Prayer Circle Immanuel Lutheran Chicago

Proper 10C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:28) The lawyer’s face-saving question, put another way is, who is not my neighbor? Who can I exclude?

When I think of a neighbor, Mrs. Dugan comes to mind. It was 1970. I was eight years old.  We lived in a house on Rodney drive in Champaign, Illinois. 1970 was a big year for me.  I got to stay up late enough to watch “Love American Style.” It was also the year my dog Frisky died. Our next-door neighbors, the Dugan’s, had a special knock.  Mrs. Dugan would announce herself with that knock and pretty much walk straight into our house.  She helped out when Frisky got sick. Mrs. Dugan even attended the informal back yard funeral we had when she died.  Mrs. Dugan was my neighbor. Neighbors transform streets into neighborhoods.  Local communities of care are great to grow up in.

Today, I notice we seem willing to trade this old-fashioned neighborliness for anonymity and the efficiency of polite, impersonal, transactional relationships.  The barista knows how to make my coffee before I ask for it, without any expectation of friendship or mutuality in return.  Starbucks has literally made a fortune trading on this faux-friendly-familiar but not quite neighborly vibe.  Neighbors like my Mrs. Dugan seem rare these days.

I think we could all use much more neighborliness and perhaps, the task falls to us to create it. Yet it doesn’t seem reasonable for anyone to really know and be neighbor to more than perhaps two dozen people or so.  Life itself imposes a limit on our time and energy. So I wonder, in the neighborhood of God, like the one the VBS kids imagined and display behind our altar today, would people always know everyone in their building? –everyone living on their block? –how about in their zip code?  So, we return to the same question the lawyer asked.  If being neighbor is how I inherit eternal life, surely that can’t include everyone—right?

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘he was glad Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor because certain people are just so hard to like.’  Loving our neighbor as ourselves does not require friendship but to mercy, compassion, kindness, and justice.

The parables of Jesus are like gemstones. We get a different insight into divine mystery by looking through the story from each perspective.  The Good Samaritan offers a glimpse into the extravagant loving character of God. Jesus’ command ‘to go and do likewise,” gives us a window into our own call to discipleship.  The man who lays bleeding and dying in the ditch is synonymous with Christ on the cross. Perhaps the quickest way to immediately answer the lawyer’s question correctly is from the perspective of the victim.  Ask him –who is your neighbor—and the answer is—anyone, anyone—anyone at all who will help me.

In 2006 my father died in hiking accident.  Another hiker, a medical student in training, was the first to come to our aid.  He just showed up. Park Rangers arrived next in response to my 911 call.  They came by truck up an old mining road as far as they could then ran the rest of the way up the mountain.  Others came by helicopter.  It was unbelievable.  To this day, I don’t know their names, or where any of them lived.  I never saw them again.  Each of them was my neighbor.

Our understanding of Jesus’ parable is deepened when we realize that nobody listening would have thought there were any ‘good Samaritans.’ The Samaritans were enemies. Substitute the name gang-banger, or ‘Taliban’ for ‘Samaritan’ and you begin to understand why Jesus’ lovable parable made the temple leaders blood boil.

Notice the wounded man is the only character in the story not defined by profession, social class, or religious belief.  “He has no identity except naked need.  Maybe we have to occupy his place in the story first — maybe we have to become the broken one, grateful to anyone at all who will show us mercy — before we can feel the unbounded compassion of the Good Samaritan.  Why? Because all tribalisms fall away on the broken road.  All divisions of “us” and “them” disappear of necessity. When you’re lying bloody in a ditch, what matters is not whose help you’d prefer, whose way of practicing Christianity you like best, whose politics you agree with.  What matters is whether or not anyone will stop to show you mercy before you die.” (Debie Thomas, Afflicting the Comfortable, Journey With Jesus, 7/07/19)

Jesus shows us that all people are our neighbors; everyone is a child of God. The basic meaning of neighborin Hebrew, Greek, and English is “to be near.” (Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks) The Priest and the priest-helper proved not to be true neighbors because they widenedthe distance between themselves and the injured man lying in the ditch. They looked but did not see.  They saw but were blind. They would not come near the man in the ditch.  They proved they are not true neighbors, despite their impressive credentials.

The Samaritan took the wounded man to the inn keeper and paid for his care. We don’t know what transpired between them after that. It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that we see those who are broken and wounded by life and respond with kindness, mercy, and justice.

There are so many people in the ditch today –what except the power of evil and the devil can explain our willful blindness to them all?  So often it is the weak, powerless, and wounded who are made to bear the brunt of the sins and short-comings of those who are actually responsible. The poor migrant becomes the target for what’s wrong with our broken immigration system rather than the factory owner, the politician, or all the rest of us –the electorate—who benefit from the work done, the taxes paid, and the consumer goods purchased by immigrants living in our community.  Today, as we brace for mass deportations and family separations, our scriptures ask who will be neighbor?

If you want to know God, then love your neighbor.  If you want to know your neighbor, then love God. Loving God and neighbor are not separate items on some pious to-do list. They are two sides of the same coin. They form a single pathway into the abundant life God intends for us all. Devotion to God and service to neighbor form a double-helix in the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. They are the DNA structure upon which the whole chapter hangs, and the key to unlocking the pain and bewilderment we face today.  Here—here is the doorway that opens to the fullness of grace.  It is never far from you, but it is always only as far away as the person next to you.

Proper 9C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

July 7, 2019

“See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3).  I remember reading the Gospel of Luke for a required college course in religion when these words of Jesus jumped out at me the first time.  I felt both delighted and terrified.  

With these words, Jesus sent the 70 (as he sends all of us now) outside familiar circles of safety and tells us to expect a chilly response if and when we preach the gospel. With these words, Jesus issues a challenge to the established church, the so-called mainline church, the comfortable, everybody-knows-my-name church, like the one I grew up in. Jesus issues a call to be courageous and prophetic.  He sends his followers to battle the world and the devil bearing nothing more than the gifts of the spirit.  As St. Paul wrote, ‘we gird our loins with truth. We wear a breastplate of righteousness and shod our feet with peace. We carry the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit’ (Ephesians 6:13-17).  As we say about grace, it’s that simple. It’s that amazing!

When Jesus is our pole star, it re-sets our moral compass. There are no borders nor boundaries to God’s saving grace.  For Christians, there is no geographic center of the world, but only a constellation of points equidistant from the heart of God. There is no ‘most favored nation’ in the kingdom of God.  As our nation celebrates independence Jesus declares true victory is won through inter-dependence

May these gifts of the spirit rekindle a new birth of freedom in us this holiday weekend so that the better angels of our nature can lead us to a more perfect union.  I pray this spirit recall and reclaim us as a nation so we may return to who we have always been, and to what has made us strong.  We are a nation of immigrants, founded upon a faith-based ideal, however imperfectly perceived, that our collective health and resilience flows naturally from people of every nation living together as children of God –including people of other faiths and of no faith. 

It can be that simple for us because your success doesn’t depend upon what you’re carrying now in your purse or wallet. It doesn’t matter about your personal baggage or your choice of foot ware.  Remember what Jesus told his followers. “Speak peace when you enter a house. Eat what is placed before you. Invest in one home, one family, one town. Speak of what is near, not far. Don’t linger in hopeless places. Don’t get cocky; remember that the kingdom of God comes near whether you are accepted or rejected. Trust that any peace which is spurned will return to you; nothing in God’s kingdom is wasted.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, 6/30/19)

Christian author and essay writer, Debie Thomas, writes, “In other words, the task Jesus sets before the seventy is hard because it is easy.  In fact, it’s so easy, it feels both counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.  It’s so easy, it makes us wary, suspicious, and cynical.  What is the task?  The task is to live simply and vulnerably. The task is to rely on the grace and hospitality of others.  The task is to stay in one place — to encounter, to engage, and to go deep. The task is to live as guests, sharing our faith with others as if they’re our hosts, the people we depend on for sustenance and shelter.  The task is to speak peace, first and last. The task is to let go in love.  The task is to believe always in the abundance and nearness of God’s economy.” (Journey with Jesus, 6/30/19)

Take up these gifts of the Spirit. Go live like a lamb among wolves. Perhaps hearing the challenge and promise of these words again partly explains why this week I took up reading (or actually, listening to) another old book I’m sure was required reading for many of you.  This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse Five. It is subtitled ‘The Children’s Crusade, because as Mary, the wife of one of his old war buddies says, “You were just babies in the war!”

The lasting power of Vonnegut’s book about WWII, published during the turbulent Vietnam years, is that it was among the first of its generation that dared to tell the truth about war.  In a radio interview, Vonnegut once said “The truth, it turns out, is a very powerful thing.”  As further proof of this statement, and of our gospel today, Slaughterhouse Five is still listed as number 29 on the American Library Association’s list of banned or challenged classics. 

And so it goes. Vonnegut tells the tale based on events between February 13 and February 15, 1945. Allied bombers dropped nearly four thousand tons of high explosives and incendiaries on the uniquely beautiful historic German city of Dresden. “The effect was elemental: Air became fire. Vonnegut, an American prisoner of war, was there—but 60 feet underground. Captured during the Battle of the Bulge, conveyed to Dresden by boxcar, and billeted in a derelict slaughterhouse as the bombs fell, he was sheltering with some fellow POWs and a couple of dazed German guards in a basement meat locker. They emerged to rubble, ash, twisted metal, death. Somewhere between 18,000 and 25,000 people (we still don’t know) had been killed “ (James Parker, The Atlantic Magazine, 3/31/19).

If Slaughterhouse had a single meaning, which of course, it doesn’t, it would have to be something about the stupidity and wastefulness of war.  To their credit, our top military commanders seem to have some understanding about this today after decades of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The true battle ground, they tell us, is the one for hearts and minds –a struggle in which tanks and bombs are of no use. 

Which brings us back to Jesus. Thirty-five pairs of followers go out from Jesus like lambs into the midst of wolves.  As they fan out and set to work, Jesus will later say he ‘watched Satan fall again and again from heaven like lightening.’ (Luke 10:18)

Upon their return, the seventy are almost giddy with the thrill of their first endeavors. They are filled with joy and amazement. This decentralized gospel proved unstoppable working through their mortal hands and voices. For proof they offer the same evidence that Jesus did in response to questions of John the Baptist: The blind see, the lame walk, the spirit is with us, Christ is alive. 

This same spirit is in us now. This same spirit that animates our church is in stark contrast to the culture of death that loves things and uses people. In the sixteenth century the words of St. Teresa of Avila remind disciples of all times and places what our gospel declares to us today: 

“Christ has no body on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out to the world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless others now.”  

Go now, like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry nothing but the good news meant for the salvation of all people. It’s that simple. It’s that amazing!

Proper 8C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

June 30, 2019

“He set his face to go up to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51-62). And so, Jesus begins his faithful sojourn to the cross.  From now until November 10th our gospel each Sunday follows Jesus on this journey as recorded in ten chapters of Luke (9:51- 19:28).  

Every trek has a beginning.  Every odyssey includes a moment of decision, a call to commitment, a challenge to respond.  Jesus’ challenge was to pick up the cross.  It was journey which was to be less about the destination as it was about a way of life.  Jerusalem, Gethsemane, and Golgotha are not important as places, but for what Jesus’ showed us on the way there about how we are to live. The cross was not a transaction, or paying a debt demanded by God.  Rather, it is urgently important for what it reveals about how we walk in faithfulness to God’s grace, with every step, in every day, for the rest of our lives.  The path into life and the abundance of life goes through opening our self and becoming vulnerable. By exposing our weaknesses, we find our strength.  In serving each other, we obtain satisfaction. In losing our life we find it. 

It wasn’t a sure thing. In fact, many, if not most, would call it a foolish bet. Jesus set his face to go up to Jerusalem, not knowing how it would turn out –who would follow—how many would heed his message, our join him on this path.  In fact, the jury is still out even up to this day. Jesus bet his money and his life on caring how well we live with compassion and faith. The way of the cross transforms our ultimate goal from mere survival to entering upon God’s glory. ‘Going my way,” Jesus asks? Ready to know the way to freedom? Ready to discover simple abundance and what will save you? Follow me, Jesus says. 

Jesus doesn’t sugar coat it.  The way to life and the cross requires sacrifice.  It requires we persist through resistance, sabotage, and even hatred. Yet we do so know that God walks with us and fights beside us.

There is real urgency in our readings today.  Every moment counts.  Don’t look back, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” There’s no time even to say goodbye.  For every time there is a season.  The time has come for Jesus and the disciples to head toward Jerusalem.  In every Christian life, there is a time to enter into mission. 

Today’s gospel speaks to any of us who recognize our tendency to put off decisions that have big consequences.  It speaks to us who come to Jesus with ready excuses to defer our Christian walk until we are in a better place, or a better time, or when all the stars align. There comes a time to stop making excuses until “I get my stuff figured out.”  Are we waiting for others to stand up for those the world rejects? Or will you seize the moment and say God’s love is for all?  There comes a time to stop waiting for God’s action, get up on our own two feet, and be the body of Christ.  

We heard St. Paul say, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) In his famous Treatise on Christian Liberty, Martin Luther succinctly captured the gospel message regarding our freedom as people who have found new life in Christ.  He wrote, “A Christian is perfectly free, Lord of all, subject to none. [and] A Christian is perfectly dutiful, servant of all, subject to all.”  If you wish to love God then love your neighbor as yourself—just don’t expect all your neighbors to be happy about it.  

This past week, 30 adult and youth volunteers welcomed 43 children to Immanuel for Vacation Bible School.  We sang, danced, did crafts, projects, and plays to inquire together about a single question, “Who is my neighbor?”  In Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan we learned neighbors are not just the people who happen to live next to us but anyone in need. We heard Jesus call to love and serve one another in radical, surprising ways, which is really another way of calling to follow him in the way of the cross.  We heard Jesus’ challenge to build a neighborhood (like the one represented behind me), where all are welcome and support one another in lives of dignity and meaning.  We march with pride today in solidarity with those who like Jesus set their face toward making life better for us all even at the expense of their own flesh and blood. We will carry on spreading this message of hope. 

With Jesus, we were so bold to teach this lesson to our children at Vacation Bible School even though as many as 4,500 people were arrested last year alone by our Federal government and charged with a crime for aiding and abetting immigrants by providing things like water, food, or clothing.

Luke tells us the moment Jesus turned to the cross he met immediate resistance.  Ironically, first from the Samaritans, who had been cheering him on, but who now turn away because they despised Jerusalem.  Then his own friends, James and John, offended by the Samaritan’s rejection are moved to react with violence.  Does insult entitle one to inflict injury? Does being right or having a holy cause justify the use of force? 

“Elijah had called down fire on the Samaritans; could not Jesus’ followers do the same? Misunderstanding the identity of the one they followed, the disciples mistakenly thought they could achieve his ends by violence. How often have those who claimed to be following Christ repeated the mistake of these early disciples? They had yet to learn that violence begets violence, and that Jesus had come to break the cycle of violence by dying and forgiving rather than by killing and exacting vengeance.” [Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Luke- John, p. 216]  

“The radicality of Jesus’ words lies in his claim to priority over the best, not the worst, of human relationships. Jesus never said to choose him over the devil but to choose him over the family. And the remarkable thing is that those who have done so have been freed from possession and worship of family and have found the distance necessary to love them.” (Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Commentaries p. 144)

As the sun marks the turning of the seasons from Spring into Summer, so the cross of Christ declares the steadfast love of God that never ceases. God’s mercies never come to an end; but arrive new each morning. (Lamentations 3:22-23)  

By way of the cross, Jesus transforms this world so often cold, lonely, and mean. There is so much suffering all around us.  Yet the good news of Jesus Christ is we may all find the life we so desperately need in become a living sanctuary of hope and grace to one another by walking the way of the cross.  That is why this mission is so urgent.  That is why the time for action must be now.  Will you come and follow me, Jesus says, so the blind may see, to let the prisoners go free, to kiss the lepers clean, and let God’s love be revealed in you? (ELW # 798)

immanuel lutheran chicago

Proper 7C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Years ago, I spent a week with 18 high school youth on mission trip to Juarez, Mexico. We helped build a community center and lead vacation bible school for a small church. Every day one youth sent a reflection back home by email.  Often, they wrote about the poverty they observed.  One wrote, ‘It is remarkable how little we actually need. I feel almost liberated.  Back home, we fiercely guard our possessions. But I wonder, is it we who possess all our stuff, or does all our stuff possess us?’

We waived goodbye as we drove away in a beat-up old school bus that broke down before we reached El Paso. We walked the last two miles or so.  We carried our backpacks and suitcases to the bridge and across the border.  We were relieved to be home.  Yet, our crossing taught us about some of the human costs inherent in our way of life.  Following Jesus in mission can quickly lead us to question what we think we already know.

The prophet Elijah is another example. It seems like he had everything figured out. In the chapters preceding our first reading (1 Kings 17-18), Elijah is a prophet “in charge.” Everything goes his way. He confronts kings and followers of Baal, performs miracles, raises the dead, and calls down lightning from heaven.  But now, in 1 Kings 19, everything is changed. Elijah is intimidated, filled with complaints, and plagued with self-doubt. Like so many servants of God before and after him, Elijah is deeply discouraged when things don’t go his way.  To be fair, serving God put his life in danger. Now he wants out of the whole prophet-of-God business.

On Mt. Sinai, a despondent Elijah encounters a persistent God who refuses to let him off the hook regardless of the difficulty of his mission.  On the very same mountain God handed Moses the Ten Commandments, God confronts Elijah—not with a mighty wind, not with an earthquake, nor with fire, but in the sound of sheer silence—as if to say God will not be confined to one way of speaking.  Don’t expect divine power always to show up “obvious” ways. Contrary to what Elijah thought, he was not alone, but one among a whole community, a holy remnant, numbering at least seven thousand (1 Kings 19:18) faithful people.

Doing God’s work, speaking God’s words, transforms hearts and minds—beginning with our own. It happens again when Jesus orders the disciples into a boat and said, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ (Luke 8:22).

To them it must have seemed like a bad idea from the start.  This wasn’t a little trip from one side of a lake to the other.  It was a journey into a foreign land, the unknown, the defiled, the less than human. To make matters worse, they nearly drowned on their way. Now, from the moment they step onto dry land, they’re confronted by the so-called Gerasene demoniac, a naked, filthy, and demon-possessed man who lived among the tombs! The experience must have confirmed all their stereotypes about unclean Gentiles.

It turns out the people of Gerasene would also have preferred that Jesus stayed away too.  Sure, they’d admit, life with a demoniacwas a little crazy at times, but they had learned to cope.  It wasn’t perfect, but it worked most of the time. At some point, they figured out how to keep him chained, post a guard, and isolate him from other people. Problem solved. It worked for everyone –everyone of course except the so-called demoniac.

Trailing broken chains behind him, he wandered the wilds, tearing at his skin until it bled, trading one kind of pain for another. If he had a name, no one knew it. If he had a history, no one remembers it. If he has a soul worth saving inside his living corpse, no one sees it. No one looks. Until Jesus does. (Debie Thomas, “Legion,” Journey with Jesus, 6/16/19)

Our gospel confronts us with the confounding reluctance and resistance in ourselves that rebels against God’s grace to heal us and to reshape our communities. Like Elijah, and all of us on that mission trip years ago, serving God in Christ opens hearts, minds, and hands even where we did not realize we had closed them.

For all their supposed differences, the Jewish-born disciples and the foreign-born Gerasenes shared something in common: they were more than willing to leave well enough alone rather than make the sacrifices or take the risks required to truly make things better.

The Gerasene demoniac fell down before Jesus and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” (Luke 8:28).  It must have been terrifying and overwhelming.  Yet Jesus shows us exactly where to begin in such situations. He began by asking him a simple, direct question. “What is your name?” Jesus starts to recall the broken man to himself. To his humanity, to his beginnings.  To his unique and precious identity as a beloved child of God.

The problems that afflict, torment, and distort our minds may be legion, multi-faceted, and myriad.  The sources of our brokenness may be braided together. And yet the way of hope and salvation lays open for us in Jesus. The crazy man speaks for us all and shows us how our own healing may begin. When the demoniac sees Jesus, he falls down before him without hesitation or apology.

Our gospel ends with Jesus commissioning the healed man to stay where he is and serve as the first missionary to his townspeople— the same townspeople who feared, shunned, trapped, and shackled him for years. Isn’t that just so like Jesus? “To choose the very people we consider the most unholy, the most unredeemable, the most repulsive and unworthy— and commission them to teach us the Gospel? THAT is God all over.” (Debie Thomas)

When we follow Jesus in mission, when we prayerfully apply ourselves to be his hands, his feet, his word, we may be surprised to discover, how this strange gospel story becomes our story. Here, we find a story about our truest names. Here is the story we share with the faithful of every time and place about our resistance and resurrection. Here is a story about the Jesus who found us naked among the tombs, clothed us with dignity, scattered the demons to save our soul, and turned us into storytellers who help heal the world. Here, then, is our story wrapped within God’s story. “Here is the One who makes us one. The One who breaks the darkness, turning blindness into sight” (ELW #843). Here is the One who opens our fisted minds and will teach us how to live.

Food for your Journey

Pentecost Sunday C-19

 “Wind, wind,

you come from nothingness and go to nothingness,

and when you are still,

there is nothing we see, nothing we hear,

and you surround us in our not seeing and not knowing.”

(Excerpts from the poem Wind, wind – a reflection on the Spirit, by William Loader, an Australian Bible Scholar are used throughout this sermon.)

Hidden in plain sight.  Undetected, even as with each breath you fill our lungs. God is like wind.  Since ancient times, when children asked ‘Who is God? Where?’  Parents, grandparents, and village elders pointed to the wind. “That is what God is like,” they said.  “There.”

When I was a kid, the Chinook winds came to the Front Range in Colorado each January.  In the dead of winter, somehow, warm dry air from the upper atmosphere, gets squished underneath cold wet air passing over the mountains.  The result is a violent wind that rushes down the mountainside as if it were riding upon a sled, thirty, sixty, even ninety miles per hour. Those chinook winds shook our house, severed limbs from trees, and knocked many of them down.  But always afterwards came warmer temperatures.  After the Chinook winds, it could reach fifty degrees in the depths of winter.

“Wild, wild wind,

you whip the seas, whirling great water spouts and fountains,

crashing on the foamed edges of the shore,

sweeping the unsuspecting fisherman from the slippery rocks,

terrifying force, uncontrollable, beyond our power.”

Our bible says, “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2). Today the power of wind turns great windmills that provide light for homes and entire communities.  We observe the power of wind.

Yet, just like the wind, we do not always know where to find God or how to follow the way the Spirit would lead us.  Our bible tells such colorful tails of God’s presence. Not only wind but fire!  The power and presence of God was unmistakable.  Leah, being confirmed in faith today, I tell you the truth, sometimes you will long for such a compelling sign. Often, God’s purpose can be too difficult for any one person of faith to determine for themselves. That’s why in the Lutheran church, especially for really big decisions, we place our trust in the combined wisdom of the community to set the proper course to follow the winds of the Spirit. We pray and then we vote at committees, councils, congregations, Synod Assemblies and Churchwide gatherings.

That’s what your church did yesterday, at the Synod Assembly of Metropolitan Chicago, in order to choose a new Bishop, Yehiel Curry to succeed Bishop Miller when he retires this September.

Bishop Elect Curry was born in Chicago’s Riverdale neighborhood on the far South side. He is the seventh of eleven children. Even after his father was murdered on Chicago’s streets, the strength and values of their loving family persisted. He attended college at Lewis University in Romeoville. He said he felt moved to by the story of five-year-old Eric Morse who died after two other children held him out a 14-story window because he wouldn’t steal.

Bishop elect Curry became a Chicago public school teacher in the elementary school all three boys had attended. Later, he would become a lay mission developer at Shekinah chapel and attend seminary at the same time. He became a Lutheran at St. Stephens in Chatham where he learned about and became involved in SIMBA, “Safe in My Brother’s Arms,” a leadership development program for African American boys, ages 8-17, at St. Stephen’s in

Cornel West once said, “Never forget justice is what love looks like in public.”  Leah, Bishop elect Curry’s personal story shows us that in addition to the collective wisdom of the Christian community, another good, time-tested, and reliable way to follow the Holy Spirit in our life is to get close and walk with people who are suffering now.  Among the poor, the sick, the outcast, the imprisoned, the immigrants—that is where God is. That is the mission field to which we who are baptized into the living temple, the Body of Christ, are called to do God’s work with our hands.

Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So, it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3.8).  Like the wind, God’s grace is an ever-present natural force at work in the world giving shape to the landscape of human lives and communities.

This week people around the world stopped to pay tribute to the historic legacy of an important anniversary. You might have heard something about it in the news? (It’s a trick question.)  Of course, I am not referring here to D-Day but to what could be called the birth of non-violence day. On June 7th, 1893 a lawyer named Mohandis K. Gandhi was thrown off a train in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and his luggage tossed after him, when he refused to vacate his first class compartment, for which he had a ticket, and move to the third class rail car with all the other people of color.  Gandhi famously said, “Yes, you may [push me out]. I refuse to go out voluntarily.” Non-violent civil disobedience was born.

Gandhi called the struggle for non-violent change satyagraha.  We don’t have a good English equivalent for this word.  It means something like ‘holding on to truth-force.’

Jesus said, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ (John 8:31-32).  Gandhi taught us another reliable, time tested way we can hoist a sail and follow the holy spirit –by clinging always to the truth.  The truth is of God.  Truth is another name for the Holy Spirit.  Leah, you can be sure to walk with God by clinging to the truth.

Following after the Holy Spirit is often scary.  It is often disruptive and challenging to the people, places, and institutions we know and love.  Like Mary Magdalene, who you wrote about in your confirmation paper, we quickly discover even the church dedicated to following Jesus is in constant need of reform.

But, Leah, I tell you a secret, God is with you –always—and will never abandon you no matter how well or how badly you become at following the direction of the Holy Spirit in life.  But here is water and the word.  Here is bread and wine.  Here in this place people find refuge and a way to return to themselves. They find fellowship, common purpose, and have their human dignity restored in community, drawing close to the poor, and walking in truth.

As Bishop elect Curry reminded us yesterday, everyone has a place at this table and will find food for their life’s journey.  Here, Make America Great Again is seated next to Black Lives Matter. Leah, here you will find LGBTQIA+ belonging with cis-gender and hetero folks.  Seated beside you are men and women, black and white, Latino and Asian, young and old, sick and able bodied. Here, together, is food to satisfy our hungry hearts and souls as we journey together in faith all the days of your life, until we are called home to rest in God.  

Wind of nothingness and awe,
wind of knowing and unknowing,
wind of bearing and begetting,
wind of secrets and mystery,
O wise, wise wind,
whisper to us your grace.

Easter Sunday Immanuel Lutheran Chicago

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus only had time for a few last words before his arrest and crucifixion.  He told them to love one another as I have loved you. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

It’s interesting to notice what Jesus didn’t say.  He didn’t say ‘keep a systematic theology.’ He didn’t instruct them about proper worship, the sacraments, the priesthood, what to say or what to write down as gospel.  He urged them to love. In fact, he commanded them. Discipleship consists of loving one another the same perfect and unconditional way that God loves the whole world.

They sat in the second pew on the lectern side. Student pastor Betty Rendón, husband Carlos, daughter Paula, and grand-daughter Layla attended Immanuel for a year or so before leaving to serve Emaus Lutheran in Racine, Wisconsin. Betty had helped outreach to Latino familiesatMonday night tutoring, vacation bible school, and other community events. Layla was baptized in this church last July. ELCA bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod, Rev. Paul D. Erickson, said says the Rendóns have “been a blessing to every community that they’ve ever been a part of.”

Despite this, a week ago last Wednesday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents forced their way into Betty’s home with their guns drawn. They had violently apprehended Carlos outside the home, thrown him against his car, and ordered him to open the door.  Once inside they arrested Betty in her pajamas in front of her five-year-old granddaughter and reportedly were “jubilant” after the arrest. When they left, the ICE officers failed to secure the door. Their home was ransacked, and any items of value were stolen.

Betty and Carlos fled to the U.S. from Colombia with their daughter Paula after armed guerrillas attacked the school where Betty taught. They applied for asylum in the US but was eventually denied due to the lack of a police report, although Betty says everyone in the area knew of the attack. Once her appeals were exhausted, she was issued an order of deportation, but it was never executed.

Your church, this congregation, stands with Betty, Carlos, Paula and Layla –and with immigrant families everywhere. Members of Immanuel stood in an interfaith prayer vigil outside the detention facility last Wednesday night, and national Lutheran leaders have called on federal officials to release her from detention.  With help from Stephen Bouman and Mary Campbell of the ELCA’s AMMPARO Betty and Carlos have legal representation from the National immigrant Justice Center. In less than 24 hours, staff and members of Immanuel wrote letters of support demanding their release from custody and a stay of deportation. On Friday, we met with Paula, provided a small amount of material support, helped re-connect her to legal services, and we have prayed.

We pray for the children and families in detention facilities throughout our country being blamed and victimized for our broken immigration system. It’s not right. People fleeing violence deserve compassion and to be treated with dignity.  Children deserve our protection and care.  Jesus said, they will know you are my disciples in how you love one another. Whose disciple do we become when authorities, serving in our name, traumatize and even kidnap children?  When vulnerable people are demonized?  When an ELCA pastor and her family, dedicated to loving and serving God, are arrested and treated like violent criminals?  We work and pray for the soul of our nation even as we seek to do the work of the church, the work Jesus commanded us to do—love one another.

Throughout Easter, we read about people dreaming dreams. Our scriptures are filled with stories about people hearing voices. Our lessons come from people we could easily dismiss with a wave of the hand or a roll of our eyes. They are people just brave enough, or fed up enough, or foolish enough to cast the reality of what is aside and give themselves to try to make something better.

They are people who discovered a deeper life within the world as it is turns on an axis of mystery and grace. They are ordinary people who come to know that hearing voices and dreaming dreams is what leads to awakening in us all. They don’t hang up when the Holy Spirit calls. They don’t let it roll over into voicemail.  They accept the invitation, the opportunity, the challenge, the sacrifice, the grace, and the glory.

Mary acts on the advice of an angel.  Joseph cleaves to a startling choice while he is asleep.  Peter rises from a trance to proclaim a vision of a new humanity in Christ.  Afterword, Christianity would become a world religion rather than another obscure brand of Judaism. John “saw a new heaven and a new earth” including all the tribes and nations of earth living together in harmony with God in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21)

Jesus has given us, his disciples, a new commandment, a new mandate, a new standard by which to measure our progress toward an impossibly grand goal. They are among Jesus’ last words at the Last Supper on the night in which he was betrayed. Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

They will know we are Christians if we’re crazy enough, or brave enough, or fed up enough to live in such a way among ourselves that God’s dream of love for all things now living becomes a daily reality.  It’s what people of faith do, what we have always done and will continue to do.  Because Peter didn’t just go back to back to sleep.  He didn’t ignore the people standing outside his door.  He didn’t just tell people to shut up when his fellow Christians called him on the carpet to explain himself once he got back home.

Because we are people who hear voices and dream dreams that lead to awakening and transformation that is intended for the redemption of us all.  We stand with the hungry.  We stand beside the poor, the imprisoned, and the immigrant. We stand with Betty, Carlos, Paula, Layla –and Carlos’ cousin Felipé as one communion united in Christ.  We walk with the Spirit on the way to living the life God intended for us as children of a new humanity, citizens of the New Jerusalem, residents of a new heaven and a new earth, one people with God in harmony and solidarity with all the people of God.  And all the people say—Amen!

The credits roll.  The music plays.  Lights come up in the theater. Yet people linger in their seats.  They stay for the outtakes—scenes not included in the movie. Sometimes stories include an epilogue that reveals what ultimately happens to the principle characters.  We learn Oskar Schindler died bankrupt and penniless in Germany.  Bilbo and Frodo Baggins leave their beloved Hobbitsville and travel with the Elves.

Likewise, when we catch up with the disciples on Sunday, we already know how the story ends.  “The strife is o’er, the battle is done” (ELW #366). The twenty-first chapter of John is an epilogue. The disciples are on holiday back home. One story is at an end and another is just beginning.

But Peter isn’t sure he has a role in the new chapter Jesus is writing. That’s because he screwed up. He is painfully aware how he squandered all the hope and confidence Jesus’ had placed upon him. Peter can’t imagine Jesus would have any more use for him now.

He was supposed to be the Rock. Peter the “fisher of men.” It was Peter who was the first disciple to proclaim Jesus was the Son of God. It was Peter’s mother-in-law whom Jesus had healed. It was Peter who walked beside him on the sea. Peter who saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain. Peter who promised to stay at Jesus’s side even if he be killed. Yet is was this Peter whose courage failed so catastrophically around a charcoal fire when Jesus was arrested. Peter’s betrayal marked him as unworthy. ‘No. No, I am not the man! I swear, I don’t even know him.’ (John 18:17-27)

Do you know what that kind of failure feels like? Failure is where our dreams go to die. We withdraw. We don’t return eye-contact. We are weighed down with heaviness and dread. We tend to find comfort in familiar patterns and old routines. Peter went fishing

“Peace be with you,” Jesus had said in Jerusalem (John 20:26) He offered Peter and the disciples the gift of his continuing and abiding spirit. Now Jesus continues his healing, reconciling work beside the seashore. This time his strategy is simple. He said to them “come and have breakfast.” (John 21:12) He prepared a meal for them beside the Sea.

Notice “In the days following the resurrection, Jesus doesn’t waste a moment on revenge or retribution. He doesn’t storm Pilate’s house, or avenge himself on Rome, or punish the soldiers whose hands drove nails into his. Instead, he spends his remaining time on earth feeding, restoring, and strengthening his friends. He calls Mary Magdalene by name as she cries. He offers his wounds to the skeptical Thomas. He grills bread and fish for his hungry disciples. He heals what’s wounded and festering between his heart and Peter’s.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, 4/28/19)

Jesus asks Peter three times.  Once for each time Peter had denied him.  “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (21:15) These questions open Peter to the future. Despite his failure, Jesus again entrusts Peter with the ongoing work of the Church. “He surrounds the self-loathing disciple with tenderness and safety, inviting him to revisit his shame for the sake of healing, restoration, and commissioning: “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”  (Debie Thomas)

The early church drew inspiration from the memory of Peter’s biggest failure as an example of the power of God to forgive our failures, redeem our past and renew our calling as followers of Jesus Christ. If God could do that for Peter, God can do it for all of us!” In the intimacy of loving words, Jesus calls Peter beyond his personal relationship with Jesus to lovingly embrace all of Jesus’ followers.

St. Maximos the Confessor, who lived in the seventh century, wrote that Peter and Paul became “successful failures.” They experienced the liberating truth that “the person who has come to know the weakness of human nature has gained experience of divine power. Such a person never belittles anyone, for they know that God is like a good and loving physician who heals with individual treatment each of us who is trying to make progress.”

Through simple acts of care in Jesus’ name, the disciples would spark a revolution that spread around the world and persists from that moment till today. They started down a path that would lead to the flourishing of millions and to their premature death. This is because Jesus’ potluck breakfast was for them and for all, for everyone who has failed in life, for those cast out by their families, those without a name, for the immigrant, the widow, the imprisoned, and the poor.

In this radical hospitality and love we find oneness with God and one-another.  It’s a simple plan we inevitably make too complicated. Will you, can you feed Jesus’ sheep? Will you lay aside your own fear of awkwardness and failure to say hello to someone you don’t know? Even perhaps, to invite them for coffee? Will you take from what you have to share with others? Will you take a stand with the afflicted? Can you invite and shepherd others into fellowship with God and all people here in this congregation? Feed my sheep. In so doing, we will feed ourselves.

Today we learn Jesus remains involved in the work and life of the church. Like Obi Wan Kenobi, he is still a force to be reckoned with. Jesus is not dead but alive. Jesus has ascended but remains eternally present in Spirit.  We may continue to see Jesus in our midst through the eyes of faith.

Kathleen Norris has written a beautiful little book that she calls, The Quotidian Mysteries, in which she describes the ways she often encounters God while doing simple everyday tasks like laundry or cleaning the dishes. We encounter Christ while gathered around the table for a simple meal. There, we are surprised to see him in each other.  We encounter the Living God at the bath. There, we are overjoyed to find God alive and working deep within ourselves.

Hoist a Sail to Sea

Poor tulips and daffodils are weighed down this morning with snow.  We are five weeks into Spring.  They look vibrant with color and full of the resilience of youth, but I must say, the poor things also look confused.

It is sometimes said that nature is God’s first bible.  The divine breath Jesus breathed upon the first Christian community to infuse an Easter life in them is the same spirit of resurrection alive and at work in all creation and now in us.  Something new already struggled to be revealed in them while they were yet weighed down by the cares of this world.

Today, we read of the disciples, in fear and confusion, hiding behind locked doors somewhere in Jerusalem.  Presumably, they are in the same place where they had shared the Last Supper with Jesus. Their dark little room had become lifeless as the grave.  They are paralyzed into inactivity and hopelessness. They thought themselves to be as good as dead already –just waiting for the Temple police to come and make it official.  They are not yet fully aware—and perhaps—will never be, of how much they are like seed sown upon soil, already in the process of transformation.

The Easter story had already begun to re-write the narrative of their lives. Yet, in their darkened minds, their expectations of what would happen still followed the arc of a more worldly story. They believed they were at an end. Yet God intended a new beginning.  In the immortal words of Gracie Allen, “Never placea period where Godhas placed a comma. GodIs Still Speaking.”

It was a week after Easter for the first disciples, just as it is for us. They are only beginning to understand the new situation they find themselves in.  Alleluia. He is risen (He is risen indeed, alleluia!). But the question for them and for us remains the same –what now? What’s next?  How shall we live as the Easter people we are?  If we hoist a sail to the divine breath, do we have courage to go where it takes us? Or do we yet live in fear, weighed down with the cares of the world?

Our gospel is a graceful reminder that we are not the first followers to struggle with what the resurrection means. John’s recounting the story of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples and then again, one week later to Thomas, is not to scold us into a style of believing that is afraid to ask questions, but just the opposite.

In fact, the bible is full of examples of faithful questioning.  Abraham, Moses, and Elijah; dozens of Psalms, and most of the Prophets, remind us that biblical faith is confident enough in relationship with God to bear up under any question.  Questions and the confidence to ask them, of ourself, each other, and God, is not a recipe for weakening faith, but for strengthening it.

In contrast to many religious people today, Christians who asks questions of themselves, others, and of God are necessarily humble. A questioning Christian has both the courage to boldly speak and the patience to actively listen.  A church built upon questioning faith is self-critical and constantly reforming.  Questioning faith speaks truth to power, even while challenging itself.  Questioning is essential to faith because without it our religious zeal too easily changes shape to become religious zealotry.  The Easter life God infuses in us becomes misshaped and distorted.

This Sunday we pray to receive the vital life-transforming breath of God in the dead zones of our lives –into the places in our minds and hearts which have become weighed down or walled off by fear, exhaustion, hopelessness, and/or confusion. “It’s a great temptation in the life of the church to huddle behind massive, beautiful doors, to hide out from a world in pain and great need, and to make our faith a personal, private thing that has nothing to do with that pain or that need.” (Kate Huey)

Here, we approach the heart of today’s gospel lesson: “Jesus comes again and again to these scared and confused disciples. The disciples have not warranted a second visit by Jesus, but they get one, and a renewed gift of his peace” (Gail O’Day). In the same way, if we long to see Jesus, he offers us the same gift of himself, not just once, but over and over.

Here is my body, Jesus said. He showed them his hands and his side. My body is wounded and broken.  You carry scars in your mortal frame, some may never heal.  Yet I still live and so shall you. Blessed are you for the wounds you endure for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, Jesus says.

Suddenly, unbelievably, in the midst of a living death, it was as if the hushed knot of disciples were brought to life again.  They were filled not only with life, but with joy.  They possessed a confidence that made them truly bold. It was as if they no longer feared death.  They, too, had been resurrected with Jesus.  The locked door of their tomb-like room burst open.  They returned to the streets.  They entered the Temple teaching in Jesus’ name. They sparked a movement that traveled by foot, ship, horseback, and by word of mouth throughout the ancient world.  Jesus had breathed new life into them.  They shared in a Spirit of reconciliation, mutuality, restoration of justice, and of peace.

So, what’s next? Because we are an Easter people, perhaps you feel drawn here at Immanuel to create a living sanctuary in Christ’s name with beautiful transcendent music.  Or, because we are an Easter people, you may be equipped to welcoming others in Christ’s name to find shelter in worship and liturgy that is full of the wisdom and memory of ancient times, as well as the hope and call of the holy spirit pulling us toward the future.  Or, because we are an Easter people, you may be called to walk in solidarity and with our siblings in faith, both Christians and non-Christians like so many here in Edgewater, in order to sweep hate away (just as 75 of us did yesterday to clean neighborhood streets and alleys). Or, because we are an Easter people, you may be pulled toward building a living sanctuary in Christ’s name to the hundreds of children and families who come here each week whom we support in learning; whom we support in exploration and play at our tutoring and play groups.  Or, you may feel called to aid in Immanuel’s mission to foster Christian community in our youth—including youth of diverse colors, cultures, ethnicities, and abilities in the name of Christ.   Or, because we are an Easter people, your eyes may be drawn to yet other opportunities to love and serve God in another way, or in some other place.  How can we, your brothers and sisters at Immanuel, be of help?

How shall our Easter story be written? Let us hoist a sail to the Spirit. Let us pray the Spirit of Christ will reveal herself in us like the Spring tulips and daffodils that remain vibrant with color and filled with the resilience of youth, even as they shrug off the late spring snow.

 

 

Easter Darkness

Alleluia! Christ is risen (Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!) Yet that first Easter morning, despite the fresh bloom of early spring, everything looked dead. Mary Magdalene and the women made their way to the tomb at early dawn.  As they did, the ribbons of color spreading through the eastern sky were not beautiful. The budding garden was not fragrant. The singing birds could not be heard. As the women went to the tomb their minds were shrouded in the grey colors of grief, their voices were hushed by the crushing weight of despair.

While the natural world throughout the Northern hemisphere testified to the promise of new life, neither these women, nor anyone else, expected anything but death. Bodies go into the ground and stay there. Springtime comes to grass, trees, and living things, not to bodies lying in the grave.

Regardless of what Jesus had told them—that he would die, and on the third day, rise again—Mary Magdalene, the women who accompanied her, and the rest of Jesus’ followers, still lived in a Good Friday world.

While we greeted Easter last night and this morning with jubilation and trumpets, we are confronted here with something quieter, more mysterious, and perhaps more resonant with our own daily lives.  It is what pastor and author Frederick Buechner has called “the darkness of the resurrection itself, that morning when it was hard to be sure what you were seeing.” While the benefit of two thousand years of hindsight have informed our Easter acclamations, what we read from the Gospels is that the first disciples stumbled in the half-light on that third day after Jesus’s crucifixion, confused and afraid. Where was the stone? Were those angels standing beside them in that unlit tomb? And where was Jesus? Are they sure the tomb is really empty?

It was “…the first day of the week, at early dawn” (Luke 24:1). That’s when Easter really begins. “It begins in darkness. It begins amidst fear, bewilderment, pain, and a profound loss of certainty.” The creeds and clarifications we cherish today would come much later. What came first were variations on a theme that sound a lot as if they come from our own lives—like a woman I heard sing about Jesus last Tuesday at the Synod Chrism Mass who struggles with cancer and must carry her own oxygen—or like another woman I visit who testifies to the power of God from her sagging nursing home bed. Easter is what happens when ordinary people brush up against an extraordinary God.  Easter looks like people of a  broken, hungry humanity encounter a bizarre and inexplicable Love in the half-light of dawn. (Debie Thomas, I Have Seen the Lord, April 14, 2019)

Theologian and writer Chris Barnes reminds us what actually matters during Holy Week: “The question that Easter asks of us is not, ‘Do we believe in the doctrine of the resurrection?’ Frankly, that is not particularly hard. What the Gospels ask is not, ‘Do you believe?’ but ‘Have you encountered the risen Christ?’”

Our gospels tell the stories of individual people having profoundly individual encounters with Christ. These encounters are not identical. Last night we read when Peter saw the empty tomb, he ran away and returned to his home. When the beloved disciple saw it, he believed but did not understand When Mary saw it, she ran to tell the disciples who dismissed her words as an idle tail. In other words, we come to the empty tomb as ourselves, for better or worse. The question is not, and never was, “Why should people in general believe?” but rather, “Why doyou believe? How has the risen Christ revealed himself to you?”

Easter comes like a lamb before wolves, with a word to shatter hard won common sense. Easter comes like a dove into our Good Friday world.  It is a dog-eat-dog dog; only the strong survive; white makes right; if you want peace prepare for war world.  But here comes Easter, telling its idle tales again.  Easter promises what we heard today from the prophet Isaiah, God is doing a new thing: a new heaven and a new earth. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” No longer must we consume one another to survive in this new world.

Easter says hope never dies.  Easter says all your tomorrows can be different from your yesterdays.  Easter says life is stronger than death; light conquers darkness.  Here comes Easter singing a simple song about God’s grace.

Easter isn’t about one man’s death and one man’s rising.  It is a claim about the undying life we all share because of the unconditional reality and claim of God’s grace to embrace our lives and not let go.  The test of the Christian message of resurrection, therefore, is not what happened in the tomb, but is the capacity of grace to break through our Good Friday’s and with the fresh springtime of Easter.

Easter does not a return to the past but moves toward the future. When our false expectations, flawed speculations, wrong theologies, or hateful ideologies become a like a wall separating us from grace and each other, God’s Easter is going to break through that wall.

Since ancient times Christians have called Easter the “first day.” From Easter comes our practice of worshiping on Sunday morning. It is the first day of the week. It is also the first day of a new creation, sometimes called the “eighth day”, because on it Christ restored the image of God in humankind and in so doing also brought restoration and renewal to all creation. We are an Easter people. We are a new creation through the gift of God’s grace revealed to us in Christ Jesus.

Of all the things Easter promises this may be the most preposterous—that we are now members of the resurrected body of Christ.  Within you are seeds of hope to renew the hope of the whole world. The cross reveals the depths of cruelty, violence, and immorality to which we can sink, at the very same time it marks the path God has opened to the way forward. The cross is a Tree of Life offering healing for the nations.  “Now all the vault of heaven resounds in praise of love that still abounds. Christ has triumphed! He is living! Alleluia” (ELW #367).