Lent 1B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Daveon Gibson was excited to start driver’s ed this week.  Instead, he was shot and killed while walking from school, along Thorndale Avenue between Lakewood and Magnolia avenues. Two other Senn students – another 16-year-old boy and a 15-year-old boy – were hurt in the shooting. Balloons were released into the sky over Nicholas Senn High School on Friday night. Family, friends, and teachers gathered for a vigil to honor him, to call for justice, and to say his name -Daveon Gibson.

“I find in my heart to forgive the person that took my grandson away,” said Daveon’s grandmother, Sherry Wesley. “I’m broken. My family is broken. All I want is justice.” She told me, “I don’t want revenge.” I want the person who did this to come forward.

Some of you will remember the Reverend Doctor David Henry, who, after years in ministry working with urban youth in Logans Square, left his pulpit to pursue a career in psychology and taught at the Institute for Juvenile Research (IJR).  He dedicated his life to understanding and reversing the effects of human violence. He taught us to see violence, like that which took the life of Daveon Gibson, through a public health lens.  It’s not about good people or bad people, but rather, violence is contagious.  It spreads person to person like a virus.

David’s work contributed to an out-of-the-box approach, based on research at IJR, to reduce gun violence through something they called Cease Fire. While organizing the vigil this week, I met some amazing and inspiring people who still do this work every day and night as violence interrupters through Communities Partnering for Peace (CP4P) in Rogers Park and Uptown. They put their wisdom to work and their bodies on the line working directly with youth contemplating violence which often arises from petty conflicts.  When young people can only feel the need for revenge and see nothing but red, violence interrupters help calm their anger and grievances to yellow.

Daryl Dacres is one such hero working directly with Senn students. Another is Josh Hurly, a mentor with B.A.M. who works full time at Senn. These are the people on the front lines confronting the violence that stirs our fears and tears at the bonds of trust so essential for healthy neighborhood.  Their winning formula isn’t vengeance or intimidation, but relationship, compassion, and understanding.  What you and I might call love. Love can achieve what the threat of sanctioned legal violence and the legal system cannot.  Love wins.

It can feel inevitable, and like we are helpless to stem the tide. Hurt people hurt people.  Victims will take vengeance.  On and on it goes until an eye for an eye has made us all blind.  The message of baptism and Lent stand in contrast. Love and forgiveness break the wheel and interrupts the cycle of violence.  Scripture reminds us there can be no peace without justice, no joy unless it can be shared by all; no light is found in the vengeful dreams of our hearts; no lasting prosperity can be wrung from the sweat of other person’s brow.

The gospel of Jesus put a decisive end to all scapegoating on the cross. When religion begins to be part of the sin-accounting game rather than a dispensary of grace and mercy it is a sign that Christianity has lost sight of the way of Christ.

The way that leads into the season of Lent takes us on a winding path over the edge of a dark chasm that goes deep into the human heart.  The ancient Priestly writer of Genesis 6:11 says God’s reason for flooding the earth in Noah’s time was that “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” It was to wash away the violence of earth that God allowed the waters to burst from their confinement above the heavens and flood the dry land.  “In anger and regret, God made the rains to fall, and the waters to rise, and the waves to beat.  The water rose and obliterated every living thing.  Only one family was preserved, one family and their small collection of creatures.  Noah’s family was preserved on the ark” (William Willimon, Vol. 34, No 1, year B).  In the Noah story, God did what we would expect any benevolent power to do –God used violence to root out violence.

But then the story of God took a remarkable and unexpected turn.  The Priestly writers say God saw that answering destructiveness with destruction, attempting to deal with corruption simply by erasing its effects, could not get at the root cause of corruption, nor would it heal the human inclination toward violence.  The flood could not cure the virus of hatred and sin in us.  So, God placed a rainbow in the sky as a promise and a reminder of what God had discovered. God laid down his weapon. The rainbow means that God put down his bow and arrow.  God has put an end to all hostilities between us, although we had no power to demand it, or any right to expect it.

This covenant God made with us is now our mission.  With the covenant to never again destroy all life with a flood, God promised to deal with the problem of sin and evil by more creative means than simply wiping us out. ‘God chose to be a Redeemer, above and beyond being Creator and Destroyer.’ (Paul Nancarrow).  You and I are a part of God’s plan.

In baptism God does not merely wipe our slate clean, as one removes “dirt from the body” (I Peter 3:19) but begins a new relationship with us with the power to get at the root cause of corruption.  God’s rainbow, like Christ’s baptism, represents the unbreakable promise to always be with us even as we confront the power of evil that threatens our lives and the world.  God’s gift is the power of forgiveness. This lent comes at a time when we most urgently need this wisdom.  In this season of Lent, we remind ourselves and each other Jesus’ story is not simply his own—it must be ours as well.  We are baptized into a death like his so that now we might share in the abundance of a life like his.

Through simple faith practices we hope and pray that this Lent ushers in God’s peaceable kingdom from the very center of our lives: our homes, families, and friends.  You are vessels of God’s spirit.  You are children of light.  We are called and equipped to re-kindle the warmth of community and bless all our neighbors, including every child in every home, with the gift of streets to live in without fear. Jesus has shown us the way we do this is through love.

Transfiguration B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Today’s readings are full of wonders.  Fiery chariots.  Dazzling clothes.  Magic mantles.  Blinding clouds.  Elijah ascends to heaven in a spectacular whirlwind.  Jesus reveals his divinity on a light-soaked mountain.  There is nothing subtle about these stories.  Today, at the culmination of the Epiphany season, we stand with undimmed eyes and open ears to witness God’s glory in its fullness. Now we see and hear heaven and earth are woven of the same fabric. Now we see and hear for ourselves what it means to be fully human together.

Many cultures, like that of our ancestors in faith, or like that of Native American peoples, are more welcoming of the nourishing reality of mystery and awe. We, however, can be quick to turn away. Bible epiphanies make modern people wince. New scientific work is beginning to rediscover that awe can be powerfully good medicine for you. Awe is wonderfully protective and overflows with meaning for us.

Yet how can we get there from here?  What are we to make of the collection of unbelievable stories our bible has presented us with today? You might be relieved to know that we don’t have comprehend much about mystery and awe to see how these stories function. Look at the story of Jesus’ transfiguration for example. First and foremost, it establishes Jesus’ divine credentials. His glory is revealed. A voice from heaven declares, this man, Jesus, is God’s son. We learn that Jesus’s story is connected to the Hebrew story. Jesus is met by Moses and Elijah. Jesus is the culmination of the law and the prophets. The transfiguration story also clarifies the disciple’s mission. The vision is glorious but divine wonders alone don’t save anyone. The mission is not about the spectacle but about the people in the valley and the cross. It’s about living the resurrection life on earth as in heaven. It’s about becoming fully human (more about that in a moment).

At the transfiguration we are at the threshold. We are quite literally at the hinge point in Mark’s gospel. It marks the end of Jesus’ teaching, preaching, and healing in Galilee and the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem.  In Galilee, Jesus attracted large crowds.  In Jerusalem, even his closest followers will abandon him.  In Galilee, Jesus lived the life of a celebrity.  In Jerusalem, Jesus will walk willingly into the jaws of death on a cross.

All of these things about the transfiguration make sense. But we will struggle to become a disciple of Jesus until we take that next step to allow the Spirit to open our hearts and minds to the everyday reality of mystery and awe. This can be scary of course. Peter, James, and John, who witness Jesus’s transfiguration, are terrified and just about lose their minds. On the mountain, the unimaginable happened. In this story, told by Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus changes before their very eyes, becoming at once both fully himself and fully strange.  Finally, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen (Mark 9:9).

What’s the purpose of an epiphany if you are sternly warned to keep it a secret? This command isn’t just a one-off. It is a recurring part of the gospel story. It’s even got a name among students of the bible. It’s called the messianic secret. Jesus tells the demons to shut up because they recognize him. He tells those whom he healed to be quiet after they witness his power.  Now he orders the disciples not to tell anyone.

What’s the problem here?  Aren’t we supposed to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth?

One answer could be the command to secrecy doesn’t come from Jesus at all but from the author of Mark. The messianic secret is a literary device to tell the reader to wait for the cross and for resurrection when the fullness of the message is revealed.

Another answer is that the secret points us toward mystery as a kind of doorway, a threshold. To go through it and enter into mystery we must be changed.  On the one hand, we all like a good mystery. Detective novels, True crime, and police dramas fill our bookshelves and television time slots. Mysteries like these may be called investigative mysteries. That is, they have a single answer, which when revealed, ends the mystery. Yet, scripture points at another type of mystery which, even when the answer is finally revealed, still evoke wonder and awe. This may sound strange but upon reflection, not so strange at all. Think of a first kiss, or the birth of a child, learning to ride a bike, or singing in harmony, watching the sunset, standing in an old growth forest, or seeing the milky way for the first time. These are revelatory mysteries. They point, not to a single answer, but to a path. They are an invitation to a way of life— a life we call the resurrection life.

“As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered the disciples to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mark 9:9). Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man,” fourteen times in Mark’s Gospel. It comes from the Book of Daniel and refers to the “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13). The transfigured Jesus offers us a glimpse of what we are to become when we are fully human.

 I invite you to take out and look at the image in your worship folder. It comes from the St. Johns illuminated bible and was done by iconographer Aidan Heart and Donald Jackson. The artist takes us further than our ordinary imagination might. We are likely to imagine three figures, who look the same, but with Jesus in a white robe instead of blue or red. In this illumination of scripture, the artist says no. Jesus is transfigured, his glory is revealed. The blue above evokes the sky, or the sea, the entire cosmos.  All at once. Jesus’ robe is not an ordinary garment like those worn by Moses and Elijah. His clothed body is fully there but it is dazzling, shot through with gold and white crosses, a representation of all that is being revealed. Triangles of gold appear on Moses and Elijah too.  Are they emanating from Jesus? Or is it that the divine light reveals what was already there—evidence of the divine spark that is already always in us all?

Transfiguration Sunday invites us to embark on a new way of life, equipped by a new way of hearing and seeing. Hear and see the divine spark that is in you.  Hear and see that spark in one another.  Let it fill you with awe and wonder.  Let it unfold and draw you forward.  Let Jesus show you what it means to be fully alive, fully aware, fully human.

Today we come to the end of the liturgical season.  Having seen the lights of Epiphany, we prepare now for the long shadows of Lent.  What thresholds will we encounter? How might God invite us to change, to grow, to cross over?  What losses and sorrows will those crossings include?  With its wonders, fiery chariots, dazzling clothes, magic mantles, and blinding clouds—if scripture can be trusted to tell us something true about life and faith, then we can trust in the God who invites us to cross over. The Son of Man stands ready to show us what it means to be truly human. Resurrection is ours on the other side. (Debi Thomas, “When Everything Changes,” Journey with Jesus, 2/07/21)

Epiphany 5B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). More than 2,500 years ago, the prophet Isaiah described almighty God enthroned in the heavens looking down upon the people of earth as just so many tiny grasshoppers. God is Absolutely Other, transcendent, wrapped in mystery and distinct from us. And yet, Isaiah proclaimed, this “God is the beyond in our midst” (Bonhoeffer). God “brings out the starry host one by one and calls them each by name. Because of God’s great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing” (Isaiah 40: 22b; 23; 26b). Some of you may remember these words of comfort were quoted by President Bush on the day that the space shuttle, Columbia catastrophically broke upon reentry, February 1, 2003. All seven crew members died, including Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut to go into space.

In times of tragedy and pain we may all feel alone and forgotten. Be assured, Isaiah whispers, your life is not hidden from God. God sees you in your suffering. God loves those whom the world regards as lowly and insignificant. Unlike us, God does not grow weary or get tired. God’s empathy and understanding knows no limits. Even young people may stumble and fall, yet those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength (Isaiah 40:31).

Those who ‘wait for the Lord’ will renew their strength. It seems an odd turn of phrase. It’s easy to miss in English translation. This waiting, in Hebrew, quvah, implies ‘twisting,’ as in making a rope.  It can mean to ‘expect,’ to ‘hope,’ to ‘gather,’ to ‘look patiently,’ or to ‘bind together.’  In other words, this God from beyond the stars offers to take us by the hand.  Entwine your life with mine like a rope. Let my strength be joined together with yours. I will renew your strength, your hope, your belonging, your knowing you are beloved.

Years ago, Leah and I got home late. It was dark as we pulled into the garage.  As usual it took a few minutes to collect all the travel gear and beloved toys that accompany early childhood, as well as one or two items from that day’s errands. As we began the short familiar journey from the garage to the house Leah stood frozen beside as I paused to close the garage door. Maybe it was too cold–or she didn’t like the dark.  Whatever it was, she stopped on the threshold of the garage, and quietly said, in her little three-year-old voice, “Hold my hand, Daddy.” She waited for me to take her hand with the quiet confident expectation that, somehow, holding my hand would make everything alright—and it was!

When was the last time you held hands? When was the last time you offered your hand? Maybe you didn’t because you felt embarrassed?  Holding hands might sound like kids-stuff.  ‘Quvah’ God offers us a hand (Isaiah 40:21-31). God offers to exchange our weakness for strength.  God comes up beside us when events or circumstances threaten to overwhelm us—and sometimes—just because.

As a child joins hands with a mother or father or trusted adult, just like that, our weakness is exchanged for God’s strength. Our failings are exchanged for righteousness. Our lives are woven into mystic cords of unity and communion with all the saints.  Despite our imperfections and exhaustion, God reaches from beyond the stars to take us by the hand to break the barriers and obstacles we face –whether of grief and illness, oppression, or injustice.

Some of you were with me and a quiet crowd of about 50 of our Edgewater neighbors at a vigil Thursday evening held in front of Trinity church near the spot where Senn High School student Daveon Gibson was shot and killed Wednesday. Daveon, 16, was walking with two other Senn students, who were shot and wounded.

Bouquets of white, pink and yellow flowers lay on a pink heart drawn on the sidewalk with chalk. Daveon, “You Matter to Us” was chalked next to the heart. The night with a prayer. We sang Amazing Grace. We shared stories. Peg Dublin did not witness the shooting Wednesday, but she told the crowd how her daughter-in-law, who lives nearby, held Daveon in her arms after he was shot, as he was dying. Her daughter-in-law was “not doing well,” still shaken by the tragedy, Dublin said. Dublin called on the community to help protect students walking in the neighborhood, particularly the stretch of Thorndale between Senn and the Thorndale CTA “L” stop. “I feel like if we can create a safe passage, we can show these kids that we care,” Dublin said.

Quvah. We wait for our strength to be renewed. We wait for our heart to be healed.  We wait for the fabric of community, torn by violence to be woven again in bonds of trust and love. Most of us hate to wait.  As Leah stood blocking the doorway, my first thought was to say, ‘Please keep moving!’  But thanks be to God, before I could say anything, there was that little voice, “Hold my hand, Daddy.”  Wait—wait with the quiet confidence of a child—to receive God’s strength, because God’s perfect patient love exceeds that of the best human mothers and fathers.

In today’s gospel, Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed, sick with a fever. “Jesus took her by the hand and lifted her up.  The fever left her, and she began to serve them” (Mark 1:30-31). Jesus also took time to be alone and to pray. In prayer, in song, in meditation, and worship our strength is renewed for loving and serving one another.

Quvah, this is how we heal. This is how we are strong. Quvah, waiting for the Lord, is more verb than noun, more a process than a conclusion, more an experience than a dogma, more a personal relationship than an idea. Quvah, we wait for God to become more than a distant and imperial king enthroned beyond galaxies but Someone dancing with us, and we are not afraid of making mistakes. (adapted from Richard Rohr) “Praise the one who break the darkness with liberating light; Praise the One who brings cool water to the desert’s burning sand; Praise the one redeeming glory; praise the One who makes us one” (ELW # 843).

Epiphany 4B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

We’re only twenty verses into the first chapter of Mark. Jesus is already collecting disciples and casting out demons. He collects neither in places you’d expect. He finds disciples from the hard-scrabble, unrefined, unlearned shores of the Sea of Galilee. He cast out demons from inside the synagogue. In the sanctuary. In the middle of worship.  It makes you wonder. Could Jesus find a disciple in you?  What would Jesus cast out from among us?

Scripture says the people were astounded. Literally, Jesus blew their minds. Their come-to-Jesus-meeting aroused curiosity.  For some it set their lives on a new course. For others Jesus provoked fear and defensiveness.

The man with an unclean spirit asked, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (Mark 1:24).  We have the same question. I suppose this is the question we ask ourselves every time we open the bible.  It’s the central question of every sermon you’ve ever heard. Yet, what in the world do unclean spirits, demons, and an exorcism have to do with us?  Modern people are less astounded and more likely befuddled.  Plenty of people today claim to speak in God’s name, and to know what God is thinking. They all point to the same bible. ‘How can we know when a message has or has not been spoken by the Lord?’ (Deuteronomy 18:21).

The bible itself offers some answers. Deuteronomy, chapter 18, suggests two ways to test the spirits. We knock on wood to determine whether its solid or rings hallow. False preachers, prophets, and religious spokespersons fail the “presumptuous test” (18:20, 22).  A true prophet is careful, guarded, discreet, humble to a fault, whereas a false prophet will claim special authority and attention solely to themselves. And second, you can always spot a false prophet because false prophets leave a trail behind them of hurt and damaged people. Their “detestable practices” give them away (18:9, 12). They are like ravenous wolves who come to you in sheep’s clothing. “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-20).

As Paul told the Corinthians, claims of divine knowledge are authenticated with concrete deeds of love: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Early Christians made a name for themselves by caring for widows and orphans—in other words—they cared for the people no one else cared for. Mark’s gospel said that people were “amazed” at Jesus’s “authority” and his “new teaching” in stark contrast to the religious leaders of the day.  Jesus demonstrated that “authority” in fostering human wholeness by healing the man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit (Mark 1:21–28).

To hear the voice of our still-speaking God we must test the spirits.  False religion is characterized by presumption, degradation, dehumanization, and detestable practices. True religion is marked by circumspection and compassion and fosters human health and wholeness. To hear what God demands of us we must distinguish between the signal and the noise. We must test the spirits. (Daniel Clendenin, “Test the Spirits,” Journey with Jesus 1/24/24) We must be ready to engage in spiritual warfare with the Devil and his empty promises.

Wait, what?  We cannot just ignore the man with the unclean spirit in our gospel and walk away thinking we have understood its lesson.  We modern people let the Devil off the hook when we think unclean spirits must be supernatural—in other words—that they don’t exist, or that they don’t happen, or that they are not a real part of our everyday lives.

Scripture calls Satan the accuser, the adversary, and the anti-Jesus (or anti-Christ). Rather than a scary, pitchfork wielding man with horns, the Devil in scripture is the name given to whatever is working in us and among us against the kingdom of God. Satan is that unseen, impersonal force, operating in the world perpetually pulling us into shadow in ways we don’t even notice or challenge. For example, we take it as gospel the economy must grow even if means the planet will die.  Or we believe our privileged is earned and the suffering of others is their own fault. That’s just the way it is. Scripture warns, Satan is seductive. The Devil appears to us as an Angel of Light.  That’s what Lucifer means, after all.  Lucifer means Angel of Light.

There was a man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit. Some scholars say he had mental illness, or a medical condition like epilepsy.  Others insist on it being an actual demon — a malevolent spiritual being that ensnares human souls. Others argue that it could be anything that might “possess” or “control” us — anger, fear, lust, greed, hatred, envy, etc.  I don’t know which one of these explanations is true, and I don’t think it matters.

What is clear is that Jesus demonstrates his authority by caring about the man—and not whatever it is that afflicts him. Whatever the spirit was it utterly ravaged the poor man whose body and mind it possessed. The man had no voice of his own — the spirit spoke for him.  The man had no control over his body — the spirit convulsed him.  The man had no community — the spirit isolated him.  And the man had no dignity — the spirit dehumanized him.

“Granted, this picture of “possession” is extreme.  But all of us suffer (or have suffered) under the bondage of “spirits” that diminish, distort, and wound us.  All of us know (or have known) what it’s like to lose agency, mobility, and dignity to forces too powerful for us to defeat on our own.” (Debi Thomas, “Astounded,” Journey with Jesus, 1/24/21)

“Sometimes our “unclean spirits” take up residence in our holy places.  That is, we carry our destructive habits and tendencies right into our churches, our friendships, our families, and our workplaces.  Sometimes our demons — our fears, our addictions, our sins, and our compulsions — recognize Jesus first because they know that an encounter with him will change everything.” (Thomas)

Notice, Jesus didn’t use his authority to self-aggrandize or to accrue power.  He used it only to heal, to free, to serve, and to empower those around him. Second, “…Jesus stepped directly into the pain, rage, ugliness, and horror at the heart of this story.  He wasn’t squeamish.  He didn’t flinch.  His brand of holiness didn’t require him to keep his hands clean.  He was in the fear, in the sickness, in the nightmare, ready to engage anything that diminished the lives of those he loved.” (Thomas)

What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Is it not to speak the truth in love? Insofar as our way of life dehumanizes life, Jesus will always challenge and defy it. As members of the body of Christ, and by his authority of Christ, see, you have power to heal and to be healed. It is power even to cast out demons. In the strong name of Jesus. Amen.

Epiphany 3B-24
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

When I moved to Chicago for graduate school, I was desperate to find a job. Short on money, I responded to an add selling vacuum cleaners, door to door. The sales pitch aimed at showing people how dirty their home was. I finally sold one to a family that clearly couldn’t afford it. I felt so bad about it that I quit. Next, I took a job as a limousine driver. One time someone asked me to take them to McCormick Place in downtown Chicago and I didn’t know where it was. I didn’t know where anything was. Mostly, it didn’t matter, because 90% of the time I either drove people to the airport—or home from the airport. The days were long. The food was lousy. It was mostly fast food. I took on all the risk. I covered all the expenses. There were no benefits. Selling vacuums and driving limousine’s they called me an ‘independent contractor.’ For me, what that meant was you can work for 12 hours, just break even, and go to bed with nothing to show for it.

We read today that Simon, Andrew, James, and John immediately left their nets and followed Jesus. Why would they do that? One good theory is they were not business owners but more like independent contractors. They lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire. Probably, they were not entitled to the profits of their labor.
The gift of the promised land, the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah, and the dream of becoming a light to the nations had run aground on the sandbank of empire and religion co-opted by hypocrisy and corruption.

Or maybe they had heard of John the Baptist arrest. Who would pick up the prophetic mantle and rekindle hope? The national longing for a Messiah in those days was already centuries old when Jesus came walking along beside the Sea where Simon and his brother Andrew were trawling for fish. It was an opportune time.
Disillusionment and discontent make good kindling for gospel to catch fire. It seems incredible to us these men were ready to respond to Jesus’ call to completely disrupt and re-order their lives at a moment’s notice. It was incredible, but the time was ripe.

The bible gives us a new word for this. Jesus called it a “kairos moment” (v. 15). We don’t have a good English equivalent for the Greek word ‘kairos.’ We’re very familiar with chronos or “clock time.” Or we speak about the experience of “flow,” when we become very focused, and the passage of time seems to disappear. Jesus told the disciples it was karios time and that the kingdom of God had come near (Mark 1:14-15). We don’t have this word but, probably, you know the feeling. Kairos is a word used to describe a fork in the road, a critical moment, a rare opportunity, or hinge-point in life, that calls for an urgent choice, or perhaps a fundamental reorientation.

Jesus’ call to discipleship is a karios moment because it opens a door to a new life. We find ourselves standing on the horizon of a new world. We discover a new version and better version of ourselves. We find fellowship in a new humanity which Jesus called the kingdom of God. The Βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ is not like earthly kingdoms with a castle, an aristocracy, and a standing army. It is more like a family or ‘kindom.’ It is a parallel reality hiding in with and under our everyday lives.

Perhaps it would be better for us to call it the Circle of God. The famous prayer of St. Patrick was a circle prayer in which the Βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ becomes a kind of three-dimensional circle or sphere. ‘Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ to the right of me, Christ to the left of me, Christ above me, Christ below me, Christ in my waking and in my sleeping, Christ in my living and my dying.’ In Christ we join the circle of the Holy Trinity. We become a living part of the undying life of God. What then, will I fear? How can I not be changed? With love and mercy as my constant companions. Are you ready for this? This is your kairos time.

The Βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ opens in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, as in immediately when the disciples left their nets. The key that opens this door is faith. The door opens and closes again at Jesus’ invitation. The door opens when you believe and closes again when you don’t. Here again we need help in translation. This believing comes not from reciting a list of theological absolutes, but by beloving—by entrusting yourself –your life, your goods, your honor, your time to doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. Follow me, Jesus says, to take your place within new creation.

Just how wide can this circle of God get? The prophet Jonah in our first reading was startled and even disgusted to discover the circle included his enemies, the hated Ninevites. You and I can draw lines to exclude others whom we don’t like but then we will find ourselves once again outside of Circle of God. This is a bargain many religious people seem comfortable making. It is easier and frankly less troublesome to avoid getting involved with people with whom we disagree, or in the chaotic lives of the poor and suffering, or in changing our personal habits to preserve life on the planet. Yet, what is the Βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ, the Circle of God but life, beyond the stars, beneath the sea, within each cell, in every breath, here now with us, on the way, at the table, and to the end? Are you ready for this? As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “The kairos is short… this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:29a).

The American historian and philosopher, Hannah Arendt, famously taught us that the origin of totalitarianism is loneliness. Loneliness is at epidemic levels today and it’s killing Americans the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy warns. Could this be an opportune moment, a Kairos time, to proclaim the good news? We are urgently called to engage and to provide the living sanctuary we proclaim in our mission.

God can use even our failures to teach us something new. Disillusionment, discontent, and dead-ends helped the disciples hear the Good News. Jesus said to them, the time has come. The kingdom of God, the Βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ is near. Come join the circle within the warm embrace of God. Share the good news. As springtime naturally follows winter, find again the healing and power to re-weave the fabric of community and belonging in us and among us –and let God’s people say—Amen!

Second Epiphany B-24
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It’s called an escape room. You and your friends pay to get locked in a room. You have one hour to figure out how to get out –in other words– to escape. The clues are obscure and almost nonsensical. The kids and I picked a hard one. The brochure said we’d have only a 30% chance of success. After we were locked in, we had to figure out how to close 8 open water hatches to keep our submarine from sinking and save the crew. We closed all but two of them when time ran out. Man, were we bummed.
You might expect the same disappointment from many Christians today when they hear today’s gospel. Jesus invites the disciples to join him mission. This mission does not include an escape plan. Instead, it’s a transformation plan. We have our marching orders. Follow me, Jesus says. Put on the body of Christ to be transformed in heart and mind. We are part of a new human family called the beloved community.

Jesus found Philip. Philip found Nathanael. They joined Andrew, Simon Peter, and others in declaring eureka! “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:41). The English translation is dry by comparison. There is joy, amazement, and disbelief in their voice. Can anything good come out of stink-holes like Nazareth, Nathanael asked? They replied, ‘Come and see.’ Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’

Philip, Nathanael, Andrew, and Simon Peter didn’t know they were becoming Christians. They just knew they were thirsty and hungry for something better. They didn’t know they were disciples, or followers, until they saw Jesus. He said to them come and see. Follow me. Jesus was a walking epiphany, an awakening. The disciples were among the first in the human family to see something in Jesus that answered their own deepest longing and drew them to follow.

We encounter this call to mission in baptism. The American Catholic Monk, mystic, and writer Thomas Merton compared baptism to spiritual mountain climbing. The original, but censored, beginning of his famous autobiographical book about coming to faith and becoming a monk, The Seven Storey Mountain reads, “When a man [or woman] is conceived, when a human nature comes into being as an individual, concrete, subsisting thing, a life, a person, then God’s image is minted into the world. A free, vital, self-moving entity, a spirit informing flesh, a complex of energies ready to be set into fruitful motion begins to flame with love, without which no spirit can exist…” This is what the disciples had seen in Christ Jesus.

This what it means to say that we are Christians. Jesus is our epiphany. We have seen and heard in him who and what we are. In the life of Jesus, we have glimpsed the divine and have seen God’s eternal love for us and for all creation, therefore, we follow him in the way that he lived. Like a mountain beaconing on the distant horizon, Jesus makes visible a new way of living we have learned to call the way of the cross.

Like climbing a mountain, the way of the cross is the slow, painstaking process of faith becoming lived faith in us. There’s an old joke, “Jesus is coming. Look busy!” We can become busy, busy, busy with doing good things, but this is a kind of trap. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your hearts and minds. The way of the cross is the life-long struggle to transform our lifestyle and habits with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit in ways that reflect God’s love for us and for others. It is deeply personal and intimate for each of us, yet the way of the cross is not merely about our own self-improvement. It involves us with each other in re-ordering the family, neighborhood, and society. Following Jesus’ the way of the cross is learning to beat our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks and fashioning communities of justice and peace, by embracing God’s steadfast and abiding love for you. We can only love others as well as we learn to love ourselves. Come and see, Jesus says. Follow me.

You may be wondering whether such wonderful things really include you, or for that matter, any of us? It feels as though we’re living in 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, particularly 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 and moral fortitude to do what God desired.

Fast forward about a thousand years to our Gospel reading. We read about Nathanael. Maybe you 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. Our scripture mentions Nathanael was sitting under a fig tree. That is the same tree from which Adam and Even fashioned clothing to cover their nakedness and shame. 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).

The grace of God is revealed in the most unlikely of places. See it shining from the darkest depths of your own heart and soul. Jesus says, to us and to Nathanael, Follow me. Come and see. God has a dream for the world that includes and requires each one of us. “Who me?” we ask. “You mean right now?” We, too, are incredulous. We can relate to Eli and Nathanael.

As the Reverend Doctor, Martin Luther King, Jr., 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.
It was almost 60 years ago. On January 26, 1966, just 11 days after his 37th birthday, Dr. King moved his family into a $90-a-month railroad apartment on Chicago’s West Side, 1550 South Hamlin Avenue, to protest living conditions and access to housing. In her memoir, “My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Coretta Scott King recalls the family’s moving day into the Chicago apartment they would call home. “Our apartment was on the third floor of a dingy building, which had no lights in the hall, only one dim bulb at the head of the stairs … As we walked in … the smell of urine was overpowering. We were told that this was because the door was always open, and the drunks came in off the streets to use the hallway as a toilet.”

Dr. King’s effort to promote economic justice in Chicago was opposed by angry mobs, violent resistance, and a wily self-serving mayor. By most accounts, his work here ended in failure. Yet, one significant outcome of the 1966 summer of rallies, protests, and marches in Chicago was the enactment of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. While King’s vision of equitable and fair housing remains unfulfilled, we find ourselves at an historic decision point in the primary election this March. With a vote for Bring Chicago Home, we can generate 100 million dollars annually for homelessness prevention and support services. We can do so, even while lowering the real estate title transfer tax for 96% of all of us, by raising it on the sale of properties valued over $1 million.

Jesus’ mission doesn’t include an escape plan. Instead, it’s a transformation plan. We will all find ourselves in the embrace of the eternal arms of God soon enough. But until that day, it’s a call to roll up our sleeves and make this life better for ourselves and for others—not by busying ourselves with good deeds, but by putting on the life of Christ. With the Christ-consciousness that comes from prayer, worship, and study, our life begins to take on a new shape. We begin to move in a new direction. We start to see ourselves and each other as bathed in a new light. We start to follow Jesus in the way of the cross. Come and see. Follow me.

Christmas Eve–23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

At 9:00 pm on Wednesday December 13th, my extended family welcomed Laura Jane Cooksey.  Weighing in at 8 lb. 5 oz., little Laura is the first child born of the nieces and nephews’ generation. She is angelic, of course, in her first photo, swaddled in a maternity hospital blanket. Mom looked great too! Yes. There is spontaneous and deep-felt joy in welcoming a newborn child. But we know, don’t we, what those happy smiling photos leave out when taken after all the pain, and blood, and vernix has been carefully washed away.

The shepherds went to Bethlehem to see the baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger as the angel had told them. Presumably, the scene they encountered was not like the nativity scenes of plastic and wood many of us have in our homes which are likewise far removed from the very raw and very human process of birth. Perhaps we would prefer to leave things such as these out of our Christmas story. But these things must be included if the incarnation is to be real. “…these are the kinds of things that make up our faith: the naked, the primal, even the offensive. And while Mary’s story turned out the way she’d hope it would—with a newborn child in her arms—not all stories turn out that way. What the nativity scene as we’re used to seeing it fails to show us is that our faith is made of that too: the sadness, the questions, the longing, the despair, the anger. Encompassed within the birth of Jesus is the deeply difficult and deeply beautiful, the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the material. Like our lives, it was fleshly and carnal—and it was also holy.” (Kat Armas, Sacred Belonging: A 40-Day Devotional on the Liberating Heart of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2023), 154, 155.)

The altarpiece in our side chapel is one of the most beautiful works of art here at Immanuel and takes us a step closer to beholding what is being said in the lowly birth of Christ. (You’ll have to go into the chapel to see.) The shepherds (unfortunately, not depicted in the photo shopped image on the cover of your worship folder), are poor. Dressed almost in rags, they celebrate in great joy and awe the angelic message that somehow came exclusively to them.

This is the gift and promise of incarnation: the fullness of the presence of God is pleased to dwell in you, just as you are. There is no dress code at the manger. There are no prerequisites you must fulfill to receive this Christmas gift. All the colorful lights, happy-spirited music, parties, sparkling paper, gifts of the season, and high-minded theology tend to conceal the stupendous Christmas miracle: that you and I are always in God’s presence.

The hallmark version of Jesus’ birth is cute, but it cannot help us deal with heartbreak; it cannot deflect the hard, sharp pain of a pink slip, or the death of a loved one, or any of the countless tragedies unfolding in the world today.  If the manger is to be good news, if it is to be good news to us in our hospital room, or in our living room, or in all the places where tragedy may befall us, it must also include all the messiness of our fleshly lives in which God comes again this Christmas to be born.

Of all the nativity scenes in all the world perhaps the most astonishing might be the one displayed this year in Bethlehem, where Christmas festivities have been cancelled due to war. There, the Christ-child lies in a manger of rubble from bombed buildings and destroyed homes in Palestine.  This is the other message wrapped up in the incarnation.  In addition to gift and promise, there is also a call and invitation to discipleship and to loving our neighbors as deeply and fervently as we love ourselves.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor recounts listening to Mother Theresa explain why she served the poor. “People say we’re social workers,” she said. “We’re not social workers! We’re Christians who worship Jesus as Lord and therefore serve people made in the image of God.” Taylor thought to himself: “I could have said that too!” But, he wondered, “…could I have meant it?” (Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith, 2011) It’s easy enough to sing Christmas carols and string lights on a tree; that’s what we do each year for Christmas. But sooner or later like Taylor, we must ask ourselves, “do we mean it?” (Daniel Clendendin).

There’s a wonderful Christmas tradition called Las Posadas that I find has special meaning for me this year as we seek to shelter so many families who seek asylum. For nine evenings, from December 16th to the 24th, Christians in Mexico, Guatemala, and parts of the Southwestern United States go door-to-door asking for shelter reenacting Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem.

It lasts nine days to represent the nine months of pregnancy Mary played host and shelter to the infant Christ.  Mary was the first person to say yes to the incarnation.  Las Posadas literally means “accommodations,” or “inns” and traditionally involves a procession through the streets knocking on doors of neighbors who shout they have no room and slam their doors shut, after which they open them again to join in the procession to the next house. Each night ends in prayer and a party because Mary and Joseph do a find room.

On any given day, it is estimated that 6,139 people, most of them children, experience homelessness in Chicago. (City of Chicago 2023 Point-in-Time Count & Survey Report of People Experiencing Homelessness).  Where will Mary and Joseph find room among us today?

Like those wrapped and waiting for you tonight under the tree, the gift of Christmas must be un-wrapped if it is to be received. We must peel away two millennia of culture, commerce, and holiday traditions—to re-discover the surprising/challenging/wonderful message— God in Christ comes to us again this Christmas. The fullness of the presence of God richly dwells with us and in all the messiness and fleshly complications which that implies.

To each of you is given a gift God has chosen especially for you.  Each of us finds welcome, belonging, joy and love to warm our soul and unfold our fisted minds, hands, and hearts. Mary “treasured and pondered all that was said about Jesus in her heart” (Luke 2:19).  Among those at the first manger in Bethlehem, only Mary followed Jesus to the cross.  You and I, together with Joseph and Mary, are gifted and challenged this night to open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to behold—a gift wrapped in swaddling clothes and nestled upon straw who fills our life to overflowing with the presence of God that is given tonight—for you.

Advent 4B–23

Immanuel Lutheran Church

The angel Gabriel said to Mary, the child she would bear “…will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, (Luke 1:32). She was a young peasant woman no more than 13 or 14 years old.  She had her whole life in front of her. She was to be wed to Joseph, start a family, and take her place among the respectable people living on the little rocky outcrop that is the mountain town called Nazareth.

Gabriel called her the ‘favored one.’  It is a strange blessing. Did she perceive the broad outlines of trial, tragedy, rejection, and hardship, she was to face?  You’ll notice, this Divine favor would not equate with wealth, health, comfort, or ease. Mary’s ‘favored’ status meant the dream of normal family life would be nipped in the bud and replaced with scandal, danger, and the trauma of her son’s crucifixion.

Yet, was there an upside? Gabriel told her “…the Lord God would give her child the throne of his ancestor David…and he would reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there be no end (Luke 1:32-33). It’s hard to imagine more powerful or overwhelming words than these about the future of Mary’s offspring. But rather than being caught up in such glory, she responds humbly and quite practically, “How can this be, since I have no husband?”

Among the many works of art that depict this encounter between Gabriel and Mary one seems to capture the drama of this moment: The Cestello Annunciation painted by Sandro Botticelli in 1489. Today, it hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. There, Mary is fully aware of the complexity and consequences of her choice. In contrast to the traditional notion of ‘Mary obedient, meek, and mild,’ Botticelli evokes Mary’s internal process of deliberation. She responds to the Angel Gabriel with both awe and angst. The embrace of God’s call would be profoundly countercultural and require her to trust an inner vision that flew in the face of everything her community expected of her. Moreover, it required her to persist in faith long after Gabriel disappeared. Swooning toward Gabriel, Mary is simultaneously vulnerable and gracious. Finally, Mary says yes.

“Where an ordinary woman would dream of a child who would elevate her in this world, Mary dreams of a child who will liberate all the lowly.  Where it might be commonplace to dream of a child whose glory would extend to Mom, Mary dreams of a child who will fill all the hungry with good things.  Where any mother might dream of a child who will grow up and be Somebody, Mary imagines a child who will knock all the Somebodies of this world off their thrones, who will scatter them in their false imaginations and raise the lowly in his new, true world. (Nancy Rockwell, “Fearlessness,” The Bite in the Apple, 12/15/14)

Mary’s glory is almost always connected to her maternity. Mary is Mary because of Jesus. But before she was Jesus’ mother, Mary was a prophet like Isaiah, a person of humble circumstance who lived in a time of political turmoil and military oppression. Like Isaiah, she feels inadequate to bear God’s word to the people. Yet, eventually, both Isaiah and Mary relent and embrace the Spirit’s call on their lives.” (Diana Butler Bass, Sunday Musings, 12/24/23)

Our first reading (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16) and gospel lesson (Luke 1:26-38) each involve proposals for making a proper house for God. In 2 Samuel, David wants to build a permanent dwelling place for God in Jerusalem to match the glory of his own castle. This plan does not please God. David’s hands are stained with blood from years of pillage and murder, killing women, men, and likely children (1 Samuel 27:11). In this way, the home Mary offers God (in Luke 1:26-38) stands in marked contrast to the bloodstained building David built. Mary offers flesh and blood, and a pure heart. Mary is a shining example for all of us who would wish to love and serve God with our lives. As Meister Eckhart, 13th c. German mystic said, ‘We are all called to be mothers of God – for God is always waiting to be born.’

St. Francis wrote, “we should make a dwelling-place within ourselves where he can stay, he who is the Lord God almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” A dwelling place is not a place one passes through, but the kind that one can take root in. God comes again to take root and dwell in us this Christmas. See, we have become a living stone, the fulfillment of the promise Gabriel made to Mary, part of God’s dynasty of justice and that will last forever.

Thomas Merton added, “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him, Christ comes uninvited.” In a violent world such as ours, the best that we can offer Christ are the small corners. The mangers and the dishwasher cribs. Our hearts. The humble places where he feels most at home. Like Mary, we listen again to Gabriel’s proposition with both awe and angst.

Martin Luther noticed something in Mary’s response to Gabriel that is instructive.  Faith isn’t about knowing the facts.  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.  (Is the gift of faith on your Christmas list?) Mary shows us faith must follow the way of the cross as we journey from belief into action.

In this busy holiday season, many of us We feel the pressure to be extraordinary homemakers.  Christmas brings a whole season of decorating, preparing meals, special desserts, parties, cards, and letters to write (can I just say, snail mail is so unbelievably time consuming!) and of course, there are the gifts to purchase, wrap, and display before the big day with family and friends.  Adding to all this are the ghosts of merry Christmases past, now lost; or Christmases present that disappoint us; or perhaps the ghost of Christmases future that haunt us with the dread fear of being alone.

Just when all your effort to make everything perfect threatens to overwhelm you; when all your losses and regrets mount up to make celebrating Christmas seem impossible, the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary comes like water in a dry land, or like light in the darkness. Christmas homemaking is not our job, but God’s free and generous gift.  Our savior’s birth marks the moment in human time when God became flesh. God is not “out there,” but, with Mary, we learn God is always also “in here.” This is Mary’s great discovery.  God is here and everywhere. Through community in Christ, we have become a temple of the living God—a living sanctuary of hope and grace.  You and I are God-bearers by our baptism into Christ.

Advent 3B-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The sun rose at 7:13 this morning and will set at 4:20. It will feel like midnight by about 7:15. The winter solstice comes at 9:27 pm this Thursday and I’m looking forward to the upward swing of lengthening days. In our world of wars in Sudan, Ukraine, and Israel, it’s easy to be seduced by despair. Doubt and despair can feel especially authentic with the added weight of 15 hours of night. Doubt and despair become a sort of false idol, and we begin to feel that we are the first and only people to struggle against an uncertain future.

But Advent comes to meet us here, in our deepest dread fears and doubts, with ancient words of the prophet Isaiah who testifies about a God who “comforts those who mourn.” The Psalmist proclaims, “God has done great things for me, and will do the same for you.” And who can forget Mary’s song, the Magnificat, with dreams of a world more just than ours where gross inequities of wealth and power are overthrown. Here, on the cusp of Christmas, Advent preaches hope amidst despair and gives testimony about a light that shines in the darkness of our confusion — Immanuel, God is with us. Here comes Advent to rekindle our hope and to re-light the fires of our faith.  It all begins with hope.

Tom Long tells the story of Rabbi Hugo Grynn who was in Auschwitz as a little boy.  In the camp, amid much death and horror, many Jews held onto whatever shred of religious observance they could without provoking the wrath of the guards.  One winter’s night, Hugo’s father gathered others in the barracks.  It was the first night of Chanukah, the Feast of Lights. He remembered watching in horror as his father took their last pad of butter and made a makeshift candle using a string torn from his prison clothes.  He struck a match and lit the candle. “Father, No!” Hugo cried, “that butter is our last bit of food! How can we survive?”  His father said, “We can live for many days without food. We cannot live for a single minute without hope.”

You and I are not the first person to feel alone and overwhelmed by life and the challenges we face in an uncertain future. Here comes Advent to say you and I are not alone.  God fights with us to toward the dawning of a new and better day.  John the Baptist cried out from the wilderness, ‘make straight the way of the Lord’ (John 1:23). John’s words were a sharp rebuke to the religious authorities of his day. To rekindle our hope today, we too must be ready to clear away the clutter accumulated over a thousand years by patriarchy which has persistently obscured the biblical witness to the character of God.

American poet John Hollander tells the story of his childhood impressions of one of the most familiar, best loved psalms –psalm 23.  As a child, he misheard the final verse. As you know that verse goes like this: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long (Psalm 23:6).  But in his mishearing, he instead heard: “Surely the good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life. And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, edited by David Rosenberg (1987) (John Hollander, “Psalms”, pp. 293-312)

Bible scholar, Walter Brueggemann, affirms Hollander’s childhood image of ‘Good Mrs. Murphy’ attending to children like a beneficent nurse resonates deeply with our scripture and helps us to recover from the dominant Western theological tradition mesmerized by masculine and muscular adjectives of sovereignty—omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. We overlook other more neighborly sets of divine characteristics in scripture, namely, “goodness and mercy, righteousness, justice, steadfast love, and mercy. For example, El Shaddai, which is frequently translated in our English version of our bible, as ‘the lord God Almighty,’ refers to God in the original Hebrew as the ‘many breasted one.’

Brueggemann writes, “It turns out that the deliverer of Israel is quite like the good Mrs. Murphy in her capacity for the wellbeing, security, and dignity of all the children in the neighborhood of creation… These maternal markings of God matter in the world, as they mattered to Jesus who did the mothering work of feeding, healing, and forgiving. Beyond that, these maternal markings bespeak another way to be the people of God in the world, a way of vulnerable self-giving, after the church has had a long-running season of Constantinian domination.” (WALTER BRUEGGEMANN, Church Anew, “The Goodly Company of ‘the Good Mrs. Murphy’” 12/13/23.)

Mary sings praise to God, “You have cast the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). Being different in the world requires an embrace of mothering among those who frequently “feel like a motherless child.” Here comes the good Mrs. Murphy to rekindle our hope and faith, and courage.

The proclamation of the Good Mrs. Murphy finds an echo in the preaching of John the Baptist and in the witness of the Hebrew prophets shouted in the streets today: No justice, no peace. The coming Messiah proclaimed by angel choirs and attended by simple shepherds is synonymous with the advent of fairness and dignity for all.  John would have us get ready for Jesus.  Hurry, “Bind up the broken hearted, bring good news to the oppressed, proclaim liberty to the captives, release the prisoners, proclaim the year of Jubilee’ (Isaiah 61:1).

All four gospels tell us people went out to John in droves.  His was not merely a message of judgment and condemnation.  His message sparked the light of hope and restoration.  John offered a new rite called baptism that opened the way of salvation to bunches of people otherwise categorically excluded from accessing grace at the temple in Jerusalem. God who called Israel out of Egypt and led it across the Jordan River would create a new people in the waters of that same river, regardless of race, religion, class, occupation, or past transgression.

Dressed in the simple, uncomfortable clothing of a prophet, subsisting on a diet of grasshoppers and wild honey, living in the desert beyond the Jordan—unauthorized, unsanctioned, and not ordained—John is clearly operating outside the religious authority in Jerusalem.  Nobody ever heard of a baptism for the forgiveness of sins before.  This message did not fit the teaching of that time about how God works in the world.

The religious authorities demand to know who John is. He tells them mostly what he is not.  He is not the Messiah; not Elijah; not the prophet, but a voice calling out in the wilderness. Perhaps we, also, should begin where John begins by being clear about who we are not.  We are not Jesus.  We are not Saviors.  We are not infallible.  We are not omniscient.

“One of the costliest mistakes the historic Church has made is to claim identities, powers, and privileges that don’t actually belong to us.  When we Christians adopt messianic ambitions for ourselves — either personally or corporately — we hurt ourselves, we hurt others, and we hurt the cause of Christ.  When we make promises we can’t keep — promises of prosperity, promises of immunity, promises of consumer-based “peace” and “blessing” — we become stumbling blocks to those who seek consolation in Jesus.” (Debi Thomas, “Who Are You?”, Journey with Jesus, 12/06/20)

In contrast, John begins his ministry from a place of humility. Like John, all we can do is point to Jesus. Clear away the clutter. Make his pathway straight.  Make room as the innkeeper did for Mary and Joseph. “If in your heart you make a manger for his birth, then God will once again become a child on earth” (Angelus Silesius, Polish priest and poet, 1624 – 1667). By tradition, Jesus birthday became connected to the winter solstice as a kind of poetic metaphor pointing to the new dawn of hope for humanity in the lengthening of days. See! Here comes Christ, our morning star, who shines on God’s future and scatters the night till shades of fear are gone and our hope is restored.

Advent 2B-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says our God” (Isaiah 40:1).  I wonder, where do you find comfort? If you’re like me, perhaps there are certain comfort foods like mashed potatoes and gravy that always satisfy and stir warm memories. Or maybe, music you play again and again lifts your spirits and fills your head and heart with the vibration of beauty and joy—like late night jazz.  Maybe it’s a walk along the lake front, the forest preserve, or the Botanical Garden.  Or maybe your very best most comfortable comfort place is your bed.

So, I find it a little shocking that, apparently, for the people of Israel, the promise of comfort came not with food, or music, or at the park, or in their beds –but in the wilderness.  “A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God (Isaiah 40:3).

Today’s gospel comes from the very first words of Mark’s gospel, chapter one, verse one.  Mark was the first to write the story of Jesus.  He is the inventor of the gospel. Mark became the principal source for both Matthew and Luke. Mark wrote: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).

Mark doesn’t begin with the birth of Jesus, or with stories about him as a little boy.  There are no angels, no shepherds, no wise men –not Zechariah, not Elizabeth—not even Mary and Joseph. Instead, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” begins with John the Baptist shouting in the wilderness, “repent!”  Mark announces good news by weaving together lines from Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3. “In the wilderness” John the water-baptizer announces the coming of one who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (verse 8)

Mark begins with ancient words written 500 years before Jesus’ birth. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God…In the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make his pathway straight.” (Isaiah 40: 1 & 3) Mark begins with words of the prophet Isaiah written in the aftermath of conquest and slavery. Virtually the whole population of Israel at that time was carted off.  The story of a people gathered by God into the Promised Land had ended in war and devastation.  Once, their ancestors had been freed from slavery in Egypt; now they were again held captive, imprisoned by a foreign king, and separated from their home by another cruel and harsh desert.  Into this bleak reality words from Isaiah 40 broke like water in a dry land.

Comfort, O comfort my people. Build them a highway from Babylon to Palestine. Lift up every valley. Make every mountain low.  Make the uneven ground level and the rough places into a plain.  Remove every barrier that separates my people from their home.

The proclamation of John the Baptist, according to Mark, is the promise of freedom. It is a promise of safety.  It is a promise that included everyone, young and old alike. It is a promise of streets to live in, and places to love and to be loved. Comfort is no comfort without human dignity. Comfort is small comfort if it is only about what we do privately and alone. True comfort flourishes in community where all God’s people have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But we can’t get there from here. Our second Exodus is impossible.  We cannot cross into the promised land today any more than our ancestors could cross the cruel desert by themselves to return to Jerusalem from Babylon. We cannot get there, that is, without a big dose of gospel medicine John the Baptist called repentance. The advent of our God is powerful medicine administered like a giant horse-sized pill by John the Baptist who breaks the door to our sick room shouting the word, ‘repent!’  Mark’s gospel begins with some tough love. We are met in the wilderness of our soul by God’s love and judgment (which it turns out, are the same thing).

John the Baptist offers the gift of repentance, so we may hear again God’s invitation to be joined again in the undying life of the Trinity.  Repentance –or metanoia—literally means, “to change one’s mind,” or “to turn around.”  It is to change, not for just a moment, but through a complete turnaround or transformation of thought and action.  True comfort, John the Baptist promises, comes through the death of our old self, and the beginning of our new life in Christ.  Comfort comes in the waters of baptism and at the table. It comes in the living Word proclaimed in scripture and lived out among our siblings here and now.

 Barbara Brown Taylor writes in Gospel Medicine that God’s “Judgment is above all about being known…all the way down.  It is about being seen through, seen into, and known for who we really are.  It is about the total failure of our defenses and the abject poverty of our pretensions.  It is about stepping into the light, or having the light turned upon us, so that every nook and cranny of our being is illuminated for examination.  It is about standing before God without our armor, our masks, our possessions, and our excuses, with nothing but our beating hearts and the slim volume of our life histories to commend us, waiting to hear God’s true word about ourselves.”  (Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995, p. 130)

Mashed potatoes and gravy can take us only so far.  True comfort comes to our bed when we have good reasons to get up and get out again each morning. The beginning of the good news God’s loves. Despite your faults and your big bag of transgressions, God declares peace be upon you.  Just breath. Now go into that desert of yours and help free your siblings who are still lost in their fears and imprisoned by the culture and economy of death. The power and presence of grace, incarnate in the world and in our lives, stands ready to break us open and turn us outward.  Through repentance, we are set free from thinking only about ourselves.

Mark announces God’s surprising message from the prophet Isaiah—our story with God is not at an end but beginning again. There will be a second Exodus. The story of our ancestors has become our story. It is the story of our personal exodus into freedom through baptism into Christ Jesus. It is a story told by John the Baptist –a gift wrapped in camel’s hair, mixed with locusts and wild honey.  The advent of the good news of Jesus Christ comes unexpectedly. Here the peace that passes understanding again to mend our hearts and renew our spirit even as the world around us remains locked in fear and darkness. The healing light of grace and forgiveness comes like the new dawn.