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Our Christian Vocation

Pentecost Sunday A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children of Salt and Light

Epiphany 5A-17

Immanuel, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

When you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does Easter Look Like?

Easter 4C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beginning of the Good News

Advent 3C-15

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Advent of Grace

Advent 1C-15

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restoring Hope Among Ruins and Tombstones

Proper 28B-15

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Time to Cheer & A Time to Weep 11-8-15

Proper 27B-15

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I wonder are we supposed to cheer or to weep? Jesus is in Jerusalem. Three days ago he rode in with shouts of Hosanna. Yesterday he drove the money changers out from the temple. Today he debates the Pharisees and the Sadducees. By whose authority are you teaching? Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor? In the resurrection whose wife will a woman who had seven husbands be? Which commandment is the first and the greatest? Scripture says “…the large crowd was listening to Jesus with delight” (Mark 12: 37).

Now, just four days before he goes to the cross, Jesus motions for us to come sit with him across from the treasury. ‘There are those who seek the greatest respect, the best seats, and places of honor whether in the marketplace, the synagogue, or at banquets,’ Jesus says. Beware of those who build themselves up at the expense of the widows and the poor.

Just look around. People like this are not hard to find. Jesus is seated in the temple court of the women, where the treasury was located. The historian Josephus said it is a magnificent and beautiful setting with its lofty porticos supported by exquisitely ornate pillars. There are thirteen trumpet-shaped repositories there, marked for various kinds of offerings. The place is bustling with activity: people moving back and forth, many rich people putting large amounts of money into the temple treasury make a great show of it.

Then Jesus points to a person in the crowd. ‘You see this woman,’ Jesus asks? She tosses two small copper coins—worth about a penny—into the treasury. “They contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (vs. 44). I wonder as we watch this destitute woman give her last two cents to the Temple, slip away into the crowd, presumably to starve—are we supposed to cheer or to weep?

We’ve all heard the stewardship sermon. I’ve given a few of them myself. You know, where we change the spelling of widow’s mite from mite to might. This woman’s selfless generosity, her willingness to give her all mirrors the struggle going on in the mind of Jesus who is about to go to the cross.   She is a preacher for Jesus. She is a teacher for all of us. We owe our entire life to God. All of this strikes me as most certainly true. But while she owes everything to God does she owe her whole livelihood to the Temple? Here’s where we run out of track and off the rails.

Jesus offers one scathing critique after another of the economic and political exploitation he witnesses all around him. Once the widow leaves the Temple, Jesus leaves, too, and as he does, an awed disciple invites Jesus to admire the Temple’s mammoth stones and impressive buildings.  Jesus’ response is quick and cutting: “Not one of these stones will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

I wonder if the widow is still on Jesus’s mind as he predicts the destruction of the Temple?  He has just watched a trusting woman give her all to an indefensible institution, one that refuses to protect the poor.  No edifice steeped in such injustice will stand.

Jesus notices the people who go unnoticed among us. Jesus will judge us, our church, our society, our political and economic systems by how well we care for the poor. The Greek word for “widow” occurs about twenty-five times in the New Testament. The widow epitomizes the reversals and subversions of political power in God’s kingdom. That God cares for widows, and that his people should too, are prominent themes throughout the Bible.

While we cheer for the successful, the famous, and the wealthy as the livelihood of poor widows is destroyed, Jesus weeps. So what does God call us to do? Proverbs 31:8–9 puts it this way: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

We stood up for the poor and needy nine times this year for Moral Mondays. We stand up, not as Republicans or Democrats, but as sisters and brothers who speak up for people who are hurting. Like the widow in the Temple, the poorest 20% pitch in by far the largest share of their livelihood into the state treasury. They pay 13.2% of their income while most of us (the middle 60%) pay 10.9% and the top 1% pay just 4.6% of income. According to a 50 state report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (2015), Illinois is the 5th most regressive tax state in America and one of just seven states with a flat income tax. That ain’t right. We are not broke in Illinois. In fact, throughout its history, America has never been wealthier than it is today. We can afford the things we need for seniors, for school kids, for the mentally ill, for infrastructure, for our police and firemen.

We have a crisis in Illinois. Five months into the fiscal year we have no state budget. Soon entire agencies will go out of business. Many State colleges cannot afford to have a spring semester. Chicago teachers are preparing to go on strike.

Where people are hurting, Christians respond. This is not controversial among us –I know it. We respond with a listening ear, a hot meal, clothing, resources, skills, letters, phone calls, advocacy and also when necessary to confront injustice—with direct political non-partisan action. That’s why Bishop Miller, many Lutheran clergy, seminarians at LSTC, friends of other faith communities, and myself have chosen to participate in civil disobedience. That’s why on Monday I blocked a door to the Chicago Board of Trade to highlight the urgency of the crisis to implore our politicians to consider a range of options to stop undermining the livelihood of the poor and start demanding the wealthiest among us to pay their fare share.

On Monday my job was guarding a young first year seminarian from LSTC named Samantha Nichols. She would go limp, have to be carried, and go to jail. I stood in front of her, helped block the door and most likely, would only get a ticket. (As it turned out, we both went to jail.) She was the brave one that day. She was there not as a Republican, or a Democrat, but as a follower of Christ and the way of his cross.

Samantha wrote, “The Christ I follow used his body. He put his body among the people. His body felt the gruesome pain of crucifixion. We are, as a church, the global body of Christ. Our bodies—and the collective body we are a part of—are powerful. I can use my body to block a door. I can let my body go limp when placed under arrest. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” While I blocked the door, hundreds upon hundreds of other bodies filled the streets and surrounded the Chicago Board of Trade. My roommate along with other marshals used their bodies to direct the march and keep people safe. So many bodies, filling a variety of roles, contributed to shutting down the Chicago Board of Trade and sending a message that we are not afraid to unite and organize when faced with injustice.”

Last Monday was a day for many of us both to cheer and to weep. That day, last Monday, I wonder if Jesus did too.

Kyrie Eleison 11-1-15

All Saints B-15

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Last Monday I received an email update from our sister, Libby Shahata, about her volunteer work at Palestinian Lutheran schools. A dear colleague invited her to his home last Sunday for lunch with his wife, 17-year old son, daughter and son-in-law who were recently married.  Libby writes, “We had a hilarious ride through Bethlehem back to my place to take me home — everyone piled in the car (6 adults in a little compact car) — with his 6-foot son sitting on his mom’s lap in the front seat with his head poking out the window.  They sent me home with food for the week, apricot marmalade, and a promise that I would come to help pick olives with their family in a couple of weeks.  Like everyone here, their land and their fruit trees are their pride and joy.

[I noticed] He wasn’t his usual jovial self today.  This afternoon I said jokingly, “come on, Salameh! It’s only Monday!”  He told me I wouldn’t believe what happened.  He woke up this morning to find soldiers bulldozing their way through the 8000 square meters full of one hundred olive, almond, walnut and apricot trees behind his house — his land. He said for the first time ever (57 years old) — he was afraid for his life to approach Israeli soldiers.  But he did.  They simply said they had military orders to build a road and a wall there.  Just like that.  For security reasons. [Fortunately, the work that continued all week focused mostly on his neighbors land.]

Libby asked if he planned to file a complaint.  He shrugged and said he called the Palestinian Authority and they asked what he wanted them to do.  He said file a complaint.  They said, sure, they’ll file a complaint.  Like that and a token will get you a ride on the CTA.  “And we’re expected to roll over and play dead or we’re accused of being terrorists,” he said, shrugging his shoulders again — but so obviously terribly pained.  He left work early on Monday because he was afraid of what his son would do when he got home and found out.  Lord have mercy.”

Kyrie eleison, “Lord have mercy,” could be the theme of worship for Christians around the world today. Today, at the feast of All Saints, we hear words of comfort and compassion to dry our tears and bind our wounds. Today’s readings refer to a mountain, food, wine, and a city. The good things of God’s creation will not be obliterated when God comes, but renewed. God comes down from heaven to make a home on earth with us. God will remove the heart of stone in us and replace it with a heart of flesh. Joined together with all the saints of God in Christ Jesus, we move from grief to joy, from scarcity to generosity, from fear to courage that transforms death into life.

Kyrie eleison, “Lord have mercy.” Our prayers go with our brother, Stephen Bouman who leaves tomorrow for a week-long trip to South Sudan where he will accompany Sudanese leaders as they break ground on a Lutheran Center in Juba, the capital city.  With help from the Lutheran World Federation, they are launching the first Lutheran communion in that new, beleaguered country.  Stephen writes, “The civil war there has put almost a million people into refugee camps, and over fifty thousand have been killed.  There is a lull now, but prayers will be appreciated.  Our delegation is a leadership cadre which includes both Dinka and Nuer tribal people (they were the combatants in civil war) and will be a “peace church.” (Stephen Bouman is Executive Director of the Congregational and Synodical Mission of the ELCA) (Stephen will share his experiences of this trip with us at a special presentation of the Forum on Sunday December 6th following worship.)

Kyrie eleison, “Lord have mercy.” Today, we light candles to remember the sacred dead in honor and recognition of the fact that they are a part of us, still. We light a candles as a prayer and a plea that our Lord’s kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven. We light candles to kindle hope, faith and love in solidarity with all those suffering loss, pain, or injustice. We light candles in celebration of warring tribes making peace for themselves and their families by building a church together.

Kyrie eleison, “Lord have mercy.” Each of us a sinner and, at the same time, a forgiven saint, is gifted by grace to carry the healing power and likeness of God to all those in need. We are God’s children, called to confront the fear-mongering powers of darkness with the joyous light and glory of grace.

I think that’s why he did it. That’s why Jesus turned and set his face toward Jerusalem. That’s why Jesus returned to confront everything we seek to avoid. He confronted the threat of physical violence. He confronted the hostility of the religious community. He confronted those who had given up hope. He confronted the death of a close friend. He confronted death itself.

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

By the grace of God, Jesus accounts us as Saints even while we are still sinners. Jesus confronts our fear, our pride and condescension. Jesus confronts our greed and mindless consumption. Jesus confronts our capacity to empty other people of their God-given dignity in order to justify systems of injustice that privilege us. Jesus does not back down, but calls each of us out of the stinking graves of our sin. Jesus and all the saints call us from death into life through the waters of baptism.

Kyrie eleison, “Lord have mercy.” The story of poor Lazarus is the story of our own smelly rebirth as Saints of light. Lazarus was dead in the grave. Lazarus could do nothing for himself. He could nothing but receive the power of God to give him new life. Like Lazarus the call to faith is a call to die, so that God’s power might be manifested in giving us life.

Kyrie eleison, “Lord have mercy.” We lend our voices to the joyous song of all the angels who announce God’s rule from the heavenly places. Emerging from the tomb of our former lives, we journey with Jesus casting seeds of faith. God is with us. God, together with all the saints –God together with all our departed loved ones—join hands with us now as we turn to face the uncertain future with together. In “…ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown…not knowing where we go, but only that God’s hand is leading us and God’s love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Evening Vespers, LBW p. 153).

What is it?

Proper 13B-15

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Last Sunday Jesus invited them to ‘come and eat.’ So naturally, the very next question becomes what is it? We’ve all been there. Could there be anything more universal than the dinner table and the interchange of excitement and apprehension between cooks and those they cook for?

Try it you’ll like it. It’s good for you. Isn’t that what our parents said? Sometimes it worked. Other times we flat out refused.

The Israelites asked Moses. What is it? They had been through so much together. God set them free from their lives as slaves. But how quickly they began to long for what they had back in Egypt. Pangs of hunger conjured memories of meat and bread. Wasn’t it better than wandering in the wilderness on some endless camping trip? So they grumbled. They complained.

Scripture says God heard the Israelite’s complaining and rained down bread from heaven. Manna. Scholars believe manna was the sweet substance secreted by insects on the leaves of the tamarisk shrub. It drops to the ground and becomes firm. Gathered early each morning, it can indeed be a tasty treat.

When the people saw the food God had provided, they asked what is it? The root of the word manna is man huwhat is this? Despite their obvious skepticism this manna was a hit. The people liked it. But with this strange food came a new spiritual challenge. Manna was perishable. It only lasts a day before it spoils. Try to gather more than you need for the day, it would rot. Give us our daily bread, we pray. But we want more. How easy it is to try to stockpile and hoard the gifts of God, the gifts of life.

It takes us a while to learn what’s best, what food satisfies and what leaves us empty. We confuse needs and wants. Our economy is market-driven. Give the people what they want! Whatever people will buy is good. But any cook knows that isn’t true. Anyone who has gotten sick eating too much cake and ice cream knows what we want isn’t the best gauge for what we need. We have more and more, but our hearts still go hungry.

We have 21 candidates for president (and counting) gorging themselves with record amounts of money from newly created Super-PACs. But democracy is undermined when according to news reports, “Fewer than four hundred families are responsible for almost half the money raised in the 2016 presidential campaign, a concentration of political donors that is unprecedented in the modern era.” (Small Pool of Rich Donors Dominates Election Giving, Nicholas Confessore, Sarah Cohen and Karen Yourish, The New York Times, 8/1/15)

Empty calories, foolish consumption, shallow politics, hungry hearts. Jesus fed the five thousand beside the sea, afterwards the clamoring crowd followed him. They wanted more of that miraculous wonder bread. But they missed the point. Jesus told them, Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life. It wasn’t Moses who gave you the true bread from heaven, but my Father. I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:27; 32; 35)  For a month of Sundays, literally, this will be our message at worship. Jesus implores us to see that our spiritual hunger for the bread of heaven is satisfied only as we join with God in providing bread for the world.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus roamed the gentle hills of Galilee. He went among the cities of ancient Israel. He saw people were hungry—just like us. The people attempted to fill the God-shaped longing within them with whatever they could find—wealth, power, fame, alcohol, drugs, uncommitted sex—but nothing worked. Jurgenn Moltmann (via St. Augustine) wrote, ‘the God-shaped space in ourselves can only be properly filled by God. When we try to fill that God-space with something else we become ill.

Grace is to human life what yeast is to a good, fragrant loaf of bread. Yeast, a tiny one-celled organism that grows and metabolizes its own food with great speed –work the dough—slightly fermenting it and releasing gases so that the bread begins to rise. Jesus, the bread of life, is released and energized in each of us through the work of the divine yeast of the Holy Spirit at Eucharist.

For a month of Sundays (through August 23rd) our worship takes us into the kitchen with Jesus learning how to prepare and to eat food that builds our body. Each week, we share in the Eucharistic meal of bread and wine as a source of nourishment, sustenance and transformation.

What is it we’re eating? It is a diet rich in forgiveness and tender-heartedness, to quote Ephesians. It is a diet rich in gratitude, filling our lives and this community with thanksgiving for the blessings of life. It is a diet rich in stewardship, calling us to use well what God has given us. It is a diet rich in sharing, inviting us to share our bread with the hungry; our love, our resources, our hope with those in need. It is a diet rich in struggle for justice and peace as we become united in one body with the marginalized, the oppressed, the profiled, the unjustly prosecuted and persecuted, the demeaned and dehumanized, with both the victims and the perpetrators of violence. In solidarity and humility we feed one another this bread of life that makes us all stronger, wiser, less anxious and more balanced within ourselves.

The Sri Lankan evangelist and hymn writer D.T. Niles wrote, “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread”. What is God trying to say to us today through this gospel, if only we had ears to listen? Where are we to find the true Bread of Life? We must help one another find Jesus.

“I am the bread of Life”, Jesus said. Let my life become yours. Do like I do. Feast on my gospel. Let God’s holy Word re-fashion and transform you deep within. As a baker kneads dough, so my words, my life shall re-work you. Give me what you are able. Give me your trust and your faith, and I will multiply it. See, I return your life to you with your heart filled to overflowing. Jesus satiates and satisfies us with the good things of God we crave body and soul.

We come together each Sunday for bread that gives us energy for the tasks ahead and hope for whatever is to come. We feast on Christ, our living bread, our daily bread. Christ lives among us, in us, through us, and for us. Come, eat and live!