we make of our lives.

Faithful words hung in a frame above our bed are not jagged enough; they’re too easy and polite.  There’s a hazard in moving to closure, redemption, and triumph too quickly.  But here, in today’s gospel, is a Christian story that looks true horror in the face. Here is the Christian story that will sit with us in the darkness and help us trust that God is there, too.  Instead of reaching too quickly and compulsively for brightness, here is a gospel story about injustice, a travesty, a desecration. The head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.

We’ve heard examples of this kind of story from everywhere, from hospital rooms, opioid clinics and the streets of Chicago. We hear about the brave Muslim men, called the White Helmets. We see them run into bombed and burning buildings in Syria, pulling out children covered in ash and entire families when suddenly, the building collapses and some of them are killed too. We hear this story from families fleeing violence, facing death from dehydration at the border and now from toddlers who don’t recognize their parents after separation.

We need strong gospel medicine if we are going to withstand such losses and not lose heart. Starting with the fact that we don’t need to slap some transcendent purpose or meaning on all human experience. Christian friends our faith doesn’t require that we believe everything is part of a Divine plan, some things are just plain horrible.  Period. The cross was not God’s plan A.  It was plan B, or maybe plan C or D.  Rather, faith is knowing God will not abandon us. Faith is trusting God to bring salvation and grace even out of horror—when all the evidence leads us to conclude otherwise.

How much more credible and relevant we, his followers, would be, if we’d follow Jesus’s example as we confront the world’s ongoing horrors?  Some things are too terrible for words. We take them to the cross. Some hurts can’t be salvaged with a neat story.  “So, honor the silence.  Create space for grief.  Mourn freely.  And when you’re ready, feed the people around you whatever you’ve got.  Somehow it will be enough, even if you can’t explain how or why.  This is how we make the sorrows bearable.” (Debie Thomas, “Bearable Stories,” Journey with Jesus, 7/08/18) This is how grace heals the world. Not everything happens for a reason, but somehow, God makes beautiful sense of the jagged and bloodied pieces of our lives anyway.

Mark insists that we see this. Mark’s gospel intertwines the story of John and Jesus almost from the very beginning.  There’s something important Mark wants us to know about the timing of Jesus’ ministry and John’s arrest.  All the way back in chapter one, Mark told us it was “…after John was arrested, [that] Jesus came to Galilee, [following his baptism by John] proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!” (Mark 1:14).

Furthermore, in his very first sentence, Mark called his work “a gospel.”  This is easy for us to miss because now, we refer to all four evangelists as “gospels.”  Yet Mark was the first and only one to explicitly do so. The word Evangelion meaning “gospel” or “good tidings,” was used for imperial announcements such as the birth of royalty, the ascension of an emperor, or a military victory.  Mark’s word choice undermined the caprice of political-military power by appropriating its language and infusing it with new, deeper, and transcendent meanings (William H. Willimon).   Mark not only invented a whole new literary genre, “the gospels,” but in doing so he challenged the powers of this world and pointed to the power of the kingdom that is coming in Christ Jesus by way of the cross.

For us, it means that faith in Jesus and the end of the death-dealing social-political-economic order cannot be completely separated.  The death of John the Baptist foreshadows Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  The death of both John and of Jesus are an indication to us of the potential costs of discipleship. Things do not always, or even very often, go God’s way. But the way of the cross is the way of Life toward which, ultimately, all life must flow.

The death of John the baptizer opened a window through which to glimpse the stark contrast between the gospel of Christ and the ways of power in the world. Mark’s “flashback” to John’s imprisonment and senseless, brutal death, comes just as Jesus sent out the disciples, two by two, without bread or bag or money, to preach the good news.  Herod had sent out hired men to arrest and to bind John, while Jesus sent out disciples to bring life and wholeness to others.  Herod gave an extraordinary banquet for the rich and powerful with well-prepared foods in abundance.  Yet, Herod’s banquet became an occasion for bitterness and betrayal.  It exposed his foolishness, his precarious grip on power and lack of control.  By contrast, as the disciples returned, Jesus bid ordinary people of every type and description sit on the green grass and provided a feast of abundance for 5,000 men and their families from five loaves of bread and two fish.  It became an occasion for generosity and joy.  It exposed the wisdom of Christ’s gospel and the power of grace to unlock human hearts in relationship to Christ Jesus. Christ Jesus showed us the way to respond to senselessness is to love our enemies and feeding them.

Our Christian faith is more than simply learning about Jesus.  It is more than admiring Jesus.  It is more than gladly hearing the Word. King Herod did all that, but the Word sown in his life did not bear fruit.  The cares of the world choked it out.  Christianity is not knowledge about Jesus, it is knowing God as revealed in Jesus.  It is about having a relationship with God through Jesus.  Our faith is about knowing and being known by God, trusting in God to bring harmony and blessing in abundance when we are broken and lost.

Unlikely Heroes

Proper 9B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

He was a lifelong Republican and an ordained Presbyterian minister. He graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He never had a church, but millions of young congregants watched him on tv from the late 1960s until the turn of the century. Fred Rogers show was an expression of the type of mainline Protestantism that was once the dominating morality in American life.

Mr. Rogers is preaching to America again.  Fred Rogers, who died in 2003, is the subject of two major movies, one starring Tom Hanks coming out next year, and the other is a documentary playing now, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”  For decades, his message was essentially one of grace: You are special just the way you are. God’s grace means you are loved just as you are; and at the same time, God’s grace means you are called and equipped to become more than you ever dreamed you could be.

On a trip to California in 1998, Mr. Rogers met a 14-year-old boy whose cerebral palsy left him sometimes unable to walk or talk. Mr. Rogers asked the boy to pray for him. The boy was stunned. He had been the object of many prayers, but nobody had asked him to pray for them. He promised he would try.

Afterward, a reporter named Tom Junod from Esquire Magazine complimented Rogers on finding a clever way to boost the boy’s self-esteem, but Rogers didn’t look at the situation that way at all: “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”

And here is the gospel radicalism that infused that show: that the child is closer to God than the adult; that the sick are closer than the healthy; that the poor are closer than the rich and the marginalized closer than the celebrated. “In the gospel of Fred Rogers, children are our superiors in the way they trust each person they in the way they trust each person they meet, the way they lack guile, the way a child can admit simple vulnerability.” (By David Brooks, “Fred Rogers and the Loveliness of the Little Good,” NYT, July 5, 2018)

Famously, on May 1, 1969, Fred Rogers went before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications to argue against a proposed funding cut to Public Broadcasting System (PBS). Sen. John O. Pastore, the subcommittee chairman, had never heard of Mr. Rogers or seen any of his shows, but after only six minutes of testimony (including one song, recited from memory, about anger management), the politician went from being a dismissive foe to a lifelong fan. Morgan Neville, who directed the documentary in theaters now said, “Many people would call Fred a wimp, but what you realize in that moment is that Fred was the most iron-willed person out there… It’s Mister Rogers goes to Washington. It’s the perfect example of somebody speaking truth to power and winning.”

Fred Rogers was an unlikely hero just like every other hero in the bible.  King David was the least regal of Jesse’s sons. The Apostle Paul wasn’t a good public speaker.  His own townspeople dismissed Jesus as a simple carpenter, the son of Mary—implying Joseph was dead or had fled the scene, or perhaps that they knew about Jesus’ questionable parentage.  (Mark 6:3)

Each of us is born into a place and story that identifies who we are and sets boundaries on who we can become.  But rather than identify with any of these stories, our bible heroes instead live out the story of who they are—who each of us is—in God.

St. Paul writes that in Christ “power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9) While the world jockeys for control, the church is called to reach out in service.  While others work furiously to become invulnerable, the church is called to open its hand and heart to the least among us. While everyone else strives to be strong, the church prays for that power perfected in weakness, for power rooted in compassion and love. Only this kind of power can inspire trust and kindle faith.  Only this kind of power builds up, draws people together, and makes room for the work of our hands for ourselves and each other.

Jesus, remember your place.  You’re no Rabbi.  You’re no Messiah! Barbara Brown Taylor calls our gospel and un-miracle story.  The sad and astonishing thing about this story is that the townspeople’s resentment diminished Jesus’s ability to work on their behalf.  “He could do no deed of power there,” Mark writes grimly. In some mysterious and disturbing way, the people’s small-mindedness, their lack of trust, and their inability to embrace Jesus life and mission kept them in spiritual poverty.  We too must guard against becoming too certain in what we think we know to let ourselves be drawn by the Spirit into what we don’t. We too must continually cultivate the curiosity, openness, and vulnerability of a child.

First Jesus was rejected by those he loved and grew up with. Then he sent out the disciples to risk rejection for the sake of those God loves too. Jesus sent the disciples out even though they’re amateurs. Peter has not yet said, “You are the Messiah.” They have not yet experienced the Lord’s supper, or the crucifixion, or witnessed the resurrection. They have not yet been anointed by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus called the twelve and sent them out two by two to preach and heal and call others to repentance. They didn’t really know what they were doing, but Jesus sent them anyway, to learn by doing and by failing. And so, it is with life, we are all amateur human beings. We bumble along generation by generation and sometimes stumble into our humanity. Not by being safe. But by trying to emulate the one who gave his life in compassion. (Debie Thomas)

Holiness is often confused with personal power. A holy person is construed as one who is disciplined. He or she is a person with a rigorous code of conduct. Holiness is believed to be the expression of religious fervor, the measurement of oneself and others by a demanding litany of religious criteria. The problem with this way of seeing holiness is that it misses the very heart of what holiness is all about in the first place. (Daniel Clendenin, Journey with Jesus)

Don’t think you need a lot of special equipment or training in holiness to accomplish this task.  You are the equipment.  You and the Spirit within you to open your heart and fill you with the curiosity and compassion of a child.

With ordinary words and a gentle welcoming spirit, Mr. Rogers proclaimed the gospel. He taught us the last shall be first. We hear so much today that winners are better than losers, the successful are better than the weak. Somehow morality got reversed by an achievement-oriented success culture. But now there’s someone new in the neighborhood, someone who knows you and welcomes you like an old friend.  Someone who loves you just as you are and calls you to become more than you ever thought it possible to become. “In Christ is our calling, in Christ may we grow.” (ELW # 575) In Christ is our home, our family, and nation. Like, little children, we pray that it may be so.  Amen.

The Whole Story

Proper 8B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Fifteen-year-olds Melanie and Xanath are members of the ECT youth group in Houston this week at the ELCA Global Youth Gathering. On Friday they became leaders, among 300 other young people. Youth gathered at an iconic statue in front of the Medical Center that dramatically depicts a mother about to receive her newborn child into her arms for the first time from an OBGYN nurse. Melanie and Xanath spoke in protest of Federal immigration policies that have separated more than two thousand children from their parents. They gave interviews for Telemundo and the Houston Chronicle.

Xanath, who is normally very quiet, at least around me, said, “It really disappoints me and makes me upset that this happens to other families and, while I’m not in their position, it hurts to see them suffering…Whether we know them or not, the fact that they’re still human beings means that we shouldn’t dehumanize them.”

Today’s gospel is a story wrapped in a story.  It features people like Xanath talked about who are desperate to be seen, heard and recognized as human beings. Jesus and the disciples have just returned from across the border. They’re back from the other side of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus was healing and proclaiming the gospel among foreigners. Immediately, almost before they can get out of the boat, there’s a crowd. They’re curious. They’re excited. They have something important for Jesus to do.

A man named Jairus is a leader in the synagogue, a well-respected lay-person, a father, and patriarch of the entire community. Jairus falls down before Jesus and begs him to help his little daughter, “who is at the point of death” (Mark 5:23).  Meanwhile, somewhere in this crowd, unknown to everyone, is a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. She is nameless, homeless, childless, and alone. Mark, the briefest of gospels has a lot to say about her.  She suffered under the care of many doctors.  She used up all her money to be cured.  Yet, she only got worse.

The unnamed women lingered in the background waiting for an opportunity, while Jairus spoke to Jesus directly. The woman talks only to herself.  Jairus’ request is met with enthusiasm and a sense of urgency. The woman knew she was forbidden to touch any man, least of all Jesus. She knew just touching her fingertips on his cloak would defile him and anyone else in the crowd.  She decided to enter the crowd to reach out and touch Jesus, anyway.

A struggle ensues. The unnamed woman gets in the way. The whole procession to Jairus’ house grinds to a halt.  She prevents Jesus from helping Jairus’ daughter before it’s too late. To everyone, it looks like a wasted opportunity to do something important, but not to Jesus. Jesus was #MeToo 2,000 years before MeToo.

While the disciples and the crowd were counting noses, sizing up the pecking order, doing a cost-benefit analysis, sorting people into categories of more and less worthy, more and less human, Jesus was focused on the person and place with the greatest human need.

Perhaps we should step back for a moment to understand there were three forms of uncleanness in Jesus’ time thought to be serious enough to require that a person is quarantined: 1) those with leprosy, 2) those with any kind of bodily discharges, and 3) the dead.  In other words, once Jairus’ little girl died, both she and the unnamed woman were joined with the tribe of the damned, the grotesque, and the sub-human. They were untouchables, not worth bothering about.

In the story of Jairus’s daughter, Jesus demands that we not pronounce death where he sees life.  In the bleeding woman’s story, he demands that legalism give way to compassion every single time.  In each story, Jesus restores a lost child of God to community and intimacy. In each story, Jesus takes hold of what is “impure” (the menstruating woman, the dead girl’s body) in order to practice mercy.  In each story, a previously hopeless daughter “goes in peace” because Jesus finds value where no one else will. The love of Christ humanizes those we have dehumanized.

Notice, Jesus didn’t just heal her, but he listened to her. ‘The woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before Jesus, and told him the whole truth’ (Mark 5:33). She told him her whole story – the shame and the blame, the pain and the fear, the loneliness and the isolation, the good and the bad. This is how we reverse the effects of dehumanization. This is how we overcome the labels, the racism, the stereotypes, and the bias that allows people to so quickly dismiss others as inferior or less-than-human.  It requires the patience, compassion, and honesty that is ours in Christ Jesus to listen to someone’s whole story so they may become known.

As we prepare for another Independence Day, it strikes me that perhaps we have seldom had the patience or the stomach to listen to the whole story of our nation’s history. This land we celebrate, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; this land of opportunity, of immigrants, of diversity, has also been a land that celebrated the genocide of native peoples, supported slavery, and continues to condone systematic violence against people of color.  Sadly, the church too has played a role in this. Most Christians have been ready to go right along with it.

We are engaged in a struggle for the soul of the nation and the sanctity of our church today. Who are we?  What type of nation shall we be?  We can let our gospel be our guide. Jesus can help us recover, reclaim and believe again in the common humanity we share with all God’s children.

Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, put it this way “if it doesn’t look like love, if it doesn’t look like Jesus of Nazareth, it cannot be claimed to be Christian.”  If it doesn’t look like love, it isn’t Christian.  Period.

What then looks like love today?  What looks like Jesus of Nazareth?  “The one whose heart melts at the cry of a desperate father.  The one who visits the sick child and takes her limp hand in his.  The one who risks defilement to touch the bloody and the broken.  The one who insists on the whole truth, however falteringly told.  The one who listens for as long as it takes.  The one who brings life to dead places.  The one who restores hope.  The one who turns mourning into dancing.  The one who renames the outcast, “Daughter,” and bids her go in peace.”   (When Daughters Go in Peace, Journey with Jesus, Debie Thomas, 6/24/18.)

We have become one in Christ. Jesus has brought down the walls and led us across the borders that separate us. Like Xanath and Melanie, Jesus will help us find our voice. Jesus shows us the way forward. This grace changes everything.

Door to Awe and Wonder

Holy Trinity B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Social psychologist, public theologian, author, and professor, Christena Cleveland had a problem.  After having lunch with her friend Peter, she couldn’t get the idea out of her head.

It was a noisy restaurant. No one was paying attention. Nevertheless, Peter had lowered his voice, leaned in, and whispered: “I am undocumented.” They were talking about his mother who lived in his home country. That day at lunch, Peter also told her his mother had a terminal illness.

He desperately wanted to visit but couldn’t.  He wouldn’t be allowed back in the country. Given his obligations to his young family in the U.S., Peter had made the heart-breaking decision not to visit his dying mom

Cleveland writes, “In many ways, Peter’s life was marked by sorrow and loss — and that was more evident than ever during our lunch conversation that day. While listening to him talk about his mom, I felt an urge to travel to his home country to visit her on his behalf.  In the course of being friends with Peter, I had begun to identify with him, his family, and his story.” (True Connection Requires our Bodies and Minds, On Being, 6/2/2017)

Lived experience teaches this is wisdom. Social psychologists know that becoming close friends with others literally expands our sense of self to include them in it.  This larger self-draws out our best instincts. Early Christian mystics understood that we are our best human selves when we are participating in mutual, interdependent relationships with people who are different from us.

Cleveland writes, “Once I saw the world from [Peter’s] perspective, my myopic, individualistic viewpoint was broadened to include his too. And that changed everything — how I viewed myself, how I was willing to spend “my” money and time, and the extent to which I felt connected to people with perspectives, problems, and homelands that were nothing like my own.” (True Connection Requires our Bodies and Minds, On Being, 6/2/2017)

Scripture teaches that all human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).  Therefore, it is no surprise that we find a higher purpose in connection with those who are different because mutual indwelling is at the heart of who God is.

Nearly three centuries after Christ, early Christian theologians used the Greek term perichoresis to describe the nature of the relationship among members of the Trinity — God the Creator, Christ the Liberator, and the Spirit the Comforter. Rather than hanging out as a threesome or merely collaborating with each other, perichoresis describes the mutual indwelling of the members of the Trinity.

English speakers are at a disadvantage to understand this.  We don’t have good equivalent words.  “Teamwork” or “collaborate” don’t go far enough.  Other languages get closer.  For example, the Nguni Bantu word for humanity, “Ubuntu,” is often translated with the strange but wise phrase: “I am because we are.” Ubuntu reflects a belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.

When we say God is the triune God, we are saying something about who God is beyond, before, and after the universe: that there is community within God. Our experience of this is reflected in Paul’s words today. When we pray to God as Jesus prayed to his Abba (or papa), the Spirit prays within us, creating between us and God the same relationship Jesus has with the one who sent him.

We are most human and most divine when we experience mutual and physical connections across cultural lines, in a way that costs us and changes us. Again, Christena Cleveland writes, “Four months after my lunch conversation with Peter, I traveled to his home country to visit his mom. I carried his blessing as well as an armful of gifts that he had sent with me to give to his family. I was simply the messenger, but I knew that I had been invited into a sacred space — a space that continues to call me out of individualism and into freedom.”

Our challenge to comprehend the wisdom of the Trinity is not only linguistic but probably also cultural. Individualistic Western society often impedes relationships with people who are culturally different. The dream of self-sufficiency cuts us off from others and leaves us lonely.

Enlightened Westerners who seek personal freedom and desire to do good in the world often go about it in an individualistic way. Somehow, we believe our racial biases will melt away if we listen to enough podcasts. We believe reading a good book about global inequality absolves us of our responsibility to actually do something about it –as if raising awareness trumps the need to take action. We believe world peace will come if we just do lovingkindness meditation surrounded by people who are racially and economically similar to us. Though helpful, these spiritual practices ultimately require very little of us and fall quite short of perichoresis.

Again, Christena Cleveland says she has begun to think of cross-cultural relationships as a simple, costly, and transformational spiritual practice. “This spiritual practice is simple but not for the faint of heart. It is through this practice that my privilege, internalized racism and colonialism, and attachment to comfort are brought to the surface and I am forced to reckon with them. We often idealize cross-cultural relationships, not recognizing ways in which privilege and power differences prevent us from truly connecting.”

Over the next three Sundays at Immanuel, we are planning teach-in on immigration.  Next week, we will hear stories from immigrants themselves.  The following Sunday, Mary Campbell of the ELCA’s accompaniment ministry with minors, AMMPARO will be here and Bishop Stephen Bouman will preach. On June 17th, Molly Castillo and friends will help us learn more about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA.

Printed on the back page of your worship folder you will find a small version of a very famous 15thCentury Russian Orthodox icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev. Three figures, Father, Son, and Spirit are seated around a table.  On the front of the table, you can just make out a rectangle shape to which, scholars say, a small mirror was once attached.  Standing before this image, the viewer could see themselves. In other words, the mutual indwelling and eternal communion of the Trinity includes a place for you.

Trinity means we are most able to participate in God when we participate in relationships that are also marked by mutual indwelling — such as intimate cross-cultural relationships in which we vulnerably open ourselves to being influenced by people who are culturally different than us. Or, as the Catholic priest and historian Thomas Berry (1914-2009) once wrote, “The universe is not a collection of objects, but a communion of subjects.”Trinity is the word Christians use to name that God is at once fully present here and beyond the stars.  Trinity is a door that opens everywhere into awe and splendor always, already hidden in plain sight just beneath the surface of things. See, it opens now for you.

The Disciple’s Great Discovery

Pentecost Sunday B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

What’s important about Pentecost? It is one of the three great festivals of the church with Christmas and Easter.  That’s interesting—to some of us—but not very important.  Sometimes Pentecost is called the birthday of the church. Luke says it’s when God poured out the Holy Spirit on the disciples after Jesus ascended into heaven. We all enjoy a good party and, judging from what we read in the Book of Acts, it sounds like it was a good one.  But a party for other people, in this case, an ancient institution, is not what makes Pentecost important.

What does this young man, Ethan, who will affirm his faith and take his place among us today as a full member of this community, need to know about Pentecost?  It’s the disciple’s discovery about how life works.  It was a eureka moment that unlocked the secrets to living a good and abundant life not only for them, but for us, and for everyone.

The Presbyterian theologian Frederick Buechner says “there are basically two kinds of law: (1) law as the way things ought to be, and (2) law as the way things are. An example of the first is “No Trespassing.” An example of the second is the law of gravity.”

Mostly, churchly people have talked about God’s law in terms of category no. 1, a list of dos and don’ts. These dos and don’ts are the work of moralists and, when obeyed, serve the useful purpose of keeping us from doing too much damage to one other. They can’t make us human, but they can help keep us honest.

What’s so important about Pentecost and the bible is that it offers us more than good advice about ethics.  God’s law in itself, comes under category no. 2 and is the work of God. It has been stated in seven words: “Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). Like it or not, that’s how it is. If you don’t believe it, you can always put it to the test just the way if you don’t believe the law of gravity, you can always step out a tenth-story window. (In the following passage, Buechner describes God’s Law.  (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking and again in Beyond Words)

That day in a small room somewhere in Jerusalem where about 120 Jesus followers were hiding the disciples learned that by trying to save their lives they would lose them and those who lost their lives for the sake of Christ are alive forever.  We are grafted into the One life in God. Therefore, be not afraid to give your limited number of days fully to something that matters—because it’s the only thing that really does.

Bible scholar Bill Kellerman points out, “The story in Acts 2 begins in the upper room and ends in the streets of Jerusalem…after what’s been done to Jesus, you’d have to be either drunk or crazy to be shouting his name in the streets and pointing accusing fingers at the executioners.”

They were wanted criminals for being co-conspirators of an executed political instigator.  They were people who knew they had failed.  They could count all the ways they had ignored, misunderstood, dismissed, rejected, and betrayed Jesus when he was alive.

The disciples discovered God doesn’t care about dishing out punishments or giving us what we deserve. What’s important about Pentecost is that God has poured out and continues to pour out the gift of the Holy Spirit upon you

Long ago, nearly a thousand years before Jesus was born, the people of God tell in the Hebrew Bible how the Shekinah glory of Yahweh (fire and cloud from heaven) descended and filled King Solomon’s Temple on its dedication day in 950 BCE (1 Kings 8:10-13).  Before that, they tell how fire and cloud had also filled the portable temple, or Tent of Meeting (Exodus 40:34-35) during the Exodus.

Today for Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2:1-13) we hear how fire and wind from heaven descended, not on a tent or on a building, but on God’s people! You received this spirit you at your baptism (Acts 2:38-41) God intends to make of all peoples, of every nation a new sanctuary of living stones. The new temple of God is the human person. “You are that Temple!” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 6:16; and Ephesians 2:21-22).  We, individual humans, have become the very Body of Christ alive in the world (1 Corinthians 12:14-30).  The great Shekinah fire and wind of the Spirit transformed fearful fugitives into bold public witnesses.

At Pentecost, we proclaim and celebrate this Spirit of the living God poured out on us today to give us courage, to rekindle our hope, to fill us with compassion, generosity, and the capacity to love—everything we need to live a good and abundant life.

Ethan, I look at you and take the measure of how long I have been here at Immanuel.  You were a toddler when we sat every Sunday in a circle of carpet squares, sang bible songs with Kathy Anderson, and talked about Jesus downstairs in the Olin Center.

It’s no mistake the signs of God’s grace –fire, wind, and water, are all the things that have the power to shape the landscape, sculpt the earth, and literally to move mountains.  That’s how God’s Spirit works in us.  Quietly, mostly subconsciously, little by little, and sometimes, all at once, Sunday by Sunday, the Spirit moves mountains in our soul.  Through belonging together at Immanuel, we are working together, shaping and softening, opening and closing, striving with the Spirit to become a better reflection of God’s peaceable kingdom.  We can’t find inner peace without learning to live with one another in love.

Pentecost is important for teaching us We are all “walking around like the sun” as Thomas Merton says.  A church does not offer a fire insurance policy for the next world. Instead, it’s a place to gain a life assurance policy for each day of our lives.  At church, we learn that our job is not to suppress the Shekinah fire of the human spirit but to be that fire. The night he was betrayed, Jesus prayed to God, “For as you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world. (John 17:18)   So now, ready or not, the Holy Spirit sends us.

Encircled by Love

Easter 7B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

The only American artist to exhibit her work with the French Impressionists was Mary Cassatt. She was born in May 1844, grew up near Pittsburgh, PA but lived most of her adult life in France, where she befriended artists such as Edgar Degas.

Cassatt is best known for a series of expertly drawn, warmly observed, and unselfconscious paintings on the theme of mother and child. She’s famous, for me, because my mom hung a print one of her paintings in our home.  I bet someone here has it too –or that most of you would recall having seen it. The original now hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Child’s Bath, 1893, is one of Cassatt’s masterworks.  In it, mother and young daughter are lovingly absorbed in the mundane bodily routine of bathing.  The vantage point allows us to observe, but not to participate, in this most intimate scene. Somehow Cassatt invokes in us the memory, or perhaps, inspires in us the feeling of loving protection emanating from good mothering providing sturdy shelter to young lives and strong enough to encircle an entire house and make it a home. Cassatt brings us inside this circle of tender care.

The painting of Marry Cassatt offers us beautiful imagery for Mother’s Day.  I bring it up because her work also offers us a way into today’s gospel.  Cassatt invites the observer out of their narrow self-interest and into the expansive, other-focused and fully human selves God created and calls us to be in Christ Jesus. Abide in me, Jesus prayed, so that you may be one with one another, just as Jesus and the Father are one in the Spirit. (John 17:11)

Jesus invites us to live inside the circle of the Trinity, together with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The 14thcentury anchoress, mystic, and theologian, Julian of Norwich used a little-known old English word to refer to the kind of enveloping and protective love that Mary Cassatt makes the subject of her paintings. She called it “Oneing.” Julian used it to describe the human encounter with God.

Notice how different this “oneing” is from the vision many of us grew up with of an angry God who must be appeased by Jesus so humankind will not be destroyed. Notice how different our faith lives become when we understand Jesus’ prayed so that we might be fully one with God now and not after we die.

This healing vision of union with the living God frees us from the prison of us against them thinking. The old familiar understanding always divided the world into mine and yours, one and other, same and different, better and worse. But Jesus prayed to move us

beyond that dualism so that mine and yours are reconciled into ours. One and other are transformed into one anotherSame and different are harmonized without being homogenized or colonized. Us and them are united without loss of identity and without dividing walls of hostility.

God the Father includes the Son in full equality. Christ Jesus mirrors the Father’s self-giving and self-emptying love. The Holy Spirit is not subordinated as an inferior but is honored and welcomed as equal too, do you see what that means? God is characterized by equality, empathy, and generosity rather than subordination, patriarchy, and hierarchy.  Jesus prayed that we might be made one with this divine life now.

On the night he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus prayed.  “Holy Father, protect them in your name so that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11) These chapters in John, after the Passover meal and before leaving for the garden are sometimes called the other lord’s Prayer, or perhaps, Jesus’ high priestly prayer.  Jesus prays for us, the disciples, and his church just as the High Priest did on behalf of the people once a year inside the fabulous temple in Jerusalem, from behind the curtain within the holy of holies, and in the full presence of God. Now, according to today’s gospel, you are people for whom Jesus prays.

When might you have experienced this oneing kind of love? If we are lucky, perhaps we experienced it from our parents as a child. If you’ve ever been part of Immanuel’s prayer circle, David’s chain, when you knew people were praying for you each day when you’ve been at your lowest or facing a great challenge, then you know what a comfort it is to be bathed in the tenderness and compassion of prayer.

When might you have observed this kind of community where differences are transcended and what matters most is unity in Christ?  Perhaps it was last Thursday as ECT youth led us in worship for the Ascension at Unity Lutheran?  Young people of the church and the neighborhood, of different ages, abilities, racial groups and backgrounds were one with each other and in their joy in serving the gospel.

Or perhaps you glimpsed the oneing love of God last Sunday afternoon at the ONE Northside convention where diverse people from throughout the north side came together, united by their common values of the common good and of social justice to demand our elected leaders support affordable housing, police accountability, and mental health services.

Jesus prayed so that people might see the one life being lived in God now in us. Jesus prayed so that we might reveal the likeness of the divine image in which we are continually being created in this community.  He prayed that others might recognize in us God’s standing invitation to enter the powerful protective circle of God’s life so as to surround their entire lives starting now with grace and be made whole.

This is the kind of alternative community embraced by the disciples and the first Christians that turned the Roman empire on its head. It is the same type of unity in diversity, joining heaven and earth together, Jesus calls us to embody now.

Jesus prayer for oneing is an urgent plea for what some call the Great Turning when society finally turns away from violence, guns, racism, poverty, prisons, war, and environmental destruction to seek a viable alternative right here—one heart, one home, and one block at a time.

In other words, on the night he was betrayed, while the rest of Jerusalem slept, Jesus prayed his little band of followers would become a church. He prays this for us now. In an obscure room, while no one was watching, something timelessly old and radically new was being unleashed upon the world. Like ripples from a stone, we are joined today in a great wave moving through history beginning with the disciples and carried forward today. The seed of grace God planted in you opens a door to oneing. Be joined to one another. Take shelter and rejoice within God’s encircling love now and for always. Amen.

Prune, Prune, Prune

Easter 5B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I am not a gardener, but I pretend to be one at home.  Raking out leaves and removing the dead sticks and bits of last year’s growth, I noticed the green shoots of this year have begun to form, despite the long cold spring we’ve had.

Growers tell me, good gardening is a ruthless task.  Pull out the weeds and uproot the weaker plants. Divide the thriving ones before they crowd everything else out. Pluck the heads from blooming flowers. Hunt for and destroy malicious bugs and prune, prune, prune everything down to the nub. Don’t worry about disturbing those root systems in the seedling packets: tearing, breaking, and chopping them stimulates their growth.

Of course, what seems like no big deal to do to plants is another thing entirely when done to us, but don’t say we were not warned.  The old Adam and Eve must be drowned in baptism.  We say it so casually. Yet if our gospel is to be understood, then death and resurrection is not something that happened only to Jesus, it’s what the Holy Spirit is busy doing right now—in us! Prune, prune, pruning us down to the nub.

Sooner or later, we realize that life is a pruner. The French composer Hector Berlioz once remarked, “Time is a great teacher. Unfortunately, it kills all its pupils.”  As the years and decades go by our failures start to go by the name, experience, an achievement that qualifies us to bear responsibility and dispense wisdom—truly!

We are rooted in the gospel, planted in the rich soil of Word and sacrament, nourished by tradition and fed by the community of faith. Probably, we don’t do enough to learn about who we are and what we’ve inherited in our scriptures, theology, and liturgy. Beneath the surface, our roots are deeply woven together, but above ground, today’s scriptures admonish us to prune, prune, prune back our expectations of what God is up to, what the future will bring, what it means to be the church and especially about who is included and who is excluded within the life of Christ.

We learn this lesson from Jesus’ follower Philip who was forced to quickly discern how to respond to the Ethiopian eunuch who was brought to him by the Holy Spirit. Philip mysteriously encountered a wealthy Ethiopian official seated in a fabulous chariot in the middle of the desert, in the noonday sun, reading aloud from a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. He was a black man. He was in charge of keeping the treasury for the whole Ethiopian kingdom.  He was very powerful, and he was a eunuch (Acts 8:26-40).

Jewish purity codes required that a eunuch must not be allowed to enter the Temple.  In fact, no one was allowed to talk with him, or have a meal with him, or even touch him, no matter how rich, and powerful he was (Deuteronomy 23:1).  (Clarice J. Martin “A Chamberlain’s Journey, and the Challenge of Interpretation for Liberation)

Tradition taught Philip to label him as a “dead branch,” someone outside of God’s reign and revelation. And yet, God had other plans to which Philip was open. In Christ, Philip reassessed his answer to the Ethiopian’s question: What is to prevent even me from being grafted into the vine, the living body of Christ?

In this brief encounter, we find the first real test of the inclusive vision of the early church.  We hear council to be open to the mysteries of growth that God brings. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth “Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7).

In our gospel today the disciples are gathered around Jesus while they sat at the table, just as they had done on many nights. They sat around Jesus and celebrated the Passover meal.  It was a night they knew was special, but it’s true meaning and import was revealed to them only as later as they looked back and recounted the events of that night and remembered Jesus’ last words.

I AM, Jesus had said.  “I AM,” he said it in a way that made the disciples think of Moses’ encounter with God in the desert at the burning bush. I AM WHO I AM, God had said.  They remembered other times Jesus had said, “I AM the bread of life”.  “I AM the resurrection and the life.” “I AM the way, the truth, and the life.” “I AM the door.”  “I AM the good shepherd.”  Now Jesus was saying, “I AM the true vine.”

Gathered at his feet at the last supper on the night he was betrayed, the disciples would have understood Jesus was connecting himself to a familiar image of ‘The True Vine,’ a symbol for the nation of Israel.

The prophet Hosea described Israel as “luxuriant vine” (Hosea 10:1). Jeremiah had described Israel as “a choice vine wholly of pure seed” (Jeremiah 2:21).  During the brief period of the Jewish revolt against Rome that began in 66 A.D. and ended with the death of the last hold-outs at the rocky fortress of Masada in 73 A.D., the national symbol of the state of Israel affixed to its coins and emblazoned upon their flags was the image of a vine.

In his last words to the disciples before his arrest, crucifixion, and death, Jesus pointed to this familiar religious image and filled it with new spiritual wine. In a vine branches are almost completely indistinguishable from one another; it is impossible to determine where one branch stops, and another begins. The church is a community connected to the living Word through water and wine. We are nourished by God through faith in Christ Jesus.  We are called to be in the world and for the world but not of the world. As Jesus broke bread, so we are broken for others; as Jesus poured out the fruit of the vine, so we are poured out for all those who are thirsty now.

Jesus told the disciples and tells us the path to a fruitful life “…arises from connection to Christ and to one another, through interrelationship, mutuality, and indwelling.” The communal life envisioned here raises a strong challenge to contemporary Western models of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency. Rooted in grace, God can bring fine wine from flinty soil.  God draws blessings out of the most tragic of events.  God bring new vitality to tired lives.  We draw sustenance from the source of life that is in Christ Jesus.

Each Fall a vine must be cut down to the stub of its trunk to remain healthy.  Each spring, even the new growth must be pruned in order that it may bear more fruit. This is exactly what God is doing now to us as we gather here, as we feast at this table, and hear the word. God, our gardener, prunes away everything getting in the way of our proper flourishing as a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

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