Posts

Proper 25A-20-Reformation
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It’s Reformation Sunday 2020. The church is decked out in red. A Mighty Fortress is our featured hymn. But there is no timpani drum, no brass band, no trumpet this year. The church is mostly empty this morning. Like you, I’m at home, as is the lector, and assisting minister. As you listen to each of us lead worship there is silence in the sanctuary on this festival day. Plans included the rite of confirmation, a well-deserved milestone moment celebrating the faith life of one our special youth. But like everything this year, our plans have changed. Sam was folding his laundry here at my house Thursday night when he got a phone call. A co-worker tested positive for the virus. So now we’re quarantined due to possible exposure to Covid-19. Graciously, Natalie and her family agreed. Confirmation will be rescheduled.

Reformation is not only our theme today. It is our lived reality. Pandemic, upheaval, awakening, and record-breaking events are daily news. This year gives a new perspective on Martin Luther and the reformers. Living through a Reformation is much different than celebrating one from a safe distance of 500 years. The future promised them nothing. They could not say whether or when they might be arrested, attacked, or killed. Every day could prove to be their last. Yet they met such grave uncertainty with faith. Faith was their compass in the storm.

There is a storm today. The Reformation brought dramatic religious, political, economic and cultural change that upended people’s lives. Today’s Reformation includes all of these and one more—ecological change. In 2020 Reformation is literally reshaping the landscape. Three of the largest wildfires in Colorado history occurred this year and two are still burning. Snow is falling today over the Northern Rockies providing relief to communities throughout the State. The Cameron Peak fire burned to within 15 miles of our family home in Fort Collins. Fire still threatens Sky Ranch Lutheran camp, the YMCA of the Rockies, Rocky Mountain National Park, and much of the rest of my childhood stomping grounds. Smoke covers the cities along the front range like a thick fog. It’s difficult to see and hard to breath. Two air purifiers work to make sleeping easier for my mom. Now she has two reasons—the smoke and Covid—to feel unsafe going outside.

There is a storm today. In 2020 Reformation threatens cherished institutions of democracy, the constitution and the balance of powers. Political parties are hardening into tribes and go to war. Each calls the other evil. In 2020 Reformation is proving we need a new economic yardstick. Endless growth in GDP is not good economics if the result is planetary death. True prosperity will be achieved when every person has access to life’s essentials in ways the planet can sustain. In 2020 Reformation is giving breathe to those who could not breathe. People of color, women, native American, LGBTQ, and gender queer people are finding that their voices can be heard, and their suffering can finally be seen when it is video streamed through a cell phone. In 2020 Reformation is seeing that children are children are children regardless of their religion, or whether they live in affluent zip codes or poor zip codes, whether they are in war zones or refugee camps. The storm is upon us in 2020, both threatening and promising. Like Martin Luther and the reformers before us, faith must be our compass if we are not to be overwhelmed and undone.

Yet, when we are fearful, anxious, and uncertain faith is most difficult. The faithful way forward is counter-cultural, unexpected, appears foolish, even sentimental in the midst of life’s storms. Yet faith has proven itself trustworthy. Faith reliably leads to healing, reconciliation, flourishing, and shared abundance.

Jesus demonstrated this faith throughout his life but especially in his last days before death on the cross. In our gospel today, it’s the Pharisees turn to play gotcha with Jesus. The Sadducees, Scribes and Herodians all struck out. ‘Teacher’, they ask, ‘Which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ (Matthew 22:36). Jewish scholar’s painstaking careful reading of the Hebrew bible resulted in a list of 613 commandments. Citing any one of them as the greatest would be cause for controversy and trouble.

It all boils down to this, Jesus said: love God and love people. Loving people is a measure of your love of God. Jesus combined the famous Shema from the book of Deuteronomy and the Golden Rule from Leviticus. My Jewish friend has a mezuzah nailed beside every door in his home, each containing the Shema—Deuteronomy 6:4—‘Hear O Israel the Lord is our God…You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The golden rule is, ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18).

Love. That’s it. Sounds too easy. To navigate the stormy conflicts of worldwide Reformation faith must again be our compass. Faith in love must be our guide. Specifically, faith in loving our neighbor will pave the path from chaos to salvation. It’s that simple. It’s that amazing.

Yet even such simple advice proves confusing. We tend to think of love as a feeling. “A spontaneous and free-flowing feeling that arises out of our own enjoyment, our own sense of kinship and affinity. We don’t think of it as discipline, as practice, as exercise, as effort. We fall in love. We insist that love is blind, that it happens at first sight, that it breaks our hearts, and that its course never runs smooth. We talk and think about love as if we have little power or agency in its presence.” (Debi Thomas, The Greatest Commandments, Journey with Jesus, 10/18/20).

Yet for Jesus, love is not only something that just happens to you. It’s a commandment. Have faith in love. Just do it. To love as Jesus loved is to stand in the presence our enemies, and desire what is best for them. To love as Jesus commands is to weep with those who weep. “To laugh with those who laugh. To touch the untouchables, feed the hungry, welcome the children, release the captives, forgive the sinners, confront the oppressors, comfort the oppressed, wash each other’s feet, hold each other close, and tell each other the truth” (Thomas). To love as Jesus loves is to guide each other home through the storm because love is the difference between Reformation and decimation.

Of course, the only way to have and to possess such love is to be continually filled with it to overflowing through the grace of God. By faith alone, by grace alone, through the Word alone the Spirit leads us through the storm of Reformation just as our ancestors were led. In the words of one who’s lived it, Martin Luther, “If they take our house, goods, fame, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The kingdom’s ours forever!”

God’s love is beyond human love, but this does not mean it lacks feeling.
Being Christian is “about participating in God’s passion. This is what we are called to. So, ultimately, being Christian is about loving God and changing the world. It’s as simple and challenging as that, and it is the way of life.” (Marcus Borg)

I close with a prayer written by the North African bishop, St. Augustine, some 1,600 years ago: “O God, from whom to be turned is to fall, toward whom to be turned is to rise, and in whom to stand is to abide forever. Grant us in all our duties your help, in all our perplexities your guidance, in all our dangers your protection, and in all our sorrows your peace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, our Body, and our Blood, our Life and our Nourishment. Amen.

Can we be thankful?

Proper 23A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“The Lord changed his mind” (Exodus 32:14). It might be the most surprising sentence in scripture. God changed his mind. God the all-knowing, the all-powerful, the eternal, flew off the handle. God decided to wipe out the children of Abraham and Sarah where they camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai. After everything they had been through together the children of Israel melted their jewelry and made for themselves a golden idol.

As they prepared to revel around that statue, God looked down at them and said to Moses, ‘This isn’t working. I have to start over. I’m going to start over with you and your children Moses. You’re going to be my new Abraham.’ Maybe a lesser man than Moses would have accepted that deal. But Moses knew God would regret it. So, Moses argued with God, as he had done all those years before at the burning bush, but this time, he prevailed.

What did Moses say to change God’s mind? Notice, he didn’t argue on behalf of the people. They were terrible. Moses knew it. God had every right to start over. Yet, Moses said, if you do then you will no longer be the God of hesed. Scholars still debate the meaning of this word Moses used to change God’s mind. It is most often translated with the phrase, steadfast love. It’s the sort of unconditional love God will later reveal on the cross. Christians call it agape. Suffice it to say if God had chosen to abandon the children of Israel that day at Mt. Sinai, agape would be just another word for love which not even God could live up to. Hesed or agape are words for a kind of love that means ‘we’re family and it lasts forever.

Moses won the argument with God by appealing to God’s own character. ‘I guess it all comes down to what kind of God you want to be’ Moses said. God relented, put away their sword of righteous wrath, because the Lord our God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, or hesed. (Exodus 34:6-7)

Remembering who God has shown us to be is important throughout our lives. But it is especially necessary in order to hear the good news in Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet gone awry. A people destroyed? Their city burned? A poor man bound and thrown into the outer darkness for wearing shabby clothes? The king Jesus portrays looks an awful lot like a tyrant, a great big bully. This is not how God behaves. This is not who God has shown God’s self to be.

Yet this is precisely the mistake many Christian readers, preachers, and theologians have made through the centuries. Turns out, making people afraid of a God as petty, vengeful, hotheaded, and thin-skinned as the king in this parable can be a good way to build churches. Making people get with the program and join the party – by threatening life and limb is pretty motivating. Yet it comes at a steep price. How are we supposed to call out the tyrants of this world when we worship one? Even worse, how can we call ourselves faithful if the God we worship is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses? We must take care that we do not fall into the same easy trap as Moses’ older brother Aaron and the people who worshipped an idol of their own making.

To find our way to the gospel, the good news in this parable, we must find our way back to the plain meaning of scripture. What did those who first heard this gospel understand? Our first clue is remembering who God has shown us to be, the God of steadfast love. A second clue comes from Matthew. Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king [of this world] who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” (Matthew 22:2). History is filled with examples of such self-serving and petty rulers. Our God is not one of them.

“What might we learn if we attempt an honest comparison between God’s coming kingdom, and our current one? Are our tables open to all who come, and does our love extend to those who initially refuse our invitation? Are we willing to extend a welcome to those who show up unprepared, unwashed, unkempt? Do we take offense when people shy away from our banquet, or do we listen as they explain why our invitation strikes them as unappealing or frightening? Do we really want to open our arms wide, or do we have a secret stake in seeing some people end up in the “outer darkness”? In the end, are we known for our impeccable honor, or for our scandalous hospitality?” (Debi Thomas, The God Who Isn’t, Journey with Jesus, 10/04/20).

The person in Jesus’ parable most like Jesus is the one who was thrown out. This is a third clue. This parable comes in his final week after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem as Jesus prepares to go to the cross. Christ the suffering servant will soon be brutally cast out of this world by the very sort of leaders this parable portrays. Yet, the stone which the builders rejected has become our cornerstone.

We are a living sanctuary not made with hands but called into being in flesh and blood by the one who sacrificed his flesh and blood for us and for all. We are clad in robes fashioned by the Holy Spirit and washed clean by the blood of the lamb. We were not made to dance out of fear, but for joy. Come you, all who are weary. I will give you rest. “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy, and eat!” (Isaiah 55:1).

Yes, God’s people do have a dress code. But don’t run out to the store. Put on the life of Christ. As St. Paul wrote, “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12). And again, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3.27). Receiving the gift of God’s love sets a very high bar for us to follow. Serving Jesus means striving to extend the same kindness and grace that God extends to us, even if we fall short. We are reckoned as righteous just by putting on the Spirit of Christ.

The project God began all those years ago with Abraham and Sarah down through Moses continues on in us today. The God who showed us their self also reveals to us who we truly are. Writer Anne Lamott once said, “We begin to find and become ourselves when we notice how we are already found, already truly, entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be.” (Becoming the Person You Were Meant to Be: Where to Start, by Anne Lamott, from the November 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine)

Epiphany 2A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I don’t remember when I first looked up and saw the hand on the roof, but I know I was here for years without noticing it. It took someone to point it out to me—and there it was! In the same place most churches have a cross or mount a statute, Immanuel displays a hand and index finger pointing to the sky.
Pastor Eric Gustafson oversaw the building of this place. I wonder if he chose it as a symbol for these post-modern, post Christian times. Pointing a finger is a universal sign even my dog Maddie understands. It means “Look,” “there it is,” or “that’s the one.” Years ago, I asked my kids what they thought the finger on the roof meant. They understood, correctly I think, it’s intended to remind us of God, or as Leah said, ‘where God lives.’

God lives in the sky, right? That finger points to the great beyond. It points to the place we’re headed if we’re good enough—or so the story goes. But it’s worth pointing out, that’s NOT how the story goes in the bible.

We tell our children to look to the sky, but the bible tells us over and over again to look for God in the world. The heavens were torn open. John saw the Spirit descend upon Jesus like a dove. We spent the entire Christmas season hearing about incarnation—God is with us. The fullness of the presence of God is pleased to dwell in you, despite your flaws and limitations. It is only when we let ourselves be loved by grace right down to the core of who we are that we find the capacity to embrace other people as Jesus embraced every disciple, every sinner, every doubter, and every believer who crossed his path.
So, it would be better, or at least more appropriate biblically, if the finger on our roof could turn every direction like a weathervane, or if it could be made to point downward, or better yet, if it could point straight at each of you, or if it could point at the stranger in our midst, the poor, the imprisoned, or our enemies—all the places the bible tells us to look for God in Christ Jesus.
John the Baptist didn’t point to the sky but at God’s unfolding work being done that moment in time and space. As Jesus walked along the riverbank John pointed and said, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:30). The Messiah was hidden in plain sight until John pointed him out. The disciples needed a witness and so do we all. That remains an important job today—to help each other point and name where God is. Can I get a witness?

“Look,” “there it is,” and “that’s the one.” Our lectionary revolves around these words but doesn’t end with them. In fact, it’s just the beginning. Crucially, after noticing the very next thing is following. When Jesus turned and saw the disciples following he asked them, “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38a).
“In your heart, in your secret and quiet places, what are the hungers that drive you forward in your life of faith? Why do you still have skin in this game we call Christianity? As you say goodbye to an old year and welcome a new one, what are you hoping for, asking for, looking for, in your spiritual life? Do you know?” (Debie Thomas, “What Are You Looking For?” Journey with Jesus, 1/12/20)

The disciples were not ready for such a probing question, so they answered Jesus with a question of their own. “Rabbi, where are you staying” (John 1:38b). In other words, with John’s help we only just noticed you may be the Messiah, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself first? What will happen to us if we follow you?
When the disciples press him for details Jesus says only, “Come and see.” (John 1:39) Which is to say: Jesus won’t be pinned down. Following Jesus won’t fit into any category we try to stick him in. “He’s not the type who remains in stasis—he moves. At times, he will not be easy to seek or find. In short: the path that leads to him will become clear only when we decide to walk it. Hence the question we must ask ourselves at every turn: what are we looking for? Jesus? Or something else?” (Debie Thomas) John pointed to Jesus and Jesus points the way to the One life in God—beginning right here, right now: “Look,” “there it is,” “that’s the way.”
Jesus has shown you the way, but your path will only become clear when you walk it. Like so many things in life, we learn faith by doing.

My son Sam recently bought a 2001 GMC Yukon XL. It’s his first car. He’s in love. He dreams of things to personalize and improve it. He’s swapped out the side mirrors. He removed old decals and spot treated the rust. Tuesday night Mehari and I were leaving church after tutoring when we received an SOS. Sam flushed the engine but didn’t have the right wrench to remove the drain plug. He was stuck. Could I bring him one? Rather than run all the way home we went to the auto supply store for a 15-millimeter socket wrench. It worked! Except then the oil pan was too small and overflowed—and the filter he bought was too big and didn’t fit. Back to the store for another filter, bigger oil pan, and stuff to help clean up spilled oil. I made Sam sit on a plastic bag in the front seat because he was so messy. Finally, it was done. He fired up the engine and we exchanged high fives. Mehari and I headed home. Sam said of himself he made mistakes at every turn, but does he now know how to change the oil? You bet he does! A history of making mistakes is what we call experience. Jesus invites us to become experienced today at living our faith. Jesus points the way. Come and see.

Not sure how to pray? Learn by doing. Want to be closer to Jesus? Be curious about others. Proximity to the poor, the imprisoned, the immigrant, the suffering is the first step toward mercy and justice.

I leave you today with words of encouragement and hope from someone who certainly did know how to live his faith. He learned by doing. He wasn’t afraid to make mistakes. In 1958, five years before his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall, and just two years after the successful conclusion of the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. visited Beth Emet Synagogue just around the corner from my house in Evanston. King said:

“I speak to you this evening as one who lives everyday under the threat of death. One who has had to subject his family to dangerous living…In the midst of all of this I have faith in the future. I have faith in the future because I believe in God. I believe there is a creative force in this universe. Call it what you may.

That is a creative force in this universe that seeks to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole. That is a power that works at every moment to bring low prodigious hilltops of evil. And pull down gigantic mountains of injustice. That is something in this universe that justifies Carlyle in saying, ‘No lie can live forever.’ That is something that justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, ‘Truth crushed to earth with rise again.’

So down in Montgomery Alabama, we can walk and never get weary. I believe that. I believe in the future, because I believe in God. I leave you with this challenge. I say work it every moment. To bring into being the ideas and principles of this current period. This is a great time to be alive.” (Tablet Magazine, Excerpt of Speech at Beth Emet Synagogue, 1958)

Come and see!

Easter Darkness

Advent 3A-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

December 15, 2019

John the Baptist paces back and forth in his narrow cell.  Imprisoned by King Herod, he questions how he lived his life.  Last Sunday John stood beside the Jordan preaching in the wilderness. He seemed so sure of himself. But now that he faces a stupid death, he’s not so sure.  He has doubts.

Jesus did great deeds of power in cities throughout Galilee, but John still wonders if and when God’s kingdom will come.  Meanwhile Jesus’ list of enemies continued to grow. “Look, [they said, this Jesus is] a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19).  Now John the Baptist whose very conception occasioned an angelic visit, who leapt in his mother’s womb at the first glimpse of a pregnant Mary sent word to ask Jesus, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3)   I’ve staked my entire life on you.  Has it all been for nothing?”

This is not the sort of faith story we like to tell—but I many of us, including me, has lived some version of it at one time or another. We like conversion stories that go straight “from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, from despair to joy.”  Yet, John’s story doesn’t follow this happy trajectory. It’s an anti-conversion story. “John’s journey is a backwards one. From certitude to doubt.  From boldness to hesitation.  From knowing to unknowing.  From heavenly light to jail cell darkness.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, “Has It All Been For Nothing?”, 12-8-19)

We might call it spiritual failure, or maybe faithlessness?  Backsliding?  We might get mad. Jesus doesn’t.  Jesus responds to his cousin’s pained question with composure, gentleness, and understanding. Life can be unfair. What was happening to John wasn’t fair.

The season of Advent teaches us it’s okay to doubt, question, even shake your fist at God –just as many of the psalms do. “On the evidence of our senses, despair is perfectly rational.  Entropy is built into nature.  Decay is knit into our flesh. By all appearances, the universe is cold, empty and indifferent…This leaves every human being with a choice between despair and longing.  Both are reasonable responses to a great mystery.” (Michael Gerson, Washington Post) Jesus has compassion for John. Despair is an understandable response to life’s worst cruelties.

Christians worship the Crucified One, so why do we have a hard time hanging in there with extreme doubt, despair, and suffering?  Somehow, we feel a need to blunt the edges.  To soften the blows.  To make God okay.  But this story is not “okay,” and many of our own stories aren’t okay either.  The prison bars that hold us don’t always give way.  Our doubts don’t always resolve themselves.  Justice doesn’t always arrive in time.  Questions don’t always receive the answers we hunger for. (Thomas)

To add icing on the cake, soon, Jesus’ mother and brothers will show up too, presumably wanting to question their problematic child and brother. Perhaps, they want to take him home and hide him away. How does Jesus answer? What did he say?

Jesus took John back to the bible.  He invited him to consider a different vision from within its pages about who the Messiah is.  In Christ, we see that God is a friend of the lost.  In Christ, we hear that God stands in the midst of our suffering.  God opposes injustice and evil.  God befriends us in the midst of whatever lostness we find ourselves. We are not alone with our pain. In Christ, God entered our world of darkness and death, and decisively filled it with light and life.

We heard in Mary’s song (the Magnificat), God has lifted up the lowly and brings low the mighty.  According to Matthew, the world turned with John the Baptist.  A new age of Christ had dawned.  Jesus is Emmanuel –God’s Wisdom come in the flesh.  There will be new duties and new commandments. The period of the Law and the Prophets was over.  The time of fulfillment is at hand.

Yet, for John, the dawning of this new age in Christ does not mean that he will be freed from prison.  Although John was there to herald Jesus’ beginning, he will not live to see Jesus’ end.  The victory won in Christ may be decisive, but often our deliverance is limited. How did John respond to Jesus’s answer?  Did it satisfy him?  Did it quell his doubts?  Did it renew his joy? We don’t know.

The pious stories of our youth feel more reliable, filled with ready-made answers. Yet these are not jagged enough for the world we actually live in.  “They’re too lukewarm, too clean, too polite.  They move to closure and triumph so quickly that they turn pain into an abstraction. They dull my capacity to practice genuine compassion, empathy, and longsuffering.  Where is the Christian story that can handle horror?  Where is the Christian story that will equip us to sit gently and patiently in the darkness with those who mourn, fear, rage, or doubt?” (Thomas) Well, they’re right here in our bible, in these readings of Advent.

St. Paul contrasts our present sufferings with future glory. In the epistle for this week James urges patience in suffering at least five times. The book of Hebrews honors all the saints who died “without having received what was promised.” The baby born in the barn will die a criminal death.  John’s death will be both tragic and capricious—a travesty of injustice.

Our readings this week all point to something John missed that is essential to the character of God.  “All five passages emphasize the people toward whom God is biased. These Scriptures describe at least eighteen — eighteen! — sorts of people in pain who might be forgotten by the world but who are nevertheless remembered by God: the blind, the lame, the diseased, the deaf, the dead, the poor, the dumb, the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the bowed down, foreigners, orphans, widows, the humble, and then, my three favorites, those with feeble hands, weak knees, and fearful hearts.” (Daniel Clendenin)

The message of both John and Jesus is a call to live according to the way of God and not the way of the world.  The way of God, it turns out, is to enter into, draw close, and patiently endure all the suffering and violence this world can dish out in order to show God’s peace, love and mercy. That’s how God is turning this old world inside out and upside down.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom,” promises Isaiah.  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” sings Mary, the expectant mother of Jesus.  This holy season of Advent invites us to honor doubt, despair, and silence as reasonable reactions to a broken world.  To create sacred space for grief, mourn freely, and rage against injustice.  To let joy be joy, sorrow be sorrow, horror be horror.  To feel deeply, because that’s exactly what God does.   (Thomas)

Proper 9C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

July 7, 2019

“See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3).  I remember reading the Gospel of Luke for a required college course in religion when these words of Jesus jumped out at me the first time.  I felt both delighted and terrified.  

With these words, Jesus sent the 70 (as he sends all of us now) outside familiar circles of safety and tells us to expect a chilly response if and when we preach the gospel. With these words, Jesus issues a challenge to the established church, the so-called mainline church, the comfortable, everybody-knows-my-name church, like the one I grew up in. Jesus issues a call to be courageous and prophetic.  He sends his followers to battle the world and the devil bearing nothing more than the gifts of the spirit.  As St. Paul wrote, ‘we gird our loins with truth. We wear a breastplate of righteousness and shod our feet with peace. We carry the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit’ (Ephesians 6:13-17).  As we say about grace, it’s that simple. It’s that amazing!

When Jesus is our pole star, it re-sets our moral compass. There are no borders nor boundaries to God’s saving grace.  For Christians, there is no geographic center of the world, but only a constellation of points equidistant from the heart of God. There is no ‘most favored nation’ in the kingdom of God.  As our nation celebrates independence Jesus declares true victory is won through inter-dependence

May these gifts of the spirit rekindle a new birth of freedom in us this holiday weekend so that the better angels of our nature can lead us to a more perfect union.  I pray this spirit recall and reclaim us as a nation so we may return to who we have always been, and to what has made us strong.  We are a nation of immigrants, founded upon a faith-based ideal, however imperfectly perceived, that our collective health and resilience flows naturally from people of every nation living together as children of God –including people of other faiths and of no faith. 

It can be that simple for us because your success doesn’t depend upon what you’re carrying now in your purse or wallet. It doesn’t matter about your personal baggage or your choice of foot ware.  Remember what Jesus told his followers. “Speak peace when you enter a house. Eat what is placed before you. Invest in one home, one family, one town. Speak of what is near, not far. Don’t linger in hopeless places. Don’t get cocky; remember that the kingdom of God comes near whether you are accepted or rejected. Trust that any peace which is spurned will return to you; nothing in God’s kingdom is wasted.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, 6/30/19)

Christian author and essay writer, Debie Thomas, writes, “In other words, the task Jesus sets before the seventy is hard because it is easy.  In fact, it’s so easy, it feels both counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.  It’s so easy, it makes us wary, suspicious, and cynical.  What is the task?  The task is to live simply and vulnerably. The task is to rely on the grace and hospitality of others.  The task is to stay in one place — to encounter, to engage, and to go deep. The task is to live as guests, sharing our faith with others as if they’re our hosts, the people we depend on for sustenance and shelter.  The task is to speak peace, first and last. The task is to let go in love.  The task is to believe always in the abundance and nearness of God’s economy.” (Journey with Jesus, 6/30/19)

Take up these gifts of the Spirit. Go live like a lamb among wolves. Perhaps hearing the challenge and promise of these words again partly explains why this week I took up reading (or actually, listening to) another old book I’m sure was required reading for many of you.  This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse Five. It is subtitled ‘The Children’s Crusade, because as Mary, the wife of one of his old war buddies says, “You were just babies in the war!”

The lasting power of Vonnegut’s book about WWII, published during the turbulent Vietnam years, is that it was among the first of its generation that dared to tell the truth about war.  In a radio interview, Vonnegut once said “The truth, it turns out, is a very powerful thing.”  As further proof of this statement, and of our gospel today, Slaughterhouse Five is still listed as number 29 on the American Library Association’s list of banned or challenged classics. 

And so it goes. Vonnegut tells the tale based on events between February 13 and February 15, 1945. Allied bombers dropped nearly four thousand tons of high explosives and incendiaries on the uniquely beautiful historic German city of Dresden. “The effect was elemental: Air became fire. Vonnegut, an American prisoner of war, was there—but 60 feet underground. Captured during the Battle of the Bulge, conveyed to Dresden by boxcar, and billeted in a derelict slaughterhouse as the bombs fell, he was sheltering with some fellow POWs and a couple of dazed German guards in a basement meat locker. They emerged to rubble, ash, twisted metal, death. Somewhere between 18,000 and 25,000 people (we still don’t know) had been killed “ (James Parker, The Atlantic Magazine, 3/31/19).

If Slaughterhouse had a single meaning, which of course, it doesn’t, it would have to be something about the stupidity and wastefulness of war.  To their credit, our top military commanders seem to have some understanding about this today after decades of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The true battle ground, they tell us, is the one for hearts and minds –a struggle in which tanks and bombs are of no use. 

Which brings us back to Jesus. Thirty-five pairs of followers go out from Jesus like lambs into the midst of wolves.  As they fan out and set to work, Jesus will later say he ‘watched Satan fall again and again from heaven like lightening.’ (Luke 10:18)

Upon their return, the seventy are almost giddy with the thrill of their first endeavors. They are filled with joy and amazement. This decentralized gospel proved unstoppable working through their mortal hands and voices. For proof they offer the same evidence that Jesus did in response to questions of John the Baptist: The blind see, the lame walk, the spirit is with us, Christ is alive. 

This same spirit is in us now. This same spirit that animates our church is in stark contrast to the culture of death that loves things and uses people. In the sixteenth century the words of St. Teresa of Avila remind disciples of all times and places what our gospel declares to us today: 

“Christ has no body on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out to the world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless others now.”  

Go now, like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry nothing but the good news meant for the salvation of all people. It’s that simple. It’s that amazing!