Pentecost Sunday A-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I went into Ace Hardware yesterday mostly to put a stop to the dashboard light screaming, “Replace Remote Battery Now.”  I’ve been there many times. This time felt different. This time, I was wearing my collar.  When I asked the clerk to help unlock the battery case, I noticed they kept looking down as if they couldn’t look me in the eye.  Of course, there could be a million reasons, but immediately, I could think of 1,997—the number of children across all dioceses in Illinois sexually abused by Catholic priests since 1950—exactly 1,894 more children than the 103 that were previously disclosed.

It’s sickening.  It is bad enough by itself, yet we know it’s only the tip of an iceberg of historical abuses of the church we could name of native peoples, and people of color, women, LGBTQ, and trans-folks.  The church has been complicit in crusades, colonial expansion, countless wars, and ecological ruin.  It raises the question, ‘why church?’  I mean, why do church at all?

It’s the same question I asked myself 30 years ago when I decided to become a pastor.  This is the question we must continually keep in front of ourselves. Given all the hazards and potential pitfalls of organized religion, how can we answer for the church’s failures?  How do we realistically live out our mission and vision to be a source of healing, hope, salvation, and grace in a hurting world when, so often, the church has been the source of that hurting?

Today, on this Feast of Pentecost, we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the ingathering of the church. Violent wind, tongues of fire, and rivers of living water—these things inspire both fascination and dread.  Yet each reflects God’s presence and power in scripture. The arrival of Pentecost startled the first disciples and stirred them to action. Pentecost rang for them like an alarm clock. Time to go, time to leave the comfort of that upper room, time to head out into the streets, time to proclaim throughout the world the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are not only made by God, but we are also made of God, and that God is love. (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, 1998, p. 129).

This past week, from Sunday night to late Friday, Sam, Leah, and I put another 2,000 miles on the car.  We headed south to Nashville, Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, Clarksdale, and Memphis to retrace the history of the civil rights movement, to listen to live music, and sample some BBQ. We had a lot of fun, and, at times, we were also moved to tears.

From slavery to Jim Crow, to Mass Incarceration, the struggle for justice and equality for black folks has been and continues to be a long and bloody struggle.  Their bravery, sacrifice, and determination together with white allies and other people of color, is an inspiring testament to the truth that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is the very same radical gift and claim of the first Pentecost.  And a second discovery of Pentecost is like it. Trusting, body and soul, in the power of love can change the world.

To integrate lunch counters and buses, and to obtain the right to vote, people of faith and no faith trained and drilled on how to meet violence and hatred with creative love for their enemies. Some did this merely because the tactic seemed to work. Others did it because they had trust in their leaders.  People like Dr. King and the late U.S. Representative John Lewis, did it because they believed that this is who God is.  God poured out, and continues to pour out, a spirit of love upon all flesh.

And great God almighty!  The Spirit of Love became in them like a mighty wind just as it did for the first disciples. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and rested upon each of them as they marched, were beaten, fire hosed, humiliated, jailed, shot down and blown up. They showed us what doing church looks like, what it is for, and how it wields power to overcome the power of evil. Have faith and believe in the reality of love –not just for yourself, not just for this congregation, not just for people of a certain color or particular orientation, but for all people—for all life, human and non-human—then we will find the courage and strength that propelled the first Christians, that enlivened the freedom riders of the civil rights movement, and which stands ready to move the church today.

The Greek word for church is ecclesia –it means literally “the called out.”  To be in the church is to be called out and set apart from the world.  The gift of spirit and flame is the divine spark hidden within each of you. This same Spirit calls us together and empowers us to serve.  It can feel like a paradox.  We are always just ourselves—but awakening to who we are in Christ carries with it a startling power to renew human lives, our church, and our community.

The first community of Jesus-people were not large in number.  The Book of Acts tells us there were just 122 people in all. They were not learned.  For the most part, they were not wealthy.  Even St. Paul, who’s letters comprise most of the New Testament, said of himself that he was not a good public speaker. Yet, faith in the power of love transformed them. They were no longer simply a rag-tag group of believers, but a catalyzed community, a single body enlivened by the Spirit to continue the work of Christ.

Thirty years ago, it was this power and potential of what the church can be that inspired me.  The great discovery and gift of Pentecost was that the Way of Christ and his cross bestowed an indelible dignity, worthiness, beauty, and power upon the first followers which they did not know they could possess.  This same Spirit calls and equips us now to answer for the church that has failed, and for the healing of all the suffering world.

With your own unique mix of skills, talents, and opportunities each of us is called and equipped to serve the God of love in daily life. Together we stand against poverty, injustice, and desecration of the environment.  Together, water, wine, bread, and the Word equip us to become a better friend, parent, spouse, neighbor, worker, and citizen. All these involve the creative art of loving our neighbor as ourselves.  There is not necessarily anything very glamorous about this. Yet, this is how and why you and I are called to do church.  This is why the angels in heaven give thanks and sing. Creator Spirit, heavenly dove, descend upon us now and let your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Easter 6A-23
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

As part of training for ministry 30 years ago, I spent a summer working as a chaplain at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. I was there a short time—just three months—but that time was full of vivid experiences and unforgettable people.

One of them was a little girl, only eight years old. Let’s call her Sarah. She was just like any other child except that she had no hair and she seemed to know more about hospitals than playgrounds. She was just like any other child, except that she had leukemia. Her body had betrayed her. It had robbed her of her youth. Death waged a daily battler against her health, gradually gaining ground, cell-by-cell, organ by organ—yet despite all that, Sarah was an inspiration. In the way that people (at any age), who have gazed long into the eyes of their own mortality, seem to become wiser than the rest of us. Sarah seemed wise.

She didn’t have time, anymore, to waste on anger or envy. She didn’t dwell on the bad things but seemed always to be looking for the things that were good—in the people who cared for her; in the places she went; in all the events and occasions of her short life. She didn’t live long, but she did live well. She seemed to live joyfully, and without regret.

I remember when she asked me, one night, late, after the hallways had long since gone quiet, “Tell me, have you every wondered? What do you think God looks like?” (Apparently, she had no time for small questions either.) Fresh from seminary, I ran through a list of concepts and biblical images—completely missing the fact that her question wasn’t really a question but a signal that she had something to say on the subject. She gently interrupted me. She said, “I used to think of God as like an old man, or a king, or a judge. But now, I have a different idea about God. For me, the word that best describes God is ‘close—real close.’” Then she paused. Her face became more serious, and she said, “There’s some of God in everything.”

Sarah had a grasp on the meaning of Easter. Light is more powerful than shadow. Hope is stronger than memory. Forgiveness is stronger than bitterness. Love is stronger than hate. Resurrection is stronger than death on a cross. She knew that God is alive and cannot die; and that she was part of that undying life. She would never be alone, and that knowledge enabled her to live her tragically painful and unfair life with grace and power.

Although her experience set her apart from other children and she was, in many ways, isolated, illness and death had no power to render her stranded or orphaned. Rather as, Jesus says in today’s gospel, the Spirit of God abided in her—as in all things. God was, quite literally, with her. More than 1,900 years before I met Sarah, we read today that St. Paul went and stood before the great and prestigious court of the Areopagus in Athens and said much the same thing.

Athens, you will remember, was the seat of Greek civilization and authority. Even in the days of the Roman Empire, it continued to hold sway as the center of wisdom and learning. The Areopagus sat atop a rocky hill across from the Acropolis. The Romans called it Mars Hill. Its court was composed of an elite group of philosophers who rendered judgments in all matters—ranging from homicide to theology. According to historical accounts, the panel that encircled the accused were seated upon starkly hewn rock benches. Beneath them, in the center, were two stone pavements. One marked “Outrage,” and the other called “Ruthlessness.” We’re not told which one Paul stood on, but I’m guessing it was the first one—the stone of Outrage. It was from one there that Paul preached the gospel to the philosophers of Athens who were not merely curious, but who held his life in their hands. Paul quoted one of their own: the Greek philosopher Epimenides. Paul said, “In him [i.e. in God] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In other words, God is close, real close. There’s some of God in everything and knowing that can change your life.

I don’t think Sarah was aware of Paul’s testimony when she spoke so eloquently about God that night from her hospital bed. I don’t know even if she had ever heard of Paul—or if she knew an epistle from a prophet. But even so, in her own way and in her own words, she testified to the same God that Paul did. That God gave Paul courage to stand before a hostile and powerful tribunal. God gave Sarah courage to testify to the God of light and love with all that she was from her hospital bed.
Jesus told the disciples he was going to leave them. But they should not worry, because soon after God would give them another Advocate, through which Jesus would return to them, better and more powerful than before—through which they would know him even more fully than they already did while he yet walked among them and had breath. The Advocate, The Holy Spirit, was and is the revealer of Christ to the first Christians, to Paul, to Sarah, and to you and me.

In the bible the Holy Spirit has many names: the “Spirit of Truth;” the “Incarnate Word;” the “Indwelling presence of Grace;” the “Giver of power and life;” the “Source of our Easter joy.” The Greek word used by John is the “Paraclete.” It has no direct English translation. It basically means “one called to the side of.” Our bible uses the word “Advocate.” But you could just as easily use words like “teacher,” “guide,” “mentor,” or “counselor.” In his commentaries, Martin Luther uses the word “comforter.” All these words taken together describe the work of the Holy Spirit within, among, and under us.

We encounter the Spirit in scripture, and in the wine and bread; and whenever we gather in Jesus’ name, and in the eyes of a stranger, victim, or a sufferer—like Sarah. In other words, God is close—very close. There’s some of God in everyone.

Jesus, our fellow traveler, is the human face of God’s gift of unconditional love. That love waits for you like a candle, like water, like food, like a seed, like a stone, like a mothering hen to embrace it, to believe it, to trust it, to live it. Enfolded in the undying love of God gives us courage like Sarah and like Paul. Accepting God’s love will open your heart, your mind, your hands to love others in the way God loves everyone. We worship a God of love and radical inclusion who offers welcome and shelter for all regardless of their gender, orientation, nation of origin, class, or religious background.

God is close, real close. Today, as we honor all mothers, I remember philosopher Charles Hartshorne, who suggested that one of the most beautiful and descriptive metaphors for our life in God is the relationship of the unborn child to its mother. The baby is made of the same stuff of its mother. The baby grows using her blood, her body to build its own. Yet the mother makes no claim on all that she surrenders to the life of her child. She gives to it freely—even (at times), at the expense of her own life and health—so that the child may live—so that it may become fully creative and responsible for itself. She gives all these things and more so that the child may become independent—even while her deepest hope is that the child will choose to remain close and connected. When the baby moves, she feels it. When the baby is hungry, she feeds it. Absolutely everything the baby needs comes from its mother, and the mother loves her child with all that she has.
As the mother is to the unborn child, so we are to God. We are God’s offspring. We are children of God. This is another way of saying what Sarah knew, what Paul professed, and what Jesus promised: that God is close, real close. When we gaze into the heavens on a starlit night—perhaps what we see is much like what we once might have seen when we first opened our eyes from within our mother’s womb: believe that—trust in that—open to that knowledge. Do not fear but let God, who abides in you, fill you with courage, great joy and the abundance of love to walk forward together in faith through all that life will bring.

Easter 5A-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Death by stoning is a horrible way to die.  Yet despite the violence directed against him, Stephen prayed for his enemies. “He knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.” (Acts 7:60) How is this possible?

Hatred is a powerful thing.  Cain hated Abel for being more admired by God than himself, so he killed him (Genesis 4:8). King Saul hated David for becoming more popular with the people and tried to kill him every chance he got (1 Samuel 19:19 – 22:23). Saul of Tarsus hated the followers of Jesus because he thought they were blasphemers and heretics and made a career of rounding them up so they could be stoned to death like Stephen (Act 8:1- 9 :18). Horrible self-deception about our own righteousness can be deadly, not to mention the effects it has on families and relationships.

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:1-2). Stephen seems to have taken those words to heart. It changed how he lived. It gave him courage to proclaim the gospel to a hostile crowd.  It gave him peace of mind even and love for his neighbor even as he was slowly, painfully, and tragically being murdered.

Today’s scriptures offer a lesson about resiliency and reconciliation. Learning how to repair relationships damaged by hate and violence is not a luxury.  Learning forgiveness is the way we reclaim what hate and fear have taken from us, and restore the love, kindness, and trust that has been lost between our neighbors and ourselves. Loving one another as we are loved by God is the urgently needed antidote to the loneliness, which the U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, this week has said plagues us and our society.

Jesus says we are to love our enemies and to pray for them. It’s a tall order.  Jesus lived this kind of life and Stephen dwelled with him. Even now, Jesus lives this kind of life toward us and in us, so that the way of forgiveness and reconciliation is possible for us too.

This is the way, the truth, and the life.  Jesus said, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home (monē) with them” (14:23). Jesus in the gospel of John tells us this over and over again. The little verb “meno” appears 69 times.  It means to “stay,” “remain,” “abide,” or “dwell.”  Jesus is on a mission to reveal the hidden source of his glory is that he abides in the Father and the Father in him. Jesus invites us to do the same.  As we come to dwell in God, God’s love and light comes to dwell in us.

No doubt, recent generations of Christians will hear this promise and think of ‘going to heaven.’ But Jesus, in the Gospel of John, is pointing to something different, the mutual indwelling of God and human beings. The “many dwelling places” Jesus prepared through suffering and death on the cross is the advent of God’s New Creation beginning now and stretching into eternal life. It’s the very opposite of ‘going to heaven.’ Jesus’ point in the gospel of John is about God coming here and now to make God’s “dwelling place” with you and with everyone who honors Jesus’s way of love in their lives.

The crucial passage for understanding Jesus’ promise to make dwelling places for us, (in John 14:2), is probably John 2:16, the only other place where we find the phrase “my Father’s house,” where Jesus was talking about the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus told those who were selling doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” … The temple leaders said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body.

Upon his death on the cross the barrier between heaven and earth will be broken.  Jesus is telling the disciples the location of his father’s house will change from the Temple in Jerusalem to the Body of Christ. Now, the many abiding places in God’s house is each of us. Jesus abides in the Father and the Father in him. Jesus abides in us, and we in him forever. Abiding in God through Christ is what Jesus means by “eternal life.”  It might be better translated as “life in God’s new age.”  (Paul Nuechterlein, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary).  It is the way, the truth, and the life.

It should be obvious this way of life in Jesus cannot be a reason to exclude anyone, whether by race, or gender, or sexual orientation, or immigration status.  Not even our enemies can be denied access the living sanctuary of God’s grace. Dwelling in the shelter of God Stephen could see his shared humanity with people even as they murdered him. And what could be more revealing of Jesus’ power to forgive and to heal our bitter, hard-won divisions than the story of Saul who would become Paul?

Scripture says, “The witnesses [to the stoning of Stephen] laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”  This is the first mention of the great missionary apostle whom Jesus will knock from his horse and claim for himself. In Acts 8:1 we are told that this Saul “approved of their killing of [Stephen],” with the implication that Saul himself may have had a hand in instigating the entire event. Yet this same man will go on to become the apostle to the gentiles, spreading the gospel message to many “even to the ends of the earth.”  He will author more pages of the New Testament than anyone else.

Jesus Christ, who suffered unspeakable violence, has broken the wheel of the endless cycle of violence, enmity, bitterness, and contempt. Christ Jesus returns again and again to us who rejected and betrayed him with the gift of shalom—peace—this is the seed of willingness planted in us, grows, and blossoms into forgiveness, compassion, transformation, and reconciliation so that trust may be restored, loneliness is ended, and kindliness may abound.

Like Stephen and like Paul, we begin this journey from wherever we are.  The heavens stand open before us, and our common humanity is revealed, as we begin to dwell in the mystical and living sanctuary of the body of Christ.  Desmond Tutu once said the willingness to forgive grows into the capacity to tell the truth, name the hurt, and to either renew or release painful relationships.  We can do this with grace and mercy while we abide together in Christ the true vine, the one body, the temple not made with hands, the living sanctuary of hope and grace in which heaven and earth are one.

We cannot create a world without pain or loss or conflict or hurt feelings, but with God’s grace we can create a world of grace.  We can create a world of forgiveness in which we love even our enemies, heal our losses, and repair our lives and relationships.  But ultimately, no one can tell you to live. We, and the Holy Spirit, can only ask.  You and I are invited on this journey.  All of us must walk our own path and go at our own pace to discover the power of the abundant life to transform your heart and mind and ultimately, to change the world.

Easter 3A-23
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

When he was about eighteen, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660), created one of his first paintings, titled simply, “Kitchen Maid.” A copy at Chicago’s Art Institute depicts a mixed-race maid. She’s the offspring of a Spanish Christian and an African Muslim, and therefore, disfavored by both communities. She holds a ceramic jug of wine.

For decades, the original version in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin likewise showed only this servant girl—that is—until it was finally cleaned in 1933—and suddenly—the true subject of the painting became clear. The maid stands in the foreground while Jesus and two men are seated in another room in the background. In Velázquez’s imagination, a woman worked behind the scenes to prepare and serve the meal. She is unnamed and unmentioned in Luke’s gospel. She is lost to history. She is black. She sees Jesus clearly while other remain in the dark. Velázquez re-centers her in his painting. (Turn to page 12 in your worship folder to see a copy.)
British poet Denise Levertov (1923–1997) picks up where Velázquez leaves off, in a poem called, “The Servant Girl at Emmaus.”

She listens, listens, holding
her breath. Surely that voice
is his — the one who had looked at her, once, across the crowd,
as no one ever had looked?
Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her?

Surely those hands were his,
taking the platter of bread from hers just now?
Hands he’d laid on the dying and made them well?
Surely that face — ?

The man they’d crucified for sedition and blasphemy.
The man whose body disappeared from its tomb.
The man it was rumored now some women had seen this morning, alive?

That very morning, the women had discovered the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Angels dressed in dazzling clothes told them ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen.’ (He is risen indeed. Alleluia!) They ran to tell their brothers everything. ‘But these words had seemed to the disciples an idle tale, and they did not believe’ (Luke 24:11).
It was Easter Sunday in Emmaus but, for Cleopas and the other disciple, resurrection has yet not dawned. Sometimes, it happens for us like that. “On the very day we pack our churches, flower our crosses, and sing our “Alleluias,” the road to Emmaus stretches out ahead of us, offering defeat, disillusionment, and misrecognition. Which is to say, sometimes resurrection takes longer than three days. Sometimes new life comes in fits and starts. Sometimes, seeing and recognizing the risen Christ is hard.” (Debi Thomas, But We Had Hoped, Journey with Jesus, 4/19/20). That being said, of course, it could have been so much easier if they had simply believed the women.

This is a recurring theme in scripture: what we think we already know blinds us from seeing the truth we are living and will eventually come to know only through the work of the Holy Spirit and the benefit of hindsight. It’s difficult for us to comprehend how decisively the cross had signaled defeat for the first disciples. “The crucifixion of Jesus was … the complete and final devastation of their hope” (NT Wright). They all knew what was written in the book of Deuteronomy. A crucified person is under God’s curse (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). So, for them, Christ on a cross, had a perfectly clear theological and political meaning: It meant that the search for the Messiah would continue, that God had not forgiven Israel’s sins, and that pagans still ruled the world.

As Jesus walked the road beside them, the disciples lamented, “But we had hoped that [Jesus] was the one to redeem Israel. (Luke 24:21) How often could we say the same? But we had hoped this year would be better. But we had hoped all our prayers and efforts would bear more fruit. On that first Easter Sunday, the disciples headed home. They had given up. Their dreams fell back to earth and were swallowed up by violence and shame. They shuffled seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus in grief and despair—when Jesus came walking beside them!

The disciple’s great discovery was a flower which blossomed in fields of disappointment and gloom. “If you are in the dark, it does not mean that you have failed and that you have taken some terrible misstep.” Former Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “For many years, I thought my questions and my doubt and my sense of God’s absence were all signs of my lack of faith, but now I know this is the way the life of the spirit goes.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark)
Jesus told us where to find him. Look for me, Jesus says, in the bible. The disciples felt their hearts burn while Jesus walked with them recounting scripture. Look for me, Jesus says, in the sacraments. Their eyes were opened as he took bread, blessed, broke it, and gave it to them. Suddenly, the light of Easter dawned upon them and the whole world looked different. Christ was alive and he was already with them. Because Christ is alive and lives in us, we can live differently too.

Perhaps, the disciples’ experience on the road to Emmaus, and Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus near the empty tomb, form part of the gospels’ larger message that we must also learn to recognize Christ in the faces of those around us. Look for me in the margins, Jesus says. Listen for me in the voice of a stranger. See me in the face of a child. Find me among the poor. Ask the kitchen maid, the black servant girl in Emmaus. She can tell you all about me.
On this, the day after Earth Day, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention that the gospel of John widens this circle even further. Jesus is the beating heart of all creation. After Easter light has dawned, we cannot treat other people or the natural world as mere resources to be exploited. Learn about me, Jesus says, from the beauty of the earth. Living resurrection and finally seeing what is right in front of us that we didn’t used to see means receiving one another and the natural world as a beloved and wise teacher—the face of the living Christ in our midst.

Through the Holy Spirit, Christ leads us on a journey to God, a journey in which disappointed hopes are interrupted by the recognition that the Risen Lord walks by our side. Jesus is our companion on the way, who breathes life into our despair and re-frames our aimless, anxious journeys into the cruciform Way of the cross. Now we know who it is who travels with us: Jesus is the Way. Now we know the path along which Jesus accompanies us: it is, as Luke characterizes Christianity, in both his gospel and Acts, “the way” (Acts 9:2; 16:17; 18:25; see also Jn 14:6 and Heb 10:20). (Alyce McKenzie)

St. Paul proclaimed to the philosophers of Athens, “In him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28). Our entire lives are lived in God. There is no place we can go outside the loving and eternal circle of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the living sanctuary in which we dwell that gives inspiration to our mission at Immanuel. We strive to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace. Dwelling in the shelter of God and one another, let us seek to open and extend this welcome to anyone who has yet to discover that they too are so deeply embraced, accompanied, and loved.

Easter 2A-23
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Few things focus our minds on mortality than our own injuries. I remember playing sardines at a youth lock-in when I slipped on a small patch of black ice and dislocated my kneecap on the raised corner of a cement sidewalk. Years later, my right knee still bears the scar from the surgery. It happened more than 30 years ago but I can still vividly remember the moment I rolled on my back and looked up into the dark night sky. The universe felt very big and very empty. The question of whether God exists and cares are not an abstractions when we are in pain, but suddenly urgent and very concrete –why me God?

“Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually…″ We instinctively recoil when we feel pain. We withdraw into ourselves. And yet, life also teaches that “those who seek to completely avoid painful encounter with the unseen are doomed to live a [prideful], boring, and superficial lives. (Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer)

Jesus opens the tomb we would bury ourselves in. Fresh air and daylight are essential for healing. Scars marking old wounds tell a story. Emotional scars caused by trauma, loss or humiliation reveal a lot about us when, finally, either by courage or a lot of therapy, or both, they are allowed to speak.
Jesus showed them his wounds. Some scholars suggest Thomas’ insistence on seeing Christ’s wounds wasn’t to prove Jesus had risen but to show Jesus really did physically endure the suffering and humiliation of the cross. Jesus showed them his wounds. His was a body like ours. He showed them his wounds to teach us how to bring healing to each other.

Jesus invited Thomas to touch the mark of the nails in his hands and the gash in his side (John 20:27). Perhaps, even more shocking than the resurrection itself, Jesus first words upon seeing the disciples were not, ‘you’re fired!’ but peace be upon you! Jesus, whom they betrayed, did not seek vengeance, but peace, shalom, oneness, reconciliation, and unity with the undying life of God.

Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (vs. 22). The word is ‘emphusao.’ It’s the same word used in Genesis (chapter 2). God breathed life into the nostrils of the earth-man and he became a living being. It’s also the same word used in Ezekiel 37. God breathed life into the dry bones of Israel so that they returned to life and stood on their feet a vast multitude. This, therefore, is the second time Jesus called his followers to be his disciples. It comes after they all abandoned and failed him. This Easter story is Pentecost and creation rolled into one. Jesus taught them how their own woundedness could be transformed by grace into wisdom, the power to heal, the power to forgive, the power to make community.

In his famous little book, The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen writes, “Many people suffer because of the false supposition on which they have based their lives. That supposition is that there should be no fear or loneliness, no confusion or doubt. But the inevitable sufferings of human life can only be dealt with creatively when they are understood as wounds integral to our human condition. “Jesus’ suffering and death brought joy and life. His humiliation brought glory; his rejection brought a community of love.” (Nouwen). Can your wounds make you more compassionate, more forgiving, more wise? Can our wounds become a source of authority and credibility that we know of what we speak?

When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope.” “Through this common search, hospitality becomes community. Hospitality becomes community as it creates a unity based on the shared confession of our basic brokenness and on a shared hope.” (Nouwen)

Our brokenness becomes healing balm for a broken world. Today marks the second Sunday after Easter. Our Jewish friends ended Passover on Thursday. Our Muslim friends will end the month of Ramadan next Thursday. Our Christian Orthodox friends celebrate Easter today. Will we remain in our locked rooms like the first disciples? After all our holy days what has changed?

Somewhere in America today, there will likely be another mass shooting. A former president tweeting about World War III. Anxiety about how to live with less water, or too much water, or polluted water. Like the first disciples our first instinct may be simply to retreat and nurse our wounds. At Easter Jesus comes to roll away the stone that seals our premature tomb. Jesus shows us how to practice resurrection. What are we to do? Just breathe. ‘Emphusao.’ Receive the Holy Spirit.

On the cross and by his resurrection, Jesus taught us God’s love cannot be neutralized or abrogated by our violence. Murder is not God’s work, but rather it is our work from which our murder of Jesus has finally freed us. Jesus has shown us that all scapegoating is a perversion of justice. In the resurrection, God gave back to us the gift we rejected. Jesus entered into the disciple’s fear and shame, their infidelity, and their cowardice not to accuse or to retaliate. Vengeance has no role in reconciliation. This is what allows the disciples finally to accept the gift of God’s love that they could never earn for themselves. This is the cause of our Easter joy. This is the beginning of our new life in Christ.

This peace that Jesus gives becomes the basis of the challenging mission he called them (and now us), to embrace. Jesus said to them, “just as the father sent me, so now I send you” (john 20:21-23). His mission has become our own. In Christ Jesus, we are called and equipped to work with him to take away a condition afflicting the whole human race—the violent rejection of God’s reconciling love—which is possible for us now because Jesus has brought about the death of death.
“The risen Christ, who walks on wounded feet, from garden tomb through darkened city street, unlocks the door of grief, despair, and fear, and speaks a word of peace to all who hear… May we, Christ’s body, walk and serve and stand with those oppressed in this and every land, till all are blessed and can a blessing be, restored in Christ to true humanity.” (The Risen Christ ELW #390)

Easter Sunday A-23
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Alleluia! Christ is risen. (Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!) Because Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox, it is mostly a cheerful day made all the more happy by warming temperatures. But the light-hearted spirit of Easter arises from hard won experience. The bright colors and spring flowers are the unimaginable surprise-ending God brings out of death and despair. Alleluia, “God be praised,” an expression of rejoicing, is the right word for Easter because that’s really all you can say after hopelessness has given way to new life.

Today, we find ourselves rushing before sunrise with Mary Magdalene and the other Mary through the Jerusalem Market, past sleeping dogs and horses, through the cool pre-dawn air, out the gates of the ancient walled city, the Ganneth Gate, deserted at this hour, but for the soldiers on top of the wall. Outside this gate is the countryside, except for a large stone quarry, looking like a huge gravel pit, off to our left. From this quarry many slaves provided stone blocks for building the city. To this quarry the two Marys go through the morning darkness with their grief.

These women shared in Jesus’ ministry. They and other women, like Joanna and Susanna, traveled throughout Israel with other disciples. Scripture says that they provided for them out of their means (Lk. 8:3). These independent women of means are going to the place where their hopes were dashed, where their dreams had died, where their worst fears were realized.

They pass beneath the clifftop where the two men who had been crucified with Jesus still hang on wooden crosses against the sky to be devoured by birds and dogs. Around and beneath the men, small mounds of garbage lay strewn about, hauled out in simple carts and dumped at random. The women go to a far corner of the quarry to a garden, where the cliff-side has row upon row of hand-hewn caves, tombs for the dead.

There should be a check point here as we follow the women on the way to the tomb. Each one of us should answer a question before proceeding. The question is, do you have fear in your life? Are you now or have you ever been really afraid? If not, then turn back. It’s okay. This tomb, this story will wait for a time when you do. We need not trouble ourselves with this difficult Easter business if you have never been afraid of the approach of death, or the loss of a loved one, or the total unraveling of your life. What person reaches for the pruning shears in January, or the garden hose in February, or for Christmas lights in April? As the philosophers say, ‘there is nothing more useless than the answer to a question you have not asked yet.’

On the other hand, this path to the tomb is for you and for anyone who has had dreams that have ended, hopes that have died. Come with the two Mary’s if you know what it means to be unrecognized, or if you’ve lost a job, a good friend, a child, or a spouse. The tomb should be our destination if we are anxious about what to do for the poor or what we are doing to destroy life on earth. Whatever fears we hold, come to the tomb.

Kate Sawford is now 42 years old. When she was fourteen, she published a book of photographs telling the story of when she had cancer, when she had to have part of her leg amputated, and the lower part of her leg rotated and re-attached. She made a list titled: “Days of my life I’d like to forget: the day the doctors told me I was sick. The day I had to tell my friends I had cancer. The day my hair fell out. The first day after surgery. These are also the days I will always remember.” (Kate’s Story, Candlelighter’s Childhood Cancer Foundation, 1995) Kate Sawford has been to the tomb.

Kate is fortunate in that she was cured. Yet even more important than a cure, Kate has discovered what we all need when we are afraid. We need not to be mocked. We need something more than idle hope. We need more than casual optimism, “Cheer up, everything will be alright.” We need what God offers at Easter. We need blessed divine assurance that what we fear or thought was the end is not the whole picture. The story continues. A new day will come. We have a future forever in God that makes it possible to live and love today without fear.

Hear the voice of the angels incredible good news. The angel of the Lord rolled away the stone and sat upon it. Whatever fears you may have brought to this place, regardless of the emotional obstacles in your path, they are rolled away like the stone from Jesus’ tomb, or like storm clouds that must give way to the sun. For Easter we wear bright colors and shout alleluia because God interrupts our fear, calls us by name, speaks to our mortal lives from beyond eternity, and has given us a permanent dwelling place with God that travels in with and under us wherever we go. It is strong enough to withstand any calamity. It is a sacred sanctuary within us where the hearth fire of rekindled hope is always burning. Therefore, joy is never far from our hearts and even the vaults of heaven resounds, Christ has triumphed! He is living! (ELW #367). Alleluia! Christ is risen. (He is risen indeed. Alleluia!)

Lent 5A-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The week after Christmas my family headed out on a 3,800-mile trip to Montana and back. I was excited but also a little anxious.  I had this recurring dread image of spending a winter’s night in the ditch. So, I did what dads do and kept my worries to myself. Trying not to be too conspicuous, I packed the van with stuff we might need in an emergency –a couple blankets, a flashlight, extra coats, gloves, and hats. I made sure the emergency battery was fully charged and that we had some food in the car. My silent anxiety about winter travel in open country was manageable for me provided I took steps to prepare for it. By the end, I needn’t have worried.  I was the only one who needed an extra coat and hat after leaving mine behind at a relative’s house.

This week, I was reminded of that recurring dread image as a colleague told me about a conversation with a group of college students. They openly talked about how lonely they felt and spoke of their worries about the future. What will the world be like in 10 years, in 15, in 20?

Pick your poison. Social media, anti-democratic politics, a fragile economy addicted to perpetual growth, and the worsening climate crisis (to name but a few) make planning for the future very uncertain. A survey of machine learning researchers taken last summer (2022), found that 10% of them who agreed their work on A.I. could ultimately result in something really, really, really bad, like human extinction. But of course, they’re all feverishly working on it anyway. (The Ezra Klein Podcast, “Ezra Klein Interviews Kelsey Piper,” NYT, March 2023) Is it just me? How do we keep our dread fears from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy? How do we move forward now with grace and hope rather than fear and anxiety?

Our readings today are like a survival kit, packed and waiting for us born of the lived experience of our ancestors in faith, for whenever it is we find ourselves stuck in the ditch.  Scholar and preacher, Walter Wink, has said the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel, whom we read today, may be the first in all of scripture to proclaim the promise and power of the resurrected life God offers through the always present power of grace.

It was a joyful discovery born of long suffering. The desolation of war and forced exile into slavery in a foreign land led the prophet Ezekiel to envision the nation of Israel as a wasteland of bones scattered across a desert valley (Ezekiel 37). I dare say those bones evoke an image of loss that exceeds our own. Bones that spoke of what once was but is no more. No more Promised Land. No more Chosen People. Their freedom was bound up in chains. Their lives swallowed up in death. The prophet Ezekiel testifies to the power of God to rekindle their hope after the people had become utterly hopeless.

Helpless and hopeless is exactly how Mary and Martha felt upon the death of their brother Lazarus (John 11). They are bewildered at Jesus’ absence. They are gripped by feelings of abandonment.  Martha rushes to meet Jesus on the road. Her first words four full days after Lazarus’ death, is part question and part accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (v. 20).  It’s the same sort of question/accusation an ancient Hebrew in Babylon might have asked Ezekiel. “Can these bones live again?” Today, we join all the people of faith who raised their voices to God as the psalmist sings, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” (Psalm 130: 1-2)

Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, out from bondage to death. “Unbind him,” Jesus said, “and let him go.” That is a ‘sign’ for what Jesus tries to do for all his followers. Jesus has been trying to unbind us from death’s hold, while, again and again, we insist on returning to the tomb. How else can we explain how we have created a way of life that is hell bent on death?

For centuries, human beings held themselves apart from nature because, they said, we alone possess intelligence.  Now, slowly, science has begun to see intelligence operating all around us, and ironically, as A.I. begins to surpass human intellectual capacities in startling ways, now people are starting to say what makes them superior to machines is our profound connection to the natural world—and I think, finally, now we might be headed in the right direction.

We worship the God revealed in Christ Jesus, the logos, the divine Word, who “… was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:2-3). So, should it surprise us that every moment beneath our feet, in the air we breathe, and in the sky above, the operation of natural world is another source God’s wisdom? Can nature, God’s first bible, also offer a survival kit for what ails us now?

The answer is yes! Naturalist Janine Benyus champions the word, biomimicry. The conscious emulation of life’s genius paints the pathway that leads us out from the tomb. Benyus identifies 26 design principles she finds operating in nature humans could put into practice to restore hope in the future. I’ll name eight, “Nature runs on sunlight, uses only the energy it needs, fits form to function, recycles everything, rewards cooperation, banks on diversity, demands local expertise, curbs excesses from within, and taps the power of limits.” Nature relentlessly “creates conditions conducive to life.”  (Janine Benyus, interviewed by Krista Tippet, On Being Podcast, 3/25/23).

 By now you might have asked yourself, why does the lectionary begin talking about the resurrection while it is still Lent?  I wonder if it’s because the good news will become more difficult to hear once we’re surrounded again by bright colors, the promise of warmer weather, the joy of singing alleluia, and the festival of Easter?  Here in Lent, we know the promise of resurrection is not about going on in just the same way, living in a bigger and bigger house.  No. our resurrection comes with our transformation. Here, in the midst of Lent, we may count the cost and know this transformation is worth everything we have. Hope is like a seed planted in us getting ready to crack open.

The poet Maya Spector puts it this way: “It’s time to break out —Jailbreak time. Time to punch our way out of the dark winter prison. Lilacs are doing it in sudden explosions of soft purple, And the jasmine vines, and ranunculus, too. There is no jailer powerful enough to hold Spring contained. Let that be a lesson.  [A lesson about hope.] Stop holding back the blossoming! Quit shutting eyes and gritting teeth, curling fingers into fists, hunching shoulders. Lose your determination to remain unchanged. All the forces of nature want you to open, Their gentle nudge carries behind it the force of a flash flood. Why make a cell your home when the door is unlocked, and the garden is waiting for you?”    (“Jailbreak” by Maya Spector) See, the garden is waiting for you.

Lent 4A-23
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The disciples ask Jesus, ‘who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ (John 9:2). The answer, of course, is neither. The tragedy of the man’s blindness is not God’s doing. Yet, the fact is, we seem almost hardwired to attribute tragedy as evidence of sinfulness, and blessings as proof of righteousness. Doesn’t God make good things happen to good people and punish the bad?

We’re reading Kate Bowler’s book this Lent, “Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler is an historian who specializes in the uniquely American strand of civil religion called the prosperity gospel, which teaches that you can control your health, wealth, and success if only you have enough faith. ‘When you pray for God to give you a Winnebago, you better tell him what color.’ In this version of religion, God becomes a cosmic vending machine dispensing blessings and tragedies depending on our own individual actions and/or inactions.

The prosperity gospel is easy to ridicule. Yet, like the disciples, it can be hard to irradicate. When Kate Bowler was diagnosed with stage IV cancer at age 35, she found herself questioning God. Aren’t I good? Why is this happening to me? Her own quiet belief in the prosperity gospel revealed itself when she realized anything she thought was good or special about herself could not save her. Virtue and success do not go hand-in-hand. ‘There is no easy correlation between how hard I try and the length of my life,’ Bowler said. She was forced to face the fact “…that my life is built with paper walls, and so is everyone else’s.” (Kate Bowler, TED Talk, 2019)

I played Kate Bowler’s Ted Talk for our confirmands. One confirmand drew an opposite conclusion. It shows, he said, God did heal her cancer. It just took a long time. You might agree it’s ridiculous to pray for a Winnebago, but the prosperity gospel has a strong hold on us. Thanks to immunotherapy, Kate Bowler’s cancer is in remission today.

Faith IS good for you. Loving God and your neighbor as yourself can add to your own health and happiness. Yet eternal life is no antidote to mortality. We remain tragically vulnerable to the careless actions of others and ourselves. Yet, we are never alone. We are accompanied. We are loved. As theologian Jürgen Moltmann once said, “We are not loved because we are beautiful and good. We are beautiful and good because we are loved” (Yale Divinity School, “Theology of Joy: Jürgen Moltmann and Miroslav Volf,” Youtube, 8/14/14.) What I have learned in living with stage IV cancer, Bowler says, “When I was sure I was going to die, I didn’t feal angry. I felt loved. I experienced so much love – I find it hard to explain… My own suffering felt like it revealed to me the suffering of others.” May we see as Kate Bowler sees. May the prosperity demon finally be cast out of us, and the gospel revealed.

The story of the man born blind has been a symbol of faith and new life throughout the history of the church. He appears in second-century frescoes in the catacombs of Rome (as does the Samaritan woman beside the well). These stories have been part of our Lenten baptismal liturgies since the fourth and fifth centuries.
The man born blind moved from the world governed by “if, then” clauses to living the way of the cross. The Pharisees were the acolytes of the prosperity gospel of their day. They believed if you follow God, then no harm will come to you or your loved ones. If you follow God, then you won’t fall on hard times. But nobody lived a more God pleasing life than Jesus and yet he was, literally, crucified. The cross was supposed to be the ultimate re-statement of worldly powers and principalities of if, then—if you don’t honor the Chief Priest and Caesar, then you will die. Yet God utterly transformed the ugly instrument of Empire into a trail marker showing us the way that leads into abundant life.

It is here, on the cross, that God meets us. Here is where God is fully present. In, with, and under our mortal flesh. We must only look at the cross to know where God is. God is hidden in weakness; vulnerability; suffering. God is among the forsaken, and the dying. We search the abyss of despair. We interrogate our deepest shame –for that is from where God comes.

The blind man’s movement from unseeing to enlightenment is part of the church’s celebration of the power of baptism. His journey into faith mirrors our own. The blind man’s words echo the famous hymn, Amazing Grace, “I once was blind, but now I see.” This gift of sight comes from the mind and body of Christ. The grace of God is lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105). God invites us with all people into the embrace of the undying life of the Holy Trinity —regardless of your regrets, despite your failures, and overlooking the pile of mistakes you have accumulated in the past. Jesus used a mixture of spit and mud so the man could gain the new sight of faith after he washed in the pool called Sent. Likewise, we are sent into the world to be God’s people.

This week, on March 24th, the church commemorates the memory and martyrdom of Oscar Romero, Bishop of El Salvador, assassinated as he stood behind the altar celebrating communion. Two months prior to his death, Bishop Romero received an honorary doctorate from the University of Louvain, in Belgium. In prepared remarks he spoke of his own spiritual awakening,

“…the words of Exodus have, after many years, perhaps centuries, finally resounded in our ears: The cry of the sons of Israel has come to me, and I have witnessed the way in which the Egyptians oppress them (Exodus 3:9). These words have given us new eyes to see what has always been the case among us, but which has so often been hidden, even from the view of the Church herself…. This coming closer to the world of the poor is what we understand both by the incarnation and by conversion. The changes that were needed within the Church …the changes which we had not brought about simply by looking inward upon the Church, we are now carrying out by turning ourselves outward toward the world of the poor” (Oscar Romero, The Political Dimension of Faith from the Perspective of the Option for the Poor, Louvain, Belgium, February 2, 1980).

The cross teaches: we do not find God. God finds us in our shame, our guilt, our pain, and our emptiness –and through that encounter opens our eyes to behold, through uncomprehending tears, the wonder of God’s unconditional accepting embrace. Here, in the cross of Christ Jesus, is God’s victory over the powers of darkness that reign in this world.

So, we see! We celebrate! The creator of the universe revealed in Christ is a risking, prodigal, extravagant, passionate, merciful, mothering, and fathering God who took on flesh and was revealed to us in Christ Jesus. “The Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see and to understand the deepest mystery of our faith” (Rev. Daniel Erlander, Baptized We Live, p. 4).

Lent 3A-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Our preacher today is Adriana Rivera, Minister of  Youth and Household.

Greetings, friends, and may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you on this third Sunday of Lent and during Women’s History Month. I’m happy to be here with you this Sunday to reflect on one of my favorite Gospel texts before we go on to share at the table and continue on with the rest of our Sunday routines. One Sunday ritual that I have developed with some of my friends over at Garrett Seminary is Sunday grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s. If you haven’t yet, you should try the frozen pork and ginger soup dumplings, they are DIVINE! If I go right after church, I still have my nice clothes on but there have definitely been days where I go to the grocery store or Walmart for something quick and I have not been dressed to the best of my ability. And of course it’s on those days that you see everybody! When I was living and working in NW Indiana, about 8 times out of 10 that I would step out into one of the local shops I would hear a “MISS RIVERA!!” from down the aisle. If you’re like me, you don’t anticipate being recognized in those mundane moments. They would always catch me by surprise. But sometimes they turned out to be really great conversations. Catching up with an old classmate, getting health updates on neighbors, celebrating new births and beginnings. Oftentimes, when we least expect to be seen is the precise moment when community comes to find us.

The woman at the well in today’s text probably thought her day was going to pass by like usual. She would go fetch water as part of her daily routine and move on. But on this particular day, something strange yet wonderful happens. Jesus sees her. When he addresses her, she is understandably confused, given their gender, class, and cultural differences. But Jesus insists and even invites her to drink from the living waters that he offers. She is intrigued by the invitation, even though, at this point, she seems to be taking his words literally. Then Jesus asks about her husband??? Now, I’ve seen this text interpreted, or misinterpreted I should say, in ways that frame the woman as promiscuous or sinful but I don’t think Jesus sees her that way. He does not do this to shame her or spite her but to show that even in her situation, despite the things that should separate them, he sees her. In the ancient mediterranean context, women had no control over their marital conditions. Her husbands could have died or divorced her, which would have been much easier for them to do than her. She was vulnerable to the social structures of her time and yet Jesus sees her. And in seeing her, Jesus does not pity her or berate her or reject her, rather he engages with her in a theological conversation. And in this discourse, he reveals himself to her as the Messiah, allowing her to see him in return. And once she sees him too, she is eager to share this revelation. This conversation stands in stark contrast to the ones we’ve seen Jesus have these last few weeks. Jesus’ transfiguration and affirmation as God’s beloved son was witnessed by only three people who were commanded to keep the revelation to themselves. Jesus dialogues with the woman at the well in broad daylight, compared to his clandestine conversation with Nicodemus in the dark of night. And because of this openness, there is no shame or fear hindering her testimony. This is the Good News of this text that we can see and be seen, even by those who are different from us, even from those who we would least expect. Because Jesus saw the Samaritan woman at the well, she was emboldened and empowered to share her witness with her community. And the community came to see for themselves. They could see and be seen by Jesus, and it changed their lives, just as the witness of seeing and being seen by God is still changing lives today.

This narrative reminds me of this idea of “seeing into being” reflected in the Zulu greeting, “Sawubona,” which translates to “I see you.” The response, “Sikhona,” means, “I am here.” This also connects to the concept of ubuntu, which means, “I am because we are.” And this is the invitation of the gospel, to become a Beloved Community that sees each other in our success and struggle or whatever situation we might find ourselves in. We are invited to a collectivist, rather than individualistic, approach to life. Instead of going about my business, keeping my head down like I try to do in the grocery store, this way of greeting and being invites me to engage with my neighbor, see how they are in this world so full of pain and strife. I carry my own burdens too but when we see each other, we can share some of that weight. I invite you to consider ways in which you can slow down from the rat race, look around you and truly see someone.  It could be a coworker or classmate, maybe a neighbor or even a stranger on the street. It might very well be one of your own family members. We all deserve to be seen, regardless of our marital status or financial situation, not surveilled and monitored with a desire to control, but seen in a way that calls us to life.

I would also invite you to intentionally see the work of those on the margins. It’s like what Jesus told the disciples, we benefit from the unseen labor of others. See how our worship space and facilities are so well maintained and cared for by the folks who clean at night. See the parents who sacrifice sleep to care for their sick children throughout the night. See how the food we buy on our Sunday shopping days are produced by laborers in the fields and factories. See the need for housing stability for queer youth. See the need for accessibility and safety for our disabled siblings as the pandemic persists. See the need for clean water for our neighbors in the south suburb of University Park. Their community, like the Israelites in the Exodus text, cry out. See and be seen as part of the solution. See and be seen as part of the Beloved Community. May we be refreshed and renewed by the living waters Jesus offers. May we see his reflection in us, Amen.

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

Lent 2A-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I’ll tell you something you already know. We are shaped by what we can perceive. Beyond what we can imagine is the great unknown unknown. Think how understanding about what is real and what’s not expanded with the invention of the telescope, or the microscope, or the transistor, or today, think of what cell phone videos have taught us about systemic racism.  We could name a thousand more examples. In the 1980’s, at the birth of the internet, a new form of mathematics called network theory was born to describe the interaction of vast interconnected computer networks. Almost immediately, biologists, using network theory began to see a vast and ancient interconnection between plants and trees popularly described as the “Wood-wide web. They once were blind but now can see, literally, the forest for the trees. The closer scientists look at everything in the universe, the more complex, interconnected, co-evolved, intelligent, and alive everything appears.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “…no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3). How different might our perception of what is real expand when we are equipped with the ears, eyes, mind, and heart of Christ?   One commentor helpfully suggests we substitute the word ‘culture’ everywhere in scripture we encounter the word ‘kingdom.’  What if Jesus had told Nicodemus, ‘No one can see the culture of God without being born from above.’  Culture is not a place.  It’s a worldview.  Cultures are not ruled by kings but by prophets, priests, poets, composers, philosophers, novelists, and artists. We can share the same zip codes and sidewalks with people inhabiting different cultures.  Indeed, we can shift between cultures within our own body.  Lutherans believe we are both saints and sinners. We cleave to Christ to be born again of water and spirit, to inhabit the culture of God, and turn away from the culture, economy, politics, the religion of the Devil.

I am convicted by Jesus’ question to Nicodemus. “Are you a teacher of the church, and yet you do not understand these things?” (v. 10).  How hard it can be, and how difficult, to live and make choices drawn from the mind of Christ when it is clearly not always in my self-interest to do so, or sometimes disadvantageous to my bottom line, and even perhaps to my physical safety?

Bible scholar, Marcus Borg writes that being born from above, or sometimes, as it is translated, being ‘born again’ was utterly central in early Christianity and the New Testament as a whole. “’Dying and rising’ and ‘to be born again’ are the same ‘root image’ for the process of personal transformation at the center of Christian life: to be born again involves death and resurrection. It means death –our death—to the old way of being and being born into a new way of living…a way of being and an identity centered in the sacred, in Spirit, in Christ, in God.” (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p.107)

In this new birth by water and spirit you have become a vital part of the body of Christ. God has made the world and loves it so much that God has placed it, along with Gods own self, into your hands. ‘You are licensed by the incarnation to be the action, the activity of God in the world’ (Peter Gomes). You do God’s work with your hands.

Born again in water and spirit we begin to see life differently through the eyes of Christ. The line between my welfare and yours falls away.  The division between us and them is replaced with a big ‘us.’ The dualism at the heart of all violence, “Us-vs-Them” is replaced with love for all. God called Abraham and Sarah to be born again. God turned their hearts away from the culture of “us” to wander as a perpetual “them.”

The call of Abraham and Sarah might be the oldest story in the bible.  About 4,000 years ago a family of nomads left Ur of the Chaldeans, perhaps in southeastern Iraq near the modern city of Nasariyah, and settled in Haran, Turkey, near the Syrian border. “Leave your country,” God told Abraham.  ‘Leave your people and your family.  Leave all that you hold dear and familiar.  Go to the land I will show you.” At the age of 75, Abraham and Sarah, dared to obey.

Abraham’s departure from Haran is a story about more than a change of geography –it is a story of what happens when we are born again in God. In leaving Haran for Canaan, Abraham and Sarah journeyed from what they had to what they did not have, from the known to the unknown, from everything that was familiar to all things strange.

Judged by worldly standards, what Abraham and Sarah gained, was next to nothing. The epitaph on Abraham’s tombstone could have read ‘here lies a great fool.’ Promised to be the Father of Nations the only land Abraham owned upon his death was the small plot of land in which he was buried (Genesis 23:16-20). But to those with eyes of faith, Abraham and Sarah are a blessing to all the families of the earth. They call us to join with them to become a family of the big “us” where there is no “them.” (Paul Nuechterlein)

Jesus is trying to teach Nicodemus this non-dual thinking born of water and spirit. When we are born from above, we are re-born to the perspective of the oneness of God and humanity. “Being born again,” suggests to us the image of the mother. Historically, the church as faith community, described itself as this mother and the font as the womb from which birth in God arises. What God is bringing to life in us is a new mind and new heart, new eyes, new ears, new hands, and voices.  See all has become new. Anyone in Christ is born a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).  But birth is not easy, and Lent allows us these forty days to re-envision that birth and the life to which we have been claimed and called through baptism.

We see but do not see.  We hear but do not listen. The way to abundant life comes by way of a new way of seeing and living in the culture of God in Christ. The story of Nicodemus is the first of four intimate portraits of followers of Jesus that we will read from John’s Gospel in coming Sundays this Lent. They are the stories which the ancient church chose for those preparing for baptism at the Vigil of Easter.  (With joy, we prepare with six of our siblings here at Immanuel who are On The Way and will affirm their baptism at the Easter Vigil—Saturday April 8th, at 7:30 PM.)

Like curious children, science of the past three hundred years, tried to take everything apart to see how things work.  Today, thank God, science has begun trying to put the pieces back together and to see that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They are starting to see the forest for the trees. Intelligence and wisdom are everywhere and in everything. We were blind but now we see.

Today, now, in Christ Jesus, we encounter the voice of the Ancient of Days, which called Abraham and Sarah, and which challenged Nicodemus to be born again in water and spirit. In baptism you were clothed in Christ and reborn as children of a new humanity.  The born-again life in God is foolishness according to the ways of the world. Martin Luther once wrote, “faith is a free surrender and a joyous wager on the unseen, untried and unknown goodness of God.”  We are that people who must daily crawl back to the font, to be renewed in the promises of this second birth. The Holy Spirit, through the light of Christ, calls us out from the shadows, exposes us to the brilliance of God’s love—and meets our questioning hearts with an amazing miraculous surprising invitation to nothing less than life eternal.