Advent 1B-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

A new year in our worship calendar starts today on this first Sunday of Advent. It begins, not with the pop of a champagne cork, but with lament at the hiddenness of God. ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, Isaiah pleads (Isaiah 64:1). The psalmist cries, “Restore us, O Lord of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80:3). Jesus warns the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken on the day of the Lord,’ (Mark 13:24). Hope and dread are interwoven. Advent teaches to us look for God’s light even when we are covered in darkness.  When I seem hidden know that I am near, says the Lord.  Remember, creation itself began in the dark.

 “In the beginning…darkness covered the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:1-2). God poured out love and brought all things into being… Creation is God’s work done in Holy Darkness… Later, Jacob wrestled all night with God and was changed forever… The beginning of the many nations and peoples of the Lord is the work of God’s beautiful darkness… At midnight, the Lord passed over Egypt and set the people free…  Samuel heard a small voice calling to him in the dark and became a mighty prophet… The disciples gathered with Jesus for the Holy Supper as the day turned to night… When Jesus died on the cross, the day went black from noon to three…  Creation began in holy darkness, and our new lives as free people in Christ began in the darkness of the sky that day…  God saved all creation, and it was the work of God’s beautiful, good, and holy darkness” (Sharei Green and Beckah Selnick, “God’s Holy Darkness,” Beaming Books, 2022).

As much as we want each day to be happy and filled with sunshine, the season of Advent helpfully equips us to withstand the bewildering pain of loss, self-doubt, and longing.  It may feel better to string a bunch of Christmas lights, or to set out electric candles on our windowsills.  I understand the temptation to rush through times tinged with blue; or to find electricity-fueled distractions to hold back the dark. It’s easy to be impatient with Advent.  But if we rush through this season, jumping from Thanksgiving to Christmas like nearly everyone else does, we miss learning its lessons. Each of us is a flicker of a larger flame. The darkness is luminous, full of wisdom and insight.  It is holy ground to rekindle hope and enter the presence of God. It offers grace to conquer even our darkest dread fears.

The first gift of Advent, then, is permission to tell the truth, even if that truth is laced with sorrow.  We become better able to see life as it is rather than life as we wish it to be. Advent declares, in stark terms that our world is not okay. Repairing the world is not a quick fix. Advent is honest about the mistakes we have made both personally and corporately.  Advent acknowledges we are surrounded by evil and suffering, and we’re not sure our faith can endure what our eyes reluctantly witness each day.

The second gift and discipline of Advent is learning to wait.  Advent instructs us how to live with quiet anticipation in the “not yet.” We stop rushing and learn to call sacred what is yet in-process and unformed just as God does. As we heard St. Paul say to the church in Corinth, we “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:7).

In her book, Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris writes that “In worship, we let loose with music, and the words of hymns, the psalms, canticles, and prayers.  We cast the Word of God out into the world, into each human heart, where, to paraphrase the prophet Isaiah, it needs to go to fulfill God’s purpose.  Isaiah uses the metaphor of rain to convey this –rain that disappears into the ground for a time, so that we can’t see it working.  And then, it bears abundantly.”  We are witnesses to this.  The Kingdom will come, yes.  But it is also coming.

In these dark days of December, after the leaves have fallen and the flowers have dried up, it may seem most improbable to keep watch for signs of new life, yet we who serve the God of steadfast love can be confident they are there. Advent faith isn’t valued in the modern world, which applauds arrivals, finish lines, shortcuts, and end products, far more than it does the meandering journey or odd way station. If the secular world speeds past darkness to the safe certainty of light, then Advent reminds us that the most necessary things — things worth waiting for — are wrapped in darkness. We can’t get more counter-cultural than that.  The seeds of spring flowers break open in dark winter soil. God’s Spirit hovers over dark water, preparing to create worlds. The child we yearn for grows in the deep darkness of the womb. “Our food is expectation,” writes Nora Gallagher about Advent. In this season, we strive to find, “not perfection, but possibility.”(Debie Thomas, The Journey with Jesus, 11/24/14) Wait for God amid the world’s messed-upedness.  Learn again what motivates our yearning for Messiah.

We call him Messiah and Lord, but Jesus most often called himself the “Son of Man.” We read this odd title thirty times in Matthew, fourteen in Mark; and twenty-five times in Luke. Jesus’ self-proclaimed title comes from the Book of Daniel, 7:13. Jesus declared himself to represent the coming of God’s way to reign in the world, a way that is truly human, a way that God the Creator designed for us from the beginning. Jesus is the new Adam. The first born of a new humanity. We also have been again as God’s children by baptism into Christ. Jesus’ mission was his prayer, that God’s kingdom come, and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven.

When we feel God is absent, I wonder, is it because God is truly hidden, or does God appear so because we are looking for the wrong God? We are looking for God in the wrong places, from the wrong perspectives, from the darkness of our minds and hearts. The Advent of the new Human Being in us begins by walking the way of Jesus and his cross. This is the path of resurrection and new life.

If we are waiting for a Second Coming of Christ who will wage violence, exact revenge, and liberate us from our enemies, and snatch us from this world, then, yes, that God is absent. But if by faith we keep watch and wait for the God who shows up among victims, then that God has been with us all the time; one simply must look in the right place. (Paul Nuechterlein, Girardian, Notes on Advent 1B)

Author and Nazi camp survivor, Elie Wiesel, captured this hard-won insight in his famous memoir, simply called, Night. He writes, “A child hangs from an SS gallows and the question goes up, ‘Where is God?’” God would seem utterly absent in such tragic injustice.  But Wiesel notices something different. He writes: “And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is . . . He is hanging here on this gallows.’” (Night, Bantam Books, 1982, pp. 61-62.)  Jesus wasn’t wrong about a Second Coming. “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (Mark 13:30). Nations that don’t follow King Jesus on God’s path to peace walk themselves into destruction.  Here comes the nonviolent Son of Man again to rescue us human beings from our own violence. As our eyes slowly adjust to God’s luminous darkness, we are called into serving Christ by welcoming one another as Christ. Christ coming again and again is the advent worth waiting for, preparing for, watching for. Let the stars begin to fall and the earth tremble.

Christ the King Sunday

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I want to begin today, as I sometimes do for Christ the King Sunday, with a children’s story by Minnesota naturalist and author, Douglas Wood.  Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s called Old Turtle.

The story begins in a far-away land that “is somehow not so far away,” when, one night, a truth fell from the stars. And as it fell, it broke into two pieces—one piece blazed off through the sky and the other fell straight to the ground.

One day a man stumbled upon the truth that fell to earth and read the words carved on its the surface, “You are loved,” it said. It made him feel good, so he kept it, and shared it with the people of his tribe. The thing sparkles and makes the people who have it feel warm and happy. It became their most prized possession, and they called it “The Truth.”

But soon, those who had “the truth” became afraid of those who didn’t have it, who were different than they were. And those who didn’t have it desired it. Soon people fought wars over the small truth, trying to capture it for themselves.

A little girl, endangered by the growing violence, greed, and destruction in her once peaceful world fled her home and went on a journey—through the Mountains of Imagining, the River of Wondering Why, and the Forest of Finding Out—and there she spoke with Old Turtle, the wise counselor. Old Turtle was truly old. He told her that the Truth was broken and missing a piece—the piece that shot off in the night sky long ago. Together they searched for it, and when they found it, the little girl put the jagged piece in her pocket and returned to her people.

She tried to explain, but no one would listen or understand. Finally, a raven flew the broken truth to the top of a tower where the other piece was locked up for safety. The pieces were rejoined and shone out with their full message: “You are loved / and so are they.” And the people began to comprehend. And the earth began to heal.  (Old Turtle and the Broken Truth, Douglas Wood, illustrations by Jon J. Muth)

 Wood’s beautiful children’s story opens a way to understanding what today’s theme is about. Christ the King Sunday was not a thing anybody knew or celebrated until Pope Pius XI instituted it in 1925. He hoped it would help heal the world ravaged by nationalism following World War I. He hoped Jesus’s humble kingship would be powerful gospel medicine to end the fever dream of empire, nationalism, and consumerism. “You are loved / and so are they.” Yet if we neglect that second part, ‘and so are they,’ we fall again into triumphalism, colonialism, and Christian nationalism.

In today’s gospel, Jesus announced, lived, and inaugurated a new social order. He called it the Reign or Kingdom of God. It was the guiding image of his entire ministry. It is the subject of Jesus’ inaugural address in Mark 1:15, Matthew 4:17, and Luke 4:14–30. It is the theme of his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), and most of his parables.  In God’s kingdom “You are loved / and so are they.”

This truth matters. We suffer from knowing only part of the truth. A partial truth can be as misleading as a lie. The truth, the whole truth, will set us free. Jesus offers strong gospel medicine. Yet, as Pope Pius XI observed, somehow, we mostly avoid taking the medicine that could heal us.

In today’s parable, like an old-fashioned vaccine, Jesus uses a bit of the poison that afflicts us for healing. Binary thinking, either-or, this-and-that, is like a narcotic to which we are addicted like the people in the fable of Old Turtle. The antidote is both-and. “We are one, just as the Father and I are one” (John 17:21), Jesus said. “You are loved / and so are they.”

The recipe for Jesus’ remedy includes a bit of the hair of the dog that bites us again and again. Some of you are sheep and others of you are goats, Jesus says. Yes! Yes!  We are quick to take the bait. Some of us are winners and others are losers.

Life’s losers are easy to spot. Jesus wrote out a list.  Losers are the people who are hungry or thirsty now.  Losers are the people among you who are strangers. Losers are the ones without proper clothing. They’re people who are sick or in prison. Goats all. Like a sugary treat, we are quick to take and eat this part of the story.

But Jesus interjects the second part of the gospel of grace into this parable. Take, eat, Jesus says, this is my body. It hits our blood stream like a vaccine. This gospel medicine frees us from binary thinking. You are loved – yes. I am always with you – yes. Look for and find me among life’s losers – wait what? Yes, Jesus says, the good sheep will love and serve life’s goats just as I do. In fact, “Whatever you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). In the penetrating light of the gospel, we discover we are all goats, yet God has loved us into being sheep. Let the people comprehend, and the earth begin to heal.

I want to suggest that the ‘they’ God loves includes the natural world. St. Bonaventure said we are linked together in a great chain of being with all of creation.  Today, we recognize the web of life extends in every direction, joining our health and well-being to the flourishing of every creature from the largest mammals to the merely microscopic. We used to think of God, our sovereign, as a supernatural being, acting outside and apart from nature.  But now, more and more, modern science points back to the wisdom of the ancients resonating throughout scripture: God is not supernatural, but rather a supremely natural sovereign, working in, with, and under all things.

 “Jesus gets awfully specific in telling us where we can find him. Each of the habitations he lists [in today’s gospel] is marked by lack: lack of food, lack of water, lack of hospitality, lack of clothing, lack of health, lack of freedom. Christ chooses these places, inhabits these spaces, [then] waits for us to show up. Waits, too, for us to recognize those places in ourselves. [Jesus] knows that if we haven’t recognized the poverty within our own souls, and how he dwells there, it’s hard to see him and serve him in others without being patronizing. (Jan Richardson, The Painted Prayerbook)

When we feel lost, the gospel of Jesus points like a compass to show us the way. You are loved, and so are they.  Love God. Love your neighbor.  Love your neighbor as a way of loving God. The real winners look like life’s losers, Jesus said, because they’re the ones that refuse to play the game.  It is the spirit of Christ active in love for your neighbor that will carry us out of the fog of world wars, out of the destructive power of nationalism, out of the natural disaster of economic and ecological ruin.  Whether you respond to human and non-human need, or fail to respond, you are in fact responding, or failing to respond to Christ. You are loved, and so are they. Here is gospel medicine for our time.  Let the people comprehend. Let the earth begin to heal.

The counter-kingdom of God sets rules to live by and be judged by.  And what does the Lord require of you, O mortal – but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with the Lord your God? (Micah 6:8).

Proper 28A-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“I went and hid your talent in the ground.” Oops.  Wrong answer-right?  Anyone who attended Sunday school knows you don’t hide your talent under a bushel basket or bury it in the ground! You’ve gotta let your little light shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.

At first blush, this would appear to be the lesson of Jesus’ parable. But notice, Jesus isn’t talking, here, about our special abilities and spiritual gifts. He’s talking about a very, very large sum of money. One talent was between 80 -130 pounds of precious silver or gold, equal to fifteen to twenty years of a daily laborer’s wage. You are fabulously gifted by grace. It’s true. But this parable is not about some sort of spiritual talent show, neither is it a lesson about wise investing. That just wasn’t any part of the world view shared by Jesus’ audience.

Hear then, Jesus parable of the talents: “A member of the wealthy 1% gives three of his most trusted workers a jackpot to play with. They know the rules — the more they make for the boss, the more they’ll get to keep for themselves. The name of the game is exploitation — no questions asked — and the only rule is: turn a profit. Turn as huge a profit as possible” (Debi Thomas, “The Good Kind of Worthless,” Journey with Jesus 11/8/20).

“Two of the slaves do exactly as they’re told. They take their talents out into the world and double them on the backs of the poor. Who knows how many fields they seize, how many farmers they impoverish, how many families they destroy? It doesn’t matter: they fulfill the bottom line. They make a profit. When the master returns and sees what they’ve accomplished on his behalf, he’s thrilled. He invites the two enterprising slaves to enter into his “joy” — the joy of further wealth, further profit, further exploitation.” (Thomas)

Perhaps our first clue to think again about the meaning of this parable should have been the third slave’s description of his master. ‘Master,’ he said, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so, I was afraid’ (Matthew 25:24, 25a). Unfortunately, maybe this too sounds like the God we learned about in Sunday School—but whatever we might think, the God we encounter in the bible is not harsh, demanding, or threatening.

People listening to Jesus would have understood just the opposite. The God of Israel brought them out of slavery into a land flowing with milk and honey, to drink from cisterns they did not dig and to reap harvests that they did not plant. In fact, God instructed them to harvest badly, that is, to leave some of the wheat and sheaves behind for the hungry to glean.  God told them not to strip the vines completely bare of grapes, nor to shake all the olives from the trees so there would be some leftover for those with nothing to feed themselves and their families. Those listening to Jesus did not look kindly on wealth generated by reaping where they did not sow or by gathering where they did not scatter seed i.e., who profited from dishonest labor.

The ancient Mediterranean attitude toward wealth was very different from ours. The concept of an honest rich man was a first-century oxymoron (Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels). Jesus’ consistent priority is for the poor and outcast.

The first two slaves did their master’s bidding. They went out and lent money to the farming poor at exorbitant interest, and systematically stripped those debtors of their land. But the third slave? The third slave opted out. The third slave “is more than a quiet hero; he is a whistleblower. Jesus’ audience would have given a thumbs-up to the actions of the third servant, because he is the one who said no.  I will not participate, I will not cooperate, I refuse to be part of your system.  At great cost to himself, he names the exploitation — the same exploitation he colluded in and benefited from for years. He relinquishes his claim on wealth and comfort, calls out the master’s greed and [predatory rapaciousness.] He told the truth. He’s cast out. He lost everything” (Thomas).

Despite of what we learned in Sunday school, the ‘master’ in Jesus’ parable is not God but a stand in for all the corrupt worldly powers of empire that hold sway over us. The heroes aren’t the slaves who turned a profit but the one who let his little light shine by saying “no” to the ways of the world, the ways of Empire, and dog-eat-dog capitalism, and so, was cast out just as Jesus was. The way of Jesus leads to the cross.

What we encounter today is a counter-narrative to all our dystopian novels. Woven through the texts for this Sunday is the topic of fear: fear of punishment and ruin, of mortality and wrath, of communal uncertainty and individual failure. These lessons have special resonance for us today. The search for God and the search for our deepest selves ends up being the same search. As Teresa of Ávila famously said, ‘one finds God in oneself, and one finds oneself in God.’ This is the spiritual food that empowered our ancestors to courageously confront the values of empire and begin to replace them with hospitality, justice, and mercy. This is the story of hope that enables us now to live boldly, body and soul, in the promises of a God who treasures us.

Jesus turns our world upside down. Jesus upends even what we may have learned in Sunday School. Highest praise is reserved for those who make of themselves a gift to others. God is not a tyrant but a steady source of undeserved and abundant love. Transformed by the way of the cross, this love turns our hearts and hand outward toward the outcast and the poor. Jesus said, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).

The so-called lazy slave said “no” to his master and said “yes” to God.  We too, say “yes” in our baptism.  We have vowed to renounce the devil, the powers of this world, and the ways of sin that draw us from God.  We have vowed to live among God’s faithful people, to serve all people following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. This is not a burden, but the source of our joy and thanksgiving.

So, let there be some thanksgiving in our Thanksgiving.  Let us work not for the betterment only of ourselves—but of our grandchildren and our grandchildren’s grandchildren –so future generations may live and thrive and not make the same mistakes we have made. Even now the kingdom of God breaks in all around us, with us, in us, through us, and among us.   Thanks be to God.

All Saints Sunday A-23
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Today, we see family photos, keepsakes, and candles arrayed before us. Each one is a reminder of someone we have known and loved who has died. Perhaps they inspired us or encouraged us or nurtured us in faith. These ancestors gave shape to our values and to our bodies. We carry forward a connection to them with our talents and interests, in our passions and in our DNA.

I chose a photo of my dad and me riding a horse together. I must have been about three years old. It’s curious, some people look and comment how much I remind them of my dad. Others notice how much I looked like my son, Sam, when he was little. Others assume it’s a photo of Sam and me. Three generations, the living and the not yet born, are linked together in a snapshot taken in 1965. Old photos tell the story of family traits, passed from generation to generation –family traits by which we recognize relatives –and by which others recognize us. Today we honor those that have loved us, taught, bathed, and toiled for us who are now together with all the saints in light.

The Sermon on the Mount stands out as among the very first written records of Jesus’ preaching and teaching. It predates the gospels and even the letters of St. Paul. It is, therefore, among the most direct, life-like samples of what it was like to sit and listen to Jesus. The beatitudes offer a glimpse of the family traits we share with each other and with people of faith of every time and place. Prayer and contemplation centered on the beatitudes lead toward a disarmed heart, nonviolence, and love. The Sermon is a kind of portrait drawn to reveal the family traits of those who dwell the upside-down world that is in, with, and under the world which Jesus called the kingdom of God.

The first four beatitudes point to those whom God’s heart goes out to. Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.’ (Matthew 5: 3-6). Jesus directs our attention to the dispossessed and abandoned people of the world. These four blessings are a song of lament. These are not qualities and conditions for living that God desires for us. Rather, these are undesirable conditions that characterize no one when God’s will is finally done. God suffers with the poor and so do we when, by God’s grace, we begin to take on the family traits that are our birthright as children of God.

The second stanza of blessings in Jesus’ Sermon (Matthew 5:7-10) point us toward those champions of God’s love who usher in God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. The people whom Jesus declares blessed in the end of his Sermon (Matthew 5:7-10) are those who help to make real the blessings promised to others mentioned at the beginning of his Sermon (Matthew 5:3-6). (Mark Allan Powell, God With Us: A Pastoral Theology of Matthew’s Gospel, Fortress, 1995, p. 130)

The merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted and reviled for striving to do God’s work, these are God’s champions. Ironically, those who seek to bring fairness and hope to those without it can find themselves in the position of lacking it. Jesus’ own life is a good example: he proclaimed justice to those deprived of justice, and he became one who was unjustly executed. Yet, by his example, Jesus also showed us where such sacrifice in pursuit of the greater good leads. It leads into glory and eternal life.

The final blessing of Jesus’s Sermon suddenly shifts to the first-person pronoun, ‘you.’ “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (5:11). Up to now Jesus has not directly addressed us. Jesus has pointed toward the poor. He has pointed at the virtuous souls working for a better life for all. He has pronounced blessings upon them both. Now suddenly, Jesus points at each of us. He directly involves his listeners. Jesus calls us to embrace our legacy and take our place in the family business that is our birthright as children of God.

People searching for Jesus came from everywhere. On an arid dusty mountain in the rolling hills of northern Israel, somewhere near the Sea of Galilee, Jesus sat down among a great crowd. Some came because they were curious. Others came because they were desperate. They came on behalf of friends or family. They came daring to hope Jesus could be the beginning of the good news, the end of capricious power, the repairer of the breach, the restorer of cities and streets to live in (Isaiah 58:12). Some had left everything behind to follow him.

They were a great crowd, trudging, clanging, and banging their way through the wilderness, lugging bags, supplies, and the infirm up a mountain behind Jesus. They came hoping for hope. They gathered amidst the dust hanging in the air, covering their bodies, catching in their eyes, choking their throats and Jesus taught them to see themselves. He taught them to reclaim the dignity endowed to each of them as children of the living God.

He taught them as the prophet Jeremiah of old had proclaimed, “Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord: I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 9:23-24). He taught them as St. Paul would later write, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will or God—what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2). See, even now, all creation groans as if in labor pains towards a new creation in Christ.

We can see this new birth of freedom in each other. We recognize each another among those struggling for God’s shalom to be born again in us, in our families, and in our world. Our ancestors in faith passed these precious traits down to us from generation to generation. They left their mark on us in the shape of the cross we bear on our foreheads. Theirs is a legacy of love and caring, both for themselves and for us. These are the family traits we share with all the people of God. This is the life’s work to which we are called. This is how we honor our beloved dead until that day when there breaks a yet more glorious day, when we with the saints triumphant rise in bright array singing Alleluia! Alleluia! Thanks be to God.

Proper 25A-23- Reformation

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Kari and I visited Wittenberg, Germany, this summer. It was the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation. On All Saint’s eve, October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther is said to have nailed 95 theses to the doors of Castle Church. He called for a debate on stewardship. More to the point, he called out the church’s manipulation of the poor, fearmongering, and abuse of money being done to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Driving from Berlin, I was surprised to discover how far the historic town is from the main roads. It’s a small place even today. The old city is laid out along two parallel cobblestone streets each about a mile long—or less!  Yet, 500 years ago, changes to the church, to worship, to culture, to commerce, to faith in daily life, including an explosion in increased literacy rates among both boys and girls, wrang out from that tiny town. The impact of the earthquake that was the Reformation can be mapped by historians rippling out from the epicenter in Wittenberg, and in concentric circles surrounding anywhere else in Europe and throughout the world that Lutheranism and/or other protestors (otherwise known as Protestants) took root. (Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest People in the World, 2020, p. 33)

Of course, such profound change comes with unintended consequences.  The Reformation cast long shadows in Western history that we are only now beginning to name.  The legacy of colonialism, white supremacy, manifest destiny, antisemitism, and Christian nationalism, and ecological destruction are the sins of our forefathers and mothers which we must face squarely. A Reforming church is also a self-critical church. It is a self-correcting church, a repenting church that can learn and respond to the promptings of a Loving God. This is the legacy of Lutheranism that I am most proud of.

Martin Luther famously translated the bible into vernacular German. He wrote the large and small catechism as a guide to parents which he said, ‘are the priests and bishops of their household.’ He encouraged people to read the Psalms, which he said “might as well be called a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible. It is really a fine enchiridion or handbook. In fact, I have a notion that the Holy Spirit wanted to take the trouble [herself] to compile a short Bible and book of examples of all Christendom or all saints, so that anyone who could not read the whole Bible would here have anyway almost an entire summary of it, comprised in one little book” (LW 35:254).

“By this Luther obviously did not mean that the Psalms teach Christian beliefs, since they were all written before the time of Christ.  Rather, Luther was referring to the fact that the Psalms explore the highs and lows of the life of faith.  They sing with joy and trust from the mountaintop moments and cry out with pain “out of the depths (Ps. 130:1).  The Psalms weep with those who suffer, laugh with those who celebrate, and teach all of us about the long journey of faith” (Introduction to the Psalms, Lutheran Study Bible).

Likewise, our reading from Matthew is often called the ‘gospel in miniature,’ and/or, ‘The Great Commandment.’  It comes from Jesus’ last days. Jesus is teaching in the temple. This time, it’s the Pharisees turn to play gotcha with Jesus.  The Sadducees, Scribes, and Herodians all struck out. After this none will dare to approach him with any more questions.

“Teacher,” they ask, ‘which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ (Matthew 22:36). A careful, painstaking review of scripture by Jewish scholars had resulted in a list of 613 commandments. Citing any one of them as the greatest would be cause for controversy.  Jesus answer surprised them. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… and your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39b

Jesus combined the famous Shema with the Golden Rule.  My Jewish friend has a mezuzah nailed beside every door in his house, each containing a small printed copy of the Shema—Deuteronomy 6:4—‘Hear O Israel the Lord is our God…You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  The Golden Rule, ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) is more familiar to Christians, although we are, perhaps, surprised that it is found in the book of Leviticus!

Love God, love people.  Sounds simple, but we notice, Jesus didn’t say how we are to go about it. There’s no instruction manual. Instead, Jesus showed us what it means to love God and neighbor – for example—in talking to a Samaritan women at the well; or in dismissing an angry mob and pronouncing forgiveness to a women caught in adultery; feeding the five thousand, eating with hopeless no-gooders, touching lepers, attending to the widow, and of course, by going to the cross, rising, and proclaiming to friends who betrayed him, ‘shalom, peace be with you.’

For Jesus, loving God and neighbor are equal, synonymous, and inseparable.  To love God is to love our neighbor (NIB, Matthew, p. 426). To do one is to do the other, and to neglect one is to lose them both –or as theologian Dorothy Day once put it, “[You] really only love God as much as [you] love the person [you] love the least.”

Returning to the Psalms for confirmation of this teaching we read—Happy are they who delight in the Torah of the Lord. “They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that | do not wither; (Psalm 1:3). Living in love we become rooted in grace wherever we go so that we may sing with joy and trust from the mountaintop and cry out with pain from out the depths. We weep with those who suffer, laugh with those who celebrate with an open, curious heart throughout all our lifelong days.

This Reformation Day, if there is one thing in your faith life you might try to shift, or to change, consider this: the church is not a noun but a verb. Church is something we are called and equipped to be and to do. There isn’t some magic number we need to hit or program we need to have to do the things God is calling us to do right now. We already have everything we need to be church to one another and to our neighbor.  Being church is infinitely scalable. Wherever two or three are gathered, Christ is there, in the midst of us, teaching us to love and serve and to disciple one another. This is how we are living sanctuary whether we are talking or listening, or feeding, or worshipping, or singing, or tutoring, or studying, or praying, or peacemaking, or striving for justice, or whatever it is that we do in Jesus’ name.  May God strengthen you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you with grace and mercy and give you peace. Amen.

Proper 24A-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

‘Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what belongs to God’ (Matthew 22:21). This small but mighty verse gave birth to the biblical doctrine of the two kingdoms and to the separation of Church and State. Centuries after Christ, Christian vocation, the baptismal call to love and serve God, would shift from performance of religious services, toward kindness, compassion and service of family, friends, and neighbor in daily life. ‘Render to Caesar,’ explains why secularism became a prominent consequence of the Gospel in the Western world.

In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking God has nothing to say about daily life and/or politics, but you would be wrong. Jesus’ Jewish listeners would have caught the deeper message. Roman authorities heard Jesus say what they wanted to hear, that taxes should be paid. Others in the temple that day would have heard the echo of Genesis chapter one. “…God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness (Gen 1:26-27); “…for in his own image God made humankind.” (Genesis 9:6).

They produced the coin used to pay the Roman tax from their pocket. Jesus asked them, “Whose image is this, and whose title?” Most likely, the coin bore the image of the emperor Tiberius, who ruled Rome during those years (AD 14–37). One side of the coin identified Tiberius as the ‘son of god’, while the other honored him as the ‘chief priest’ of Roman polytheism—which is to say both sides of the coin were an affront to faith.

This coin may bear Caesar’s image, but you and I bear God’s image. Caesar may have sovereignty over some of our money, but Yahweh has true sovereignty over us. Rendering to God what is God’s means giving ourselves. Two chapters earlier (Matthew 20:25-28) Jesus explained: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

An old children’s sermon begins by looking into mirror and asking, ‘What do you see?’  Children answer, ‘I see me’; ‘my smile’; ‘my messy hair’. Yes—and more besides. The most important thing for you to see is that you are a child of God. You are a child of God. You are blessed. You are loved deeply. We must pause to let that message really sink in because we can only love others as well as we first love ourselves. Now, the sermon continues, look in another’s eyes?  What do you see?  The answer is the same- and that simple truth begins to change everything. All people are loved. All life is miraculous and filled to overflowing with God’s abundant grace.

Roman coins are stamped with the image of the emperor. You and I are stamped with the imago Dei –the image of the living God. We are marked with the cross of Christ at baptism. We bear this sign, not to exclude those who have not been baptized, but to proclaim the love God has for all people.

Without God’s love, our vision becomes distorted and unreliable. We see what we fear. We project our fears upon others. Those unfortunate others soon become less than us. They become expendable. Their lives don’t matter. They become the innocent victims of greed and hatred. They become the targets of violence, just like six-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume, the Palestinian boy killed this week in Plainfield, Illinois by his 71-year-old landlord who entered their apartment yelling, ‘You Muslims must die.” Apparently, ‘He was incensed at the news coming out of Israel.’

When we are blind to the imago Dei in others, it leads to tragedy. ELCA Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, released a statement this week about the Israel-Hamas war.  She writes, “As Lutherans, we are accustomed to holding tension between two truths. Thus, the ELCA denounces the egregious acts of Hamas, acts that have led to unspeakable loss of life and hope. At the same time the ELCA denounces the indiscriminate retaliation of Israel against the Palestinian people, both Christian and Muslim.”

To see as Christ sees moves us from our usual win-lose way of thinking and from taking sides toward win-win solutions. Modern warfare is built on winning while others lose. Blindly pursued, most often it results in a lose-lose situation for both parties. True peace does not come from the muzzle of a gun, thicker walls, better locks, or security checks. Security comes when our neighbors are secure. It comes when we see the divine image in everyone and in everything. It comes by moving with that divine spirit hidden in, with, and under all things conspiring with us in striving for peace.

Long ago, St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), wrote about this. She said that ‘our little world mirrors the big world.’ The human soul resonates with the created world. Hildegard wrote about the ‘greening of things from within,’ in a way that sounds like what we now call photosynthesis. She recognized a readiness in plants to receive the sun and to transform it into energy and life. She also saw an inherent connection between the physical world and the divine Presence. This connection provides the energy that is the soul and seed of everything, an inner voice calling you to “Become who you are; become all that you are.”

Through the eyes of Hildegard, we see that “Nature is not a mere scenic backdrop so humans can take over the stage. Creation is in fact a full participant in human transformation, since the outer world is absolutely needed to mirror the true inner world.” As Franciscan preacher and writer, Richard Rohr, has said, “There are not just two sacraments, or even seven; the whole world is a sacrament!” Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, “Nature as Mirror of God, 3/12/18)

See, you are marked with the cross of Christ.  You are stamped with the image and likeness of God.  Share the grace that is already in you.  Welcome and celebrate the grace God has placed your neighbors. Remember, God is always with you. God’s love is the fuel your Christian vocation filling you with kindness, compassion, and courage in service of family, friends, and neighbors, making you a true sign of light and peace in the midst of a hurting world.

Proper 22A-23
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus said, ‘Listen to this’ (Matthew 21:33a). An investor bought a three flat in Edgewater. They renovated everything right down the studs. New insulation, windows, plumbing, and electric. They opened the floor plan, refinished the floors, and installed an upscale kitchen and bathrooms. They leased it out and moved to Florida. When the rent came due, the tenants banded together, beat up one property manager, killed another, and stoned another. Finally, they even killed the landlord’s son. The end. That’s where Jesus stopped the story. He asked his listeners to supply the ending.

It doesn’t take much imagination. We all know what’s coming for those really bad no good, horrible tenants. The Temple leaders answered, ‘the landlord will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the three-flat to other tenants who will pay the rent on time’ (vs. 41). Problem solved. Right?

What was Jesus driving at? He was, of course, not talking about a three-flat, but a well-appointed vineyard. From ancient times, the vineyard was a symbol of the nation of Israel. “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planting. God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Isaiah 5:7). In answering Jesus’ question, the Temple leaders pronounced judgement upon themselves. The faithful people of Israel and their leaders were behaving just like those violent, wicked, greedy tenants.

Jesus’ parable was not about a three flat, but perhaps our quick answer to Jesus’ question convicts us just the same. Is not the world and everything in it like a well-appointed garden God planted and entrusted to us? God is endlessly creative. God cultivates perfectly balanced, thriving, and resilient ecosystems filled with every kind of plant, creature, and organism, both visible and invisible, joined together in a beautiful harmony of contrasts that gave birth to us and continues to sustain all life. Yet where “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”

We just experienced the hottest summer ever on planet earth. Yet, Public Religion Research released a survey on faith and concern for the climate revealing that, among U.S. religious groups, no single faith community exceeds one-third of its adherents viewing Earth’s current situation as a “crisis.”

What’s a loving God supposed to do? Evict us? Kill us? Replace us? No. God does not make the same choices that we would. You, wanderers. You lovers of leaving. Though you have broken your vows a thousand times God invites you again, to come. Come into my arms, I will hold you. Come take and eat, I will feed you. Come drink and be satisfied. Despite our faithlessness, here comes our Lord Jesus again in Word, in wine, bread and water. Here comes the paraclete, the teacher, the advocate, the Holy Spirit to fill us again with the truth of our own worthiness. You are welcomed with compassion and forgiveness into the inner circle of the Holy Trinity so that you may become compassionate and forgiving where you had neither. Here comes the Spirit to move us beyond enlightened self-interest into to Christ-consciousness.

Perhaps we should pause here to say what Jesus’ parable is NOT about. The parable of the wicked tenants is not about the transfer of Israel’s privileges to the Christian church as it has so often been portrayed. Jesus parable is designed not to condemn the Jewish faith but to provoke repentance all of us. In the course of Christian history, this passage, and others like it, tragically became fuel for fires of anti-Semitism. Jews were reviled with the hated nickname “Christ killers.” Popes and bishops taught that Jews were less than fully human. Most tragically, Martin Luther’s own teachings against Jews fueled the flames of the “final solution” of the Nazi gas chambers. This parable does not allow us to shift blame away from ourselves. That is too easy.

Instead, this gospel calls us to embrace God’s love to become love for ourselves and for others. Rather than retribution for sin, Christ Jesus has planted compassion deep within us. The Spirit, God’s Holy Advocate, has poured into your heart the truth of your own worthiness. Attuned to the mind of Christ, our bodies are flooded with gratitude and connection. The seed of compassion planted in us grows into nonviolence, non-judgmentalism, forgiveness, and mindfulness. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. God’s strategy for changing the world begins with self-care. Compassion and empathy for others grows in direct proportion to the compassion and understanding you have for yourself.
Look! Here is healing balm you don’t have to pay for. Here is healing you don’t have to add to your to-do list. Here is love for you, just the way that you are, in the body that you are, in abundance and without price, poured out for you in the fullness of every moment. Here is the love of God coming into our world and into our lives. Jesus opened his arms on the cross, bringing life into this world even where there is death; bringing hope where there is despair; and bringing resurrection to all creation.

How many times have we turned away from God’s grace? How often have we rejected God’s love, taken the gifts of God’s Garden for granted, used its fruits for personal gain even as the garden was being harmed or destroyed? How often have we remained silent as others suffered to create the material wealth we enjoy? See, Christ, the cornerstone, is breaking our small self in pieces. We are being crushed, like grapes. Our hearts and minds are being transformed into new wine. (Matthew 21:44)
New wine must be stored in new wineskins. Filled with God’s compassion and love, our voice changes from proclaiming selfishness to justice. There, on the back altar, is an icon of one of my heroes, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. While standing behind the altar presiding at communion, he was shot and killed forty-three years ago by those who considered him a rebellious tenant of the land. Archbishop Oscar Romero will have the last word.

It is very easy to be servants of the word without disturbing the world: a very spiritualized word, a word without any commitment to history, a word that can sound in any part of the world because it belongs to no part of the world. A word like that creates no problems, starts no conflicts.
What starts conflicts and persecutions, what marks the genuine Church, is the word that, burning like the word of the prophets, proclaims and accuses: proclaims to the people God’s wonders to be believed and venerated, and accuses of sin those who oppose God’s reign, so that they may tear that sin out of their hearts, out of their societies, out of their laws—out of the structures that oppress, that imprison, that violate the rights of God and of humanity. This is the hard service of the word. But God’s Spirit goes with the prophet, with the preacher, for he is Christ, who keeps on proclaiming his reign to the people of all times.
(Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love, 1977, pg. 18)

Proper 20A-23
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jonah. And. The. Whale. God told Jonah to preach the good news to his enemies, to the people who had invaded his country, slaughtered his neighbors, and carried off friends and family into slavery by the thousands. God said to the prophet Jonah, “Get thee to Ninevah.” Jonah says to God, “No way!” He booked a ship to Tarshish –which is completely in the opposite direction, and about as far away from Ninevah as any person in the ancient world could get.
Ninevah (which is the modern city of Mosul in northern Iraq), was the capital city of Assyria, with a population of 120,000 people. It was possibly the largest city in the world in those days. Its sinfulness was legendary, as was its cruelty: The people of Ninevah were known to burn their enemies alive and to decorate their walls and pyramids with the skins (Jacques Ellul, The Judgment of Jonah, 1971, p. 26).

You know what happened. Jonah’s plan to run away from God was met with disaster. No one is beyond the reach of God’s hand. He is thrown into the sea, got tangled up in sea weeds and was about to drown, when, at the last moment, he was swallowed by a great fish then, finally, after three days, he is vomited out upon the sandy shore. He didn’t even have time to wipe himself off when he hears God repeat the command, ‘Get up, and go to Nineveh!’ (Jonah 3:2).

The only thing more preposterous than this big fish story is what happened next. When Jonah finally arrives at Ninevah, his half-hearted preaching had amazing results. The evil Assyrian king and all the people repent. Even the animals repent! They repent in the same way an observant Jewish person would –only they did it much much better!

And rather than being overjoyed, Jonah complained bitterly: “I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2). God’s equal-opportunity mercy disgusted Jonah.

An interesting aside is that Jonah comes up in our lectionary only twice every three years. But this week, in addition to being read by Christians at worship across our city and around the world, it is also read in worship by Jews everywhere for the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. God offers Jonah forgiveness by which he may be purified and cleansed from all his sins before God. In typically Hebraic fashion, God didn’t rebuke Jonah for his anger, but playfully attempted to broaden Jonah’s horizons, so that Jonah might see the Ninevites as God sees them.

God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah’s answer, of course, is yes! God’s little object lesson using a weed, a worm, and the wind did nothing to dispel Jonah’s bitterness. Disgust and rejection at God’s mercy finds an echo in our own time among people of faith. The news this week includes a story of a preacher who quoted Jesus Sermon on the Mount, saying things like “Turn the other cheek” and “Blessed are the peacemakers.” A parishioner asked, “Where did you get those liberal talking points from?” The pastor said, “I was literally quoting Jesus Christ.” The parishioner responded, “That doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.” (Martin Thielen, “The real religious crisis in America,” 9/21/23).

Shock and dismay at the love and mercy of God is the tie that binds our readings together. Jesus said that the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to an owner of a vineyard who hired day-laborers to take in the harvest. Some worked twelve hours, some worked nine, others worked for six hours; while others only worked for three; and some for only one hour! And yet, he paid them all the same, beginning with the last ones hired to the first. To add insult to injury the landowner insisted on paying the workers in reverse order, thereby making sure that the first workers saw what their less deserving counterparts received. Their reaction is not surprising. ‘Hey! No fair!’ they complain.

“Are you envious because I am generous?” the landowner asked. Again, scripture confronts our righteous indignation with a question. Is it right for you to be angry?” Is it right to be envious? Whatever else it may be, the Kingdom of Heaven is not a meritocracy. God plays by different rules. Jesus’ way opens into a life of grace and not merit, of status reversal instead of status reverence, of underserved generosity rather than pay for services rendered. The parable of the generous landowner offers a concrete example of living out Jesus’ Sermon the Mount. Following the way of Jesus will challenge us. Indelible human dignity doesn’t come from merit, or righteousness, or power, or even fairness, but only from God’s grace. Surrender your envy, your moral judgements and join the party.
The story of Jonah teaches that no matter our past behavior, God’s benevolence and mercy awaits us. God’s grace covers all people, everywhere, no matter their religion or place of origin. The Book of Jonah stops short of telling us how the prophet decided to respond to God’s challenge. We are left to wonder whether Jonah’s heart is in some way our own heart. Will we also be more severe than God, begrudging the forgiveness God so freely extends?

In the surprising way it always does the gospel found application this week among members of my extended family upon the death of my uncle. My uncle suffered from bi-polar disorder, and, in recent years, also from dementia. He had a history of violent outbursts and erratic behavior. Some had washed their hands of him. Others were determined to stay by his side. Everyone was conflicted. Sometimes there were bitter fights. This week he was in full manic mode. Two security guards were stationed at the door of his hospital room. Yet, the night he died, as if by some miracle, there was peace. There was love. Why? Because they had read the gospel for this Sunday, they chose to put aside their righteous anger and support one another in their grief and, for those few hours, that changed everything.

God has given us the profound gift of unending love and mercy. Even now, little by little, and all at once, God is working to fashion a heart in all of us to match. By God’s grace, the Holy Spirit is kindling in us a new humanity. It’s not the old rat-race humanity. It’s the new humanity we have through our baptism into Christ Jesus. It is a humanity not rooted in fairness, but in grace. ‘Faith begins by letting go. Faith endures by holding on. Faith matures by reaching out, stretching minds, enlarging hearts, sharing struggles, living prayer, binding up the broken parts,’ we find God’s grace dwelling in the common place rising up to meet us.

Proper 19A-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Some of you may be reading, Grateful, by Diana Butler Bass. I invite you to read it on your own and/or to discuss it with friends.  (Three small groups this month) Extensive research claims that gratitude is profoundly good for you. Around the world people who practice living gratefully experience deeper peace, greater well-being, and an increased capacity for joy and greater resiliency. When we orient ourselves to gratefulness, we strengthen our spiritual musculature. Moving through life with a grateful heart has the power to uplift us, make a difference for others, and bring transformation to our world. (Grateful

Giving thanks seems simple and obvious, yet somehow, like many instructions we find in scripture, it can be strangely difficult to sustain as a lifestyle or heart-style.  Obstacles rise within us, often subconsciously, to pop our balloon.  Righteous anger, self-certainty, and cynicism can be so much more seductive in the moment than an ‘attitude of gratitude.’

Most of us need help to cultivate gratitude slowly over time. That’s why the quote I received this week from the Grateful Word of the Day was so welcome.  It comes from Robin Wall Kimmerer, biologist and Native American, author of Braided Sweetgrass. Kimmerer weaves together the wisdom of her ancestors with insights of Western science.  She writes: “Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.”

It occurs to me that to receive this gift, whether from the earth, or from Native peoples, we must learn forgiveness. We must learn how to ask for it, as well as how to give it. Here is another teaching the bible holds as fundamental to faith which, for me, seems more difficult than gratitude.  Forgiveness is for saints and heroes –not for ordinary Christians—right?

Historians and anthropologists have begun to point out our prized, so-called “Western” ideals of individual liberty, political equality, and the rejection of arbitrary authority were inspired more by Native American sources than by the Athenians of ancient Greece (p. 37).  The words ‘equality’ and ‘inequality’ did not exist in Latin, nor their English, French, Spanish, German and Italian cognates until after the time of Columbus and the European encounter with the peoples of Native America. For the Europeans who landed upon these shores, unquestionable hierarchies ruled the day at every level.

Forgiveness is not simply a moment of apologizing and being forgiven. It is a process of grace to live into. Asking for forgiveness from Native peoples for genocide and the campaign of cultural erasure at Indian boarding schools can open a door to learning our own history and to healing wounds we may not have known we had—for us as individuals and for us as a people.  Forgiveness is not for heroes but for each of us.  Gratitude and forgiveness are fruits of the Spirit. These are among the gifts given to us in baptism. Such is the food we eat at the Lord’s Table. This is the path we walk by way of the cross.

We all know forgiveness was important to Jesus. Peter knew it. That’s why he asked.  Wanting to impress, he picked a really big number.  ‘How many times should I forgive someone? As many as seven times?’ (Matthew 18:21) Jesus’ answer was shocking.  “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” In other words, stop counting.

To underscore his point, Jesus offers Peter a hyperbolic parable and about a fictional king settling accounts with his servant.  10,000 talents is an enormous sum.  It is ten times the amount King Herod received every year from all his territories—which was around 900 talents (Brian P. Stoffregen, CrossMarks).  A talent is about 130 lbs. of silver and is the equivalent to about fifteen years of a laborer’s wages.  By contrast, the 100 denarius the servant was owed by his fellow servant is a tiny fraction 1/600,000 the size of the first.

Like Peter, I suspect most of us are gracious enough to forgive neighbors, friends, or family members again and again.  But, sooner or later, the ledger fills up and the bearer of forgiveness can become the carrier of a grudge.  You may feel righteous and justified in carrying that grudge, but the truth is, Jesus says, carrying that grudge eventually becomes its own offense. Stop keeping score.

This parable challenges us to imagine a world without vengeance but also without economic debts and burdens. Here Jesus was not inventing something new but reasserting the central hope of Jewish tradition which is “…a vision of a debt-free world, an economic system based solely on God’s provision and generosity, a moral response of gratitude and humility on the part of God’s people, and regular rituals of debt abolition and freedom from contractual obligations. This was to be the economic and moral rhythm of Israel, linked together in a single social fabric and practiced through weekly Sabbath, Sabbath years, and the Jubilee” (Diana Butler Bass, Sunday Musings, 9/17/23).

The cross was God’s critique of worldly power and all petty religious and moralistic score keeping.  On the cross God stands with the crucified, the cast-offs, the lynched, the broken, and the broke. By way of the cross, God has broken the wheel of vengeance and opened a pathway to healing, reconciliation, and generosity. By way of the cross Jesus has shown us the way to resurrection, transformation, gratitude, forgiveness, and joy.

Some of you will remember reading The Book of Forgiving (2014) by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Tutu tells us what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not easy. It requires hard work and a consistent willingness. Forgiveness is not weakness.  It requires courage and strength.  Forgiveness does not subvert justice.  It creates space for justice to be enacted with purity of purpose that does not include revenge. Forgiveness is not forgetting.  It requires a fearless remembering of the hurt.  Forgiveness is not quick. It can take several journeys through the cycles of remembering and grief before one can truly forgive and be free of the hurt.

As outlined by Tutu, forgiveness begins with a willingness born of the Holy Spirit to walk a fourfold path. First, you must tell our story.  Second, you must name what hurts. We must do these things if we are to reach the third point in our journey of granting forgiveness, by which Tutu simply means seeing our abuser as part of a shared humanity. Only then do we reach the fourth step and either release or renew the relationship.

We cannot create a world without pain or loss or conflict or hurt feelings, or financial hardship but with God’s grace we can create a world of forgiveness and gratitude.  We can create a world of forgiveness to love our enemies, to heal our losses and repair our lives and relationships. We can build upon habits of heart like gratitude which lead to greater generosity. All of us must walk our own path and go at our own pace to discover the power forgiveness and gratitude. Little by little, and sometimes all at once, this how God is changing us. This is how we change the world. This is how we live into the kingdom of God.

Proper 18A-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It was a smash hit in 1977. I learned every word sitting in the back seat of my family’s big yellow AMC Matador on a summer road trip from Colorado to Washington D.C., to Chincoteague Island, Williamsburg, and Monticello, Virginia and back again. Wherever we went, Jimmy Buffet was on the radio wasting away again in Margaritaville and always searching for his lost shaker of salt.

Jimmy Buffet died the week before las at age 76. His fans called, ‘Parrot heads,’ flocked to his tropical rock music vibe and a lifestyle they called “island escapism.”  That song spawned an entire industry. The first Margaritaville restaurant opened in Key West, Florida in 1985.  Today the franchise includes restaurants, retail stores, hotels, and casinos with locations in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, six island throughout the Caribbean as well as in Sydney, Australia.  Margaritaville sells.  It sounds like a place we all want to be and a life we wish we could be living.

By contrast, Jesus points today to a lifestyle that is all-too real and not nearly so sexy.  He provides instruction for how to be the church. Living sanctuary and building community can be hard work.  Today’s lesson on conflict resolution and spiritual discernment is case in point.  The early church Matthew belonged to handed down guidance for living the Way of Christ Jesus, gleaned from their own mistakes as a Christian community.

Let’s face it.  Community and belonging are something we all say we want and yet, usually, have no idea how to come by.  Modern conveniences make it so much easier and more comfortable to cocoon ourselves in isolation.  Rather than live community, we watch it on tv or click on it in social media. But, of course, life is not a tv show. It’s just easier to head to Margaritaville where I don’t have to talk to anyone, where I can just try to have fun, wrapped in an alcoholic haze.

One of the things I like about Jimmy Buffet songs is that, ultimately, they are songs of lament. Margaritaville is about a good man feeling bad, or maybe, he’s just stuck in self-pity. He’s not having fun at all and wishing he could be anywhere else.  Who’s to blame? Ultimately, he says, it’s his own damn fault.

The problem and promise of authentic community is that it involves 100% real people!  And people—not you and me (of course) but many people—can be sort of difficult, challenging, selfish, boring, or unreliable (David Lose, Working Preacher). So, what can we do about it?

Jesus outlined a process. Before you block that number or unfriend that person, or drop into that recliner clutching the tv remote, here’s what you do; talk “irl,” in real life, 1-1 like a mature adult rather than behind each other’s back. Avoid embarrassing your siblings in public. Don’t make a scene. Try your best not to react defensively. Speak the truth (as you know it) in love (Ephesians 4:15).  Listen more than you speak.  Instead trying to win or persuade, let your aim be mutual understanding more than mutual agreement. Remember, Christ is with you (Matthew 18:20 & 28:20).

 Most of the time, this is all that’s necessary.  But if it doesn’t work, Matthew provides additional advice.  Invite trusted others to sit down with you and try again, not to gain allies, to triangulate, or to add pressure.  Do this because it helps you gain a wider perspective.  Do this because interpersonal conflict in community always affects more than just yourself and the other party.  It affects everyone else around you too.  If necessary, involve the whole community in your dispute.

Of course, this doesn’t always work. The last step in Jesus’ list is quite interesting.  Matthew says Jesus advised us to let those who will not hear you to become like “a Gentile and a tax collector”(Matthew 18:17).  It sounds to us like a justification for some sort of Christian cancel culture. No. We do not have authorization to tell our enemies to go to hell –as much as we might want to.  But rather, remember, Matthew himself was once a tax collector, and because Jesus regularly spoke to sinners and ate with them. In God’s kingdom no one is expendable. Pray for those with whom you have a chronic dispute for any opportunity to make things better between you.

This process works for the Church and in the real world.  I want to put a plug in here for mediation. Years ago, I worked for the Center for Conflict Resolution as field work for my graduate study. Right here in Cook County, people offered mediation find their own solution more than 60% of the time rather than have their case decided by a judge. What’s more, the result is proven to be more lasting and satisfying than court ordered resolutions. People aren’t forced to limit themselves to narrow legal definitions of the conflicts they carry into court. They’re in control.  They set the terms –both for what they receive, and for what they pledge to give.  Parties in mediation often say they feel like someone finally listened to them.  They’re more ready to move on and put the dispute behind them.

This should not surprise us, but somehow, it does.  Remember, Jesus said, ‘wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of you’ (Matthew 18:20).  In the Christian community, two becomes more than two, and three becomes more than three. The sum of our individual ideas, resources, and abilities is multiplied through the synergies that God’s presence provides (Rev. Ken Kesselus).

Sometimes, in the church, we strive to keep the peace rather than to be peacemakers.  But this is a short-term strategy that short-circuits the kind of community we all long for.  Have courage. Be of good cheer. Steer into conflict. Don’t be afraid to learn from your mistakes. Again, strive to listen more than you speak. In authentic community it is less important that all of us agree, but it is critical that all of us feel heard. Open, honest communication is not only how we build community. This is how we learn. This is how we innovate and create. This is how healthy families, neighborhoods, and good government’s function.

This is how we finally leave Margaritaville. God has called the Christian community into being out of nothingness, to become a community of healers and reconcilers (Brueggemann). St. Paul writes that ‘we have become ambassadors for Christ’ (2 Cor. 5:20). As we mark the 22nd anniversary of 9/11 it’s time to be reconciled with the natural world, to make peace with each other, and let Jesus build us into a living sanctuary of hope and grace. We must show even our enemies God’s shalom. The German pastor Martin Niemoeller who was imprisoned by Hitler for eight years (1937–1945), reminded us that when you imagine that God hates all the people you hate, that’s when you can be sure you’ve created God in your own image.  No, he said “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies; he’s not even the enemy of his own enemies.” Thanks be to God.

So, we ask God to bless our hands as we work together in Jesus’ name, building a future, repairing the world, raising up homes, planting new gardens, feeding the hungry and sheltering the cold, sharing the good news of the gospel’ (ACS #1000).