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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.

How Can We Live?

Proper 18A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

September 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saying Yes to God’s No

Proper 17A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

September 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stilling the Storm

Proper 14A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Banquet in The Wilderness


10th Sunday of Pentecost

The Rev. James Kegal

August 6, 2017




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Christian Vocation

Pentecost Sunday A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children of Salt and Light

Epiphany 5A-17

Immanuel, Chicago

You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world. (Mtt. 5:13a & 14a)

These metaphors of grace are best explained by the answers you carry within your own body. Any athlete who has experienced “hitting the wall” knows full well what it feels like to run out of sodium, basic electrolytes, and nutrients. This past month has been so gloomy in Chicago we also know how we quickly we become hungry for light.

On Tuesday, the seniors and I were sitting talking in the library with Parish Nurse, Marcia Smith when suddenly sunlight came bursting through the windows. It was as if God herself entered the room! We stopped, smiled, and laughed like maybe it was an omen to pay extra close attention to what Marcia was saying.

We have a physical response to daylight. It feels like nourishment. It uplifts our spirit. It dispels fear and kindles hope. The candle flame feels alive and present to us. We light candles to sustain our prayers for however long they continue to burn.

God has placed this same light and salt within you. Mixing salty tears with light-hearted hospitality is the universal recipe for joy. There is no border, no boundary, no line separating nations, no longitude no latitude that divides human beings from the blessings bestowed by God. We are all God’s children—children of salt and light.

Over 100 million people are expected to sit before the blue light of their television sets this afternoon.   Marketers forecast we are going to consume more than 11 million pounds of salty chips watching the Super Bowl. We know the salt and light Jesus is talking about can’t be whatever we want.

Jesus chose these metaphors long ago because salt and light were central images for the people of Israel: “You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God…” (Lev. 2: 13) Light appears often in the Old Testament: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Ps. 119: 105)

To be salt and light means to be shaped by the ancient, life-giving law of God. Jesus said it plainly: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.” We can’t tear Jesus’ metaphors of grace from their roots in Hebrew scriptures.  (Rev. Barbara Lundblad On Scripture, Odyssey Network, 2/5/17)

In our first lesson today the Prophet Isaiah helped us sketch out Jesus’ meaning. These verses come after the people of Israel returned from exile in Babylon. The last chapters of Isaiah are filled with visions of hope and urgent warnings. God asks, don’t you already know the best way to praise and worship me?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

When you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up quickly… (Isaiah 58:6-8a)

This teaching might feel like a switcheroo to some of us older folks. We were taught being a follower of Christ meant being respectable, not using foul language in mixed company, and moderating interpersonal sins –but here God says our civic and social sins are what matter most. Salt and light testify within us about justice.

People today bump and bruise themselves against the edges of this indelible truth again and again just as our ancestors did for generations.   The American claim to be a shining city on a hill will always be rudely contradicted by our everyday lives as long as a majority of Americans remain in denial about the reality of race and racism. Jim Wallis and Bryan Stevenson have called racism America’s original sin. The late great James Baldwin said, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” The American dream will continue to be elusive as long as we remain blind to the suffering and sacrifice that our rush to material gain has extracted from people and the planet.

We would like to be a colorblind society. We would like to be finished with this conversation. We are in denial. We quickly become defensive. But the truth is something we can feel in our bones because God made us children of salt and light.

As Isaiah called it, the sin of racism is about hiding ourselves from our own kin. Our children are systematically denied access to housing, to health care, to credit, and to education. Our mothers and fathers face unreasonable barriers in exercising their constitutional right to vote. Our beloved aunts and uncles are instantly incriminated—distrusted on sight—by people who are otherwise mostly rational and kind-hearted.

We know this because we can feel this, because have seen and heard this. We know this because we do this. Maybe now is the time for God again to save us. Maybe now in this time of ubiquitous cell phone videos the light of God’s grace can finally reveal to the truth that a man, is a man, is a man, is a man whatever their color, race, or religion. We are all children of salt and light.

This month our nation remembers the story of Black history that began in America in August of 1619 when 20 slaves disembarked from a ship in Jamestown, Virginia, and the captain traded them for provisions of food. By 1860, the United States census identified four million slaves.

Now nearly 400 yeas later, we acknowledge that neither the Civil War, nor the Emancipation Proclamation, nor the Thirteenth Amendment, nor the Voting Rights Act of 1965, nor the election of our first black president Barack Obama fully abolished what Abraham Lincoln called the “monstrous injustice” of slavery.

If there is one thing you choose this month to once again open your heart and mind to this topic, I suggest you go out and see a movie now playing in theaters: I Am Not Your Negro. The witness of James Baldwin is even more prescient, prophetic, and timely now 50 years after he wrote and spoke them.

So rise, shine you people—Christ our Lord has entered our human story. The path to transformation consonant with the renewal and rebirth God brings to our lives is often painfully slow and filled with sacrifice. We cannot forget the sacrifice of so many who brought us where we are today. We have come this far by faith, because we are salt and light. Salt can never lose its saltiness. Light cannot fail to illuminate. Again and again, God produces the transforming gifts of salt and light from deep within us.

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