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Proper 28C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

On February 14th, 1990 the Voyager I space probe sent a love letter.  It was Valentine’s Day. The probe had already travelled 13 years and nearly 4 billion miles from earth when the late-great astronomer Carl Sagan, convinced NASA engineers to turn Voyager’s camera toward earth for one final photo. The famous image, called “Pale Blue Dot,” depicts a single pinprick of light in a dark, vast, empty, expanse of space.  Voyager has travelled 43 years without stopping and is now more than thirteen billion miles from earth. It is the first human-made object to leave our solar system.

Carl Sagan wrote that pale blue dot, “That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was…every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” (Carl Sagan, “Pale Blue Dot,” 1994)

This is what Bulgarian-born writer Maria Popova has called a telescopic perspective on our world. It’s when we think of life, not in the span of days or years or even generations, but across geological epochs and cosmic space. From such a distance we ask ourselves different questions — not, “What matters to me?” but instead: What does it mean to matter? And what must we choose to care for when life is both so precious and so lonely in the universe?

As we end one year reading the gospel of Luke and are about to begin a new one reading from Matthew, our story pans out to include the beginning and the end.  This stretch of Sundays, from All Saints to Christmas, our bible trains us to look at life through this telescopic perspective with its language about the end-times.  From this vantage point so-called big things become very small and certain small things loom large.

As they walked past the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus told the disciples, not one stone would be left upon another.  The ruin of it must have been impossible to imagine.

The historian Josephus wrote: “The outward face of the Temple…was covered with gold plates of great weight, which at sunrise, reflected a fiery splendor that forced those who looked upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays.  At a distance this golden Temple appeared like a snow-covered mountain, for…those parts…not covered in gold… where exceedingly white. (As quoted by William Barclay).

When the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., it was a bewildering event that seemed to signal the end of the world.  Josephus’ account of the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans just thirty years after Jesus’ resurrection is no less spectacular that his description of the Temple itself.  He writes, “The roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the falling victims; and owing to the height of the hill and the mass of the burning pile, one would have thought that the whole city was ablaze” (War 6.271-275) [p. 359].

We are not the first people to live in a time it seems everything is upended.  In a new twist on an old story, Jesus points to the beginning that is beyond the end. He invites us to look at life as if through a telescope. Regardless of our leaders, Jesus Christ is king. Of all the things that exist today, tomorrow, and yesterday, only the Word of God is eternal. God opens the way that rekindles our hope even as kingdoms the world are brought low.

In a sermon collection titled, God in Pain, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown argues that disillusionment is essential to the Christian life: “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion — about ourselves, about the world, about God — and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.”

Viewing life through the telescopic perspective of the end-of-days, may provoke grief and disorientation in us. Like Job, sitting in the ashes of our own human striving, we cry out to God, ‘What does it mean?’

As we envision ourselves in the disciples’ place, listening in bewilderment as Jesus pops our spiritual bubbles, we start asking ourselves different questions: What lies, and illusions do I mistake for truth? In what memories or traditions do I attempt to “house” God?  On what shiny religious edifice do I pin my hopes, instead of trusting Jesus? (My denomination?  My church?  My spiritual heritage?)   Why do I cling to permanence when Jesus invites me to evolve?

Am I willing to sit with the fact that things fall apart?  (Things I love, things I built, things I cried and prayed and strived for?)   Can I embrace a journey of faith that includes rubble, ruin, and failure? (Debie Thomas, By Your Endurance, Journey with Jesus, 11/10/19)

The 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “Let us pray to God that we may be free of God,” implying that our conceptions of God and faith must always fall short, always fail.  “Let’s name honestly, he suggests, the imposter gods we conjure because we fear the Mystery who really is.  Let’s admit that we shape these gods in our own image, and that they serve us as much as we serve them.  In other words, let’s endure apocalypse so that truth will set us free.  Let’s dare to see what Jesus sees.” (Debie Thomas)

From the perspective of eternity and the far-flung distance of space big things that fill our minds and calendars begin to look small and certain small things loom large. From four billion miles we can clearly see life itself is breath-taking and miraculous. The most important legacy of our lives is in sustaining and extending life on this beautiful pale blue dot rather than in subduing and extinguishing it. Our fate rests in how we choose to care for what’s right in front of us, day after day, no matter how miniscule that may seem. As Carl Sagan wrote of that distant image of our tiny world, “It underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

You do this at Immanuel when you take time to help a child learn to read and be successful in school. When you build community among young families. Through your support of an immigrant family torn apart by detention and deportation. By welcoming young people to Christ and belonging as siblings of God. When you take time to listen to a co-worker, care for a friend or family member, or take risks to oppose injustice.  When you lift your voices to sing and give God praise.  When you answer the sabbath call to gather here for worship to hear the word, to be nourish at the table, and made new in the waters of the font. The sacrifice of your time, sweat, and money for these small things loom large because these are the very things that sustain us and add to the vibrancy of all life.  All the angels in heaven sing, and all that is, was, and is to be, will join us in celebration. May Christ be praised. Amen!

Proper 27C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The leaves are mostly down now.  The trees along the parkway across the street, displayed a fiery red. The little Maple near the front walkway is still a glowing yellow. Some people, like trees, reveal their inner glory late in life. To appreciate fall is to savor transience and transition. Being is becoming that becomes being again—which is beautiful and terrifying of course.

Fall begs the question.  What happens when I die?  Unfortunately, the Sadducees, who actually asked Jesus, were not interested in the answer. Instead, they engaged in combat. The Sadducees sat at the top the religious hierarchy.  They controlled the Temple.  They were privileged, landed, elite, arrogant, and often in cahoots with the Roman Empire. In forty years, both they and the Temple would be gone.  But this was their final chance to put Jesus in his place before they committed themselves to dispatch him by violence.

Their contrived outlandish hypothetical question about a woman who marries and is widowed by seven brothers was a trap. Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?  They’re point was to prove that life after death is absurd.

Fortunately, Jesus didn’t answer their question.  He came closer to answering ours. Jesus realized there is no right answer to a wrong question—especially one designed as a trap. Because the Sadducees’ only read the first five books of the bible, the Pentateuch, Jesus quoted Moses.  Moses had stood beside the burning bush in the wilderness and addressed “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Luke 20:37) Therefore, the Lord is not God of the dead, Jesus said, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:38)  The dead become like angels.  Jesus will also say, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so would I have told you I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2) He will say to the criminal crucified beside him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) And that’s it.  That is literally all Jesus had to say about what happens when we die.  Jesus didn’t offer many details.  As pastor, what I often say is, scripture offers assurance that this God whom we have come to know and trust with our life, will also be trustworthy in our death. The realms of heaven go beyond my imagining.

Martin Luther said something like this. He taught that we actually undergo two deaths—one big and one small.  We have already undergone a big death in baptism.  We are children of God forever. The smaller one is our physical death.  We are alive in Christ forever–beginning now, now, now, now, and persisting into eternity.  How does that knowledge change the way we live today?

Jesus didn’t have a lot to say about when we die, but he never stopped talking about the kingdom that is coming.  A realm where no human being “belongs” to any other, because all belong equally to God. It is the very kin-dom we invite to take hold every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. For Jesus, God’s kingdom was not a distant future event but a powerful nearby reality. Our true citizenship has already been transferred into Christ’s kingdom. Christians waiting for the second coming have missed the bus.  The good news is there’s always another one coming.  Like the old song says, ‘You don’t need a ticket.  You just get on board.’

This season in the church, the seven Sundays between All Saints and Christmas, this set of readings, are a wake-up call to an ever-present reality. Each season of the church year offers a new window into the life of faith. What makes this stretch of Sundays important is this chance to incorporate an eschatological lens to our life in God. The Alpha is our Omega, our beginning is also our end. God has joined these together in an eternal now Jesus called the kingdom of God.

Dwelling in this kin-dom brings an end to business-as-usual. A new “Day” is upon us.  It puts an end to our fear. It protects us from the slings and arrows of this world. We are servants of the God of the living. So, we hold out for the impossible.  We may dare to live as Jesus longs for us to live. We set out to advance this kin-dom. We work right beside God confident that the love which propels us has also embraced us and will never let go.

For the next seven Sundays our bible talks a lot about the end times. It will often do so in a language and style popular among ancient people called apocalyptic literature. Earthquakes, plagues, wars, and famines are its dreadful portents, great signs from heaven that God’s judgement is loose upon the land.  This baffles modern Christians unfamiliar with this literary style.  We often become apocalyptic literalists, by trying to reconcile details from different stories as if these were secret divine messages to be decoded.  At best, this is an exercise in futility. At its worst, as in Christian Zionism, it becomes foreign policy, as when Christians send money to Israel hoping to provoke holy war and the second coming.

So, these seven Sundays are important not just for faith but also to prevent violence and suffering from the misuse of scripture. This gospel about God’s kingdom that is coming does indeed set fire to the world as we know it –but it does so from within our hearts and minds. The war being waged now is one of spirit and of faith.

We are a resurrection people.  Christ has opened the door to undying life.  Jesus affirms the dead are alive to God.  God gives life and preserves life.  The resurrected life has a different character than life lived only in the present.  Jesus taught us, the resurrection is not only a future hope, but an urgent and crucial aspect of our life today.  The true dignity and power of human life within us comes from beyond us as a gift from God.  Our fragile and finite lives are caught up and joined together in the one eternal life of God.

We do not know what the future or what heaven will be like.  We only know at its center will be the One we have always known, who has loved us, and calls us by name.

Michael and All Angels

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Cosmic battles. Heaven and earth caught in a war between good and evil. Satan is thrown down from heaven onto earth where the combat continues until someday soon, when the archangel Michael and the hosts of heaven finally push the devil and his minions into oblivion and the abyss.

Today’s scripture reads like gazing into a riddle wrapped in a mystery. We are frightened and a little mystified by the book of Revelation. In part that’s because popular media has turned its meaning upside down. The book is filled with stories of conflict and violence. Yet, Revelation is more about how to defeat terror than inflict it. The deadly force wielded by worldly powers to perpetuate injustice is conquered by Christ the lamb. To defeat Satan and the “beasts” of this world, all we have to do is testify to this “lamb power” –the power of God’s love made vulnerable through forgiveness and mercy.

This is apocalyptic literature. Daniel and Revelation sprang from times of turmoil like these. It offers hope for when we feel hopeless; encouragement for when we are exhausted; inspiration to answer despair. With its angels and demons, apocalyptic literature offers lessons we can learn through translation. Know that you are accompanied in all your struggles and grief.  You are never alone. God and all the realms of heaven battle beside you. The angels and archangels are in our fight with cancer, or chronic illness, addiction, joblessness, or homelessness, or perhaps—in just trying to cope with another week like the last one.

Last weekend we heard about deployment of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia. On Monday sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg and the UN Action Climate Summit presented more alarming news about ecological damage and mass displacement of peoples due to global warming. On Wednesday, the U.S. Congress officially launched an impeachment inquiry into the president.

God is with us, they say.  But also, they teach us how to fight.  Our forebears in faith have shown us how to dismantle systems of hate and oppression. They offer time-worn reconnaissance on how to destroy the handiwork of the devil, our old foe.

Revelation saw the devil at work in the great beast then known as the Roman Empire. Lutheran pastor and biblical scholar Barbara Rossing writes, “John [Revelation] was pulling back the curtain to expose the true power behind Rome— much like Toto’s pulling back of the curtain to expose “the great and powerful Wizard of Oz.” Through its apocalyptic journeys Revelation offered a way of seeing—God’s vision of hope for the world—as an alternative to Rome’s violence and power.” (Barbara R. Rossing. “The Rapture Exposed, Chapter 4, Prophecy and Apocalypse.)

The antidote to persistent evil is Jesus, the cross, and the power of the lamb. We read, “they haveconquered him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (Revelation 12:11).

Victory is ours through the blood of the lamb. Forty-three years ago, next month, October 27, 1976, a nationally televised show called, All in the Family, aired one of its most talked about episodes. The racist, misogynist, patriarch, Archie Bunker, finds out the life-saving blood infusion administered during his gall bladder surgery came from his black, Puerto Rican, female doctor—he was healed by black blood.

Of course, there is no such thing biologically, but socially and culturally we have made it into the thing, and it is the work of the devil. But we are being healed from diseases like systemic racism by regular infusions of the blood of the lamb. The end of Satan’s reign begins with the covenant God made with us in baptism. It continues at the Lord’s Table in Holy Communion. We are one family, one blood, one body. Here we glimpse the truth that frees us from the endless cycle of violence.

Because I am part of you, and you are part of me, and we are all part of one life in God, now, the innocent blood spilled in the street by gun violence is also my blood.  Now it is my blood, my children, who are born in the wrong zip code and denied access to the American Dream.  My blood, my mother, my father who are being targeted and imprisoned. My brother living on two dollars a day. My sister, my niece and nephew dying in a detention center at the border.  Let the whole angel chorus sing, Amen!

We find release from the chains binding us to the satanic power of injustice simply by remembering the blood we share and testify to the truth of these things. This is the power the archangel Michael wields like a sword. It proceeds from the words of his mouth.  Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? I renounce them. Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? I renounce them. Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God? I renounce them. The Devil and his empty promises are undone by the power of the lamb. “The strife is o’er, the battle done; now is the victor’s triumph won! Alleluia!” (ELW # 366)

Lutheran pastor and bible scholar, Barbara Rossing writes, “Revelation’s first-century readers knew first-hand Rome’s conquering power over the whole world. They were its victims. We, too, live in a world in which terror makes us feel powerless and we wonder how God can be victorious over evil. The “beasts” of the Roman Empire are long gone, but today’s “beasts” of violence, economic vulnerability, global injustice, and other threats still stalk our world, causing almost irrational fear. In a post-September 11 world, we need to testify to the wonder-working power of God’s slain Lamb today more than ever.” (Barbara R. Rossing)

The famous verse from Hebrews urges us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).  The reverse is also true.  Sometimes, in going the extra mile, you become one of God’s angels for someone else. Like these quilts and school kits we bless today and send off through Lutheran World Relief, the works of our hands become a seed of hope and grace to take root and grow in the hearts of strangers halfway around the world. Because you didn’t have to but you did; because we are one blood, one body; because we share in the one life, and have one Lord, Satan will fall once more like lightning.

The power of God’s truth gives us confidence in the face of evil on earth, even in the face of our own death. As we gather around the Lord’s Table, we are joined with choirs of angels, archangels, cherubim and seraphim in singing God’s praise. Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might heaven and earth are indeed full of your glory and blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!