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Food for the Journey

Pentecost Sunday C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

June 9, 2019

 “Wind, wind,

you come from nothingness and go to nothingness,

and when you are still,

there is nothing we see, nothing we hear,

and you surround us in our not seeing and not knowing.”

(Excerpts from the poem Wind, wind – a reflection on the Spirit, by William Loader, an Australian Bible Scholar are used throughout this sermon.)

Hidden in plain sight.  Undetected, even as with each breath you fill our lungs. God is like wind.  Since ancient times, when children asked ‘Who is God? Where?’  Parents, grandparents, and village elders pointed to the wind. “That is what God is like,” they said.  “There.” 

When I was a kid, the Chinook winds came to the Front Range in Colorado each January.  In the dead of winter, somehow, warm dry air from the upper atmosphere, gets squished underneath cold wet air passing over the mountains.  The result is a violent wind that rushes down the mountainside as if it were riding upon a sled, thirty, sixty, even ninety miles per hour. Those chinook winds shook our house, severed limbs from trees, and knocked many of them down.  But always afterwards came warmer temperatures.  After the Chinook winds, it could reach fifty degrees in the depths of winter.   

“Wild, wild wind,

you whip the seas, whirling great water spouts and fountains,

crashing on the foamed edges of the shore,

sweeping the unsuspecting fisherman from the slippery rocks,

terrifying force, uncontrollable, beyond our power.”

Our bible says, “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2). Today the power of wind turns great windmills that provide light for homes and entire communities.  We observe the power of wind. 

Yet, just like the wind, we do not always know where to find God or how to follow the way the Spirit would lead us.  Our bible tells such colorful tails of God’s presence. Not only wind but fire!  The power and presence of God was unmistakable.  Leah, being confirmed in faith today, I tell you the truth, sometimes you will long for such a compelling sign. Often, God’s purpose can be too difficult for any one person of faith to determine for themselves. That’s why in the Lutheran church, especially for really big decisions, we place our trust in the combined wisdom of the community to set the proper course to follow the winds of the Spirit. We pray and then we vote at committees, councils, congregations, Synod Assemblies and Churchwide gatherings.

That’s what your church did yesterday, at the Synod Assembly of Metropolitan Chicago, in order to choose a new Bishop, Yehiel Curry to succeed Bishop Miller when he retires this September.  

Bishop Elect Curry was born in Chicago’s Riverdale neighborhood on the far South side. He is the seventh of eleven children. Even after his father was murdered on Chicago’s streets, the strength and values of their loving family persisted. He attended college at Lewis University in Romeoville. He said he felt moved to by the story of five-year-old Eric Morse who died after two other children held him out a 14-story window because he wouldn’t steal. 

Bishop elect Curry became a Chicago public school teacher in the elementary school all three boys had attended. Later, he would become a lay mission developer at Shekinah chapel and attend seminary at the same time. He became a Lutheran at St. Stephens in Chatham where he learned about and became involved in SIMBA, “Safe in My Brother’s Arms,” a leadership development program for African American boys, ages 8-17, at St. Stephen’s in

Cornel West once said, “Never forget justice is what love looks like in public.”  Leah, Bishop elect Curry’s personal story shows us that in addition to the collective wisdom of the Christian community, another good, time-tested, and reliable way to follow the Holy Spirit in our life is to get close and walk with people who are suffering now.  Among the poor, the sick, the outcast, the imprisoned, the immigrants—that is where God is. That is the mission field to which we who are baptized into the living temple, the Body of Christ, are called to do God’s work with our hands.

Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So, it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3.8).  Like the wind, God’s grace is an ever-present natural force at work in the world giving shape to the landscape of human lives and communities. 

This week people around the world stopped to pay tribute to the historic legacy of an important anniversary. You might have heard something about it in the news? (It’s a trick question.)  Of course, I am not referring here to D-Day but to what could be called the birth of non-violence day. On June 7th, 1893 a lawyer named Mohandis K. Gandhi was thrown off a train in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and his luggage tossed after him, when he refused to vacate his first class compartment, for which he had a ticket, and move to the third class rail car with all the other people of color.  Gandhi famously said, “Yes, you may [push me out]. I refuse to go out voluntarily.” Non-violent civil disobedience was born.

Gandhi called the struggle for non-violent change satyagraha.  We don’t have a good English equivalent for this word.  It means something like ‘holding on to truth-force.’

Jesus said, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ (John 8:31-32).  Gandhi taught us another reliable, time tested way we can hoist a sail and follow the holy spirit –by clinging always to the truth.  The truth is of God.  Truth is another name for the Holy Spirit.  Leah, you can be sure to walk with God by clinging to the truth. 

Following after the Holy Spirit is often scary.  It is often disruptive and challenging to the people, places, and institutions we know and love.  Like Mary Magdalene, who you wrote about in your confirmation paper, we quickly discover even the church dedicated to following Jesus is in constant need of reform. 

But, Leah, I tell you a secret, God is with you –always—and will never abandon you no matter how well or how badly you become at following the direction of the Holy Spirit in life.  But here is water and the word.  Here is bread and wine.  Here in this place people find refuge and a way to return to themselves. They find fellowship, common purpose, and have their human dignity restored in community, drawing close to the poor, and walking in truth. 

As Bishop elect Curry reminded us yesterday, everyone has a place at this table and will find food for their life’s journey.  Here, Make America Great Again is seated next to Black Lives Matter. Leah, here you will find LGBTQIA+ belonging with cis-gender and hetero folks.  Seated beside you are men and women, black and white, Latino and Asian, young and old, sick and able bodied. Here, together, is food to satisfy our hungry hearts and souls as we journey together in faith all the days of your life, until we are called home to rest in God.  

Wind of nothingness and awe,
wind of knowing and unknowing,
wind of bearing and begetting,
wind of secrets and mystery,
O wise, wise wind,
whisper to us your grace.

One God One People

Easter 5C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus only had time for a few last words before his arrest and crucifixion.  He told them to love one another as I have loved you. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)  

It’s interesting to notice what Jesus didn’t say.  He didn’t say ‘keep a systematic theology.’ He didn’t instruct them about proper worship, the sacraments, the priesthood, what to say or what to write down as gospel.  He urged them to love. In fact, he commanded them. Discipleship consists of loving one another the same perfect and unconditional way that God loves the whole world. 

They sat in the second pew on the lectern side. Student pastor Betty Rendón, husband Carlos, daughter Paula, and grand-daughter Layla attended Immanuel for a year or so before leaving to serve Emaus Lutheran in Racine, Wisconsin. Betty had helped outreach to Latino familiesatMonday night tutoring, vacation bible school, and other community events. Layla was baptized in this church last July. ELCA bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod, Rev. Paul D. Erickson, said says the Rendóns have “been a blessing to every community that they’ve ever been a part of.”

Despite this, a week ago last Wednesday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents forced their way into Betty’s home with their guns drawn. They had violently apprehended Carlos outside the home, thrown him against his car, and ordered him to open the door.  Once inside they arrested Betty in her pajamas in front of her five-year-old granddaughter and reportedly were “jubilant” after the arrest. When they left, the ICE officers failed to secure the door. Their home was ransacked, and any items of value were stolen.

Betty and Carlos fled to the U.S. from Colombia with their daughter Paula after armed guerrillas attacked the school where Betty taught. They applied for asylum in the US but was eventually denied due to the lack of a police report, although Betty says everyone in the area knew of the attack. Once her appeals were exhausted, she was issued an order of deportation, but it was never executed.

Your church, this congregation, stands with Betty, Carlos, Paula and Layla –and with immigrant families everywhere. Members of Immanuel stood in an interfaith prayer vigil outside the detention facility last Wednesday night, and national Lutheran leaders have called on federal officials to release her from detention.  With help from Stephen Bouman and Mary Campbell of the ELCA’s AMMPARO Betty and Carlos have legal representation from the National immigrant Justice Center. In less than 24 hours, staff and members of Immanuel wrote letters of support demanding their release from custody and a stay of deportation. On Friday, we met with Paula, provided a small amount of material support, helped re-connect her to legal services, and we have prayed. 

We pray for the children and families in detention facilities throughout our country being blamed and victimized for our broken immigration system. It’s not right. People fleeing violence deserve compassion and to be treated with dignity.  Children deserve our protection and care.  Jesus said, they will know you are my disciples in how you love one another. Whose disciple do we become when authorities, serving in our name, traumatize and even kidnap children?  When vulnerable people are demonized?  When an ELCA pastor and her family, dedicated to loving and serving God, are arrested and treated like violent criminals?  We work and pray for the soul of our nation even as we seek to do the work of the church, the work Jesus commanded us to do—love one another. 

 Throughout Easter, we read about people dreaming dreams. Our scriptures are filled with stories about people hearing voices. Our lessons come from people we could easily dismiss with a wave of the hand or a roll of our eyes. They are people just brave enough, or fed up enough, or foolish enough to cast the reality of what is aside and give themselves to try to make something better. 

They are people who discovered a deeper life within the world as it is turns on an axis of mystery and grace. They are ordinary people who come to know that hearing voices and dreaming dreams is what leads to awakening in us all. They don’t hang up when the Holy Spirit calls. They don’t let it roll over into voicemail.  They accept the invitation, the opportunity, the challenge, the sacrifice, the grace, and the glory.  

Mary acts on the advice of an angel.  Joseph cleaves to a startling choice while he is asleep.  Peter rises from a trance to proclaim a vision of a new humanity in Christ.  Afterword, Christianity would become a world religion rather than another obscure brand of Judaism. John “saw a new heaven and a new earth” including all the tribes and nations of earth living together in harmony with God in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21)  

Jesus has given us, his disciples, a new commandment, a new mandate, a new standard by which to measure our progress toward an impossibly grand goal. They are among Jesus’ last words at the Last Supper on the night in which he was betrayed. Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

They will know we are Christians if we’re crazy enough, or brave enough, or fed up enough to live in such a way among ourselves that God’s dream of love for all things now living becomes a daily reality.  It’s what people of faith do, what we have always done and will continue to do.  Because Peter didn’t just go back to back to sleep.  He didn’t ignore the people standing outside his door.  He didn’t just tell people to shut up when his fellow Christians called him on the carpet to explain himself once he got back home.  

Because we are people who hear voices and dream dreams that lead to awakening and transformation that is intended for the redemption of us all.  We stand with the hungry.  We stand beside the poor, the imprisoned, and the immigrant. We stand with Betty, Carlos, Paula, Layla –and Carlos’ cousin Felipé as one communion united in Christ.  We walk with the Spirit on the way to living the life God intended for us as children of a new humanity, citizens of the New Jerusalem, residents of a new heaven and a new earth, one people with God in harmony and solidarity with all the people of God.  And all the people say—Amen! 

Successful Failures

Easter 3C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

May 5, 2019

The credits roll.  The music plays.  Lights come up in the theater. Yet people linger in their seats.  They stay for the outtakes—scenes not included in the movie. Sometimes stories include an epilogue that reveals what ultimately happens to the principle characters.  We learn Oskar Schindler died bankrupt and penniless in Germany.  Bilbo and Frodo Baggins leave their beloved Hobbitsville and travel with the Elves.

Likewise, when we catch up with the disciples on Sunday, we already know how the story ends.  “The strife is o’er, the battle is done” (ELW #366). The twenty-first chapter of John is an epilogue. The disciples are on holiday back home. One story is at an end and another is just beginning.  

But Peter isn’t sure he has a role in the new chapter Jesus is writing. That’s because he screwed up. He is painfully aware how he squandered all the hope and confidence Jesus’ had placed upon him. Peter can’t imagine Jesus would have any more use for him now.

He was supposed to be the Rock. Peter the “fisher of men.” It was Peter who was the first disciple to proclaim Jesus was the Son of God. It was Peter’s mother-in-law whom Jesus had healed. It was Peter who walked beside him on the sea. Peter who saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain. Peter who promised to stay at Jesus’s side even if he be killed. Yet is was this Peter whose courage failed so catastrophically around a charcoal fire when Jesus was arrested. Peter’s betrayal marked him as unworthy. ‘No. No, I am not the man! I swear, I don’t even know him.’ (John 18:17-27)

Do you know what that kind of failure feels like? Failure is where our dreams go to die. We withdraw. We don’t return eye-contact. We are weighed down with heaviness and dread. We tend to find comfort in familiar patterns and old routines. Peter went fishing

“Peace be with you,” Jesus had said in Jerusalem (John 20:26) He offered Peter and the disciples the gift of his continuing and abiding spirit. Now Jesus continues his healing, reconciling work beside the seashore. This time his strategy is simple. He said to them “come and have breakfast.” (John 21:12) He prepared a meal for them beside the Sea.

Notice “In the days following the resurrection, Jesus doesn’t waste a moment on revenge or retribution. He doesn’t storm Pilate’s house, or avenge himself on Rome, or punish the soldiers whose hands drove nails into his. Instead, he spends his remaining time on earth feeding, restoring, and strengthening his friends. He calls Mary Magdalene by name as she cries. He offers his wounds to the skeptical Thomas. He grills bread and fish for his hungry disciples. He heals what’s wounded and festering between his heart and Peter’s.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, 4/28/19)

Jesus asks Peter three times.  Once for each time Peter had denied him.  “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (21:15) These questions open Peter to the future. Despite his failure, Jesus again entrusts Peter with the ongoing work of the Church. “He surrounds the self-loathing disciple with tenderness and safety, inviting him to revisit his shame for the sake of healing, restoration, and commissioning: “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”  (Debie Thomas)

The early church drew inspiration from the memory of Peter’s biggest failure as an example of the power of God to forgive our failures, redeem our past and renew our calling as followers of Jesus Christ. If God could do that for Peter, God can do it for all of us!” In the intimacy of loving words, Jesus calls Peter beyond his personal relationship with Jesus to lovingly embrace all of Jesus’ followers.

St. Maximos the Confessor, who lived in the seventh century, wrote that Peter and Paul became “successful failures.” They experienced the liberating truth that “the person who has come to know the weakness of human nature has gained experience of divine power. Such a person never belittles anyone, for they know that God is like a good and loving physician who heals with individual treatment each of us who is trying to make progress.”

Through simple acts of care in Jesus’ name, the disciples would spark a revolution that spread around the world and persists from that moment till today. They started down a path that would lead to the flourishing of millions and to their premature death. This is because Jesus’ potluck breakfast was for them and for all, for everyone who has failed in life, for those cast out by their families, those without a name, for the immigrant, the widow, the imprisoned, and the poor.

In this radical hospitality and love we find oneness with God and one-another.  It’s a simple plan we inevitably make too complicated. Will you, can you feed Jesus’ sheep? Will you lay aside your own fear of awkwardness and failure to say hello to someone you don’t know? Even perhaps, to invite them for coffee? Will you take from what you have to share with others? Will you take a stand with the afflicted? Can you invite and shepherd others into fellowship with God and all people here in this congregation? Feed my sheep. In so doing, we will feed ourselves.

Today we learn Jesus remains involved in the work and life of the church. Like Obi Wan Kenobi, he is still a force to be reckoned with. Jesus is not dead but alive. Jesus has ascended but remains eternally present in Spirit.  We may continue to see Jesus in our midst through the eyes of faith. 

Kathleen Norris has written a beautiful little book that she calls, The Quotidian Mysteries, in which she describes the ways she often encounters God while doing simple everyday tasks like laundry or cleaning the dishes. We encounter Christ while gathered around the table for a simple meal. There, we are surprised to see him in each other.  We encounter the Living God at the bath. There, we are overjoyed to find God alive and working deep within ourselves.

Hoist a Sail to the Spirit

Easter 2C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

April 28, 2019

Poor tulips and daffodils are weighed down this morning with snow.  We are five weeks into Spring.  They look vibrant with color and full of the resilience of youth, but I must say, the poor things also look confused. 

It is sometimes said that nature is God’s first bible.  The divine breath Jesus breathed upon the first Christian community to infuse an Easter life in them is the same spirit of resurrection alive and at work in all creation and now in us.  Something new already struggled to be revealed in them while they were yet weighed down by the cares of this world.

Today, we read of the disciples, in fear and confusion, hiding behind locked doors somewhere in Jerusalem.  Presumably, they are in the same place where they had shared the Last Supper with Jesus. Their dark little room had become lifeless as the grave.  They are paralyzed into inactivity and hopelessness. They thought themselves to be as good as dead already –just waiting for the Temple police to come and make it official.  They are not yet fully aware—and perhaps—will never be, of how much they are like seed sown upon soil, already in the process of transformation.  

The Easter story had already begun to re-write the narrative of their lives. Yet, in their darkened minds, their expectations of what would happen still followed the arc of a more worldly story. They believed they were at an end. Yet God intended a new beginning.  In the immortal words of Gracie Allen, “Never placea period where Godhas placed a comma. GodIs Still Speaking.”

 It was a week after Easter for the first disciples, just as it is for us. They are only beginning to understand the new situation they find themselves in.  Alleluia. He is risen (He is risen indeed, alleluia!). But the question for them and for us remains the same –what now? What’s next?  How shall we live as the Easter people we are?  If we hoist a sail to the divine breath, do we have courage to go where it takes us? Or do we yet live in fear, weighed down with the cares of the world? 

Our gospel is a graceful reminder that we are not the first followers to struggle with what the resurrection means. John’s recounting the story of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples and then again, one week later to Thomas, is not to scold us into a style of believing that is afraid to ask questions, but just the opposite.  

In fact, the bible is full of examples of faithful questioning.  Abraham, Moses, and Elijah; dozens of Psalms, and most of the Prophets, remind us that biblical faith is confident enough in relationship with God to bear up under any question.  Questions and the confidence to ask them, of ourself, each other, and God, is not a recipe for weakening faith, but for strengthening it.

In contrast to many religious people today, Christians who asks questions of themselves, others, and of God are necessarily humble. A questioning Christian has both the courage to boldly speak and the patience to actively listen.  A church built upon questioning faith is self-critical and constantly reforming.  Questioning faith speaks truth to power, even while challenging itself.  Questioning is essential to faith because without it our religious zeal too easily changes shape to become religious zealotry.  The Easter life God infuses in us becomes misshaped and distorted.

This Sunday we pray to receive the vital life-transforming breath of God in the dead zones of our lives –into the places in our minds and hearts which have become weighed down or walled off by fear, exhaustion, hopelessness, and/or confusion. “It’s a great temptation in the life of the church to huddle behind massive, beautiful doors, to hide out from a world in pain and great need, and to make our faith a personal, private thing that has nothing to do with that pain or that need.” (Kate Huey)   

Here, we approach the heart of today’s gospel lesson: “Jesus comes again and again to these scared and confused disciples. The disciples have not warranted a second visit by Jesus, but they get one, and a renewed gift of his peace” (Gail O’Day). In the same way, if we long to see Jesus, he offers us the same gift of himself, not just once, but over and over. 

Here is my body, Jesus said. He showed them his hands and his side. My body is wounded and broken.  You carry scars in your mortal frame, some may never heal.  Yet I still live and so shall you. Blessed are you for the wounds you endure for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, Jesus says.

Suddenly, unbelievably, in the midst of a living death, it was as if the hushed knot of disciples were brought to life again.  They were filled not only with life, but with joy.  They possessed a confidence that made them truly bold. It was as if they no longer feared death.  They, too, had been resurrected with Jesus.  The locked door of their tomb-like room burst open.  They returned to the streets.  They entered the Temple teaching in Jesus’ name. They sparked a movement that traveled by foot, ship, horseback, and by word of mouth throughout the ancient world.  Jesus had breathed new life into them.  They shared in a Spirit of reconciliation, mutuality, restoration of justice, and of peace.

So, what’s next? Because we are an Easter people, perhaps you feel drawn here at Immanuel to create a living sanctuary in Christ’s name with beautiful transcendent music.  Or, because we are an Easter people, you may be equipped to welcoming others in Christ’s name to find shelter in worship and liturgy that is full of the wisdom and memory of ancient times, as well as the hope and call of the holy spirit pulling us toward the future.  Or, because we are an Easter people, you may be called to walk in solidarity and with our siblings in faith, both Christians and non-Christians like so many here in Edgewater, in order to sweep hate away (just as 75 of us did yesterday to clean neighborhood streets and alleys). Or, because we are an Easter people, you may be pulled toward building a living sanctuary in Christ’s name to the hundreds of children and families who come here each week whom we support in learning; whom we support in exploration and play at our tutoring and play groups.  Or, you may feel called to aid in Immanuel’s mission to foster Christian community in our youth—including youth of diverse colors, cultures, ethnicities, and abilities in the name of Christ.   Or, because we are an Easter people, your eyes may be drawn to yet other opportunities to love and serve God in another way, or in some other place.  How can we, your brothers and sisters at Immanuel, be of help?

How shall our Easter story be written? Let us hoist a sail to the Spirit. Let us pray the Spirit of Christ will reveal herself in us like the Spring tulips and daffodils that remain vibrant with color and filled with the resilience of youth, even as they shrug off the late spring snow.

Easter Darkness

Easter Sunday C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Alleluia! Christ is risen (Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!) Yet that first Easter morning, despite the fresh bloom of early spring, everything looked dead. Mary Magdalene and the women made their way to the tomb at early dawn.  As they did, the ribbons of color spreading through the eastern sky were not beautiful. The budding garden was not fragrant. The singing birds could not be heard. As the women went to the tomb their minds were shrouded in the grey colors of grief, their voices were hushed by the crushing weight of despair. 

While the natural world throughout the Northern hemisphere testified to the promise of new life, neither these women, nor anyone else, expected anything but death. Bodies go into the ground and stay there. Springtime comes to grass, trees, and living things, not to bodies lying in the grave.  

Regardless of what Jesus had told them—that he would die, and on the third day, rise again—Mary Magdalene, the women who accompanied her, and the rest of Jesus’ followers, still lived in a Good Friday world. 

While we greeted Easter last night and this morning with jubilation and trumpets, we are confronted here with something quieter, more mysterious, and perhaps more resonant with our own daily lives.  It is what pastor and author Frederick Buechner has called “the darkness of the resurrection itself, that morning when it was hard to be sure what you were seeing.” While the benefit of two thousand years of hindsight have informed our Easter acclamations, what we read from the Gospels is that the first disciples stumbled in the half-light on that third day after Jesus’s crucifixion, confused and afraid. Where was the stone? Were those angels standing beside them in that unlit tomb? And where was Jesus? Are they sure the tomb is really empty? 

It was “…the first day of the week, at early dawn” (Luke 24:1). That’s when Easter really begins. “It begins in darkness. It begins amidst fear, bewilderment, pain, and a profound loss of certainty.” The creeds and clarifications we cherish today would come much later. What came first were variations on a theme that sound a lot as if they come from our own lives—like a woman I heard sing about Jesus last Tuesday at the Synod Chrism Mass who struggles with cancer and must carry her own oxygen—or like another woman I visit who testifies to the power of God from her sagging nursing home bed. Easter is what happens when ordinary people brush up against an extraordinary God.  Easter looks like people of a  broken, hungry humanity encounter a bizarre and inexplicable Love in the half-light of dawn. (Debie Thomas, I Have Seen the Lord, April 14, 2019)

Theologian and writer Chris Barnes reminds us what actually matters during Holy Week: “The question that Easter asks of us is not, ‘Do we believe in the doctrine of the resurrection?’ Frankly, that is not particularly hard. What the Gospels ask is not, ‘Do you believe?’ but ‘Have you encountered the risen Christ?’”  

Our gospels tell the stories of individual people having profoundly individual encounters with Christ. These encounters are not identical. Last night we read when Peter saw the empty tomb, he ran away and returned to his home. When the beloved disciple saw it, he believed but did not understand When Mary saw it, she ran to tell the disciples who dismissed her words as an idle tail. In other words, we come to the empty tomb as ourselves, for better or worse. The question is not, and never was, “Why should people in general believe?” but rather, “Why doyou believe? How has the risen Christ revealed himself to you?”

Easter comes like a lamb before wolves, with a word to shatter hard won common sense. Easter comes like a dove into our Good Friday world.  It is a dog-eat-dog dog; only the strong survive; white makes right; if you want peace prepare for war world.  But here comes Easter, telling its idle tales again.  Easter promises what we heard today from the prophet Isaiah, God is doing a new thing: a new heaven and a new earth. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” No longer must we consume one another to survive in this new world.

Easter says hope never dies.  Easter says all your tomorrows can be different from your yesterdays.  Easter says life is stronger than death; light conquers darkness.  Here comes Easter singing a simple song about God’s grace.

Easter isn’t about one man’s death and one man’s rising.  It is a claim about the undying life we all share because of the unconditional reality and claim of God’s grace to embrace our lives and not let go.  The test of the Christian message of resurrection, therefore, is not what happened in the tomb, but is the capacity of grace to break through our Good Friday’s and with the fresh springtime of Easter.  

Easter does not a return to the past but moves toward the future. When our false expectations, flawed speculations, wrong theologies, or hateful ideologies become a like a wall separating us from grace and each other, God’s Easter is going to break through that wall.  

Since ancient times Christians have called Easter the “first day.” From Easter comes our practice of worshiping on Sunday morning. It is the first day of the week. It is also the first day of a new creation, sometimes called the “eighth day”, because on it Christ restored the image of God in humankind and in so doing also brought restoration and renewal to all creation. We are an Easter people. We are a new creation through the gift of God’s grace revealed to us in Christ Jesus.

Of all the things Easter promises this may be the most preposterous—that we are now members of the resurrected body of Christ.  Within you are seeds of hope to renew the hope of the whole world. The cross reveals the depths of cruelty, violence, and immorality to which we can sink, at the very same time it marks the path God has opened to the way forward. The cross is a Tree of Life offering healing for the nations.  “Now all the vault of heaven resounds in praise of love that still abounds. Christ has triumphed! He is living! Alleluia” (ELW #367). 

The Prodigal God

Lent 4C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet” (Luke 15:22).  A robe, a ring, and some sandals were not for fashion or comfort or even for hygiene—although they imply all these things.  More important, these gifts restored status, ownership, and authority.  The wayward son is welcomed home with more than a lavish party.  The Father awarded him a new share in the estate he squandered by half.  The older brother has reason to be angry.

This father is a prodigal. That is, he is foolish, wasteful, extravagant with his love.  The young son is also a prodigal. He is immoderately callous and careless.  An outright failure, he realized the error of his ways.  On the long road home, he rehearses his apology again and again, but he doesn’t even have the time to say it all before the father, runs to meet him, and restores him fully to belonging.

God sets a higher priority on forgiveness than on being right. God places a higher value on reconciliation than on saving face.  Better to be humiliated than estranged. God has done what many of us would not.

For a child of God, family is family.  All are created in the image of God. Therefore, regardless of past actions, religious or political beliefs, none of us have the right to treat anyone differently. We have no excuse to exclude or condemn a person whom God does not view with unkindness or condemnation.  This is the great good news that can also be a tough pill for us to swallow.

Family is family for God.  How ironic, therefore, that family and intimate friendships are so often the place that we struggle most. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eli Saslow chronicles the true story about a special relationship between a father, Donald Black, and his son Derek.  They traveled the country together for Don’s work starting when Derek was young. Derek enjoyed these trips and liked to help out.  In fact, Derek made a reputation for himself by creating a website, online games for kids, and a daily radio program for the so-called family business.  Looking back, Derek said of his dad, “We were always very close and could talk about everything.”  It seemed like an ideal childhood, except that racism was the family business.

Derek’s dad is the founder of Stormfront, the largest racist community on the internet. His godfather is David Duke, a KKK Grand Wizard.  By the time he was 19, Derek was already regarded as the ‘leading light’ of the fast-growing white nationalist movement in America.

Like the prodigal son, each of them squandered their birthright.  They frittered away their own inherent dignity by denying the full fruits of that dignity to people of color and to Jews.  Derek and his father Don are good examples of people we might feel justified in excluding.  Maybe they’re a little bit like the weird cousin or eccentric uncle we cut out from family gatherings.

This could be where the story ends—as it so often does—in brokenness, cut-off, alienation, and bitterness. But fortunately, for Don and Derek, and for us, we have a good, extravagantly loving prodigal father in heaven.  Jesus’ parable proclaims the stamp of incarnation imparted upon all creation.  The presence of God is present everywhere and in everyone alike.  Rocks and trees, plants and animals, seas and stars proclaim the greatness of the Lord God who has shamelessly claimed us and named us as her children.

In Rising Out of Hatred: the Awakening of a Former White Nationalist, Saslow tells how Derek Black realized the error of his ways.  Eventually, at tremendous personal cost, he disavowed the racism he was taught to believe. It happened because of the courage and grace of a casual acquaintance at college, named Matthew Stevenson, an Orthodox Jew, who set aside the vitriol and rage at Derek sweeping the campus and chose instead to do something different and even prodigal. Matthew went out of his way to meet him on the road, which is to say, he sent him a text message. “What are you doing this Friday night?” Matthew invited him to the weekly Shabbat dinners he held in his dorm. With hospitality, not judgment, dialogue not manipulation, after two years and including lengthy conversations with other intimate friends, Derek’s thinking finally began to change.

This improbable change came through non-judgmental friendship, kindness, and listening. It came through respectful dialogue without name calling.  Matthew believed people can change.  Family experience with Alcoholics Anonymous taught him that. He believed that faith compels him to “Reach out and extend the hand no matter who is on the other side.”  “It’s our job to push the rock,” Matthew said, “not necessarily to move the rock.” Each of us has opportunities to do this among people in our lives. We do not have a responsibility to complete the work, but we all are obligated to engage in the work. Faith compels us to confront the racism inherent in our American history.

Reflecting on this, Derek said, “There are moments I get quite pessimistic coming from the background I do. I’ve seen how effectively white nationalists can take pretty commonly held assumptions in America and elevate them to a level of hate that is fast, burns bright, and last’s a lifetime.”  It’s easy to quickly elevate a private grievance and turn it upside down, like whites are the ones being discriminated against.   Opposing hate is sometimes harder than inspiring it.

Being silent is a choice. We can’t challenge it by being silent. We have to actively work against these beliefs.  Speaking from his years of experience, Derek, says the people with the most power to douse the flame of white racism is another white person who calls B.S.  What is best for all people, including whites, are communities that thrive on diversity.

Our parable offers us a choice. Engage in the work of reconciliation or be like the older brother who refuses to join the party. Self-righteousness and judgmentalism became a stubborn obstacle to his own growth and renewal.  In these waning days of Lent, as our congregation considers ways to uncover our own blindness and complicity with racism—the great three-day banquet culminating in the Easter Vigil Saturday night, April 20th@ 7:30—remains ahead of us.  There is yet time for us to choose whether to accept the invitation to enter into the joy that is for all people.

We have a prodigal God. For all God’s children family is family. “O Lord of all the living, both banished and restored, compassionate, forgiving, and ever caring Lord, grant now that our transgressing, our faithlessness may cease. Stretch out your hand in blessing, in pardon, and in peace.” (ELW #606)

A More Excellent Way

Epiphany 4C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

They were filled with rage and drove him out of town so that they might hurl him off the cliff (Luke 4:28-29).

What made the hometown hero a hated villain? What made old friends and family switch from adulation to hate in the span of a few minutes or hours?  Within the space of seven verses, their curiosity turned to contempt. Delight gave way to violence.  How does Jesus go from being the admired insider to the ultimate outsider?

Everything goes wrong when Jesus says, “I am not yours. I don’t belong to you. I am not yours to claim or contain. I don’t play for your team.

Jesus does this by recounting God’s long history of prioritizing the outsider, the foreigner, the stranger, even our enemies.  The Spirit of God plays among edge-people called to bear witness in edge-places, and occasionally, in the temple. Elijah was sent to care for the widow at Zarephath, Jesus reminds them. He wasn’t sent to the widows of Israel. Elisha was instructed to heal Naaman the Syrian, not the numerous lepers in Israel. In other words, God has always been in the business of working on the margins. Of crossing borders. Of doing new and exciting things in remote and unlikely places. Far from home. Far from the familiar and the comfortable. Far from the centers of power and piety. (Debie Thomas)

We good Lutherans ask, ‘what does this mean? Is it possible that if the Jesus we worship never offends us, it’s not really Jesus we worship?  When was the last time Jesus made you that angry—let alone filled you with rage?

We, the Church, are the modern-day equivalent of Jesus’s ancient townspeople. We’re the ones who think we know Jesus best. We’re the ones most in danger of domesticating him. We’re the ones most likely to miss him when he shows up in faces we don’t recognize or revere. What will it take to follow him into new and uncomfortable territory? To see him where we least desire to look? How can we be sure our religion gives life? Our worship makes disciples?

The answer? You all know the answer. The answer, of course, is love.  Our second reading today from, 1 Corinthians 13, is Paul’s great anthem to love. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” ( verse 1)  Love is the yardstick to measure the true depth of our faith.  Love is the plumb bob that instantly reveals when our religion is out of whack.  Love is the color swatch from the paint store.  Whatever has the tinge of love in it bears truth and the gospel. If your religion doesn’t match its time to change your heart and renew your mind.  Following the path of love will show us a more excellent way.

Recently, a colleague of mine, another ELCA pastor, recalled the story of being judged in her own very religious family—for years.  They would not recognize her ordination. In fact, they were pretty sure she was going to hell despite the fact she has given her life to serving the Church.  Through teenage years and into young adulthood, their religious differences made holidays and family events increasingly tense. Arguments, especially with her mother, she said, became sharp, heated, and hurtful. Visiting home was painful and infrequent.  Then something changed thanks be to God.  Without telling her, her mom began counseling with her pastor.  At some point, he had said, ‘So it looks like you have a choice. You can be right, or you can have your daughter.”  She chose rightly.  She chose her daughter. My friend reports that it’s still not always easy, but she rejoices that her family is being restored. ‘Love is patient; love is kind; love does not insist on its own way, but rejoices in the truth.’ (1 Corinthians 13:4-8) Personally, I pray for the day saying that someone is ‘very religious’ means they are wise, patient, listening, compassionate rather than judging or intolerant.

Love was in the news this past week. The stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt got into a war of words with Michael Beatty a Twitter troll who had targeted him online with slurs, lies, and threats of violence for Oswalt’s criticism of President Donald Trump. It was all pretty typical and dreadful stuff.  Then, something changed thanks be to God.  Oswalt discovered Beatty struggled with poor health.  So he invited followers to contribute to a GoFundMe page to for Beatty and kicked things off with a $2,000 donation of his own. Beatty’s original fundraising goal was $5,000, but thanks to Oswalt, he’s now topped more than $47,000 in donations.

Beatty, a Vietnam vet, spent eight days in a coma in December due to complications from diabetes and had only raised about $600 toward his expenses before Oswalt stepped in. “I would never have [imagined this] based on what I tweeted to him,” Beatty said in an interview with the Washington Post. “If anything, I expected a scathing retort or just to be ignored, but that’s not what happened.”  Beatty said he is reevaluating friendships and productive dialogue regardless of political affiliation. ‘Oswalt is a good man and I hope that I can meet him one day to cement a relationship.’‘Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing.’ If our politics are not driven by love, it’s time to change our politics.

Jesus’ enraging message in Nazareth invites us to consider that God loves enemies because God has loved us. We friends of Jesus come to realize that we have behaved as enemies and are in need of the same grace as those we demonize. Again, love is the light that illumines this path of self-discovery, repentance, and renewal.

One more love story. In the 1970s, before he was assassinated, Harvey Milk, the mayor of San Francisco appealed to closeted gays to come out to their families, friends, and co-workers so the straight world might stop demonizing an abstract idea. So many people braved their fears and just said, “This is who I am,” because of the prescience of Harvey Milk’s vision, it became harder and harder to pretend that gay people are completely apart from “us.”

Beware when society perpetuates a dualistic worldview of who is like us and who isn’t. Not only does seeing the world in these terms keep us at arm’s length from other people, and it places our own sense of who we are in a box. Harvey Milk’s vision and the courage of countless queer people changed our families, our country, and our church—all through the power of love.

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now, we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:11-13)

Alive Together in Christ

Epiphany 3C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Nazareth was a small town struggling through lean times.  So, people there were eager to hear about Jesus’ success at Capernaum.  For his homecoming, they would have packed the synagogue. ‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.’ (Luke 4:22a) “Is not this Joseph’s son? (Luke 4:22b), they proudly ask one another.

In the synagogue of Nazareth, among friends and kinsfolk, Jesus announced his mission statement.  “I have come to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of jubilee” (Luke 4:18-19).  Jubilee came once every 50 years.  It was a tradition in ancient Israel when debts were forgiven, and the land reverted to its original owner.

Modern Christians are startled to realize Jesus’ mission statement doesn’t say anything about getting to heaven.  These are revolutionary words for oppressed people. They are words of a liberator.  These words focus on today, and not some future day. Today, God comes to unlock, release, heal and proclaim. Today, the kingdom of God is at hand and within reach (Mark 1:15). Jesus’ mission reveals he is focused on the here and now—not the great bye-and-bye.

Ancient listeners were startled too, but for different reasons.  Jesus’ kinsfolk heard to be part of his inner circle included standing with people on the outside of life, the wrong side of the tracks, the other side of the border (Luke 4:21-30). Jesus challenged them to switch sides.  Did they stand for people of Nazareth, or with people in need, including even their enemies?

Their hostility in reply would seem predictable (more about that next Sunday when we read the rest of the story).  Yet it would be hard for us to understate the outrage Jesus’ message provoked. Being a local boy from the hill country of ancient Palestine carried important social obligations, including unquestioned preference and priority for one’s own.  It’s how the people of Nazareth had survived. They had eked out a subsistence through generations of hard-scrabble living by scrupulously stockpiling and sharing resources exclusively among themselves.  Loyalty to insiders brought security, opportunity, and authority.  In this system, social standing was as good as gold.  It could be spent like shekels or Roman coins. The people of Nazareth thought they were insiders with Jesus.  His fame, power, and standing boosted their own—but Jesus called them to share these gifts and everything else they owned with the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed.

Both ancient and modern readers of today’s gospel are startled by the realization: The captives Jesus is intent upon freeing are all of us.  Jesus unrolled the scroll of Isaiah to announce that he intends to unlock hearts and minds captive to the idea that peace comes through domination, legalized violence, and/or the elimination of enemies. The drive to dominance has led the great powers of this world to destruction. It is killing us along with the planet.  Instead, Jesus’ mission, as Mary sings in the Magnificat, involves God bringing down the powerful (Luke 1:52-53) and lifting up the lowly. (Luke 4:18).  The Roman empire used crosses to punish rebels and instill fear and submission among the oppressed: Jesus will use a cross to expose the cruelty and injustice of those in power and instill hope and confidence in the oppressed. (Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, pp. 123-24)

To be “born again” into “life abundant” means participation in a new Genesis, a new creation, interrupting our captivity to the downward death spiral of violence and counterviolence to join an upward, regenerative movement of the Spirit. Following Jesus means a new Exodus.  It means passing through the waters once again (this time, by baptism instead of the Red Sea), eating a new Passover meal (the Eucharist), and helping one another to become liberated from the principalities and powers that oppress and enslave. To enter into the “kingdom of God” means becoming a citizen of a new kingdom, the peaceable kingdom imagined by the prophets and inaugurated in Christ, learning its ways (as a disciple) and demonstrating in word and deed its presence and availability to all (as apostles).  (Adapted from Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, p. 140)

The most striking single element of Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom at the synagogue in Nazareth may have been “The time has come!”

“The kingdom of God is not a distant reality to wait for someday, Jesus proclaims; the kingdom is at hand, within reach, near, here, now (Mark 1:15). Everyone agrees the poor and downtrodden should be helped someday, oppression and exploitation should be stopped someday, the planet should be healed someday, we should study war no more someday. But for Jesus, the dream of Isaiah and the other prophets — of a time when good news would come to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, and the indebted — was not five hundred or a thousand years in the future: the dream was being fulfilled today(Luke 4:18-21). The time has come today to cancel debts, to forgive, to treat enemies as neighbors, to share your bread with the hungry and your clothes with the naked, to invite the outcasts over for dinner, to confront oppressors not with sharp knives, but with unarmed kindness. No wonder Jesus called people to repent: if the kingdom is at hand, we need to adjust our way of life and join in the joyful, painful mission of reconciliation right now, ASAP!” (McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, p. 140)

Languishing in the valley of the dry bones God asked the prophet Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3)  We ask, is such a life possible?  Can we be freed from our bondage to racism, materialism, militarism and our captivity to fear and death?  Can we become the stories we tell? Can we hope to stand beside Jesus over and against tribe, nation, family, or clan?

In answer, St. Paul offers a vivid description in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth.  Sinew and flesh are joined to bone as we come alive together in the body of Christ.  Each of us is different, as the nose is to the ear, or as hands are to the feet, yet we find common purpose united by the Spirit with Christ as our head.  The new life of liberation and freedom from bondage offered to us now today in Christ will require the death of the old Adam, the old Eve. Yet in this loss, we gain our true self. Through our work together as the body of Christ, the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the thirsty are refreshed, wounds are being healed, and old conflicts find balm to remedy them.  Yes, these bones can live. We come alive together in Christ, forever. Amen.

Divine Interruption

Epiphany 2C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I once presided at a wedding in which we waited an hour and a half for the mother of the bride to fetch the wedding ring left behind on the kitchen counter.  She got home and realized she was locked out.  After trying all the doors and windows, she found an extension ladder, climbed through a second story window and tumbled in head first, heels over frills, onto the floor.

Every wedding seems to have a mishap, including in ancient times. At the wedding in Cana of Galilee, they ran out of wine. It might be hard for us to appreciate just how humiliating and scandalous this oversight truly was for the newlyweds in our gospel and even for their entire extended family.  Once I was told by the host at Mexican restaurant their liquor license had been revoked. We turned around and walked out before being seated.  (What’s bad Mexican food without margaritas? What’s a week-long wedding without wine?) In a culture that placed supreme value on hospitality, the family in Cana of Galilee would never live it down.

Which is all to say the first sign of Jesus’ glory didn’t go according to the script. The beginning of Jesus’ public ministry was unplanned, perhaps even inconvenient.  Jesus wasn’t ready.  His hour for the big reveal had not yet come.  I wonder, how often moments of grace are accompanied by grumbling?  Jesus had said, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” (John 2:4)

John’s gospel might have had a different beginning.  The miracle of water turned to wine wouldn’t have happened at all.  Jesus and the disciples might have launched their new venture in Capernaum with great fanfare if Mary hadn’t noticed people in need.

Mary speaks for us. She averted humiliation. It was Mary, not the disciples, not Jesus, who recognized it was time –it was a fertile moment, it was the Kairos time, the auspicious moment for God’s glory to be revealed. Honestly, isn’t that the way life goes?  Interruptions overrule our agendas.

An epiphany of God, by definition, is an interruption.  As with all interruptions, I suppose most epiphanies include some element of unpleasantness.  In April of 1963, from the Birmingham jail, where he was imprisoned as a participant in nonviolent demonstrations against segregation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in longhand a letter to eight white clergymen who criticized as “unwise and untimely” the non-violent protests against the injustice of racial discrimination.

King wrote, “I must confess…I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate… who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

King reminds us that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. The advance of the Beloved kingdom in our economy, our culture, and political life will always give us fits and starts.

It is fashionable today to talk about becoming a “disruptor.”  The pace of change has accelerated to the extent we now know from lived experience that the ‘new and better’ do not emerge seamlessly from the status quo.  They replace the status quo –with all the painful accompanying changes that that implies. Could it be that Christians are called and enabled by the season of Epiphany to become disruptors for Christ?  We are called, with Martin Luther King, to strive toward the Beloved Community.

The grace and glory of God reveal themselves according to a script written by human need interrupting our own narrow plans and agendas.  Miracles happen when someone takes time to notice.  We do God’s work with our hands and feet.

What a miracle it was. Jesus responds with both quantity and quality. Wine was a common symbol of joy in ancient Palestine. Six stone jars stood empty used for Jewish rites of purification—each one filled to the brim with 20-30 gallons of water transformed into a total of 120-180 gallons of wine—enough to gladden the wedding feast for the remainder of the week.

In this epiphany, Jesus reveals God isn’t stern and stingy, but a God of lavish generosity and extravagance. God is like a manager who pays a worker a full day’s wages for one hour of work. God challenges Jonah when he becomes angry for having compassion for the enemy Ninevites.  God is like a father made foolish with love, who welcomes home a prodigal son with a ring, a robe, and a party.

When it’s our turn to imitate the character of God, it should be with the same extravagant generosity to others— like the other Mary, the sister of Lazarus, (John 11:2) who anointed the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume even though the disciples complained that it was a waste of money.

Perhaps there is a third ingredient to miracle these examples have in common. Mary persisted.  In the face of reluctance, resistance, and grumbling, Mary gave voice to human need.  She trusted in the power of God in Christ Jesus to make a difference. Maybe we too can notice, name, persist, and trust. “No matter how profound the scarcity, no matter how impossible the situation, we can elbow our way in, pull Jesus aside in prayer, ask earnestly for help, and ready ourselves for action.  We can tell God hard truths, even when we’re supposed to be celebrating. We can keep human need squarely before our eyes, even and especially when denial, apathy, or distraction are easier options. And finally, we can invite others to obey the miraculous wine-maker we have come to know and trust.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, 1/13/19)

God stands ready to fill the empty vessel of our lives to overflowing.  Christ Jesus, our epiphany, opens the door to a new way of life.  Just as he gladdened the wedding feast with as much as 180 gallons of fine wine, so Jesus invites us to gladden this life with dignity and purpose filled by the Holy Spirit.  Come drink and be satisfied.  Come walk from darkness and into the light following the divine disrupter. In Christ, the whole world is being changed.

You Are Mine

Baptism of our Lord, C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I read an old pastor joke about a young man who wanted to be baptized.  The pastor met with him and asked, “Baptism is a serious step; are you prepared for this?”  “I think so,” the young man said.  “My wife picked out appetizers, and we have a caterer to serve the meat and vegetables.”  “That’s not what I meant,” said the pastor. “I mean, are you prepared in spirit?” “Definitely,” the young man said. “We have both red and white wine.”

We conclusion we can immediately draw from this is that old pastor jokes are lame—and a little bit judgy.  Yet, another lesson might be that for an inherited faith like Christianity, sometimes cultural expectations can keep us from seeing what is most important.  We mix up the chaff with the kernels of wheat.

Martin Luther said, “A truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued” (Large Catechism).  Every day, deep within us and mostly without our knowing, wheat is being folded into our chaff.  Baptism is an event and a process. The baptismal process of saint-i-fi-ca-tionis gradual, but the effect of the event is immediate.  We are indelibly marked with the cross of Christ once and for all. This sign, given in baptism, is today, given to those On The Way. The sign of the cross marks the spot where the treasure is buried. All people carry the spark of the divine image. Everyone is a beloved child of God.

From the prophet Isaiah we read the Lord who created you, who formed you, the lord of the cosmos, the author of Life, stoops to whisper directly in your ear: ‘Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I know you by name, you are mine’ (Isaiah 43:1)

This is the season of Epiphany.  It is the season we celebrate the many and various ways God has spoken to us—by the prophets and the Word; by water, wine and bread, through brothers and sisters down through the ages.  Epiphany means God is not content to remain in, with, and under all things.  God urgently desires to make herself known.

I’m still smiling at the memory of the children’s Epiphany pageant last Sunday.  Didn’t they do a great job?  Once again, we were inspired and moved by the story of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus in the manger at Bethlehem, of the wild start and of the wise men.  No less charming or profound was the child who took a big bite out of the communion bread before the procession. He was dressed like a lamb, but according to his understanding, he was really a wolf in sheep’s clothing! And then there were the wise men who managed to give baby Jesus just one of the three wonderful exotic gifts they had toted from afar—because they broke the other two. I wonder did the real wise men have parents who quickly and quietly cleaned up after them too? Or could we, like children, have become careless with the gifts of grace, discarding some of the precious wheat with the chaff?

In a world filled with war, cruelty, hunger, and disease; in a time when people everywhere are riven into warring clans and political tribes, isn’t it clear we need to hear again not only that we are beloved of God, but so is our enemy? This is the kernel that sprouts into wheat and yields fruit in us, thirty, sixty, and one hundred-fold. This is wisdom to repair our broken hearts and rebuild communion with one another.

Being beloved and knowing others are too means we can face together and begin to dismantle the legacy of systematic racism that afflicts us.  We can face with open eyes and hearts the truth that gender and sexual orientation are much more fluid and diverse than we previously thought.  We can start to build a new economy that is more sustainable.  We can become better family members, friends, and neighbors. Our baptism becomes more than words on a certificate or fancy cake. Baptism becomes more than fire insurance. It is a fire to separate the chaff from the wheat, to help us distinguish what is vital from what is dead.

“Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” (ELW p. 231) These words go beyond merely re-assuring us because these are not merely human words, but a divine Word.  God’s declaration of love carries power to break the grip of fear and shame.  The announcement that you are God’s child has potency to break even the bonds of death.

In Marilynn Robinson’s lovely book, Gilead, a dying old preacher writes a long letter to his very young son for when the boy grows up, long after he is gone.  He writes, “There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time”

A lot of us have been confused about this.  Baptism does not add to the divine spark God invests in our lives.  It brings it into sharper focus. We do not baptize so that God will love and accept us as children.  Baptism is not a pre-requisite to a relationship with God.  Instead, it is a lesson that God is active in with and under every person, plant, animal, and thing that lives.  Jesus commanded we be baptized so that we might finally and forever know who we are and what our life is really worth (Matthew 28).  We baptize to participate more fully in the mysterious presence of the undying life that has already joined us to each other.

Now our ignorance is ended, our awareness expanded, and wisdom has been planted so that the old ways of war and death might be replaced with God’s ways of peace and shalom, so that wheat may grow from the chaff.  Whether we remember our baptismal day is less important than remembering that we too are blessed and beloved. Even if we have not yet been baptized, we can rejoice that we are blessed and beloved, for baptism, as Gilead’s narrator reminds us, is a blessing that doesn’t make us or our lives sacred but acknowledges, recognizes that we are [all] being filled with God’s abundant grace.

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