Lent 2B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

He was pumping gas when inspiration hit. He wanted to do something nice for his old car so, instead of regular unleaded, he filled the tank with super high-octane gasoline. The old car couldn’t handle it. It stalled at intersections and backfired going downhill. Back at the gas station, he suddenly understood. He recognized the same pattern in himself. “I keep sputtering out at intersections where life choices must be made and I either know too much or not enough,” he wrote.

The author Robert Fulghum came to a realization, “All I really needed to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten.” First published in 1986, his book has gone through three printings. Here are some of the life-lessons Mr. Fulghum learned in kindergarten: share everything; play fair; don’t hit people; say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody; wash your hands before you eat; and flush.” (Robert L. Fulghum. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Ballantine Books, 2003 (1986, 1988)”

It is obvious by today’s political news cycle that hurting people, name calling, and childlike behavior has taken precedence over the rules in his book. We have forgotten what we learned in kindergarten and in Sunday school.

My first line of defense when kids used to call me names was something my teacher taught me to say, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Maybe you’ve heard of it. Trouble is that old saying is more memorable than it is true. Words and names do hurt us. Poisonous words of a parent can be crippling to a child. Lies and labels start to stick. They cover over the truth about people. They obscure the fact that people with different religions, identities, and political parties are people too. Name calling is a step in the road to making another person into our enemy.

It turns out, God likes to call people names too, but the intent is something very different. We heard in our first reading God gave new names to Abram and Sarai. Abram, which means “father,” was changed to Abraham, which means “The Father of Many Nations.” Sarai, which means “princess,” became Sarah meaning “my princess,” a more exalted title to denote her upcoming stature among the Promised People. Their new names bound them to a bigger story. Their life and success are connected to the flourishing of an entire nation. We cannot be who we are without each other and that includes, everyone.

Note the covenant God made is with Sarah as well as Abraham. They both received a covenant and a new name. This is a familiar pattern in our scriptures. God changed the name of Jacob –which meant one who ‘cheats,’ to “Israel,” which means ‘one who wrestles with God.’ After its ruin and defeat, God gave a new name to Jerusalem. “No more shall you [O Zion] be called, ‘Forsaken’… but you shall be called ‘My Delight Is in Her’ (Isaiah 62:2). Despite his many shortcomings and mistakes, Jesus gave Simon Peter the name “Cephas,” or ‘rock.’ God’s name-calling was a reminder that their story was part of a shared story—and now, part of our story.

Ancient people recognized the power to name as something almost magical. It conferred something essential and indelible both to objects and subjects. “Out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air and brought them to [Adam, the earth man] to see what he would call them; and whatever the earth man called every living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2:19). To bestow a name upon God’s creatures was to play a role in co-creating them. You and I are co-creators with God through the power of language, words, and names.

Ancient thinking about names seems almost quaint to us today. But I must say, every teacher, school administrator, or pastor teaching confirmation knows there is something almost magical about knowing a child’s name. Knowing their name has power to stop a running child in their tracks and make them start listening. It’s the most amazing thing. Addressing people by name has power to open a conversation. It is the key that unlocks the ability to say, “I care.” There is a reason we say their names: George, Breonna, Ahmaud, Philando, Laquan, and so many others. Proper names confer respect.

So, what shall your name be? Does it reflect your mistakes? –your limitations? –your many inadequacies? Shall it be one that reflects someone’s hatred, or bigotry, or ignorance? No. I have given you a new name, says the Lord God. In faith, by water and the word, you are more wonderful than you know. You are My Beloved. You are Pilgrims in this Land. You are My Children forever, says the Lord God.

You might remember, when God called to Moses from the burning bush and told him to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses’ first question was, ‘Who do you think I am that I should be able to do such a thing?’ His second question was—and ‘Who are you to be able to tell me? What’s your name? (Exodus 3:13). After all, wasn’t Moses a murderer, an escaped criminal? He was lucky to be a simple shepherd. Could Moses become a prophet, a leader, and deliverer? Was the un-burning fire in the bush just a desert illusion? Could this truly be the voice of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? The correct answer revolved around knowing the correct name. God answered Moses. God told him his name. “I AM WHO I AM”, or “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”.

‘Who do people say that I am,” Jesus asked (Mark 8:27b). In the passage immediately before our gospel today, Peter answered, “You are the Messiah,” yet he did not yet fully understand what this meant. Yet it was the beginning. It was the beginning of Peter’s discovery about the true identity of Jesus. It was that first light which brought into awareness the dim outlines of all that lay ahead.

Today, Jesus reminds us that we too, can discover who we really are. Lay down hurtful words and pick up on God’s love. Lay down worldly striving and pick up the story of God. Lay down the world, with its name-calling, enemy-making, and hurting. Lay it all down at the feet of Jesus. Pick up your cross and walk in newness and strength. My burden is easy Jesus says and my burden is light. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” Jesus said (Mark 8:35).

Robert Fulghum says it another way. He writes, “…remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.…Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living…. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”

Lent 1B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Tens of thousands were left in the dark and cold across Texas this week. Pipes burst and drinking water became scarce in places after winter cold swept across much of the state. One Texas mayor told residents of his small town in a since-deleted Facebook post, “Only the strong will survive and the weak will [perish].” “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING!” People should “step up and come up with a game plan” for acquiring power or heat, he said. “I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!” The mayor has since resigned. (Dominick Mastrangelo, The Hill, 02/17/21.)

Elsewhere in the state, a Houston furniture store owner known as “Mattress Mack,” saw his fellow Texans cold and hungry, with little shelter from the winter storm and so, just as he did during Hurricane Harvey and other storms, Mr. McIngvale, 70, opened his doors, and let the people in. Thousands came for help. Mr. McIngvale and his wife started the furniture store on Houston’s North Freeway about 30 years ago with a $5,000 investment. He said he was inspired by his Catholic faith. “When my people are dying and freezing, I am going to take care of them,” he said. “That comes before profit every time.”

Which of these two, the small-town mayor, or the furniture store owner was neighbor to those who were suffering? The contrast in choices between these two men offer us a valuable lesson about covenant life. The modern ideal is individualism, self-interest, and self-centeredness. When the going gets tough the tough get going. We glory in the philosophy that says, “I will do what I want to do, when and how I want to do it, and I don’t care what anyone else thinks.” But the moment our hearts are converted, such life must come to an end.

Christians are called to live in covenant relationship with God and with each other. We traced the sign of this covenant on our foreheads this week with ashes. “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify you Father in heaven” (ELW p. 231). The appointed readings each week this Lent explore the meaning of covenant life for us. Today our lessons present us with baptism and a rainbow. This Lent takes us on a winding path over the edge and 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 upon the earth that God allowed 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 expect in all the super-hero movies we love to watch. God used violence to root out violence. Yet, unlike all those movies our story doesn’t end there. Remarkably, God saw that God’s attempt to solve the problem of violence by violence didn’t work. So, God began a new plan and called the son of Terah. “Enter Abraham. The redemption of the world would not come by the eradication of evil people, but through the propagation of a faithful family. By faith Abraham would father a son and spend the rest of his life searching for a city whose builder and maker is God.” (Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, p. 183) (But that’s next week.)

When God saw the flood could not cure the virus of hatred and sin in us, God placed a rainbow in the sky as a promise and a reminder, not for us, but for God. The rainbow means that God put down his bow and arrow. God laid down his weapon. God has put an end to all hostilities between us, and with all creature, although we had no power to demand it, or any right to expect it.

Noah and God made a covenant (Genesis 9) that is binding on us today. Rainbows are beautiful. They are also a sign of the covenant. We are partners in it with all creation in God’s mission is to put an end to violence and to care for the world and all its creatures. ‘God chose to be a Redeemer, above and beyond being Creator and Destroyer.’ (Paul Nancarrow). Now you and I are God’s plan.

The Holy Spirit plays kind’a rough with Jesus in our gospel today. There was no time for celebration or to pose for pictures. After baptism in the river Jordan, the Spirit of God “drove” him, compelled him, forced him, into the desolation of a wild and unsafe place, without food or shelter in the wilderness to live among wild beasts and to contest with Satan. I wonder, is it possible, that Jesus didn’t want to go? Did he resist? Scripture says, the Spirit drove him, anyway. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him.” (Mark 1:12-13)

We do not get to choose, do we, what tragedy, or illness, or betrayal, or freak snowstorm will befall us. One moment God declares Jesus his beloved Son, the very next he is expelled into the wilderness. Jesus is no superhero. He is a human being in flesh and blood. Jesus struggled in the wilderness. He hurt. He hungered. He wept, thirsted, wrestled, and suffered. Did anyone read the fine print on this baptismal covenant thing before we took the plunge?
Yet maybe we need to know that Jesus wrestled with real demons and real dangers during those forty days of temptation and endured, because we know we could never survive such a dangerous place. With a companion who knows the way, though, we will. Jesus has come and lived among us, full of grace and truth. He lives with us here, where the Holy Spirit, Satan, the wild beasts, and the angels reside together.

Could the covenant of Holy baptism show us what it truly means to be a child of God and how to open our eyes to a whole new way of living? The gospel of Jesus put a decisive end to all scape-goating on the cross. An eye for an eye makes everyone blind. There can be no peace without justice, no joy which cannot be shared by all; no light found in the dark dreams of our hearts; and no true prosperity that is wrung from the sweat of other human beings.

Suddenly we realize, the wilderness we so feared is filled, not only with wild beasts but also with ministering angels. Yes, there are scary things in the wilderness, but we are not alone. With water and a rainbow God shows us how to be the Body of Christ—the People of God. We stand together with God who is with us in our suffering. The Holy Spirit, the Comforter, is ever near. And Jesus, himself, walks with us and promises, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Finding ourselves in the presence of the Savior, even while still in the wilderness, we rejoice.

Ash Wednesday

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

People muted their cell phones and pocketed their earbuds in the fall 2005 to sit in a packed theater in monkish silence for the premier of Philip Gröning’s three-hour documentary, Into Great Silence.

The movie has almost no dialogue. Into Great Silence follows the life of monks in the Grande Chartreuse monastery hidden away in the French Alps, where they have kept their monastic rule since 1084 when they were founded by St. Bruno. For almost a thousand years, the Carthusian monastics at Grande Chartreuse have searched for God in solitude, practicing “the habit of the tranquil listening of the heart, which, they say, allows God to enter by all paths.”

Gröning originally proposed his idea for the film to the monks in 1984.  The monks said they some wanted time to think about it. 16 years later they invited him to come shoot the movie. Gröning lived at the monastery for a total of six months in 2002 and 2003. He filmed and recorded on his own, using no artificial light. The movie has no spoken commentary or added sound effects. It consists of images and sounds that depict the rhythm of monastic life with occasional selections from Holy Scripture.

The monk’s lives are an experiment.  They live according to God’s declaration in Isaiah: “Listen to me in silence” (41:1) and inspired by Jesus, who “rose long before daybreak and went out alone into the wilderness to pray” (Mark 1:35). They order their lives around radical availability to the present moment, like the child Samuel awake in the night listening for Eli’s call (1 Samuel 3). (Rose Marie Berger, Sojourners)

The world insists that we are what we do and achieve, but silent contemplation invites us to practice under-doing and under-achieving and reminds us of the simple grace and humility of being human.

In these days when, often, we are exhausted, or enraged at the news of the day, or afraid of the social, political, and ecological forces we do not understand, and feel powerless to control; as we work to tighten our grip, put on a smile, and squeeze one more spoonful of sweetness and energy by sheer force of will to greet the new day–if that’s how you feel –then it might be time to let go. Let your hope and strength and wisdom be renewed by God.

This Lent could we let the Holy Spirit show us again how to be human beings, rather than human-doings? If you’re still searching for something to do this Lent, let me suggest you give up words.   Specifically, prayers with words. Instead, listen, like the Carthusian monks do with all your heart, soul, strength and mind.

Can you set aside a minute, three minutes, or five minutes in your daily routine and just let yourself be?  Let yourself go silent in order for the still, small, life-giving Spirit to speak.

19th Century British pastor Alexander Maclaren called it sitting silent before God.  Warmed by the light of God’s grace we pray that our fisted minds and hands may be opened to the compassion and understanding that is truly required to solve difficult problems. That treasure comes from God.

The spiritual disciplines of the Lenten season – prayer, fasting, giving, prayer – these are not designed to leach you of your time and energy. They are meant to help reorient your life in God, and God’s promises. They are meant to refresh and restore you. They are meant to help you breathe again.

Jesus said, ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Store up treasure in heaven by releasing grace and love into the world that comes from God. You don’t need to keep going at the pandemic and all the troubles of the world by your own power and strength but let go. Let go of the blizzard of thoughts, and feelings. Let go of your words for God to meet you again, in silence. Amen.

Transfiguration B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

On the mountain of his transfiguration, Peter, James, and John learn something you and I already know. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Son of God.

The Greek word used is metamorphothe and is translated as transfigured, yet it comes closer to expressing something English can’t quite convey. It wants to say something like “changed shape and beingness and allness into some other form thereof,” or some other equally awkward and wordy translation. What happened, in other words and in the fullest sense, was a “metamorphosis,” which again is Greek and again has no good analog in English. (Phyllis Tickle, God’s Politics, Sojourner’s Magazine)

So, what happened on that mountain was like the barrier between heaven and earth, the visible and the invisible, being ripped in two. The heart and character of Christ was revealed to be the same heart and the same character as that of the living God. On this holiday weekend dedicated to loving devotion, you could say the transfiguration was Jesus’ Valentine. Jesus took the disciples aside, dropped all pretense and declared his eternal love for them and for us. “You are not alone. I see you,” God says. “I love you. I have always loved you and will never stop loving you.”
St. Paul quoted lyrics of an early Christian hymn, “though he [Jesus] was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6-7). This is something like what Jesus revealed on the mountain.

One week before Lent, when, in a normal year we would be sitting down to eat pancakes on ‘Shrove Sunday,’ Mark clarifies the true identity and mission of the Messiah. What an incredible spectacle it was, dazzling to the eye! Yet, apparently, Mark’s gospel does not want us to focus on that. It’s not about what the disciples saw. A bright cloud overshadowed and blinded them. What has been called the cloud of unknowing accompanies the very presence of the living God. It is not penetrable by the human eye, but only by the ear. The disciples could not see but they could hear a voice. A voice speaking from the cloud echoed the command at Jesus’ baptism. It said, “This is my son, the Beloved; and with him I am well pleased. Listen to him” (Mark 9:7).
Listen to him. From that moment on, the course of history was set, and, in many ways, the church was born. Although they didn’t know it yet, the peaceful transition of power was set into motion that day, from Jesus to the disciples, and now, to us.

Jesus was transfigured but we are transformed. Our beingness and ‘allness’ is changed. We are born again into Christ. The calculus by which we measure wins and losses in our life has widened. Narrow self-interest is no longer enough. Instead, we cheer at the advance of the mission and purposes of God.
On this last Sunday of Epiphany before the beginning of Lent, we stand once again on the threshold. God invites us to cross over. Resurrection is ours on the other side. Let us bravely step into that unknown future illumined by grace and glimpsed only by the ear. Listen to Jesus.

This Lent our theme is listening. I’d like to highlight for you some of the ways we have prepared for you to do that. This Wednesday @ 7:00 pm, we will gather online for Ash Wednesday worship, and for the all the Wednesdays in Lent we will gather at that time for a six-week prayer project called Be Still, and Know, led by intern Justin Perkins. Each week, we will host a half-hour session that will include a short reflection on the roots of “Christian mindfulness” with the opportunity to learn from the example of different historic figures from the past. Sometime the week after next, I invite you to stop by the church grounds for walking meditation inspired by the stations of the cross as conceived by artist, Mary Button in her series entitled, Refugee Journeys. And finally, we will also let our feet be our prayerful response to hunger in our community through a neighborhood appeal for toiletries, personal care items, and cash donations for our local food pantry, Care for Real.

We must not be like the disciple Peter whose words got in the way of the message on the mountain of Christ’s transfiguration. In this time of division and change we must listen. We must listen more than we speak to heal our country and repair the bond between neighbors. We must speak after listening to transform the dread of this pandemic and the fear of social upheaval into hope for a brighter future. We must listen. Listen and pray. Pray without speaking. Learn to pray without words because, sometimes, our words get in the way of what God may be showing us.

Archbishop Oscar Romero was especially devoted to the Transfigured Christ. Unlike the disciples, Romero understood Christ’s passion; he and the people of El Salvador lived it on a daily basis, caught between a civil war and the state-sponsored terrorism that accompanied it. For Romero, the Transfigured Christ gave him confidence that Jesus will triumph over death and despair. The plight of the poor in El Salvador did not allude God’s attention. In a homily three weeks before his assassination by government forces, Romero said, “The theology of transfiguration is saying that the road of redemption passes through the cross and through Calvary, but that the goal of Christians is beyond history. Not to alienate oneself from history, but rather to give more meaning to history, a definitive meaning.” (Michaela Bruzzese, Sojourners)

Jesus moves from transfiguration to the cross and to resurrection. This is the path we walk by listening. We listen to the living Lord to follow Jesus from his rightful place in glory to an embrace the world God so loves. With eyes wide shut and our ears wide open we step into the unknown through faith. Martin Luther put it this way:

“This life, therefore, is not godliness
but the process of becoming godly,
not health but getting well,
not being but becoming,
not rest but exercise.
We are not now what we shall be,
but are on the way.
The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on.
This is not the goal but it is the right road.
At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle,
but everything is being cleansed.”

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

We’re twenty verses into the first chapter of Mark. Jesus is already collecting disciples and casting out demons. Neither are from places you’d expect. He finds disciples from the hard-scrabble, unrefined, unlearned shores of the Sea of Galilee. He cast out demons from inside the synagogue. In the sanctuary. In the middle of worship. It makes you wonder. Could Jesus find a disciple in you? Would Jesus cast out anything from among us? “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (Mark 1:24)

Scripture says the people were astounded. Literally, Jesus blew their minds. Their come-to-Jesus-meeting aroused curiosity. For some it set their lives on a new course. For others Jesus provoked fear and defensiveness.

What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? We have the same question. I suppose this is the question we ask ourselves every time we open the bible. It’s the central question of every sermon you’ve ever heard. Yet, what in the world do unclean spirits, demons, and an exorcism have to do with us?
This is the part of the sermon modern preachers reach for an exegetical shoehorn to show how it is that this ancient shoe actually fits. The bible is concerned with well-being and communal health, not magic, or sorcery, nor dare I say it, not even the supernatural. Instead, it is focused on the all too natural and worldly problem of evil. But I don’t think we need to do that this year. We don’t need to borrow anything from the supernatural to translate Jesus’ meaning about the imminent and persistent danger of demons–do we?

No. This year we are all witnesses to the captivating demonic power of manipulation, lies, fear mongering, and name-calling to personalize, polarize, enflame, blind and fragment God’s beloved community into warring camps. Our politics, the pandemic, and climate crisis have made plain the deep divisions among us, some of which, we would not have believed nor were we fully aware just a short time ago.

We share the same country, even the same zip codes but not the same reality. There is good health care for some, but not others. The police can be relied upon to serve and protect some while others call upon the police only as a last resort, if at all. We have superlative, top 100 in the nation public schools, but not for everyone. Good food is stacked high and beautifully displayed in our grocery stores, yet 1 in 10 families in our nation are hungry.

Care for Real, our local food pantry, reports a 40% increase in the food distributed, and a 243% increase in new Edgewater households who came to them for food. Immanuel distributed more than $12,000 to neighbors for food, medicine and other necessities through our COVID Assistance fund just since last March. (Thank you for your generosity, by the way.) Yes. We see how income inequality has grown to the extent that just having a job does not ensure you can feed yourself or your family, nor keep the roof over your head.

2020 has been like an epiphany, an awakening, but we can’t claim to be woke while we still point fingers, draw lines, call other side names, or demonize each other. This makes us part of the problem, not the solution. We must cast out the demons that rule our hearts and minds and reveal themselves whenever we see suffering yet do not see the human being that is suffering.

The ministry of Jesus is to free the love God has placed within us, so it once again flows naturally between and among us. It is literally to cast out the demons that divide and separate us from our common humanity.

So again, we ask the same question as the man in the synagogue. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” It can certainly feel that way. After all, what exactly will it cost us to set this world on its proper foundation? How may I be called upon to change my habits? What might I be expected to do? Jesus doesn’t answer these questions, but only said to the disciples, “Come and see.”

The people in the synagogue at Capernaum marveled that Jesus spoke as one who had “authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). To be clear, we all need people like the scribes. We need institutions and the people who run them. We need people who are qualified, accredited, skilled, competent and accountable. That’s one kind of authority and it’s essential—nothing works very well without it.

What people saw in Jesus is another kind of authority to which all those placed in authority must be open and appreciative. It’s the authority of someone who knows the truth and tells the truth because they lived it. It’s the authority of someone who knows what to do and gives instructions about how to act based on their own hard-won experience. This is the kind of authority Moses spoke of in our first reading. It is the authority of prophecy that is unafraid to speak truth to power. It is the kind of authority that we grant to those who know us and love us. This kind of authority has power. It has power even to cast out demons.

This kind of authority is our birth rite as children of God. Yet, we can never possess it, nor can we claim it. This power clings to us all when our words or our actions flow purely from the natural simplicity of God’s grace.

I believe we witnessed this kind of authority with the power to cast out demons eleven days ago on the steps of the U.S. capital. While the nation held its breath at another peaceful transition of power, a young woman with an auditory processing disorder that makes her hypersensitive to sound, raised by a single mother, a National Youth Poet Laureate, took the stage. The young black woman, Amanda Gorman, showed us again what the authority of a truth-teller and a prophet looks like in verse. She cast out demons.

“We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what just is, isn’t always just-ice,” she said. “We lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us…We lay down our arms, so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none and harmony for all…. For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it” (Amanda Gorman, National Poet Laureate, The Hill We Climb).

What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Is it not to speak the truth in love? Insofar as our way of life dehumanizes life, Jesus will always challenge and defy it. As members of the body of Christ, and by his authority of Christ, see, you have power to heal and to be healed. It is power even to cast out demons. In the strong name of Jesus. Amen.

Epiphany 2B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It was a 17-minute speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963. Martin Luther King Jr. had been so preoccupied with the logistics of the historic March on Washington he hadn’t given much thought to what he’d say. He began to write less than 12 hours before. He titled early drafts “Normalcy, Never Again.” Eyewitnesses say it wasn’t until the end of his famous speech that Dr. King stopped reading his notes, looked up and began to preach, after the great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, prompted him to “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” Tell them about the dream. The rest is history.

The miracle of the incarnation is God’s promise to move and speak through us. Epiphanies come in human shapes and sizes. When Dr. King set aside what he prepared to say God began to speak through him. He went from being a speaker to being a prophet. God spoke to the American people and to the world that day. He preached a message for then and for all time: God has a dream and invites you and I to inhabit it. Come and see.

Sadly, this is not 1963. I’d wager there are more police and National Guard on the national mall today than regular people. 10-foot high “unscalable” barricades surround the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and other monuments. I’ve read only 1,000 people will attend the inauguration in-person. That’s 1/200dths of normal. After 10 months of pandemic, nationwide protests, a contentious national election, a bloody insurrection, two impeachments, and continued threats of political violence, cynicism, disillusionment, and exhaustion rule many American hearts and minds. Alcohol and marijuana sales are soaring. Last night, I received an email from Bishop Curry warning that so-called, ‘liberal churches,’ might become targets for extremists.
These feel like the days of Eli from our first reading. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1b). Eli was a priest down on his luck, feeling guilty because he couldn’t stand up to other priests, in particular his own sons, who habitually dishonored God through extortion, greed, and sexual assault. Eli no longer expected to see or hear anything from God because he didn’t have the courage, will, and moral fortitude to do what God desired.

Fast forward about a thousand years to our Gospel reading. We read about Nathanael. We can relate to Nathanael. Upon receiving the good news of the Messiah from Philip his first reaction is skepticism. The disillusionment of Roman occupation and the corruption of religious leaders is not easy to dislodge. Nathanael was sitting under a fig tree—was he social distancing? Was he moping? Does he dare to dream about a better life? Nathanael dismisses Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

Jesus says, to us and to Nathanael, Follow me. Come and see. God has a dream for the world as it should be that requires each one of us. “Who me?” we ask. “You mean right now?” We, too, are incredulous. We can relate to Eli and Nathanael.

The French existentialist philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, tells that when she was caring for her dying mother, it was as if the entire world shrunk to the size of her mother’s hospital room. In times of grief and high anxiety, we can lose track of our dreams. We mistake realism for reality. It can take all the energy we have to look beyond our misfortunes and failures, to behold again the larger vision, the big picture—the power of holy imagination, the lure of an alternate reality—that Jesus called the kingdom of God. Yet within what we perceive to be limitations are possibilities for renewal and growth.

As Dr. King so memorably reminded us, to respond to God’s call is to fall in love with Love itself. Through encounter with Christ, we learn to be lovers of people, because as Christian people, we are called to invite others into the dream, to become members with us in the beloved community. Nathanael wasn’t changed so much as he was set into motion by Jesus’ call. That’s really all that is required to become a disciple. Follow me. Come and see.

Eli’s first and second response to God’s prompting of the boy, Samuel, was confusion and not a little annoyance at being needlessly awakened. Yet, finally, he recognized there was another possibility. Eli put aside his own self-interest. He wasn’t worried about keeping his job or motivated by loyalty to his sons. When Eli realized what might be happening with Samuel, he could have tried to trick him, or to shut him away, or even to have killed him. Yet Eli was faithful to God. Eli is an unsung hero. He proved his faithfulness to God by stepping aside, by passing the baton, by nurturing the next generation of leadership in the story of God’s ongoing mission.

We need more Eli’s today. Can you and I be like Eli? Now that our complacent slumbers have been repeatedly disrupted by violence against black bodies, by a worldwide pandemic, by a culture of subordination and sexual assault against women, by extreme income inequality, and mass extinction will we recognize it is finally time to stop doing business as usual? Can we finally acknowledge the many ways we have participated and/or acquiesced to these wrongs? Despite that, can we step forward, following after Jesus, and like Nathanael, like Eli, walk the way of the cross? Can the vast scene of American carnage stretching be an epiphany for us? Come and see. Follow me, Jesus says.

Jesus invites you and me to dream again like you did when you were a child. As Dr. King so memorably reminded us, to respond to God’s call we must cultivate a holy imagination, because to be Christian is to tell people about the dream that God’s kingdom may come here on earth as it is in heaven.
In 1959, after the successful completion of the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King went on a pilgrimage to India. He desired to learn more about Mahatma Gandhi, the philosophy of nonviolence, and about the people and culture that inspired it. He was received by large crowds as a national dignitary. Yet he was not prepared, when at a school full of admirers, he was enthusiastically introduced as ‘an American Untouchable.” You may know there is a very old caste system in India. It ranks some people ahead of other people. Dalit is a name given to people of the very lowest class. They are literally, considered untouchable, by those of higher classes. The school for Dalit children immediately recognized Dr. King as a hero of their own. Rather than recoil from this loss of face, Dr. King came to embrace the title as a badge of honor.

Like Eli, and Nathanael, and Dr. King we are led on the path of renewal and discipleship by listening to the voice of the Samuel’s of the world, the witness of those on the margins, the no-accounts, the unprivileged, and invisible. It is not a command but a call. It is an invitation to dream again. Come, follow, seek and find healing for your wounds and a purpose to dignify your life. Jesus invites us to walk the path to wellness that will not be easy, and possibly even dangerous. Come, follow me, Jesus says, Let me teach you how to dream again and how to live.

Baptism of our Lord B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

For now, we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.
—1 Corinthians 13:12

We navigate by the uncertain light of epiphany. Without all the details, we make decisions. Unsure where it will lead, we choose a path. Despite not knowing fully even ourselves, we commit to truths and values to live by.

“We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Epiphanies are a part of everyday life yet, for most of us, they do not occur every day. That is why you must remember what you saw, what you experienced, or what you heard about the character of God from the Sacraments; or beside the font; or at the Table; or in the Living Word of holy scripture; or in the prayers, or in the church engaged in mission; or in the testimony of prophets, poets, and artists; or the testimony of activists and organizers; or the testimony of other religions; or from the voices of the oppressed; or in the face of a neighbor—remember what you learned from moments of Epiphany that shine out in your memory when you realized just a little bit more about your life.

It is rare that the feast day commemorating Epiphany corresponds with an actual epiphany, let alone a national one. Yet, last Wednesday, on January 6th, it happened. What did you see? Remember what you saw. Ponder it as Mary pondered the words of the Angel Gabriel. Talk among yourselves for greater clarity. It is never entirely clear what an epiphany means. It can take a lifetime to unpack. Yet, with grace, we see just enough to steer by.

We had ourselves an Epiphany this week –really—we’ve had so many this past year. Sometimes, when the lights come on, we are unhappy about what we see. We see there is a lot of dirty work that needs doing the morning after a party. There may be a personal reckoning that must be faced in the aftermath of our mistakes. Epiphanies can be like that.

On Wednesday, I saw how whiteness—the belief that white people are superior—is a big lie and that it’s killing us. The commitment to white supremacy is ripping the people of this nation apart and separating us all from the democratic values we hold dear. I saw that democracy is fragile not inevitable. Democracy must be nourished. It requires our participation, civil debate, and trust.

It’s not an overstatement to say this year has taught many of us systemic racism is real and diminishes us all. Misogyny is real and diminishes us all. Xenophobia is real and diminishes us all. Climate change is real and diminishes us all. Despite this, a record number, more than 73 million people, showed by their vote a willingness to ignore, if not condone, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and climate change. 40% of these people are evangelical Christians. Covid-19 showed us how interdependent we really are including people and nations around the world. Social media has shown us that too. Social distancing may be right for the pandemic, but it is not the solution for these other problems we see that plague us today.

So, what to do? We turn for guidance to another epiphany the church calls baptism. Jesus said, ‘Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:19). Very simply, we baptize because Jesus commanded us to. This gift has been given to you not as a loyalty test, not as a prerequisite that must be accomplished before receiving God’s love, not as fire insurance to get into heaven, but as a sacrament of graceful intimate presence with you to have and to hold from this day forward, in joy and in sorrow, in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish all the days of your life, from now and until forever.

You recognize those words? The gift of God’s love in baptism makes possible the preposterous vow we make in marriage to love one person the way God loves all people and all creatures of creation. This gift makes also makes possible the covenant we share to be citizens of this nation, and more simply, to be neighbor. By grace, the Samaritan climbed down from his horse to assist the man in the ditch. By grace the Father kept constant vigil for the return of the prodigal son.

Belovedness is a central theme in the baptism of Jesus. In Mark, the heavenly voice speaks directly to Jesus for his own sake: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It is part of the majesty and glory of God that God is not only the creator. God is a creator of co-creators. God is a lover of artists. God delights to see what new and beautiful things we can make from what God has given. Artists creatively bring into existence from what did not exist, that which gracefully transforms and renews. God made baptism as a sign for us of the new life we share in Christ as artists of grace—as co-creators with God of a more hopeful future.

Baptism is an epiphany. Helping other people in need matters. Speaking up when other people have been wronged matters. Contributing to the greater good of the world makes a difference. As Jesus was coming up out of the waters of baptism, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10).

The baptism of Jesus tore through the boundary between heaven and earth. Now presumably, what is opened can be closed again. But what has been torn apart must remain open for all time. Through Christ Jesus, Mark says, the realms of heaven and the realms of earth have become mixed together.

The Spirit of God is mixed and folded within you. It’s a theme Mark will repeat at the moment of Jesus’ death on a cross. Just as Jesus breathed his last, the curtain in the Temple that separated the profane world from the Holy of Holies was torn in two, from top to bottom (Mark 15:38).

God cannot be contained by our holy spaces. God will not be confined to the heavenly realm. God is loose in the land. God’s presence fills the world. We meet God through encounter with our neighbor regardless of their party affiliation, gender, race, ethnicity, ability, or sexual orientation. All are endowed with dignity reflecting the likeness and image of God. Dearly beloved, the grace of God is revealed in the shadow of human hearts when we walk together by the lantern light of epiphany trusting in what God has shown and taught us to create order and blessing from the chaos of our lives.

Christmas 2B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Every sermon I’ve written since 2005 is on the computer through which I’m speaking to you now. Yet there was no sermon for the second Sunday of Christmas—until now. Last year, on New Year’s Eve, I was embarrassing my kids on the dance floor at the YMCA of the Rockies. I couldn’t have imagined all the changes this year would bring, including the undoing of holiday traditions for my family.

My sister forwarded a list circulating on the internet of twelve things to ponder for the New Year. Number one flatly states, “The dumbest thing I ever bought was a 2020 planner.” Number five, “This morning I saw a neighbor talking to her cat. It was obvious she thought her cat understood her. I came home & told my dog. We laughed a lot.” I could relate to that one.

Perhaps it is always true. None of us can predict the future, but it feels more-true now. In the wake of an unpredictable year, on this, the 10th Day of Christmas, just when we thought we couldn’t be surprised any more by surprises, our scriptures bring us Sophia, the power of God in the form of Woman-Wisdom who, scriptures say dwells in all creation.

You may not have heard of Sophia. Yet she sings out from the appointed readings for today. At the opening of John’s gospel Jesus is identified with the Woman-Wisdom of Sophia. Sophia means “wisdom” in Greek. According to Catholic theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson, “Jesus is Sophia incarnate.” It is a transgender moment in God’s story. The Wisdom of God took on flesh and became the Word of God. Jesus the Word is Wisdom the woman. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

You may not have heard of Sophia. Yet the Wisdom of Solomon retells the story of the Exodus as Sophia’s doing. She is the one who delivered God’s people from a nation of oppressors (10:15). She sheltered them with a cloud and guided them with a pillar of fire. The exodus from slavery was the work of Sophia, who led the people through the sea and into freedom. In Ephesians 1, Jesus incarnates Sophia’s liberation in the church: Christ is our “redemption,” our deliverance in his/her sharing with us of “wisdom” (verses 7-8). Christ is the Sophia of God, calling us into her work of liberation.

The book of Sirach, which is one of the optional readings appointed for today, instructs us that Woman-Wisdom is like the mist, covering the earth with God’s presence. She lives in the clouds, the pillars of the sky. She rides the waves of the sea. She has a tent in Jerusalem, where she lives with God’s people.
Woman-Wisdom featured prominently in the writings of the ancient desert mothers and fathers of the fourth century. They lived in a time of even greater uncertainty and upheaval than our own. They fled the corruption of church and society to seek Christ in the solitude of the Egyptian desert. They cared less about Christian doctrine and more about living the mystery of the Christian life. (A Coptic monastery from that period North of Cairo, Egypt is one of the memorable and beautiful places I’ve ever visited. (photo)

You might consider choosing from among their wisdom “sayings,” as you think about New Year resolutions this week. I find them interesting and amusing: “Never stop starting over,” (Arsenios, 5th century). “Live intentionally, not aimlessly,” (St. Mark the Ascetic, 5th century). “Pray simply, not stupidly,” Abba Macarius. “Stay put,” Mother Syncletica (4th century). “Acknowledge my brokenness,” (St. Maximos the Confessor, 7th century). “Be ruthlessly realistic,” (St. Makarios of Egypt, 5th century). “Read the obituaries,” “At the moment of our death we will all know for certain what is the outcome of our life” (St. Gregory of Sinai, 13th century). (“My New Year’s Resolutions” (From the Fourth Century) Daniel Clendenin, Journey with Jesus, 12/27/20)

Poet Kathleen Norris found a natural affinity with the desert wisdom of the fourth-century monastics: Like them, Norris “made a counter-cultural choice to live in what the rest of the world considers a barren waste;” her “idea of what makes a place beautiful had to change.”

Norris left New York City for the house built by her grandparents in an isolated town on the border between North and South Dakota. After years of estrangement from Christianity, it was on the Great Plains that Norris returned to that tradition, making a spiritual home there. Dakota is, Norris writes, “my spiritual geography, the place where I’ve wrestled my story out of the circumstances of landscape and inheritance…writing about Dakota has been my means of understanding that inheritance and reclaiming what is holy in it.” The great gift of Sophia is the discovery that the place we are standing now is holy ground.

Years ago, a book by Paulo Coelho called “The Alchemist,” made the top-seller lists. In it a recurring dream troubles Santiago, a young shepherd living in Spain. He has the dream every time he sleeps under a sycamore tree that grows out of the ruins of a church. In the dream, a child tells him to seek treasure at the foot of the Egyptian pyramids. We follow Santiago through a lifetime of adventure, stops and starts, diversions, and mysterious coincidences, until finally he arrives at a certain Coptic monastery in Northern Egypt, and finally at the foot of the Pyramids. There, he doesn’t find any treasure, instead, he is beaten up by thieves who try to rob him. They let Santiago go after they realize he doesn’t have anything of value. To prove to him what a fool he is one of the thieves tells Santiago about his own worthless of dreams of treasure buried in an abandoned church in Spain where a sycamore tree grows—the very same church where Santiago’s journey began. He returns to Spain to find a chest of jewels and gold buried under the tree and returns with it to build a home in a place called Al-Fayoum, where he reunites with Fatima, whom he loved and who awaits him.

As we embark together on a new year, Sophia reminds us the fullness of the presence of God dwells with us and walks with us starting in the all-too-familiar, loneliness, and uncertainty of our pandemic lives. Like Santiago, we find the treasure of God’s wisdom buried here in the place that we are, hidden within the current moment. Yet, perhaps, it is not in the possession of wisdom but in its pursuit that we find the adventure of our lives, acquire new skills, discover hidden talents, meet new people, and finally find ourselves at home. The Woman-Wisdom of God is revealed as we commit ourselves to the pursuit of God’s dream living our faith. All things are united in Christ, things in heaven and things on Earth” (Ephesians 1:10). Heaven and earth are united here in our frail bodies to be the body of Christ for the world. In all that is to come, and in whatever is to be. God with us – comes to be born again in us and through us, and Sophia joyfully claps her hands.

Christmas Day B-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Have you opened gifts yet? I got off easy this Christmas. I installed a closet clothing rod in Joe’s room before he came home.

Other years, I’ve assembled a bicycle, a free-standing basketball hoop, and an outdoor playhouse. And, of course, many things from Ikea. There’s a storage unit in our home that shall go unspecified in which one the shelves is upside down.

Why do we do it? Why do we put up with the aggravation? Because without the assembly –it’s just a bunch of junk in a box.

You and I are sort of like that too. In John’s gospel today we learned that we are made for each other.

Old-timers will remember when we went from a green hymnal to a red one. Among the many changes the new red hymnal made was to substitute the word ‘Assembly’ where the old green book used the word ‘congregation.’

Assembly is required because we cannot worship alone. We must be gathered in order to consecrate Holy Communion. In the body of Christ, the hand cannot decide to move apart from the foot. The heart cannot survive without the head. We are knit together in mystical oneness with one another and with God by our baptism into Christ.

This is what has been so painful for Christian worship in this pandemic year. Christians may be forced to by circumstances to be apart but like two magnets we feel the constant pull to be together again. Like a thunderbolt we follow the path of least resistance in order to reach common ground. We must find connection any way we can even if it is only here in virtual space.

Can cyberspace become holy ground? We have all been living that question for the past ten months, haven’t we? I think we are learning—yes—that it can, especially when we are virtually gathered, like this morning, in real time even if not in actual space. As I understand it, this is the heart of the debate about when and whether it is ever appropriate to have online communion. The jury is still out on that one. The gears of church theology and liturgical practice grind slowly which makes our tradition trustworthy. For now, I am very glad it is possible for you to be here and that we are gathered –at the same time I am mindful of those who cannot reach this space because they can’t afford a computer, or good internet, or just can’t manage the technology.
In the beautiful stained-glass window over the altar at Immanuel we read the words:
God is with Us. It’s a beautiful statement of the incarnation. But what we often miss is the ‘us.’ Over the centuries, Christians have drawn the circle of who is included in the ‘us’ smaller and smaller until it includes only baptized Christians, or only Christians of a certain denomination, or only me and my family and hang the rest.

We have made the circle of inclusion small in other ways too. We take Jesus’ words to heart. ‘Each of you, beloved, is of more value than many sparrows.’ (Matthew 10:31) Yet where did we get the idea that God doesn’t care about all sparrows? We treat human life as if it were the only life that matters.

Then, drawing the circle smaller still, we create, participate, and help to sustain a culture that values some human beings more than others, as though what it means to truly be a child of God is to be white.

Out in the streets this year, we heard the call to ‘say their names.’ George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Philando Castile. It goes on and on. We say their names in order to humanize them. We shout their names to say to ourselves and to everyone that all lives do not matter until black lives do. But there are many in this country that we love today who prize whiteness over the U.S. constitution, or the balance of powers, or even more than democracy itself.

People of faith, people of the Christian faith, will gather in communities around the world this morning in the tens of millions who will not question how they may be excluding people of color, or non-human life, or people of different faith traditions. Somehow, they will listen again to the familiar stories of the birth of the Christ child and will feel themselves affirmed but not convicted.

Hear again, the gospel of John: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:3-4) The incarnation of grace did not become flesh in the little town of Bethlehem and no place else. But what has been revealed in Christ Jesus is the spirit of life and love that is in, with, and under all of creation—now beyond the stars, in every creature, reflected in every human heart.

For the incarnation to happen, assembly is required. It can be quite daunting to look the piles of pieces we have strewn about us and try to make something out of them. It’s like trying to furnish an entire apartment with furniture from Ikea. How do we restore broken relationships? How do we begin to repair the breach in our cities and our nation? How do we bring civility back to our civic life? How do we put together the human family? How do we restore balance between human life and all life? It feels overwhelming. It truly is too big for any one of us.

Like any project, we do it best if we begin with the instructions. We’re not in this alone. There is wisdom we can draw upon. We can learn from the hard-won experience and good counsel we find in each other. Most especially, we lean upon the grace of God. We pray. We meditate. We worship—so that our hearts and minds may be centered upon God as we set out to re-assemble the world.

Over the years, poets and mystics have described the miracle of the incarnation in many ways. One of my favorites is attributed to several people but may have originated with Blaise Pascal, “God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Another is handed down from Angelus Silesius and recently made famous by composer Ana Hernandez: “If in your heart you make a manger for his birth then God will once again become a child on earth.” For the incarnation, assembly is required. Yet it is not so much work that we must do, so much as it is something we are drawn into participation with. Love incarnate has come as a gift for you again this Christmas. Let it affirm you. Let it convict you. Let us join our hands, hearts, and voices and say Amen!

4th Sunday of Advent
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

As I sit here the little light next to the built-in camera on my laptop is shining green. I can see many of you, although not all of you, on a large external monitor. I have on my clergy shirt. I’m wearing my blue stole for the Advent season. I’ve lighted all four candles on my Advent wreath. So, I have the feeling, I can be pretty sure, today is Sunday.

Some mornings, I admit, I’m a bit confused. Compost gets picked up on Wednesdays. Trash goes on Thursdays. Worship is on Sunday. Otherwise, the days seem pretty much the same. Pandemic days blur together.

Biblical scholar Karoline Lewis, writing for the Living Lutheran magazine comments, “The time in which we find ourselves—as individuals, communities, a nation, a world and a church—is much more than unprecedented. It’s unnerving, unsettling. Upending and upheaving—suspended in that in-between space caused by pandemic and protest, by disbelief and dystopia, by resistance and revolution. But as Christians, we know this time well—the time between the already and the not yet of the kingdom of heaven. The time between God so loved the world and waiting for it to come true. The kind of time that Mary understood. The kind of time coiled with the tension between “How can this be?” and “Nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:34, 37). (Karoline M. Lewis, Living in Mary’s Time, The Living Lutheran, 12/11/20).

After all, the life of a young peasant girl living in poverty in a backwater town of ancient Palestine was likely even more monotonous and people-starved than our own. Mary’s question “How can this be?” resonates within our own weariness. Could there yet be some magic of grace hidden behind the four walls of our quarantine, or the unending sameness of our days?

Or perhaps, Mary was simply incredulous at being pregnant. “How can I possibly be carrying a child when I am a virgin?” Or perhaps, Gabriel’s message had filled her mind with a swarm of questions: “What am I supposed to tell my family?” Or “Who is going to be there during labor?” Or “How will I protect myself from the rocks and stones my friends and neighbors will throw?” Or “How am I supposed to raise a baby by myself?” Or “Who am I for God to choose me?” (Karoline Lewis)
The angel Gabriel anticipates her layered fear: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33). To which Mary replied, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (vs. 38). Mary shows us how to live with the tension between ‘How can this be?’ and “Let it be.”

The careful listener will notice, Gabriel called Mary the ‘favored one.’ Yet it is a strange blessing. Is this the special honor God bestows upon his “favored ones?” Obviously, divine favor does not equate with wealth, health, comfort, or ease. Mary’s favored status meant losing out on the blessings of normal family life to be marked with the stain of scandal, danger, and the trauma of her son’s crucifixion. God’s call was profoundly countercultural, and not the sort of thing a young girl typically dreams of. It required a steadfast commitment to God’s vision that flew in the face of everything her community expected of her. No wonder Mary fled to the safety and security of her cousin Elizabeth. How did she know Elizabeth and Zechariah would welcome her?

That moment on cousin Elizabeth’s doorstep inspired Mary’s song—the Magnificat. This gorgeous song of God’s justice is the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the entire New Testament. Notice too that Mary sang while Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, the “official” priest and spokesperson of God, endured his divine silencing. Mary’s song echoed the words and stories of long-suffering faithful women–Miriam, Hannah, Judith, and Deborah. The Magnificat is one of the Church’s oldest Advent hymns. It has inspired countless composers to set it to music. Yet it is a song so subversive that it was officially banned from being sung during British rule in India, and during the so-called ‘dirty war’ in Argentina.

In a sermon on today’s gospel, Martin Luther noticed something in Mary’s response to the Angel that is instructive about faith. Faith isn’t about knowing the facts, he said. Faith is the willingness to stake “goods, life and honor” upon the promise of God’s love and the hope that springs from it. Faith always involves at least some risk and vulnerability. (Did you write that on your list this Christmas this year?) Mary shows us faith must follow the way of the cross as we journey from belief into action, as we step across the threshold of Advent, moving from ‘How can this be?’, to ‘let it be.’

This is what’s so lovely and so terrifying about the incarnation. Faced with Mary’s choice to be God-bearers or home makers of successful, enviable Christian homes—we often choose the way of looking good rather than the way of the cross. Yet, when we make a home for grace like Mary did, or like Elizabeth did, we become wholemakers, uniting what is scattered, creating a deeper unity in love. “Christian life is a commitment to love, to give birth to God in one’s own life and to become midwives of divinity in this evolving cosmos. We are to be wholemakers of love in a world of change.” [Ilia Delio, “Love at the Heart of the Universe,” “The Perennial Tradition,” Oneing, vol. 1, no. 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), 22.]

Can we do that? In this bleak midwinter of pandemic, unrest, and upheaval can God breathe new life into being in us and fill our hearts once again with joy? How can this be? Mary gently instructs us. Say the words. Ponder them. Let them rekindle the flame of hope in your heart. “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Like Mary, our mind is filled with questions. Yet this gift of grace has power to fill our humble days with beauty and meaning. See we are standing once again upon the threshold of God’s Advent—a new birth of freedom, of justice, and of sustainability. Cast off your pandemic doldrums. What a tremendous opportunity there is within our grasp. Let it be.