Mary, Mother of our Lord

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth (Luke 1.39-40). A newly pregnant teenager makes for the hills. She doesn’t slow down until she reaches the home of her also-pregnant cousin.  She flees toward her kinswoman, toward refuge. She finds solidarity and sanctuary.

‘On a well-swept doorstep, two women meet to share the ancient, womanly experience of being with child. Mary and Elizabeth are two ordinary, pregnant women in the most extraordinary time and circumstances, on the brink of greatness, but first attending to their relationship with each other and with God. Motherhood is daunting for every woman, especially the first time, and these two women found themselves pregnant under most unusual and unexpected terms: one past the age to conceive, and the other unmarried. So, like women in every place and time, they spend time together, keeping each other company, learning and praying and perhaps laughing together, as they faced first-time childbirth and motherhood’ (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds).  

In his book, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey, Henri Nouwen asks what must have gone through Mary’s mind?  “Who could ever understand? Who could ever believe it? Who could ever let it happen? The Angel’s proposed plan was preposterous and dangerous, but Mary said “yes!”  When her kinswoman welcomes her, she bursts into song — a song so subversive, governments twenty centuries later will ban its public recitation. According to scripture, Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, or until John after was born. Then returned home to an uncertain future with Joseph in Nazareth (Luke 1: 56).

John the Baptist proclaimed of Jesus, “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). We must pause a moment to acknowledge the tragic and painful ways the beautiful story of Mary has been weaponized by the church against women. When the history of all the words said of Mary is laid before Jesus, a whole lot of unquenchable fire will be required to burn away the layers of misogyny and theological malpractice heaped upon Mary to obscure, nullify, and outright contradict her story.  How many women throughout history and across cultures have been bludgeoned with the cudgel of religious shame into self-loathing for failing to live up to the impossible standard of being both a virgin and a mother at the same time?

Yet, the self-righteous, the self-interested, the liars, bullies and Christmas marketing people could not steal the gospel from us. For them, Mary’s message contains surprises that will not be quiet. Mary’s spirit rejoices, not because Joseph bought her the perfect Christmas gift— but because “…[God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52b)  Mary’s song is essentially about social justice.

New Testament scholar Scott McKnight points out that in the 1980s, the government of Guatemala banned singing of Mary’s Magnificat for Christmas because, unlike Away in a Manger, this song was considered subversive and politically dangerous. “Authorities worried that it might incite the oppressed people to riot.” (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds)

The Magnificat was excluded from evening prayer in churches run by the British East India Company in colonial India. Years later, on the final day of imperial rule in India, Mahatma Gandhi requested Mary’s song be read everywhere the British flag was being lowered. The junta in Argentina forbade the singing of Mary’s song after the Mothers of the Disappeared displayed its words on placards in the capital plaza. And during the 1980s, the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador prohibited any public recitation of the song.

What made Mary’s song so dangerous?  Mary’s song of joy and faith is anthem of solidarity with the poor. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52a).  Mary and Elizabeth, like people of faith of every generation, expanded the powerful bond of their kinship with one another for belonging in the ever-widening circle of the kin-dom of God.  They shifted their allegiances and loyalties.  They went from living in an “us versus them” world, to a world of love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace for all.  That is why we celebrate Mary (and Elizabeth) today.  They are heroes of faith who show us the way to walk toward transformation and renewal by the way of the cross. 

Mary and Elizabeth afforded one another safety and strength through the gift of sanctuary.  Can we, like them, grow in our stated mission, striving to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace?  This month, our church, at its national Churchwide Assembly, voted to become a sanctuary denomination.  By this, the ELCA has publicly declared that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith. They affirmed that we are called to use our hands and voices in obedience to Jesus’ command to welcome the most vulnerable.  Specifically, the Churchwide Assembly’s resolution challenges us to seek for ways that we may provide concrete resources to respond to the needs of our human family who are suffering now—especially immigrants and asylum seekers.  This national resolution has drawn criticism for being too radical. Yet, in substance, how is it any different than Mary’s song? Mary’s song is a lullaby conjuring dreams of new worlds as we sleep.

This week, August 23-25, our nation commemorates the 400th anniversary of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Most of us learned about the arrival of 102 passengers on the Mayflower in 1620. What you didn’t learn in history class was that a year earlier, August of 1619, 20 enslaved Africans from the Kingdom of Ndongo in Angola landed at Point Comfort (now in Virginia) on the White Lion, a 160-ton English privateer slave ship.  The transatlantic slave trade was the biggest forced migration of people in world history.

The Mother of Exiles, the Statue of Liberty has a broken shackle and chain laying at her feet as she walks forward, to commemorate the national abolition of slavery in 1865.  Could Mary’s song of solidarity be the cure that alludes us? Can we finally stand with the children of those who never knew welcome to our shores, as members of one wonderfully diverse human family? In 1992, Toni Morrison told the Guardian newspaper: “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” When can our allegiances and loyalties shift? When will our national story expand to become part of the universal story—of the ever-widening circle of the kin-dom of God? Listening to Mary’s song will end the fever of racism animating the irrational, tragic, and self-defeating anger against people of color and immigrants today. 

In a world that longs for a gentle peace, a generous sharing of the goods of the earth, a time of quiet joy and healing, Mary points the way to becoming expectant with hope and filled to the brim with joy. See, even now we are being filled with joy and delight in God’s grace so that the song of our lives may give praise to God and our souls magnify God’s grace.

Proper 14C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Perhaps, it is part of the unfortunate legacy of the piety many of us grew up with we are apt to hear many reasons to judge ourselves reading today’s gospel. We list them out: “Do not be afraid…” “Sell your possessions…” “You must be ready…,” but miss the graceful promise. It is God’s great pleasure to give you treasure. There is no waiting. In fact, God has already done this. All that remains is the search. Except of course, we’d rather not search.  Who has time or energy to play games? Give us faith now.

Is it with wry humor that Jesus describes faith in this way? Scripture doesn’t say.  We remember how God poked fun at Jonah’s self-pity and discomfort as he lay beneath the withered broom tree.  Like Jonah, we protest. It’s so awful. Do you not see what is happening, how the land suffers, how hate walks the land, how people are at each other’s throats, how people are forced from their homes and lands by war, climate, famine, racism and injustice?  And now, I don’t even recognize my own country. We are entitled to feel weary. Yet as with Jonah, and all the faithful generations before us, God answers our complaints and self-doubting with a strange, excited non-sequitur: come and see! Take up your mat and walk! Have faith.

Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:34) He seems to consider that having faith is like accepting an invitation to undertake a great adventure, like a thrilling a hunt for buried treasure.  This illusive gift of faith aligns our hearts and minds, our striving and desire, with God’s promise to bring in the Kingdom. (The mission, should you accept it, is in building a neighborhood of God like the one our children imagined and created for us behind me.)  This faith, hidden in plain sight, clears our mind from fever dreams of conquest and control. It is God’s desire is to give us all these good things through faith.

Having faith is like hunting for treasure. It’s something we do, rather than something to possess. The hunt for treasure surely is a powerful lure. As a motivation it has few rivals in human history. Vacationing in New Mexico last week, we saw plenty of evidence of how the dream of literal and spiritual treasure carried Spanish priests and explorers of the 17thcentury over the ocean and across the desert plains throughout the American southwest within decades after Columbus. Many of us can testify how the dream of a better life inspired our immigrant ancestors to brave hardships and risk many dangers for the sake of the same hope. The same dream calls to immigrants and asylum seekers today.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). The faithful shall ‘be dressed for action and have [their] lamps lit.’ (Luke 12:35). To be faithful is to be restless, like those searching for a better life. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes that to have faith is to “Believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”(Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 20th century)

Mircea Eliade, the late professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, Divinity School, used to tell a story about a Polish rabbi from Kraców named Eisik.  Eisik had a recurring dream. In this dream he was told to travel more than 300 miles to Prague. There, under the bridge leading to the royal castle, he would find hidden treasure.  The dream repeated itself three times, and he decided to go.  In Prague he found the bridge, but it was guarded by soldiers. As he loitered nearby, one of the soldiers noticed him and asked him what he was doing.  The rabbi told his dream and the soldier burst into laughter. “Poor man,” the soldier said, “have you worn out your shoes coming all this way simply because of a dream?”  “I too, once had a dream,” said the soldier, “It spoke to me of Kraców, ordered me to go there and look for a treasure in the house of a rabbi named Eisik. The treasure was to be found in a dusty old corner behind the stove.”  “But,” said the soldier, “being a reasonable man and not trusting in dreams, I decided not to go.” The rabbi thanked the soldier, returned to Kraców, dug behind the stove, found the treasure, and put an end to his poverty.”

Being reasonable and not trusting has been the cause of premature death before the grave for countless human lives. Life presents us with a choice. We can be like the Rabbi or the soldier. To have life is to have faith and to have faith is to search, as one does for buried treasure. Like it or not, the essential ingredient to faith is human effort.

Like the rabbi, pursuing your faith dreams can be thrilling, surprising, even miraculous—even if as in today’s gospel—the only money Jesus talks about comes from your own pocket. Faith fills our hearts to overflowing. The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is complacency, apathy, resignation, and cynicism. As with the soldier, and like Jonah, life without faith predictably becomes self-pitying.

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Jesus invites us on a hunt for buried treasure—and God must have a sense of humor because the gospel tells us to dig—right under our nose! The unfailing treasure of grace is always found in the present moment even though it is also true that finding this treasure may require a kind of quest. Yet ultimately, as St. Teresa of Avila once said, “The truth is that the treasure lies within our very selves.”

When Rome was overthrown in 410 C.E., the great Christian theologian, Augustine, was asked why it was that Christians were so badly treated.  If God is so great, why didn’t God protect them?  Augustine’s answer was that the difference between people is not what happens to them, but in how they respond to what happens to them.

Faith means we need not fear the future.  Faith means we need not mourn the past. Our lives are difficult, but God is good.  Like Abraham and Sarah, our destiny is clothed in God’s abundance, our reward is cast as wide and deep and numerous as sand beside the sea, or the number of stars in the sky.

Proper 12C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Last Saturday, Kari and I attended a summer wedding. Our own Kevin Crowder married Katie Davis. I gave a nuptial blessing as part of a lovely ecumenical service that blended their Catholic and Lutheran traditions with beautiful music, thoughtful prayers, two great homilies and selections from scripture.  Marriage today celebrates love between equals, partners, who take turns being strong for each other, washing one another’s feet.

Lutheran pastor, historian, and scholar Martin Marty once described all of scripture as ‘love-letters from God.’  In today’s scripture, love and marriage give us the proper framework to understand what the heck is happening when we pray, guidance for how we should pray, and why we should do it without ceasing. 

Marriage is a metaphor for faith found in both the Hebrew and Christian Testaments.  However, it’s not like the one Kari and I experienced between Keven and Katie.  The marriage metaphor for faith is not one between equals.  It is loving and life-giving. But if we’re being honest, the covenantal vow of love between God and Israel; between Christ and the church; between Jesus and each of us—is according to Hosea, like a wedding between a prophet and a prostitute. (Ouch!  Prophets can be kind of mean.  And in case you are about to stand up and fight for the dignity of sex workers I commend you.  But maybe it makes a difference knowing Hosea wrote for an audience 2,700 years ago –although things are not all that different today.) 

Christ is the perfect groom and the Church is his imperfect bride. Christ looks lovingly on the Church, the people of God, who are corrupted and corroded, and covered with sin. The story of unequally yoked marriage partners is a parable about grace. It is the message that God loves sinful, imperfect people.

The inalienable dignity of every human being is rooted in the fact of this unearned love. In any marriage, even one between unequal partners, honest, vulnerable communication is necessary to sustain and even deepen the bond of love. The church calls this communication with God, prayer. In fidelity to this life-long covenantal loving relationship marked with water and the sign of the cross in baptism, nourished at the table where everyone is invited, and everyone has a place, we pray. 

The Lord’s Prayer provides a handy outline for all our prayers. Martin Luther called the Lord’s Prayer “a summary of the whole gospel.”  The Omaha Home for Boys published this memorable poem, “You cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer and even once say ‘I.’  You cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer and even once say ‘my.’  Nor can you pray the Lord’s Prayer and not pray for one another, and when you ask for daily bread, you must include your brothers and sisters.  For others are included in each and every plea, from the beginning to the end of it, it does not once say ‘me.’” By the way, neither does the Lord’s prayer say anything about damnation, nor does it even mention the name of Jesus.  I remember being surprised at hearing the Lord’s Prayer said at interfaith gatherings. It can be prayed by people of any faith community.

William H. Willimon comments, “It’s curious that physical deterioration has become the contemporary North American church’s main concern in prayer.  Jesus is most notable for teaching that we are to pray—not for recent gall bladder surgery—but for our enemies!” 

Prayer is the talking and listening that goes on between a lover and the beloved.  It is not a way to get something you want, like from Amazon, or to make something magical happen. We’re probably all guilty of praying this way at one time or another. “As if God were a cosmic gumball machine into which we can insert our prayers like so many shiny quarters to get whatever we want.” (Debi Thomas)

Ask, seek, knock. Talk to me, Jesus says, with your whole heart.  Pray like a psalmist, don’t hold anything back.  And what do we get for this?  Jesus gives us the answer. God answers all our prayers with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. That’s it.  That’s all.  That’s everything! 

In Luke’s gospel, there is no greater gift. The Holy Spirit empowers John the Baptist (1:15). The Holy Spirit enables Mary to bring forth the Savior (1:35). The Holy Spirit inspires Zechariah to prophesy (1:67) and Simeon and Anna to recognize the infant Jesus (2:28).  Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit. This Spirit is nothing less than the power of God to bring about redemption and new creation. 

This should make it clear the Lord’s Prayer isn’t just for church.  It’s an outline of talking points that goes with you everywhere –just like God does.  I have to tell you a story about the Lord’s Prayer that goes back to the 1960’s. 

Back then my parents joined a little Lutheran church in Ithaca, NY that helped hide the famous Vietnam-era war protesters, the Berrigan brothers, from the FBI.  The experience knocked the socks off my North Dakota farm kid parents.  The pastor preached the church’s mission was to challenge as much as to comfort. Ultimately the brothers became part of a group called the “Cantonsville Nine.”  On May 17, 1968, the nine went into the Selective Service offices in Catonsville, Maryland, and burned several hundred draft records in a direct action again the Vietnam War.  They were arrested, tried, and found guilty of destroying government property.  After the nine were sentenced, one of them, the Catholic priest named Daniel Berrigan, asked the judge if the Lord’s Prayer could be recited.  All in the courtroom, including the judge and the prosecuting attorneys, rose and joined in the prayer. Dan Berrigan and his brother were both sentenced to several years in prison.

Now what do you suppose God did with that prayer?  God only knows –but I’ll bet everyone in that courtroom knew they were human. Each of them stood equally in need of grace—that all of them were children of God.  In a time of great tension and division in our country, perhaps it helped those in authority and those who challenged authority respect each other for playing their part in a higher calling.

Prayer is a language of love between Christ and his bride –between us and God. Prayer talk fills us with the Holy Spirit.  Prayer joins us to each another. Prayer gives us eyes to see everything like Thea Bowman (1937–1990) did. Thea, a black Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration born in Mississippi, said “God is present in everything. In the universe, in creation, in me and all that happens to me, in my brothers and sisters, in the church, and in the Eucharist—everywhere… God is bread when you’re hungry, water when you’re thirsty, a harbor from the storm. God’s father to the fatherless, a mother to the motherless. God’s my sister, my brother, my leader, my guide, my teacher, my comforter, my friend…God’s my all in all, my everything.” (Thea Bowman: A Gift to the Church,” Modern Spiritual Masters: Writings on Contemplation and Compassion, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Orbis Books: 2008), 141-142.) Prayer changes hearts and minds.  Pray every day, without ceasing to renew your weary hearts, rekindle hope, find strength to answer weakness, and quench your dry thirsty soul.

Prayer Circle Immanuel Lutheran Chicago

Proper 10C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:28) The lawyer’s face-saving question, put another way is, who is not my neighbor? Who can I exclude?

When I think of a neighbor, Mrs. Dugan comes to mind. It was 1970. I was eight years old.  We lived in a house on Rodney drive in Champaign, Illinois. 1970 was a big year for me.  I got to stay up late enough to watch “Love American Style.” It was also the year my dog Frisky died. Our next-door neighbors, the Dugan’s, had a special knock.  Mrs. Dugan would announce herself with that knock and pretty much walk straight into our house.  She helped out when Frisky got sick. Mrs. Dugan even attended the informal back yard funeral we had when she died.  Mrs. Dugan was my neighbor. Neighbors transform streets into neighborhoods.  Local communities of care are great to grow up in.

Today, I notice we seem willing to trade this old-fashioned neighborliness for anonymity and the efficiency of polite, impersonal, transactional relationships.  The barista knows how to make my coffee before I ask for it, without any expectation of friendship or mutuality in return.  Starbucks has literally made a fortune trading on this faux-friendly-familiar but not quite neighborly vibe.  Neighbors like my Mrs. Dugan seem rare these days.

I think we could all use much more neighborliness and perhaps, the task falls to us to create it. Yet it doesn’t seem reasonable for anyone to really know and be neighbor to more than perhaps two dozen people or so.  Life itself imposes a limit on our time and energy. So I wonder, in the neighborhood of God, like the one the VBS kids imagined and display behind our altar today, would people always know everyone in their building? –everyone living on their block? –how about in their zip code?  So, we return to the same question the lawyer asked.  If being neighbor is how I inherit eternal life, surely that can’t include everyone—right?

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘he was glad Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor because certain people are just so hard to like.’  Loving our neighbor as ourselves does not require friendship but to mercy, compassion, kindness, and justice.

The parables of Jesus are like gemstones. We get a different insight into divine mystery by looking through the story from each perspective.  The Good Samaritan offers a glimpse into the extravagant loving character of God. Jesus’ command ‘to go and do likewise,” gives us a window into our own call to discipleship.  The man who lays bleeding and dying in the ditch is synonymous with Christ on the cross. Perhaps the quickest way to immediately answer the lawyer’s question correctly is from the perspective of the victim.  Ask him –who is your neighbor—and the answer is—anyone, anyone—anyone at all who will help me.

In 2006 my father died in hiking accident.  Another hiker, a medical student in training, was the first to come to our aid.  He just showed up. Park Rangers arrived next in response to my 911 call.  They came by truck up an old mining road as far as they could then ran the rest of the way up the mountain.  Others came by helicopter.  It was unbelievable.  To this day, I don’t know their names, or where any of them lived.  I never saw them again.  Each of them was my neighbor.

Our understanding of Jesus’ parable is deepened when we realize that nobody listening would have thought there were any ‘good Samaritans.’ The Samaritans were enemies. Substitute the name gang-banger, or ‘Taliban’ for ‘Samaritan’ and you begin to understand why Jesus’ lovable parable made the temple leaders blood boil.

Notice the wounded man is the only character in the story not defined by profession, social class, or religious belief.  “He has no identity except naked need.  Maybe we have to occupy his place in the story first — maybe we have to become the broken one, grateful to anyone at all who will show us mercy — before we can feel the unbounded compassion of the Good Samaritan.  Why? Because all tribalisms fall away on the broken road.  All divisions of “us” and “them” disappear of necessity. When you’re lying bloody in a ditch, what matters is not whose help you’d prefer, whose way of practicing Christianity you like best, whose politics you agree with.  What matters is whether or not anyone will stop to show you mercy before you die.” (Debie Thomas, Afflicting the Comfortable, Journey With Jesus, 7/07/19)

Jesus shows us that all people are our neighbors; everyone is a child of God. The basic meaning of neighborin Hebrew, Greek, and English is “to be near.” (Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks) The Priest and the priest-helper proved not to be true neighbors because they widenedthe distance between themselves and the injured man lying in the ditch. They looked but did not see.  They saw but were blind. They would not come near the man in the ditch.  They proved they are not true neighbors, despite their impressive credentials.

The Samaritan took the wounded man to the inn keeper and paid for his care. We don’t know what transpired between them after that. It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that we see those who are broken and wounded by life and respond with kindness, mercy, and justice.

There are so many people in the ditch today –what except the power of evil and the devil can explain our willful blindness to them all?  So often it is the weak, powerless, and wounded who are made to bear the brunt of the sins and short-comings of those who are actually responsible. The poor migrant becomes the target for what’s wrong with our broken immigration system rather than the factory owner, the politician, or all the rest of us –the electorate—who benefit from the work done, the taxes paid, and the consumer goods purchased by immigrants living in our community.  Today, as we brace for mass deportations and family separations, our scriptures ask who will be neighbor?

If you want to know God, then love your neighbor.  If you want to know your neighbor, then love God. Loving God and neighbor are not separate items on some pious to-do list. They are two sides of the same coin. They form a single pathway into the abundant life God intends for us all. Devotion to God and service to neighbor form a double-helix in the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. They are the DNA structure upon which the whole chapter hangs, and the key to unlocking the pain and bewilderment we face today.  Here—here is the doorway that opens to the fullness of grace.  It is never far from you, but it is always only as far away as the person next to you.

Proper 9C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

July 7, 2019

“See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3).  I remember reading the Gospel of Luke for a required college course in religion when these words of Jesus jumped out at me the first time.  I felt both delighted and terrified.  

With these words, Jesus sent the 70 (as he sends all of us now) outside familiar circles of safety and tells us to expect a chilly response if and when we preach the gospel. With these words, Jesus issues a challenge to the established church, the so-called mainline church, the comfortable, everybody-knows-my-name church, like the one I grew up in. Jesus issues a call to be courageous and prophetic.  He sends his followers to battle the world and the devil bearing nothing more than the gifts of the spirit.  As St. Paul wrote, ‘we gird our loins with truth. We wear a breastplate of righteousness and shod our feet with peace. We carry the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit’ (Ephesians 6:13-17).  As we say about grace, it’s that simple. It’s that amazing!

When Jesus is our pole star, it re-sets our moral compass. There are no borders nor boundaries to God’s saving grace.  For Christians, there is no geographic center of the world, but only a constellation of points equidistant from the heart of God. There is no ‘most favored nation’ in the kingdom of God.  As our nation celebrates independence Jesus declares true victory is won through inter-dependence

May these gifts of the spirit rekindle a new birth of freedom in us this holiday weekend so that the better angels of our nature can lead us to a more perfect union.  I pray this spirit recall and reclaim us as a nation so we may return to who we have always been, and to what has made us strong.  We are a nation of immigrants, founded upon a faith-based ideal, however imperfectly perceived, that our collective health and resilience flows naturally from people of every nation living together as children of God –including people of other faiths and of no faith. 

It can be that simple for us because your success doesn’t depend upon what you’re carrying now in your purse or wallet. It doesn’t matter about your personal baggage or your choice of foot ware.  Remember what Jesus told his followers. “Speak peace when you enter a house. Eat what is placed before you. Invest in one home, one family, one town. Speak of what is near, not far. Don’t linger in hopeless places. Don’t get cocky; remember that the kingdom of God comes near whether you are accepted or rejected. Trust that any peace which is spurned will return to you; nothing in God’s kingdom is wasted.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, 6/30/19)

Christian author and essay writer, Debie Thomas, writes, “In other words, the task Jesus sets before the seventy is hard because it is easy.  In fact, it’s so easy, it feels both counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.  It’s so easy, it makes us wary, suspicious, and cynical.  What is the task?  The task is to live simply and vulnerably. The task is to rely on the grace and hospitality of others.  The task is to stay in one place — to encounter, to engage, and to go deep. The task is to live as guests, sharing our faith with others as if they’re our hosts, the people we depend on for sustenance and shelter.  The task is to speak peace, first and last. The task is to let go in love.  The task is to believe always in the abundance and nearness of God’s economy.” (Journey with Jesus, 6/30/19)

Take up these gifts of the Spirit. Go live like a lamb among wolves. Perhaps hearing the challenge and promise of these words again partly explains why this week I took up reading (or actually, listening to) another old book I’m sure was required reading for many of you.  This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse Five. It is subtitled ‘The Children’s Crusade, because as Mary, the wife of one of his old war buddies says, “You were just babies in the war!”

The lasting power of Vonnegut’s book about WWII, published during the turbulent Vietnam years, is that it was among the first of its generation that dared to tell the truth about war.  In a radio interview, Vonnegut once said “The truth, it turns out, is a very powerful thing.”  As further proof of this statement, and of our gospel today, Slaughterhouse Five is still listed as number 29 on the American Library Association’s list of banned or challenged classics. 

And so it goes. Vonnegut tells the tale based on events between February 13 and February 15, 1945. Allied bombers dropped nearly four thousand tons of high explosives and incendiaries on the uniquely beautiful historic German city of Dresden. “The effect was elemental: Air became fire. Vonnegut, an American prisoner of war, was there—but 60 feet underground. Captured during the Battle of the Bulge, conveyed to Dresden by boxcar, and billeted in a derelict slaughterhouse as the bombs fell, he was sheltering with some fellow POWs and a couple of dazed German guards in a basement meat locker. They emerged to rubble, ash, twisted metal, death. Somewhere between 18,000 and 25,000 people (we still don’t know) had been killed “ (James Parker, The Atlantic Magazine, 3/31/19).

If Slaughterhouse had a single meaning, which of course, it doesn’t, it would have to be something about the stupidity and wastefulness of war.  To their credit, our top military commanders seem to have some understanding about this today after decades of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The true battle ground, they tell us, is the one for hearts and minds –a struggle in which tanks and bombs are of no use. 

Which brings us back to Jesus. Thirty-five pairs of followers go out from Jesus like lambs into the midst of wolves.  As they fan out and set to work, Jesus will later say he ‘watched Satan fall again and again from heaven like lightening.’ (Luke 10:18)

Upon their return, the seventy are almost giddy with the thrill of their first endeavors. They are filled with joy and amazement. This decentralized gospel proved unstoppable working through their mortal hands and voices. For proof they offer the same evidence that Jesus did in response to questions of John the Baptist: The blind see, the lame walk, the spirit is with us, Christ is alive. 

This same spirit is in us now. This same spirit that animates our church is in stark contrast to the culture of death that loves things and uses people. In the sixteenth century the words of St. Teresa of Avila remind disciples of all times and places what our gospel declares to us today: 

“Christ has no body on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out to the world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless others now.”  

Go now, like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry nothing but the good news meant for the salvation of all people. It’s that simple. It’s that amazing!

Proper 8C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

June 30, 2019

“He set his face to go up to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51-62). And so, Jesus begins his faithful sojourn to the cross.  From now until November 10th our gospel each Sunday follows Jesus on this journey as recorded in ten chapters of Luke (9:51- 19:28).  

Every trek has a beginning.  Every odyssey includes a moment of decision, a call to commitment, a challenge to respond.  Jesus’ challenge was to pick up the cross.  It was journey which was to be less about the destination as it was about a way of life.  Jerusalem, Gethsemane, and Golgotha are not important as places, but for what Jesus’ showed us on the way there about how we are to live. The cross was not a transaction, or paying a debt demanded by God.  Rather, it is urgently important for what it reveals about how we walk in faithfulness to God’s grace, with every step, in every day, for the rest of our lives.  The path into life and the abundance of life goes through opening our self and becoming vulnerable. By exposing our weaknesses, we find our strength.  In serving each other, we obtain satisfaction. In losing our life we find it. 

It wasn’t a sure thing. In fact, many, if not most, would call it a foolish bet. Jesus set his face to go up to Jerusalem, not knowing how it would turn out –who would follow—how many would heed his message, our join him on this path.  In fact, the jury is still out even up to this day. Jesus bet his money and his life on caring how well we live with compassion and faith. The way of the cross transforms our ultimate goal from mere survival to entering upon God’s glory. ‘Going my way,” Jesus asks? Ready to know the way to freedom? Ready to discover simple abundance and what will save you? Follow me, Jesus says. 

Jesus doesn’t sugar coat it.  The way to life and the cross requires sacrifice.  It requires we persist through resistance, sabotage, and even hatred. Yet we do so know that God walks with us and fights beside us.

There is real urgency in our readings today.  Every moment counts.  Don’t look back, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” There’s no time even to say goodbye.  For every time there is a season.  The time has come for Jesus and the disciples to head toward Jerusalem.  In every Christian life, there is a time to enter into mission. 

Today’s gospel speaks to any of us who recognize our tendency to put off decisions that have big consequences.  It speaks to us who come to Jesus with ready excuses to defer our Christian walk until we are in a better place, or a better time, or when all the stars align. There comes a time to stop making excuses until “I get my stuff figured out.”  Are we waiting for others to stand up for those the world rejects? Or will you seize the moment and say God’s love is for all?  There comes a time to stop waiting for God’s action, get up on our own two feet, and be the body of Christ.  

We heard St. Paul say, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) In his famous Treatise on Christian Liberty, Martin Luther succinctly captured the gospel message regarding our freedom as people who have found new life in Christ.  He wrote, “A Christian is perfectly free, Lord of all, subject to none. [and] A Christian is perfectly dutiful, servant of all, subject to all.”  If you wish to love God then love your neighbor as yourself—just don’t expect all your neighbors to be happy about it.  

This past week, 30 adult and youth volunteers welcomed 43 children to Immanuel for Vacation Bible School.  We sang, danced, did crafts, projects, and plays to inquire together about a single question, “Who is my neighbor?”  In Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan we learned neighbors are not just the people who happen to live next to us but anyone in need. We heard Jesus call to love and serve one another in radical, surprising ways, which is really another way of calling to follow him in the way of the cross.  We heard Jesus’ challenge to build a neighborhood (like the one represented behind me), where all are welcome and support one another in lives of dignity and meaning.  We march with pride today in solidarity with those who like Jesus set their face toward making life better for us all even at the expense of their own flesh and blood. We will carry on spreading this message of hope. 

With Jesus, we were so bold to teach this lesson to our children at Vacation Bible School even though as many as 4,500 people were arrested last year alone by our Federal government and charged with a crime for aiding and abetting immigrants by providing things like water, food, or clothing.

Luke tells us the moment Jesus turned to the cross he met immediate resistance.  Ironically, first from the Samaritans, who had been cheering him on, but who now turn away because they despised Jerusalem.  Then his own friends, James and John, offended by the Samaritan’s rejection are moved to react with violence.  Does insult entitle one to inflict injury? Does being right or having a holy cause justify the use of force? 

“Elijah had called down fire on the Samaritans; could not Jesus’ followers do the same? Misunderstanding the identity of the one they followed, the disciples mistakenly thought they could achieve his ends by violence. How often have those who claimed to be following Christ repeated the mistake of these early disciples? They had yet to learn that violence begets violence, and that Jesus had come to break the cycle of violence by dying and forgiving rather than by killing and exacting vengeance.” [Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Luke- John, p. 216]  

“The radicality of Jesus’ words lies in his claim to priority over the best, not the worst, of human relationships. Jesus never said to choose him over the devil but to choose him over the family. And the remarkable thing is that those who have done so have been freed from possession and worship of family and have found the distance necessary to love them.” (Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Commentaries p. 144)

As the sun marks the turning of the seasons from Spring into Summer, so the cross of Christ declares the steadfast love of God that never ceases. God’s mercies never come to an end; but arrive new each morning. (Lamentations 3:22-23)  

By way of the cross, Jesus transforms this world so often cold, lonely, and mean. There is so much suffering all around us.  Yet the good news of Jesus Christ is we may all find the life we so desperately need in become a living sanctuary of hope and grace to one another by walking the way of the cross.  That is why this mission is so urgent.  That is why the time for action must be now.  Will you come and follow me, Jesus says, so the blind may see, to let the prisoners go free, to kiss the lepers clean, and let God’s love be revealed in you? (ELW # 798)

immanuel lutheran chicago

Proper 7C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Years ago, I spent a week with 18 high school youth on mission trip to Juarez, Mexico. We helped build a community center and lead vacation bible school for a small church. Every day one youth sent a reflection back home by email.  Often, they wrote about the poverty they observed.  One wrote, ‘It is remarkable how little we actually need. I feel almost liberated.  Back home, we fiercely guard our possessions. But I wonder, is it we who possess all our stuff, or does all our stuff possess us?’

We waived goodbye as we drove away in a beat-up old school bus that broke down before we reached El Paso. We walked the last two miles or so.  We carried our backpacks and suitcases to the bridge and across the border.  We were relieved to be home.  Yet, our crossing taught us about some of the human costs inherent in our way of life.  Following Jesus in mission can quickly lead us to question what we think we already know.

The prophet Elijah is another example. It seems like he had everything figured out. In the chapters preceding our first reading (1 Kings 17-18), Elijah is a prophet “in charge.” Everything goes his way. He confronts kings and followers of Baal, performs miracles, raises the dead, and calls down lightning from heaven.  But now, in 1 Kings 19, everything is changed. Elijah is intimidated, filled with complaints, and plagued with self-doubt. Like so many servants of God before and after him, Elijah is deeply discouraged when things don’t go his way.  To be fair, serving God put his life in danger. Now he wants out of the whole prophet-of-God business.

On Mt. Sinai, a despondent Elijah encounters a persistent God who refuses to let him off the hook regardless of the difficulty of his mission.  On the very same mountain God handed Moses the Ten Commandments, God confronts Elijah—not with a mighty wind, not with an earthquake, nor with fire, but in the sound of sheer silence—as if to say God will not be confined to one way of speaking.  Don’t expect divine power always to show up “obvious” ways. Contrary to what Elijah thought, he was not alone, but one among a whole community, a holy remnant, numbering at least seven thousand (1 Kings 19:18) faithful people.

Doing God’s work, speaking God’s words, transforms hearts and minds—beginning with our own. It happens again when Jesus orders the disciples into a boat and said, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ (Luke 8:22).

To them it must have seemed like a bad idea from the start.  This wasn’t a little trip from one side of a lake to the other.  It was a journey into a foreign land, the unknown, the defiled, the less than human. To make matters worse, they nearly drowned on their way. Now, from the moment they step onto dry land, they’re confronted by the so-called Gerasene demoniac, a naked, filthy, and demon-possessed man who lived among the tombs! The experience must have confirmed all their stereotypes about unclean Gentiles.

It turns out the people of Gerasene would also have preferred that Jesus stayed away too.  Sure, they’d admit, life with a demoniacwas a little crazy at times, but they had learned to cope.  It wasn’t perfect, but it worked most of the time. At some point, they figured out how to keep him chained, post a guard, and isolate him from other people. Problem solved. It worked for everyone –everyone of course except the so-called demoniac.

Trailing broken chains behind him, he wandered the wilds, tearing at his skin until it bled, trading one kind of pain for another. If he had a name, no one knew it. If he had a history, no one remembers it. If he has a soul worth saving inside his living corpse, no one sees it. No one looks. Until Jesus does. (Debie Thomas, “Legion,” Journey with Jesus, 6/16/19)

Our gospel confronts us with the confounding reluctance and resistance in ourselves that rebels against God’s grace to heal us and to reshape our communities. Like Elijah, and all of us on that mission trip years ago, serving God in Christ opens hearts, minds, and hands even where we did not realize we had closed them.

For all their supposed differences, the Jewish-born disciples and the foreign-born Gerasenes shared something in common: they were more than willing to leave well enough alone rather than make the sacrifices or take the risks required to truly make things better.

The Gerasene demoniac fell down before Jesus and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” (Luke 8:28).  It must have been terrifying and overwhelming.  Yet Jesus shows us exactly where to begin in such situations. He began by asking him a simple, direct question. “What is your name?” Jesus starts to recall the broken man to himself. To his humanity, to his beginnings.  To his unique and precious identity as a beloved child of God.

The problems that afflict, torment, and distort our minds may be legion, multi-faceted, and myriad.  The sources of our brokenness may be braided together. And yet the way of hope and salvation lays open for us in Jesus. The crazy man speaks for us all and shows us how our own healing may begin. When the demoniac sees Jesus, he falls down before him without hesitation or apology.

Our gospel ends with Jesus commissioning the healed man to stay where he is and serve as the first missionary to his townspeople— the same townspeople who feared, shunned, trapped, and shackled him for years. Isn’t that just so like Jesus? “To choose the very people we consider the most unholy, the most unredeemable, the most repulsive and unworthy— and commission them to teach us the Gospel? THAT is God all over.” (Debie Thomas)

When we follow Jesus in mission, when we prayerfully apply ourselves to be his hands, his feet, his word, we may be surprised to discover, how this strange gospel story becomes our story. Here, we find a story about our truest names. Here is the story we share with the faithful of every time and place about our resistance and resurrection. Here is a story about the Jesus who found us naked among the tombs, clothed us with dignity, scattered the demons to save our soul, and turned us into storytellers who help heal the world. Here, then, is our story wrapped within God’s story. “Here is the One who makes us one. The One who breaks the darkness, turning blindness into sight” (ELW #843). Here is the One who opens our fisted minds and will teach us how to live.

Food for your Journey

Pentecost Sunday C-19

 “Wind, wind,

you come from nothingness and go to nothingness,

and when you are still,

there is nothing we see, nothing we hear,

and you surround us in our not seeing and not knowing.”

(Excerpts from the poem Wind, wind – a reflection on the Spirit, by William Loader, an Australian Bible Scholar are used throughout this sermon.)

Hidden in plain sight.  Undetected, even as with each breath you fill our lungs. God is like wind.  Since ancient times, when children asked ‘Who is God? Where?’  Parents, grandparents, and village elders pointed to the wind. “That is what God is like,” they said.  “There.”

When I was a kid, the Chinook winds came to the Front Range in Colorado each January.  In the dead of winter, somehow, warm dry air from the upper atmosphere, gets squished underneath cold wet air passing over the mountains.  The result is a violent wind that rushes down the mountainside as if it were riding upon a sled, thirty, sixty, even ninety miles per hour. Those chinook winds shook our house, severed limbs from trees, and knocked many of them down.  But always afterwards came warmer temperatures.  After the Chinook winds, it could reach fifty degrees in the depths of winter.

“Wild, wild wind,

you whip the seas, whirling great water spouts and fountains,

crashing on the foamed edges of the shore,

sweeping the unsuspecting fisherman from the slippery rocks,

terrifying force, uncontrollable, beyond our power.”

Our bible says, “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2). Today the power of wind turns great windmills that provide light for homes and entire communities.  We observe the power of wind.

Yet, just like the wind, we do not always know where to find God or how to follow the way the Spirit would lead us.  Our bible tells such colorful tails of God’s presence. Not only wind but fire!  The power and presence of God was unmistakable.  Leah, being confirmed in faith today, I tell you the truth, sometimes you will long for such a compelling sign. Often, God’s purpose can be too difficult for any one person of faith to determine for themselves. That’s why in the Lutheran church, especially for really big decisions, we place our trust in the combined wisdom of the community to set the proper course to follow the winds of the Spirit. We pray and then we vote at committees, councils, congregations, Synod Assemblies and Churchwide gatherings.

That’s what your church did yesterday, at the Synod Assembly of Metropolitan Chicago, in order to choose a new Bishop, Yehiel Curry to succeed Bishop Miller when he retires this September.

Bishop Elect Curry was born in Chicago’s Riverdale neighborhood on the far South side. He is the seventh of eleven children. Even after his father was murdered on Chicago’s streets, the strength and values of their loving family persisted. He attended college at Lewis University in Romeoville. He said he felt moved to by the story of five-year-old Eric Morse who died after two other children held him out a 14-story window because he wouldn’t steal.

Bishop elect Curry became a Chicago public school teacher in the elementary school all three boys had attended. Later, he would become a lay mission developer at Shekinah chapel and attend seminary at the same time. He became a Lutheran at St. Stephens in Chatham where he learned about and became involved in SIMBA, “Safe in My Brother’s Arms,” a leadership development program for African American boys, ages 8-17, at St. Stephen’s in

Cornel West once said, “Never forget justice is what love looks like in public.”  Leah, Bishop elect Curry’s personal story shows us that in addition to the collective wisdom of the Christian community, another good, time-tested, and reliable way to follow the Holy Spirit in our life is to get close and walk with people who are suffering now.  Among the poor, the sick, the outcast, the imprisoned, the immigrants—that is where God is. That is the mission field to which we who are baptized into the living temple, the Body of Christ, are called to do God’s work with our hands.

Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So, it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3.8).  Like the wind, God’s grace is an ever-present natural force at work in the world giving shape to the landscape of human lives and communities.

This week people around the world stopped to pay tribute to the historic legacy of an important anniversary. You might have heard something about it in the news? (It’s a trick question.)  Of course, I am not referring here to D-Day but to what could be called the birth of non-violence day. On June 7th, 1893 a lawyer named Mohandis K. Gandhi was thrown off a train in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and his luggage tossed after him, when he refused to vacate his first class compartment, for which he had a ticket, and move to the third class rail car with all the other people of color.  Gandhi famously said, “Yes, you may [push me out]. I refuse to go out voluntarily.” Non-violent civil disobedience was born.

Gandhi called the struggle for non-violent change satyagraha.  We don’t have a good English equivalent for this word.  It means something like ‘holding on to truth-force.’

Jesus said, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ (John 8:31-32).  Gandhi taught us another reliable, time tested way we can hoist a sail and follow the holy spirit –by clinging always to the truth.  The truth is of God.  Truth is another name for the Holy Spirit.  Leah, you can be sure to walk with God by clinging to the truth.

Following after the Holy Spirit is often scary.  It is often disruptive and challenging to the people, places, and institutions we know and love.  Like Mary Magdalene, who you wrote about in your confirmation paper, we quickly discover even the church dedicated to following Jesus is in constant need of reform.

But, Leah, I tell you a secret, God is with you –always—and will never abandon you no matter how well or how badly you become at following the direction of the Holy Spirit in life.  But here is water and the word.  Here is bread and wine.  Here in this place people find refuge and a way to return to themselves. They find fellowship, common purpose, and have their human dignity restored in community, drawing close to the poor, and walking in truth.

As Bishop elect Curry reminded us yesterday, everyone has a place at this table and will find food for their life’s journey.  Here, Make America Great Again is seated next to Black Lives Matter. Leah, here you will find LGBTQIA+ belonging with cis-gender and hetero folks.  Seated beside you are men and women, black and white, Latino and Asian, young and old, sick and able bodied. Here, together, is food to satisfy our hungry hearts and souls as we journey together in faith all the days of your life, until we are called home to rest in God.  

Wind of nothingness and awe,
wind of knowing and unknowing,
wind of bearing and begetting,
wind of secrets and mystery,
O wise, wise wind,
whisper to us your grace.

Easter Sunday Immanuel Lutheran Chicago

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus only had time for a few last words before his arrest and crucifixion.  He told them to love one another as I have loved you. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

It’s interesting to notice what Jesus didn’t say.  He didn’t say ‘keep a systematic theology.’ He didn’t instruct them about proper worship, the sacraments, the priesthood, what to say or what to write down as gospel.  He urged them to love. In fact, he commanded them. Discipleship consists of loving one another the same perfect and unconditional way that God loves the whole world.

They sat in the second pew on the lectern side. Student pastor Betty Rendón, husband Carlos, daughter Paula, and grand-daughter Layla attended Immanuel for a year or so before leaving to serve Emaus Lutheran in Racine, Wisconsin. Betty had helped outreach to Latino familiesatMonday night tutoring, vacation bible school, and other community events. Layla was baptized in this church last July. ELCA bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod, Rev. Paul D. Erickson, said says the Rendóns have “been a blessing to every community that they’ve ever been a part of.”

Despite this, a week ago last Wednesday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents forced their way into Betty’s home with their guns drawn. They had violently apprehended Carlos outside the home, thrown him against his car, and ordered him to open the door.  Once inside they arrested Betty in her pajamas in front of her five-year-old granddaughter and reportedly were “jubilant” after the arrest. When they left, the ICE officers failed to secure the door. Their home was ransacked, and any items of value were stolen.

Betty and Carlos fled to the U.S. from Colombia with their daughter Paula after armed guerrillas attacked the school where Betty taught. They applied for asylum in the US but was eventually denied due to the lack of a police report, although Betty says everyone in the area knew of the attack. Once her appeals were exhausted, she was issued an order of deportation, but it was never executed.

Your church, this congregation, stands with Betty, Carlos, Paula and Layla –and with immigrant families everywhere. Members of Immanuel stood in an interfaith prayer vigil outside the detention facility last Wednesday night, and national Lutheran leaders have called on federal officials to release her from detention.  With help from Stephen Bouman and Mary Campbell of the ELCA’s AMMPARO Betty and Carlos have legal representation from the National immigrant Justice Center. In less than 24 hours, staff and members of Immanuel wrote letters of support demanding their release from custody and a stay of deportation. On Friday, we met with Paula, provided a small amount of material support, helped re-connect her to legal services, and we have prayed.

We pray for the children and families in detention facilities throughout our country being blamed and victimized for our broken immigration system. It’s not right. People fleeing violence deserve compassion and to be treated with dignity.  Children deserve our protection and care.  Jesus said, they will know you are my disciples in how you love one another. Whose disciple do we become when authorities, serving in our name, traumatize and even kidnap children?  When vulnerable people are demonized?  When an ELCA pastor and her family, dedicated to loving and serving God, are arrested and treated like violent criminals?  We work and pray for the soul of our nation even as we seek to do the work of the church, the work Jesus commanded us to do—love one another.

Throughout Easter, we read about people dreaming dreams. Our scriptures are filled with stories about people hearing voices. Our lessons come from people we could easily dismiss with a wave of the hand or a roll of our eyes. They are people just brave enough, or fed up enough, or foolish enough to cast the reality of what is aside and give themselves to try to make something better.

They are people who discovered a deeper life within the world as it is turns on an axis of mystery and grace. They are ordinary people who come to know that hearing voices and dreaming dreams is what leads to awakening in us all. They don’t hang up when the Holy Spirit calls. They don’t let it roll over into voicemail.  They accept the invitation, the opportunity, the challenge, the sacrifice, the grace, and the glory.

Mary acts on the advice of an angel.  Joseph cleaves to a startling choice while he is asleep.  Peter rises from a trance to proclaim a vision of a new humanity in Christ.  Afterword, Christianity would become a world religion rather than another obscure brand of Judaism. John “saw a new heaven and a new earth” including all the tribes and nations of earth living together in harmony with God in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21)

Jesus has given us, his disciples, a new commandment, a new mandate, a new standard by which to measure our progress toward an impossibly grand goal. They are among Jesus’ last words at the Last Supper on the night in which he was betrayed. Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

They will know we are Christians if we’re crazy enough, or brave enough, or fed up enough to live in such a way among ourselves that God’s dream of love for all things now living becomes a daily reality.  It’s what people of faith do, what we have always done and will continue to do.  Because Peter didn’t just go back to back to sleep.  He didn’t ignore the people standing outside his door.  He didn’t just tell people to shut up when his fellow Christians called him on the carpet to explain himself once he got back home.

Because we are people who hear voices and dream dreams that lead to awakening and transformation that is intended for the redemption of us all.  We stand with the hungry.  We stand beside the poor, the imprisoned, and the immigrant. We stand with Betty, Carlos, Paula, Layla –and Carlos’ cousin Felipé as one communion united in Christ.  We walk with the Spirit on the way to living the life God intended for us as children of a new humanity, citizens of the New Jerusalem, residents of a new heaven and a new earth, one people with God in harmony and solidarity with all the people of God.  And all the people say—Amen!

The credits roll.  The music plays.  Lights come up in the theater. Yet people linger in their seats.  They stay for the outtakes—scenes not included in the movie. Sometimes stories include an epilogue that reveals what ultimately happens to the principle characters.  We learn Oskar Schindler died bankrupt and penniless in Germany.  Bilbo and Frodo Baggins leave their beloved Hobbitsville and travel with the Elves.

Likewise, when we catch up with the disciples on Sunday, we already know how the story ends.  “The strife is o’er, the battle is done” (ELW #366). The twenty-first chapter of John is an epilogue. The disciples are on holiday back home. One story is at an end and another is just beginning.

But Peter isn’t sure he has a role in the new chapter Jesus is writing. That’s because he screwed up. He is painfully aware how he squandered all the hope and confidence Jesus’ had placed upon him. Peter can’t imagine Jesus would have any more use for him now.

He was supposed to be the Rock. Peter the “fisher of men.” It was Peter who was the first disciple to proclaim Jesus was the Son of God. It was Peter’s mother-in-law whom Jesus had healed. It was Peter who walked beside him on the sea. Peter who saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain. Peter who promised to stay at Jesus’s side even if he be killed. Yet is was this Peter whose courage failed so catastrophically around a charcoal fire when Jesus was arrested. Peter’s betrayal marked him as unworthy. ‘No. No, I am not the man! I swear, I don’t even know him.’ (John 18:17-27)

Do you know what that kind of failure feels like? Failure is where our dreams go to die. We withdraw. We don’t return eye-contact. We are weighed down with heaviness and dread. We tend to find comfort in familiar patterns and old routines. Peter went fishing

“Peace be with you,” Jesus had said in Jerusalem (John 20:26) He offered Peter and the disciples the gift of his continuing and abiding spirit. Now Jesus continues his healing, reconciling work beside the seashore. This time his strategy is simple. He said to them “come and have breakfast.” (John 21:12) He prepared a meal for them beside the Sea.

Notice “In the days following the resurrection, Jesus doesn’t waste a moment on revenge or retribution. He doesn’t storm Pilate’s house, or avenge himself on Rome, or punish the soldiers whose hands drove nails into his. Instead, he spends his remaining time on earth feeding, restoring, and strengthening his friends. He calls Mary Magdalene by name as she cries. He offers his wounds to the skeptical Thomas. He grills bread and fish for his hungry disciples. He heals what’s wounded and festering between his heart and Peter’s.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, 4/28/19)

Jesus asks Peter three times.  Once for each time Peter had denied him.  “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (21:15) These questions open Peter to the future. Despite his failure, Jesus again entrusts Peter with the ongoing work of the Church. “He surrounds the self-loathing disciple with tenderness and safety, inviting him to revisit his shame for the sake of healing, restoration, and commissioning: “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”  (Debie Thomas)

The early church drew inspiration from the memory of Peter’s biggest failure as an example of the power of God to forgive our failures, redeem our past and renew our calling as followers of Jesus Christ. If God could do that for Peter, God can do it for all of us!” In the intimacy of loving words, Jesus calls Peter beyond his personal relationship with Jesus to lovingly embrace all of Jesus’ followers.

St. Maximos the Confessor, who lived in the seventh century, wrote that Peter and Paul became “successful failures.” They experienced the liberating truth that “the person who has come to know the weakness of human nature has gained experience of divine power. Such a person never belittles anyone, for they know that God is like a good and loving physician who heals with individual treatment each of us who is trying to make progress.”

Through simple acts of care in Jesus’ name, the disciples would spark a revolution that spread around the world and persists from that moment till today. They started down a path that would lead to the flourishing of millions and to their premature death. This is because Jesus’ potluck breakfast was for them and for all, for everyone who has failed in life, for those cast out by their families, those without a name, for the immigrant, the widow, the imprisoned, and the poor.

In this radical hospitality and love we find oneness with God and one-another.  It’s a simple plan we inevitably make too complicated. Will you, can you feed Jesus’ sheep? Will you lay aside your own fear of awkwardness and failure to say hello to someone you don’t know? Even perhaps, to invite them for coffee? Will you take from what you have to share with others? Will you take a stand with the afflicted? Can you invite and shepherd others into fellowship with God and all people here in this congregation? Feed my sheep. In so doing, we will feed ourselves.

Today we learn Jesus remains involved in the work and life of the church. Like Obi Wan Kenobi, he is still a force to be reckoned with. Jesus is not dead but alive. Jesus has ascended but remains eternally present in Spirit.  We may continue to see Jesus in our midst through the eyes of faith.

Kathleen Norris has written a beautiful little book that she calls, The Quotidian Mysteries, in which she describes the ways she often encounters God while doing simple everyday tasks like laundry or cleaning the dishes. We encounter Christ while gathered around the table for a simple meal. There, we are surprised to see him in each other.  We encounter the Living God at the bath. There, we are overjoyed to find God alive and working deep within ourselves.