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A More Excellent Way

Epiphany 4C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alive Together in Christ

Epiphany 3C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divine Interruption

Epiphany 2C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Are Mine

Baptism of our Lord, C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Road Home

Advent 2C-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be the Already

Advent 1C-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are we going, Bake?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

Truth Unveiled

Proper 28B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Death into Life

All Saints B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No One is a Nobody

Proper 22B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through the Back Door

Proper 21B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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