Sermon, Fifth Sunday of Easter
Immanuel Lutheran Chicago
May 15, 2022

Easter 5C-22

Dreaming Dreams

Peter saw a vision in a trance (Acts 11:5).  John “saw a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1).  Jesus gave the disciples a new commandment, that they should ‘love one another as he had loved them’ (John 13:34).  And with each revelation the faithful were challenged to embrace a radically new vision of life and faith—and they did!

I wonder, how’d they do that? What can we learn from Jesus’ first followers about how to follow God’s prompting? We find a clue in today’s gospel. In Jesus’ last words before his arrest and crucifixion it’s interesting to notice what he didn’t say. He didn’t say, ‘When I’m gone, keep a systematic theology.’ He didn’t instruct them about proper worship, the sacraments, the priesthood, or even what to say or write down as gospel. He simply urged them to love. In fact, he commanded them. Discipleship consists of loving one another in the same perfect and unconditional way that God loves the whole world.

We see love is a theme that weaves through all three of our readings today. The love command is a trusty compass needle that always points the traveler in the direction God is going. Yet, be prepared. The consequences for life and society are can be earth-shaking.

Look at our reading from Acts (11:1-18). It is impossible for us to understate the impact of this staggering love story. Peter’s vision on a roof top in Joppa transformed the early Jesus movement from an obscure subset of Judaism to a world religion open to people of every tribe, race, gender, and nation. Yet, it required early Christians to set aside everything they were taught since birth about how to serve God.   How’d they do that?

Peter’s vision proves especially incredible when you consider what the Hebrew Bible says, ‘Clean are cloven-footed animals that chew their cud—except for camels, rock badgers, rabbits, and pigs; “Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean for you” (Leviticus 11:1-8). On and on the Hebrew Bible goes about fish, and birds, and insects clean and unclean.

The book of Leviticus (chapters 11–26) specifies in minute detail purity laws that encompassed every aspect of being human—birth, death, sex, gender, health, economics, jurisprudence, social relations, hygiene, marriage, behavior, and certainly ethnicity, for Gentiles were automatically considered impure. For a Jew of Peter’s time, avoiding unclean people wasn’t just a theological idea, everything he was taught up to that point would have just made it feel icky.

In Peter’s vision he saw God’s love blow whole thing down. In contrast to the purity system with its “sharp social boundaries” (Borg), the emergent Christian movement substituted a radically alternate social vision. The new community of Jesus was characterized by compassion for everyone, not external compliance to a purity code –by radical inclusivity rather than by hierarchical exclusivity, and by inward transformation rather than by outward ritual. In place of “be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), Jesus deliberately substituted the call to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).  (Daniel Clendenin, My Journey With Jesus)

Knowing how the wind is blowing makes it easier to hoist a sail to follow the Spirit. You don’t need a mystical experience to mostly understand what God wants us to do—and not do—in our lives. The first answer Jesus’s early followers teach for how to discern the will of God is the love test.  Whatever extends love in us, or among others, or in society is the right way.

But there’s more. We notice John has a vision in Revelation. Peter’s story features a trance, strangers who coincidently show up, an angel, and a big church meeting. Peter and the early Jesus community were willing to explore the promptings of their hearts and dreams. They tested them through prayerful dialogue. They dusted for God’s fingerprints through examination of scripture.

Bible scholar Robert Tannehill sees five components here in the Book of Acts the first followers used to discern God’s will: First they were open to divine promptings; second they took these messages seriously; third they sought confirmation from other people of faith to shake their heads in agreement; fourth they asked if the visions could be replicated. We come to find out other people have dreamed the same dream—and finally, number five, public conversation and even debate.  (Acts 11 and, eventually, Acts 15).  Of course, each step along the way requires personal courage and faithfulness.  Discerning and carrying out the will of God is rarely free of the weight of personal controversy and consequences.

Like Peter, St. Paul’s advice to the Christians in Corinth for seeking the guidance of the Spirit was to “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (1 Cor 14:29).  Paul taught the Corinthians to think out loud with one another as they weighed the Spirit-prompted utterances offered by the prophets.

In Acts, Peter conveyed to the church his vision of the action of the Spirit. The church weighed what he said and rendered a judgment: God has granted repentance even to the icky Gentiles (11:18). If the God of all creation did not exclude Cornelius and the Gentiles as impure or unclean, Peter realized, neither could he (10:34, 36, 45).  The first followers teach us how to kindle the dreams and visions of God. What is God yearning to tell us today? The winds of God’s love are changing the landscape of faith. Our children dream dreams of justice and inclusion. Our prophets lament how, in the name of the God of love, our church built and promoted institutions of slavery, colonialism, the systematic destruction of native peoples, and an economic system that has brought the world to the brink of ruin. In the name of love, there are many today who would have us embrace religious intolerance and the oxymoron of Christian nationalism.

The church seems to find endless ways to resist the vision, to reject the Spirit, to wall off God’s grace, and to set up distinctions. To embrace the inclusive community Peter envisioned, the new heaven and new earth glimpsed by John, the radically loving community commanded by Jesus leads to life. (John 18:34) By contrast the old distinctions produce death everywhere by way of fear, of anxiety, exclusion and sometimes violence.  (Walter Brueggemann)

As we become rooted and alive in Christ our community also comes to life.  Like all living things it grows and responds.  It becomes tenaciously resilient, self-replicating, and renewing. As Christ breaks bread and bids us share each proud division ends. We walk with the Spirit 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!

 

Sermon, Fourth Sunday of Easter
Immanuel Lutheran Chicago
May 8, 2022

Easter 4C-22

The Breasted One Bids You, Come

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). When Jesus the Good Shepherd speaks, it can be surprising who’s listening. In 1958, a man named Robert K. Greenleaf, a researcher in management, development, and education at AT&T, read a little book by Herman Hesse called, Journey to the East.

It’s a story about a small group of men on a mythical journey. They hire an unassuming man named, Leo, to be their servant.  He does menial chores and quietly sustains them with his spirit and his song.  He is a person of extraordinary presence.  All is well until Leo disappears. Then the group falls into disarray and the journey is abandoned.

After many years, the story’s narrator discovers Leo and is taken into the Order that had sponsored their journey.  He is astonished that Leo, whom he had known only as the servant, was the head of the Order, its guiding spirit. He realized, Leo, their servant, had been their indispensable leader.

Greenleaf pondered this story for 11 years. Until, in 1970, he published his first essay, entitled, The Servant as Leader. Later, the essay was expanded into a book, which is perhaps one of the most influential management texts of recent years. Servant leadership is an approach to leadership development, coined and defined by Robert Greenleaf and advanced by several authors such as Stephen Covey, Peter Block, Peter Senge, Max De Pree, Margaret Wheatley, Ken Blanchard, and others.

Servant-leadership differs from other leadership approaches by avoiding the common top-down hierarchical style, and instead emphasizes collaboration, trust, empathy, and the ethical use of power.  At heart, the individual is a servant first, making the conscious decision to lead; their drive is to lead because they want to serve better, not because they desire increased power. The key objective is to enhance the growth of individuals in the organization and increase teamwork and personal involvement (Wikipedia: Servant Leadership).

Servant leadership is a powerful and insightful concept.  But of course, you and I recognize that its roots stretch beyond the paper Greenleaf published in 1970.  Jesus our Good Shepherd taught, “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matt. 19:30).  True leadership, following the example of Jesus, begins with servanthood. Images of Jesus the Shepherd can be found everywhere among early Christian communities. The beauty and complexity of this deceptively simple spiritual metaphor was full of compelling possibilities offering assurance, comfort, and hope to the earliest followers of Jesus who also lived in fraught and dangerous times.

Jesus offers a way of “eternal life” that puts us out of the reach of deathliness.  While the world spends its frightened energy trying to stay young and be healthy, while the world is propelled by fearfulness that evokes violence and produces policies of aggression and militarism, the little lambs of Jesus lives en Christo. Christ is our sheepfold, a living sanctuary of hope and grace.  The only absolute law among the sheep is the law of love—including love of our enemies. When the law forbids what is needed for actual human well-being, it is to be ignored. The law is made for people, not people for the law.  The law is worthless without love (1 Cor. 13)

According to 3rd century theologian Tertullian, whatever else ancient people thought about followers of Christ’s Way, they were astonished and used to say, “Look, see how much they love one another.”  The counter-cultural egalitarian and inclusive Christian community of the early church was breathtaking—but that’s what Easter looks like when it is led by our servant leader, Jesus the Good Shepherd.

The first church embraced and affirmed the servant leadership of many women. One of them, named Tabitha, is explicitly identified as a disciple in our reading from the Book of Acts.  She is the only woman in scripture called a disciple. Elsewhere, another woman, Junia, is called an apostle.  Many other women were leaders, financiers, and pillars of their communities. Yet sadly, it wasn’t long before the voice of Jesus our Shepherd became muted and covered over by the patriarchy of the dominant culture.

I’ll give you one example. In 382 C.E. St. Jerome translated the bible into Latin.  This bible, the Latin Vulgate, became the standard bible of the Western world. It is excellent in many respects. The problem comes in Jerome’s choice for two proper names of God that frequently occur in the Hebrew bible—Yahweh, and Shaddai.  Jerome chose the now familiar words ‘Lord,’ and ‘the Almighty,’ although Yahweh is evocative of the human breath, and Shaddai can mean ‘the many breasted one.’  How might history have been different if instead of a severe ruler and almighty king God’s name was ‘breath’ and ‘motherly comfort’?

Here at Immanuel, we embrace and celebrate another great servant leader of faith like Tabitha and Junia. Her image is enshrined in stained glass there beneath the balcony. Hers is the only likeness throughout our church done in full color.  Emmy Carlsson Evald was the daughter of Immanuel’s first pastor and wife of the second. More important, she was a suffragist and social activist. Susan B. Anthony, Catharine Waugh McCulloch, and Jane Addams were among her close friends.

Emmy’s life and remarkable achievements are the subject of a two-page spread in April’s Living Lutheran Magazine. (Now, there’s also a book called Power, Passion, and Faith which I’m preparing for discussion at the Forum next month, on June 12th.)  Though Emmy lived during a time when women were subservient to men, she championed the rights and ideas of women in the church and in the world.

Emmy established the Women’s Missionary Society through which she supervised the construction of 74 buildings around the world, including five homes for women and children. She visited mission stations in India, China and Palestine. “From motherhood to suffragist work, Emmy saw every action as extending God’s love into the world…She was a woman of strong faith, and she considered herself in her master’s service.” (Sharon Wyman, Power, Passion, and Faith)

Jesus our shepherd has called us to be servant leaders. Jesus our shepherd has gathered us into his sheepfold to dwell in safety and in confidence no matter where we go and no matter what difficulties we face. He leads me beside still waters and through the valley of the shadow of death. See! He sends us out like lambs into the midst of wolves (Luke 10:3). Yet, we shall fear no evil. He says, ‘Listen to me and watch because my life and God’s life are mirror images and your life bears the same reflection.’ Follow me, so that you may live within the embrace of God’s love, and you, in turn, you may share that same love with one another.

Sermon, Third Sunday of Easter
Immanuel Lutheran Chicago
May 1, 2022

Last Words, New Story

“Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9: 1-2). Sooner or later, each of us eventually comes to the stark and profound realization that beauty and brokenness mix and mingle in us. We are, each of us, a beautiful mess and our lives can often reflect this reality.

Our readings offer some good news in answer to this quandary. God loves you with an unbreakable love despite your failures, failings, and regrets. This knowledge alone would be a difference maker for us, of course. Yet there is more. There is another lesson here which, I think, may be even more crucial and life-giving.

Peter and Paul show us that the Holy Spirit picks up the pieces of our lives to restore what’s broken. In place of self judgement, shame, and despair, God plants seeds of true wisdom and joy. This is what Christians from ancient times call the resurrected life. This is the life Christ offers to us now. This is the life for which we pray and in which we partake at Christ’s table. “Grant us such life, the life of the Father to the Son, the life of the Spirit of our risen Savior, life in you, now and forever” (ELW eucharistic prayer X).

Paul was “bald-headed, bow-legged, strongly built, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, and a rather large nose.”  That’s how the apostle Paul is described in an early Christian document, the Acts of Paula and Thekla.  Perhaps to soften the injury of this unflattering description, the writer continues, “at times he had the face of a man and at times he had the face of an angel.”   (Anne Howard, Beatitude Society, 4/8/13)

In his song, “You’ll Never Make a Saint of Me,” on the Bridges to Babylon CD, rock-musician-turned-theologian, Mick Jagger sings, “St. Paul the persecutor was a cruel and sinful man. Jesus hit him with a blinding light, and then his life began.” Paul went on to write most of the New Testament.  The book of Acts tells the story of how the greatest persecutor of the early church became its greatest propagator, eventually traveling over 10,000 miles to spread the good news before dying a martyr’s death in Rome.

Years later, he would write to his young protégé, Timothy, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.” He considered himself “the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:13). But like so many saints of God before him, Paul transcended his past, “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,” he wrote to the Christians in Philippi, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward” (Philippians 3:13–14). Easter holds out the promise that our future is free from the heavy causal weight of our past.

“In his book Art and Faith (Yale, 2021), [American] artist, Makoto Fujimura, devotes an entire Chapter 4 to kintsugi — literally, “golden joinery.” In kintsugi as an artistic technique, instead of hiding a flaw in a piece of broken pottery, the artist highlights and even celebrates the damage by repairing it with a special lacquer that is dusted or mixed with gold, silver, or platinum. The restoration is more beautiful than the original precisely, because of, rather than despite its repaired brokenness.

Kintsugi is also a more general philosophy that understands breakage and repair as normal parts of human life. Instead of denying or hiding our faults and failures, we embrace our imperfections. In this Japanese aesthetic, the wear, tear, and damage on a physical object are marks of beauty to treasure and honor, not a reason to discard it. Fujimura calls his chapter on kintsugi ‘the new newness.’  Like a gold-dusted piece of repaired pottery, there can be beauty in my brokenness” (Daniel Clendenin, Journey with Jesus, A New Newness, 4/24/22). Can the Holy Spirit make art, or kintsugi, out of us?

Peter is another flawed-person-made-hero in our bible. Yet, in contrast to Paul, he’s the sort of disciple we can relate to. He is eager, yet foolish. He tries hard but fails. He followed Jesus throughout Galilee but fled when Jesus was arrested.

In today’s gospel Peter eats breakfast on the shores of the Sea of Galilee with the resurrected Jesus. Dirty, wet, and tired from fishing all night, he huddled around a “fire of burning coals” (21:9). There, Jesus asked him, not once but three times, “Peter, do you really love me?” Three times Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

John writes, “Peter was hurt” (21:17) by Jesus’s questions. The triple interrogation evoked a deeply painful memory for him—of the last time he stood at a charcoal fire, just a few days earlier, when he had denied three times that he even knew Jesus (John 18:18, Luke 22:55). Rather than retribution or shame, Jesus reinstates Peter three times into his good graces with the words, “Feed my sheep.” (Clendenin) These words opened Peter to a new future and re-established intimacy and relationship with Jesus.  Despite his failure, Jesus entrusted Peter with the ongoing work of leading the early Church.  His last words to Peter become the beginning of a new story.

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.”

Peter and Paul testify to the simple but profound promise of Christ that ‘I will not leave you.’  We are grafted together into One Body, the living presence of Christ in the world.  Feed my sheep, Jesus says. I have appointed you. You are my hands and feet.

This is what Paul learned out on the Damascus Road. This is what Peter discovered at the charcoal fire beside the Sea. The new newness of Easter joy comes to us after hope in our selves is lost.  Martin Luther once wrote, “God does not save people who are merely fictitious sinners.”  The power of Easter is found in real life. So let all sing, “Christ is alive! No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time.” (Christ is Alive! Let Christians Sing ELW #389)

Easter Day Sermon
April 17, 2022

“But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (Luke 24:11) The women raced back from the tomb on Easter morning with astonishing news. They deliver the first Easter sermon: “He is not here but has risen!”  Every sermon you’ve ever heard is merely a variation of this Goodnews, first announced by the women to the apostles.

The response? Bible translations differ; you can take your pick. The words seemed to them like “an idle tale,” “empty talk,” “a silly story,” “a foolish yarn,” “utter nonsense,” or even, “sheer humbug.”

It didn’t matter that the women’s story only confirmed the message Jesus himself had told them. Jesus told them three times he would be killed but that on the third day he would rise. Yet the apostles dismiss this first news of Easter with a wave of the hand.

Like the Emmaus Road travelers in the story that follows our gospel, they are “slow of heart to believe.” Luke offers us a clue to their state of mind.  The women ran and told the news of resurrection to “the eleven,” but later Luke will call them “the apostles,” meaning ‘those who are sent’.

They were sent to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. They encountered arrests and shipwrecks and outpourings of the Spirit and persecutions and stonings and miles of weary travel. The scary news of Easter is that the resurrection has made apostles of us, and we will need a Book of Acts which includes a chapter about ourselves.  Alleluia! Christ is risen. (Response: Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!)

You know, this incarnation business God is into is so lovely, when it’s an angel appearing to Mary and Joseph.  They said yes to Jesus and the manger, and to life on the run as refugees until King Herod died. Incarnation makes for inspiring stories about the disciples, and for Paul, and the whole early Christian community who risked their lives for the sake of being alive in Christ.  They built upon the foundations of the One Life. They fashioned a living sanctuary of hope and grace further including people of every tribe, nation, and religion.  But the incarnation is a whole different thing when it’s time to include me.

Now it is our turn to enter the story.  Now is the time to include our flesh, our bones, our hands, our hearts, heads, and spirit.  Because the story did not end on Good Friday, Mary Magdalene’s and the other women’s impossibly good news of resurrection and new life by way of the cross of Christ has made its way through the centuries from a dry dusty town in Palestine all the way to us and is now here.  Alleluia! Christ is risen. (Response: Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!)

Because Christ is raised, the trajectory of our lives is altered. Because the impossibly good news of Easter has overtaken us, now we are called and sent to confront the impossibly difficult challenges of violence, racism, bigotry, poverty, and disease in our city and throughout the world armed with the only thing that has ever proved powerful enough to overcome them: the hope, grace, and mercy that comes from God.

I’ll give you an example. Pop culture and conventional history often teach us that violence is the most effective way to produce change. “To be prepared for war, is the most effective means of preserving the peace,” George Washington said, in his inaugural State of the Union address. The Roman general Vegetius said the same thing in the 4th Century CE., “Si vis pacem, para bellum,” if you want peace, prepare for war. Power, we believe, flows from the barrel of a gun.

But is this common assumption actually true? Now, political scientist Erica Chenoweth, who has studied more than 100 years of revolutions and insurrections around the world, says the answer is no. Instead, creative, non-violent, non-cooperation movements are twice as likely to result in revolutionary change to political systems and to society as has armed violence—moreover the rate of success has been increasing through the 20th century. One interesting example in the news is the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. How large must a nonviolent movement be to work? According to Chenoweth’s research success is virtually guaranteed when 3.5% of the population becomes personally involved. (“How to Change the World,” Hidden Brain, National Public Radio, March 2022)

But then, we already knew this.  After all, we sing this. We sing the words attributed to the late great Desmon Tutu, “Love is stronger than hate. Light is stronger than darkness. Life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, victory is ours through Him who loved us.”

This Easter message comes like a lamb before wolves, with a word to shatter hard won common sense.  Easter comes like a dove into our Good Friday world.  It is a dog-eat-dog dog; only the strong survive; might makes right; if you want peace prepare for war world.  But here comes Easter, telling its idle tale again. Easter promises what we heard today from the prophet Isaiah, God is doing a new thing: a new heaven and a new earth. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” No longer must we consume one another to survive in this new world.

Easter says all your tomorrows can be different from your yesterdays.  Easter says life is stronger than death; light conquers darkness. Here comes Easter again whistling a simple tune about God’s grace. When our false expectations, flawed speculations, wrong theologies, or hateful ideologies become a like a wall separating us from grace and each other, God’s Easter is going to break through that wall.

Since ancient times Christians have called Easter the “first day.” From Easter comes our practice of worshiping on Sunday morning. It is the first day of the week. It is also the first day of a new creation, sometimes called the “eighth day,” because on it Christ brought restoration and renewal to all creation. We are an Easter people. We are a new creation through the gift of God’s grace revealed to us in Christ Jesus.

Of all the things Easter promises this may be the most preposterous—that we are now members of the resurrected body of Christ.  Within you are seeds of hope to renew the hope of the whole world. The cross reveals the depths of cruelty, violence, and immorality to which the world can sink, at the very same time it marks the path God has opened to the way forward. “The powers of death have done their worst; Jesus their legions has dispersed.” (ELW #366) Alleluia!  Alleluia!

 

Lent 5C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

This week I visited the Art Institute with my cousin from San Diego.  It’s been minute since I was there last. It was fun just to wander and see it all again as if for the first time through my cousin’s eyes.  We lingered over Van Gogh.  There was the painting of his bedroom in the yellow house in Arles, and the haunting image of Madame Roulin in her rocking chair.  A fragment of a painting Van Gogh entitled, “Two Lovers,” sold at auction last month at Sotheby’s in London for more than $13 million, but did you know there would have been no van Gogh without a woman named Jo?

Jo van Gogh-Bonger was Vincent’s sister-in-law. Her full story has only recently been uncovered (Russell Shorto, “The Woman Who Made van Gogh,” New York Times Magazine, 4/14/21). Vincent died at 37.  Six months later, his brother Theo died at 33.  And that would have been that if not for the tireless work of Theo’s widow, who upon the death of both brothers, was left with 400 paintings, several hundred drawings, and a voluminous collection of letters that no one wanted.

Critics dismissed van Gogh’s work as “nearly vulgar.” One complained Vincent was painting out of a desire to be “modern, bizarre, childlike.”  They did not see what Jo van Gogh-Bonger saw. The tortured genius, who alienated dealers and otherwise thwarted his own ambition time and again during his career, would become a star. And not just a star, but one of the most beloved figures in the history of art.  What Jo had seen, and what others eventually saw, was how Vincent’s life, recorded in his letters and stories, interpreted his art. Now, when the world looks at van Gogh’s paintings, they see not just the images but also Vincent’s story—toiling and suffering, cutting off his ear, clawing at the act of creation. The art and the artist are one.

Singer songwriter Don McLean famously summed it up in a hit tune called, Starry, starry night. “Now, I understand what you tried to say to me. And how you suffered for your sanity. And how you tried to set them free. They would not listen, they did not know how. Perhaps they’ll listen now.” (Don Mclean, “Starry, Starry Night,” Album: American Pie, 1971)

The prophet Isaiah said of God in ancient times, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19) If we are being honest, I think the answer is, we seldom do. But, if we are lucky, we will listen to those among us, like Jo, who see what what’s going on when we, at first, cannot.

There’s an old preacher’s joke. A search committee gave a report to the congregation, including brief comments on the candidates for ministry they had met and evaluated.  “Jesus –offends large segments of the audience when he preaches.  He even offended the search committee; Judas –practical, leadership abilities. Served on the executive committee. Good with money.  Cares for the poor. We offered him the position when he suddenly died.” How many congregations would choose Judas over Jesus? How many perceive the genius of the gospel? How many dismiss it as yesterday’s news, a childish attempt at wisdom no one wants?

Separately, most of us, I think, would miss seeing the truth that sets us free, but through faith, we are joined as essential parts of one body.  Together, we have a new heart, a new mind, our ears are unstopped, our eyes are opened.  Now we feel, we understand, we hear, we see grace unfolding—the new things God is doing–through each other, and most often, by listening to the most sensitive, the most marginal among us. Through new  eyes of faith come to regard all talk of exclusion as mere rubbish.  As St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi in our second reading, “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ…because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:7-8a).

In today’s gospel Mary anoints Jesus and in doing so, helped all people for all time to see the Christ. She anoints Jesus with pure nard.  She wipes his feet with her hair. Mary operates on a different plane.  Mary sees what’s really going on. She sees and understands what others in the room do not, how history will regard that day. She sees there is a different story unfolding. One that Judas, the disciples, the Pharisees, and the scribes do not yet see. Mary’s act is brazen, bold, even embarrassing and, in hindsight, right and prophetic.

Judas asked, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:5).  Indeed, the oil Mary used cost 300 denarii, roughly equivalent to a year’s salary. But here Jesus suggests the true measure of devotion is not the cost, but its legacy of grace.  Things worth doing inspire acts of faith, hope and love. They linger in hearts and minds to multiply and blossom again and again like flowers in springtime, like fragrant perfume that colors our perception and endures in our memory.

Mary’s gift is extravagant.  Judas is merely greedy.  Mary illustrates faith with loving actions.  Judas talks piously of ‘giving to the poor,’ but we know he is not sincere.  Both Mary and Judas ‘prepare’ Jesus for burial –she by anointing him; he by betraying him.

We should pause here to comment on Jesus’ response to criticism of Mary’s loving act: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8). Perhaps no other verse has been quoted more often to shirk our Christian duty towards those who are poor. Modern scholarship lends new light and clarity to this verse. “Many now place the emphasis of the passage on “you” instead of “the poor”; in other words, “You will always be with the poor, but you will not always be with me.” Phrased this way, Jesus’ statement is more clearly one of location, rather than an assertion that persistent poverty is somehow part of a divinely orchestrated plan.” (Michaela Bruzzese, Become Mary, Sojourners)

“So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new (2 Cor. 8:17).  Out of the death of the old the new arises. “Lent is a time to participate in the suffering and death of Christ, in order that we may be ready for the Easter gift of new life” (Walter Brueggemann, Investing in Life, Sojourners). This is time, once again, of great change in the institutions of Christ’s church as well as to culture and society. Friends in Christ let us pray that our Lenten walk with Jesus has changed us to better see what’s going on. Let us pray, that our eyes, like Mary and the disciples, are opened by this Holy Week upon which we embark next Sunday. Let us pray our Lenten journey with Jesus opens us to new dreams.  We shall become more like Mary, or Jo, and less like Judas.

Love of the stranger, care of a friend, compassion for those who are suffering. In simple actions that offer their own reward and open hearts and minds we find God waiting for us. This is how we become one human family again. This is how we now see. Follow Mary. She knows the way.

Lent 4C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Sophia Moskalenko is an expert on the psychology of fairy tales. Mia Bloom, studies children’s mobilization into violent extremism. Together, they study the power of folklore in shaping the worldview of the adults we grow up to be. Intriguingly, they suggest, one factor underlying the unexpected unfolding of events in Ukraine could be a result of the stories soldiers of each army learned as children. (Sophia Moskalenko and Mia Bloom, “How Fairy Tales Shape Fighting Spirit,” The Conversation, March 2022)

Ukraine’s children grow up listening to bedtime stories of underdog heroes, while Russian children hear tales of magical success. Think Harry Potter vs. Dudley Dursley (if Dudley had had a magical helper). In Ukrainian stories the main characters often start out as unlikely heroes, but their courage, cleverness and grit help them succeed against the odds. Russian tales told to children seem to suggest the recipe for success is not to be too smart or work too hard, but to sit tight in hope that magic will take care of everything.

Emelya the fool is a character like many others in Russian folklore.  Emelya is lazy and prefers to sleep on the warm stove while his two older brothers work on the farm.  When his brothers must travel, they instruct Emelya to fetch water and firewood for their wives.  Yet they wives must coax Emelya with gifts to comply. Emelya catches a magical pike at the river that promises to grant him wishes if he would only not eat him but let him go. All he need say, ‘By the pike’s wish, at my command,’ and everything will be done as he desires. One thing follows another until Emelya, suddenly very handsome, is married to the Tsar’s beautiful daughter, and lives in a magnificent palace with many servants.

Children of Ukraine, by contrast, hear about characters like Ivasyk Telesyk.  Once upon a time, there lived an old man and his wife who didn’t have any children. This made them worry about their future. Filled with longing and dread one day the woman told her husband: “Go to the forest and find a piece of wood. We’ll make a cradle, I’ll put the log there and rock it to sleep. Maybe it will help make me calm down.” The old man did as his wife asked. Together, they put a branch into a cradle.  The woman rocked it, sang a lullaby, and went to sleep.

When they awoke, they found a baby-boy in the cradle. The woman named him – Ivasyk-Telesyk. When Ivask Telesyk grew older he went out by boat and brought fish home to the old couple. While at sea, Ivasyk encounters a wily dragon which his mother had warned him about, who tricks him, captures him, and makes plans to eat him with her friends. Again, one thing follows another, until Ivask Telesyk, by his wits and compassion, escapes the dragon, whose friends eat her own daughter rather than himself, and befriends a wild goose who flies Ivasyk home to his parents where he lives happily ever after.

Sophia Moskalenko and Mia Bloom tell us that stories matter. The stories we tell our children, the stories we tell ourselves make a difference in who we are and who we become.  This week, before the tension and demagoguery could unfold, a woman sat before the US Senate Judiciary Committee and told her story in which she named herself.  Judge Jackson’s opening statement, included these words: “When I was born here in Washington, my parents were public school teachers, and to express both pride in their heritage and hope for the future, they gave me an African name; “Ketanji Onyika,” which they were told means “lovely one.”” In Judge Brown’s name, her parents gave her a story: “I am Black, I am proud. I not a victim nor anyone’s prize. I am loved and lovely. I am fully human.” I wonder, was it that story which gave her so much poise and grace that allowed her to remain magnanimous and kind under fire?  (Diana Butler Bass, “What’s in a Name?” The Cottage, 3/24/22)

We have a similar story today. It is the story within all our stories. Let it be our bedtime story. Let it sink in to live in unconsciousness. Could it be the story that points the way to abundant life? “Bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him, the father said; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet” (Luke 15:22).  A robe, a ring, and a pair of sandals were not merely for fashion or comfort but, more importantly, these gifts restored status, ownership, and authority. The wayward son is welcomed home with more than a lavish party.  The Father awarded him a new share in the estate he squandered by half.

We have a God who is like a prodigal father. That is, he is foolish, wasteful, extravagant in his love for you.  The young son is a different kind of prodigal. He is immoderately callous and careless.  An outright failure, he realized the error of his ways.  On the long road home, he rehearses his apology again and again, but didn’t even have time to say it all before the father, who ran to meet him, unbelievably restored his status and belonging.

God sets a higher priority on forgiveness than on being right. God places a higher value on reconciliation than on saving face.  Better to be humiliated than estranged. God has done what many of us would not, could that be part of our problem today?

We live in a time when our stories have begun to fall apart. Do “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”… if they are not men but woman, if they are not white but black, if they are not cisgender but non-binary?  (US. Declaration of Independence). Could we expand the franchise, widen our story to include everyone?  Could we stop defining ourselves over an against a scape goat, a bad guy, an evil empire? Could we stop with the stories of good guys and bad guys?  There is One Life, one family, one people of God. Could we instead foster communities and nations built on mercy, forgiveness, and love as our Father in heaven does? Could the gospel story help us fashion a new and more life-giving national story?

All are created in the image of God. Therefore, regardless of past actions, religious or political beliefs, none of us have the right to treat any one differently. We have no excuse to exclude or condemn a person whom God does not view with unkindness or condemnation.  This is the great good news that can also be a tough pill for us to swallow (just ask the older brother).

We have a prodigal God. For all God’s children family is family. “O Lord of all the living, both banished and restored, compassionate, forgiving, and ever caring Lord, grant now that our transgressing, our faithlessness may cease. Stretch out your hand in blessing, in pardon, and in peace.” (ELW #606)

Third Sunday of Lent

Cycle C

“Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live” says the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 55:3).  Could God really use this crap, our shame, and all we hate in ourselves and our enemies, to nurture lives that flourish and grow?

Sadly, today’s gospel has a tragic history of being used as a weapon against Jews who fail to accept Jesus — which has led to all sorts of anti-Semitic hatred and violence propagated by so-called “turn or burn” Christians. How tempting it is to embrace an interpretation of scripture that does not implicate nor incriminate ourselves?  But, of course, if this be the case then it cannot be the Christian gospel.

Our reading is ripped from ancient headlines. Pontius Pilate had Galilean pilgrims killed in the Temple courtyard, and their blood mixed (either figuratively or actually) with ritual sacrificial blood there, a shocking defilement of both those poor Jews and the Temple itself.  Hated Pilate was so brutal that the emperor Tiberius removed him from office and recalled him to Rome to be put on trial for a genocidal attack on a Samaritan village.

The second bit of breaking news, the tragic tower collapse which killed 18 people, might have been related to Pilate’s great public works project at the time — the construction of a new aqueduct. Pilate had pillaged Jerusalem’s treasury to build it and had (mostly likely) used slave labor to make it happen. The people in Jerusalem rioted against him. And some historians have suggested that the tower collapse may have been an act of sabotage either by Pilate (to keep the workers in line) or angry Jews attempting to stop the entire thing (in which case, it would have involved political suicide).  (Diana Butler Bass, “Graveyard or Vineyard,” Sunday Musings, 3/19/22)

Jesus addressed an audience wondering aloud about whether the victim’s suffering might have been deserved. Did they deserve to die? Was God punishing them for their misdeeds? Does God bang the faithful in the head with tragedies, but never more than they can handle? If God is good, then why do bad things happen to good people?

Such timeless questions find voice in us all at some point or other. It’s only natural when we are hurting to ask God why? The little child we always carry in us supposes the answer that explains every public event must be personal. Did I cause this because I was bad? No. No one is more or less of an offender than anyone else who dies tragically. “No one, in this sense, deserved to die. People just die, especially people held in thrall by violent kingdoms of this world. Because that’s what every Rome in human history always does — kills in order to survive. And Jesus surely doesn’t desire revenge.”

Jesus reframes the question. Poet and healer Pádraig Ó Tuama describes the Buddhist concept of “mu,” or un-asking. If someone asks a question that’s too small, flat, or confining, Ó Tuama writes, you can answer with this word mu, which means, “Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked.” (Pádraig Ó Tuama, In the Shelter: Finding Welcome in the Here and Now). Stop. Take a beat. Catch your breath. Stop your mind, your prayers of endless words, and listen. “Mu.” There is a better question, bigger, broader, less afraid, more insightful. (Debi Thomas, “What Are You Asking?” Journey with Jesus, 3/13/22)

What could it mean to turn from, or “repent” from collaborating with the violence of empire?  “Could we repent of giving in to kingdoms built on injustice, repent of blaming victims for their suffering, and repent of believing that the murderous power of empire is the only power. But how? …Can we resist empire without giving into violence for violence?” (Butler Bass) Mu. Answering these bigger questions, Jesus told a story to contrast the murderous reign of Pilate with a garden containing a certain unfruitful fig tree. The owner orders the gardener to cut it down. But instead of taking an ax to the tree, the gardener begs, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down” (Luke 13:8-9).

Did you know that trees have legal rights in Judaism? That’s right — it is called orlah and it forbids eating the fruit of newly planted trees during their first three years of life. The book of Leviticus commands any fruit in the first three years is forbidden; any gleaned on the fourth year shall be a gift to God, and only in the fifth year may you eat the fruit of the tree (19:23-25). “The landowner isn’t an angry God. The landowner is Caesar. The landowner is Herod. The landowner is Pilate. The landowner is all these murderers — those who destroy people and trees — the breakers of the Law, profiteers at the expense of God’s creation. (Butler Bass)

Mu. Ask a better question. “In what ways am I like the absentee landowner, standing apart from where life and death actually happen?  How am I refusing to get my hands dirty? Where in my life — or in the lives of others — have I prematurely called it quits, saying, “There’s no life here worth cultivating.  Cut it down.” (Thomas)

In what ways am I like the gardener?  Where in my life am I willing to accept Jesus’s invitation to go elbow-deep into the muck and manure? Am I brave enough to sacrifice time, effort, love, and hope into this tree — this relationship, this cause, this tragedy, this injustice — with no guarantee of a fruitful outcome?  (Thomas)

In what ways am I like the fig tree?  Un-enlivened? Un-nourished? Unable or unwilling to nourish others?  Ignored or dismissed?  What kinds of tending would it take to bring me back to life?  Am I willing to receive such intimate, consequential care?  Will I consent to change?  Have I forgotten that the same patient God who gives me another year to thrive will also someday call me to account?” (Thomas)

Mu. Repent –turn around. See what I have shown you. Listen to what I am trying to tell you. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2). See, I have prepared for you a new mind, and a new heart, and new way to live with each other, the way of abundance to enjoy the fruit of the garden I have made for you.

Lent 2C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus said, “…How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”  Yet, the people of ancient Israel, who for a thousand years since King David, prayed for God to re-establish the kingdom, could not open their imagination wide enough to recognize God’s answer to their prayers. The sprawling institutions of faith obscured their vision of the faith. The city ruled that fox, King Herod, would not give way to the New Jerusalem of the lamb, the little child, and the warm embrace of the mother hen.

I cannot sit in judgment of them. ‘History is loaded with examples of emperors, strongmen, and rulers who prayed at an altar as the pastor of their people, and then rose from their knees to unleash all the demons of Hell on the earth.’ (Diana Butler Bass).  We see this tired pattern playing out in Ukraine today. The autocratic, controlling style of Russia seeks to reassert itself over the more open, tolerant system of democratic pluralism.

Jesus enters upon this scene like a hen in a fox-house. It doesn’t look like a fair fight. Yet for all his obvious power, Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and the son of Herod the Great, seems to have spent much of his life running scared. Who can forget his birthday party when he told Salome he’d give her anything she asked for if she’d dance for him, and when what she asked for was John the Baptist’s head on a platter, he gave it to her because he was afraid of what might happen if word got around that he was a sissy and a chicken? (Frederick Buechner)

Leave it to God to turn the very thing no one wants to be into the highest virtue. Yet who among us doesn’t want to be taken under wing into a community of love and belonging?  What person doesn’t desire such safety and protection? Jesus calls us into a holding place of God’s love where we become residents of the New Jerusalem. We, like chicks, follow our mother hen into the shadow and valley of death and threats of violence.

Despite this, the history of Christianity, the religion of the Prince of Peace, is like the story of a Jekyll and Hyde struggle between the fox and the hen, a struggle between domination and communion. How many churches demand control and submission?  How many are focused on liberation and friendship? Jesus modeled the way of the hen. The domination structure of what became most of Christendom was a betrayal of Jesus himself.

This struggle isn’t exclusively Christian. It isn’t just in Ukraine. This skirmish is taking place in every major religion (and more than a few minor ones, too) on the planet right now. Theologian and Historian Diana Butler Bass comments, “In some places, the struggle has provoked violence and war. In other places, it is mostly a cold war. Occasionally, it seems a mere family squabble. Domination or communion? That is the structural crisis that animates most everything most everywhere in religion right now — and it is the only global frame that makes sense of it all” (Diana Butler Bass, War is Evil, The Cottage, 3/11/22).

Hoping against hope, Abraham believed he would become ‘the father of many nations’ although he was as good as dead already, (for he was about 100 years old) when he and Sarah finally had a child (Romans 4:19).  We hear an equally preposterous promise in today’s gospel. We must become like hens in the fox-house to enter abundant life. Face up to tyrants and bullies inside and outside the church by walking the way of the cross. We are to do this, not because this is Lent, or because Jesus told us, or because Jesus is the boss, and we should do it or else. We do this because Christ Jesus has shown us who God is, and thus, how the world works –how we work, and who we really are.

The truth of this gospel is supported by testimony from our daily lives and the natural world. Taste and see. An open-systems community, like the physical world itself, is based on relationships, not roles or duties but bonds of friendship, sisterhood (or brotherhood), respect, charity, forgiveness, and justice.”  (Ilia Delio, Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology, Consciousness (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015), 124–125) “When we redirect our energy and attention away from our internal maelstroms and toward others’ needs, we are pulled toward wholeness and health. We are living in the Kingdom of God reality that fueled Jesus’ life and ministry.” Rick Lawrence, Executive Director of Vibrant Faith, “The Healing Power of Service,” Friday Thoughts, 3/11/22)

Researchers compared two approaches for undergirding self-worth, —one inward-looking and one outward-looking. The first approach focused on giving people self-image goals—”obtaining status or approval and avoiding vulnerability during social interactions.” They were asked to promote their positive qualities to others and avoid revealing their weaknesses—that is, to be like foxes. The second approach focused on “compassionate goals,” or “striving to help others and avoiding selfish behavior.” In other words, be like hens. They were asked to explore “making a positive difference in someone else’s life.” The result, according to the study’s authors, was that “participants reported higher conflict and symptoms on days that they most pursued self-image goals but noted higher perceived support and lower symptoms when pursuing compassionate goals.” In other words, hens feel more self-worth than do foxes.

As we deepen our relationship with Jesus, we extend ourselves, our time, our treasure, our wings to shelter those in need. Jesus reminds us: “God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). This drive to help others generates a burst of depression-fighting energy. Therese Borchard, founder of Project Beyond Blue, an online community for people who struggle with chronic depression and anxiety, recalls what psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger said when he was asked: “What would you advise a person to do, if that person felt a nervous breakdown coming on?” Menninger, she says, upended the expected response (“Go see a psychiatrist”) with this: “Leave your house, find someone in need, and do something to help that person.”

There is no community of love and belonging while we live everyday like foxes rather than hens.  All these thousands of years later, Jesus still laments over us.  Jesus calls us to find shelter in his embrace. “If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed … Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first; which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter.

She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her — wings spread, breast exposed — without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart . . . but if we truly are [a living sanctuary of hope and grace] then this is how you stand (Barbara Brown Taylor, Christian Century 2/25/86). See, we must become like hens in a fox-house. This is how we live. This is how we are most happy.  This is how grace lends support to our mental health. This is how we are free. This is how we enter the undying life of God.

First Sunday in Lent

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It has begun, the season of Lent, a season of rest, renewal, repentance, reconciliation, and learning (four R’s and an L). This year our focus will be on learning, specifically, we will explore how our faith can help ground and support our mental health. Lent is an opportunity to lift our lives to Jesus like a small child holding up a broken toy to fix what is broken. Lent is a time to uncover and to plug in to the healing grace of God hidden inside you and that comes from all around you.  In Lent we pray for God to wipe away our tears.

Scripture says Jesus was “led by the Spirit in the wilderness” (Luke 4:1). Our translation understates the tension. The Spirit took hold of Jesus and led him by force as one might lead an animal.  Still dripping wet with the baptismal waters of the Jordan, and with the name Beloved ringing in his ears, we are startled to read that Jesus was driven into the desert to be tempted by an articulate, Torah-toting, scripture-quoting devil. Is he pushed or pulled? Called or compelled?  Was he merely curious to answer the promptings of God or did he follow out of necessity?

In the desert Jesus is learning about himself and we are learning about Jesus. American politician Robert G. Ingersoll is supposed to have said about President Abraham Lincoln, “If you want to find out what a man is to the bottom, give him power. Any man can stand adversity — only a great man can stand prosperity. It is the glory of Abraham Lincoln that he never abused power only on the side of mercy.”

Jesus learns “…to trust that he can be beloved and famished, valued and vulnerable at the same time.  He has to learn that God’s care resides within his flesh-and-blood humanity — within a fragile vessel that can crack and shatter.” Jesus learns …”We are beloved of God.  And we will die.  The first truth does not prevent the second.  The second truth does not negate the first.” (Debie Thomas, “In the Barren Places,” Journey with Jesus, 2/27/22)

Jesus is son of Joseph; son of David; son of Abraham; Son of Noah; son of Adam; the son of God. Yet he did not use that special relationship to his own advantage: not for food when he is starving; not to increase his power over nations; not to test God’s love.  Jesus proved he had the right stuff. Jesus shows his trustworthiness to be our most intimate confidante and guide. Pushed and pulled, Jesus comes to believe and understand who he truly is.

I’ll admit, mostly, I don’t learn new things until I have to. God bless those who learn because they are merely curious. They say, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and most often it is also what finally pushes me to climb up the learning curve.

Remember when the pandemic hit, we suddenly had to learn a bunch of new stuff?  At our house, one of those things was fitting two jobs and two high school classrooms into the same space.  It’s amazing how sound travels when people zoom. I started out at the dining table, then moved to Joe’s old bedroom, which was fine until Joe came home. Then I officed on the front porch until it got too cold.  So, then it was back to the dining table, or the living room, or the family room.  Looking back, I marvel at all the spaces, nooks, and crannies which had previously overlooked which remained unexamined and unexplored.

The Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi [1207–1273] describes our soul-space as a magnificent cathedral where we are “sweet beyond telling.” Saint Teresa of Ávila [1515–1582] described it as a castle. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul asked, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). Cathedrals. Castles. Temples.

There is something deep in you pushing and pulling to enter into the indwelling fullness and presence of the living God. Most of us don’t dare imagine or even consider that we could be one with God/Reality/the universe. This is the illusion Thomas Merton (1915–1968) called the “false” self or sometimes, the “separate,” or small self, that believes it is autonomous and separate from God. [Joyce Rupp, Open the Door: A Journey to the True Self (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008)]

However, we describe our inner terrain, one thing is certain: we tend to live in just a few rooms of our inner landscape. The full person God created us to be contains more than we can imagine. Opening the door of our heart [this Lent might] allows us entrance to the vast treasure of who we are and to the divine presence within us.”  Or as Paul said to the Athenians, to know that God is “the One in whom we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Have you noticed in the Book of Genesis, “…God makes a home for things before God makes a thing? Not the fish first but the sea. Not the birds first but the sky. Not the human first but the garden.” A God who says, ‘Not out of my own womb but out of this here dust will I make you.” …“If you’ve suffered an anxiety attack, maybe you’ve encountered the grounding techniques of the five senses.  What’s one thing you smell? Tell me two things you hear. There is a mysterious entanglement between our welfare and our capacity to ground ourselves in a particular place.  We are meant to be connected to our where, to the sensory experience of it. The simple beholding of a place can slow your heart and steady your breath. It is quite a protective force” (Cole Arthur Riley, This Here Flesh, p 18-19, 2022).

We echo Job’s lament, “O that I knew where I might find God, that I might come even to his dwelling! (Job 23:3). This Lent we are invited—or perhaps—we are being pushed and pulled to explore the lesser-known and to open even the spaces we have walled-off within our own heart, mind, and soul. (The second is best done with the help of a trusted competent therapist.)

Whether because of the pandemic, or a racial reckoning, or the climate crisis, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, clearly, we are living through a defining moment in history. Yet, while that definition remains unclear, it is entirely emotionally appropriate to feel anxious in such anxious times. Or to feel weighed down, languishing, or depressed by so much chronic stress.  Whether it is because you feel called to work toward a more hopeful future, or compelled to reduce the pain you feel, know that the spirit of Christ is working in and through you this Lent to help write the definition of these days that will be read 20, 50, and 100 years from now.

Come, come, whoever you are. Walk with Jesus.  Follow the leader.  It will not be easy. Take all the time you need.  Don’t be afraid to face your fears.  Find in Jesus the power to say no. Let Jesus give you strength to say yes. Lean on Jesus to persevere when your own strength is failing, until we find rest in the living sanctuary that we have in one another who are Christ’s body, and draw strength from the temple of the living God that is within each of you.

Transfiguration C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Whether we are aware, or inattentive, or at war, there is a sacred sound that nature makes. It’s not a singular sound, but a multitude. While we yet live in the frigid grip of winter, we use our imagination to remember “…what it is like to stand in the presence of a tree and listen to the wind pass through its leaves. The roots and body stand defiant and unmoved. The branches stretch out their tongues and whisper shhhhh.” (Cole Arthur Riley, This Here Flesh, 2022, p. vii)

Trees make symphonies without moving, as if the stillness of their trunk could amplify their sound. A tree may appear to be still, but each leaf rattles in the lightest breeze. A tree may look all alone but down deeper, and you’ll find roots enjoined and entangled with other trees, plants, shrubs, flowers, and grasses. Roots unfurl in soil laid down by our ancestors. No soil could exist if not for the birth, life, and death of all the living things that preceded it. Thomas Merton said, “No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not been said better by the wind in the pine trees.”  (Cole)

Retreat to a sacred place is life giving. Are there sacred spaces you love which seemed to love you right back? Whether in nature, or in a corner of your home, or in a church—perhaps this church? Today’s gospel calls out from all the sacred places you have known.  Mountaintop experiences? Thin places where earth and heaven seemed to come together? Places you could see, or feel, or even hear, the Spirit of God alive in the world?  We must be thankful for such places.

It is a profound and unique insight of our Hebrew ancestors that in addition to sacred space we can also find God in sacred time. You don’t have to go anywhere because sacred time can be everywhere. We call it the sabbath.  Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, Jesus said, there I am in the midst of them (Matthew 18:20).  Eight days after he had told them about the cross, Jesus led Peter, James, and John to the mountaintop to pray.  Jesus was transfigured before them. His face and clothing became dazzling white.

Here, in nearly the exact middle of the gospel, Luke instructs us in how to open the sanctuary of sacred time. The key that unlocks the door is prayer. In the poetic narrative of Luke, the ‘eighth day’ refers to Sunday, the day of resurrection and worship, the first day of a new week and era. Baptismal fonts around the world, for example, often have eight sides to invoke this promise of new life. Jesus discusses with Moses and Elijah his impending crucifixion. And the voice from heaven is directed not to Jesus but to the disciples with the command, “Listen to him.” This combination of prayer, discussion focused on the way of the cross, and the command to listen taking place on the eighth day kindles our liturgical imagination, reminding us of what Sunday can be. Here we have entered sacred time.

Here we come to become a living sanctuary for each other, our household, our neighbors, and our world.  “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” the Fourth Commandment says (Exodus 20:8). Sabbath is rest for the weary and hope for those who despair. Sabbath is a bridge that joins our love of God who calls us to rest with God’s love and concern for neighbor. (Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, p.17). Sabbath gives rhythm to our week and centers our hearts in grace. Sabbath is God’s antidote to a life of slavery under all the Pharaoh’s of the world.  Here, in sacred time, we learn again that we are not human resources. We are human beings. We are children of God. Even now we are filled again with the unapproachable light of God.  Here we learn to breathe again, our hearts beat again, filled once again with the breath of God like Adam and Eve.

We do not understand how it is that we do this.  Often, we cannot see the light that we bear. Peter, James, and John nearly fell asleep on the mountaintop. They would not begin to understand what they had seen until much later. How often do we see more clearly in hindsight than in the moment?  Yet somehow, here, we are becoming a living-sanctuary of hope and grace each week in this hour of sacred time.

Like the first disciples, we do not always, or very often, know where Jesus is leading us.  It is in the walking—in the following—that we learn best who Jesus is. Here it is in sabbath time, at the altar, the font, in song, in the Word, and in prayer that we reliably discover again the true light of our lives.  Here, as we stand on the threshold of Lent, that Jesus uncovers the grace already in you to heal and transform the world.

More than most things, Lent “is about existing in the pain of the world, not rushing past it toward some kind of spiritual toxic positivity. There’s a heaviness in the air. I suspect you feel it too.” (Cole) Pandemic, social upheaval, political strife, and now another war. These weigh down on us.  “In Lent, we are reminded we are free to say so. Free to grieve.” (Cole) Here in sacred time, we are free to be our honest selves, for that is the only way we can be healed.

Did you know 1 in 5 Americans will experience at least one mental illness at some point in their life? There is very nearly an epidemic of mental and emotional strife following on the heels of the pandemic. This Lent, our focus is on mental health. In art, poetry, conversation, and prayer we will attempt to lift the veil of shame we have cast to cover over and hide our anxiety, depression, and intrusive thoughts. (Later today, at 3:00 PM on Zoom, Parish Nurse Marcia and I will lead discussion on Mental Health and the Role of the Church. Find the link in the E-news or reach out to me after the service.)

Here, in sacred time, and sacred space, St. Paul insists, we become part of Christ’s glory, because “we are not like Moses, who veiled his face.” But “whenever anyone turns to the Lord, ‘the veil is taken away.'” And so, we, ‘with unveiled faces each reflect the glory of Lord Jesus, and are being transformed into his likeness” (2 Corinthians 3:13 &16) (Daniel Clendenin, My Journey with Jesus).  We, like trees of the forest rooted in good soil and planted beside the river of living water whisper shhhhh.

Here, at the Lord’s Table, we are welcomed who don’t deserve to be served.  Here, Jesus our Master is both host and food.  Here, we find rest and comfort to heal our wounds.  Here, the faith we received as a gift is reckoned to us as righteousness.  Here, we are loved in a way that far exceeds what we are capable of. Before our well-being, there is God’s graciousness, before our delight, there is God’s generosity, before our joy, there is God’s good will. (Walter Brueggemann, Awed by Heaven, Rooted in Earth, 137-38) Let all God’s creatures rejoice!  Amen.