Tag Archive for: Community

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.

Epiphany 7C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

What do you see when you think of God? An old man seated on a throne?  A brilliant light? Beauty in the world? Perhaps you picture the famous 15th century icon by Andrei Rublev of the Holy Trinity? Three figures: Father, Son and Holy Spirit seated around a table inviting you to join them? Today’s scripture confronts us with a startling image with power to make you sit up in bed from a sound sleep. Look for God, Jesus says, in the face of your enemy.

“I say to you…Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). Don’t do to others as they do to you but do to them as you would have them do. Not only Jesus but also the Psalmist exhorts us to “refrain from anger, and forsake wrath,” because “fretting” over evil only leads to more evil. (Psalm 37:8). In our first reading too, when the tables are turned and Joseph holds power over his brothers who faked his death and sold him into slavery, he says to them: “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”

Love of enemies may be the hardest of Jesus’ commandments, but it hardly comes as a surprise. Yes, Christianity insists on forgiveness. Yet I think forgiveness is something about which we are often confused. Forgiveness is not denial. Forgiveness isn’t a detour or a shortcut.  Forgiveness is not instantaneous. Forgiveness ideally leads to reconciliation and restoration of relationship, but not always. Forgiveness is necessary and life-giving for us when reconciliation is not possible or even desirable.

The sainted Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote, “We can’t create a world without pain or loss or conflict or hurt feelings, but we can create a world of forgiveness. We can create a world of forgiveness that allows us to heal from those losses and pain and repair our relationships” (Desmond Tutu & Mpho Tutu. “The Book of Forgiving,” p. 224). The architect of the Truth and Reconciliation Process in South Africa knew about forgiveness.

Tutu said forgiveness begins with telling our story and in naming the hurt. “There is no way of living with other people without, at some point, being hurt… The response to hurt is universal.  Each of us will experience sadness, pain, anger, or shame. What so often happens is we step unaware into the revenge cycle… If we cannot admit our own woundedness, we cannot see the other as a wounded person who harmed us out of ignorance. We must reject our common humanity” (Desmond Tutu, The Book of Forgiving, pp. 49-51). When we tell our stories and name our hurt, we become able to face our suffering. When we face into and accept our pain, we start to recognize that we don’t have to stay stuck in our story.  In the way of the cross, Jesus has shown us how to metabolize our hurts and suffering to strengthen the bond of connection and community among us.

In loving the enemy what we discover is that forgiveness is a pathway to our own healing and liberation. In her popular memoir, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes that withholding forgiveness is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die. Forgiveness is choosing to live with love instead of resentment. And something else, forgiveness builds trust. Our faithful effort to love the enemy and to forgive has consequences for people and lives surrounding us which can be measured in neighborliness, in respectfulness, and in safety.  I believe Immanuel’s decades-long ministries with young families and youth in which strangers become neighbors, allies, and friends has strengthened bonds of community in Edgewater in ways people can feel just walking down the street or lingering in the park. It has done this even as American culture has become dominated by a climate of fear which distorts the human faces in front of us into monsters, magnifies our own pain, and obstructs that of others.

Democracy is a way of life built on respect for the dignity of each individual. Dignity and respect cannot be taken for granted.  It must be taught. It must be modeled.  It is the product of a life-long commitment to love the neighbor, including our enemies. It is fruit which cannot be grown and tasted without forgiveness. Our secular democracy is faltering. It needs our help and faithfulness. Let your heart and mind be so transformed in Christ Jesus that even strangers around you become neighbors, allies, and friends. Bonds of social trust are extended and strengthened.

Imagine if neighborhood watch programs no longer emphasized surveillance and reporting of suspicious activities to the police but focused on joint neighborhood activities and mutual assistance instead. Imagine a future in which crime rates are reduced. Imagine prisons without bars, chains, or locks. Imagine a criminal justice system that allows inmates to leave for work or school. It sounds too good to be true—doesn’t it?  Yet there is such a place on earth right now where these things are a daily reality.

In the 1970’s U.S., policymakers got “tough on crime” and declared a War on Drugs. “They cemented excessive punishment in a system that has devastated Black and brown communities with mass incarceration.” Since then, the U.S. prison population has grown tenfold to 2 million people. Meanwhile, Finland has one of the lowest prison populations in the world — the number hovers around 3,000 — and one-third of its prisons operate as open—without bars or locks. (Natalie Moore, “How Finland is Reimagining Incarceration,” WBEZ, 11/15/21)

The love we learn here, your acts of faith and discipleship, can have a profound impact on the wider community. We are not made for evil but for goodness. “God is always and everywhere in the business of taking the worst things that happen to us, and going to work on them for the purposes of multiplying wholeness and blessing.  Because God is in the story, we can hope for the resurrection of all things… As Jesus promises his listeners, the measure we give will be given back to us: “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over” (Luke 6:38).  Because God loves us, we don’t have to forgive out of scarcity. We can forgive out of God’s amazing abundance” (Debi Thomas, “The Work of Forgiveness,” Journey with Jesus 2/13/22).

“The work of forgiveness is some of the hardest work we can do in this world.  It is also some of the most important work we can do in this world.  So.  May we stop drinking the poison of incivility and bitterness.  May we glimpse the “better selves” that reside within the people who do us harm.  May we rise.  And may we taste the full measure of the freedom that awaits us when we choose to forgive.” (Thomas)

Epiphany 6C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

On the eastern plains of Colorado on I-76 from Big Springs Nebraska to Denver the earth stretches out over a wide horizon.  Before seeing any water, you always know if and where there is a river from miles away, an irregular line of trees gives it away.  Mostly they are cottonwood trees which can grow three times the size of a Chicago three-flat. They thrive there despite less than 15 inches of annual rainfall because as Jeremiah described, ‘they are trees planted by water, sending out roots by the stream. They do not fear when heat comes, and their leaves stay green; even in the year of drought they are not anxious, and do not cease to flourish and grow’ (Jeremiah 17:8).

Jesus told the people how to thrive like those trees in the sermon on the plain in our Gospel today.  In a riddle of words that don’t seem to compute Jesus said, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, sad, and expendable.  Woe to you who are rich, full, happy, and popular.’ Did you just say word of God, word of life? What’s Jesus up to? Where did he get this?  What’s he saying? You won’t find a teaching like this in the Hebrew bible nor in the literature of ancient Greece. Jesus’ sermon on the plain is the first time in Jewish religious literature that the poor are called the blessed (Hengel, Property) [p.76].  In Jesus day, ‘The blessed ones,’ referred to Greek gods who, according to legend, possessed a life beyond all cares, labors, and death—the very opposite of the earth’s poor.

As Martin Luther loved to say, ‘what does this mean?’ Should we who are rich, full, happy, or popular wallow in guilt or get defensive? Should we romanticize poverty? Avoid happiness? Thanks be to God. No. For proof, just look at Jesus in today’s gospel. He is alleviating suffering in every way possible. No. Pain in and of itself is neither holy nor redemptive to Christians. Jesus, in fact, dispenses healing, abundance, liberation, and joy everywhere he goes. Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez once clarified, “God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will” (“Song and Deliverance,” in Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, 1991).

Notice too, Jesus’s sermon isn’t sorting people into categories of good and bad. Every blessing and every woe apply to every person.  As if to say: this is the human pattern.  This is where we all live. This is how world works. “We invite blessing every time we find ourselves empty and yearning for God, and we invite woe every time we retreat into smug and thoughtless self-satisfaction.  When I am “full” of anything but God, God “empties” me.  Not as punishment, but as grace.  Not as condemnation, but as loving reorientation.  When I am bereft, vulnerable, and empty in the world’s eyes, God blesses me with the fullness of divine mercy and kindness….in the divine economy, we are, all of us, on one level.  Blessed and woeful. Saint and sinner.” (Debi Thomas, “Leveled,” Journey with Jesus, 2/06/22) Beautiful and broken sharing the world together.

We are “like trees planted beside streams of water” (Psalm 1:3). Rather than posturing and pretending to be a storehouse of blessing, God calls us and the church to be a channel of blessing.  Even though great wealth might pass through, a channel remains poor. Even the mightiest river must constantly empty out.  St. Paul wrote, “though [Jesus] was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. [Jesus] humbled himself…to the point of death, even to death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8).

This is gospel medicine. This is how we put down roots that find water in a thirsty land. Not by an act of will, nor by an acquired skill, this is not a self-help program. It is power perfected in weakness (1 Cor. 12:9). It costs nothing and yet requires everything. How well might Jesus’ advice work when applied to your life—or to mine? There’s an old saying, ‘if it won’t preach beside a hospital bed or in a nursing home then it is not the gospel.’ Does Jesus sermon preach in even the most desperate of human predicaments? How might we apply Jesus’ sermon to the perennial problem of addiction, for example? I suspect each of us doesn’t need to reach very far into our family tree or search very long among friends and colleagues to encounter stories of addiction. Lives cut short, families rent apart, dreams lost, people hurt. My own extended family is haunted by stories of addiction.

When Grandpa Louis came to visit, he let me drive his truck. That was quite a thrill for a nine-year-old, but nothing out of the ordinary for a retired farmer like him who learned to handle heavy equipment from childhood.  On his 53rd birthday the whole family climbed in the car to picnic on top of Buckhorn Mountain. The scenery was inspiring. The conversation was warm.  Two weeks later he died a massive heart attack in a janitor’s closet where he worked.  My grandpa was an alcoholic.

And I didn’t know Uncle Roger very well but, I remember, he gave me my first beer.  I was five or six. Two sips later my whole face froze in an expression of bitterness at that awful taste. It may be what prevented me from drinking until college. Uncle Roger was the baby in a family of eleven boys and girls. He was the last one to work the family farm before it was sold but the first one to die.  He was 49.  My Uncle Roger was an alcoholic.

There are many ways for addiction to seize us, beyond drugs or alcohol.  There are people like Doris (not her real name) who leads an active and successful life.  She’s popular and an effective businesswoman.  Happy on the outside, secretly she hates herself because she cannot control her weight.  She is addicted to eating. Then there is Jim, a man of moderation in all things except his work.  Addicted to his own sense of responsibility and need to perform. He is recovering from a heart attack and his family hopes he will slow down.  He doubts that he can.

Addiction forges an unbreakable vice which only gets tighter and tighter until it breaks us. The harder we try the worse it gets.  Yet it is possible to recover. There is hope even after rock bottom. Once we have exhausted our strength and are empty that we can be filled. We don’t have to be like my Grandpa Louis or my uncle Roger. We can get help. Part of the genius of AA is knowing that God does not care what name you call them—just call them. Call on your higher power to draw life and strength from the river of God’s grace to flourish and be blessed again like a tree.

Jesus’ sermon conjures an image of a life that does not seem at first to compute. We only glimpse it before it evaporates faster than spit on an Arizona sidewalk. The preacher, Frederick Buechner writes this: “The world says, ‘Mind your own business,’ and Jesus says, ‘There is no such thing as your own business.’ The world says, ‘Follow the wisest course and be a success,’ and Jesus says, ‘Follow me and be crucified.’ The world says, ‘Drive carefully — the life you save may be your own’ — and Jesus says, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’ The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’ In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.” (Thomas)

“This is not prosperity theology. This is not “blessing” as health, wealth, and happiness. This is a teaching so costly, most of us will do anything to domesticate it. Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, sad, and expendable. Why? Because you have everything to look forward to. Because the Kingdom of God is yours.  Because Jesus came, and comes still, to fill the empty-handed with good things. May the God who gives and takes away, offers comfort and challenge, grant us the grace to sit with woe, and learn the meaning of blessing.” (Thomas) The psalmist said, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

Epiphany 5C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

In Carl Reiner’s 1977 film, O God, the lead character, played by John Denver, slowly drives past a ringing phone booth in his ugly, orange-colored AMC Pacer.  He stops, backs up, and answers the phone.  It’s God of course –played by George Burns—whom we suddenly see in the phone booth next to him dressed in khakis and a pith helmet.  God just called to talk before leaving on safari.

John Denver thinks he must be going crazy, of course. It’s an in-your-face, God will not be denied, call story to rival the one we have today from Isaiah in the temple of God, or Paul on the Damascus Road, or Peter, James, and John beside the Sea of Galilee. What’s your call story?  It’s a question every pastor hears again and again. I’ve heard quite a few. They seldom include such cinematic visions. Like you, pastors don’t see flying seraphs when we pray or receive absolution via tongs and live coals. If God were to appear to you in such dramatic fashion, would you respond with gratitude, or, like John Denver, with fear for our mental health? Like Isaiah, Paul, and Peter might you be overwhelmed with unworthiness at standing in the presence of God?

It is difficult to imagine such dramatic call stories, and yet I wonder, why are you here? Why have you tuned in on YouTube or Facebook?  Whether you have been coming here to Immanuel for three weeks or sixty years, whether this is your very first time, or the first time in a long time, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest you were called.  Called, prompted, urged, provoked, invited, cajoled, or bribed, each of us is somehow or other drawn here by the Divine lure of the Spirit. We are drawn together like a miraculous catch of fish.  Like fish out of water, we are lifted into a life we could not have imagined or nor sustained by ourselves.

As the sun rose over the Sea, Peter and his helpers, James, and John, were simple fisherman.  They lived their lives moving between ship and shore following the feeding rhythms of fish.  Peter was a husband, a homeowner, a businessman, and a resident of Capernaum in Galilee.  When he returned to shore, he would also become the first member of Christ’s church, a fisher for people (Luke 5:11).

Each of us, in our own way, is called to leave the shallow comforts of the familiar and put out into the deep water.  Much of what is called Christianity today is shallow. It may have more to do with keeping the peace, feathering our nests, or avoiding treading too deeply into matters of injustice, systematic racism, xenophobia, fear mongering, deathly materialism, and ecological ruin. Religion’s constant temptation to self-righteousness and moralism can make religious life feel like a cosmetic piety. It only goes so deep.

“There are two utterly different forms of religion: one believes that God will love me if I change; the other believes that God loves me so that I can change.  The first is the most common; the second follows upon an experience of indwelling and personal love” (Richard Rohr, The Enneagram, p. xxii). The gospel of Christ is an invitation to transform our fragile egos.

Here, we are called from death into life. Here, in Word and Sacrament, we behold God’s promise to be always with us beyond these walls.  Here, we slowly understand God’s call doesn’t come from outside –like a phone call from a distant far away heaven—but from inside from God who is at once, immanent and transcendent, incarnate, dwelling within us.  We encounter this God in one another, in people of other races and religions, in solidarity with the poor, in the intricate ecology of the earth, and in weakness. God is with us in our brokenness, in our mortality, and in our aging and inadequate bodies.

Peter could feel the pressure mount up in him until it overwhelmed him, and he cried out, “Go away from me Lord!” (Luke 5:8) In Greek, he said “Get out of my neighborhood!” It was the same thing we heard last Sunday when the people of Nazareth drove him out of the synagogue and meant to throw him off the cliff.  Get away.  Leave me alone.  Except Peter’s reasons were different. The people of Nazareth wanted Jesus out of their neighborhood because he was unwilling to grant them special treatment, while Peter ordered Jesus away because he was not special enough.

God doesn’t withhold love from you until you are changed; God’s love is what enables you to change. The indwelling of God’s love makes us worthy. Yet beware, answering the call may require us to change our definition of success.  God choose Isaiah to preach to people who will not listen.  God asked him to speak in ways that “make the mind of the people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes.”

“The promise that ends Isaiah’s vision isn’t the promise of a packed out mega-church.  It’s not a promise of prosperity or popularity.  It’s the promise of a “stump.”  A remnant.  A “holy seed.” It’s the promise of not much — but exactly enough…There’s a price to pay when we say “yes” to God.  There’s a recalibration of success we have to make when we accept the divine call and say, “Send me.”  What matters after the “yes” is strange and countercultural.  What matters is integrity.  Truthfulness.  Long-suffering.  Patience.  What matters is believing wholeheartedly in the divine economy of stumps and seeds.  Because this is how God works.  This is how God measures success.  Out of the tiny, the hidden, and the barely discernible, God’s life springs.  The wasteland becomes the garden.  The stump becomes a mighty tree.  God takes the palette of dread and desolation, and turns it riotous with color…It might not happen soon.  We might not see it in our lifetimes.  But the vision remains, and its promise sustains, enlivens, and fills us.  Dare we trust the God of mere seeds?” (Debi Thomas,” I Saw the Lord!” Journey with Jesus, 1/30/22)

Answering Jesus’ call led Peter to embrace a mission that was well beyond his imagining, that far exceeded his own strength or capacity to achieve.  We are like fish drawn in a net, pulled out of the life we know, and deposited on the sandy shores of a new kingdom, called Incredibly, unbelievably, to become like fish living out of water. We seek out other fish struggling to breath and gasping for life because they don’t know yet how to live.  We engage in a kind of fishing that is life-giving rather than life-taking.  We use the bait of grace and forgiveness, rather than threats or intimidation. We set sail to journey deeper into suffering and pain. Out of our depth, God’s indwelling love somehow empowers us be more that we could have imagined. God’s people are diverse, but see, we are all becoming part of the One Life, and what joy there is this Life Together. May God be praised!

Epiphany 4C-22
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The year was 1971. I was nine years old, and my little league baseball team won the city championship. We were the ‘Skeltons,’ named after a local politician in Champaign, Illinois. If you played for the Skeltons, other kids assumed you must be a pretty good ball player. Truth is I didn’t swing my bat once that summer. My whole strategy was to stare at the pitcher hard enough they couldn’t throw strikes. (Sounds like an episode of the Wonder Years, doesn’t it?)

There were other kids like me on the team. We were kids lucky enough to play on a championship team because we were lucky enough to play on the same team as David. David was as quiet as he was big. That summer before fourth grade, David seemed as big as a man. He could hit the ball over the fence and into the parking lot. In fact, David could hit the ball over the fence and hit the sign next to the parking lot, six feet off the ground. He was a one-man team. Of course, we had other kids who made a difference—some that could pitch for example. But there was no doubt, David was our not-so-secret weapon. He was our ace in the hole.

In ancient times, whole cities were organized like little league baseball teams. They lived and died together. For better or worse, your place of birth was linked to your identity. It was even part of your name—as in ‘Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee.’ Jesus’ friends and neighbors must have hoped that finally, Nazareth would overcome its reputation as a backwater. They would be champions! Jesus was their king David. Expectations were high that day as Jesus entered the synagogue. Luke tells us the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon him.

What did Jesus say that turned them from loving friends to murderous mob? Jesus refused to play ball. He was not theirs—but signed with another team that included their non-Jewish enemies—like the widow of Zarephath and the Naaman the Syrian. Jesus, their star player, wouldn’t play exclusively for them because God doesn’t play favorites. So, the good people of Nazareth drove Jesus out of town to throw him over a cliff.

Jesus offered the people of his hometown a new contract, a new covenant to live by. He invites us to live or die playing for a non-exclusive team. If you think it’s preposterous, you’re not alone. Most of God’s people have said the same thing. The prophet Jeremiah protested, “I’m only a boy” (Jeremiah 1:6). Moses argued, ‘I can’t stand up to Pharoah. I don’t even talk good’ (Exodus 3:11). Gideon scoffed saying, “I am the least in my family” (Judges 6:15). King Saul told young David he didn’t stand a chance against Goliath. He was too small even wear battle armor or to pick up a heavy sword (1 Samuel 17: 32-40). Apparently, God likes to start small.
The gospel of Jesus is terrifying and outrageous. Terrifying because he calls us to step up to the plate. Outrageous because of who he calls us to go to bat for. The game’s on the line. It’s the bottom of the ninth, and who does Jesus call up to the plate? You and me. God calls me to swing the bat. Stop looking around for other people and get in the game. You don’t need special equipment. You already have everything you need. You are gifted beyond your imagining. As God told Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” We go to bat for those who suffer; for the excluded; for people of other religions; for strangers, and even our enemies.

Clearly Jesus plays by different rules. Different even from those of many religious people. Gone are all the purity codes and the reasons to exclude sinners. The gospel is a call to live differently. “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). I Corinthians thirteen is read at eight of every ten weddings I attend. Yet the “love chapter” is not about weddings. It is about loving your worst enemy in the pew next to you, on the next pillow, or looking back at you in the mirror. Yet how can we be so loving? –and especially to everyone?

Here we are at the heart of the matter. Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:12-13. The more excellent way of the gospel is a way of generous forgiveness that hopes all things and forgives all things. It is a way that is against the grain of the world. It would be impossible for us but for Jesus, our champion, working in us and through us.

What Jesus calls for is not for us to be merely unselfish, but for us to be empty, to be needy, to be, in ourselves, impoverished. We are not the Good Samaritan but the one laying in the dich. Jesus alone is the Good Samaritan –whom we must ready ourselves to receive. We must give up trying to save ourselves through our wealth, reputation, and good works. Psychologically, we don’t like this: we want to be the strong, independent “givers” to others (out of our excess) rather than being needy, dependent “receivers” from both God and others. Yet ‘if you reject your need, you can neither give nor receive from one another, nor receive from God.’ (Arthur C. McGill, Death and Life: An American Theology, p. 86) “Real life, true life, is not the life we try to make ourselves, on our own terms, a narcissistic life; rather, true life is what we receive moment by moment from others” and from God. (Sallie Mcfague, A New Climate for Christology, p. 79)

It’s time to step up to the plate. It’s time to go to bat. It is time to preach good news to the poor, not because we must speak for or bring God to the poor, but because that is where we will find God. We must give our life to find it. We must be empty to receive and become empty again. Loving the neighbor is not just nice religious talk, but it is the way reality works. It is the way God works. God who is revealed to us as Trinity, the three-in-one. We can never hope to live “on our own” by our possessions (whether wealth, reputation, or power); rather, we must accept our poverty, our neediness, and allow others to feed us as we must feed others. In other words, we must accept universal adult reciprocal friendship –giving and receiving at deep, sacrificial levels. Jesus, our king David, has already won for us the victory.

Epiphany 3C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Nazareth was a small town struggling through lean times. People were eager to see Jesus. The synagogue was packed. ‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.’ (Luke 4:22a) “Is not this Joseph’s son? (Luke 4:22b), they asked.

Among friends and kinsfolk Jesus launched his mission. “I have come to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of jubilee” (Luke 4:18-19).  Jubilee came once every 50 years.  It was a tradition when debts were forgiven, and land reverted to its original owner.

Modern Christians are startled to realize Jesus’ mission statement doesn’t say anything about getting to heaven. These are revolutionary words for oppressed people. They are the words of a liberator.  These words focus on today, and not some future day. Today, God comes to unlock, release, heal, and proclaim. Today, the kingdom of God is at hand and within reach (Mark 1:15). Jesus’ mission is focused on the here and now—not the great bye-and-bye.

Hometown listeners were startled too, but for different reasons. “The eyeballs of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” (Luke 4:20b). I wonder, was Jesus tempted at all by the lure of fame?  He could be great. Jesus, who has just been able to resist Satan’s temptations, now, faced another in real time, akin to the spectacular show of jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple and surviving.  But Jesus did not merely want to be wanted. Instead, if his kinsfolk wanted in on his new franchise they must begin to stand with people on the outside of life, the wrong side of the tracks, the other side of the border (Luke 4:21-30). Jesus challenged them to switch sides.  Did they stand only for the people of Nazareth, or with people in need, including even their enemies?

Their hostility in reply would seem predictable (more on that next Sunday when we read the rest of the story).  Yet it would be hard for us to understate the outrage Jesus provoked. Being a local boy from the hill country of ancient Palestine carried important social obligations, including unquestioned preference and priority for one’s own.  It’s how the people of Nazareth survived. They eked out a subsistence living by sharing resources.  Loyalty to insiders brought security, opportunity, and authority.  In this system, social standing was as good as gold.  It could be spent like shekels or Roman coins. The people of Nazareth thought they were insiders with Jesus.  His fame, power, and standing reflected their own. They lived by a ‘Nazareth First’ mentality—but Jesus called them to share their gifts and everything else with the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed.

Both ancient and modern readers of today’s gospel are startled by the realization: The captives Jesus is intent upon freeing include all of us.  Jesus unrolled the scroll of Isaiah to announce his intention to unlock hearts and minds captive to the idea that peace comes through domination, legalized violence, and/or the elimination of enemies.  This drive to dominance is killing us along with the planet yet we still cling to it today.  Instead, Jesus’ mission, as Mary sang in the Magnificat, involves God bringing down the powerful (Luke 1:52-53) and lifting up the lowly. (Luke 4:18).  The Roman Empire used the cross to punish rebels and instill fear into submission: Jesus will use a cross to expose the cruelty and injustice of those in power and instill hope and confidence in the oppressed. (Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, pp. 123-24) The cross will proclaim forgiveness rather than condemnation. The cross will reveal that our short lives find their true home grafted into the undying life and love of God.

It has been nearly two thousand years since Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah in his hometown synagogue.  Yet we are still slow to comprehend and even slower to embrace the good news Jesus announced that day. John Lennon famously suggested that maybe it’s time to cash in our chips and, “Imagine . . . no religion.”  To the extent that religion is behind so much hostility and small mindedness I can see why so many are seeming to align themselves with that point of view. If only the church lived the gospel more, then we might become religious again they say.  I don’t know.  Judging from the response of Jesus’ friends and family and ultimately, from his arrest and crucifixion, why would we expect the world to flock to our doors? Yet, that is not to say we should give up.  As anthropologist Margaret Meade famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Jesus unrolled the scroll and opened our hearts, hands, eyes, and minds to a possible impossibility. The way of the cross is a possible impossibility for us through faith in Christ Jesus. “This possible impossibility is, I think, what Jesus meant when he claimed that the kingdom or commonwealth of God was at hand. It was not out of reach, impossible; nor was it in hand, already attained. It was simultaneously in reach and not yet seized, a gift already fully given, and not yet fully received, opened, and enjoyed. Jesus embodied this truth to the edges of Judaism and beyond, and the apostles spread it “to the uttermost parts of the earth”: God’s commonwealth was a table where the Pharisees and prostitutes were equally welcome, the chief priests and the Samaritans, the Sadducees and the Roman centurions, the poor homeless leper and the rich young leader, Onesimus the slave and Philemon the slave master, Gentile and Jew, male and female, one and all. A new religion called Christianity (that conflicted term, of course, didn’t exist yet) wasn’t the point; the kingdom or commonwealth of God was the point … for Jesus, for Paul, and for all the apostles.” (Brian McLaren, “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?”, pp. 250-52)

You will open the door and step inside the commonwealth of God. You will find your seat at the Great Banquet.  You become part of the possible impossibility of Jesus’ mission as you take a step toward someone who others have left out.  When you refuse to dismiss or to label others as unimportant or less than; when you refuse to give in to despair but choose instead to be hopeful; when you let yourself in for feeling uncomfortable, or awkward, or embarrassed, then, at that very moment, you have entered the kingdom of God.  This has power not only to change ourselves but also to change the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”

A good prayer for this day might be Prayer of the Farm Workers’ Struggle, written by Cesar Chavez, UFW Founder (1927-1993):

Show me the suffering of the most miserable;

so I will know my people’s plight.

Free me to pray with others;

for you are present in every person.

Help me to take responsibility for my own life;

so that I can be free at last.

Grant me the courage to struggle for justice;

for in such struggle there is true life.

Give me honesty and patience;

so that I can organize our community.

Bring forth song and celebration;

so that the Spirit will be alive among us.

Let the Spirit flourish and grow;

so that we will never tire of the struggle.

Let us remember those who have died for justice;

for they have given us life.

Help us to love even those who hate us;

so we can change the world. Amen.

Epiphany 2C-22
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Author Madeleine L’Engle wrote that winter “reveals structure” behind the riot of leaf and flower of spring. Stripped down to the icy branches, Epiphany manifests a January spirituality helping us see what we cannot otherwise see. The prophet Isaiah proclaims the whole earth is full of God’s glory (Isaiah 6:3). In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus declares, “cleave the wood and I am there” (Saying 77). The apostle Paul, invoking Greek philosophers, asserts that God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Epiphany is about revealing the extraordinary that is always, already in the everyday.

We live in a miraculous world of galaxies, black holes, and MRNA vaccines and yet our modern mentality often handicaps our ability to apprehend the signs of God’s handiwork. Signs, after all, can be confusing. Signs are easy to miss. When I head out of downtown on the Ohio feeder ramp I always get confused. The signs direct you left to turn right. Move south to go north. It works fine if you read the signs. But the turn is so counter-intuitive for me I have to re-think it every time.

This season after Epiphany (now until February 27th) is about learning to read the signs. You may feel like you’re all by your lonesome self out there navigating through life, but Jesus, the revealer, has shown us the living God is always walking with us. Epiphanies like Moses’ encounter at the burning bush, or like that which occurred in the mind of the prodigal son while he sat feeding pigs, or like that which knocked Paul from his horse on the road to Damascus, or like what Peter saw in a dream while sleeping on a rooftop in Joppa—are signs that change lives and the course of history.

We must learn to read the signs. The wedding at Cana in Galilee was the first of Jesus’ signs and revealed his glory (John 2:11). Six stone jars for the Jewish rites of purification stood empty, waiting to be filled. Six stone jars which could each hold 20-30 gallons. Six jars, just as there were six days of creation. On the seventh day, creation did not need to be purified because God’s creation was already deliciously good. The miracle at Cana of Galilee underscores God’s extravagance. Wine is a symbol of joy. God stands ready to fill our empty hearts to overflowing. Come drink and be satisfied. Let your hearts and minds be transformed in unity with God in Christ.

The wedding at Cana is a familiar story and as such it presents a unique problem. We must take time to read this sign and not assume we already know what it says. As pastor, something I notice about today’s gospel is what Jesus didn’t do. Jesus didn’t preside at the wedding. He gave no sermon about marriage. He offered no advice about family. He didn’t say a prayer or offer a blessing for the bride and groom. What message is Jesus trying to send?

The whole wild and joyous, somewhat raucous, slightly drunken scene is just what the Pharisees, and other upright uptight religious people of his day, complained about. It fits the portrayal of Jesus, in all four gospels’, as a man who disdained the pious preference for purity, such as the Sabbath laws, as a man who included the traditionally unclean in what he called a greater purity, as belonging to a fellowship of faith characterized by a longing of the heart to love God and all people—especially those whom others didn’t love—like prostitutes, lepers, a certain very short tax collector, and the poor.

Do we do Jesus an injustice by ignoring his love of dinner parties? Do we misread the signs by overlooking his love of life? Is there something about the radical incarnation and inclusiveness of Jesus that makes us look away?

Unfortunately, what we call orthodox Christianity seems determined to flip this gospel on its head. The temperance traditions that led to Prohibition, for example, reflect a profound uneasiness with the message this sign of Jesus sends. How many Christians to this day would prefer a Jesus who changed wine into water, who consorted with only the best people (that is, people like us), and who focused on purity rather than the radical incarnation blessing of our bodies as the messy earthen vessels in which God is pleased to dwell?

Reading the sign, the wedding at Cana becomes an invitation to fall into a Trinitarian way of life. It is to “stand under” the flow of God’s grace, to participate in it, and to be transformed by it. The Franciscan philosopher, theologian, and mystic St. Bonaventure (c. 1217–1274), described the Trinity as a “fountain fullness” of overflowing love. Picture a water wheel. Each bucket on a water wheel fills up and empties out and is filled again. If the buckets don’t empty themselves the wheel gets stuck and won’t turn. The three Persons of the Trinity empty themselves and pour themselves out into each other. By contrast, most of us want the gift of grace without the risk letting go. Yes. We want the three-day wedding party. We want 180 gallons of wine to keep in our wine cellar. Yet the message of this sign reads God’s love cannot be received unless it is freely and completely given away. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Images of the Trinity, 1/12/22) We must learn to empty ourselves as Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself and did what? –took the form of a slave (Philippians 2:6-7) How counter-intuitive is that?

To read the signs Jesus repeatedly reminds us “you must become like little children.” In our conventional forms of grown-up life, we elevate certainty and performance, while children value the messy interpersonal exchange of improvisation and play. The sign says God is determined to trade the perfection of his solo performance for the possibility of playing a little improvisational jazz with us, who are nothing more than screechy amateur saxophone players in the Kingdom of God’s ragtag band.
Respected jazz musician Stefon Harris describes the interplay among players in a jazz quartet as “sacred,” because improvisation requires trust and risk and intimacy. Harris says: “The bandstand is really a sacred space, because you have no opportunity to think about the future or the past—you’re really alive in the moment. Everyone is listening [to each other], we’re responding. So, the idea of a mistake, from the perspective of a jazz musician, is [strange]. Every mistake is an opportunity in jazz.”

“We recoil from mistakes because we’ve falsely believed Jesus is judging us for how many “wrong notes” we play in our lives. But Jesus wants relationship, and like a jazz quartet, he craves “sacred space” with us—when we are “alive in the moment” because we are taking risks with him and because of him. This requires relational courage. We listen to God and each other with fierce attention, then embrace risk after risk to create something unique and beautiful.” (Leadership Skills Drawn from Jazz, Rick Lawrence, Executive Director, Friday Thoughts, 1/14/22)

Andrew Young, the former ambassador to the United Nations, Georgia congressman and mayor of Atlanta, told ABC News that in the hour before he stepped out onto the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN and became the most famous martyr of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. started a pillow fight. “…He picked up a pillow and threw it at me,” Young said. “And he was in a more playful mood than I had seen him in years, I mean, acting like a child. I threw the pillow back and then everybody else picked up pillows and started beating me up. It was like a bunch of 12-year-olds.”

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, born in 130 CE famously said, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” Who is more alive than a child at play? Learn to read the signs. The glory of God is the communion of all things fully alive. “Wherever the human heart is healed, justice gains a foothold, peace holds sway, an ecological habitat is protected, wherever liberation, hope and healing break through, wherever an act of simple kindness is done, a cup of cool water given, a book offered to a child thirsty for learning, there the human and earth community already reflect, in fragments, the visage of the trinitarian God. Borne by “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,” we become committed to a fruitful future inclusive of all peoples, tribes, and nations, all creatures of the earth. The reign of God gains another foothold in history.” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (New York: Continuum, 2007), 223–224)