Easter 5B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Remember this hat? I can hear some of you groan even through cyberspace. Years ago, I wore this hat at the Easter Vigil and for all the Sundays of Easter. People say it makes me look like the apple in fruit-of the loom commercials. This fez-style hat is hand-made. It was a gift from Cantor Scott Wiedler. Scott brought it from Ethiopia in 2007. The processional cross on the altar today, and other things like the colorful umbrella we use at the Vigil, and a few liturgical dance moves we learned, also come from Scott.

Today is Easter in the Orthodox church. This hat would be worn by priests as a festival garment. The Ethiopian church traces its origin to the story of Phillip and the eunuch whom we read about today. It is among the oldest Christian traditions on the continent of Africa –or on any continent for that matter.

Not five blocks from here, worshippers, including my son Mehari, celebrated the resurrection at St. Mary’s Eritrean Orthodox church. If you visit there, as I have, you would not recognize the order of service, or understand the language, or any of the hymns, yet you would know with an overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude, that we are connected by faith in Christ. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5a). We are joined together in mystical communion to the One Vine giving life to all.

By all outward appearances, a vine is a tangled mess, an interwoven web. From one end to the other, it is not clear how one branch ends, and another begins. Like a vine, the church stretches across the world and throughout time. Connections made long ago, are forgotten, hidden behind the veil of history, visible now, only to God. What connects us is faith. The common denominator is the courage to trust in the holy spirit. The Ethiopian trusts Phillip to teach him and to baptize him. Phillip trusts the grace of God to set aside everything he had internalized as a child that would exclude foreigners, outsiders, especially sexually non-conforming people and embraces him as a brother, a beloved child of God. The communal life envisioned in the Vine of Christ raises a strong challenge to contemporary Western models of individual autonomy and privatism. The community God intends for us makes no distinction among race, gender, social status, or place of origin.
How much do you know about vines? The prophet Hosea described Israel as a “luxuriant vine” (Hosea 10:1). During the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 A.D., that ended with the death of the last hold outs on the rocky fortress called Masada in 73 A.D., the national symbol affixed to coins and emblazoned upon flags was the image of a vine. Our ancestors knew about vines. Jesus pointed to this familiar religious image and filled it with new spiritual wine. “I am the true vine,” Jesus said. (John 15:1).

The little I know comes from tour guides. The vineyards of Baja, Mexico run for miles along river valleys that gently rise inland from the coast into the shallow hills. The soil is hard and brown. The heat is uncomfortable and intense during the day. But at night, the cool winds off the water bring fingers of fog up the valleys. They cover the vineyards like a cool, moist blanket.

Row upon row of vines stretch across the valley, turning the normally brown dusty soil into carpets of green. I was told, however, that once the growing season ends, the verdant branches are pruned back to almost nothing and the land returns to brown. The vines are reduced to mere stumps that look as if they will never again produce anything. But every year, as they have for hundreds of years, the growth is returns –branches, leaves, and grapes that almost pull the branches to the ground with the weight of juice in them.

Sometimes we count our loses and not our blessings and lose perspective at how much potential for growth God has stored up in us. I read this week the average human life span doubled, from 41 to 80 years, just since 1920. For most of human history, the average lifespan was even shorter, just 35 years. I wonder, would our ancestors want to know, what shall we do with the two, wild, lifetimes that we have been given? Might we somehow close the gap in lifespan between those in Streeterville, who live on average to 90, and their neighbors nine miles south in Englewood who only live on average to 60? God’s garden is big. God’s people are connected. We all do better when we all live better.

In our gospel today, the disciples and the budding Christian community are about to be pruned. They don’t know it yet, but Jesus will be taken from them. It will feel like their heart is being cut out. Everything they worked and dreamed about is done. Their hope will seem lost. But in three days, after the resurrection, the young community will rise again. They will grow back, larger, stronger, and better than before—the first fruits from the new body of Christ. Alleluia. Christ is risen! (R)

Of course, what seems like no big deal to do to plants is another thing entirely when it is done to us. We certainly have been pruned this past year—and the process of reducing and holding back is not quite finished yet. Our hopes for re-opening and mingled with our prayers for brothers and sisters in India, and South America, throughout the world, and in nearby hospitals coping with the full force of Covid-19. We are connected.

I do not say the pandemic is God’s will. Yet I draw hope and inspiration from the fact that God can bring fine wine from flinty soil. God can coax blessing out from the most tragic of events. God breathes new vitality into tired lives. We draw sustenance from the source of life that is in Christ Jesus.

St. Mary’s is quiet this morning. The doors are locked. Everyone has gone home to their bed. Easter worship began last night at sundown and finished up at about 3:00 o’clock this morning. The peaceful exhaustion that follows Holy Week has just now begun. We know what they’re feeling. We recognize the pattern because Christ’s church is a community connected to the living Word through water and wine. We are nourished by God through faith in Christ. We are called into being in the world for the world. As Jesus broke bread, so we are broken and pruned for others; as Jesus poured out the fruit of the vine, so we are poured out for the benefit of all. As Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them, so we welcome one another and people throughout the world whom Jesus has made one with us as part of the One Vine.

Easter 3B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

He showed them his hands and his feet (Luke 24:40). He showed them his wounds. When Luke and John tell us, Jesus invited the disciples to touch and to see him, it wasn’t merely to identify him as the same person. It was a way to ratify the gospel message.  In life, Jesus proclaimed the kindom of God in words and deeds. After rising from tomb, he taught them the meaning of resurrection in flesh and bone. Yes.  Violence has consequences. It scars and wounds us. Yet truly, goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than shadow; life is stronger than death (ELW #721).  Violence, torture, and even death on a cross cannot erase the life we share in God.

Jesus proclaimed the good news in flesh and bone. Today’s gospel is astonishingly intimate. Our bodies tell a story –don’t they? One which we are quick to cover up and ignore. Many of us feel more comfortable imagining ourselves before St. Peter at the Pearly Gates than standing in front of a full-length mirror. Each successive year adds to the record of the pluses and minuses that somehow add up exactly to who you are now. Jesus, wounded yet living, proclaims that our poor flesh is not shameful but is the dwelling place of God. God with us, our mistakes become “experience.”  God in us, our scars can become a source of compassion and wisdom.  And we are scarred—aren’t we?  Our bodies testify to all the ways we have been wounded, if we would listen, in body, mind, heart, and soul.

This makes Christianity unique among religions by its portrayal of God as one who bears wounds, like us. “We become forgetful that Jesus is the prophet of the losers not the victors camp, the one who proclaims that the first will be last, that the weak are the strong and the fools are the wise” ( Malcolm Muggeridge). To those most afflicted, whether by slavery, by war, by famine, injustice, racism, or hypocrisy—this fact has always been a source of the most profound hope.

In the midst of WWI, pastor Edward Shillito’s poem pays homage to “Jesus of the Scars.” He wrote, “The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak; They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone” (Edward Shillito,1872-1948).

Like our bodies, faith must be nourished. It cannot be stockpiled but requires daily a pattern of replenishment. The answer to someone’s hunger is not to ask why they are hungry. Nor is the answer to doubt a question about why they cannot believe. The answer is food. The answer is Jesus’ real presence in flesh and blood. When our stomachs are rumbling, when faced with the lingering fear wrought from trauma and violence, time is not always a healer. Our deepest wounds can take decades to fade without gospel medicine, the bread of life and living water to restore us in body, mind, heart, and soul. This is what Jesus in flesh and bone means to us at Easter.

When faced with trauma, some people manage to emerge stronger than ever. How do they manage it?  Marie (not her real name), a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, should expect to endure a life of avoidance and anguish due to her experience of violence and trauma. When Marie was 16, a group of militiamen came to her village, killed her family and many of their neighbors, and took her as a slave into the forest. She was assaulted continuously for weeks, before one of the soldiers took pity on her and led to the Rwandan border. From there she found her way to the capital, Kigali, and eventually by plane to Turkey.

At first, she slept on the street, then in a center run by the Turkish government. She was taken to hospital, where she discovered she was four months pregnant. She regularly hallucinated about her mother, and she had severe PTSD: “I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I was very scared. I couldn’t stay five minutes on my own. I couldn’t be in the dark because I would see the soldiers in my mind and all that they did to me. I was afraid of men. In a bus I couldn’t be near them. I didn’t even want to sit next to a beautiful woman. I’d rather sit next to a veiled woman so no one would look at us.”

Marie ended up at The Center for Behavior Research and Therapy in Istanbul. She found new friends who encouraged her to sit on buses, to walk in the street, to sleep in the dark. They watched documentaries about sexual assault.  Victims of torture say the healing begins when we can show one another, our trusted friends, our wounds.

Marie is much better now. Although she avoids eye contact and twists her hands together when she describes what happened, she is no longer trying to hide from life. She has started working in a hair salon.

Resilience and recovery do not require extraordinary resources or an innate toughness. It doesn’t require us to ‘just get over it,’ or somehow diminish the horror of what happened.  It comes with help when we show our wounds and let them tell their story in all honesty. It comes with a recognition that the future doesn’t have to be determined by the past. It comes with awareness that there is something which can never be destroyed or erased that is meaningful and purposeful about our life.

The Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, during his internment in Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps during World War II, helped his fellow prisoners endure the horror around them by getting them to focus on the lives they might lead after the war – the work they would do, or the nurturing of their children. In his most famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, first published in 1946, he observed that prisoners who lost faith in the future lost their “spiritual hold” on themselves, and quickly declined mentally and physically. (Michael Bond, “The secrets of extraordinary survivors,” BBC, 8/14/15)

Faith in the future, confidence that we are loved, knowledge that our dignity as human beings is indelible, and the realization that we do not bear our grief and suffering alone but that God is with us and suffers too, that God can heal our wounds and transform them into something like wisdom –this is the essence of Easter.

I am heartsick this week at hearing about guns in America. As of April 16th, there have already been 147 mass shootings, and 11 mass murders. (Daniel Victor and Derrick Bryson Taylor, “A Partial List of Mass Shootings in the United States in 2021,” NYT, 4/16/21) Since testimony in Derek Chauvin’s trial began on March 29, more than three people a day have died at the hands of law enforcement, at least 64 people nationwide, with Black and Latino people representing more than half of the dead.” (John Eligon and Shawn Hubler, “Throughout Trial Over George Floyd’s Death, Killings by Police Mount,” The New York Times, 4/17/18) We cannot be healed of our affliction of violence and death while we cover our wounds and pretend that they are not happening. We must honestly reckon with the toll in flesh and blood.

During his ministry, Jesus healed so many wounded people. On Easter evening, Jesus was the one with wounds. The disciples had witnessed Jesus restoring the sight of many blind people. Now they were the ones called to open their eyes. Jesus had touched and ministered to the unclean, often breaking the Sabbath and purification rules. Now the disciples were asked to break the rules—to touch this convicted and executed criminal. Jesus says to them, “Touch me and see.” The disciples are invited to begin a new community where we acknowledge that we all are wounded, that we are both righteous and unrighteous, Yet, by our wounds, we may also be healed. Thanks be to God!

Easter 2B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Lutheran pastor and historian, Martin Marty, recalls a story of a summer day in his boyhood town of West Point, Nebraska, when one of those grand miracles of childhood occurred. A watermelon truck flipped over right in front of his house.  The driver was not injured. He jumped out to watch helplessly as neighborhood kids from everywhere raced to the scene of that blessed event and dove into the spilled cargo for a sticky picnic on the pavement.  Right in front of Marty’s house!

That was the good news.  The bad news was that he was out of town that day visiting his grandmother.  Alas. Life is like that sometimes. We happen to be where the action isn’t.  While other kids are there to catch the bouncing watermelons, we’re miles away.

And so it was, for the disciple Thomas –same as for you and me—and just about every other Christian who has ever lived.  We were not in the tomb where it happened. We missed Jesus’ party with the disciples on Easter night. So, like Thomas perhaps, we too have a hard time reconciling the Easter story with our own understanding of the way the world works. Like Thomas, we lament, if only Jesus would appear to us then our questions would be answered, then we could have faith, then we’d really believe –right?  Thomas was emphatic, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails in his hands, and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 19: 25b).

Well, one lesson we could take from today’s gospel is, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ When the moment finally comes, Thomas doesn’t insist on any of these things.  His response is one part contrition and one part exclamation, “My Lord, and my God!” (vs. 28). Why? Could it be in that moment, Thomas realized Jesus’ resurrection was not merely about what happened to Jesus?

The Christian claim has always been far more radical.  The Easter story is about our own resurrection from the dead. “It is saying that we also are larger than life, Being Itself, and therefore made for something good, united, and beautiful…The problem is not that you have a body; the problem is that you think you are separate from others—and from God. And you are not!” (Richard Rohr)

Jesus, whom they betrayed, did not return with vengeance, but peace, shalom, oneness, reconciliation, and unity with the undying life of God.  Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (vs. 22). The word is ‘emphusao.’  It’s the same word used in Genesis (chapter 2). God breathed life into the nostrils of the earth-man and he became a living being. It’s the same word used in Ezekiel 37. God breathed life into the dry bones of Israel so that they returned to life and stood on their feet a vast multitude.  This Easter story is Pentecost and creation rolled into one.

John invites us to face our doubts, speak our fears, and yearn for more. Thanks to the story of Thomas, we’re invited to say the “heretical” things we might very well feel as we descend from the mountaintop of Easter to look for the risen Christ in the midst of the world.

Jesus gives permission to learn wisdom and humility from our doubts, questions, and failings, and not just to repress them out of fear. To reach the goal of Christian maturity it will be necessary for us to be immature. (Little Arabella, who will be baptized today, didn’t hear that.) God is an expert at working with mistakes and failure. In fact, that is about all God does. Mistakes do not seem to be a problem for God; they are only a problem for our ego that wants to be perfect and self-sufficient. We first tend to do things wrong before we even know what right feels like. I am not sure there is any other way. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation series on Human Bodies)

Jesus pointed to his wounds and said, “see, as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Show me your wounds, Jesus says, and I will show you your strengths.  Show me your love of others and I will show you the fruits of the kin-dom of God. One of the great ironies in the history of Christianity is that Jesus came with the gift of peace and proclaimed a gospel of love with authority over Caesar. Yet, somehow, over and over again, we have made our Lord Jesus into a kind of Caesar who rules from a distant throne, who heaps misery upon those who question, and withholds grace from those who fail him.

But look, God answers with a blessed event unfolding now like an overturned truck filled with watermelons!  We testify “…to what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life –so that you may have fellowship with us” (1 John 1:1).  We testify to what Thomas and the first Christians learned at Easter that every Christian is an eyewitnesses to the resurrection.

One of those eyewitnesses of the resurrection, is Julian of Norwich [1343–c. 1416].  She lived her entire life during a raging pandemic, the bubonic plague. Despite being ignored because she was a woman, she found her voice. She is credited with writing the first book in English by a woman. Today her works are influential among theologians and the faithful alike.  Julian taught that each of our lives is part of a glorious whole. Each life, so miniscule in and of itself, is connected to the vast web of life held in being by God.  A watermelon truck of grace is spilled out before us.

Julian wrote, “God is within us, at home, patiently and kindly awaiting our recognition. As Maker of all, God is in everything, present in all places and at all times…All those who are on the spiritual path contain the whole of creation, and the Creator. That is because God is inside us, and inside God is everything. And so, whoever loves God loves all that is.”  (The Showings of Julian of Norwich: A New Translation, Mirabai Starr (Hampton Roads: 2013), 23–24.

Christ is here and we are witnesses.  Christ is here at the font. Christ is here at the table.  Christ is alive in our questions. Jesus is among us now.  We see Christ in each other, and especially, in the poor, the stranger and the outsider.  Christ is not dead but lives when we speak the truth of our differences in love, taking care to strengthen the body of Christ and not to tear it down.  In Christ we become wounded healers.  Christ unlocks the doors closed by fear and leads us out. He spreads a banquet before us –a joyful surprise—like a feast of watermelon poured out at our feet. Enjoy!

Easter B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I have Easter morning memories of wicker-woven baskets lined with fluorescent green plastic grass and princess pony purple paper, colorful foil-wrapped chocolate eggs and bunnies, oh-my-God yellow marshmallow chicks and jellybeans. It was fun making hand-dyed, hard boiled eggs, as is hiding the plastic ones for egg hunts. There were fancy new clothes at Easter, especially for mom and my sisters, and a big holiday meal, featuring ham, lamb, or turkey—or, sometimes, all three.

Easter has always been a bit over the top. Easter isn’t embarrassed to show its pre-Christian roots celebrating the Spring Equinox, and joyful commemorations of the passing of winter, and of the miracle of fertility as evidenced by the blooming of flowers, buds on the trees, and baby bunnies—lots of bunnies!
But Easter has also always been about something more. There is another, deeper meaning of Easter not made for children’s ears or mass consumer consumption. It is harder to swallow than a fist full of jellybeans. Easter is by definition, unsettling, disruptive, and messy.

All four gospels follow the women as they go to the tomb early Easter morning. They expect to find a body. Instead, they find an empty tomb and an outrageous message. Christ is risen. (He is risen, indeed, alleluia). Yet they are not overjoyed but filled with fear. Trembling and bewildered, Mark’s gospel tells us they “fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8)

The fact that we are gathered here, two thousand years later, is evidence that eventually they in fact tell someone. Yet “Mark’s ending points to a truth that often gets lost in the celebration: Easter is a frightening prospect. For the women, the only thing more terrifying than a world with Jesus dead was one in which he was alive.” (Esau McCaulley, The Unsettling Power of Easter, The New York Times, 4/02/21)

It would be easier to be left alone in our grief. Anti-Black racism; the anti-Asian racism; the anti-Trans phobia; the struggles of families throughout the world fleeing war, poverty, and disease; the rising body count after a mass shooting, the looming threat of mass-extinction; the collective shrug of indifference to all this pain and suffering because we are too addicted to our guns, and our violence, and our fluorescent green plastic grass is familiar, predictable. Keep your mouth shut, your doors locked and your eyes closed. Get what you can for as long as you can. Drown out the world with Netflix and alcohol and the whatever the next big consumer event on the calendar is.

We put it all in a tomb that contains our dead hopes and dreams for what our families, our neighborhood, our church, or the country could be. We are left with only our tears. We know how to walk with the women to the grave. They were not looking for hope. They wanted a quiet place to comfort one another in their grief and despair. “The terrifying prospect of Easter is that God called these women to return to the same world that crucified Jesus with a very dangerous gift: hope in the power of God, the unending reservoir of forgiveness and an abundance of love. It would make them seem like fools. Who could believe such a thing? Christians, at their best, are the fools who dare believe in God’s power to call dead things to life.” (McCaulley)

That is the testimony of the church still here after two thousand years. It’s not that we have good music (we do), or stirring liturgy (we do), or a tradition of good preaching (we do). The testimony of the church is that “in times of deep crisis we somehow become more than our collective ability. We become a source of hope that did not originate in ourselves.” (McCaulley)

We are beyond ready to return to a post-pandemic world of parties, nightlife, large venue gatherings, and rejoicing. It’s true. Parties have their place. But let’s not forget what this year has taught us in vivid detail. We will return to a world of hatred, cruelty, division and a thirst for power that was never quarantined. The unsettling power of Easter has rolled away the stone, opened our eyes, our minds, and hearts. It must open our hands, our wallets, and our calendars too.

If there is one thing today’s strange gospel story should teach us, it is that it is okay to be afraid. Fear is an enemy to faith, but God seems not to judge us too harshly for it. Fear is an almost constant theme throughout the gospels. Peter walks on water beside Jesus, until fear sent him sinking beneath the waves (Matthew 14:29). Out of fear, the disciples fail to recognize Jesus’ authority over the storming wind and waters, (4:40-41). Peter suggested they build booths on the mountain of Christ’s transfiguration out of fear (9:6). Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death elicited much fear and consternation (9:32). In all cases, fear isolates the disciples from Jesus. Fear gets in the way of God’s plan for them and for us. In the silence of the empty tomb, the theme of human failure in Mark’s gospel is complete. The religious authorities, the people of Jesus’ hometown, the disciples, the crowds, the Roman authorities, and even the women, all fail him. (R. Alan Culpepper, Mark). The hostility that put Jesus on the cross reduced them all to flight and fearful silence.

Scholars say, Mark wrote this gospel for a church that was small, and on the margins, feeling expendable, and suffering some form of religious and economic persecution. The message that God triumphed in Christ despite the failures of the first disciples must have come as quite a relief. God can bring faith even out of human weakness, fear, and failure. Perhaps that’s what’s most unsettling about Easter. We must die to ourselves in a death like his in order to be born again into a life like his.

“The mystery of the cross teaches us how to stand against hate without becoming hate, how to oppose evil without becoming evil ourselves. We find ourselves stretching in both directions—toward God’s goodness and also toward recognition of our own complicity in evil. In that moment, we will feel crucified. We hang in between, without resolution, our very life a paradox held in hope by God (see Romans 8:23–25).” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, 3/30/21). Easter issues this post-pandemic challenge. Freed from death and the power of death, freed from fear, daring to hope, see, we are the fools who dare believe and know, God has power to call dead things to life.

Passion Sunday, Cycle B
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Where do we stand? Where do you line up? Can you see yourself parading with the peace marchers who threw their garments on the ground and waved palm branches in the air striding into Jerusalem through the East gate? They shouted Hosanna! It means, ‘Lord save us!” (Mark 11:9)
Or perhaps could you picture yourself on the other side of town at that other larger and more organized parade scholars tell us rode into Jerusalem that day by the West gate, the one celebrating the power of Empire, and the mighty spectacle of military hardware, human ingenuity, order, and discipline represented by the Roman army? They were like so many who crowd the lakeshore at the Air and Water show here in Chicago.
Or perhaps, you can see yourself lining up with that other crowd of religious nationalists and cynics who found fellowship with each other in heaping scorn upon a scapegoat. Finding someone to blame for all their troubles, they shouted, “crucify him.” (Mark 15:13) Or are we like Simon of Cyrene, compelled into service, somehow, almost by accident, we became part of this story through no decision or desire of our own? (Mark 15:21)
Or perhaps, you see yourself lining up with that battle-hardened, world-weary Centurion standing at the foot of the cross, who declared, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39) The bible doesn’t say. I wonder, what did that Centurion see that no one else did? Some say the Centurion was merely being satirical and ironic rather than faithful.
The peace march, and the military parade, the self-righteous, and the accidental tourist, both the faithful and the cynical confessor –I confess, I have played them all. I have visited all these places. Whether by commission or omission, I have marched in all these parades.
But Mark seems to say something we haven’t thought of. Mark seems to see us standing, not among the living, but among the dead. He tells us the curtain in the temple was torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death. Literally, the realms of heaven and earth are now joined together. The undying life of God now lays in, with, and under, all that is. So that even the sky could see and mourn the tragedy of Jesus’ death.
We are like poor Lazarus stumbling out from his tomb, called from darkness into the light. Freed from death we would yet close our eyes. We long to lay down again in the cold comfort of our graves, but for the call of the Lord of Life, who now stands with the crucified, the bloodied, the brutalized, the betrayed, the executed, the lynched, the refugee, the suffering, the afflicted, the poor. God with us. We stand with Jesus, who emptied himself and took the form of a slave, even to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Philippians 2: 6-8) Our parade follows the winding way of Jesus and his cross, so that, like him, our weakness may become our strength, our emptiness a fountain of abundance, our unknowing a source of wisdom, our very mortality a gateway to eternal life.
  This Thursday, March 25th, was the anniversary of my baptism. Some of you will remember I didn’t always know the day that I was baptized, or the place, or even (briefly) I worried whether I was baptized at all —until we undertook a baptismal project here at Immanuel some years ago. I had to do some sleuthing.
March 25th is significant for another less personal reason. Nine months before Christmas, in which the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would give birth to the Son of God, it is a festival day, the Annunciation of Our Lord. The ancient church believed that this was also the date of the world’s creation and of Jesus’ death on the cross. March 25 was marked as New Year’s Day in many pre-modern Christian countries.
Christmas and the cross go together. In Mark’s gospel, the cross, like the day of Christ’s birth, is a sign of the incarnation. I was marked with the sign of this cross at my baptism, as you were. We would be mere clay and ash but for the breath God breathed into us. Where do we stand? We stand with Jesus. Where do you line up? We line up behind the Lord. Stand beneath the warm gaze of God to be healed. The cross shouts once and for all, stop striving and trying and planning to make yourself better and stronger. Try instead this other plan. Let love draw you. Let fellowship with Christ elevate you. Let the undying life of God fill you. To God be given praise.

Fourth Sunday in Lent – cycle B
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

One of the matriarchs of Immanuel, Ellen Breting, told me several years ago, she used to carry snakes around in a basket as a child. I’ve always shied away from snakes. I take comfort in the fact snakes want to avoid me almost as much as I want to avoid them.

Only 400 of the known 3,000 snakes are poisonous. And the venom can lead to death. More people are killed by bee stings than by snake bites, but that statistic doesn’t stop most of us from having an almost primordial fear of them. A Harris Poll (1999) found nearly 40 percent of Americans listed snakes as the thing they feared most. People are more afraid of snakes than they are of public speaking and spiders! Are you one of them?

You remember the scheming serpent Adam and Eve Encountered in the Garden of Eden. But what about this bizarre, mysterious and fascinating story about Moses, the Israelites, and the poisonous serpents that bit them? Slavery in Egypt is behind them. Somewhere in the middle of their 40-year sojourn to the promised land the people were forced to back track. They had to make a lengthy detour around the territory of Edom rather than go through it. They were already tired and impatient—literally, “short of soul.” This was too much.

So, they complained their usual complaint to Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” (Numbers21:5b). ‘There is no food and no water. We’re sick of this miserable food.”

When they were starving, manna was heaven-sent. But the people were fed up eating manna cakes every day. Vegetarian manna stew, manna and quinoa loaf. It was much too much. “Like us—when things don’t go our way, when patience runs thin, when gratitude is scarce, and when the past is idealized—they grumble. They whine. They complain. The King James Bible says: they murmur!” (Rev. Craig Mueller, “Antivenom,” 4/7/18) Things were so much better back in Egypt, they murmur. Sure, we were slaves, but the food was delicious. So, the people went to Moses to have it out with him. Seeing no end in sight, they fear they will die in the wilderness.

The saying goes, every church, even to this very day, has a back-to-Egypt committee. We all take turns serving on that one. Sometimes, we just want things to go back to the way things were rather than expose ourselves the slings and arrows of the unknown future. So, God answered their murmuring with poisonous snakes. The snakes bit the people back to their senses. And some of them died. Yet it gets the people’s attention, and they repent.

They return to God seeking healing and forgiveness. And God provides a very strange and shocking remedy. Not snake bait, or an exterminator, not even a snake charmer! But an antivenom. The snakes still exist and they continue to bite people, but now, they do not die. God told Moses to make a brass serpent and lift it up on a pole. The snakes are the result of the people’s disobedience and sin. But the snake-on-the-stick is the means to their healing and salvation. They would look at it and live.
If you’re wondering what in the world is antivenom? Snake venom is injected in mammals such as horses, sheep or rabbits. These animals have an immune response that naturally generates antibodies against the venom. The antivenom is harvested from the blood of the animal and stored to treat snake bite victims.
Antivenom. The cure for snakes is a snake. Amazing. As one preacher (Barbara Brown Taylor) said, Moses takes the very source of the people’s fear, their rebellion, and their death. Pulls it up from beneath their feet and puts it on a pole for the people to look at.

Strange story. Yet this is the story Jesus tells the late-night Rabbi, Nicodemus, to explain himself when he came asking about who Jesus is. Jesus said, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him might have eternal life” (John 3:14). Jesus is the antivenom. Jesus takes the poison of this world and gives it back for healing.

In the desert, God simultaneously taught the people about their sin and about God’s grace. The problem and the solution came in the form of the same bronze serpent. Pastor and author Max Lucado says, “To see sin without grace is to despair. To see grace without sin is arrogance. To see them in tandem is conversion.” In the fiery serpent, just as in the cross, sin and grace are combined into one symbol. Jesus, our holy serpent, lifted upon the cross, draws us out from the darkness of our hearts and minds. Jesus will crush underfoot and replace the powers and principalities that rule this age with the air and light and grace of the Kindom of God.

In John’s gospel Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We are comfortable and familiar with this idea. It is Jesus, after all, who gently, patiently, and tirelessly sought us out though we were lost. Yet, for John, Jesus is also the antivenom who meets us in the unseen depths of our hearts and minds. Jesus, our Immanuel, comes among us, slithering into our delusions of self-sufficiency, into our fears, our hatred, our love of violence. Out of his mouth come words that cut like a sword, venomous, prophetic words. They bite and threaten our delusions in order to heal us.

Almost as a reflex, we reach for a club or pole to beat him to death. And yet, by that very pole God lifts him up, raises him toward heaven, exalts him above all other creatures. God delivered us from destruction. Jesus is lifted up on the cross. Jesus is lifted up from the grave. Jesus is lifted up at the ascension and we are lifted up with him.

The poisonous, prophetic Word of Jesus is our anti-venom, our antidote for sin. Jesus takes us by the hand and leads us out of the heart of human darkness. Jesus shined a light upon our path to leads us out of our lostness. Now, we, together with all who meant to kill him, standing at the foot of the pole meant to destroy him, look up and say, ‘Truly this man is the Son of God.’ Lift up your hearts. We lift them to the Lord. We are lifted up. Thanks be to God!

The daily newspaper chronicles our will to death and darkness –political corruption, violence as media entertainment, corporate greed, religious wars, and the extinction of countless species of living things. But “…God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Like the bronze serpents of old, Jesus uncoils our fears, cleanses our hearts, is remaking us and our world from the inside out. This is grace. Amazing grace. This is life. Eternal life, beginning now and stretching into forever. This now is our mission. Alive and at work with Jesus to lead all people out from darkness into light, from hatred into mutual love, from judgment into mercy, from death into life. Amen.

Lent 3B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The Monday before last the U.S. surpassed 500,000 deaths due to Covid-19. One out of 670 Americans has died of the virus. One in three Americans has lost someone they knew. We lost sisters, children, husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, in-laws, neighbors, colleagues, teammates, and friends. The bereaved are doubly trapped in the pandemic and in their grief. How do we grieve such an immense loss of life?

In Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities and churches, the need is especially acute. COVID has claimed lives at twice the rate as white Americans. The National Center for Health Statistics reported that life expectancy in the United States “fell by a full year during the first half of 2020, a staggering decline that reflects the toll of the covid-19 pandemic as well as a rise in deaths from drug overdoses, heart attacks, and diseases that accompanied the outbreak.” Black Americans have lost 2.7 years of life expectancy, and Latinos have lost 1.9. White life expectancy fell by almost 10 months (0.8 years). (Adam Russell Taylor, Sojourners, 2/25/21)

Our varied experiences expose the inequities baked into our society. If we think of the Ten Commandments as a scale that perfectly balances between love of God and love of neighbor, we quickly see how out of whack the status quo is –not only for people of color in our culture, but for those who are oppressed around the world, and also for the non-human life we call nature.

In the temple Jesus fashioned a whip of cords. He scattered the coins of the money changers and knocked over their tables. He told the dove dealers, sheep sellers, and cattle wranglers to get out! Jesus made a scene. It wasn’t like disrupting the pancake breakfast or the Christmas bazaar fundraiser. Jesus overturned the workings of the temple itself. In our grief, we have in Jesus one who listens, and mourns with us and also one who fights and struggles with us for a better world.

St. Augustine wrote that Hope has two beautiful daughters: Anger, so that what must not be cannot be; and Courage, so that what can be will be. More than many emotions, anger shows what you really care about. Anger, like that of Jesus in the temple, can bring about change. Anger re-negotiates boundaries. Cold anger, emptied of violence and aggression, is empathetic, powerful, and creative.

We understate the story when we say Jesus merely “cleansed” the temple. Rather, he created an alternative to the Jerusalem temple that is in, with and for us all. The mighty and glorious temple of Jerusalem became the temple of his body—not limited to any specific geographical place or time. This new temple is not a building but a way of life. We have become a temple of Living Stones –of the Word and for the world, but also transcending the world.

This pandemic year has shown us the truth of this. Unable to be together in our house of worship we remain joined in Spirit, knit together in mutual bonds of love, which are the sinew and bone of Christ’s body (1 Peter 2:5).

The Jerusalem temple functioned through animal sacrifice. Like communion or baptism, the faithful made peace with God to be reconciled and account for sin through the sacrifice of innocent, unblemished, animals. Money changers were necessary so people could buy these animals with the coins of their homeland which often bore craven images of foreign kings and local gods. The money changers exchanged these coins for shekels minted by Jewish authorities. It was legitimate work, but the system wasn’t working. It needed reform. I wonder, what would Jesus want to change about the church today?

Lent is an invitation to have a conversation with grief, in all its expressions. Jesus shows us that grief is part of the human experience. Scripture says that Jesus was a man of many sorrows. He was acquainted with our grief. Jesus wept. He was rejected. He was betrayed by friends. He grieved over systemic and relational brokenness. To follow Jesus is to learn that even beautiful sacred things can become burdens and barriers to God’s grace.

One of the gifts of Lent is the encouragement that Jesus gets it. We are not alone; we are not unseen in our grief and in our suffering of injustice. You are embraced by God in the temple of your own body. Heaven and earth are joined together in the quiet interior space of your soul. It is a temple not made with hands that is amplified and expanded in color and textures as we circle together in Christ’s name. This Lent, while we learn to listen through prayers without words on Wednesday evenings, we add to our personal prayer playbook to find both comfort and courage.

Pastor Osheta Moore uses a technique to put words to her grief and to find an answer in grace using simple, breath-prayers. She says, “It has not only empowered me to press through the pain, but it has given me a way to connect with Jesus, who gets it.”

Pastor Moore explains, “The practice of breath prayer involves praying a short, five- to seven-syllable prayer. On the inhale, you pray a name for God that is meaningful to you: “Nurturing Mother,” “Kind Savior,” and “Gentle Healer.” On the exhale, you pray your request: Give me peace; hold me close; be near me in my grief.
The day Ahmaud Arbery was killed, she prayed, “God of Justice, hold me close.” On the day she learned that the novel coronavirus was ravaging brown and Black communities, she prayed, “Wounded Healer, protect the vulnerable.” On the day there was rioting in her neighborhood after George Floyd was killed, she prayed, “God who hears, respond to our cries.” (OSHETA MOORE, A Year of Negotiating Grief, Sojourners, 1/26/21)

I wonder, what would Jesus throw out of your life with his whip of cords? What are the things that entangle and enslave us? What are you really angry about? Do not be afraid, but listen, and follow. Therein lies the trailhead of a path blazed by the Holy Spirit leading out of bondage and into new life God promised you in baptism. The path to abundance and eternal life leads through destruction and desolation. You will lose your life before you save it. Jesus comes to you today, but rather than a hymnal or bible, in his hand is a whip of cords to open a trail out of our isolation and into communion; out of our despair and into hope; out of resignation and into action; out of sadness and into cold anger; out of misery and into hope and joy. See, the playful purposes of God have become our traveling companions as we journey together, in a temple not made with hands, that brings life out of death.

Lent 2B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lent 1B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

Christians are called to live in covenant relationship with God and with each other. We traced the sign of this covenant on our foreheads this week with ashes. “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify you Father in heaven” (ELW p. 231). The appointed readings each week this Lent explore the meaning of covenant life for us. Today our lessons present us with baptism and a rainbow. This Lent takes us on a winding path over the edge and deep into the human heart.

The ancient Priestly writer of Genesis 6:11 says God’s reason for flooding the earth in Noah’s time was that “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” It was to wash away the violence upon the earth that God allowed waters to burst from their confinement above the heavens and flood the dry land. “In anger and regret, God made the rains to fall, and the waters to rise, and the waves to beat. The water rose and obliterated every living thing. Only one family was preserved, one family and their small collection of creatures. Noah’s family was preserved on the ark” (William Willimon, Vol. 34, No 1, year B).

In the Noah story, God did what we expect in all the super-hero movies we love to watch. God used violence to root out violence. Yet, unlike all those movies our story doesn’t end there. Remarkably, God saw that God’s attempt to solve the problem of violence by violence didn’t work. So, God began a new plan and called the son of Terah. “Enter Abraham. The redemption of the world would not come by the eradication of evil people, but through the propagation of a faithful family. By faith Abraham would father a son and spend the rest of his life searching for a city whose builder and maker is God.” (Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, p. 183) (But that’s next week.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ash Wednesday

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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