A series of interconnected hearts held together by a cross in the colors of the progress Pride flag

Trinity B-24
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

John’s gospel reminds us, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). What our eyes cannot perceive is nevertheless detected in, with, under, and above lived experience. The apostle Paul finds God in the intimacy our groaning. Paul writes, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes with groans too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). The trinitarian life of God’s Self abides in the human being at prayer—the Trinity inside of us, in our body’s sighs, our wordless prayers. “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” Paul says, “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (verses 15b-16).

This is a bold claim which the church, through the centuries, has often worked to undermine. This is because it applies, not only to each of us who call ourselves Christians, but to everyone, everywhere, and always. “Abba” is the Aramaic word Jesus used for God. It is a word little children use father, or ‘daddy.’ “For Abba so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Where Jesus meant to build bridges, the Church of Christendom and Empire built walls. They treated grace like a product only the church could dispense and control. They built a fence around the gospel and charged admission. The bold claim of discipleship still applied equally to everyone, everywhere, and always but God’s abundant grace was limited and meted out only to the right type of Christian, which of course, changes according to whoever is in charge.

But thanks be to God, the walls of Christendom are beginning to fall. Enslaved people, woman, and LGBTQIA+ people find welcome. God’s good creation, all manner of living things, find renewed voice. It’s written on the walls here at Immanuel, in worship folders, and the website. “We are committed to welcoming all people to this place, no matter where you come from, no matter your age, race, socioeconomic or family status, no matter your gender identity or sexual orientation. Grace is for everyone, or it isn’t grace. It’s that simple! It’s that amazing. Thanks be to God.”

Many of us learned to sing an old bible song when we were children which proclaimed the simple truth. “They will know we are Christians by our love.” This simple, reliable guiding principle also works in reverse –we can recognize our siblings in Christ, regardless of race, clan, religion, or no religion by the love they display for us and for one another. Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16). Let us return to Abba. Let us sit as his table and drink from his living water. Let us learn from him what we are.

Jesus called God, Abba, but within the early Christian community, confusion soon arose as to how we should address God. In addition to Abba, Jesus spoke of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. The gospels called Jesus the anointed one, the savior, the Christ, the logos. Jesus was living water, the bread of life, the light of the world, the rock, a mother hen, the true vine, and the good shepherd. Early Christian communities wondered and debated about the relationship between Jesus and God, Jesus and the Spirit, and the Spirit and God.

Christians wondered and debated about this for nearly three hundred years before finally arriving upon the name, “Trinity.” Trinity became the name in which we baptize. The name in which we confess our faith. Trinity is not a mathematical statement. It’s a name that encapsulates a whole lot of gospel teaching in a single word.
Trinity means God is relationship itself. It’s one thing to say that God values community. Or that God thinks community is good for us. It’s altogether more to say that God is communal. That God is relationship, intimacy, connection, and unity in diversity. If the Three is the deepest nature of the One — then who are we to isolate ourselves and/or to exclude and to cut off others?

Trinity also means that God is sacrificial love. The Trinity at its heart is an expression of deep, unfaltering, and life-giving love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the image of that you and I were created and into which you and I are called. The relationship between the persons of the Godhead is not a relationship of domination, power-mongering, manipulation, or jealousy. It is a relationship of unselfish, sacrificial love. We are the children of a mysterious, fluid, diverse, communal, hospitable, and loving God who wants to guide us into the whole truth of who God is and who we are.’ (Debi Thomas, “The Undivided Trinity,” Journey with Jesus, 5/31/2020)

Trinity means God sees you. God loves you. God calls you to honest, intimate relationship. God calls you and equips you to be fully yourself. No boxes. No binaries. No stereotypes. Just you. Just us. Just all of us dwelling together in the shelter of the Lord to be the hands and feet and voice of Jesus for a suffering world.
The world, its creatures, and its many peoples are suffering now. We are threatened by political strife, by the approaching climate storm, by the breathless and unbridled rise of artificial intelligence, by an economy of extraction and mass death that views God’s children and all of creation as mere ‘resources’ to be exploited to maximize profits for the few.

Anthropologists tell us groups of more than 140 people cannot function without shared stories to focus and direct their shared imagination and energy in creative and collaborative ways. People that become an ‘us’ through their shared stories will quickly organize to undermine, exclude, exploit and destroy anyone or anything that is ‘not us.’

We cannot rise to address the many challenges we face today because our stories are broken, and in many places, have shattered. Stories of what it means to be faithful to God differ from one community to the next. Our stories of what it means to be an American citizen are in dispute and under threat. But we have that story. It goes by the name of Trinity. Christians have the antidote but only if they are willing forego the copyright and let go of the franchise. The God of grace revealed in Christ Jesus has power to end the divisions that plague us and begin the healing of the nations and ecosystems, all peoples, all creatures, people of every religion and no religion.

Our ancient siblings in faith grab us by the elbow and make us look at the world with new eyes. ‘See,’ they say—’God made light, the dome of the sky, the waters and the dry land, the sun, the stars, and the moon. The universe is not a collection of objects, but a communion of subjects (Thomas Berry). Nothing stands alone. Each living thing is different yet part of the whole.’ Be beautiful. Be you. Discover your true self in all your many colors. Become part of the dance of the Trinity. Love somebody. Be compassionate. Be forgiving. Be kind. Be human. Be the body of Christ. Together, we do God’s work with our hands. Then we become a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Easter 7B-24
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Only one American artist was allowed to exhibit her work with the 19th century French Impressionists. Her name was Mary Cassatt. Born this month of May in 1844, Cassatt grew up near Pittsburgh, but lived most of her adult life in France, where she befriended artists such as Edgar Degas.

Cassatt is best known for a series of unselfconscious paintings on the theme of mother and child. She is famous for me personally, because a print of one of her paintings hangs in my childhood home. The original now belongs to the collection displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago. I bet one or more of you have it too –or will recall having seen it.
The Child’s Bath, 1893, is one of Cassatt’s masterworks. In it, mother and daughter are lovingly absorbed in the mundane bodily routine of bathing. Somehow Cassatt invokes in us the memory, or perhaps, inspires in us the feeling of loving protection emanating from good mothering. Love that is strong enough to encircle an entire household and make it a home. Cassatt brings us inside this circle of tender care.

Cassatt’s intimate image of mother and child invites the observer into the expansive, other-focused, and fully human self that God calls us to become in Christ Jesus. Lay your narrow, small, narcissistic self aside. Abide in me, Jesus prayed, so that you all may be one with each another, just as Jesus and the Father are one in the Spirit. (John 17:11)

“If you google the history of Mother’s Day, the internet will tell you that Mother’s Day began in 1908 when Anna Jarvis decided to honor her mother. But “Mothers’ Day”—with the apostrophe not in the singular spot, but in the plural—actually started in the 1870s, when the sheer enormity of the death caused by the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War convinced writer and reformer Julia Ward Howe that women must take control of politics from the men who had permitted such carnage. Mothers’ Day was not designed to encourage people to be nice to their mothers. It was part of women’s effort to gain power to change society.” (Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American, May 11, 2024).
The Civil War was the springboard would launch the Woman Suffrage movement. Fifty years of advocacy and struggle ended with the right to vote in 1920. We proudly point to that human dynamo, Emmy Evald, the daughter of the first pastor and the wife of the second pastor of Immanuel, who took part in the movement in Illinois and in Washington D.C., and famously hosted Susan B. Anthony in the church parsonage. And yet, it took another fifty-five years, in 1975, that Mildred Nelson would become the first woman at Immanuel to serve on the church council.

Jesus prayed that we may all be one. According to St. Paul the early church was eclectic and inclusive, “neither Jew or Greek, slaver nor free, male and female, but all are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). Even so, persistent, insistent, and pernicious patriarchy remains a core teaching of many, if not most, Christian churches throughout the world today.

According to cultural critic bell hooks, “Patriarchy is political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.” There can be no freedom for patriarchal men of all races as long as they advocate the subjugation of women. So yes, on this Mother’s Day, be nice to your mom. But also, let us be transformed, by the renewal of our hearts and minds, to be the kind of community for which Jesus prayed that is no longer racist or sexist in which all humans are free to shape their destinies.

Chapters 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17 of John’s gospel –five chapters!—linger with Jesus and the disciples on this last night as time was running out. On the night he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus prayed. “Holy Father, protect them in your name so that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11) Chapter 17 of John’s gospel is sometimes called the other Lord’s Prayer. It is not a prescribed prayer; It isn’t a bossy or controlling sort of prayer like those you might have experienced from a false Christian friend. Jesus is not trying to manipulate his followers or God. It isn’t a fix-it prayer. Instead, it sounds rather desperate — Jesus is about to go to the cross and he actually seems to be begging God to shield his friends from the consequences of his impending death.

The word “protect” dominates the prayer. The words “oneness” and “love” dominate the second half of the prayer (John 17:20-26). Jesus wants those he loves to be safe, and to find a sense of security in their unity with each other, with him, and with God. Jesus invites us inside the circle of love that is the Holy Trinity. The 14th century anchoress, mystic, and theologian, Julian of Norwich used an obscure old English word to refer to the kind of enveloping and protective love that Mary Cassatt makes the subject of her paintings. She called it “Oneing.”

Notice how different this “oneing” is from the vision many of us grew up with of an angry God who must be appeased so as not to destroy us. Notice how different our faith lives become when we understand Jesus’ prayed so that we might be fully one with God starting right now and not waiting until after we die to prove we are worthy of God’s love. This healing vision of union with the living God frees us from the prison of us versus them thinking. Our old, worldly mind divides the world into mine and yours, same and different, better, and worse, slave and free, male, and female. Jesus’ prayer moves us beyond these old dualisms so that what is mine and what is yours becomes ours. In union with Christ, we remain different and diverse without being homogenized or colonized. We are united without loss of identity and without walls of hostility. Jesus shows us by his actions that prayer isn’t a magic trick or manipulation. But it is mystery and transformation.

“John 17 is a model for how we all should pray — for protection, unity, awareness, and love. Even when we’re anxious. Or desperate. [Like right now.] When we care so much about others that we long for their well-being and safety in difficult times. Perhaps especially then” (Diana Butler Bass, “Jesus prayed for his disciples. What?”, Sunday Musings, 5/12/24). “…one with the saints in one unbroken peace, one with the saints in one unbounded love…[one with each other and people of faith around the world, one body] with the Trinity in unity.” (ELW #463, “Lord, Who the Night You Were Betrayed”)

Easter 6B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“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. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

If I provide my child with security, shelter, all manner of clothing and ample food but do not have love for them, no one will call me father or mother and my house is not a home. If I am generous in my tithe, regular in worship, and can recite scripture from memory but do not have love, I do not abide in Christ’s church nor do I match stride with the beloved community.  If I pay taxes, vote in every election, mow my lawn, and return all library books but do not have love, I cannot call myself a neighbor, let alone a good neighbor, but I am like the priest and the Levite who crossed over to the opposite side of the road to pass by the suffering Samaritan laying in the ditch.

Jesus did not merely say, but commanded us, to love one another. (John 15:17). Love your frail self. Love the sick and the lame. Love the Jew and the Muslim, the Israeli and the Palestinian. Love the gay and lesbian person, the transexual and every kind of queer person that we have begun to see belong and always have belonged to God’s good creation.

Love is not merely what God expects of us. It is the operating system which God has woven in, with, under, and above everything.  Psalm 98 inspired the famous Christmas hymn “Joy to the World” (ELW #267). In the psalmist’s vision of the universe, the sea and rivers are not alien elements that need to be tamed by humans but are equal partners in celebrating divine salvation. In a beautiful image that seems straight out of a Disney movie, the hills ring out with joy, all the lands sing with trumpets, and the whole Earth and rivers join the party, clapping their hands to celebrate the redemption of the Lord. God is present in the world for the purpose of establishing justice and setting things right on a world-encompassing scale, including “equity” among all “the peoples.”

In nature, love is an open, as opposed to a closed system. Likewise, the Easter church opened the doors of their upper room and entered the streets. They were propelled, not by their sorrows, but by their joy. The church, just as in nature, is renewed and re-vitalized by the energy and resources, people and ideas that come from the outside.

Peter, Paul, Philip, and the rest of the early Jesus community did not set up an attractive yard sign. They put themselves out there.  They carried the gospel upon their lips.  Peter got up and preached to Cornelius, a Roman Centurion of the Italian Cohort.  He lived among the Gentiles. Philip sat beside the Ethiopian eunuch.  Paul went among the diverse peoples of the Mediterranean world.

A casual look across the landscape makes it obvious the creator values diversity. God finds beauty in the harmony of contrasts. Ecosystems of diverse plants and animals, leads to greater stability and resilience.  These diverse communities also have a distinctive aesthetic quality. They are beautiful, fragrant, and fertile. Why on earth have so many Christian congregations and denominations stubbornly insisted on being monocultures?

It is distressing how many Christians are untethered from the gospel. They are not accountable to the law of love but rally around their civil religion, ethnic purity, exclusion, and conformity. They would impose their will through the power of the government, through autocracy and theocracy.  “The problem with theocracy is that everyone wants to be Theo” (Bill Leonard, Wake Forest School of Divinity). This rise of religious authoritarianism is not merely an American problem, a 2024 problem, but a global phenomenon. Beloved, simply in loving your neighbor and your enemy as yourself, we are a prophetic church, we are a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Abide in my love. Make a home for yourself in my love. Jesus said, ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15:9 & 15). Today we head Jesus pray for the disciples.  In his final hours before arrest and crucifixion Jesus prayed—not so they would create an orthodox system of beliefs, but that they would foster a very unorthodox way of being in the world. (Robin Meyers, Spiritual Defiance, A Beloved Community of Resistance

Yet we resist.  We are like trees that withdraw from the sun or like an infant child that flees from its mother’s embrace or a petulant teenager who slams the door on caring friends. Who does that?  We do that. Jesus prayed and continues to pray that we make a different and more natural choice.

But we say, ‘Who can we be ordered to love?  Does love obey decrees?  Is Jesus being like that exasperated parent commanding their kids from the front seat of the car to love each other? “Why can’t you all just get along?”  “Share your toys.” “Say sorry.”  “Don’t hit.”  “Use kind words.”  No. Jesus offers an alternative. Once again, we hear Jesus offer a single, straightforward answer: “Abide in my love.”  It is an extension of last week’s Gospel about the vine and branches. Jesus calls upon us to rest, to cling, to make ourselves at home.  Not simply in him, but in his love.

“Jesus’s love is not our example; it’s our source.  It’s where our love originates and deepens.  Where it replenishes itself.  In other words, if we don’t abide, we can’t love.  Jesus’s commandment to us is not that we wear ourselves out, trying to conjure love from our own easily depleted resources. Rather, it’s that we abide in the holy place where divine love becomes possible.  That we make our home in Jesus’s love — the most abundant and inexhaustible love in existence.” (Debi Thomas, “It’s All About Love, Journey with Jesus, 5/2/21)

“Letting go into God is coming home to our true selves” (Ilia Delio, Oneing, Fall 2023). As is so often the case in our lives as Christians, Jesus’s commandment leads us straight to paradox: we are called to action via rest.  These are finally not two separate actions.  They are one and the same.  We are called to become love as we abide in love.  Drink your fill of the Source, which is Christ, let your cup run over to bless the world, and return to the Source for a fresh in-filling.  “This is our movement, our rhythm, our dance.  Over and over again.  This is where we begin and end and begin again” (Thomas).

This is the fountain of our joy.  Joy that exceeds all happiness. Joy that cannot be manufactured or purchased.  Joy in Christ which does not depend on things going well but may arise amidst our pain. Joy that springs forth from us in love. Joy that flows from the presence and promise of God fills our heart with a new song. Let the Sea and what fills it resound. The rivers clap shall their hands and the hills ring out with joy. God has triumphed. Alleluia. He is risen!  (He is risen indeed, alleluia.)

Easter 5B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Along the coast of Baja, California, row upon row of vines run across the valleys, turning the brown dusty soil into vast carpets of green.  Once the growing season is over, the verdant branches are pruned.  The land returns to brown. The vines are cut back almost to nothing.  Huge plants are reduced to mere stumps which look as though they will never produce anything again. But every year, as some vines have done for a hundred years, the growth returns –first the branches, then the leaves, followed by the fruit.  Incredible, full bunches of grapes pull the vines nearly to the ground with their weight.

Grapevines are a metaphor about our life together in Christ as well as our faith life as individuals. By all outward appearances, a vine is a tangled mess, an interwoven web. “I am the true vine,” Jesus said. (John 15:1). From one end to the other, it is not clear where one branch ends, and another begins. In the church egos are subsumed into the whole.

The prophet Hosea described Israel as a “luxuriant vine” (Hosea 10:1).  During the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 A.D., that ended on the rocky cliff top fortress of Masada in 73 A.D., the national symbol affixed to coins and emblazoned upon flags was the image of a vine. Like branches of a vine stretching across the world and throughout time we are joined together in Christ the vine, each in our own season.

“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus said (John 15:5a). Joined to this ancient root, tearing, breaking, chopping, and pruning each branch stimulates their growth. Cut from that root, they immediately wither and die. In today’s gospel, the small band of Jesus people are about to be pruned. They don’t know it yet, but Jesus will be taken from them. It will feel like their heart is being cut out. Everything they worked for and dreamed of is about to end. Hope will seem all but lost.  But in three days, after the resurrection, they will rise again. Filled with new wine, the life-giving sap of the Holy Spirit, they will be changed. They will become stronger, and more verdant than before. Alleluia.  Christ is risen! (R)

The French Jesuit, Catholic priest, scientist, paleontologist, theologian, philosopher, and teacher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, the first duty of every Christian, like the branches of a vine, is to grow to the fullest extent possible. You must take every opportunity to develop your talents and to fully be your unique yourself. Paradoxically, the pursuit of your own advance ripens into maximum fruitfulness only through full communion with the root, the ancient of days, which we come to realize is a greater myself (p. 89). This yes to God is not a one-time event but an ongoing practice. Each of us must learn to hold open our ‘yes’ on a moment-to-moment basis just as branches abide in the vine.

Philip mysteriously encountered a wealthy Ethiopian official seated in a fabulous chariot in the middle of the desert, reading aloud from a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, in the noonday sun. That official oversaw the treasury for the whole Ethiopian kingdom. He was very powerful. He was black, and he was a eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). Philip would have known that Jewish purity codes excluded a eunuch from entering the temple.  In fact, no one would be allowed to talk with him, or have a meal with him, or even to touch him, no matter how rich, and powerful he was (Deuteronomy 23:1).  (Clarice J. Martin “A Chamberlain’s Journey, and the Challenge of Interpretation for Liberation)

According to the religious teaching Philip had grown up with, this eunuch was a “dead branch,” someone outside God’s reign and revelation. And yet, God had other plans. Abiding in the true vine, Philip held himself open to God’s yes. Provoked and inspired by Philip’s teaching about Jesus, the Ethiopian exclaims: “Look, here is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?  Can I, who was humiliated at the temple in Jerusalem be grafted into the true vine, the living body of Christ?

Notice, Philip did not convene a blue-ribbon panel to study the question. In this brief encounter, we find the first real test of the inclusive vision of the early church to be open to the mysteries of growth that God brings. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7).

The true vine flourishes in pruning the hearts of the faithful within us. Likewise, in order for the true vine to flourish we must be ready to root out and remove the things which threaten and choke it from without. The Ethiopian eunuch would ask us, their Christians siblings in Christ, ‘Why is property generally worth less money if it’s owned by a Black American?’ Just look at the numbers. 150 years of assessment data, underpins points to persistent inequality.

“Black Americans’ properties have been undervalued by home appraisers and overvalued by tax assessors. That double punch has left Black homeowners more prone to falling behind on their taxes and, ultimately, to dispossession. “…In 1961 Evelina Jenkins, a Black woman living in South Carolina, lost 66 acres of prime coastal real estate that she owned after a white man she had entrusted deliberately failed to deliver her $26 tax bill to the county treasurer and then promptly snatched her land at the county tax sale. Today, houses on Horse Island in South Carolina sell for upward of $2.5 million. Jenkins died penniless.” (Adeel Hassan, “The damage the ‘Black tax’ inflicted on generations of African Americans,” NYT, 4/26/24)

Another Black landowner in North Carolina lost his land in 1920. That loss affected the family line across generations, and his great-great grandson, George Floyd, was murdered by a police officer after a phone call to the authorities in Minneapolis about a counterfeit $20 bill one century later. (Hassan) “By the most conservative estimates, racialized patterns of over-assessment forced every Black person in America to pay an annual extra $100 (in 2024 dollars) for the past 150 years. That adds up to nearly $300 billion.” (Hassan)

Who are the eunuchs and the Philips of our day who would lead us into the Way of Christ the vine? What must be pruned? What among us must be cut away for all people to flourish? As Jesus broke bread, so we are broken; as Jesus poured out the new wine of the Spirit, so we are poured out. As Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them, so we welcome one another us as living parts of the one true vine. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their siblings, are liars; for those who do not love a sibling whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:7 & 20). See! Love is the fruit God brings to life in us. Whatever tastes of love is of God. Whatever does not taste of love is not of God. Taste and see the Lord is good.

Easter 4B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

My great grandpa, Tom Flynn, was from a family of schoolteachers.  His sister became the first woman to be principal of the school in her small Minnesota town. Tom, by contrast, fell on hard times in the middle of the roaring twenties.  My great grandma, Cecilia Rose, said the two Flynn boys caught her eye because they could really dance, but she had picked the wrong Flynn.  ‘He was good man,” she said, “except for the drink.”

Alcoholism devastated their family. In 1928, Tom left Cecelia and their 11 children in search of work.  My grandmother, Lois, was four at the time. Then the Great Depression hit, and things got much, much worse. Grandpa Tom returned home long enough to give Cecilia two more children. She had 13 children in all. They wore clothing stitched together from used gunny sacks. They lived in a building built to store corn, not people. The children worked on nearby farms and households.  Grandma Lois wouldn’t remember ever seeing her father until years later when she was an adult.

Great Grandpa Tom drifted. He finally caught on as a shepherd in Montana.  He died alone.  He died believing he was a failure –and probably most people, including my grandmother Lois, would have agreed. Even in Jesus’ time, being a shepherd was not a high calling.  In ancient Israel, a shepherd’s daily work made them ritually unclean before God. Shepherds had an unsavory reputation.  It was a job reserved for women, children, the enslaved, or the elderly — all people who were socially marginalized.

Yet, each year on the fourth week after Easter, we celebrate ‘Good Shepherd Sunday.’  The risen Lord gathers us with the lame and the lost into the undying life of God as a shepherd gathers sheep. Recalling the voice from the burning bush which revealed God’s name to Moses, Yahweh, I Am Who I Am (Exodus 3:14), Jesus told the disciples, “I Am the Good Shepherd (John 10:11a).

Christians have always been fond of this image. We have it here in the stained glass of the baptistry in the side chapel. Early Christians adapted and adopted this famous image from ones which had depicted the Greed god, Hermes, famously carrying a ram draped around his shoulders which he intended to sacrifice. In contrast, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, carries the lamb upon his shoulders, not to sacrifice it, but to save it.   Alleluia, Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed, alleluia.)

Like the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’, the ‘Good Shepherd’ is a story of reversal with radical implications. It would have sounded a bit like an oxymoron to those first disciples, as if Jesus were to identify himself with any number of unpopular jobs today: I am the good migrant farm laborer; I am the good dishwasher; I am the good sanitation worker; I am the good day-laborer. Respectable people listening to Jesus must have winced.

My Great Grandpa Tom was a shepherd.  He may have been a good shepherd for all I know.  But in the things that mattered most, like the care of his wife and children, he was more like the bad shepherds that Jesus talks about in John’s gospel who lose sight of their job to protect the sheep.  Yet our gospel tells us Jesus sought him out. Jesus would gather him in with all the other lost sheep of his sheepfold.

The new community Jesus fosters in, with, above, under, and through us, isn’t based on money and status, but on compassion, care, mutuality, and service.  “This is the comfort and safety of God’s commonwealth — God loves, the Good Shepherd loves, and the community is constituted by and bound by love. Jesus imagines an entirely different kind of flock, not one owned by some greedy and distant overlord, but an inclusive human family tended by the motherly care of God and led by little children.” (Diana Butler Bass, “A Shepherd, Really?”, Sunday Musings, April 21, 2024)

Now, God themself promises to be our shepherd. (vs.15). Christ Jesus lovingly stoops to tend our wounds, even those we are guilty of causing ourselves. Christ, the Good Shepherd calls each one of us by name.  Christ beckons me to lie down in green pastures. They lead me beside still waters.  They restore my soul.

We call church leaders “pastors,” from the Latin word, poimen, for ‘shepherd’.  All of us, not just professional leaders, are joined in a community of lost lambs, that is being transformed and sent out to serve as shepherds, following the way of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Tomorrow, Earth Day is a good occasion to remember that we who have been gathered are also sent.  Together, we are called to repent of the violence and harsh heartedness of the faith community that has lost and scattered Christ’s lambs and left them vulnerable to predators.  We are called to rebuild trust and to bring them home—not just the lost human lambs, but also the real lambs, together with all things living threatened or made vulnerable by our own indifference and greed.

We are called to reach out and not forget those like my Great Grandpa Tom, whose lives are crushed by the weight of our ever-changing economy, and whose hope is being snuffed out by the evil power of addiction. We must pray to be guided by God’s care for us, so that we may rightly offer our lives in love to God and to our neighbors in need…really.   Jesus waits to lead you deeper into the mysteries of God’s grace.  On this Good Shepherd Sunday, we encounter God’s invitation to be incorporated again, in the undying life of Jesus, who, like a Good Shepherd, is constantly in search of ways to make all life flourish throughout God’s creation.

The bible calls us to manage the care of the earth, to shepherd God’s people, and to faithfully steward the resources, gifts, and responsibilities entrusted to us by God as members of God’s household or family. We are to strive, with all the creativity and energy we can muster, not so that we may enter the kingdom of heaven someday, but to be part of God’s kingdom alive and at work in the world today.  We become better disciples of Jesus by becoming more tender-hearted, more honest with ourselves, more accepting of our limitations, and more caring for each other. Put more simply, we become better Christians by becoming more human.  Striving to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace, let it be said those people at Immanuel really know how to live life to its fullest. Together with my great-grandpa Tom, and all the saints in light, let the people say, Amen!

Easter 3B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Jesus showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” (Luke 24:40-41). You and I are two weeks from Easter Sunday, but in today’s gospel, it’s only been a few hours for these startled disciples.

Early that morning the women discovered the empty tomb. They became the first to share the good news: Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed, alleluia). They are the apostles to the apostles, but Peter and the small band of Jesus-followers dismissed their story as an idle tale.

That same day, the risen Christ walked beside two of them as they headed home from Jerusalem in defeat.  In their grief and fear, they don’t recognize him on the road to Emmaus. Yet, rather than recrimination, Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures.  They finally recognized him as he broke the bread at supper and disappeared.  They hurry back to Jerusalem only to discover that Jesus had also appeared to Peter. Peter had finally convinced them all. Jesus was indeed alive!

This is moment we join the story in today’s gospel. The disciples are excitedly talking about all these things when Jesus appears and says, “Sorry, did I scare you? Peace be with you.” He showed them his wounds. He invited them to touch him. He rummaged for food, found a piece of broiled fish, and ate it. Our gospel records this incredible line. In their joy, the disciples were “disbelieving and still wondering.” They are awestruck. Wonder, fear, joy, and amazement are all wrapped together.

It is striking to me, how much we’re like those first disciples. Here we are gathered on the Lord’s Day. Yet don’t we also wonder about the things we’ve heard, and wrestle with the question of the resurrection? Can anything so amazing and awe-some be real?

This week provided us a good test case.  How many of you saw the solar eclipse on Monday?  Did you, like me, drive somewhere to see it?  In the US, an estimated 32 million people live within the path of totality. Yes. I’m here to say, totality is totally different than a partial eclipse. The temperature dropped 20 degrees. I could see planets and stars. Sunset colors adorned in the sky.  A ring of fire encircled the moon. Brilliant red spots called solar prominences flickered from periphery of the moon. Everything happened precisely as scientifically predicted, yet, the eclipse still provokes wonder, joy, amazement, and even a little terror. As the sun disappeared behind the moon one nearby stranger said to me, what if it doesn’t come back?

A solar eclipse that coincided with the death of England’s King Henry I in 1133 was provoked by chaos and civil war. An eclipse in Turkey in 585 B.C. had the opposite effect. Warring armies took it as a sign from the gods that there should be peace. Fifteen years of fighting came to a sudden end. Steve Ruskin, a historian of astronomy, observes “What I find most amazing, having studied eclipses throughout history, is that no matter the time period or the scientific knowledge (or lack thereof), human responses to an eclipse are consistently, universally, expressions of awe and wonder, and even fear and terror.”

Searching for proof of the resurrection, perhaps we have been asking the wrong questions. Resurrection is not only about what did or did not happen to Jesus’s body.  The Christian claim has always been far more radical. Resurrection is what happens within and among our bodies. The Christian claim is that Christ is incarnate within and among us—already— at the table and in the font and through the living Word even as we wait for Christ to be fully revealed. This claim can be tested. You can search yourself for tangible evidence. I propose the universal mammalian experience of awe and wonder is a key that connects us to the disciples, and to eclipse-seekers, and to the daily reality and possibility of resurrection.

The solar eclipse is not a rare event. It turns it happens somewhere in the world every 18 months. Likewise, awe and wonder are not a rare but, potentially, a daily, even hourly reality. Dacher Keltner, a Mexican-born American professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, is turning up startling research on the power of awe that sounds a lot like the resurrected life we are offered today.

According to Dacher, “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.”  Experiences we might call spiritual are now being taken seriously by science as intelligence — as elements of human wholeness.  Most surprising, they say, such moments of awe and wonder which stretch imagination beyond our understanding are common in human life, and, presumably, to all mammals. Everywhere around the globe awe is measurably health-giving, immunity-boosting, creativity enhancing, and community building. Feelings of wonder bring our nervous system and heartbeat and breath into sync. Shared experiences of awe bring our bodies into sync with other bodies around us.’ (Krista Tippet, “The Thrilling New Science of Awe,” On Being, 2/03/23)

More specifically, the experience of awe and wonder centers in the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve has been called “the love nerve and the caretaking nerve” in your body. It is one of the great mind-body-spirit connections in the human nervous system. Vagus, v-a-g-u-s, not v-e-g-a-s, is the Latin word for wandering. The vagus nerve connects your mind, your gaze, your heart, your liver, and spleen. It interacts with nearly every organ system in the body. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but what happens in the vagus nerve connects us with the universe.

There were about 120 Jesus-followers that first Easter day—wide-eyed, their mouths open. Like them, because Christ endured all the violence and rejection that can be wrought from human hands and did not reject us, we are a community fueled by joy. Because the resurrected Christ was wounded and hungry, we are a community grounded in loving and serving human bodies. We do not deny the reality of human suffering. We are not embarrassed, nor do we apologize for our frailty and mortality, yet now, because we are joined to the undying life, we are not afraid to live life to its fullest.

We dwell in the resurrected Christ by drawing wonder and awe around us like a blanket. Just in pausing to take in the beauty of the natural world, or through exercise, or meditation, or by practicing our faith together here each week in Word and Sacrament, we open ourselves to greater awe and wonder. We open ourselves to greater love, to the way of the cross, and to the resurrected life. We are witnesses of these things. We have seen with our own eyes. We have felt it within our heart.  We know it in our gut. We are alive together in Christ.  Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed, alleluia.)

Easter Sunday B-24
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

‘…They fled from the tomb and said nothing to anyone for they were afraid’ (Mark 16:8). The end of Mark’s gospel is startling, perhaps most, for its honesty. There are no resurrection appearances. Jesus doesn’t show up on the road to Emmaus. He doesn’t appear beside the sea. He doesn’t visit them in the upper room. He doesn’t stay with them for forty days before ascending to heaven. This would not appear to be an effective way to begin the Jesus movement. Yet, all these years later, here we are.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed, alleluia.)

One of the more compelling proofs for the resurrection of Jesus is the simple fact that the church exists. Today we celebrate “the victory of seemingly powerless love over loveless power” (William Sloane Coffin) by reasoning backward from consequences to effects. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth sparked an unprecedented, egalitarian, and end-of-Empire movement that would reach the four corners of the Roman world within decades. A century later, the movement will reach southern India and into continental Africa.

Whatever we believe about the resurrection it is the only thing that explains what happened. Frightened disciples come out from hiding to preach the gospel of Jesus in the streets. Paul and the early band of Jesus people face hardships, risk arrest, family alienation and threats against their lives to gather and to serve in Jesus’ name as we are doing today.

A second startling fact is the resurrection happened in total darkness. The biblical account is silent. It provides no details. It happened in the dark. Bible scholar John Dominic Crossan has memorably described this the bible’s Great Omission. Apparently, there are no witnesses to the moment of Jesus’ resurrection. “Sometime in the predawn hours of that Sunday morning, a great mystery transpired in secret. No sunlight illuminated the event. No human being witnessed it. And even now, two thousand years later, no human narrative can contain it. It exceeds all of our attempts to pin it down, because it’s a mystery known only to God. Whatever the resurrection was and is — physical, literal, metaphorical, symbolic — its fullness lies in holy darkness, shielded from our eyes. All we can know is that somehow, in an ancient tomb on a starry night, God worked in secret to bring life out of death. Somehow, in the utter darkness, God saved the world.” (Debi Thomas, “It Happens in the Dark,” Journey with Jesus, 3/25/18)

We are here because this gospel has staked a claim on us. Through bread and wine, water, and the living Word, the Jesus story speaks to the truth that finds a deep echo in our soul. To be Christian is to have glimpsed the living God that is already, always, everywhere a part and partner to our inmost life, and to everything else that is, in the gospel of Jesus. It is to feel the pull of the divine lure and suddenly know God has a name and a face in Christ Jesus.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed. Alleluia.)

Easter is not a one-time event but an ongoing promise as well as a command. The empty tomb proclaims the promise of new life and the command to follow the one who is always going ahead of us. The angel said to the woman, “He is not here! But go, and tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:6b-7).

On that first Easter morning, the women were present at great risk to themselves. They were at the grave of a convicted political criminal who had just been crucified. Guards were posted at the tomb who could easily report the identities of any followers or supporters of this one whom they had killed and whose movement they now hoped to crush. The risk of the women is made even more dramatic by the realization that the rest of the disciples were all laying low. The men were hiding, paralyzed by grief and fear.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners Magazine said, “I think of the women at the tomb when I think of the Mothers of the Disappeared in Latin America, who in country after country were the ones who — when things were at their worst, when the violence of military-ruled countries was most grotesque, when the suffering was so horrible — came out time and time again and stood alone before the military and before the world, testifying for their loved ones, and for the truth.”

Wallis continues, “We have seen it in so many places — El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Argentina, as well as Northern Ireland. When things get rough, when things are at their worst, when everyone else flees or is in hiding, very often it is the women who stand up, offering themselves, becoming completely vulnerable as they submit to the risk of death. That is indeed their strength and their power.”

“These women, and many women who have come after them, can rightly be called history’s midwives of hope. And they become for us, on the resurrection morning of Easter, the primary example in the story of what we too are called to be — midwives of hope.”

“What does it mean to be a midwife of hope? Hope is not simply a feeling, or a mood, or a rhetorical flourish. Hope is the very dynamic of history. Hope is the engine of change. Hope is the energy of transformation. Hope is the door from one reality to another. Hope is another word for resurrection. Between impossibility and possibility there is a door — the door of hope. And the possibility of a transformation of history lies through that door.”

“Hope unbelieved is always considered nonsense. But hope believed is history in the process of being changed. The nonsense of the resurrection became the hope that shook the Roman Empire and established the Christian movement. The nonsense of slave songs in Egypt and Mississippi became the hope that let the oppressed go free.
…In each case the gains, the victories, the transformations seemed impossible at first, and only become possible by stepping through the door of hope.”

“And for us, for Christians, the resurrection of Jesus unlocks the door of hope and makes every kind of change possible. That’s why Christians and religious people have often been the first ones to walk through the door of hope. Because to walk through that door of hope, first you have to see it. And then you have to believe that there is something on the other side of the door.”

“Now, not everyone can see the door. And most people can’t imagine anything on the other side. And we know that those who walk through the door must also be prepared to suffer and even to die, because the door of hope always leads from one reality to another. History tells us again and again that we can’t move from one reality to another without cost. It’s never easy. It’s not without pain or suffering. And it’s always hardest for the first few who walk through the door.

The resurrection is a door of hope, and Jesus showed us that the resurrection comes by way of a cross. Suffering and hope are always joined in human history. The cost of moving from one reality to another — in our personal lives and in history — is always great. But it is the only way to walk through the door of hope. (Jim Wallis, “The Door of Hope,” An Easter Sermon, Sojourners Magazine)

On Easter morning we stand on the knowledge of the resurrection. We draw confidence in the Christian gospel from the persistent power of hope as witnessed by the woman at the tomb, by women throughout history, and by all who joined the struggle to build a better more loving world. The resurrection is not nonsense because hope is not nonsense. With this hope we can together build a new community of faith right here in Edgewater that will someday overcome the barriers of race and class and sex. And with this hope we can even look forward to a day when our nation no longer measures its security by its weapons, and its status by its wealth. “Spread the news: he’s not in the grave. He has arisen this world to save” (ELW #364).

Alleluia. Christ is risen. (He is risen indeed, Alleluia.)

Lent 5B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

A member of my family reached a major milestone this week.  Mehari became a U.S. citizen. It was a special occasion made even more special because the ceremony was conducted by longtime friend and life-long Lutheran, Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, Chief Judge of the United States District Court.

Mehari’s story is not like our story. Nine years ago, Mehari (then age 12) and his older brother, fled their family home at night and on foot. They hid from soldiers, risked arrest, and the possibility of being shot as they made their way to the border and crossed into Ethiopia. There, Mehari lived in a United Nations refugee camp for 3 ½ years before coming to Chicago around Thanksgiving time in 2018 before becoming part our family in July of 2019.

There is much more to this story, of course. Today, I want to focus on one small part of it.  Knowing and loving Mehari gave me a front row view to the vagaries, anxiety, and convoluted legal maze that is the U.S. immigration system. Knowing and loving Mehari makes it impossible to watch or read about families crossing the Mediterranean Sea and often, or refugees being driven into the Tunisian desert and left to die, without seeing his face.  Mehari’s life has broken my life open. Now I see, feel, and hear differently.

Leaving home became a matter of life and death. Nothing motivates us so urgently –whether as individuals, or as families, or as societies or as nations, more than an existential crisis. Perhaps that’s why suffering and failure are so much more likely to lead to transformation and growth than our own happiness, insight, and understanding. People like Mehari and the asylum seekers living in the Broadway Armory have had to make such a choice.  Their lives, their stories, hold power to break the hardened shell of our hearts open.

Perhaps we need real people and real things to make the abstract suffering of people half a world away into something concrete and tangible.  Ordinary things, like the quilts many of you are sitting on, which we will bless today, connect us to the very real pain and struggle endured by God’s children today.

Lutheran World Relief (LWR) began distributing quilts in 1945 to families in Europe following the Second World War. LWR Mission Quilts create a tangible, lasting bond between the people who lovingly assemble them (like Henrietta, Kelsey, and Marcia), and our neighbors around the world, who receive quilts in their greatest times of need. Last year alone, more than 462,000 quilts and kits reached children, women, and men in 19 countries, including Ukraine, Haiti and Tanzania. These quilts go to people like Mehari.  They go to people living in such dire conditions that this simple quilt is literally their only shelter.

Njombe is one of the coldest regions of Tanzania, where one out of every three children growth was stunted, a condition that has lifelong consequences. In 2020, researchers discovered that children there were not only hungry — they were also cold. Instead of using every calorie to grow, they were burning significant energy just to keep their bodies warm. Today, thanks to the work of your hands, nearly 9,000 children in Njombe have quilts to keep them warm and help them grow up strong and healthy.  Dr. Lali Chania, who leads our LWR in Tanzania, says, “Thank you to quilters on the other side of the globe for all the great work and dedication, and for bringing works of their hearts to children of Tanzania. It’s very important.”

These quilts are a lifeline for them and a powerful way to stimulate growth in us.  Let them break your heart open. Svein Ellingsen (13 July 1929 – 5 April 2020) was a Norwegian artist and hymn writer. Many of his texts are used equally as hymns, devotional readings, and prayers. He wrote our hymn of the day in 1978. “Seed that in earth is dying grows into ears of grain. Grapes that are crushed in the vessel turn into golden wine.  God, through this mystery grant us faith in our deepest darkness, life in our night and death.” (ELW #330)

The choice between life and death is a forceful motivator for change, but ultimately, it proves insufficient. For the life we prize to finally flower death must precede life, not the other way around. Jesus said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). This saying of Jesus was so central to his mission and message that it occurs in all four gospels (and twice in Luke).  It is the life-giving way of the cross.

A seed sown in soil does not literally die when germinates; but it does become something other than a seed, as the new plant begins to take form, the husk is burst, and the stored nutrients become part of the growing plant’s body. The seed must cease to be a seed to become a plant; ceasing to be one thing in order to bear fruit as a new thing is a kind of death and resurrection, a perishing and re-formation as a new creation in God.

By his death, Jesus taught us how to live.  St. Francis of Assisi summed up the gospel this way, “it is in giving that we receive; it is in dying that we are born again.”  It seems counter-intuitive.  But it is the way of things.  Like seed scattered upon the earth, Christ is revealed as we love one another as Christ loved us. It changes the way we see everything when we begin to see Jesus in all things. People like Mehari, and these simple quilts, can be like a seed planted in us to break our life open.

The Lord God made a new covenant with us, not like the one that we broke, but a covenant written within us. We eat and drink it at the Lord’s table.  We bath in it at our baptism.  It is a covenant not written on stone tablets or on paper in a book.  Instead, it is written upon our heart.  ‘I will be your God and you shall be my people’ (Jeremiah 31:33).

These five Sundays in Lent we have had heard God make five covenants with us.  Five promises that embolden us to confront our illusions, our frailties, and faults so we may turn to God, be healed and broken like bread for the world.  Noah, Abraham, the Ten Commandments, the serpent in the wilderness and today, the prophet Jeremiah, walk us into an encounter with God’s promise to accompany us even in the deepest, most intimate inward struggles of mind and heart.  We borrow God’s courage and hope to confront the realities of life in preparation for the radical new beginning of resurrection and transformation God prepares for us in the great Three Days and at Easter.

These promises of God are like water on dry ground, bringing forth life out of death. God’s promises are like a mighty fortress to surround and protect us when life threatens to beat us down in one of its many storms.  God says, ‘See my rainbow and know that I fight, not against you, but with you.’  ‘If you count the stars in the night or the grains of sand beside the sea, they do not exceed the gifts with which I will bless you.’  ‘While you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, look upon me and live. Look upon me and be healed.  Look to me to be forgiven and to learn how to forgive.’  Follow me into death that your life may become like a watered garden.  Jesus is with you. Christ Jesus is in you.  The husk of our old life is opened to become nutrients for the growing life of Christ alive and at work in our lives and the world.  Look, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Corinthians 5:17). Thanks be to God.

Lent 3B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

St. Paul wrote to Christians living in Ephesus to “…be angry but do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26).  He made a list of rules for new life in Christ. He advised them to “…[put] away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil” (Ephesians 4:25-27).

Let’s review: 1) Speak the truth. 2) Don’t sin, and 3) be angry. Did you know there was this bible command to be angry? Be angry. That’s an order.  What on earth was Paul getting at? Is there a constructive and necessary purpose for our anger?

 Jesus fashioned a whip of cords He scattered the coins of the money changers and knocked over their tables in the temple. He told the dove dealers, sheep sellers, and cattle wranglers to get out!  And what a time to make a scene! 300,000 people had crammed into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The temple complex was the center of Jewish faith and the symbolic heart of the Jewish nation—one place that held together crowds of worshippers, bustling commercial activity, nationalist aspirations, political identity, historical memory, architectural splendor, and religious affiliation.

It couldn’t have been a surprise to see people selling animals. They were needed for the temple to function as a place to make sacrifice to God. Jesus brought everything in the temple to an absolute stop!  Let’s freeze the story here to focus on the still shot of Jesus being angry.  (We could talk about Jesus’ temple tantrum in the context of the second temple and about why this story does not mean Jesus made Judaism or the Jews expendable. That idea has a bloody legacy in Western history and is terrible, unchristian a mistake—but that would take up all our time.)

Anger is a powerful emotion which blinds us and makes us vulnerable to manipulation; and/or anger is a powerful teacher which yields important insights about ourselves and the world around us. Anger can lead to compassionate action. How can we avoid the first (blindness and manipulation) and steer into more of the second (insight and compassionate action)?

 St. Augustine wrote that Hope has two beautiful daughters: Anger, so that what must not be cannot be; and Courage, so that what can be will be.  More than most emotions, anger shows us what we really care about. Anger is often the first indication that something ain’t right.  Anger can re-negotiate boundaries in unhealthy systems.  Cold anger (as opposed to hot), emptied of its will to violence and aggression, can be empathetic, powerful, and creative.

“Destroy this temple,” Jesus said, “and in three days, I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The mighty and glorious temple of Jerusalem for us is now the temple of his body—not limited to any specific geographical place or time. This new temple is not a building but a way of life into which we are built. We have become a temple of Living Stones –to create the beloved community and to reach for a better world for everyone.  We can’t get there from here without anger transformed by the Spirit into fuel that drives us toward beloved community and justice.

We help each other to learn the proper use of our anger if the beloved community and social justice are ever to become more than pie in the sky wishes and dreams. Anger, and even rage, can be great teachers if we listen to them. They are powerfully revealing of our deepest self to ourselves and to others, yet we tend to consider them negatively. Anger can lead bring conversion, humility, and honesty.

Faced with an outrage, anger is the price we pay for paying attention. It is the rage that ought to come out, because, when faced with an outrage, it is a sin not to be angry. And yet, confusion about the proper use anger has made Americans vulnerable to the worse type of cynical manipulation and is a threat to the future of our democracy.

Righteous anger is turned around and used against us by those who seek to sustain their own power. Political fundraisers have a secret. Fear and anger are what brings the money in. Stoking fear and anger over years and decades among our evangelical siblings in Christ gave birth to Christian nationalism, which is neither Christian nor patriotic. The righteous anger of rural Americans mourning the loss of jobs and the dignity that comes with them is the result of technology that enables just one-third of farmers to produce five times the food, and 20% of miners to double the production of coal. Yet their anger is channeled for political effect, not toward the effects of technology and how to creatively respond to it, but against the fake enemy of illegal immigrants, wokeness and the deep state. (Paul Krugman, “The Mystery of White Rural Rage,” NYT, 2/26/24)

Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh offers wisdom for softening our anger by letting it “cook.” Your anger is like a flower. In the beginning you may not understand the nature of your anger, or why it has come up. But if you sit with it, it will begin to open….You need to sustain your mindfulness for a certain amount of time in order for the flower of anger to open herself. It’s like when you cook potatoes; you put the potatoes in the pot, cover it, and put it on the fire…. You have to keep the fire burning for at least fifteen or twenty minutes in order for the potatoes to cook. After that, you open the lid, and you smell the wonderful aroma of cooked potatoes.

Anger is like that—it needs to be cooked. In the beginning it is raw. You cannot eat raw potatoes. Your anger is very difficult to enjoy, but if you know how to take care of it, to cook it, then the negative energy of your anger will become the positive energy of understanding and compassion.  (Richard Rohr, “When Anger Meets Love,” Daily Meditations, 3/2/24)

Metabolized anger points in the direction of creating the beloved community and social justice.  Anger, like pain, helps us recognize what is wrong and where we hurt, so we can attend to the hurt and begin to heal it.  The conditions giving rise to anger must be treated with the medicine of the abiding and abundant love of God. This is what we call the way of the cross. It is how we take shelter in the living sanctuary of one another, and also, how we become living members of that sanctuary in the body of Christ.

This is what it means to “take up our cross” in a way that doesn’t become pathological or destructive but generative and compassionate.  It comes from cooking our anger until it opens like a flower. We’ve seen a profound example this month in life of Alexei Navalny. Navalny’s decision to return to Russia after two failed attempts to poison him, was animated his Christian faith.  Three years before his death, on February 20, 2021, Navalny spoke about his faith during the closing statement at his trial. His final public words included this surprising bible quote: ‘Blessed are those who thirst and hunger for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.’ Navalny expected to die in service of his nation’s hunger and thirst for justice. Navalny chose to sacrifice himself for a greater truth, a political idea that was also a biblical one.

The consequence was both shocking and moving to people across the globe. The funeral for Alexei Navalny was Friday in Moscow. Despite the risk of arrest many thousands turned out for the funeral and the procession, throwing flowers at the hearse as it made its way to the cemetery. A woman at Navalny’s funeral compared Navalny and Putin. “One sacrificed himself to save the country, the other one sacrificed the country to save himself.” (Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American, 3/1/24)

Jesus overturned the workings of the temple. In our grief, we have in Jesus one who listens, and mourns with us and one who fights and struggles with us for the beloved community and a better world. Be angry, but do not sin. Learn to speak the truth in love. Do not let the sun go down on your anger so you do not make room for the devil and his manipulation. Whenever two or three are gathered in his name, God is there. Let the Holy Spirit turn us from what’s wrong toward what’s right. Become part of the temple not made with hands, a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Lent 1B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Daveon Gibson was excited to start driver’s ed this week.  Instead, he was shot and killed while walking from school, along Thorndale Avenue between Lakewood and Magnolia avenues. Two other Senn students – another 16-year-old boy and a 15-year-old boy – were hurt in the shooting. Balloons were released into the sky over Nicholas Senn High School on Friday night. Family, friends, and teachers gathered for a vigil to honor him, to call for justice, and to say his name -Daveon Gibson.

“I find in my heart to forgive the person that took my grandson away,” said Daveon’s grandmother, Sherry Wesley. “I’m broken. My family is broken. All I want is justice.” She told me, “I don’t want revenge.” I want the person who did this to come forward.

Some of you will remember the Reverend Doctor David Henry, who, after years in ministry working with urban youth in Logans Square, left his pulpit to pursue a career in psychology and taught at the Institute for Juvenile Research (IJR).  He dedicated his life to understanding and reversing the effects of human violence. He taught us to see violence, like that which took the life of Daveon Gibson, through a public health lens.  It’s not about good people or bad people, but rather, violence is contagious.  It spreads person to person like a virus.

David’s work contributed to an out-of-the-box approach, based on research at IJR, to reduce gun violence through something they called Cease Fire. While organizing the vigil this week, I met some amazing and inspiring people who still do this work every day and night as violence interrupters through Communities Partnering for Peace (CP4P) in Rogers Park and Uptown. They put their wisdom to work and their bodies on the line working directly with youth contemplating violence which often arises from petty conflicts.  When young people can only feel the need for revenge and see nothing but red, violence interrupters help calm their anger and grievances to yellow.

Daryl Dacres is one such hero working directly with Senn students. Another is Josh Hurly, a mentor with B.A.M. who works full time at Senn. These are the people on the front lines confronting the violence that stirs our fears and tears at the bonds of trust so essential for healthy neighborhood.  Their winning formula isn’t vengeance or intimidation, but relationship, compassion, and understanding.  What you and I might call love. Love can achieve what the threat of sanctioned legal violence and the legal system cannot.  Love wins.

It can feel inevitable, and like we are helpless to stem the tide. Hurt people hurt people.  Victims will take vengeance.  On and on it goes until an eye for an eye has made us all blind.  The message of baptism and Lent stand in contrast. Love and forgiveness break the wheel and interrupts the cycle of violence.  Scripture reminds us there can be no peace without justice, no joy unless it can be shared by all; no light is found in the vengeful dreams of our hearts; no lasting prosperity can be wrung from the sweat of other person’s brow.

The gospel of Jesus put a decisive end to all scapegoating on the cross. When religion begins to be part of the sin-accounting game rather than a dispensary of grace and mercy it is a sign that Christianity has lost sight of the way of Christ.

The way that leads into the season of Lent takes us on a winding path over the edge of a dark chasm that goes deep into the human heart.  The ancient Priestly writer of Genesis 6:11 says God’s reason for flooding the earth in Noah’s time was that “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” It was to wash away the violence of earth that God allowed the waters to burst from their confinement above the heavens and flood the dry land.  “In anger and regret, God made the rains to fall, and the waters to rise, and the waves to beat.  The water rose and obliterated every living thing.  Only one family was preserved, one family and their small collection of creatures.  Noah’s family was preserved on the ark” (William Willimon, Vol. 34, No 1, year B).  In the Noah story, God did what we would expect any benevolent power to do –God used violence to root out violence.

But then the story of God took a remarkable and unexpected turn.  The Priestly writers say God saw that answering destructiveness with destruction, attempting to deal with corruption simply by erasing its effects, could not get at the root cause of corruption, nor would it heal the human inclination toward violence.  The flood could not cure the virus of hatred and sin in us.  So, God placed a rainbow in the sky as a promise and a reminder of what God had discovered. God laid down his weapon. The rainbow means that God put down his bow and arrow.  God has put an end to all hostilities between us, although we had no power to demand it, or any right to expect it.

This covenant God made with us is now our mission.  With the covenant to never again destroy all life with a flood, God promised to deal with the problem of sin and evil by more creative means than simply wiping us out. ‘God chose to be a Redeemer, above and beyond being Creator and Destroyer.’ (Paul Nancarrow).  You and I are a part of God’s plan.

In baptism God does not merely wipe our slate clean, as one removes “dirt from the body” (I Peter 3:19) but begins a new relationship with us with the power to get at the root cause of corruption.  God’s rainbow, like Christ’s baptism, represents the unbreakable promise to always be with us even as we confront the power of evil that threatens our lives and the world.  God’s gift is the power of forgiveness. This lent comes at a time when we most urgently need this wisdom.  In this season of Lent, we remind ourselves and each other Jesus’ story is not simply his own—it must be ours as well.  We are baptized into a death like his so that now we might share in the abundance of a life like his.

Through simple faith practices we hope and pray that this Lent ushers in God’s peaceable kingdom from the very center of our lives: our homes, families, and friends.  You are vessels of God’s spirit.  You are children of light.  We are called and equipped to re-kindle the warmth of community and bless all our neighbors, including every child in every home, with the gift of streets to live in without fear. Jesus has shown us the way we do this is through love.