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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!