Epiphany 5A-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:13-14). Salt and light are your superpower. They are reflections within you of God’s ever-present grace.

Living in times of plenty, we take salt and light for granted. In the ancient world, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history. 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. (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, Salty, 02/02/20)  And, of course, less than 150 years ago, Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb, made light nearly ubiquitous.

The first lesson to draw from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is 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.

Imagine how Jesus’s first followers might have understood being called salt and light. “You,” he told them all. “You are the salt of the earth.”” You are the light of the world. You, the poor, the mournful, the meek, the persecuted. The hungry, the sick, the crippled, the frightened.  The outcast, the misfit, the disreputable, and the demon possessed. (Debie Thomas) We are salt and light. 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, to grow in generosity and wisdom which leads to personal and global transformation. (Debie Thomas)

The first lesson we draw out today is a benediction.  The second is an answer to the question, who are my siblings in Christ?  How will I know them if not by outward identifiers such as religion, ethnicity, culture, gender, or color? The answer? Taste and see. You are salty when you share your bread with the hungry. You are light when you bring the homeless poor into your house. You become salt which makes life delicious 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…” says the prophet, Isaiah (Isaiah 58:8a). Taste and see.  Your siblings are salt and light.

Paul’s meditation on the crucified Christ encourages us to learn from Jesus’ death what it is to be truly human. Truly human persons—grafted into the self-giving death of Christ—live differently in the world, according to “the Spirit that is given by God” (verse 12). The new human person in Christ is relocated in a large extended family embracing the whole neighborhood, including even the entire planet.

Yet another lesson we may take to heart is how to distinguish between good, as opposed to bad, religion. The righteousness of the holy exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, not by hairsplitting moralism or competition in good works, but through guidance of the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).  We begin to approach the same capacity to act and to give, even as Jesus gave himself for the world. By contrast, any attempts to follow the way of Jesus that promotes violence, exclusion, racial, or national supremacy, and does not love neighbor has lost its saltiness and labors in shadow. Any religion which denies the grace of God reflected among outsiders has strayed from the way. Once our religion can no longer meet the test of its own ideals of love or justice –is not good.  It’s failed.  It’s this bad religion that is driving people to leave the church. Tragically, they flee, not to different congregations, or more enlightened denominations, but out of the church entirely.

 Freedom of conscience. Uncoerced faith. Religious pluralism. These are evidence of good religion which tastes of salt and light. Despite the fact, admittedly, it can only ever be lived and embodied by flawed and broken people, good religion results in human flourishing. By this measure, the institutional decline from the 1950’s we all lament when everyone was in church maybe isn’t all bad. We should be less threatened by ongoing de-centering of Christianity, as in for example, the scheduling of children’s soccer games on Sunday—than by those now working to re-establish their own narrow version of religion through the exercise of political power and by rulings of the supreme court.

The War in Ukraine is but the most dramatic and violent example of this rip current of bad religion trying to bring a nation that wants to move toward democratic pluralism and freedom of conscience and say to them, ‘No. You will be Russian, You will be Russian orthodox. You will speak the Russian language—and by the way, you women will return to your proper subordinate position, and you queer people will fly straight or be eliminated. Likewise, the so-called freedom from indoctrination law playing out in Florida today has outed itself for what it really is—indoctrination. (Homebrewed Christianity, Welcome to the Post-Christian Century: Diana Butler Bass & Bill Leonard in conversation, 2/1/23)

The people of God are salt and light. Good religion does not fail Jesus’ test of loving neighbors and enacting mercy. Taste and see. One of the greatest and most inspirational Christian men of the 20th century was not a Christian, but a Hindu, Mahatma Gandhi. This January 30th marked the 75th anniversary of his death. Jesus disciple, Mahatma Gandhi, tasted of salt and suffering love. Britain’s Salt Act of 1882 prohibited Indians from collecting or selling salt. Indian citizens were forced to buy it from their British rulers, who, in addition to exercising a monopoly over the manufacture and sale of salt, also charged a heavy salt tax. Gandhi identified Britain’s monopoly on salt as a symbolic key to India’s freedom.

Marching 240 miles to the sea, Gandhi inspired tens of thousands of Indians to protest this unjust law with him. Picking up a pinch of salt from beside the sea, Gandhi was arrested. Hundreds more were beaten as they advanced on salt works. 60,000 people were arrested and Britain’s rule over India was in effect ended. On the eve of this freedom campaign, Gandhi said, “Mass civil disobedience will not come if those who have been hitherto the loudest in their cry for liberty have no action in them. If the salt loses its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?”

Taste and see. You are salt and light.  That is our superpower. United in Christ, God fill us with these good gifts again and again to renew us in body and soul in order to love and serve one another as our Lord Jesus enables us to do.

Epiphany 4A-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Most mornings, I wake up and start scrolling thru headlines. This week was rough. Police violence. Mass shootings. War in Ukraine. Political strife. What would it be like to wake up to good news? The prophet Micah seems to wonder the same thing. These leaders, he wrote, “tear the skin from my people,” and “break their bones in pieces” (3:2–3). They despise justice, distort the right, take bribes as a matter of course, and are “skilled in doing evil with both hands.” Even worse, the religious leaders, who should have known better, approved and legitimized this unholy status quo, proclaiming that it was God’s will.

The news was just too much even for God. The prophet Micah imagines a scene in which God takes the people to court. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” (Micah 6:3). Like a prosecutor God examines their actions, recounting the signs of mercy and loving kindness shown to them from generation to generation, searching for a sign that they are living up to who God called them to be. Headlines shouting about violence, suffering, and inequality are not only bad news the prophet reminds us, but such news is also an indictment of our faith. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8).

The antidote God proffers to end the cycle of bad news is faith. A recent poll revealed the number one issue among Chicago voters is crime and public safety. Gun violence and police reform. Carjacking, police staffing, and police wellness.

Preying on this fear, the gun industry had record-breaking sales in 2020 and early 2021. Marketing for guns shifted from adds about hunting toward offering pistols for personal safety and military-style weaponry aimed mostly at young men. The sales pitch has been incredibly effective. Personal protection ranks #1 on gun owners’ list of reasons for owning a gun. Yet homicides are more than two times higher in gun-owning homes. Suicide risk is four times higher for children and teens who live in gun-owning homes. Men who own guns are eight times more likely to die by gun suicide, while women are thirty-five times more likely. It’s more likely that a gun in your home will be used to harm a family member than for protection. The leading cause of death in the year after getting a handgun is suicide. (Source: Project Unloaded) The nonstop news about gun violence is an indictment of our shared faith. We must dispel the myth that guns make us safer.

The nonstop news of police brutality is the same. Studies show what works to reduce police brutality is to stop using police like a one-size-fits-all response to every public safety need. A gun and a badge do not qualify someone to respond to homelessness, substance abuse, mental health crises, or even minor traffic violations. To improve police behavior, we must change how police are evaluated and rewarded. Are police promoted for making arrests and for being “warriors who are tough on criminals,” or are they valued for being “protectors, trusted by our neighbors.” (Source: Rodrigo Canales, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior, Yale) (Next month, you have an opportunity to change how Chicago police are evaluated and rewarded in choosing representatives to your police district council.)

A Latin American prayer asks: “Lord, to those who hunger, give bread. And to those who have bread, give the hunger for justice.” As we pray at the eucharist, ‘The cry of the poor is God’s own cry; Our hunger and thirst for justice is God’s own desire.’ (Eucharistic prayer, ELW #VII)

Jesus offered the beatitudes as steps toward a disarmed heart. The Beatitudes we read today (Matthew 5-7) describe a genuinely counter-cultural style of life. In a world of wealth and war, says Jesus, blessed are the poor and the peacemakers. Instead of violence and vengeance, blessed are the mournful, the meek, and the merciful. Remember, Jesus’ beautiful, poetic words weren’t first heard by people like me; those words were gifted to people who were considered the refuse of the ancient world. The faithful hold in tension two truths: one is the message, “I am dust and ashes;” the other is, “For me the universe was made” (Mary Lou Kownacki, O.S.B., Behold the Nonviolent One).

The Beatitudes draw a character portrait of the face and will of God. Together, they provide the foundation for Christian nonviolent resistance. To live the Beatitudes is to live differently and to think differently. “Wherever there is injustice, discrimination, division, discord, violence, we should find peacemakers, God’s children. Where the battle rages between the forces of light and [shadow], we should find peacemakers, God’s children. And God’s children enter the public arena, the conflict, trying to make God’s love visible …the more we analyze the stories behind the newspaper headlines, the harder it is to hide from harsh reality. Our apathy, our lifestyles, our budget priorities mean mourning and weeping for tens of millions around the globe” (Kownacki).

A review of 50 years of mass shootings found these events are becoming more frequent and more deadly. One-third of all mass shootings studied occurred in the last decade. They found these killings are not just random acts of violence but rather a symptom of a deeper societal problem: the continued rise of “deaths of despair.” Nearly all the killers profiled were men. Many were socially isolated from their families or their communities and felt a sense of alienation. They chose mass shootings as a way to seize power and attention, forcing others to witness their pain while attempting to end their lives, either by death or incarceration, in a way that only they controlled. Mass shooters live among us. They are us. They are for the most part the men and boys we know. And they can be stopped before they pull the trigger (By Jillian Peterson and James Densley, “We Profiled the ‘Signs of Crisis’ in 50 Years of Mass Shootings. This Is What We Found,” NYT, 1/26/23). Not by a gun, or by police, or with stiffer laws, but with more neighbor-love.

Mercifully, the prophet Micah ends the non-stop cycle of bad news with a reminder of the never-ending grace of God. Micah offers the false prophets, the drunken religious leaders, the corrupt politicians, the greedy businesspeople, the self-serving civic leaders, and all of us, a word of forgiveness.

The last two verses of Micah are read by every year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Micah writes, “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. (7:18–19) Micah’s last word, then, is not fire and brimstone; it’s an evocative reminder of the energizing hope that God offers to all of us. What would it be like to wake up to good news? Good news begins with living the good news of Jesus. Who will be neighbor?  “Blest are you. Holy are you…Rejoice and be glad yours is the kingdom of God.” (ELW # 728).

Epiphany 3A-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It was New Year’s Day, 1929. The University of California at Berkely Golden Bears played the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the Rose Bowl. Halfway through the second quarter, Golden Bears defensive tackle, Roy Riegels, scooped up a fumble by Georgia Tech’s Jack “Stumpy” Thomason, 30 yards from the end-zone. The pivotal play changed outcome of the game. As Riegels later told the Associated Press, “I was running toward the sidelines when I picked up the ball. I started to turn to my left toward the goal. Somebody shoved me and I bounded [bounced] right off into a tackler. In pivoting to get away from him, I completely lost my bearings.” Riegels became disoriented. He spun around and ran 69 yards in the wrong direction. Roy “Wrong Way” Riegels blunder is often cited as the worst mistake by a single player in the history of college football.

Wrong Way Riegels, by all accounts, was a great football player. His story is a cautionary tale. Sometimes, even when we are very good at what we do, and are trying our very best, we are tragically unaware that we are going the wrong way. Those who sit in darkness cannot comprehend the darkness until they see the light. Our redemption begins with changing direction.

Like a lighthouse beside stormy seas Jesus shined a light revealing the outlines of a new and distant shore, a new kingdom, a new life, a new way of being, a new way of being together. Suddenly the disciples understood their life could go a different direction. Or, in the words of Matthew’s gospel, they could repent and follow Jesus.

 Jesus’ first, one-sentence sermon is identical to the message of that wild man John Baptist (3:1). ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near'” (4:17). It sounds to us like some fire and brimstone warning about the afterlife. Yet, we may be surprised to uncover here the core message of grace. To repent is not to feel bad, but to think differently. To repent doesn’t mean to grovel in self-hatred or pious sorrow. To repent is to turn around, to change direction, or make a radical rupture with the past.

The good news of Jesus shines into the hidden corners of the world to lead us out from the pain and suffering caused by hate, fear, or anything else that degrades and dehumanizes us. That’s where we find Jesus today. 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 know-it-alls 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.

You might think the disciples had a pretty good life. They fished every day. They lived beside the sea.  They owned their own business.  Maybe it had been that way once, but a process of brining and preserving fish had allowed fishing to become industrialized. In the first-century Roman Empire, fishing was a miserable job controlled by the Roman state — only profiting the elite.

“In the ancient Roman Empire, you didn’t work for yourself. You didn’t choose a job or a career. You worked for Caesar. Your entire family worked for Caesar. You, your parents and children, and your neighbors and friends were part of a massive political and economic hierarchy which took nearly all the work of your hands and gave it to the wealthiest people in the empire — and from which you, your relations, and your community received almost no benefit.” (Diana Butler Bass, Sunday Musings, 1/22/23). This is ‘the land of deep darkness’ into which Jesus journeyed—and doesn’t it sound familiar?

The land beside the sea was a fertile place to fish for human hearts and minds hungry for hope.  Peter, Andrew, James, and John were ready to hear the gospel because they knew, deep in their bones, they were headed the wrong way.  They were ready to become valuable, dignified citizens of the kingdom of heaven rather than continue being subjects of King Herod or living as cogs in the Imperial economic machine that was the Rome Empire.

I would like to think that today we are living in a similar time more open to receiving gospel. Afterall, haven’t we started to realize we are all going the wrong way? We cannot thrive while the natural world dies. Economic extraction, perpetual growth, and short-term profits will lead us, like lemmings, to our collective doom—not to mention the pound of flesh it demands of our health and well-being. Haven’t these past three years been an epiphany? We have seen how Christian church has become infected by nationalism, white supremacy, and a greedy media machine. We are startled to realize how fragile our democracy has become. We are going the wrong way.

Living and working in Nazi Germany, Lutheran pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, “Where will the call to discipleship lead those who follow it? What decisions and painful separations will it entail?  We must take this question to him who alone knows the answer.  Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows the where the path will lead.  But we know that it will be a path full of mercy beyond measure.  Discipleship is joy.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, p. 40)

Could it be? The unfolding path behind Jesus will lead us, finally, in the right direction toward happier, more fulfilling lives, however much it may cost us in terms of worldly success.  I recommend to you a little documentary now on Netflix featuring the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and his Holiness, the Dalai Lama, who share their deep friendship, much laughter, and their teachings on the wisdom of living a faith-centered life. It’s called Mission: Finding Joy in Troubled Times.

You don’t have to take their word for it. Acts of kindness toward others have a measurable, lasting effect on our own happiness, and immune system functioning. Since 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has been investigating what makes people flourish. What’s the key to human happiness, according to the longest study ever conducted on the subject? It’s friendship. More specifically, good listening, being trustworthy, curious about others, empathetic, generous, hospitable, and caring. We could just as easily list all these as fruits of our faith in Jesus. These are the spiritual gifts that bless our lives as we change direction and follow the way of Jesus and his cross.

Jesus went to “Galilee of the Gentiles,” literally, the land of ‘those who are not us.’ We will see this word appear again, translated as “nations” in the Great Commission Jesus issues to 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).

No matter how far we have strayed, grace abounds for those who turn to follow the light. As Martin Luther wrote, “We are not now what we shall be but are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal, but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.”  Hear the good news. Follow me.

Mission Quilts and Kits: July 13th at 9:30am

Epiphany 2A-23 

Immanuel Lutheran

Two weeks ago, on New Year’s Day, I went to church with extended family on vacation. New Year’s Day is what we call a ‘low Sunday.’  Yet, to my surprise, the worship center, built to hold 1,600 people, was mostly full. Parishioners were eager to maintain a right relationship with Jesus (by avoiding a whole checklist of sins including homosexuality) to ensure each of them, individually, would be among the few people raptured to meet Jesus in the sky and taken to their eternal home in heaven.  (Okay. There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s set aside the part about the rapture for a moment).

So, what do you think?  Can we get right with Jesus and ensure our individual eternal survival by avoiding a list of sins? It’s a simple formula. Grace abounds—except for anyone not living right by Jesus. Hop on the Jesus track and ride the Kingdom train all the way glory. But what if, sometimes, people go off track? Can they hop back on?  What if the moment we fall off track is the exact moment of the rapture? Do we get a pass for at least trying?

We find a clue in today’s gospel. John points to Jesus and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the Sin of the world.” It may seem small—but notice—here John does not say, Jesus takes away our sins (plural), but our Sin. In other words, Sin isn’t a check list of bad behaviors at all. Sin is a narcissistic human condition.  It is a kind of tunnel-vision of heart and mind locked solely in on our self. Our fragile ego, our petty interests, desires, and grudges become the whole world. The remedy Christ Jesus, the logos, turns our hearts and minds outward toward God, the world, and each other.

In fact, Jesus ripped up all forms of checklist religion once and for all. Jesus takes away the sin of accounting for sin. Just stop it. Stop trying to justify your own righteousness or to elevate yourself above others. In Christ, there are no most-favored people, no most-favored race, no most-favored gender, no most-favored orientation, no most-favored nation, not even a most-favored religion. What’s more, this Jesus rips up any notion there is some big book of life, somewhere just inside the pearly gates, recording all your merits and demerits. Jesus is not Santa Claus. Jesus did not die on the cross to appease the wrath of a violent God out for blood.  It was the crowd. The mob. It is us who demanded that Jesus die.

Instead, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, not by blood sacrifice, but by becoming our lifeblood. Here is the body of Christ, given for you.  Here is the blood of Christ, shed for you.  The one-life flowing in, with, under, and around all things now, knits us together with God into the Body of Christ.  As the blood flowing throughout the body nourishes and sustains every part of it, so now the life of Christ Jesus flows within and between us. Or, as we like to say around here, “Grace is for everyone, or it isn’t grace.  It’s that simple!  It’s that amazing.”

Perhaps this is where our gospel takes its most surprising turn not toward the sky, or to the afterlife, but here and now, on earth as well as in heaven.  Five times in four verses, (John 1:29-42, 38-39), John’s gospel uses the little Greek work, meno, typically (but not always) translated by the English word, abide. (Which I highlighted for you in reading the gospel today.) The gospel of John encourages us to see these linkages to what comes later, namely, Jesus’ teaching that he abides in the Father and the Father in him. And we as his disciples are then invited to abide in him and he in us. Today’s gospel reading introduces us to these themes, showing us how the Father’s Spirit comes to abide in Jesus at his baptism, and how Jesus invites the disciples to abide with him.

As followers of Jesus, we become a new creation, through Word and sacrament. Little by little, and sometimes, all at once, we are joined together in the One life of God within the Holy Trinity to love and care for each other, creation, and for the common good just as God does. (Which brings us to what scholar Barbara Rossing has called the non-biblical idea of the rapture.) Christian faith will not allow us to make of our religion an ejector seat from this world. Rather, we follow our Lord Jesus from our spiritual home in heaven down into the world to bind up the broken hearted, heal the sick, preach forgiveness of sin, work for justice, and let the oppressed go free.

Christianity is not a religion of escape, but of incarnation.  The Word became flesh and lives among us. Faith is not what we do separately and individually, but what we do collectively, collaboratively, generously, hospitably, communally, and mysteriously. The prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb, he named me” (Isaiah 49:1b). Notice, that God called us by the name—Israel!  We are individuals who find our true self as living members of that giant family as children of Abraham and Sarah.

As Isaiah testified, God proclaims “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).

The disciples could not have imagined where their decision to follow Jesus would take them.  He just said, “Come and see” (John 1:39).  He would take them to the cross. He would show them the way to live under and within the shelter of God’s abiding presence even while they walked through the valley of the shadow of death.

Dave Daubert, pastor of Zion Lutheran in Elgin, Illinois has said, “The work of the church is renewing its people.”  We’ve been trying and failing to renew congregations for years.  You can’t do that.  You can only renew God’s people and let them renew the congregation.  “God isn’t interested in a bigger church as much as God is interested in a transformed world.  And that means reconnecting the church with what God is up to in the world.”

Martin Luther King famously said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  In his letter from a Birmingham jail King also warned the universe doesn’t bend toward the better all by itself.

Come and see. Abide with me. To answer the call to discipleship is to actively engage with Jesus.  John uses a string of active verbs–to follow; see; seek; stay; find. Jesus invites us, as if to say, ‘If you follow this pathway with me, and are open to God’s vision for your life, you will see what you truly need to experience wholeness, vitality, and hope in the midst of finitude, brokenness, and loss.’ As we dwell with Jesus Christ our heart and mind is renewed, and our energies reverse direction and begin to turn out from over focus on ourselves toward love of neighbor as our self. Bending and weaving our strength together for the common good, here and now—however we are given to understand the common good—we make life better for ourselves and everyone else, while riding that kingdom train into glory.

Christmas Eve – 22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The prophet Mohamed, peace be upon him, describes the nativity scene at the birth of Jesus in the Quran (Surah 19) featuring a great tree.  It’s the first Christmas tree if you will—centuries before the tradition developed among Christians. The tree is not an evergreen, but rather, a date palm. Mary and baby Jesus rest beneath the shade of its branches. Fresh dates from the tree restore Mary’s strength after giving birth and a spring miraculously flowing from the base of the tree provides water for her to drink.

This Islamic nativity scene is striking—first—because the story exists at all, second, for how it reflects a very non-European cultural setting. I wonder, what might our Christmas traditions be like if they were somehow reconnected to their Middle Eastern roots?  Jesus was born in the city of David called Bethlehem. Our gospel was likely written in Antioch of Syria (which today is part of Turkey).  It is just sixty-five miles from Aleppo. Might we have more natural empathy with the suffering of people of Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan if our Christmas celebrations had less to do with snow, holly, and conifer and instead helped us “turn back” toward the birthplace of the nativity? (Mariam Sheikh Hakim, “The Little-Known Story of The Islamic Christmas Tree” Huffington Post, 12/16/16)

Like all the brightly colored gifts wrapped and waiting under the tree this year, we must unwrap the gift of Christmas to re-learn what it is. Peel away two millennia of culture and tradition—to re-discover the surprising/challenging/wonderful message of Christmas: People of every time and place share the same address and zip code.

Christ is our Alpha and Omega, the home we came from and the resting place toward which we inevitably travel. Christmas is good news of great joy for all people (Luke 2: 10b). Christ, our savior, took on flesh, was born, lived among us, and breathes life into weary hearts among us still.

If all this were not mysterious enough, our scripture casts the circle of oneness in Christ even wider. Maybe there is something else from long ago, which we forgot, or now need to reclaim. Push back the swaddling clothes to see that humankind is locked in cosmic union with all life, including rocks and hills, trees and meadows, earth and sky. The psalmist and the prophet Isaiah declare, the whole earth joins in singing a new song, and the trees of the field clap their hands (Psalm (96:1-3; Isaiah 55:12).

Yes. The story of Jesus’ birth is about union with God, union with one another, and union with all creation. With the incarnation God is not content to dwell in fullness only within you, or exclusively among us, but the Spirit of God pours out and fills all things with beauty, indelible dignity, and grace. The angels declared to poor shepherds good news for everyone. “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.”

There’s an old preacher’s story about a newborn’s precocious four-year old sibling who announces to her parents she wants to talk to her little brother alone. After clearing the room the parents put their ears to the door and hear the little girl saying to her baby brother, “Quick, tell me who made you. Tell me where you came from. I’m beginning to forget!”

A child’s strange intuition probes deep in the Christmas mystery of God with us.  Have we forgotten?  How have we missed this?  Listen to the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; watch for the field to exult, and everything in it.  “…all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the Lord’s coming (Psalm 96:11-12). Let all Christians, Muslims, Jews, people of faith, and people of no faith, clasp hands and hearts.

Somehow, we seem out of touch with awareness of enchantment that came naturally to ancient peoples and persists to this day in cultures of the East, and also among native Americans, and others. The gift of Christmas Christ selected for you offers the perfect antidote. Look, Incarnation means everything sparkles with the fullness and presence of God.  Matter is not empty, but everything speaks of the one life we share.

Re-enchantment born of incarnation is urgently needed among us to restore health and balance.  When we become disconnected from the enchanted world we inhabit, from forests, meadows, mountains, oceans, sky—even from the suffering of entire species—it is easy for our world to empty into flatness. Is it any wonder then that people too can be treated as mere refuse to be held out of sight, isolated, and discarded? Look. Christ Jesus and the holy family became refugees fleeing violence, desperately seeking safety, and a home just like so many millions of families today. How shocking!  How startling, to pull back the blankets of someone sleeping in our streets today and see there, in flesh and blood, Jesus Christ, your Lord.

Most of us learn more from weakness than from strength, in hardship rather than success. 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.“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 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.

For Christmas, Jesus continually turns the world upside down. Jesus’ subversive gift challenges to human-crafted structures that oppress and bind. Jesus unlocks the human imagination to see a third way — the Jesus way—that takes us beyond either/or and 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 communion rail, and the font, in scripture and in prayer, and wherever two are three are gathered in his name, you are midwife to the incarnation of grace God is bringing into being among us.  In Christ, you are light for the world.

The poet and liturgical artist 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-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I met a kid at tutoring on Monday night. His name was ‘Nottie.’ I had to ask him to repeat it for me.  I wasn’t sure I heard it right. ‘Naughty,’ I asked?  Barely interested and without looking up, he said, “yes.”  Obviously, he was already clued in and a little bored with the topic. His name sounds funny to English speakers.  My name, Montgomery, is unusual too. Suddenly I thought of all the ways kids at school might have teased him for something he had no part in choosing. I once asked my parents why they choose my name—thinking that if it had something to do with the Montgomery bus boycott, that would be cool. But no. It seems they just wanted something ‘different,’ that, and my mother liked the actor, Montgomery Clift.  I asked Nottie whether his name meant anything in his native language, Amheric. His response surprised me.  Yes, he said, ‘Nottie means ‘kissed by God.’

Beautiful. Sometimes a name can express all a parent’s hopes and dreams in a single word. Joseph’s name meant “God will give.”  It connected him to Joseph and his multi-colored dream coat. It connected his story to the indestructible promise God made to his ancestors to bless them with abundance throughout the generations.

Joseph was coming into his own. He would have a family, a career, maybe even his own business. Yet, the shock and scandal of Mary’s pregnancy threatened to shatter all his grand expectations. On one pivotal night, because of a single dream, Joseph chose to trade his own good name for one synonymous with disgrace and derision.  He would look like a fool to his friends and family. Joseph says yes. And the baby is born: Emmanuel, God-with-us, the promise of Israel. Joseph was kissed by God.

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. 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” (Matthew 1:18-25). (Suzanne, Suzanne Guthrie, At The Edge of the Enclosure, 2013).

It’s 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. Mother Teresa was kissed by God.  Beware the kiss of God.

We love to sing “Away in a Manger?” “Silent Night?” “Joy to the World?” These hymns evoke such warm feelings and teary-eyed tenderness we forget what stress the Holy Family must have been under. Our psalm today is full of lament in search of answers from God. “How long will your anger fume when your people pray?” (Psalm 80:4).  In a jam like Joseph, it’s only right he would be fitful and agitated, raise his fist and shout, “Why me, Lord?”  What have I done to deserve this?  Soon there will be other shoes to drop too. The holy family will flee to Egypt, and King Herod’s desperate attempt to kill baby Jesus will result in the slaughter of the innocents. Call Angel Gabriel. Get him back. This whole thing sounds wrong. Sometimes, we can be right in the middle of a miracle and still complain about it. Do you know that you too, are kissed by God?

Like Joseph and Mary, we stand apart to stand for the whole. We give ourselves to God’s dream for this fallen world. Can we see ourselves becoming like Joseph and Mary? Which dream shall we live by –the dreams approved by the world, or those which God has for us and our lives together?

Maybe you think Joseph and Mary were chosen because they were different—or because they were good—maybe even very, very good? Researchers confirm, over and over, the great majority of us still believe the way you get to chosen by God is by being a good person—that you get what you deserve. We hear this message everywhere playing on an endless nauseating loop. Santa’s coming so, ‘You’d better watch out, you better not cry, I’m telling you why –only good little boys and girls get presents—and all the rest on the naughty list get a lump of coal.

We Lutherans know better. By grace alone is central to who we are. Grace is God’s fundamental driving power, expressed by God’s dogged commitment to bring beauty out of what’s broken. Or, as the great contemporary theologian, Bono of U2 sang, grace travels outside of Karma. Joseph and Mary said yes to God’s preposterous, dangerous, adventurous invitation and that made all the difference. Others would call them naughty. Yet they were kissed by God. They lived by faith alone.

Which brings us to the greatest Christmas miracle of all.  I mean, why did God bother with Joseph and Mary at all?  Why take on flesh, live among us, suffer and die?  Well, apparently, God’s way of being is a call to radical solidarity.  Active, practical care is God’s way, not only of deepening relationship with us, but also of making worlds worth living in, including the whole more than human universe. Now that’s quite a Christmas gift.

We live in radical solidarity with all life.  We live, not with all the answers, but by faith. The Welsh poet -R.S. Thomas ( 1913-2000) wrote a poem called “The Bright Field” with some good advice for would-be dreamers of God.  He wrote:

I have seen the sun break through

To illuminate a small field for a while,

And gone my way and forgotten it

But that was the pearl of great price,

The one field that had the treasure in it.

I realize now that I must give all that I have to possess it.

Life is not hurrying on to a receding future,

Nor hankering after an imagined past.

It is turning aside like Moses

To the miracle of a lit bush,

To a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once,

But is the eternity that awaits you.

Advent 3A-22
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It’s a blue Christmas for John the Baptist. He paces back and forth in his narrow cell. Imprisoned by King Herod, he questions the choices he’s made. Last Sunday, he seemed so sure of himself. John preached a baptism of fire and spirit in the wilderness beside the Jordan. But now, facing death, he’s not so sure. He sends messengers to question Jesus. “Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3).

Some might hand out demerits to John for his lack of faith. But not Jesus. He does not put John on the naughty list. Jesus doesn’t throw John under the bus. Questions and doubts are not enough to rupture their relationship or call into question John’s loyalty and dedication. As we say every Sunday, ‘Wherever you are, whatever your background, regardless of your doubts and questions, you are welcome in this community of faith.’

“Truly,” Jesus said, “I tell you no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matt 11:11). Yet, this is not the sort of faith story we like to tell—even though many of us, and, if we are honest, have lived some version of it. We like conversion stories that go straight from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, from despair to joy and stay there. 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). All our striving, all our planning, all our praying and hoping— has it all been for nothing?

We might call it spiritual failure, or maybe faithlessness? In the sixteenth century, another John, Saint John of the Cross, would call it the dark night of the soul. We might judge ourselves for it. Jesus doesn’t. Notice, Jesus responds to his cousin’s pained question with composure, gentleness, and understanding. What was happening to John wasn’t fair. The stupid capricious power of King Herod cut John’s life short. This gospel teaches us it’s okay to doubt, question, rage, and shake our fist at God –as many psalmists do.

Yet, honestly, I think there is something more hidden within this gospel. Some wisdom that waits to open for us whenever we, like John, come close to treading on despair. In fact, something like the disillusionment John experienced may even be necessary for us to glimpse the joy and hope that comes from God alone. Of course, Advent is perfect for this. Our ancestors in faith passed down stories like this one about John to rekindle the spirit, to restore our imagination precisely in times when everything appears hopeless, to help us endure our own dark night of the soul.

Fears of the apocalypse seem to be everywhere in popular culture. There was Planet of the Apes and Mad Max. The Blade Runner and the Matrix. Zombies—lots of zombies. In Star Wars, The Hunger Games, and the endless Avenger series, good battles evil on a cosmic scale. Yes. The Advent blues seem to fit us like an old pair of jeans. In the 1950’s we were so sure of ourselves, so confident about the future. We had conquered the evil of fascism and overcome the great depression. Now our addiction to an economy of extraction, the politics of fear, an endless war on terrorism, the rise of Christian nationalism, and the propagation (seemingly) everywhere of religion that fosters hate rather than love, clouds our optimism for the future with fear. In the darkness of night, the question creeps into consciousness—has it all been for nothing?
Our ancestors in faith knew this moment would come. They packed the mysterious themes and images of apocalypse into the bible to open and reveal their wisdom in just such a time as this. After all, they knew about disillusionment. They too, experienced desolation. The economy we worshipped, the privilege and high esteem in which we held ourselves is coming to an end. Yes, they council, but do not fear. These are but the birth pangs, the beginning of wisdom which holds the cure to warring madness. Could we dare to hope the world is about to turn?

See, our ancestors bequeathed to us the key that opens the gates of the New Jerusalem. Faith in Jesus unlocks our fear and frees our imagination to glimpse the world God intends which is already here and not yet. We are meant to be citizens of this counter world in partnership with creation, where love is love, and beauty is revealed in the harmony of contrasts. We are called to walk by faith into the heart of God’s vision for life together that God will show us.
But Jesus doesn’t sugar coat it. The baby born in a barn will die a criminal death. John’s death will be both tragic and dumb—a travesty of injustice. To add icing on the cake, soon, Jesus’ mother and brothers will show up too, presumably wanting to question their problematic child and brother and lock him away at home. How does Jesus answer?

Our reading today 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). God’s heroes may suffer violence, yet they are not the ones who inflict it.

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)
In the gloom of his prison cell, Jesus prepared John to meet the living God who is always more, who’s coming is always different, whose power is always greater and more glorious than we could have imagined. See, the Lord Jesus stoops from heaven to put a new song in our heart. See, Christ comes to walk with us. Jesus enters our life with comfort and courage no matter how messy or fraught with ugly strife, bickering or bitterness. Jesus comes not in wrath but in love; not as one who seeks to destroy, but as one with power to transform and renew. Jesus took on flesh and lived among us. This spirit of Christ is upon you. Our dark night is ending. The first light of hope breaks now as the dawn.

Advent 1A-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus sat and spoke to the disciples.  He is somewhere on the Mount of Olives across the Kidron valley from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  The time and manner of his coronation as Lord and King remain unimaginable to his little band of followers.  They still don’t know what’s about to hit them though Jesus had told them on three separate occasions.

That moment of surprise eventually comes for us all. The Day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night. We are thrust to the forefront. We are called upon to bear the weight of discipleship. The kingdom arrives like the floodwaters that bore up Noah’s ark (Matthew 24: 38, 43). The moment of decision confronts us with the challenge to wage the faith with our own words and actions. Advent—this discipline of waiting, of watching, of expecting God’s liberating grace to break in upon our short and shallow lives—shocks us from complacency. Advent counsels us to expect the unexpected.

Of course, when that Kairos moment arrives, filled to overflowing with the bounteous possibility and potential of God’s redeeming grace, most often, we fumble the hand-off, or manage to appreciate the graciousness of the moment only with the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps it is cold comfort. The moments we choose to act selfishly, or greedily, or jealously, or with vengeance pile up and compound our loss, shame, guilt and regret, but Jesus does not use our failures of omission or commission to kick us off his team.

“Eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” (Mt. 24:38) as they did in the days of Noah will not put you in the goat line as opposed to the sheep line on the day of Christ. The people who lived in the days of Noah or the unlucky person whose house was about to be robbed are not singled out by Jesus in our gospel today because they were more sinful than any others. Instead, their mess up was a failure of imagination. They were unprepared for grace when it came because they thought nothing could or would ever change. They were too cynical for faith to get ahold of them.

Cynicism may appear fashionable, or make you seem smarter or more cosmopolitan, but cynicism has deathly consequences. We risk accepting politics as usual, or accepting lies as the truth, or becoming complacent in the face of injustice, or fearfully assigning blame to victims and outsiders, and thinking too small. We risk being obtuse and unaware as the wonder and beauty of grace play around us.

This season of Advent is a call to wake from weak resignation to the status quo. Advent is strong gospel medicine to open our eyes, our heart, our mouth, and our hands to the surprising in-breaking presence of God here, now, in our midst today—and all our future todays—and at upon the moment of our death, until the end of time. Christ is the alpha and omega. Everything comes from Christ and is going to Christ.

Little by little and all at once today’s gospel trains us to expect the unexpected just as Joseph did in responding to the Angel Gabriel’s assurances to reconcile with Mary—and just as Noah did before the rains came—and as the disciples did in following Jesus after the resurrection. Advent breaks open our imagination to follow the winds of the Spirit moving now in unexpected ways in your life and in mine, and in our life together, to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

My sincere wish for this Advent gospel is that it breaks through what we think we know about the bible that distorts our understanding of its message. Since about the fifth or sixth century, Christians in the West began to wear spectacles with a Greek and Roman philosophical lens. This Greco-Roman lens distorts and obscurs the gospel witness, including our understanding of texts like ours from Matthew today. Wearing these spectacles Christians began seeing things in the bible narrative that aren’t there.

 Through centuries, this distorted view compounded until the biblical narrative we inherited, and literally everyone already knows by heart, is a story line in six parts which, goes something like this: 1) the perfection of God’s Eden was; 2) followed by the human fall into Sin; 3) so the condemnation under which we are all now living; 4) must be followed, upon our death; 5) either by life in heaven or; 6) eternal, conscious torment in hell.

Sound familiar? The art, literature, and theology of Western civilization overflows with reflection and/or rejection of these themes by which all history, and all human experience, and all our own experience is assessed. (Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, pp. 33-62)

When we remove our Greco-Roman-colored glasses the message of the Torah, the prophets, Jesus, and the first disciples’ changes. We are blessed with scholarship which has begun to let us see behind the Greek and Roman lens our theological forebears laid over it. A new kind of Christianity has come into view that is actually very, very old. The familiar six-step story line of the bible collapses into three: 1) God’s good, evolving world is marred by human evil and sin; 2) rather than reject us God works to liberate and reform us along with the rest of creation; and 3) God calls us to inhabit the sacred dream of the peaceable kingdom like we read about today in Isaiah here on earth as in heaven. (McLaren)

Creation. Exodus/Liberation. The Peaceable Kingdom. That’s it. That’s the story. Even now, God’s wisdom draws nations up to a higher level of relating, so disputes are settled nonviolently, wisely, and peacefully. God gets involved in human suffering and injustice to pull us out of it. Perhaps what is most shocking and unexpected for us this Advent is that the Day of the Lord comes –not in the sky but here on earth; not merely upon our death but also now, today; not outside of history for all eternity, but happening now within it; not for humanity alone but for all life to thrive.

Our ancestors in faith spent two generations crossing the desert to get to the promised land overflowing with milk and honey. Today, we are called to journey by faith, not to a place, but to a day when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4b).  In Advent, we await Jesus’ birth. We await the coming of the savior. We look for the kingdom to come. We search for these gifts of God which are already here, and also, very far away. We live by faith and not by sight. We are people who imagine how the world can be different, who dare to dream the impossible dream and to live it. By this faithful work we have glimpsed the peaceable kingdom, we have seen a living sanctuary of hope and grace take shape among us.

This kind of Advent is not about rapture but rupture. The rapture is not a biblical idea. On the cross Jesus himself ultimately became the one left behind. When all others got swept up in the spirit of violence against him Jesus was the only one not caught up in it. There was no rapture to save Jesus from the cross but resurrection, like that which we are offered by the Word, and in the font, and at the table.  God’s rupture brings transformation and change. (Paul Nuechterlein, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, Advent 1A)

Advent wants to shake us out of our complacency, out of our cynicism, out of our prejudice, out of what we think we already know, out of our ideologies and learned expectations—all the things that keep us from seeing the abundant grace God pours out new and fresh into each moment. See, now is the time to wake from sleep. The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…” (Romans 13:11-12a).

Christ the King, C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Today’s gospel offers us a choice. Shall we follow Jesus or Judas? It may sound like a rhetorical question.  After all, as every kid in Sunday school knows, the right answer to every question is always Jesus.  But the question carries us beyond what we know to assess the truth about how we live. There, the correct answer can be both more cutting and more difficult.

On his coronation day, the king on a cross invites us to live as he does.  See, the door to life lived in God with Jesus stands wide open. A hideous instrument of torture and death is transformed. The cross has become for us a trail marker, a cairn, to mark our path, and guide our feet. On the cross, Jesus shows us the way. He models for us how to live. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) Today. With me. Paradise. Jesus’ gracious words of forgiveness to the criminal hanging beside him are keys that unlock God’s grace in our life.  We are called to be a cruciform people.

The way of Jesus destroys the wisdom of the wise and the discernment of the discerning. Jesus is a different kind of king to be sure.  The passion narratives of all four gospels contrast the way of Jesus with the way of Judas.  The way of Judas is smart by worldly standards. The way of Jesus is foolishness. Judas avoids capture.  Jesus is seized into custody.  Judas is given free passage.  Jesus is beaten and sentenced to death. Judas operates for himself alone.  Jesus stands in solidarity with everyone, especially the poor and all those who suffer. Judas turns a tidy profit—30 pieces of silver. Jesus gives all that he has—even to losing his life on the cross.   (Pastor David Henry)

The way of Judas prioritizes self-preservation.  The way of Jesus values love. Think what Jesus was up against.  A ruthless Empire of occupation, a corrupt religious hierarchy, a blind, feckless people, faithless friends and betrayers threw their very worst at Jesus and still his heart was full, and his hands wide open.  From the cross, Jesus teaches there is nothing you can do to make God not love you.  ‘You can disappoint me,’ he says. ‘You can break my heart and grieve my Spirit.’  Yet the steadfast love and character of God shall remain unchanged. For “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).

Jesus, the king of kings and Lord of Lords, reigns from his throne on the cross, (Revelation 19:16). He bids us to follow. Set aside your fears and embrace the way of love—for that is the way which leads into the abundant life.  The choice is always yours.  Jesus or Judas?  Life or death?  Choose life. The path is open. The gate unlocked. Today. Come be with me in paradise.

Jesus saves us from the illusion that we can free ourselves by killing our enemies. Christ our king offers no path to glory that sidesteps humility, surrender, and sacrificial love.  The Lord does not grant me permission to secure my prosperity at the expense of another’s suffering.  There is no tolerance for the belief that holy ends justify debased means.  Truth telling is not optional. God’s kingdom favors the broken-hearted over the cynical and contemptuous. Christ’s church cannot thrive when it aligns itself with brute power. We cannot be Christ’s church offering right answers but not right living.  Where does this leave us?  I think it leaves us with a king who makes us uncomfortable.  (Debie Thomas, A King for This Hour, Journey with Jesus, 11/13/16)

Look.  It’s not easy.  In the name of Christ, the Church has embraced Judas over Jesus again and again throughout history.  The Doctrine of Discovery endorsed colonialism, genocide, and land theft and continues as people of faith stand by and watch the destruction of the planet.  Guided by the gospel of Judas more than Jesus, great majorities of sincere Christians supported the institution of slavery and remain willfully blind to the legacy of structural, systemic racism and privilege today. We grieve our evangelical brothers and sisters who energetically proclaim the anti-gospel of Christian nationalism which undermines biblical teaching for social justice, concern for the immigrant, and promotes the way of the gun over the way of peace. People of faith support bigotry and violence aimed at the LGBTQ community.  We grieve with families and friends of victims of those killed and wounded last night in a mass shooting in Colorado Springs. Lifted upon the cross, the gospel of Jesus calls us to account for our sin, to acknowledge our failings, and to climb down from our high horse.

Jesus hung in the gap between one man’s derision and another man’s hunger. Upon his death, the powers that be brushed their hands, confident they had put an end to this Jesus business once and for all.  Yet it was not the end, but only the beginning.  Death is inevitable—yes.  None of us can predict it.  We cannot avoid it.  None can control it.  Yet Christ has shown us we need not fear it.  The way of Judas is wrong. Life isn’t about just surviving. Jesus has shown us how to live.

St. Paul testified that Jesus is our cosmic king, “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…” (Colossians 1:16). Paul likely quoted these words from an early Christian hymn.  Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of the dead” (1:15).  Jesus rules, not with a scepter, but from a cross.  He reigns, not with the power of a dictator, but with power like that of an infant child in a manger.  He rules with love and not control.  He seeks brothers and sisters, not subjects.  The power of Jesus restores life and builds people up rather than dominates them.  The power of Christ the King, like the babe born in Bethlehem, or like an exhausted, bleeding, and humiliated man dying upon a cross –is as fragile and as tenacious as Life itself.

 Jesus or Judas? Christ the King loves you with an undying, unbreakable love. See, death is swallowed up by life and Life is all that remains. Jesus has shown us the Way of Life leads through and beyond death.  Despite our mistakes and failures, Jesus calls us to return to the path. Today. With me. In paradise.  My prayer for this hard season in America’s history is that we may help one another find ways to walk as Jesus walked — to spend ourselves for love of neighbors and strangers—to listen, to protect, to endure, to bless and to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Proper 28C-22
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Her name is Stefani. She laughs easily with a throaty chuckle. Her eyes sparkle. ‘Bliss,’ could be her nickname. But her words catch us by surprise. In a quiet moment, she says, “What a sad world. I look around the world and grieve.”

Stefani is not a sad person, but she has the capacity to grieve, and she has had a good deal of personal experience. Stefani Schatz moved with her husband to live and work among the poor to follow Jesus. She says, “I work with people who have no jobs, and whose families for two or three generations have had no jobs. I see people who die here at a younger age than other places because of alcoholism, and drugs. I see people living in homes that crumble around them…There is no sense of hope…This feeling pervades everything.” (Anne Sutherland Howard, Claiming the Beatitudes, p. 33-34). For people like Stefani and her husband faith is not an abstraction but a shelter. While the world around them swirls with conflict and chaos they have a place in their hearts and minds to come in from the storm.

As they walked past the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus told the disciples, not one stone would be left upon another (Luke 21:6). The ruin of it must have been impossible for them to imagine. Yet to the hopeless poor like those Stefani serves, people who are feeling crushed by the weight of life circumstances then constrain and oppress them, Jesus’ ominous warning sounds like good news.

Among us, bible stories about ‘apocalypse’ and ‘end-times’ call to mind God’s wrathful destruction of the world and of sinners. That’s because, we, like the disciples, mostly have the wrong idea. We’re going to get a lot of apocalyptic stories of the end-times these next few weeks which aim to kindle our hope not to enflame our fear. Bible apocalypse was made for times like these when wars and rumors of wars swirl around us and the future is so uncertain.

An ‘apocalypse’ is an unveiling, and the ‘end-times’ are when the eternal things are revealed, not to destroy the world but to restore it, not to end all life on this planet but so that it may flourish. Apocalypse points the way in a world of endings toward the peaceable kingdom of God, and to new beginnings which are always and everywhere being springing up in, with, under, and around us. Thanks be to God. Jesus invites us to come in from the cold.

Bulgarian-born writer Maria Popova has called this a telescopic perspective on the world. Think of your life, she suggests, not in the span of days or years, or even generations, but from the perspective across geological epochs and cosmic space. The bible trains us to view our life through this telescopic perspective with its language about the end-times. From this vantage point so-called big things become very small and certain other things which may seem small now, loom large.

We are not the first generation of believers to feel discouraged and bewildered by world events. When the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., it was a bewildering event that seemed to signal the end of the world. Josephus’ account of the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans just thirty years after Jesus’ resurrection is no less spectacular that his description of the Temple itself which he described as blinding in reflected sunlight clad in so much gold. He writes, “The roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the falling victims; and owing to the height of the hill and the mass of the burning pile, one would have thought that the whole city was ablaze” (War 6.271-275) [p. 359].

It’s time to come in from the cold. Jesus does this, in part, by popping our spiritual bubbles. The disciples drew confidence from the grandeur of the temple. Today’s gospel challenges us to take inventory. What lies or illusions have I mistaken for truth? On what shiny religious edifice have I pinned my hopes? In what memories or traditions do I attempt to put God in a box? Why do I cling to permanence when Jesus invites me to evolve? Can I embrace a journey of faith that includes rubble, ruin, and failure? As the traditions I love, places I built, things I cried and prayed for fall apart? (Debie Thomas, By Your Endurance, Journey with Jesus, 11/10/19) What will remain of our life when we are done living it? Come in from the cold, Jesus says. Let us work together on what lasts.

The 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart once wrote, “Let us pray to God that we may be free of God,” implying that our conceptions of God and faith must always fall short, always fail. “Let’s name honestly, he suggests, the imposter gods we conjure because we fear the Mystery who really is. Let’s admit that we shape these gods in our own image, and that they serve us as much as we serve them. In other words, let’s undergo apocalypse so that truth will set us free. Let’s open our eyes, our hearts, our minds to see the world as Jesus sees it. (Debie Thomas) Open your imagination. Come in from the cold.

Christians like Stefani remain joyful yet engage fully in all the sadness in the world. Her sense of calm and confidence in the face of tremendous grief comes from knowing she is already living in the undying life of God. Because she imagines herself seated at the heavenly banquet, she has resources in God to draw upon that never run out. Stefani says, ‘It’s a Good Friday world we live in.” (p. 37). But we are an Easter people.

If you’re like me, then you breathed a sigh of relief this week. Authoritarianism and the toxic oxymoron of Christian nationalism suffered defeat. As of yesterday, every election denier who sought to become the top election official in their state lost at the polls (NYT, 11/13/22). Yet we’re not out of the woods our future, and that of future generations, still hang in the balance. We must come in from the cold. Dwell in the shelter of the Lord. Our ancestors in faith marked a lighted pathway out of the swirl and chaos stoked by those who want to keep us locked in our fear.

In the midst of the endings and upheaval which are part of every life, Jesus points toward new beginnings. When we follow Jesus we begin to imagine and “…to make a new community — one that embodies peace, justice, and righteousness; that gives itself to hope, faith, and love. It is a people gathered in sharing and sabbath, in generosity and gratitude. That community will insist that new life comes of every death, that resurrection is a practice and not a miracle. In the midst of the world’s decay, the Kingdom is coming — not with a bang but with a whisper” (Diana Butler Bass, Sunday Musings, 11/13/22).

It’s time to come in from the Cold. “People who live in such a way — especially in a world whirling with wars and rumors and war, awash in conspiracies and insurrections — aren’t always loved by those whose power thrives on fear. Indeed, the powerful would keep us on an emotional razor’s edge of Armageddon all the time. Jesus insists, however, that his friends not get distracted. Pay attention to what is true. Know what signs are really important. This age is, indeed, ending and God’s reign is near. But don’t be surprised. Stay the course. Tell your story. Honor God’s name” (Bass).