Epiphany 6A-20

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I saw hearts everywhere this week. Hearts, flowers, cupcakes, and balloons in shiny red and white colors. The playgroup had a Valentine’s Day party. I stumbled on another at Wesley Place. The Tuesday night Compass kids sent Immanuel a Valentine’s card on Facebook. Kari’s cousin is in town. We had a hard time finding a restaurant Friday night that wasn’t filled with dating diners. And now, in the romantic afterglow of Valentine’s Day, we hear Jesus’ talk about lopping off limbs and poking out eyes.

Yikes!  This would be bad enough, but added to that, Jesus’ sermon sounds so transactional—like if you’re good enough God will protect you. If you’re pious then you will be comforted.  If you want a long life make sure your prayers are long too.

Of course, we know this is absurd. God is not an ATM machine. Thankfully, more and more people also understand God is not a rule-obsessed tyrant waiting to zap us if we make a mistake. Yet most of us harbor one or two misconceptions about God lurking in our hearts. We try to get rid of them. They cling to us like bad habits we can’t break.

So, what’s going on here? How do Jesus’ words about anger, adultery, the careless severing of marital bonds, and frivolous oaths add up to the Word of God, word of life? Remember those little candy hearts with messages on them “Be Mine,” “Yours Forever,” “BFF?” Well, it turns out, Valentine’s Day has it partly right. The answer is written on our hearts. Read what God has written there. I am your God. You are my very own beloved child. God pours love into our heart like a mighty river and an ever-flowing stream. God is the headwaters of every kind of love—be it romantic love, the love of friends and neighbors, but most especially the capacity we have to love humankind and all life.

The problem is that as 21st century Christians living in America, we tend to hear Jesus’s sermon the same way we hear everything else—through an individualistic bias. Those who first heard Jesus would have felt the weight of his words fall upon them, not as individuals, but as a group. They would have rightly understood Jesus calling forth a new community.  A blessed community.  A beloved community.  A community to initiate a radical way of doing life on earth. A community to follow in his footsteps and incarnate divine love in world hungry for hope and healing.

Directing Jesus’ challenging words at our community and not only at ourselves provokes different questions. “What would it be like if the children of God helped each other to succeed in all the ways Jesus’s sermon describes?  Imagine what that community would look like!  Jesus words become instructions for building and sustaining a community that is both blessed and commissioned to bless.

Jesus said, I say to you so much more is possible than you have yet comprehended.  “Reach for it.  Walk into it.  Sustain it.  You are loved and you are blessed, right here, right now. It is written on your heart. There is nothing left for you to earn, but there is everything left for you to share.  Be the beloved community you long for.” (Debie Thomas, “But I Say to You,” Journey with Jesus, 2/09/20.)

You may say to yourself –that sounds nice—but not at all realistic. You’d be right, but for grace. Fortunately, Lutheran theology helps us hear these stern words of Jesus, rekindle our imagination, and lead us from cynicism to hope. As Martin Luther taught, whether we’re talking about the Ten Commandments, or the teachings of Jesus, scripture intentionally sets the bar too high for me. A policeman may cite me for what I do, not for what I think, and certainly, not for what I feel.  But that’s not enough for the bible. God wants what’s in my heart too. See what’s written there. My rage, pettiness, and selfish thoughts disqualify me from laying claim righteousness on my own.  Playing by the rules Jesus’ outlines, means everyone loses—and that’s the point. Each of us is stuck in sin. The beloved community would be an impossible dream. But God, who is good, pours out love to cleanse our hearts and renew our spirits. God’s abundant gift of grace makes the impossible possible. There is no one who is good but God alone (Matthew 19:17).  We all stand in need of the grace God pours gives in abundance. Just read what’s written on your heart.

The prophet Isaiah wrote, ‘the ox knows its owner, the donkey knows its master’s crib, but my people do not know’ (Isaiah 1:3). Sheep hear the voice of their shepherd. They trust and follow. The natural world is a wonder of balance, harmony of contrasts, collaboration, and beauty. All things living participate in a symphony of life, not merely as individuals but as part of an entire ecosystem. What might we learn from all living things about being faithful?

Recently, I read that “Before it dies, a Douglas-fir [tree], half a millennium old, will send its storehouse of chemicals back down into its roots and out through its fungal partners, donating its riches to the community pool in a last will and testament.”  Some call these ancient benefactors “giving trees.” (Richard Powers, “The Overstory: A Novel.)

See, the beauty and brokenness in ourselves and in the world are intertwined. The way of Jesus brings an end to the bitter divisions afflicting our lives and reorients us toward the needs of our neighbor. Jesus our great teacher has taught us how to live in love, as the natural world does, so we don’t have to keep going down the disastrous roads that our anger and lust lead us on.

We may try to do this by skill, or will, or the power of our minds alone, but we cannot. There is a missing ingredient and intuition that comes from our heart and body called wisdom. Wisdom brings our heart and mind together in a focused way. Wisdom joins individuals into a community that continues to preserve and celebrate our differences. By wisdom we learn to love as God has loved us.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Through violence you may murder a murderer but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that.”(Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community?) Only wisdom can do that. See what’s written there on your heart.

Jesus has opened the way to life and love. It’s the perfect life for imperfect people.  We are called and equipped for this absurdly blessed life. May God bless this house from roof to floor.  God bless each pilgrim who seeks refuge at our door.  God fill every room with peace and grace, that all who sojourn here find healing [of heart, mind and body] in this place.” (from This House of Peace, Ralph M. Johnson, Earthsongs.)

5th Sunday After Epiphany

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world (Mtt. 5:13a & 14a). Jesus used two memorable metaphors of grace in his Sermon on the Mount. Yet, I don’t thing modern people really know what he meant.  Sure, maybe you’ve experienced what athletes call “hitting the wall,” so you know how awful it feels for your body to run out of sodium. Here in Chicago we all know how good it feels to finally come into some sunlight. But in a time when salt and light are both cheap and abundant, much of Jesus’ meaning gets lost in translation

Reading a two-thousand-year-old book requires us to take a step back in time. We must ask what the plain meaning of Jesus’ words would have been to those who first heard them. How does it add to our understanding of Jesus’ message to think back to a world in which salt and light were precious and rare?

In the movie Castaway, the character played by Tom Hanks is sitting in a private jet clicking a butane lighter on and off, on and off, over and over. He is flying home after years alone on a deserted island where he survived a mid-ocean plane crash only after many miserable attempts and with great effort by learning to make fire. Firelight was the only light humans could make in Jesus’ day right up to the recent past of the industrial age. Light came primarily from the sun, moon, and stars.  But, Jesus said, you and I are light too.

Mark Kurlansky writes in his book, Salt: A World History, “from the beginning of civilization until about one hundred years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.”   It was used in ancient times to ward off evil spirits, to disinfect wounds, stimulate thirst, treat skin diseases, and seal religious covenants. Roman soldiers got paid in salt—hence our English word, salary.” Around ten thousand years ago, dogs were first domesticated using salt; people would leave salt outside their homes to entice the animals.  And of course, in all the centuries before refrigeration, salt was essential for food preservation. (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, Salty, 02/02/20)

Salt and light are precious. Modern people miss out hearing much of Jesus’ message in world where salt and light are cheap and plentiful. Imagine what Jesus’s first followers would have heard when he called them salt and light. “Remember who they were. Remember what sorts of people Jesus addressed in his famous Sermon on the Mount.  The poor, the mournful, the meek, the persecuted. The hungry, the sick, the crippled, the frightened.  The outcast, the misfit, the disreputable, the demon-possessed. “You,” he told them all. “You are the salt of the earth.”” You are the light of the world. (Debie Thomas)

Our reading from the prophet Isaiah helps sketch out Jesus’ meaning a little further. You are salty when you share your bread with the hungry. You are light when you bring the homeless poor into your house. You are the salt to make life savory when you see the naked and cover them. Your light shines in the world when you do not hide yourself from your own kin. “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly, your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.” (Isaiah 58:6-8a) You are salt and light.

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

Now 400 yeas later, we acknowledge that neither the Civil War, nor the Emancipation Proclamation, nor the Thirteenth Amendment, nor the Civil rights movement fully abolished what Abraham Lincoln called the “monstrous injustice” of slavery.

Many slaves freed after the Civil War lived into the 1940s. Their stories are preserved in a work called, “Unchained Memories,” about the daily horrors of slave life from those who lived to tell of it — included relentless work, horrendous housing and diet, the denial of education, sexual violence, and even religious violence. They tell how their “slave masters” hoped to use the Christian gospel to keep slaves passive.

It is one of the most counter-intuitive facts of our history that blacks adopted the religion of their white oppressors, a religion used as a weapon in their oppression. It was because the slaves, like the first disciples before them, weak and downtrodden as they were, heard and saw something they weren’t supposed to see. They heard Jesus say that they were salt and light. Their lives had dignity and meaning beyond their economic worth. They were precious. They were siblings in Christ regardless where they came from or who their family was.

Kim Phuc Phan Thi (Kim phoo fan tea) is 58 and living outside Toronto, Canada. She is a well-known author and activist of children who have experienced trauma, but that’s not why she’s famous. There was a time when everyone in America, regardless of age, would recognize her photo. It’s an iconic image hard to forget. A young girl, naked, runs screaming toward the camera in agony after a napalm attack incinerated her village, her clothes, and then her skin. That girl is Kim Phuc. She was 9 years old in 1972 when South Vietnamese planes dropped napalm near her village.

Third degree burns covered 50 percent of her body. Doctors didn’t expect her to live. After 14-months in the hospital and 17 surgical procedures, including skin transplantations, she was able to return home. Yet because her skin doesn’t have any pores she cannot sweat. It makes her feel tired. She has headaches. She lives with pain every day. “It filled me up with hatred, bitterness and anger,” she said. (Kim Phuc’s Brief But Spectacular Take on pain and forgiveness, PBS Newshour)

Ten years after her ordeal, she wanted to take her own life, because she said, “I thought after I die no more suffer no more pain.” It was Christmas that year when somehow, she stumbled on a copy of the New Testament in the library in Saigon and read it and became a Christian. She says that, “Since I have faith, my enemies list became my prayer list.” She realized that praying for her enemies meant to love them. She said, “Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you? (Kim Phúc, NPR in 2008) Kim Phuc’s

We are salt and light. “Jesus’ words are about who we are and what we do.  How we do it and the effectour lives may have upon the wider world.  The salt and light in you can never be stolen from you, beaten out of you, or spoiled even by your own misdeeds.  You are imbued with the distinctive capacity to elicit goodness, and growth leads to personal and global transformation.  Salt and light, Jesus said.  This is the source of your dignity.  This is the source of your power.” (Debie Thomas)

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are a benediction upon the whole world. There is no border, no boundary, no line separating nations, no longitude, nor latitude that divides all living things from the blessings bestowed by God. As in highest heaven so it is also on earth. We are siblings in Christ—children of salt and light.

Presentation of our Lord

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

By now I’m sure most of America is getting ready for the big day. Yes—you know what I mean. It’s Groundhog Day. How many saw the 1993 movie with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell?  So, did I.  According to German folklore transplanted to America in 1887 by Lutherans in central Pennsylvania, if a groundhog comes out of its hole today and sees its shadow it’s means six more weeks of winter; no shadow means an early spring.

Now, even if you did see the movie a bunch of times (again, like me) you could be forgiven for not knowing that Groundhog Day is today, February 2nd, because it is 40 days after Christmas. Our agricultural ancestors noticed that today is also 46 days before the spring equinox (this year on March 19th).  They came to regard this day as a hinge between winter and spring. Yet, originally the dating of Groundhog Day had nothing to do with its relationship to the seasons, but rather, it is rooted in the rhythms of the church year.

Groundhog Day sprang from the ancient Christian recognition of Candlemas, when forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph presented baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem in keeping with Jewish law, and for Mary to undergo postpartum rites of cleansing following childbirth. By remembrance, the Church blessed and distributed candles needed for winter in honor of the Presentation of Our Lord, inspired by Simeon’s words that our Lord Jesus is a light to the nations.”

Since February 2nd falls on Sunday this year, today for Candlemas, we have revived this ancient practice. We will bless the candles we use in worship and the votives you received to connect our place of worship with your home altar.

Apparently, Groundhogs hibernate through winter and emerge from their burrows starting in early February. With nightly news too painful to watch and so much cold weather, I can understand the desire to snuggle into my burrow and throw the blankets over my head.  Wouldn’t you know, for the first time in about 10 days, it’s supposed to be 50 degrees and sunny today! The Groundhog will see his shadow for sure. Is that good news or bad news?

Yes, we understand the desire to retreat from the world. That’s why we are extra thankful for a certain resident prophet named Anna and an old man named Simeon. Despite centuries of hardship and longing for the Messiah, they kept alert and awake waiting and expectantly watching for God’s good news.

Our gospel reminds us how much we need each other. Congregations are those rare communities in which young and old are soulmates, bound together as an extended family in God, who love, support, and sustain one another. Seniors, adults, toddlers, and infants are honored as faithful contributors to community life, wisdom-givers, exemplars of the faith, and worthy recipients of care. It prompts us to ask ourselves how we are making this biblical vision concrete in our lives?”

Upon a time, the Messiah came unexpectedly, as a child.  He came not among those with power, but to shepherds, beasts of the field, and wise men from a distant land.  He came not among those with wealth, but to a manger. When the Messiah finally appeared in the Temple, he didn’t walk but was carried. Yet somehow, Simeon and Anna had faith enough to recognize him.

According to a popular proverb, “Seeing is believing.” For Simeon and Anna, the opposite appears to be true: “They believed, so they were able to see more than the obvious.”. (David Lose) God is present in an infant, in bread and wine, in each other, and in the events of the day. Where God is present, there is salvation for those with the faith to see more than just the obvious. Will we have eyes of faith to recognize and embrace it? Can God be revealed in such ordinary things? Will we walk in daylight and not be afraid –or return to our cozy burrow?

This is one of those surprises that isn’t actually surprising. To Moses, God came as a voice in a burning bush. To Jacob God came as a shadowy figure that wrestled him through the night and left him with a limp come morning.  To the prophet Isaiah, God appeared seated on a heavenly throne.  The fringe of God’s robe filled the temple. Cherubim and Seraphim sang him praises.  But to us a child is born, a son is given. Authority rests upon his shoulders; and his name is Wonderful counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

Luke tells us how Simeon took the infant Jesus into his arms, turned his voice toward God and offered praise for the “light of revelation” that had come into the world. Simeon’s words of comfort, joy, and acceptance of death join Mary’s Magnificat as among the oldest, most persistent Christmas hymns sung by the church.

Jesus the light of grace shines brightly upon the world giving life to all like the rising sun or the approach of Spring. It also reveals our shadow side. Light always casts a shadow. Simeon saw this inherent contradiction and said to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35) The love revealed in Christ Jesus confronts each of us with the sword of decision.  Which way will we go? How do we respond?

We instinctively reject God’s love because along with grace it reveals our shadow side.  We don’t always like what we see when we stumble out of bed and trip over dirty clothes or have to look at yesterday’s dishes still piled in the sink. Sometimes, the light reveals new things too, that developed overnight while we slept that now we have to deal with. Perhaps, there is snow to shovel. Sadly, our 15-year-old dog Maddy is in her last days, so lately she has been leaving little gifts for us to clean up. No, we don’t like everything the light of day reveals. But we who have lived in the gloom of so many cloudy days also know we need some vitamin D!

Let Jesus teach you how not to be afraid of your own shadow.  We don’t have to run back to our holes. Instead, by grace we discover how to love our whole self as God does and how to learn from what God reveals in both light and shadows with honesty and humility. We do this with the help of Christ our teacher in order to love our self, each other, and the world in which we live.

God comes among us, as a child, in flesh and bone.  Truly, this is a gift to ponder; a gift to hold in our hearts and minds to give us courage for living all the rest of our lives. Unwrapping and unfolding this gift the path to abundance opens before us. God’s first, best Christmas gift, so delicately and sincerely offered is yours today and all the days of your life.  May the little Lord Jesus teach you how to love as you have been loved.

Epiphany 3A-20

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matthew 4:19). Simon and Andrew, then James and John, heard and followed Jesus. Perhaps they meant to follow only for a moment, or just to satisfy their curiosity. Yet moments would become hours, then days, a week, a season, and finally, a way of life. The disciples followed him and kept following him. They were hooked. They left their nets, their boats, family members, and everything they knew to follow Jesus and never look back.

I don’t even own a fishing pole anymore. I used to go quite a bit when I was a kid. We used worms and jigs to catch Crappie. Fish eggs for trout or anything that looked like a bug if you were fly-fishing. Worms and bobbers made fishing a more relaxing —just cast it out and wait for a nibble. It was also important to know the time fish would be feeding, to recognize the best spots to find them, and how to approach without scaring them away. And of course, even amateurs like me carried a whole tackle box of lures, baits, swivels, hooks, line, and other tools.

What was so enticing and persuasive it had power to transform the lives of the disciples so completely? What was the bait Jesus put on the hook? It could only be one thing, just one Divine Lure in his tackle box— the euangelion—the good news—the gospel. The root from which we get the word, “evangelize.” Jesus cast good news into the turbulent waters of the world to pull people out the pain and suffering caused by hate, fear, hopelessness, poverty, and any other thing that degrades and dehumanizes us. Jesus cast the good news of grace and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.

Where we find him today, Jesus has rejected the comforts of nearby cities like Tiberius and Sepphoris, places you might expect a talented young Rabbi to go. He is searching out fertile fishing grounds among those in need. Capernaum was in the back-water territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. It was the “wild west,” a rough, unruly place frequented by bandits and revolutionaries derided by religious authorities in Jerusalem as uncivilized, semi-literate, and infected by paganism.  It was a land familiar with brutality, poverty, and hunger, a land unaccustomed to hope.

Imagine a place where security and safety are stripped away. Every asset may be claimed by conquerors of the moment. Every child born can be taken by the powerful into slavery. Every harvest can be seized by the mighty. Every hope for the future could be stolen by masters who have the final say. ”This is ‘the land of deep darkness’ into which Jesus journeyed.  (Amy Oden, Dean and Professor of History of Christianity, Wesley Theological Seminary)

That’s the place Jesus went in search of disciples. It was a fertile place to fish for human hearts and minds hungry for hope. Jesus was not interested in their resumes. Simon and Andrew, James and John were not the best and brightest of their generation. The only qualification that is necessary to be a disciple of Christ is to follow him. They responded to the good news, hooked by the divine lure, the fabulous, preposterous message Jesus declared: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”

The bait Jesus used was his very own life. With this hook Jesus showed them how to live.  Look, we are being drawn out of isolation into communion. Hooked, pulled, fighting, resisting we have become like fish out of water, thrown into a life we could not imagine. The kingdom of God in which we now find ourselves is not a place, or a destination, but a way of life.  Now we finally understand we belong to each other and to all people, our brothers and sisters in Christ, whom God created, named, and loves.

Now, as the body of Christ, we become bait for people like us who are lost and hurting—people like a young boy named Alfredo. When Alfredo was small his house in rural Mexico burned down. His whole family died in the fire. He was left with scars he couldn’t hide. His face and mouth were permanently disfigured. Alfredo didn’t belong to anybody.  Although he was only about ten years old, no one took him in. He drifted from place to place, sleeping and eating wherever he could.

One day, he was drawn by the sound of children laughing. He watched other children play from a hiding place behind a schoolground wall. Later he would tell how he pressed his face up to the bars on the windows to get a better look.  It was a Christian orphanage run by an order of Franciscans. But he was afraid.  He was afraid of rejection.  He was afraid about what the other children might say when they saw him.  Yet he was desperate to find a home. So, one day, Alfredo got up the courage to show himself to the priest. He told him his story. The Priest wanted to take him in but he also knew how the other children might respond. So, he assembled the whole school.  He told them Alfredo’s story and put the decision about what was to be done about him in their hands.

Of course, all the children said, bring him in, we won’t mind.  But the priest warned them.  He said, you’ve never seen anyone like this boy. The grainy, low budget 1969 re-enactment of this story shows the priest call Alfredo to stand before the other children.  A long awkward silence falls over them in the courtyard.  The children stood and stared at Alfredo for a long time.   Finally, one of them, a boy about the same age, steps forward, stood before Alfredo, and declared simply, “You are my brother.”  He took Alfredo by the hand and led him among the other children.

What was it that drew Alfredo? Laughter, play, community, belonging, these are all good news. There is nothing too rough, unrefined, or shameful to bring to this church, these waters, or that table. In fact, these are the very things that draws us to Jesus and make us hungry for the gospel.

We read Jesus went to “Galilee of the Gentiles,” literally, the land of ‘those who are not us.’ We will see the same word appear again, translated as “nations” in the Great Commission Jesus issues the nascent Church at the end of Matthew’s gospel. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,” (Matthew 28:19-20).  Who are the Gentiles—those who are not us—among whom Jesus moves today? Jesus hooks and draws us together with them into one body, one people, one life. This is the good news. Follow me.

Epiphany 2A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I don’t remember when I first looked up and saw the hand on the roof, but I know I was here for years without noticing it. It took someone to point it out to me—and there it was! In the same place most churches have a cross or mount a statute, Immanuel displays a hand and index finger pointing to the sky.
Pastor Eric Gustafson oversaw the building of this place. I wonder if he chose it as a symbol for these post-modern, post Christian times. Pointing a finger is a universal sign even my dog Maddie understands. It means “Look,” “there it is,” or “that’s the one.” Years ago, I asked my kids what they thought the finger on the roof meant. They understood, correctly I think, it’s intended to remind us of God, or as Leah said, ‘where God lives.’

God lives in the sky, right? That finger points to the great beyond. It points to the place we’re headed if we’re good enough—or so the story goes. But it’s worth pointing out, that’s NOT how the story goes in the bible.

We tell our children to look to the sky, but the bible tells us over and over again to look for God in the world. The heavens were torn open. John saw the Spirit descend upon Jesus like a dove. We spent the entire Christmas season hearing about incarnation—God is with us. The fullness of the presence of God is pleased to dwell in you, despite your flaws and limitations. It is only when we let ourselves be loved by grace right down to the core of who we are that we find the capacity to embrace other people as Jesus embraced every disciple, every sinner, every doubter, and every believer who crossed his path.
So, it would be better, or at least more appropriate biblically, if the finger on our roof could turn every direction like a weathervane, or if it could be made to point downward, or better yet, if it could point straight at each of you, or if it could point at the stranger in our midst, the poor, the imprisoned, or our enemies—all the places the bible tells us to look for God in Christ Jesus.
John the Baptist didn’t point to the sky but at God’s unfolding work being done that moment in time and space. As Jesus walked along the riverbank John pointed and said, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:30). The Messiah was hidden in plain sight until John pointed him out. The disciples needed a witness and so do we all. That remains an important job today—to help each other point and name where God is. Can I get a witness?

“Look,” “there it is,” and “that’s the one.” Our lectionary revolves around these words but doesn’t end with them. In fact, it’s just the beginning. Crucially, after noticing the very next thing is following. When Jesus turned and saw the disciples following he asked them, “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38a).
“In your heart, in your secret and quiet places, what are the hungers that drive you forward in your life of faith? Why do you still have skin in this game we call Christianity? As you say goodbye to an old year and welcome a new one, what are you hoping for, asking for, looking for, in your spiritual life? Do you know?” (Debie Thomas, “What Are You Looking For?” Journey with Jesus, 1/12/20)

The disciples were not ready for such a probing question, so they answered Jesus with a question of their own. “Rabbi, where are you staying” (John 1:38b). In other words, with John’s help we only just noticed you may be the Messiah, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself first? What will happen to us if we follow you?
When the disciples press him for details Jesus says only, “Come and see.” (John 1:39) Which is to say: Jesus won’t be pinned down. Following Jesus won’t fit into any category we try to stick him in. “He’s not the type who remains in stasis—he moves. At times, he will not be easy to seek or find. In short: the path that leads to him will become clear only when we decide to walk it. Hence the question we must ask ourselves at every turn: what are we looking for? Jesus? Or something else?” (Debie Thomas) John pointed to Jesus and Jesus points the way to the One life in God—beginning right here, right now: “Look,” “there it is,” “that’s the way.”
Jesus has shown you the way, but your path will only become clear when you walk it. Like so many things in life, we learn faith by doing.

My son Sam recently bought a 2001 GMC Yukon XL. It’s his first car. He’s in love. He dreams of things to personalize and improve it. He’s swapped out the side mirrors. He removed old decals and spot treated the rust. Tuesday night Mehari and I were leaving church after tutoring when we received an SOS. Sam flushed the engine but didn’t have the right wrench to remove the drain plug. He was stuck. Could I bring him one? Rather than run all the way home we went to the auto supply store for a 15-millimeter socket wrench. It worked! Except then the oil pan was too small and overflowed—and the filter he bought was too big and didn’t fit. Back to the store for another filter, bigger oil pan, and stuff to help clean up spilled oil. I made Sam sit on a plastic bag in the front seat because he was so messy. Finally, it was done. He fired up the engine and we exchanged high fives. Mehari and I headed home. Sam said of himself he made mistakes at every turn, but does he now know how to change the oil? You bet he does! A history of making mistakes is what we call experience. Jesus invites us to become experienced today at living our faith. Jesus points the way. Come and see.

Not sure how to pray? Learn by doing. Want to be closer to Jesus? Be curious about others. Proximity to the poor, the imprisoned, the immigrant, the suffering is the first step toward mercy and justice.

I leave you today with words of encouragement and hope from someone who certainly did know how to live his faith. He learned by doing. He wasn’t afraid to make mistakes. In 1958, five years before his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall, and just two years after the successful conclusion of the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. visited Beth Emet Synagogue just around the corner from my house in Evanston. King said:

“I speak to you this evening as one who lives everyday under the threat of death. One who has had to subject his family to dangerous living…In the midst of all of this I have faith in the future. I have faith in the future because I believe in God. I believe there is a creative force in this universe. Call it what you may.

That is a creative force in this universe that seeks to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole. That is a power that works at every moment to bring low prodigious hilltops of evil. And pull down gigantic mountains of injustice. That is something in this universe that justifies Carlyle in saying, ‘No lie can live forever.’ That is something that justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, ‘Truth crushed to earth with rise again.’

So down in Montgomery Alabama, we can walk and never get weary. I believe that. I believe in the future, because I believe in God. I leave you with this challenge. I say work it every moment. To bring into being the ideas and principles of this current period. This is a great time to be alive.” (Tablet Magazine, Excerpt of Speech at Beth Emet Synagogue, 1958)

Come and see!

Christmas Eve-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and all that fills it.” (Psalm 96:11) “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)

The story of Jesus’ birth is about union with God, one another, and all creation. Emmanuel, ‘God with us,” or incarnation is the best and most important gift of the Christian story to the world. The fullness of God took on flesh and lived among us. This God is not content to dwell in you, or only in us, but the Spirit of God is being poured out to fill all things in heaven and earth with beauty and grace.

“All the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all peoples. Scripture teaches us to listen for God in the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; watch for God in the exultation fields, and everything growing within it. ‘All the trees of the forest sing for joy’ at the Lord’s coming (Psalm 96:11-12). The earth and cosmos resonate as with music at the coming Messiah.

Somehow, we seem to have lost this sense of enchantment that came naturally to ancient peoples. The message of Christmas is the perfect antidote. Incarnation means everything sparkles with the fullness and presence of God. Matter is not empty, but everything speaks of the one life. Spirit and nature. Sacred and secular. Body and soul. Light and darkness. Insider and outsider. Saints and sinners. Life and death. In Christ we see these dualisms are illusions. God is in with and under it all. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

But if you didn’t know anything about Jesus or this story and instead only listened to what many Christians in America say today, you could be forgiven for thinking the most important thing Christianity values is worldly power — the power to control and compel, to impose one’s will on others, to vanquish one’s enemies. Blessed are the politically powerful and the well connected, you might assume, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The birth and life of Jesus shatter this narrative. When this broken world became God’s dwelling place, God stepped into human clothing, into history and into the world barely without a ripple of notice, without protocol, without pretension, without the most basic of creature comforts. It was an entrance characterized not by privilege, comfort, public celebration or self-glorification; it was marked instead by lowliness, obscurity, humility, fragility.

What is shocking is not just that God came, but how God came, and what God means to teach us through becoming incarnate among us. The savior of the world is born to a poor peasant woman in an occupied country in an animal stall because they were homeless at the time of his birth.

The unchanging character of God praised by forests, oceans, and Jesus Christ is revealed in flesh and blood through power made perfect in weakness –as St. Paul said to the Christians of Corinth so long ago. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Most of us know we learn more in times of weakness rather than strength, in hardship rather than success. This is true for people of different faiths and people of no faith. It’s not that God intends for human weakness and suffering to be ends in themselves. Sometimes hardships and suffering simply overwhelm us and no good comes from them. But it’s also true that weakness can open the way for greater wisdom, self-reflection, and focus on what is essential rather than ephemeral.

“Our weakness finally opens our eyes to the need for a Savior. Nothing prevents that more than our strength. No one has ever said, ‘I was so successful I just had to come to Jesus.’” (Craig Barnes, Princeton Theological Seminary) Power understood through the prism of the incarnation is different from how the world generally understands power. It’s the difference between power over others, and the power of connecting with others, which requires us to be open and vulnerable.

Jesus continually turns the world upside down in regard to power, might, worldly success, and achievement. Jesus’ subversive challenges to human-crafted structures that oppress and bind others hold out hope that there is a third way — the Jesus way—that takes us beyond either/or and opens into both/and. This way of Jesus brings healing to individuals, communities and nations. (Pastor Renée Notkin,  Union Church Seattle)

“What the incarnation represents is God entering history not as the screenwriter of the drama but as an actor within it. Jesus is the suffering protagonist. No one thought it would start quite this way, an infant placed in a manger in a troubled corner of a troubled world. You would have thought he [that baby] would be among the most inconsequential individuals ever. You would have been wrong.” (Peter Wehner, Christmas Should Humble Us, NYT, 12/24/19)

We wonder at these things.  Scripture only says, ‘Mary treasured all the words people said about Jesus and pondered them in her heart’ (Luke 2:19). At the rail and the font, in scripture and in prayer, and wherever two are three are gathered in his name, we are midwives to the incarnation of grace God is bringing into being among us.

I leave you with a poem written by liturgical artist some of you know. Jan Richardson writes:

I cannot tell you how the light comes.

What I know is that it is more ancient than imagining.

That it travels across an astounding expanse to reach us.

That it loves searching out what is hidden, what is lost, what is forgotten or in peril or in pain.

That it has a fondness for the body, for finding its way toward the flesh, for tracing the edges of form, for shining forth through the eye, the hand, the heart.

I cannot tell you how the light comes, but that it does.

That it will.

That it works its way into the deepest dark that enfolds you, though it may seem long ages in coming or arrive in a shape you did not foresee.

And so, may we this day turn ourselves toward it.

May we lift our faces to let it find us.

May we bend our bodies to follow the arc it makes.

May we open and open more and open still to the blessed light

that comes.

(How The Light Comes, Jan Richardson, printed in Circle of Grace, p.59)

 

Advent 4A-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I hatched a plan to surprise my parents with a fresh cut Christmas tree. I think I imagined it to be a proud moment. I was all grown up. I was five years old. Had I been successful, I probably wouldn’t remember it so well.  Shame leaves an indelible imprint on the mind.

The details are sketchy. I have to fill the story in from family photos and things I’m told. My dad was getting a post-doctoral degree that year.  We were house-sitting for some professor and living in a grand old farmhouse in upstate New York. I remember rolling farmland, two barns, a nearby forest, and best of all, a playhouse the size of a small shed. I can just remember a plot of evergreens, three or four rows deep, planted in tight neat rows—the scene of the crime.

I picked a nice one. It was close to the house. I suppose it couldn’t have been much taller than I was.  I set to work.  I remember being surprised. It was hard work cutting down that tree. I stopped several times to rest. The next thing I remember is how my parent’s reacted. It was memorable but not for what I’d expected. They were not happy. They were horrified.  Rather than display it, they hid it. Rather than pride, I felt ashamed. My dad threw it out in the middle of the pond. It sat out there on the ice until Spring. I remember looking out at it from the living room window—right next to where we put up the other Christmas tree we had that year—the one we kept.

Like my five-year-old self, Joseph had other plans. Joseph expected to make his parents proud and prove he was all grown up. He was warmly regarded in the community. He was a righteous man. He learned a good trade. He was engaged to be married. Instead, he had a big mess on his hands.

Even today, it’s easy to imagine the stain of scandal buzzing around the small, mountain town of Nazareth. Joseph was in a bind. The woman to whom he was betrothed was pregnant. The townspeople were within their rights to throw rocks at her until she was dead. Mercifully Joseph quietly decided to divorce her.  Even so, the news would bring down heavy shame upon both their families.

Matthew doesn’t go into much detail about Joseph’s anguish.  However, in the Gospel of James, an extracanonical text from the 2nd century C.E, “we get a fuller, harsher picture of the carpenter’s pain.  When Joseph sees Mary’s swollen belly, he throws himself on the ground, strikes his own face, and cries bitterly.  He wonders long and hard how to respond, and asks Mary why she has betrayed both him and God so cruelly.”   (Debie Thomas)

In a jam like this we might raise our fist and shout, “Why me, Lord?”  What have I done to deserve this?  Joseph was right in the middle of a miracle yet it’s easy to understand why he would complain about it.  Harder to understand how Joseph was able to look past the pain of humiliation, shame, and broken dreams to take the angel Gabriel’s message to heart, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. The child she has conceived is from God. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:20 &21)

“Away in a Manger?” “Silent Night?” “Joy to the World?” The hymns we sing about the conception and birth of Jesus evoke such warm feelings and teary-eyed tenderness we forget what stress the Holy Family must have been under.

The psalms are full of the lament of the faithful searching for answers from God.  “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?” Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1).  “How long will your anger fume when your people pray?” (Psalm 80:4).  Its well known that Mother Teresa once had a profoundly vivid experience of the presence of Jesus as a young woman.  That vision was the beginning of her legendary ministry among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India.  Years later, near the end of her life, she was asked about it in an interview.  The reporter assumed she must have had many such experiences all through her amazing life.  Her answer was a surprise.  No, she said, it had happened only just that once –and never again.  Yet she had lived her entire life in faithfulness to that dream and that is why we honor her.

Joseph’s willingness to forsake conventional righteousness, ennobled him. That he changes direction overnight in a dark conversation makes him an Advent icon.  As Carl Jung might have said, Joseph was awakened by his dream. No careful tending of the embers of his prior ambitions could revive them.  As ephemeral as this new dream was, both Mary and Joseph proved willing to turn their lives inside out so that the urgent prayers of Israel could be answered by the birth of a baby whose name would be, “save”  (Suzanne, Suzanne Guthrie, At The Edge of the Enclosure, 2013).

Names were very important in that ancient world.  First, the angel says, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people.” The Hebrew name Jesus is the verb save. Jesus will save from sin and guilt.  Advent is being ready for the saving one who will come when we cannot save ourselves. (Walter Brueggeman)

But notice, the angel actually gave Joseph two names for the baby.  His second name is Emmanuel or, God is with us. It is the faith of the church that in Jesus God is decisively present in the world.  Scripture tells us that wherever Jesus comes, he shows up where people are in need.  Jesus saved lepers, the deaf, the blind, the lame, the hungry, the unclean, even the dead. His very presence makes new life possible, and the church consists in all the people who have been awakened to the reality of God who comes to be with us in this season of need and of joy –all through this miraculous baby, and this preposterous dream. (Walter Brueggeman)

Joseph had a dream and suddenly he was willing to look like a fool to his family and friends. Can we do that?  Shame leaves an indelible imprint on the mind. Avoiding it can be a powerful motivator. It easily becomes a barrier to grace taking shape in us. Joseph was willing to act upon the script of miracle and blessing rather than the script of shame and scarcity, and social convention.  Like Joseph, we are called to stand apart in order to stand for the whole—to give ourselves to God’s dreams for fallen people and this broken world regardless of what others may say—for God to call you blessed.

 

Easter Darkness

Advent 3A-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

December 15, 2019

John the Baptist paces back and forth in his narrow cell.  Imprisoned by King Herod, he questions how he lived his life.  Last Sunday John stood beside the Jordan preaching in the wilderness. He seemed so sure of himself. But now that he faces a stupid death, he’s not so sure.  He has doubts.

Jesus did great deeds of power in cities throughout Galilee, but John still wonders if and when God’s kingdom will come.  Meanwhile Jesus’ list of enemies continued to grow. “Look, [they said, this Jesus is] a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19).  Now John the Baptist whose very conception occasioned an angelic visit, who leapt in his mother’s womb at the first glimpse of a pregnant Mary sent word to ask Jesus, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3)   I’ve staked my entire life on you.  Has it all been for nothing?”

This is not the sort of faith story we like to tell—but I many of us, including me, has lived some version of it at one time or another. We like conversion stories that go straight “from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, from despair to joy.”  Yet, John’s story doesn’t follow this happy trajectory. It’s an anti-conversion story. “John’s journey is a backwards one. From certitude to doubt.  From boldness to hesitation.  From knowing to unknowing.  From heavenly light to jail cell darkness.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, “Has It All Been For Nothing?”, 12-8-19)

We might call it spiritual failure, or maybe faithlessness?  Backsliding?  We might get mad. Jesus doesn’t.  Jesus responds to his cousin’s pained question with composure, gentleness, and understanding. Life can be unfair. What was happening to John wasn’t fair.

The season of Advent teaches us it’s okay to doubt, question, even shake your fist at God –just as many of the psalms do. “On the evidence of our senses, despair is perfectly rational.  Entropy is built into nature.  Decay is knit into our flesh. By all appearances, the universe is cold, empty and indifferent…This leaves every human being with a choice between despair and longing.  Both are reasonable responses to a great mystery.” (Michael Gerson, Washington Post) Jesus has compassion for John. Despair is an understandable response to life’s worst cruelties.

Christians worship the Crucified One, so why do we have a hard time hanging in there with extreme doubt, despair, and suffering?  Somehow, we feel a need to blunt the edges.  To soften the blows.  To make God okay.  But this story is not “okay,” and many of our own stories aren’t okay either.  The prison bars that hold us don’t always give way.  Our doubts don’t always resolve themselves.  Justice doesn’t always arrive in time.  Questions don’t always receive the answers we hunger for. (Thomas)

To add icing on the cake, soon, Jesus’ mother and brothers will show up too, presumably wanting to question their problematic child and brother. Perhaps, they want to take him home and hide him away. How does Jesus answer? What did he say?

Jesus took John back to the bible.  He invited him to consider a different vision from within its pages about who the Messiah is.  In Christ, we see that God is a friend of the lost.  In Christ, we hear that God stands in the midst of our suffering.  God opposes injustice and evil.  God befriends us in the midst of whatever lostness we find ourselves. We are not alone with our pain. In Christ, God entered our world of darkness and death, and decisively filled it with light and life.

We heard in Mary’s song (the Magnificat), God has lifted up the lowly and brings low the mighty.  According to Matthew, the world turned with John the Baptist.  A new age of Christ had dawned.  Jesus is Emmanuel –God’s Wisdom come in the flesh.  There will be new duties and new commandments. The period of the Law and the Prophets was over.  The time of fulfillment is at hand.

Yet, for John, the dawning of this new age in Christ does not mean that he will be freed from prison.  Although John was there to herald Jesus’ beginning, he will not live to see Jesus’ end.  The victory won in Christ may be decisive, but often our deliverance is limited. How did John respond to Jesus’s answer?  Did it satisfy him?  Did it quell his doubts?  Did it renew his joy? We don’t know.

The pious stories of our youth feel more reliable, filled with ready-made answers. Yet these are not jagged enough for the world we actually live in.  “They’re too lukewarm, too clean, too polite.  They move to closure and triumph so quickly that they turn pain into an abstraction. They dull my capacity to practice genuine compassion, empathy, and longsuffering.  Where is the Christian story that can handle horror?  Where is the Christian story that will equip us to sit gently and patiently in the darkness with those who mourn, fear, rage, or doubt?” (Thomas) Well, they’re right here in our bible, in these readings of Advent.

St. Paul contrasts our present sufferings with future glory. In the epistle for this week James urges patience in suffering at least five times. The book of Hebrews honors all the saints who died “without having received what was promised.” The baby born in the barn will die a criminal death.  John’s death will be both tragic and capricious—a travesty of injustice.

Our readings this week all point to something John missed that is essential to the character of God.  “All five passages emphasize the people toward whom God is biased. These Scriptures describe at least eighteen — eighteen! — sorts of people in pain who might be forgotten by the world but who are nevertheless remembered by God: the blind, the lame, the diseased, the deaf, the dead, the poor, the dumb, the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the bowed down, foreigners, orphans, widows, the humble, and then, my three favorites, those with feeble hands, weak knees, and fearful hearts.” (Daniel Clendenin)

The message of both John and Jesus is a call to live according to the way of God and not the way of the world.  The way of God, it turns out, is to enter into, draw close, and patiently endure all the suffering and violence this world can dish out in order to show God’s peace, love and mercy. That’s how God is turning this old world inside out and upside down.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom,” promises Isaiah.  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” sings Mary, the expectant mother of Jesus.  This holy season of Advent invites us to honor doubt, despair, and silence as reasonable reactions to a broken world.  To create sacred space for grief, mourn freely, and rage against injustice.  To let joy be joy, sorrow be sorrow, horror be horror.  To feel deeply, because that’s exactly what God does.   (Thomas)

Advent 2A-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1).  With beautiful words the prophet Isaiah describes his vision of a future king, like David, who rules with “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (v 2). We lay on hands and say these words to affirm our baptism to become members of this church. In some small way that makes each of you an answer to Isaiah’s prayer. We are tasked with fulfilling Isaiah’s vision of nonviolence and social harmony, building communities where the wolf, the lamb, the leopard and the kid live together in peace.

Soon after Isaiah wrote these famous poetic words, the only thing that would remain real was the stump. The story begun in Eden continuing through Abraham, Sarah, Moses, King David and the Prophets came to an end. The temple soon fell into ruins. The people killed or carted off in chains, neither their time nor their bodies would be their own.  All was cut down, destroyed.

I am aware that I am grieving the decay of our civic life, the erosion of great institutions of government, education, and the church. I am anxious about the inability for all of us to agree even on basic facts. Yet nothing I am worried about today compares with the utter devastation people of faith have coped with in the past. It’s not that our worries and concerns aren’t legitimate and relevant.  But fortunately, we possess the wisdom of our ancestors to guide us through times of doubt or unknowing when it comes to faith.

It happens more than we care to admit. The sense of being stranded in the midst of life can be enough to drain a person’s self-worth. Where did the joy go? Where did the feeling of self-confidence disappear to in the midst of this emptiness? Just yesterday life was clear and vibrant. Today it is endlessly bleak. The darkness is unyielding. Nothing helps; nothing takes it away. There is no light here, we think. But we think wrong.

The Old Ones whisper, there is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate. “It is the glowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the ultimate truth of creation: that there is a God and we are not it. That is the light that shines in darkness.” (Sister Joan Chittister) 

Only the experience of our own darkness gives us the light we need to be of help to others whose journey into unknowing is just beginning. Without that, we are only words. We are false witnesses to the truth of what it means to be pressed to the ground and rise again.

The light we gain in darkness is faith. Faith is our light.  United Church of Christ pastor Mark Longhurst describes how both light and dark are essential for transformation. The light and the darkness are bound up with one another. Periods of seemingly fruitless darkness may in fact highlight all the ways we rob ourselves of wisdom by clinging to the light. Who grows by only looking on the bright side of things? It is only when we lose our certainties that we become able to see past false images of God to discover the grace operating beneath all our self-serving fantasies and fears. (Mark Longhurst, “Beyond Light Supremacy: Let There Be Light *and* Darkness,” Patheos, 10-11-19).

The terrible, disorienting experience of Exile opened the hearts of God’s people wide enough some of them became able to recognize the Messiah even when hanging on a cross. It made some of them ready to live into the radical reality of God’s ubiquitous grace.  One of them was John the Baptist. Like Isaiah, he also speaks to us today about a tree stump This time, it is God doing the chopping to make way for the kingdom. “Even now the axe is lying against the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10). What kind of kingdom you ask?  The peaceable kingdom, like the one Isaiah described.

“John planted himself in the middle of nowhere.  He set up shop in the wilderness, and anyone who wanted to hear what he had to say had to go to a lot of trouble to get there…” and not just trouble, but plenty of danger too.  (Barbara Brown Taylor) To hear him preach about repentance and baptism, a pilgrim from Jerusalem had to take that treacherous Jericho road, made famous in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  They had to trek through blazing desert, carrying all their own food and water, traversing hills and lonely canyons infested with bandits to Jericho and then beyond—to the wilderness beside the Jordan far away from everything.

Ask yourself.  Who would make such a journey?  Who would risk it?  Who would be so desperate?  Many who went out to see John had nothing left to lose. Their lives counted for very little.  They had lost hope in building a life for themselves. They went to the desert in search of a little peace. They returned to become midwives of a new creation of impossible possibilities.

Often God’s little ones are the first to hear the angels or to follow the leading star. The people who flocked to hear John the Baptist were people on the margins, outcasts, thieves, and sinners—and right behind them came a second group of people—those sent out to keep tabs on the people who lived on the margins, to be sure things didn’t get out of hand.

That sets the scene of our gospel today.  John announces the Lord’s coming.  He calls the religious leaders a brood of vipers. He speaks of fiery judgment, and of wrath to come.  Clearly, John the Baptist didn’t get the memo about wishing everyone a very merry Christmas.

John’s Baptism of fire is bad news to those in authority and anyone peddling Christmas like a commodity, but good news to the poor, the grieving, the victims of violence, those who suffer injustice, and anyone longing for the kingdom of God.

Isaiah’s dream and John’s baptism are impossibly good news for everyone.  Isaiah and John boldly declare God’s peaceable kingdom is closer than we realize. The old ways are passing away. Even now, God is bringing something new out of the old, making what was impossible possible.  A shoot is growing from the dead stump of Jesse.  Death gives way to life. John and Isaiah expose the upside-down dreams our so-called common sense is built on and awaken us being part of God’s dream for this world following the light God has placed deep within us, the light only darkness can reveal, the light we call faith.

Advent 1A-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The prophet Isaiah calls us, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that God may teach us God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” (Isaiah 2:3) Scripture tells of many mountains upon which people of faith draw nearer to God. Today marks a new year in our worship calendar told mostly by Matthew. Seeking God on the mountaintop is a recurring theme of Matthew’s gospel.

In my youth, there was one mountain that loomed over everything in Northern Colorado. At 14, 259 feet, Long’s Peak can be seen anywhere from Denver to Ft. Collins. Climbing that mountain always started around three in the morning.  We’d get in the car pre-loaded with food and gear the night before and drive three hours to reach the trail head by 6:00 AM. After signing in with the ranger, we’d start winding through silent forests of Pingree pine, Blue Spruce, and Aspen.  By about 9:30, we’d break from the trees, passing gnarled wind-twisted pines and stunted undergrowth, emerging onto the open tundra. “God’s country,” it’s called. It’s too high in elevation and too harsh for trees to grow, nevertheless life flourishes there.  With its delicate small flowers and silky grasses, it’s a world of miniatures in a land of giant geological structures that stretches for miles and hundreds of miles.

On top of Long’s Peak, six hours and 5,000 feet above your car, nearly a mile above the trailhead, ordinary lives are transformed.  Life is a party. Several people have been married on top of Long’s Peak.  In the mid-70’s, half of a 12-piece brass band assembled on the summit to play the Star-Spangled Banner, and Nearer My God to Thee.  Strangers celebrate together like old friends.

The day I was there, someone did a headstand to pose for a picture.  Another shot golf balls over the diamond face.  That day, we were entertained by a glider, piloted by someone who overcome a different set of obstacles, riding the winds that spiral above the mountains to carry his plane silently just over our heads.

Mountain tops are wonderful, enchanted places, where nothing seems out of place except the ordinary.  They are foreboding, majestic, even sacred places which lift our minds and spirits to God.  Mountain tops can be a place to feel the presence of God, a place of revelation, understanding, and light.  They would seem to be the perfect place for Advent.  A perfect place to stand watch for the coming of God.  Indeed, Jesus seem to love to pray and teach on mountaintops as a way to prepare himself and the disciples for what they would confront in the world.

As Jesus sat and spoke to the disciples in our gospel today, he is somewhere on the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron valley from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  The time and manner of his coronation as Lord and King remain unimaginable and largely unanticipated by his little band of followers.  The disciples still don’t know what’s about to hit them although Jesus already told them on three separate occasions.

Maybe we hoped we could avoid this.  We would rather not confront our pain, our shadowy selves, let alone all the suffering that exists in the world. We comfort ourselves with popular books based on bad theology about a rapture that is supposed to helicopter us out of this war zone—right?  A closer look at our gospel (Matthew 24) reveals the righteous remain to fight the good fight while the unrighteous were taken up in the flood.

The message of Advent is, “Wake up!”  The message of Matthew today is, “Keep watch!”  The call of the season is to recognize that we’re not paying attention to what really matters.  It is to confess that we are alive and yet dangerously asleep to what is real. God so loved the world that God sent the Son and now sends us to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace in the midst of a confusing and hopeless planet. Remember, Jesus walks with you.

In a sermon entitled, “The Face in the Sky,” Frederick Buechner describes God’s descent into the world in Christ as a kind of scandal — one that requires us to ponder the shocking unpredictability of God: “Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in the stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.”

Strong winds and blowing snow forced all the roads to Longs Peak trail to close today. But it is never impossible to take another day hike with Jesus. We walk beside Jesus into valleys of the shadow of death like frail, confused, and mortal angels shining the borrowed light of heaven upon our path.  We do not know the way to go.  Yet we remain confident knowing the end of our journey will always return to our beginning in God.

Advent wants to shake us out of our complacency, out of our cynicism, out of prejudice, ideologies and learned expectations –all the things that keep us from seeing things new and fresh as they really are. As St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “…you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…” (Romans 13:11, 12a).

Remember the mountaintop.  Remember that you are mine.  Remember the fellowship you experienced with strangers, for you are all my children. Remember the feast of joy prepared for you at the heavenly banquet. Always remember that you belong to the kingdom of God as you follow my way of the cross. As a child, we journeyed to the mountaintop from far below on the plains.  Our spiritual journey runs in the opposite direction.  It begins in our home on God’s holy mountain and continues into the world God so passionately loves.