Posts

Palm Sunday A-20
Immanuel, Chicago

I’ve had this old cross more than twenty years now. It has cracks, saw marks, dents, and worm holes. It is so time-worn and irregular it appears it was fashioned by nature rather than by human hands. Every angle tells a story.

It’s just two pieces of wood—three if you count the base—notched together and nailed into place. It is surprisingly sturdy, heavy, and solid. This old cross speaks to me of former lives lived—of poverty, of hardship—of lives made strong by faith and made beautiful by grace.

As I child I saw the cross in my church as a reminder only of Jesus’ suffering and my guilt. The cross of Christ said, look what you did to me! Look at the pain you inflicted, the violence you harbor in your heart, the energy and ingenuity you invest in hating your enemies and in rejecting the love of God.

The cross speaks all these truths of course. Yet it became the central Christian logo and sign of the good news because it also stands for more than judgment for sin. The cross is the tree of life with leaves meant for the healing of the nations. The cross is a door. Knock and it will be opened to you. It is the gate of the good shepherd that swings wide to lead out into green pasture. It is the gate of the sheepfold that closes to give shelter from thieves and bandits. The cross is a trail marker on the way. It is a compass that points to truth and the life.

The cross was what people remembered. The cross is the root from which all four gospels sprang. The end is the beginning. Everything told about Jesus before the passion grew from the scandal, mystery, and glory of the cross.

Perhaps this pandemic brings us a little closer to uncovering its mystery and meaning. These strange chaotic, overwhelming, lonely, and difficult days might open our fisted minds to the gospel. Afterall, the cross reveals that pain and suffering are among life’s most profound teachers. Powerlessness is the beginning of wisdom. This life is not about you, but you are about life.

St. Paul quotes an early Christian hymn and creedal statement in his letter to the church in Philippi. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, 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” (Philippians 2:5-7).

Jesus emptied himself in riding into Jerusalem on a humble colt as people shouted hosanna! He is going to die. Joyous happy people surround him including his disciples who do not yet understand what he’s doing. I confess I have lived through many an Easter this way. I take solace knowing that Jesus went to the cross for them anyway. He goes there for me. Jesus went to the cross for all those happy, clueless, soon to be fair-weather-friends. He did it for those who betrayed him. He did it for those who despised and hated him. He did it for the whole God-hating world. He did it to show us all the way to eternal life that leads through death.
This Thursday is the feast day of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed in a Nazi prison camp just days before it was liberated by Allied forces. Bonhoeffer reflects on the meaning of the cross this way. “Humans are challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world. One must therefore plunge oneself into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or trying to transform it. . . One must abandon every attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, a converted sinner, a churchman… To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism. . . but to be a human being. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world… It is in such a life that we throw ourselves utterly in the arms of God and participate in his sufferings in the world and watch with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, and that is what makes a human and a Christian. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison)

Walking the way of the cross will make us more human. Wouldn’t that be a great result of this paschal season? This holy week, I encourage you to take out your cross. Do you have one on the wall, standing on a shelf somewhere, or hanging around your neck? Perhaps there is an image of the cross that speaks to you from the internet? I’m particularly drawn to those photos of the cross taken by Ansel Adams, or paintings of the cross by Georgia O’keefe. As we Stay-at-Home to save lives remember God is with you and we are joined together in spirit. We are gathered to Christ at the cross. No matter the burden, no matter the hardship we, like this old rugged cross, are made strong again by faith, and made beautiful by grace. Let the people shout Hosanna! Our help is near. Amen.

Lent 5A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.” (John 11:39, KJV) The King James translation may not be as reliable as other versions, but it is often unmatched for turn of phrase.

Lord, it stinketh. Staying at home and sheltering in place makes me a little depressed and disoriented. I miss you all. I miss gathering. I miss the life and vitality of the city. So far, no one we know is infected with the virus among friends and family of Immanuel. But still, helping to flatten the curve makes me angry. Why isn’t our government better prepared?

The financial impact is already being felt. This week, we provided assistance to four families for groceries and other necessities. People are laid off, incomes are diminished, as we near the end of the month some families must choose between paying the rent and buying food. Local businesses are threatened. Those working retail or in medical settings are scared. Some were forced this week to mourn loved ones with no way to schedule a funeral.

Yet we have reason to hope. Scholar and preacher, Walter Wink, has said the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel, whom we read today, may be the first in all of scripture to proclaim the promise and power of the resurrected life God offers through the always present power of grace. It was a joyful discovery born of long suffering. The desolation of war and forced exile into slavery in foreign lands lead the prophet Ezekiel to envision the nation of Israel as a wasteland of bones scattered across a desert valley (Ezekiel 37). Lifeless, windswept, and eerie, the “great many bones that were very dry” stood for all that remained of Israel after the bloody and tragic war with Babylon.

Those bones evoke an image of loss that exceeds our own today. Bones that spoke of what once was but is no more. No more flesh, no more blood, no more heart and soul. No more Promised Land. No more Chosen People. Captivity sapped their hope. “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.” (37:11). God’s chosen people felt hopeless.

Helpless and hopeless is exactly how Mary and her sister Martha felt upon the death of their brother Lazarus (John 11). They are bewildered at Jesus’ absence. They are gripped by feelings of abandonment. Martha rushed to meet Jesus on the road. Her first words upon seeing him, four full days after Lazarus’ death, is part question and part accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (v. 20). It’s the same sort of question an ancient Hebrew in Babylon might have asked Ezekiel –“Can these bones live again?” Couldn’t God have saved Israel? Couldn’t he have healed Lazarus? Why does God seem so absent from us? Lord, this stinketh. We raise this lament today.

We join people of faith who raise their voices to God as the psalmist sings, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” (Psalm 130: 1-2) Here we are church. Now into our own pandemic-centered lives enters the Word of God in this wonderful and strange gospel.

Jesus met Mary on the road while she is still lost in grief and told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me, will never die” (John 11:25, 26). Our bible does not offer an antidote to the very real and painful realities of life. But it gives us something worth fighting for, something we can believe in born of grace. We have been joined to the undying life of the living God forever. We do not always understand. Yet we know that we are loved. When he saw Mary weeping, the King James says simply, “Jesus wept” (v.35).

With his tears, he assures Mary and Martha, not only that their beloved brother is worth crying for, but also that they are worth crying with. He acknowledges the grief that must inevitably accompany love. He acknowledges his own mortality. By raising Lazarus he will seal his fate in Jerusalem. With his tears Jesus kindles the fire of hope in believing this old world that so grieved Israel, that provoked the psalmist, that still vexes us, can yet be changed for the better.
Here in the eleventh chapter of John we are so near to Jerusalem and to Calvary. The place of death and mourning at Lazarus graveside is just “two miles away” from the cross. Today we are just two weeks away from the Empty Tomb. I fear our Easter will resemble that first Easter a little too much. We will all be separated and hiding in our homes. There were no flowers, no eggs, no chocolate bunnies that first Easter morning either but rest assured God was with them. The glory of that morning still resounds to this day.

When Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, he stumbled out into a faith community that cared for him and loved him. They unwrapped his funeral clothes and welcomed him home with their tears. It is the same spirit that binds us together in spirit. God’s family is big. We are joined together with people in our hometowns, greater Chicago, around the world, and throughout time. One tangible sign of God’s gift of grace is wherever we go we are sure to find family. There will always be siblings in faith to share our lives with and to walk with us through all our losses and our grief.

I leave you with a prayer written last Sunday by Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. Perhaps you have seen it? Let us pray.

“God who made us all,
Our healers are exhausted, God. Give rest to those who care for the sick.
Our children are bored, God. Grant extra creativity to their caregivers.
Our friends are lonely, God. Help us to reach out.
Our pastors are doing the best they can, God. Help them to know it is enough.
Our workers are jobless, God. Grant us the collective will to take care of them.
Our fellow parents are losing their minds, God. Bring unexpected play and joy and dance parties to all in need.
Our grocery workers are absorbing everyone’s anxiety, God. Protect them from us.
Our elderly are even more isolated God. Comfort them.
We haven’t done this before and we are scared, God.
I don’t even know what else to pray for.”

To which all God’s people, from ancient times up to today may say, Amen.

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)