Epiphany 2B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It was a 17-minute speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963. Martin Luther King Jr. had been so preoccupied with the logistics of the historic March on Washington he hadn’t given much thought to what he’d say. He began to write less than 12 hours before. He titled early drafts “Normalcy, Never Again.” Eyewitnesses say it wasn’t until the end of his famous speech that Dr. King stopped reading his notes, looked up and began to preach, after the great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, prompted him to “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” Tell them about the dream. The rest is history.

The miracle of the incarnation is God’s promise to move and speak through us. Epiphanies come in human shapes and sizes. When Dr. King set aside what he prepared to say God began to speak through him. He went from being a speaker to being a prophet. God spoke to the American people and to the world that day. He preached a message for then and for all time: God has a dream and invites you and I to inhabit it. Come and see.

Sadly, this is not 1963. I’d wager there are more police and National Guard on the national mall today than regular people. 10-foot high “unscalable” barricades surround the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and other monuments. I’ve read only 1,000 people will attend the inauguration in-person. That’s 1/200dths of normal. After 10 months of pandemic, nationwide protests, a contentious national election, a bloody insurrection, two impeachments, and continued threats of political violence, cynicism, disillusionment, and exhaustion rule many American hearts and minds. Alcohol and marijuana sales are soaring. Last night, I received an email from Bishop Curry warning that so-called, ‘liberal churches,’ might become targets for extremists.
These feel like the days of Eli from our first reading. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1b). Eli was a priest down on his luck, feeling guilty because he couldn’t stand up to other priests, in particular his own sons, who habitually dishonored God through extortion, greed, and sexual assault. Eli no longer expected to see or hear anything from God because he didn’t have the courage, will, and moral fortitude to do what God desired.

Fast forward about a thousand years to our Gospel reading. We read about Nathanael. We can relate to Nathanael. Upon receiving the good news of the Messiah from Philip his first reaction is skepticism. The disillusionment of Roman occupation and the corruption of religious leaders is not easy to dislodge. Nathanael was sitting under a fig tree—was he social distancing? Was he moping? Does he dare to dream about a better life? Nathanael dismisses Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

Jesus says, to us and to Nathanael, Follow me. Come and see. God has a dream for the world as it should be that requires each one of us. “Who me?” we ask. “You mean right now?” We, too, are incredulous. We can relate to Eli and Nathanael.

The French existentialist philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, tells that when she was caring for her dying mother, it was as if the entire world shrunk to the size of her mother’s hospital room. In times of grief and high anxiety, we can lose track of our dreams. We mistake realism for reality. It can take all the energy we have to look beyond our misfortunes and failures, to behold again the larger vision, the big picture—the power of holy imagination, the lure of an alternate reality—that Jesus called the kingdom of God. Yet within what we perceive to be limitations are possibilities for renewal and growth.

As Dr. King so memorably reminded us, to respond to God’s call is to fall in love with Love itself. Through encounter with Christ, we learn to be lovers of people, because as Christian people, we are called to invite others into the dream, to become members with us in the beloved community. Nathanael wasn’t changed so much as he was set into motion by Jesus’ call. That’s really all that is required to become a disciple. Follow me. Come and see.

Eli’s first and second response to God’s prompting of the boy, Samuel, was confusion and not a little annoyance at being needlessly awakened. Yet, finally, he recognized there was another possibility. Eli put aside his own self-interest. He wasn’t worried about keeping his job or motivated by loyalty to his sons. When Eli realized what might be happening with Samuel, he could have tried to trick him, or to shut him away, or even to have killed him. Yet Eli was faithful to God. Eli is an unsung hero. He proved his faithfulness to God by stepping aside, by passing the baton, by nurturing the next generation of leadership in the story of God’s ongoing mission.

We need more Eli’s today. Can you and I be like Eli? Now that our complacent slumbers have been repeatedly disrupted by violence against black bodies, by a worldwide pandemic, by a culture of subordination and sexual assault against women, by extreme income inequality, and mass extinction will we recognize it is finally time to stop doing business as usual? Can we finally acknowledge the many ways we have participated and/or acquiesced to these wrongs? Despite that, can we step forward, following after Jesus, and like Nathanael, like Eli, walk the way of the cross? Can the vast scene of American carnage stretching be an epiphany for us? Come and see. Follow me, Jesus says.

Jesus invites you and me to dream again like you did when you were a child. As Dr. King so memorably reminded us, to respond to God’s call we must cultivate a holy imagination, because to be Christian is to tell people about the dream that God’s kingdom may come here on earth as it is in heaven.
In 1959, after the successful completion of the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King went on a pilgrimage to India. He desired to learn more about Mahatma Gandhi, the philosophy of nonviolence, and about the people and culture that inspired it. He was received by large crowds as a national dignitary. Yet he was not prepared, when at a school full of admirers, he was enthusiastically introduced as ‘an American Untouchable.” You may know there is a very old caste system in India. It ranks some people ahead of other people. Dalit is a name given to people of the very lowest class. They are literally, considered untouchable, by those of higher classes. The school for Dalit children immediately recognized Dr. King as a hero of their own. Rather than recoil from this loss of face, Dr. King came to embrace the title as a badge of honor.

Like Eli, and Nathanael, and Dr. King we are led on the path of renewal and discipleship by listening to the voice of the Samuel’s of the world, the witness of those on the margins, the no-accounts, the unprivileged, and invisible. It is not a command but a call. It is an invitation to dream again. Come, follow, seek and find healing for your wounds and a purpose to dignify your life. Jesus invites us to walk the path to wellness that will not be easy, and possibly even dangerous. Come, follow me, Jesus says, Let me teach you how to dream again and how to live.

Baptism of our Lord B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

For now, we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.
—1 Corinthians 13:12

We navigate by the uncertain light of epiphany. Without all the details, we make decisions. Unsure where it will lead, we choose a path. Despite not knowing fully even ourselves, we commit to truths and values to live by.

“We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Epiphanies are a part of everyday life yet, for most of us, they do not occur every day. That is why you must remember what you saw, what you experienced, or what you heard about the character of God from the Sacraments; or beside the font; or at the Table; or in the Living Word of holy scripture; or in the prayers, or in the church engaged in mission; or in the testimony of prophets, poets, and artists; or the testimony of activists and organizers; or the testimony of other religions; or from the voices of the oppressed; or in the face of a neighbor—remember what you learned from moments of Epiphany that shine out in your memory when you realized just a little bit more about your life.

It is rare that the feast day commemorating Epiphany corresponds with an actual epiphany, let alone a national one. Yet, last Wednesday, on January 6th, it happened. What did you see? Remember what you saw. Ponder it as Mary pondered the words of the Angel Gabriel. Talk among yourselves for greater clarity. It is never entirely clear what an epiphany means. It can take a lifetime to unpack. Yet, with grace, we see just enough to steer by.

We had ourselves an Epiphany this week –really—we’ve had so many this past year. Sometimes, when the lights come on, we are unhappy about what we see. We see there is a lot of dirty work that needs doing the morning after a party. There may be a personal reckoning that must be faced in the aftermath of our mistakes. Epiphanies can be like that.

On Wednesday, I saw how whiteness—the belief that white people are superior—is a big lie and that it’s killing us. The commitment to white supremacy is ripping the people of this nation apart and separating us all from the democratic values we hold dear. I saw that democracy is fragile not inevitable. Democracy must be nourished. It requires our participation, civil debate, and trust.

It’s not an overstatement to say this year has taught many of us systemic racism is real and diminishes us all. Misogyny is real and diminishes us all. Xenophobia is real and diminishes us all. Climate change is real and diminishes us all. Despite this, a record number, more than 73 million people, showed by their vote a willingness to ignore, if not condone, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and climate change. 40% of these people are evangelical Christians. Covid-19 showed us how interdependent we really are including people and nations around the world. Social media has shown us that too. Social distancing may be right for the pandemic, but it is not the solution for these other problems we see that plague us today.

So, what to do? We turn for guidance to another epiphany the church calls baptism. Jesus said, ‘Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:19). Very simply, we baptize because Jesus commanded us to. This gift has been given to you not as a loyalty test, not as a prerequisite that must be accomplished before receiving God’s love, not as fire insurance to get into heaven, but as a sacrament of graceful intimate presence with you to have and to hold from this day forward, in joy and in sorrow, in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish all the days of your life, from now and until forever.

You recognize those words? The gift of God’s love in baptism makes possible the preposterous vow we make in marriage to love one person the way God loves all people and all creatures of creation. This gift makes also makes possible the covenant we share to be citizens of this nation, and more simply, to be neighbor. By grace, the Samaritan climbed down from his horse to assist the man in the ditch. By grace the Father kept constant vigil for the return of the prodigal son.

Belovedness is a central theme in the baptism of Jesus. In Mark, the heavenly voice speaks directly to Jesus for his own sake: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It is part of the majesty and glory of God that God is not only the creator. God is a creator of co-creators. God is a lover of artists. God delights to see what new and beautiful things we can make from what God has given. Artists creatively bring into existence from what did not exist, that which gracefully transforms and renews. God made baptism as a sign for us of the new life we share in Christ as artists of grace—as co-creators with God of a more hopeful future.

Baptism is an epiphany. Helping other people in need matters. Speaking up when other people have been wronged matters. Contributing to the greater good of the world makes a difference. As Jesus was coming up out of the waters of baptism, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10).

The baptism of Jesus tore through the boundary between heaven and earth. Now presumably, what is opened can be closed again. But what has been torn apart must remain open for all time. Through Christ Jesus, Mark says, the realms of heaven and the realms of earth have become mixed together.

The Spirit of God is mixed and folded within you. It’s a theme Mark will repeat at the moment of Jesus’ death on a cross. Just as Jesus breathed his last, the curtain in the Temple that separated the profane world from the Holy of Holies was torn in two, from top to bottom (Mark 15:38).

God cannot be contained by our holy spaces. God will not be confined to the heavenly realm. God is loose in the land. God’s presence fills the world. We meet God through encounter with our neighbor regardless of their party affiliation, gender, race, ethnicity, ability, or sexual orientation. All are endowed with dignity reflecting the likeness and image of God. Dearly beloved, the grace of God is revealed in the shadow of human hearts when we walk together by the lantern light of epiphany trusting in what God has shown and taught us to create order and blessing from the chaos of our lives.

Christmas 2B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Every sermon I’ve written since 2005 is on the computer through which I’m speaking to you now. Yet there was no sermon for the second Sunday of Christmas—until now. Last year, on New Year’s Eve, I was embarrassing my kids on the dance floor at the YMCA of the Rockies. I couldn’t have imagined all the changes this year would bring, including the undoing of holiday traditions for my family.

My sister forwarded a list circulating on the internet of twelve things to ponder for the New Year. Number one flatly states, “The dumbest thing I ever bought was a 2020 planner.” Number five, “This morning I saw a neighbor talking to her cat. It was obvious she thought her cat understood her. I came home & told my dog. We laughed a lot.” I could relate to that one.

Perhaps it is always true. None of us can predict the future, but it feels more-true now. In the wake of an unpredictable year, on this, the 10th Day of Christmas, just when we thought we couldn’t be surprised any more by surprises, our scriptures bring us Sophia, the power of God in the form of Woman-Wisdom who, scriptures say dwells in all creation.

You may not have heard of Sophia. Yet she sings out from the appointed readings for today. At the opening of John’s gospel Jesus is identified with the Woman-Wisdom of Sophia. Sophia means “wisdom” in Greek. According to Catholic theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson, “Jesus is Sophia incarnate.” It is a transgender moment in God’s story. The Wisdom of God took on flesh and became the Word of God. Jesus the Word is Wisdom the woman. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

You may not have heard of Sophia. Yet the Wisdom of Solomon retells the story of the Exodus as Sophia’s doing. She is the one who delivered God’s people from a nation of oppressors (10:15). She sheltered them with a cloud and guided them with a pillar of fire. The exodus from slavery was the work of Sophia, who led the people through the sea and into freedom. In Ephesians 1, Jesus incarnates Sophia’s liberation in the church: Christ is our “redemption,” our deliverance in his/her sharing with us of “wisdom” (verses 7-8). Christ is the Sophia of God, calling us into her work of liberation.

The book of Sirach, which is one of the optional readings appointed for today, instructs us that Woman-Wisdom is like the mist, covering the earth with God’s presence. She lives in the clouds, the pillars of the sky. She rides the waves of the sea. She has a tent in Jerusalem, where she lives with God’s people.
Woman-Wisdom featured prominently in the writings of the ancient desert mothers and fathers of the fourth century. They lived in a time of even greater uncertainty and upheaval than our own. They fled the corruption of church and society to seek Christ in the solitude of the Egyptian desert. They cared less about Christian doctrine and more about living the mystery of the Christian life. (A Coptic monastery from that period North of Cairo, Egypt is one of the memorable and beautiful places I’ve ever visited. (photo)

You might consider choosing from among their wisdom “sayings,” as you think about New Year resolutions this week. I find them interesting and amusing: “Never stop starting over,” (Arsenios, 5th century). “Live intentionally, not aimlessly,” (St. Mark the Ascetic, 5th century). “Pray simply, not stupidly,” Abba Macarius. “Stay put,” Mother Syncletica (4th century). “Acknowledge my brokenness,” (St. Maximos the Confessor, 7th century). “Be ruthlessly realistic,” (St. Makarios of Egypt, 5th century). “Read the obituaries,” “At the moment of our death we will all know for certain what is the outcome of our life” (St. Gregory of Sinai, 13th century). (“My New Year’s Resolutions” (From the Fourth Century) Daniel Clendenin, Journey with Jesus, 12/27/20)

Poet Kathleen Norris found a natural affinity with the desert wisdom of the fourth-century monastics: Like them, Norris “made a counter-cultural choice to live in what the rest of the world considers a barren waste;” her “idea of what makes a place beautiful had to change.”

Norris left New York City for the house built by her grandparents in an isolated town on the border between North and South Dakota. After years of estrangement from Christianity, it was on the Great Plains that Norris returned to that tradition, making a spiritual home there. Dakota is, Norris writes, “my spiritual geography, the place where I’ve wrestled my story out of the circumstances of landscape and inheritance…writing about Dakota has been my means of understanding that inheritance and reclaiming what is holy in it.” The great gift of Sophia is the discovery that the place we are standing now is holy ground.

Years ago, a book by Paulo Coelho called “The Alchemist,” made the top-seller lists. In it a recurring dream troubles Santiago, a young shepherd living in Spain. He has the dream every time he sleeps under a sycamore tree that grows out of the ruins of a church. In the dream, a child tells him to seek treasure at the foot of the Egyptian pyramids. We follow Santiago through a lifetime of adventure, stops and starts, diversions, and mysterious coincidences, until finally he arrives at a certain Coptic monastery in Northern Egypt, and finally at the foot of the Pyramids. There, he doesn’t find any treasure, instead, he is beaten up by thieves who try to rob him. They let Santiago go after they realize he doesn’t have anything of value. To prove to him what a fool he is one of the thieves tells Santiago about his own worthless of dreams of treasure buried in an abandoned church in Spain where a sycamore tree grows—the very same church where Santiago’s journey began. He returns to Spain to find a chest of jewels and gold buried under the tree and returns with it to build a home in a place called Al-Fayoum, where he reunites with Fatima, whom he loved and who awaits him.

As we embark together on a new year, Sophia reminds us the fullness of the presence of God dwells with us and walks with us starting in the all-too-familiar, loneliness, and uncertainty of our pandemic lives. Like Santiago, we find the treasure of God’s wisdom buried here in the place that we are, hidden within the current moment. Yet, perhaps, it is not in the possession of wisdom but in its pursuit that we find the adventure of our lives, acquire new skills, discover hidden talents, meet new people, and finally find ourselves at home. The Woman-Wisdom of God is revealed as we commit ourselves to the pursuit of God’s dream living our faith. All things are united in Christ, things in heaven and things on Earth” (Ephesians 1:10). Heaven and earth are united here in our frail bodies to be the body of Christ for the world. In all that is to come, and in whatever is to be. God with us – comes to be born again in us and through us, and Sophia joyfully claps her hands.

Christmas Day B-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Have you opened gifts yet? I got off easy this Christmas. I installed a closet clothing rod in Joe’s room before he came home.

Other years, I’ve assembled a bicycle, a free-standing basketball hoop, and an outdoor playhouse. And, of course, many things from Ikea. There’s a storage unit in our home that shall go unspecified in which one the shelves is upside down.

Why do we do it? Why do we put up with the aggravation? Because without the assembly –it’s just a bunch of junk in a box.

You and I are sort of like that too. In John’s gospel today we learned that we are made for each other.

Old-timers will remember when we went from a green hymnal to a red one. Among the many changes the new red hymnal made was to substitute the word ‘Assembly’ where the old green book used the word ‘congregation.’

Assembly is required because we cannot worship alone. We must be gathered in order to consecrate Holy Communion. In the body of Christ, the hand cannot decide to move apart from the foot. The heart cannot survive without the head. We are knit together in mystical oneness with one another and with God by our baptism into Christ.

This is what has been so painful for Christian worship in this pandemic year. Christians may be forced to by circumstances to be apart but like two magnets we feel the constant pull to be together again. Like a thunderbolt we follow the path of least resistance in order to reach common ground. We must find connection any way we can even if it is only here in virtual space.

Can cyberspace become holy ground? We have all been living that question for the past ten months, haven’t we? I think we are learning—yes—that it can, especially when we are virtually gathered, like this morning, in real time even if not in actual space. As I understand it, this is the heart of the debate about when and whether it is ever appropriate to have online communion. The jury is still out on that one. The gears of church theology and liturgical practice grind slowly which makes our tradition trustworthy. For now, I am very glad it is possible for you to be here and that we are gathered –at the same time I am mindful of those who cannot reach this space because they can’t afford a computer, or good internet, or just can’t manage the technology.
In the beautiful stained-glass window over the altar at Immanuel we read the words:
God is with Us. It’s a beautiful statement of the incarnation. But what we often miss is the ‘us.’ Over the centuries, Christians have drawn the circle of who is included in the ‘us’ smaller and smaller until it includes only baptized Christians, or only Christians of a certain denomination, or only me and my family and hang the rest.

We have made the circle of inclusion small in other ways too. We take Jesus’ words to heart. ‘Each of you, beloved, is of more value than many sparrows.’ (Matthew 10:31) Yet where did we get the idea that God doesn’t care about all sparrows? We treat human life as if it were the only life that matters.

Then, drawing the circle smaller still, we create, participate, and help to sustain a culture that values some human beings more than others, as though what it means to truly be a child of God is to be white.

Out in the streets this year, we heard the call to ‘say their names.’ George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Philando Castile. It goes on and on. We say their names in order to humanize them. We shout their names to say to ourselves and to everyone that all lives do not matter until black lives do. But there are many in this country that we love today who prize whiteness over the U.S. constitution, or the balance of powers, or even more than democracy itself.

People of faith, people of the Christian faith, will gather in communities around the world this morning in the tens of millions who will not question how they may be excluding people of color, or non-human life, or people of different faith traditions. Somehow, they will listen again to the familiar stories of the birth of the Christ child and will feel themselves affirmed but not convicted.

Hear again, the gospel of John: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:3-4) The incarnation of grace did not become flesh in the little town of Bethlehem and no place else. But what has been revealed in Christ Jesus is the spirit of life and love that is in, with, and under all of creation—now beyond the stars, in every creature, reflected in every human heart.

For the incarnation to happen, assembly is required. It can be quite daunting to look the piles of pieces we have strewn about us and try to make something out of them. It’s like trying to furnish an entire apartment with furniture from Ikea. How do we restore broken relationships? How do we begin to repair the breach in our cities and our nation? How do we bring civility back to our civic life? How do we put together the human family? How do we restore balance between human life and all life? It feels overwhelming. It truly is too big for any one of us.

Like any project, we do it best if we begin with the instructions. We’re not in this alone. There is wisdom we can draw upon. We can learn from the hard-won experience and good counsel we find in each other. Most especially, we lean upon the grace of God. We pray. We meditate. We worship—so that our hearts and minds may be centered upon God as we set out to re-assemble the world.

Over the years, poets and mystics have described the miracle of the incarnation in many ways. One of my favorites is attributed to several people but may have originated with Blaise Pascal, “God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Another is handed down from Angelus Silesius and recently made famous by composer Ana Hernandez: “If in your heart you make a manger for his birth then God will once again become a child on earth.” For the incarnation, assembly is required. Yet it is not so much work that we must do, so much as it is something we are drawn into participation with. Love incarnate has come as a gift for you again this Christmas. Let it affirm you. Let it convict you. Let us join our hands, hearts, and voices and say Amen!

4th Sunday of Advent
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

As I sit here the little light next to the built-in camera on my laptop is shining green. I can see many of you, although not all of you, on a large external monitor. I have on my clergy shirt. I’m wearing my blue stole for the Advent season. I’ve lighted all four candles on my Advent wreath. So, I have the feeling, I can be pretty sure, today is Sunday.

Some mornings, I admit, I’m a bit confused. Compost gets picked up on Wednesdays. Trash goes on Thursdays. Worship is on Sunday. Otherwise, the days seem pretty much the same. Pandemic days blur together.

Biblical scholar Karoline Lewis, writing for the Living Lutheran magazine comments, “The time in which we find ourselves—as individuals, communities, a nation, a world and a church—is much more than unprecedented. It’s unnerving, unsettling. Upending and upheaving—suspended in that in-between space caused by pandemic and protest, by disbelief and dystopia, by resistance and revolution. But as Christians, we know this time well—the time between the already and the not yet of the kingdom of heaven. The time between God so loved the world and waiting for it to come true. The kind of time that Mary understood. The kind of time coiled with the tension between “How can this be?” and “Nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:34, 37). (Karoline M. Lewis, Living in Mary’s Time, The Living Lutheran, 12/11/20).

After all, the life of a young peasant girl living in poverty in a backwater town of ancient Palestine was likely even more monotonous and people-starved than our own. Mary’s question “How can this be?” resonates within our own weariness. Could there yet be some magic of grace hidden behind the four walls of our quarantine, or the unending sameness of our days?

Or perhaps, Mary was simply incredulous at being pregnant. “How can I possibly be carrying a child when I am a virgin?” Or perhaps, Gabriel’s message had filled her mind with a swarm of questions: “What am I supposed to tell my family?” Or “Who is going to be there during labor?” Or “How will I protect myself from the rocks and stones my friends and neighbors will throw?” Or “How am I supposed to raise a baby by myself?” Or “Who am I for God to choose me?” (Karoline Lewis)
The angel Gabriel anticipates her layered fear: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33). To which Mary replied, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (vs. 38). Mary shows us how to live with the tension between ‘How can this be?’ and “Let it be.”

The careful listener will notice, Gabriel called Mary the ‘favored one.’ Yet it is a strange blessing. Is this the special honor God bestows upon his “favored ones?” Obviously, divine favor does not equate with wealth, health, comfort, or ease. Mary’s favored status meant losing out on the blessings of normal family life to be marked with the stain of scandal, danger, and the trauma of her son’s crucifixion. God’s call was profoundly countercultural, and not the sort of thing a young girl typically dreams of. It required a steadfast commitment to God’s vision that flew in the face of everything her community expected of her. No wonder Mary fled to the safety and security of her cousin Elizabeth. How did she know Elizabeth and Zechariah would welcome her?

That moment on cousin Elizabeth’s doorstep inspired Mary’s song—the Magnificat. This gorgeous song of God’s justice is the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the entire New Testament. Notice too that Mary sang while Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, the “official” priest and spokesperson of God, endured his divine silencing. Mary’s song echoed the words and stories of long-suffering faithful women–Miriam, Hannah, Judith, and Deborah. The Magnificat is one of the Church’s oldest Advent hymns. It has inspired countless composers to set it to music. Yet it is a song so subversive that it was officially banned from being sung during British rule in India, and during the so-called ‘dirty war’ in Argentina.

In a sermon on today’s gospel, Martin Luther noticed something in Mary’s response to the Angel that is instructive about faith. Faith isn’t about knowing the facts, he said. Faith is the willingness to stake “goods, life and honor” upon the promise of God’s love and the hope that springs from it. Faith always involves at least some risk and vulnerability. (Did you write that on your list this Christmas this year?) Mary shows us faith must follow the way of the cross as we journey from belief into action, as we step across the threshold of Advent, moving from ‘How can this be?’, to ‘let it be.’

This is what’s so lovely and so terrifying about the incarnation. Faced with Mary’s choice to be God-bearers or home makers of successful, enviable Christian homes—we often choose the way of looking good rather than the way of the cross. Yet, when we make a home for grace like Mary did, or like Elizabeth did, we become wholemakers, uniting what is scattered, creating a deeper unity in love. “Christian life is a commitment to love, to give birth to God in one’s own life and to become midwives of divinity in this evolving cosmos. We are to be wholemakers of love in a world of change.” [Ilia Delio, “Love at the Heart of the Universe,” “The Perennial Tradition,” Oneing, vol. 1, no. 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), 22.]

Can we do that? In this bleak midwinter of pandemic, unrest, and upheaval can God breathe new life into being in us and fill our hearts once again with joy? How can this be? Mary gently instructs us. Say the words. Ponder them. Let them rekindle the flame of hope in your heart. “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Like Mary, our mind is filled with questions. Yet this gift of grace has power to fill our humble days with beauty and meaning. See we are standing once again upon the threshold of God’s Advent—a new birth of freedom, of justice, and of sustainability. Cast off your pandemic doldrums. What a tremendous opportunity there is within our grasp. Let it be.

Advent 2B-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Comfort O Comfort my people, says the Lord. Speak tenderly to them (Isaiah 40:1&2). Comfort is hard to come by this holiday season. It’s time to celebrate small victories. Did I tell you? We sat on the back porch for Thanksgiving this year. Kari’s parents came down from Milwaukee. We ate at separate tables wrapped in electric blankets. It worked! What’s more, the day before Thanksgiving, we went out and bought a tree. It must be the earliest day ever for us.

Celebrate small victories. Give thanks for creature comforts. You don’t have to keep it all together after everything has already fallen apart. So, this Friday, December 11th, 2020 at 6:00 PM, I hereby declare, according to the authority entrusted to me as your pastor, theologian in residence, and official keeper of the keys, special dispensation to join us on Zoom to sing Christmas carols despite it still being Advent –and it not truly being caroling for neighbors in nursing homes or shut-ins. I only wish it could be so. You have my blessing to set up your tree, or to wear a silly sweater, to bake cookies and eat them all, and/or to do whatever it is that helps you through these pandemic days with a smile and with grace.

But listen! Incline your ear and hear again to tales from of old of God’s grace and of the voice crying out in the wilderness. This year when our holidays are all messed up, our days tinged with grief, and we shake our heads in frustration and longing, there is an opportunity in it to draw closer to hearing the still-speaking God in this season of Advent.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1). These words resonate today despite being more than 2,500 years old. They are from a time, the Psalmist sings (Psalm 137), when the people lived in exile and could not sing. “By the waters of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept. Our tormentors asked us to sing songs of Zion. How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1 & 4)

Their homes had been destroyed and their families ripped apart. They lived in slavery for 49 years –fully two generations. These words we quote from Isaiah are the tale of a second Exodus. They were like water raining down upon a dry land. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his pathway straight” (Isaiah 40:3). A royal highway would lead them home.

It was the beginning of the good news for the ancient Israelites. For us today, the beginning of the good news of our own exodus into freedom is announced by John the Baptist. It is a gift wrapped in camel’s hair, mixed with locusts and wild honey for when everything has already fallen apart. Because, truly, for most of us it is only after there is no way that we stand ready and open to God’s way. Then, as we sang today, ‘Steadfast love and faithfulness shall meet together; and righteousness and peace shall kiss’ (Psalm 85:10).

“Advent is defined by in-between-ness—the gap between the now and the not-yet-now… It’s the muddled middle between the Annunciation and the “angels we have heard on high”… Or the manger and the cross… This gap is a “liminal” space, from the Latin word “limens,” which means “threshold.””
Standing in the doorway between what is familiar and what we only dare to hope could be a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading us. It is when you have left the tried and true but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you, your ego and the inertia of the familiar are finally out of the way. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer that is Advent. If you are not prepared to sit with anxiety, to live with ambiguity, to entrust and to wait, you will run. Normally we would do anything to flee from what has been called this terrible cloud of unknowing. (adapted from Richard Rohr)

This terrible Advent cloud of unknowing” is pregnant with possibility. Sadly, we seldom grow and mature without uncertainty and pain. This Advent, more than others in recent memory, is collectively our moment in the middle. “There is that moment in the middle…The middle between the old thing and the new thing…The good thing and the better thing…The hard thing and the harder thing… The old you and the new you… And we call that moment in the middle…Fear, Excitement, Dread, Determination, Dependence, Risk, Faith. But it’s true name is…Transformation.” (Transformation and the Muddled Middle of Advent, by Rick Lawrence, Executive Director, Vibrant Faith)

So, we celebrate small victories. Give thanks for creature comforts. Do what you can to get through these pandemic days. Yes. But in the true spirit of Advent stand ready and open to receive the gift of Christ’s return wrapped in camel’s hair, without hype or glitz, to make more perfect your particular version of imperfection.

It is not enough that we survive this pandemic but that we follow the spirit’s prompting to push beyond the boundaries of what we thought possible for our culture, our society, and for our church to forge a more just, more equitable, more sustainable future together.
It is time to return to our roots. Remember, “[Christianity] began as a revolutionary nonviolent movement promoting a new kind of aliveness on the margins of society. . . . It claimed that everyone, not just an elite few, had God-given gifts to use for the common good. It exposed a system based on domination, privilege, and violence and proclaimed in its place a vision of mutual service, mutual responsibility, and peaceable neighborliness. It put people above profit, and made the audacious claim that the Earth belonged not to rich tycoons or powerful politicians, but to the Creator who loves every sparrow in the trees and every wildflower in the field. It was a peace movement, a love movement, a joy movement, a justice movement, an integrity movement, an aliveness movement.” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (Jericho Books: 2015), xvii–xix.)

Comfort O Comfort my people, says the Lord. Prepare the way. Lift every valley. Make the crooked places straight. God who became flesh in Jesus is the hidden God of whom the prophets speak, and the psalmists sing. He shows himself by way of those who are the absent, anonymous people of history. He is revealed in the margins. He has called us out of our houses to stand upon the threshold. We stand there now this Advent. It is the beginning of the transformation. Christ our healer comes. “All earth is hopeful, the savior comes at last!” (ELW #266).

Advent 1B-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Happy New Year! Drop the balloons. Shout hooray. Cue the music. Today is the start of the new year in worship. We move from the end to beginning again. Yet, somehow today feels less like a party. Like when you can’t pay the electric bill. We flip on the lights but we’re in the dark.

Advent begins, not with the pop of a champagne cork, but with lament at the hiddenness of God. It is more impatience than patience. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, Isaiah pleads (Isaiah 64:1). “Restore us, O Lord of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved,” cries the Psalmist (Psalm 80:3). In a case of be careful what you wish for, Jesus warns in Mark’s gospel that on the day of the Lord, 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,’ (Mark 13:24).

You might be wondering whether these readings were chosen because of the pandemic. But no, these and others just like them, are what is read every year. The first season of the Christian new year begins with brutal honesty. The world is not as it should be. It is not okay. The morning after frankness of Advent is less of a surprise this year when so many things have disappointed and threatened us at once.

Advent is uncomfortable. But sometimes, rather than rush through our discontent, it is better to sit with our sorrow a while. It is there that wisdom and compassion are born. Our hearts and hands are opened. Lives are reborn.

Impatience with how the world works has led many Christians, in recent years to search apocalyptic readings like these for clues. If the heavens and earth are to be shaken when the Lord comes, we’d sure be pleased to know when. Yet, one thing all end-time predictors have in common is that they’re wrong. The prognosticators all seem to ignore Jesus’ words that no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father (Mark 13:32).

So, we’re left stewing. Funny thing though, when we turn from trying to locate the end-times on the calendar to watching for the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in each other, we can be mostly right. In fact, the moment we stop waiting and watching for Jesus to show up we stop waiting and watching for grace. Jesus called himself the Son of Man. He represents how human beings are truly meant to live, and points to the kinship kingdom that is the original design of the Creator, the Ancient One.

To come out of this pandemic better than we went in, we must let ourselves be touched by others’ pain. We must let our impatience mature into wisdom and compassion, the gifts of Advent. Then we become antibodies to the virus of indifference. Then the true light starts to leak out of us despite ourselves. It is a lamp for our feet and a streetlight for our path. This light has allowed the saints of each generation to make the same great discovery. All Life is a gift. We grow by giving of ourselves, not preserving ourselves, but losing ourselves in service.

Put down your calendar and start looking for Christ’s coming again in your neighbor. This week, the day after Thanksgiving, Pope Francis wrote an editorial which appeared in the New York Times. He wrote, “Sometimes, when you think globally, you can be paralyzed: There are so many places of apparently ceaseless conflict; there’s so much suffering and need. I find it helps to focus on concrete situations: You see faces looking for life and love in the reality of each person, of each people. You see hope written in the story of every nation, glorious because it’s a story of daily struggle, of lives broken in self-sacrifice. So rather than overwhelm you, it invites you to ponder and to respond with hope.” Pope Francis, Pope Francis: “A Crisis Reveals What Is in Our Hearts,” NYT, 11/26/20)

Advent is so consistent in celebrating the light of Christ precisely because we spend so much of our lives dwelling in the star-less midnight of unknowing and hope. The true light revealed in darkness shines from each other’s eyes. It constantly leaks out and shows itself from underneath, and outside, and from deep within us. This light tirelessly transforms lives and changes history.

I’ll give you an example. Years ago, a teenage boy and his parents, were forced to leave home and work in a labor camp during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The boy took up art to avoid doing heavy labor. He won a competition. His painting of Chairman Mao Zedong was the best. You may remember the artist He Qi. He visited Immanuel about six years ago. One of his prints depicting angels hangs in the church today.

One day, He recalled, he encountered some Christian art on the cover of a magazine. It was Raphael’s Madonna and child. He secretly painted that image over and over again at night. “She was holding baby Jesus in a chair. It really touched my heart,” He Qi said. It was the first Christian image He remembers seeing, and it conveyed a peace he still considers the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity. He said, “During the Cultural Revolution in every corner in China, every minute people were fighting. Everything was revolutionary. Horrible. It was very difficult to find a peaceful message. So, in the daytime I painted Chairman Mao; in the evening I painted Madonna.”

Advent is about keeping watch for the light God reveals in darkness. Advent opens us for encounter with the coming Christ even in the most unexpected places—even in a baby in the manger. “Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in the stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.” (Frederick Buechner, sermon entitled, “The Face in the Sky”)
Advent gives permission to tell the truth, even if that truth is laced with sorrow. This truth is forged by the Spirit into wisdom and compassion. As we become less afraid of the dark our eyes are better able to see life as it is, and not as we mistakenly assume our religion requires us to render it. We begin to see each other more clearly and to be called into serving Christ through 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

In a far-away land that “is somehow not so far away,” 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 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)

The people began to comprehend. And the earth began to heal. I wonder, where we can find some of that healing now? We need some strong gospel medicine. In this week when we remember first to be grateful, we give thanks and praise to God because, in today’s parable, Jesus has offered us a vaccine. God’s love for you is not the whole story. God loves everyone else too.

In a way, that’s what today is all 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 to heal the world, ravaged by World War I. Jesus’s humble kingship is powerful gospel medicine to end the fever dream of empire, nationalism, and consumerism.
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 the majority 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 is as misleading as though we had lived 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.
So, what to do? We return to the gospel. 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 you are winners and others are losers.

We know how to spot a winner don’t we? Winners buy coffee at Starbucks. Losers line up at the food pantry. Winners make doctor’s appointments. Losers go to the county health clinic. Winners have warm homes and soft beds. Losers get in line for the overnight shelter by 6:00 pm or risk being out on the street. 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 consume and metabolize this story: don’t be a goat.

But then something Jesus interjects in the parable contains the deeper truth. It hits our blood stream with the power of a vaccine. It is gospel medicine to free 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 love and serve life’s goats. 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, but God has loved us into being sheep. Let the people begin to comprehend. And the earth start to heal.

The Kingdom of God is always right here in the midst of us. Jesus opens a door and invites us to step across the threshold and into the eternal presence of God when we put on the body of Christ. God’s kingdom stands in stark contrast to this fallen world. The counter-kingdom of God sets the rules our lives are 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).

“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)

Although grace is not unreasonable, ultimately grace does not yield to reason. The real winners look like 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 you to victory. When people respond to human need, or fail to respond, they 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.

Proper 27A-20

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Intern Justin Perkins, preacher

“Keep awake,” Christ tells us in Matthew’s Gospel. “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” How did those words sit with you this morning?

Almost to the very moment Jesus speaks this phrase, it seems, religious authorities, in concert with the Roman occupation, have gathered to plot Jesus’s destruction. Christ’s ministry of healing and social activism has long provoked their ire, and now brings him to the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem, as he awaits certain torture and death. Yet, before Christ’s passion, Jesus chooses to wait with his disciples as they all anticipate the Passover festival. But the disciples, desperate for any glint of hope in these solemn days, have already pleaded with Christ, saying, “Tell us, what will be the sign of your coming?” Jesus, however, gives them no victory speech, no words for unification, no trumped-up claims toward kingship or distortion of the law in his favor, indeed no kind of visible sign to dispel the gathering shadows of doubt. Instead, Jesus teaches them a parable. At death’s door, Jesus apparently cannot help but continue instructing the disciples, and not with naïve placations for a better future, but in fact calls them to dwell with him in their uncertainty, to be fully present to the moment and all its trials, repeating again to them:

“Keep awake.”

As I hear these words this morning, I cannot help but side with the disciples. Watching and waiting for the election results to trickle in this past week, I am worn down by this act of keeping awake. I feel weary of being on alert at any moment for the anticipated news to come, just as I already feel stretched thin waiting for signs of the pandemic to end. Yet even when the results did arrive, they did not come attached with a blueprint for the way forward, no gilded star emblazoned on our screens or in the sky that suddenly dispelled the suffering present in our nation and around the world.

This is not to downplay the momentous fact that this nation has just elected our first woman vice-president, the proud daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother who each boldly pursued their future through education and activism. This is a real achievement to celebrate and to honor all who have fought and continue to fight for civil rights in our country.

But as even as we receive this momentous event, it remains just that: a moment in history that keeps us waiting at ever new thresholds. Indeed, regardless of this week’s results, a door in history was sure to be opened, a byway in time whose terrain we could never know. Listening yesterday to the promises of restoring the soul of our nation and the choice to advocate on behalf of working people and root out the violence of systemic racism, it was hard also not to believe this already could be true, that our waiting was done. But I could not also mistake noticing along with this the reality that our nation remains freshly wounded and deeply divided. So while the promises of democracy this week still claimed to bear light across this threshold, I could not help but awaken also to the shadows that walked right along with us, even within us. “Keep awake therefore,” Christ’s words return to us. But how? I wonder, when it seems like we still stumble about in darkness, bereft of certain knowledge about the future.

It seems apt that today Jesus’s parable divides its characters into two opposing groups. Ironically, despite Jesus’s command, the parable says, “all of them became drowsy and slept.” No one follows Jesus’s command! Not only that but why has the bridegroom failed to follow through on his promised word? How come they could not have planned better? And why did the bridal party not think they could just share the light among them? And why is the bridegroom so cruel? So before we jump to conclusions about who is eternally shut out of the door to the kingdom of heaven, we might look deeper into the parable Jesus offers. Interestingly, it is at the very moment when everyone falls asleep that the characters are best primed to listen. Out of the dark of the night, once all lights are out and there is no longer the distinction between foolish and wise—adrift in the fertile time of dreams and visions—a cry rises from the depths. “Look!” And the action is instant and unified. Everyone, regardless of their status, got up and crafted light—they each became makers of the cosmos around them, shapers of movement and direction in the world. But how little listening results once everyone wakes up! It is then when old divisions renew and new wounds result.

According to Rabbi Rabbi Menachem Nacuhm of Chernobyl, writing in the work title the Me’or Einayim the second-half of the 1700’s, rabbinic tradition teaches that wisdom—equated with the quality of human awareness—is symbolized by olive oil. This follows Exodus chapter 27, where God commands the descendants of Israel to bring oil to the Tabernacle in order to raise the eternal lamp of God’s word on earth. Thus, in the manner which olives are pressed under great duress to reveal the fine substance of their oil, so too does God’s wisdom seek to reveal itself in our lives and in moments of great duress. Though we may either choose to draw forth this wisdom or choose to not carry it with us, it is one who continually seeks to draw from the wisdom of God’s awareness in our lives, especially in these moments of duress, may draw closer to the source of their soul and the eternal presence of God that resides there.

So too it seems that in a world where competing visions of worldly justice pits our own sense of humanity against each other’s, we can too easily lose sight of the true source and purpose of God’s light of creation in the world. Indeed, when we cling to our own self-styled visions forms of light that reflect only our image, we fall into the same patterns of brokenness and reactivity that fuel a desire to possess, exclude, or take away from others’. And when we confuse this reactivity with a quality of being awake that is more like an anxious alertness, a kind of hypervigilance bred out of fear of the other and of our own self, then that inevitably leads us to exhaustion, despair, and burnout, always bracing for defense against our wounded vulnerability. And in awakening to this deep sense of brokenness, I could not also help but think of those communities who have already known and known intimately this deep brokenness of the world, communities and individuals around the globe and in our own neighborhoods A reminder that we cannot properly see the way forward until we attend to this deep inheritance of brokenness, and that further, we cannot survive unless we bear one another’s burden and take up each other’s cross.

But we know God’s light is different. For we know that in the beginning, God completed all creation by giving us the Sabbath, and it was God who first gave light motion to this world out of the infinite depths. Perhaps we would do better to interpret Christ’s call to keep awake as “awakeness,” not the constant fight for staying awake, but rather the aliveness we feel when we strike into the root of our being—a type of fullness of mind, or the sense of expansive consciousness that reaches into the deep wells of a light already and eternally present in our soul. Perhaps this is the true glory of the Messiah—that through the incarnate body of Christ, God so fully offered God’s own being to bear the light of humanity and all creation, even to the point of despair and torture on the cross and finally death, and from that death to new life and resurrection. So that we do in fact know that no matter what worldly wounds or divisions cast shadows on our souls, God in fact already meets us in the hollow absences, reaches into the depths of our despair and anguish in order to keep aflame the eternal light of God’s wisdom and compassionate loving-kindness, that we might in turn reflect that light upon others to bear their burdens. It’s this confounding and ineffable fullness of Christ’s presence where, though our lights may feel dim, our vessels fragile, we are given the freedom through grace to act out of abundance—to be awake and alive to the fullness of God’s presence not only in our inner life but in ways that binds us together in community. Our longing for justice is but the very substance of God’s wisdom dwelling in us—whose infinite source we can never merit or master, but only to draw forth from the wellspring of the Gospel in the world. We draw toward God’s wisdom, searching for the root of our souls. God’s wisdom abides where ours fails—we have only to keep awake to its source.

All Saints-A20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Ok breathe. Take a breath. Blessed are you, Jesus said. Beloved, remember each day begins in love. Jesus sermon on the mount seems tailor made for me this week, in these restless and fitful days of pandemic, social upheaval, and the looming presidential election. Blessed are you. Just breathe.

The people came on foot, or perhaps, by donkey. I wonder. What propelled those people out from the safety and comfort of their homes and towns into the wilderness to hear and see Jesus? What made them move, clanging and banging, with all their stuff behind him?

Somewhere in the dusty, rolling hills of Northern Israel, near the sea of Galilee, Jesus sat down. The disciples and a great crowd sat with him. They came from regions to the north, south, east, and west. They came from Syria, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. They sat at Jesus’ feet. The dust of those hills clung to their clothes. It was in their hair and on their feet. Blessed are you, Jesus said. Just breathe.

Their lives were not their own under Roman occupation. Paying taxes to Caesar left little to live on. Religious authorities were focused on helping themselves more than with serving God. The people went out of their way to hear and see Jesus because he opened the door to an upside-down world in, with, and under this one which he called ‘the kingdom of God.’ Some today call it the ‘kindom,’ because it is the family of God. All your heart, soul, and strength find their true purpose through being part of this family and in belonging to the one in whom we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28).

Jesus said the kindom is revealed in those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, in those who are merciful, who are pure in heart, who are peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. “Blessed are you,” Jesus said, “when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11). Just breathe. Breathe and know. You belong to the kindom of God.

Jesus’ words are strength for the weary. Jesus embodies hope for the hopeless. Those early followers gathered up Jesus’ words. They treasured them and pondered them. They chewed on them like bread. They drank them like water. Hearing and seeing Jesus restored their soul.

Some years ago, it was popular to wear a wristband with the letters WWJD, “What Would Jesus Do?” It was supposed to remind whoever wore it to keep their minds focused on Christ. Likewise, the sermon on the mount was written so the essential words and teaching of Jesus could travel with us everywhere. Instead of wearing it, early followers memorized it. Instead of WWJD it is WWJS –“What Would Jesus Say?”

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are you.’ Just breathe. Notice, Jesus’ sermon doesn’t contain a single “should,” “ought,” or “thou shalt.” There is no transactional language at all. No commandments. No moral directives. To embrace Jesus’ teaching was and is to live into an upside-down world where neighbor love is the prime and only directive. (Debi Thomas, The Great Reversal, Journey with Jesus, 10/25/20)

Presbyterian Pastor and author, Frederick Buechner, helpfully writes that Jesus’s upside-down kingdom is like this: “The world says, ‘Mind your own business,’ and Jesus says, ‘There is no such thing as your own business.’ The world says, ‘Follow the wisest course and be a success,’ and Jesus says, ‘Follow me and be crucified.’ The world says, ‘Drive carefully — the life you save may be your own’ — and Jesus says, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’ The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’” One way into the kindom of God is through Jesus’ teaching. WWJS, What would Jesus say?

Great works of fiction can offer us another way to see and live into life as part of God’s eternal family. C.S. Lewis, J.R. Tolkien, and George Lucas are modern examples. Ancient apocalyptic writing like we find in the Book of Revelation, or the Book of Daniel are another. Stories of long, long, ago and far, far away help us get deeper inside the here and now.

Somehow, we get terribly confused by this type of literature when we encounter it in the pages of the bible. Less so when we see it on the big screen. (I feel almost heart-sick about the trans-phobic trouble J.K. Rowling has gotten herself into recently. In the spirit of All Saints Day, I pray that one day God will help us sort it all out.) I mention her because in the climatic Book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling paints a scene that seems it could be written for All Saints.

The hero, Harry Potter, walks to certain death at the hand of the evil Lord Voldemort. He intends to sacrifice himself to protect his friends. But something he carries in his pocket, called the Resurrection Stone, enables the presence of four of the saints who have previously died for him to be there with him, and to talk with him. They give him the courage he needs for the task. They are Harry’s personal cloud of witnesses who give him faith to stand against evil with the power of love.
You see, we cannot enter the upside-down world of God’s kindom alone, but as members of one another. Each one of us remains unique and singular, yet also fully belonging to the one life we live in God. The blessed loved ones we remember today are still with us. They struggle with us. Their love continues to bless us. They remind us to breathe.

Rowling’s Harry Potter Saga, like the Book of Revelation, inspires faith in the power of God’s love as the only power in this world capable of ultimately standing against the hideous reality of human violence. They bring the mighty down from their thrones to elevate the outcast and the seemingly least powerful. As we read from Revelation, we have a place beside those who have come through the ordeal of the same oppressive, imperialistic human violence as Jesus did. We are washed clean in the blood of the lamb (Revelation 7:14). (Paul Nuechterlein, All Saints Day, cycle A, Girardian Lectionary, 10/30/20)

This week, of all weeks, the nation stands as if on the great continental divide of the Rocky Mountains. A glass of water poured out on one side of the divide ultimately finds its way to the Pacific Ocean, while water on the other side runs inevitably to the Atlantic. The path forward diverges into two futures. It’s stressful not knowing how it will all play out or where we will be when we meet again next Sunday. We pray. We watch. We vote! Yet regardless, whatever unfolds, we know. Beloved is where we begin. Just breathe. Breathe and know we belong to each other, and to the entire communion of saints in God.

Amen.