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Easter 2B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Lutheran pastor and historian, Martin Marty, recalls a story of a summer day in his boyhood town of West Point, Nebraska, when one of those grand miracles of childhood occurred. A watermelon truck flipped over right in front of his house.  The driver was not injured. He jumped out to watch helplessly as neighborhood kids from everywhere raced to the scene of that blessed event and dove into the spilled cargo for a sticky picnic on the pavement.  Right in front of Marty’s house!

That was the good news.  The bad news was that he was out of town that day visiting his grandmother.  Alas. Life is like that sometimes. We happen to be where the action isn’t.  While other kids are there to catch the bouncing watermelons, we’re miles away.

And so it was, for the disciple Thomas –same as for you and me—and just about every other Christian who has ever lived.  We were not in the tomb where it happened. We missed Jesus’ party with the disciples on Easter night. So, like Thomas perhaps, we too have a hard time reconciling the Easter story with our own understanding of the way the world works. Like Thomas, we lament, if only Jesus would appear to us then our questions would be answered, then we could have faith, then we’d really believe –right?  Thomas was emphatic, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails in his hands, and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 19: 25b).

Well, one lesson we could take from today’s gospel is, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ When the moment finally comes, Thomas doesn’t insist on any of these things.  His response is one part contrition and one part exclamation, “My Lord, and my God!” (vs. 28). Why? Could it be in that moment, Thomas realized Jesus’ resurrection was not merely about what happened to Jesus?

The Christian claim has always been far more radical.  The Easter story is about our own resurrection from the dead. “It is saying that we also are larger than life, Being Itself, and therefore made for something good, united, and beautiful…The problem is not that you have a body; the problem is that you think you are separate from others—and from God. And you are not!” (Richard Rohr)

Jesus, whom they betrayed, did not return with vengeance, but peace, shalom, oneness, reconciliation, and unity with the undying life of God.  Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (vs. 22). The word is ‘emphusao.’  It’s the same word used in Genesis (chapter 2). God breathed life into the nostrils of the earth-man and he became a living being. It’s the same word used in Ezekiel 37. God breathed life into the dry bones of Israel so that they returned to life and stood on their feet a vast multitude.  This Easter story is Pentecost and creation rolled into one.

John invites us to face our doubts, speak our fears, and yearn for more. Thanks to the story of Thomas, we’re invited to say the “heretical” things we might very well feel as we descend from the mountaintop of Easter to look for the risen Christ in the midst of the world.

Jesus gives permission to learn wisdom and humility from our doubts, questions, and failings, and not just to repress them out of fear. To reach the goal of Christian maturity it will be necessary for us to be immature. (Little Arabella, who will be baptized today, didn’t hear that.) God is an expert at working with mistakes and failure. In fact, that is about all God does. Mistakes do not seem to be a problem for God; they are only a problem for our ego that wants to be perfect and self-sufficient. We first tend to do things wrong before we even know what right feels like. I am not sure there is any other way. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation series on Human Bodies)

Jesus pointed to his wounds and said, “see, as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Show me your wounds, Jesus says, and I will show you your strengths.  Show me your love of others and I will show you the fruits of the kin-dom of God. One of the great ironies in the history of Christianity is that Jesus came with the gift of peace and proclaimed a gospel of love with authority over Caesar. Yet, somehow, over and over again, we have made our Lord Jesus into a kind of Caesar who rules from a distant throne, who heaps misery upon those who question, and withholds grace from those who fail him.

But look, God answers with a blessed event unfolding now like an overturned truck filled with watermelons!  We testify “…to what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life –so that you may have fellowship with us” (1 John 1:1).  We testify to what Thomas and the first Christians learned at Easter that every Christian is an eyewitnesses to the resurrection.

One of those eyewitnesses of the resurrection, is Julian of Norwich [1343–c. 1416].  She lived her entire life during a raging pandemic, the bubonic plague. Despite being ignored because she was a woman, she found her voice. She is credited with writing the first book in English by a woman. Today her works are influential among theologians and the faithful alike.  Julian taught that each of our lives is part of a glorious whole. Each life, so miniscule in and of itself, is connected to the vast web of life held in being by God.  A watermelon truck of grace is spilled out before us.

Julian wrote, “God is within us, at home, patiently and kindly awaiting our recognition. As Maker of all, God is in everything, present in all places and at all times…All those who are on the spiritual path contain the whole of creation, and the Creator. That is because God is inside us, and inside God is everything. And so, whoever loves God loves all that is.”  (The Showings of Julian of Norwich: A New Translation, Mirabai Starr (Hampton Roads: 2013), 23–24.

Christ is here and we are witnesses.  Christ is here at the font. Christ is here at the table.  Christ is alive in our questions. Jesus is among us now.  We see Christ in each other, and especially, in the poor, the stranger and the outsider.  Christ is not dead but lives when we speak the truth of our differences in love, taking care to strengthen the body of Christ and not to tear it down.  In Christ we become wounded healers.  Christ unlocks the doors closed by fear and leads us out. He spreads a banquet before us –a joyful surprise—like a feast of watermelon poured out at our feet. Enjoy!

Easter B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I have Easter morning memories of wicker-woven baskets lined with fluorescent green plastic grass and princess pony purple paper, colorful foil-wrapped chocolate eggs and bunnies, oh-my-God yellow marshmallow chicks and jellybeans. It was fun making hand-dyed, hard boiled eggs, as is hiding the plastic ones for egg hunts. There were fancy new clothes at Easter, especially for mom and my sisters, and a big holiday meal, featuring ham, lamb, or turkey—or, sometimes, all three.

Easter has always been a bit over the top. Easter isn’t embarrassed to show its pre-Christian roots celebrating the Spring Equinox, and joyful commemorations of the passing of winter, and of the miracle of fertility as evidenced by the blooming of flowers, buds on the trees, and baby bunnies—lots of bunnies!
But Easter has also always been about something more. There is another, deeper meaning of Easter not made for children’s ears or mass consumer consumption. It is harder to swallow than a fist full of jellybeans. Easter is by definition, unsettling, disruptive, and messy.

All four gospels follow the women as they go to the tomb early Easter morning. They expect to find a body. Instead, they find an empty tomb and an outrageous message. Christ is risen. (He is risen, indeed, alleluia). Yet they are not overjoyed but filled with fear. Trembling and bewildered, Mark’s gospel tells us they “fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8)

The fact that we are gathered here, two thousand years later, is evidence that eventually they in fact tell someone. Yet “Mark’s ending points to a truth that often gets lost in the celebration: Easter is a frightening prospect. For the women, the only thing more terrifying than a world with Jesus dead was one in which he was alive.” (Esau McCaulley, The Unsettling Power of Easter, The New York Times, 4/02/21)

It would be easier to be left alone in our grief. Anti-Black racism; the anti-Asian racism; the anti-Trans phobia; the struggles of families throughout the world fleeing war, poverty, and disease; the rising body count after a mass shooting, the looming threat of mass-extinction; the collective shrug of indifference to all this pain and suffering because we are too addicted to our guns, and our violence, and our fluorescent green plastic grass is familiar, predictable. Keep your mouth shut, your doors locked and your eyes closed. Get what you can for as long as you can. Drown out the world with Netflix and alcohol and the whatever the next big consumer event on the calendar is.

We put it all in a tomb that contains our dead hopes and dreams for what our families, our neighborhood, our church, or the country could be. We are left with only our tears. We know how to walk with the women to the grave. They were not looking for hope. They wanted a quiet place to comfort one another in their grief and despair. “The terrifying prospect of Easter is that God called these women to return to the same world that crucified Jesus with a very dangerous gift: hope in the power of God, the unending reservoir of forgiveness and an abundance of love. It would make them seem like fools. Who could believe such a thing? Christians, at their best, are the fools who dare believe in God’s power to call dead things to life.” (McCaulley)

That is the testimony of the church still here after two thousand years. It’s not that we have good music (we do), or stirring liturgy (we do), or a tradition of good preaching (we do). The testimony of the church is that “in times of deep crisis we somehow become more than our collective ability. We become a source of hope that did not originate in ourselves.” (McCaulley)

We are beyond ready to return to a post-pandemic world of parties, nightlife, large venue gatherings, and rejoicing. It’s true. Parties have their place. But let’s not forget what this year has taught us in vivid detail. We will return to a world of hatred, cruelty, division and a thirst for power that was never quarantined. The unsettling power of Easter has rolled away the stone, opened our eyes, our minds, and hearts. It must open our hands, our wallets, and our calendars too.

If there is one thing today’s strange gospel story should teach us, it is that it is okay to be afraid. Fear is an enemy to faith, but God seems not to judge us too harshly for it. Fear is an almost constant theme throughout the gospels. Peter walks on water beside Jesus, until fear sent him sinking beneath the waves (Matthew 14:29). Out of fear, the disciples fail to recognize Jesus’ authority over the storming wind and waters, (4:40-41). Peter suggested they build booths on the mountain of Christ’s transfiguration out of fear (9:6). Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death elicited much fear and consternation (9:32). In all cases, fear isolates the disciples from Jesus. Fear gets in the way of God’s plan for them and for us. In the silence of the empty tomb, the theme of human failure in Mark’s gospel is complete. The religious authorities, the people of Jesus’ hometown, the disciples, the crowds, the Roman authorities, and even the women, all fail him. (R. Alan Culpepper, Mark). The hostility that put Jesus on the cross reduced them all to flight and fearful silence.

Scholars say, Mark wrote this gospel for a church that was small, and on the margins, feeling expendable, and suffering some form of religious and economic persecution. The message that God triumphed in Christ despite the failures of the first disciples must have come as quite a relief. God can bring faith even out of human weakness, fear, and failure. Perhaps that’s what’s most unsettling about Easter. We must die to ourselves in a death like his in order to be born again into a life like his.

“The mystery of the cross teaches us how to stand against hate without becoming hate, how to oppose evil without becoming evil ourselves. We find ourselves stretching in both directions—toward God’s goodness and also toward recognition of our own complicity in evil. In that moment, we will feel crucified. We hang in between, without resolution, our very life a paradox held in hope by God (see Romans 8:23–25).” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, 3/30/21). Easter issues this post-pandemic challenge. Freed from death and the power of death, freed from fear, daring to hope, see, we are the fools who dare believe and know, God has power to call dead things to life.

Passion Sunday, Cycle B
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Where do we stand? Where do you line up? Can you see yourself parading with the peace marchers who threw their garments on the ground and waved palm branches in the air striding into Jerusalem through the East gate? They shouted Hosanna! It means, ‘Lord save us!” (Mark 11:9)
Or perhaps could you picture yourself on the other side of town at that other larger and more organized parade scholars tell us rode into Jerusalem that day by the West gate, the one celebrating the power of Empire, and the mighty spectacle of military hardware, human ingenuity, order, and discipline represented by the Roman army? They were like so many who crowd the lakeshore at the Air and Water show here in Chicago.
Or perhaps, you can see yourself lining up with that other crowd of religious nationalists and cynics who found fellowship with each other in heaping scorn upon a scapegoat. Finding someone to blame for all their troubles, they shouted, “crucify him.” (Mark 15:13) Or are we like Simon of Cyrene, compelled into service, somehow, almost by accident, we became part of this story through no decision or desire of our own? (Mark 15:21)
Or perhaps, you see yourself lining up with that battle-hardened, world-weary Centurion standing at the foot of the cross, who declared, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39) The bible doesn’t say. I wonder, what did that Centurion see that no one else did? Some say the Centurion was merely being satirical and ironic rather than faithful.
The peace march, and the military parade, the self-righteous, and the accidental tourist, both the faithful and the cynical confessor –I confess, I have played them all. I have visited all these places. Whether by commission or omission, I have marched in all these parades.
But Mark seems to say something we haven’t thought of. Mark seems to see us standing, not among the living, but among the dead. He tells us the curtain in the temple was torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death. Literally, the realms of heaven and earth are now joined together. The undying life of God now lays in, with, and under, all that is. So that even the sky could see and mourn the tragedy of Jesus’ death.
We are like poor Lazarus stumbling out from his tomb, called from darkness into the light. Freed from death we would yet close our eyes. We long to lay down again in the cold comfort of our graves, but for the call of the Lord of Life, who now stands with the crucified, the bloodied, the brutalized, the betrayed, the executed, the lynched, the refugee, the suffering, the afflicted, the poor. God with us. We stand with Jesus, who emptied himself and took the form of a slave, even to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Philippians 2: 6-8) Our parade follows the winding way of Jesus and his cross, so that, like him, our weakness may become our strength, our emptiness a fountain of abundance, our unknowing a source of wisdom, our very mortality a gateway to eternal life.
  This Thursday, March 25th, was the anniversary of my baptism. Some of you will remember I didn’t always know the day that I was baptized, or the place, or even (briefly) I worried whether I was baptized at all —until we undertook a baptismal project here at Immanuel some years ago. I had to do some sleuthing.
March 25th is significant for another less personal reason. Nine months before Christmas, in which the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would give birth to the Son of God, it is a festival day, the Annunciation of Our Lord. The ancient church believed that this was also the date of the world’s creation and of Jesus’ death on the cross. March 25 was marked as New Year’s Day in many pre-modern Christian countries.
Christmas and the cross go together. In Mark’s gospel, the cross, like the day of Christ’s birth, is a sign of the incarnation. I was marked with the sign of this cross at my baptism, as you were. We would be mere clay and ash but for the breath God breathed into us. Where do we stand? We stand with Jesus. Where do you line up? We line up behind the Lord. Stand beneath the warm gaze of God to be healed. The cross shouts once and for all, stop striving and trying and planning to make yourself better and stronger. Try instead this other plan. Let love draw you. Let fellowship with Christ elevate you. Let the undying life of God fill you. To God be given praise.

Lent 1B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Tens of thousands were left in the dark and cold across Texas this week. Pipes burst and drinking water became scarce in places after winter cold swept across much of the state. One Texas mayor told residents of his small town in a since-deleted Facebook post, “Only the strong will survive and the weak will [perish].” “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING!” People should “step up and come up with a game plan” for acquiring power or heat, he said. “I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!” The mayor has since resigned. (Dominick Mastrangelo, The Hill, 02/17/21.)

Elsewhere in the state, a Houston furniture store owner known as “Mattress Mack,” saw his fellow Texans cold and hungry, with little shelter from the winter storm and so, just as he did during Hurricane Harvey and other storms, Mr. McIngvale, 70, opened his doors, and let the people in. Thousands came for help. Mr. McIngvale and his wife started the furniture store on Houston’s North Freeway about 30 years ago with a $5,000 investment. He said he was inspired by his Catholic faith. “When my people are dying and freezing, I am going to take care of them,” he said. “That comes before profit every time.”

Which of these two, the small-town mayor, or the furniture store owner was neighbor to those who were suffering? The contrast in choices between these two men offer us a valuable lesson about covenant life. The modern ideal is individualism, self-interest, and self-centeredness. When the going gets tough the tough get going. We glory in the philosophy that says, “I will do what I want to do, when and how I want to do it, and I don’t care what anyone else thinks.” But the moment our hearts are converted, such life must come to an end.

Christians are called to live in covenant relationship with God and with each other. We traced the sign of this covenant on our foreheads this week with ashes. “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify you Father in heaven” (ELW p. 231). The appointed readings each week this Lent explore the meaning of covenant life for us. Today our lessons present us with baptism and a rainbow. This Lent takes us on a winding path over the edge and deep into the human heart.

The ancient Priestly writer of Genesis 6:11 says God’s reason for flooding the earth in Noah’s time was that “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” It was to wash away the violence upon the earth that God allowed waters to burst from their confinement above the heavens and flood the dry land. “In anger and regret, God made the rains to fall, and the waters to rise, and the waves to beat. The water rose and obliterated every living thing. Only one family was preserved, one family and their small collection of creatures. Noah’s family was preserved on the ark” (William Willimon, Vol. 34, No 1, year B).

In the Noah story, God did what we expect in all the super-hero movies we love to watch. God used violence to root out violence. Yet, unlike all those movies our story doesn’t end there. Remarkably, God saw that God’s attempt to solve the problem of violence by violence didn’t work. So, God began a new plan and called the son of Terah. “Enter Abraham. The redemption of the world would not come by the eradication of evil people, but through the propagation of a faithful family. By faith Abraham would father a son and spend the rest of his life searching for a city whose builder and maker is God.” (Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, p. 183) (But that’s next week.)

When God saw the flood could not cure the virus of hatred and sin in us, God placed a rainbow in the sky as a promise and a reminder, not for us, but for God. The rainbow means that God put down his bow and arrow. God laid down his weapon. God has put an end to all hostilities between us, and with all creature, although we had no power to demand it, or any right to expect it.

Noah and God made a covenant (Genesis 9) that is binding on us today. Rainbows are beautiful. They are also a sign of the covenant. We are partners in it with all creation in God’s mission is to put an end to violence and to care for the world and all its creatures. ‘God chose to be a Redeemer, above and beyond being Creator and Destroyer.’ (Paul Nancarrow). Now you and I are God’s plan.

The Holy Spirit plays kind’a rough with Jesus in our gospel today. There was no time for celebration or to pose for pictures. After baptism in the river Jordan, the Spirit of God “drove” him, compelled him, forced him, into the desolation of a wild and unsafe place, without food or shelter in the wilderness to live among wild beasts and to contest with Satan. I wonder, is it possible, that Jesus didn’t want to go? Did he resist? Scripture says, the Spirit drove him, anyway. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him.” (Mark 1:12-13)

We do not get to choose, do we, what tragedy, or illness, or betrayal, or freak snowstorm will befall us. One moment God declares Jesus his beloved Son, the very next he is expelled into the wilderness. Jesus is no superhero. He is a human being in flesh and blood. Jesus struggled in the wilderness. He hurt. He hungered. He wept, thirsted, wrestled, and suffered. Did anyone read the fine print on this baptismal covenant thing before we took the plunge?
Yet maybe we need to know that Jesus wrestled with real demons and real dangers during those forty days of temptation and endured, because we know we could never survive such a dangerous place. With a companion who knows the way, though, we will. Jesus has come and lived among us, full of grace and truth. He lives with us here, where the Holy Spirit, Satan, the wild beasts, and the angels reside together.

Could the covenant of Holy baptism show us what it truly means to be a child of God and how to open our eyes to a whole new way of living? The gospel of Jesus put a decisive end to all scape-goating on the cross. An eye for an eye makes everyone blind. There can be no peace without justice, no joy which cannot be shared by all; no light found in the dark dreams of our hearts; and no true prosperity that is wrung from the sweat of other human beings.

Suddenly we realize, the wilderness we so feared is filled, not only with wild beasts but also with ministering angels. Yes, there are scary things in the wilderness, but we are not alone. With water and a rainbow God shows us how to be the Body of Christ—the People of God. We stand together with God who is with us in our suffering. The Holy Spirit, the Comforter, is ever near. And Jesus, himself, walks with us and promises, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Finding ourselves in the presence of the Savior, even while still in the wilderness, we rejoice.

Baptism of our Lord B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lent 4A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Three weeks ago, was Ash Wednesday. Back then, we still gathered for worship and went about business as usual. If you would have asked me, I would have thought social distancing was a dating strategy not public health policy. None of us expected to give up so much for Lent. Now Lent threatens to overrun Easter. It’s surprising how quickly our lives have changed.

One commentator suggested maybe “change” isn’t the right word. Rather what we’re experiencing right now feels “apocalyptic.” “After all, an apocalypse, rightly defined, is an unveiling, a revelation of things previously unseen or unknown. Maybe the world hasn’t changed so much as it has been exposed, uncovered, made plain, laid bare. Maybe we were blind before, and the time has now come to see.” (Debi Thomas, “Now I See,” Journey with Jesus, 3/15/20)
The story of the man born blind man is about seeing what we didn’t used to see. It’s a story about the advent of faith and the new life that follows. This story has inspired Christians throughout the history of the church. The blind man appears in second-century frescoes in the catacombs of Rome (as does the Samaritan woman at the well we read about last week).

The blind man’s movement from unseeing to enlightenment is part of the church’s celebration of the power of baptism as far back as the fourth and fifth centuries. His journey into faith mirrors our own. We see what we didn’t used to see. The blind man’s words echo the famous hymn Amazing Grace we sing again today, “I once was blind, but now I see.” Following Jesus’ way of the cross opens our hearts, hands, and minds to those who are suffering.
The gospel of John measures relationship with God relative to what we see in Jesus. When we look upon Jesus through the eyes of faith, we see the living God. In Baptism we put on the body of Christ like a pair of glasses. Looking through the spiritual spectacles of the incarnation makes what matters in the world and our place in it look different—from fuzzy to clear, as though a veil is lifted.

Notice John’s gospel doesn’t regard judgment day as a far distant event. We stand as before the Pearly gates right now to answer St. Peter’s urgent question. Who do you say Jesus is? The Blind man answered. “He is a prophet. He is from God. He is the Son of Man.” (John 4: 17,33, & 38)
In contrast to what many of us learned in Sunday School, for John, sin does not arise from wrong actions, or immoral deeds, but from whether or not we see God revealed in Christ Jesus. The only way to be excluded from grace is to turn your back on it. Bible scholar Gail O’Day writes, “John’s gospel is the most radical statement of salvation by grace anywhere in the New Testament” (NIB, p. 664).

The disciples asked Jesus whether the man’s blindness was caused by sin –either his own or that of his parents. Even today many of us are strongly tempted to see God’s judgment in our own tragic circumstances. But thanks be to God, through faith in looking upon Jesus, we have begun to see things differently. We can stop looking for evidence of God’s wrath when bad things happen to good people. Jesus doesn’t care about assigning blame, but about unveiling and revealing God at work in the world.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, regardless of your infirmities or your failings –so let the world see Christ who is alive in you. Let them see the living God.
When we put on the eyes of Christ, what do we see? When the apocalyptic veil is lifted by some crisis like the coronavirus what is revealed? We see that only a few things really matter. We recognize how connected and interdependent we are with people and communities around the world. We’re all in this together—every continent, country, class, religion, race, age, or gender. Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell, has said, “There’s a way a disaster throws people into the present and gives them this supersaturated immediacy that also includes a deep sense of connection. It’s as though, in some violent gift, you’ve been given a kind of spiritual awakening where you’re close to mortality in a way that makes you feel more alive.” (Rebecca Solnit, On Being, 2016.)
That’s Ash Wednesday in a nutshell. That’s our burial and resurrection in Christ through baptism. That’s what we see in Christ, through Christ, with Christ. The way of the cross reveals itself to be the way into fullness of life.
Like a blind man who has just regained his sight, we follow behind Jesus with a spirit of joy and deep humility, not quite comprehending what it is that we see and comforted in the fact we don’t have to manage all on our own but have someone in Christ Jesus to show us the way.

Perhaps it is easy to understand the blind man’s joy in regaining his sight. But why do I say it was also with deep humility? I say it because it is so easy for us to fall into the trap of believing what we see as being exclusive of what others see that we do not see.
Stories of Jesus giving sight to the blind are found in all four Gospels. Some were healed with a simple touch (Matthew 9:27-28; 20:29-33), others without a touch at all (Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43). One was healed when Jesus touched him twice and put spit on his eyes (Mark 8:22-26). Finally, the man born blind we read about today (John 9:1-42), was healed when Jesus mixed saliva with mud, spread it on the man’s eyes, and told him to go wash. Naturally, since each one thought that their healing was better than all the others, later they divided themselves into different factions: the muddites, spittites and touchites. (Stoffregan). Religious denominations were born.

We are reminded today, that our faith tradition, like a pair of glasses, offer the advantage of a certain way of seeing which otherwise might not be possible for us. In this case, each blind man has a particular insight into Christ’s gospel. Each is partly right, but also partly wrong. None of us can avoid looking for Christ through some set of religious spectacles –without them we would not grasp the gospel at all. So, we shall not to set aside our Lutheran tradition, but celebrate it. Yet, at the same time, we must also watch for the limitations that our own denominational perspective as Lutheran Christians brings. Likewise, we must remain open to learning from others who would inform us about the blind-spots of our own particular privilege, culture, and gender that obstruct our view of the whole truth.

The blind man washed in the pool called Sent. Likewise, we are sent into the world to be God’s people. “During this Lenten season, may we, too, confess our blindness and receive sight. May we also praise the one who kneels in the dirt and gets his hands dirty in order to heal us.” (Debi Thomas) May we open our hearts, hands, and minds to those who are suffering, so that when new life appears in whatever surprising guise God chooses, we will embrace, cherish, celebrate, and share the good news, too.

Can we be thankful?

Lent 3A-20

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

When Jesus tells the Samaritan woman who he is, she leaves her water jar at the well, runs back to her city, and said, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (John 4:29)

She left her water jar. You can’t run a household, cook food, wash clothes, or sustain your body without water. She left her water jar. She forgot all about her timetable and what she was doing.  She left her water jar. Suddenly she ran to all the people she had avoided. She left her water jar. She moved fast, unburdened, excited, and free. Her urgent good news overwhelmed her desire to remain anonymous and invisible. Her painful history of loss and regret no longer weighs her down. Now it becomes evidence she uses to proclaim Jesus is the Messiah. She invites them. “Come and see,” because there are no words, because Jesus can’t be reduced to a platitude or formula. She tells all from the heart with honesty without shame or guile while her faith is still young, still in process, still forming. She doesn’t have answers. She has questions. Her questions spark curiosity in others who come and see for themselves.  (Debi Thomas, The Woman at the Well, Journey with Jesus, 3/08/20)

On one level this story is about evangelism. It is about how we tell the story of Jesus.  We do it with excitement and feeling because to tell about Jesus is personal. We do it with humility because we can only speak of what we know. We do it with urgency because there is the stuff of life in it that makes all the water bearing, schedule keeping, and responsibilities we observe worth it.

On another level this story is about inclusion—all people, all races, all religions, all genders—Jesus honors, blesses, and validates them all.  Jesus rested around 12 noon and struck up the longest conversation recorded in the bible between him and any other person. John writes that Jesus stayed in the woman’s city for two days. She, like John the Baptist, like the Apostles, like Mary Magdalene, like Paul, “prepares the way of the Lord” — and Jesus encouraged her to do so.  “Many Samaritans from that city,” the Gospel writer tells us, “believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”  Jesus was more radically inclusive of women than we are today.

She went to the well to fetch and carry water. Every gallon of water weighs more than 8 pounds. What have we carried here? What burdens did we bring to the well?  How much does it weigh on us? What timetables, what worries, what fear of our neighbors, what pain from the past, what anxiety do we have squeezed between our shoulder blades, or pounding through our heads, and/or fisting up in our stomach?

Let’s pause for a minute to let this story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman soak in like water into dry ground. Let it make your heart soft and pliable again. Let it make you into good soil again.

  • Here, the Son of God is tired, weary and thirsty. Jesus knows your need.
  • Here, the Messiah, despite that weariness, listens with understanding to an outsider and potential enemy. Jews and Samaritans did not share things in common with Samaritans (John 4:9). Not even hand sanitizer.
  • Here, Jesus breaks through the barriers of nationality; the political separation between warring factions; the social barriers between a man and a woman; and the religious divide between a woman and her God.
  • Here Jesus broke the barriers of orthodoxy and what it means to be religious.
  • Here is the universality of the gospel.
  • Here, grace is poured out like water, on everyone and everything like rain.
  • Here, God acts through Christ Jesus to love the world, not in theory, but in words and deeds.

In Holy Baptism, we give thanks for the gift of water, ‘for in the beginning [God’s] Spirit moved over the waters and by [the] Word created the world, calling forth life in which [God] took delight. Through the waters of the flood [God] delivered Noah and his family, and through the sea led [the] people Israel from slavery into freedom.  At the river [God’s] Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Holy Spirit.  By the baptism of Jesus’ death and resurrection [God] set us free from the power of sin and death and [raised] us up to live in Christ” (ELW p. 230).

Water, like grace, has weird, mysterious properties. Water expands when it freezes. Water seeks its own level. Water is not native to earth. Every drop of water came from outer space. Water remains water even when it is consumed. The amount of water in the world is never diminished but is endlessly recycled. Water, wears, rusts, cracks and soaks through everything because water dissolves almost everything.

Like water, God’s Spirit will not be constrained by false boundaries, social conventions, patterns of injustice, or religious intolerance.  Like water God’s grace is not reduced when shared. Soap of the gospel and water always wins. It will not be restrained but moves—just as God’s love cannot be contained but must flow through us.

That is why we will stay connected. The church was made for times such as these. We are going to have to get creative.  We’re going to have to learn new things. Make phone calls. Connect online. Check in with neighbors. Read and pray God’s word to keep your heart soft and strong. Together we will find a way through this Coronavirus valley.

“Who is speaking the Good News into your life?  How are you receiving their testimony?  In the most unlikely places, through the most unexpected voices, from the minds and bodies of the disempowered and the overlooked, the Word of God speaks, and the Living Water flows.  During this Lenten season, may we have ears to hear it, hearts to drink it in, and humility to honor and bless its proclamation.” (Debi Thomas)