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Proper 12B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus bid the people to recline in the tall grass on the shallow hills beside the Sea of Galilee. He gave thanks and divided the poverty rations of a small boy to produce a feast sufficient to feed 5,000 men (and their families). It was a feast that defied all expectation and explanation. It exceeded what they needed and satisfied all that they wanted. God’s math doesn’t add up, it multiplies.

Sit down dinners are less frequent at our house now with three boys on their own and two rising juniors in high school. Mostly, when I make something, if I prepare anything, I just leave it on the stove and let it just sort of magically disappear overnight. It’s a special occasion when the plates and cups are set. The smell of freshly cooked food fills the house. Finally, when all is ready we shout, ‘Come and eat!’ Or, usually now, we send a text message, ‘come and eat!’ One by one hungry people emerge from wherever they’ve been hiding to gather around the table.

There’s a reason Jesus did so much teaching while seated at the table. Sharing a meal together is a sacrament (small “s”). It is a reliable occasion for grace to abound. I know that’s how I felt whenever John Damer and family put on a sit-down dinner for us here at Immanuel. John prepared special meals for us at Advent, and at Easter, and for fundraisers that remind me of that movie, Babbette’s Feast (1987 Danish film). We’re going to miss you.

Breaking bread together builds belonging. But now, what would you say if I told you some members of my family were not invited to the table? What if most of our guests at one of those incredible congregational meals got a smaller serving? They didn’t get an entrée? They missed out on dessert and some didn’t get anything at all? You would be outraged! You might stand up and walk out. You might call child protective services, and you would be right to.

Crowds of people came searching for Jesus. They were looking for a miracle, longing for an answer, hungry for bread, thirsty for God, wondering if and where they belonged. Jesus fed them all. He bid them join the feast without regard to creed, or nation, or gender, or color, or orientation, or ability, or faith even though some in the crowd were undoubtedly enemies and spies.

This story of Jesus feeding the multitudes is told six times in our four gospels. Today is the first of five Sundays we read from John chapter 6, the first four of which focus on Jesus as the bread of life. (Thankfully, over these five Sundays you’ll have three preachers. Thank you to pastors George Schelter and Emily Hietzman who will provide us with their view.)

Sharing the Eucharist makes us part of the life of God and part of each other. Yet like the crowd clamoring after Jesus in our gospel today, how often are we completely out of touch with this great good news? Jesus’ meal isn’t merely food. It is a message. It is not only a gift. It is also a call. The meal is a message that our union with God in Christ points toward a whole new way of life.

God welcomes all. Strangers and friends. Each of us has a place at the Lord’s Table. Yet are we not outraged that not all God’s children have an equal share? Some have plates piled to overflowing while others have stomachs that go empty. Some live in comfort and security while others live in constant fear of violence. Some work two jobs and stand in line at the food pantry while others buy super yachts and build their own spaceships. “For too long the white American church has chosen the promise of power over prophetic voice. We have allied ourselves with the empire, and rather than singing the songs of hopeful defiance with the exiles, created more of them. We have, consciously and unconsciously, done the bidding of the Beast—not in every case, of course, but in far too many.” (Rachel Held Evens, Inspired, p. 128)

Is there an interloper at our meal, an unwanted guest? The devil goes by many names in scripture, Lucifer, the beast, the accuser, the destroyer, the dragon, the evil one, the liar. In these modern times I suggest to you the anti-Christ is cloaked in a new and different guise that I will call a belief in ‘whiteness.’

Whiteness is not a thing, of course, but we have let it be made into one. Isabel Wilkerson, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns, and Caste, was once told by a Nigerian-born playwright that ‘there are no Black people in Africa.’ They are all just people. Yet, at least since the days of Christopher Columbus and the Protestant Reformation, wealth and technology has been a justification to dominate others for profit. Expansion into other lands and domination of other peoples was called “progress,” and “manifest destiny,” evidence that we among all peoples are favored by God. Our American ancestors drank their own cool-aid. So deluded were they by the devilish fever dream of white superiority they set themselves at the head of the table and excluded almost everyone else. How long have we eaten this bread and drank from this wine?
But today it is morning again in America. Awakened to these terrors and all the damage done, and still being done to people of color, are we ready to join again in resistance? People of God, I ask you to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, reject sin, and confess the faith of the church as we do in the rite of Holy Baptism and the Affirmation of faith. Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? (I renounce them.) Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? (I renounce them.) Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God? (I renounce them.) (ELW, rite of holy baptism, p. 229)

When we partake in Jesus’ life at the Lords Table, we become a part of one another. Almost seven hundred years ago, Lady Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) had a vision of this union which she described as “oneing.” She wrote, “The love of God creates in us such a oneing that when it is truly seen, no person can separate themselves from another person” (Chapter 65), and “In the sight of God all humans are oned, and one person is all people and all people are in one person” (Chapter 51). For it is in this oneing that the life of all people exists” (Chapter 9).

In Holy Communion, we are made one with each other and God. Fed by God, let us share our bread. Welcomed by God let us show hospitality to strangers. Shown mercy by God, let us find room in our hearts to forgive those who sin against us. Graced by God, let us find the strength to confront systems and powers that perpetuate injustice and degrade life. Come to the Lord’s Table. Come and eat. Come, eat, and live.

Proper 11B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing. The neglected middle child of mental health can dull your motivation and focus — and it may be the dominant emotion of 2021.”  Psychologist Adam Grant seemed to put his finger on what many people are feeling.  It’s not burnout. It’s not depression. We feel empty.  Despondent.  Aimlessness and joylessness.  Grant said languishing can feel like a “dulling of delight” and the “dwindling of desire.”

Jesus said, ‘Come away with me and rest awhile’ (Mark 6:31). I think Jesus’ invitation to the disciples has special resonance for us today. In the early uncertain days of the pandemic our brains were on high alert, ready for fight-or-flight. But after 16 months in emergency-mode, our anguish has begun to sour into languish (Adam Grant, Languishing, NYT April 19, 2021).

Vaccinations opened a doorway to relief, or maybe, a window.  We pray enough people, our friends and family, will be vaccinated throughout our country and around the world so that the pandemic does not force us again to retreat. As Peter declared from the top of Mt. Tabor, “It is good, Lord, for us to be here.” Here, gathered in prayer and song, centered in Word and sacrament, we begin to feel again what it means to be human. Our hearts and minds are calmed, renewed, and restored by grace.

Jesus bid the disciples come away by themselves to a deserted place. They have just returned from their first tour of ministry — they are officially now apprentice apostles. They are exhilarated and exhausted, filled with stories — thrilling accounts of healings, exorcisms, and effective evangelism. Perhaps there are darker stories of failure and rejection to share as well.  Hard stories they needed to process privately with their teacher.

Remember, Jesus also has just lost his beloved cousin and prophet, John the Baptist, the one who had baptized him, and who had spent a lifetime in the wilderness preparing his way.  Worse, John died by violence, a terrifying reminder that the servants of God are not immune to senseless death.  Maybe Jesus’ own end felt closer. Jesus is heartbroken.

Whatever the case, Jesus senses the disciples need a break.  They’re tired, overstimulated, underfed, and in significant need of solitude. As the crowds push in around them at the edge of the Sea of Galilee there is tenderness and longing in Jesus’ words, ‘Come away with me’ (Debi Thomas, The Gift of Rest, Journey with Jesus, 7/11/21).

In a time when the pandemic has further blurred the boundaries between home and work, rest and productivity, it is important we pause here to notice Jesus is not a high-strung workaholic.  “Instead, we find a Jesus who recognizes, honors, and tends to his own tiredness.  We encounter a teacher who pulls his overheated disciples away from their labor and striving.  We discover a savior who probes below the surfaces of our busyness, and pinpoints the hunger our manic culture won’t allow us to name: the hunger for space, reflection, solitude, nourishment, recreation, rest, and sleep.” (Debie Thomas).

God is not like all the slave drivers you’ve ever known in your life.  God is not like the insatiable gods of imperial productivity that would prefer you to be a ‘human resource’ rather than a human being. Even our favorite sports teams, that offer us so much needed fun, can lead to deepening our despair as they worship at the altar of virility, power, and wealth all in the pursuit of winning.  This can add to our own anxiety and restlessness, and manifest in further violence. By contrast, covenantal relationship with God is rooted in fidelity, mercy, compassion and forgiveness –the things that make us human rather than merely being a commodity.

Come away with me.  Jesus offers a simple antidote to a culture of overworking. Jesus offers relief for our languishing spirits. It’s sometimes called Sabbath-keeping. The good thing is you don’t need anything special to keep the sabbath. You don’t have to travel to some exotic destination.  You don’t need Instagram worthy wow.  Sabbath keeping can be as simple as pausing again to take a breath or to say the Lord’s Prayer.

You and I need the sabbath. The need for sabbath is built into creation itself. God rested on the seventh day from all the work God had done (Genesis 2:2).  The commandment about the sabbath is the longest of the commandments.  It takes up nearly one-third of the Ten Commandments.  As Rabbi Abraham Joseph Heschel once pointed out, the Sabbath is the only one of God’s creations called holy.  Everything else is merely called ‘good.’  The sanctification of time preceded the sanctification of persons. The voice of God enters systems of oppression and declares “Let my people go!” (Exodus 5:1) Let my people depart from systems of endless production. God restores my soul and anoints my head with oil. My cup is filled to overflowing.

Even as slaves in Egypt, the people of Israel observed the Sabbath.  The Sabbath was not a day merely for recovering strength.  It was not free time.  It was freedom time.  It was time to recover their identity, time to be re-humanized, re-dignified, reclaimed, and restored.

Our gospel says Jesus had compassion for the crowd for ‘they were like sheep without a shepherd’ (Mark 6:34). How quickly we lose ourselves once we begin to stray from grace. Sabbath reminds us that we are creatures and not the Creator.  Sabbath reminds us we don’t need to be anything more than we already are. Sabbath inspires imagination, rekindles desire, dispels the doldrums of our languishing.  See God shapes us again into a community that says yes to the call to follow Jesus, to love one another and the world.

I leave you today with a poem from Jan Richardson, entitled “Blessing of Rest.”

Blessing of Rest

Curl this blessing

beneath your head

for a pillow.

Wrap it about yourself

for a blanket.

Lay it across your eyes

and for this moment

cease thinking about

what comes next,

what you will do

when you rise.

Let this blessing

gather itself to you

like the stillness

that descends

between your heartbeats,

the silence that comes

so briefly

but with a constancy

on which

your life depends.

Settle yourself

into the quiet

this blessing brings,

the hand it lays

upon your brow,

the whispered word

it breathes into

your ear

telling you

all shall be well

all shall be well

and you can rest

now.

Jan Richardson, Painted Prayerbook.

Proper 10B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

If you stand with your back to the famous Trevi fountain and toss a coin over your left shoulder you are guaranteed a return trip to Rome. Or so, it is said. Thousands make their wish, and cast their coins every day. It takes an hour each day just to sweep them all up. I’m told $15,000 a week, or almost $1 million a year, is collected and distributed to the poor this way. Interestingly, Chicago’s Buckingham Fountain, one of the biggest in the world, makes only about $200 a year. I remember giving coins to my kids to make a wish. All the coins in all the fountains of the world now glisten with a hoped-for wish.

“What should I ask for?” was the question Salome put to her mother, Herodias after her seductive dance won so much drunken admiration from her father, the king, he promised her anything –whatever she asked for—even half his kingdom! (Mark 6:23).

What would you ask for? If someone very rich and powerful promised to grant whatever you wanted? An invitation to Herod’s place was what many aspiring people in Jesus’ time wished for. His palace, next to the Sea of Galilee, rivalled any in the Roman Empire. He demanded the best of everything. Extravagant appointments, exotic entertainment, incredible food, wine, and all the best sort of people.

Herod’s impulsive grandiosity was exceeded only by the murderous treachery of his wife, Herodias, who saw in her daughter’s question an opportunity to end her quarrel with John the Baptist. What should she ask for? John’s head. Which the young girl did—adding her own sordid twist to the tale by requesting that it be brought to her on a platter.

What would I wish for? It’s hard to say. Imagine if the very same invitation came from God. Does that change your answer? Amazingly in scripture, we hear over and over again that God does. Jesus said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15.7). And again, “I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11.24). In the parable of the Prodigal Son, God reveals their own grandiose and reckless character—just like King Herod—is directed exactly opposite from Herod, toward loving all people as their own beloved children. God watches and waits for us to return from our wandering ways with a constant vigilance born of both hope and grief.

It is ironic and fateful that bad king Herod was a direct consequence of the people’s own answer to the question of what to ask God for –from a thousand years before. In the days of the prophet Samuel, “…all the elders of Israel gathered together and asked the prophet Samuel to appoint for them a king. They wanted what all the other nations had. They wanted an earthly king, a standing army, a fortified city, and all the other accompanying signs of their growing power and prestige. In other words, be careful what you wish for.

The all-too-familiar story of death and the exercise of capricious, immature, unilateral power is our gospel today. The execution of John the baptizer, opens a window through which to glimpse the stark contrast between the gospel of Christ and the ways of power that operate in the world. Mark insists that we see this. Mark’s gospel intertwines the story of John and Jesus almost from the very beginning. All the way back in chapter one, Mark told us it was “…after John was arrested, [that] Jesus came to Galilee, [following his baptism by John] proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!” (Mark 1:14).

What should you ask for, wish for, strive for, pray for? The answer to life’s riddle is the secret message of Christ’s gospel hidden in plain sight: live and love as Jesus did. To open the path to your heart’s deepest desire do as Jesus does for Christ to live in you, and for your heart and mind to be changed so that things like infinity, mystery, and forgiveness can resound within you. Our small minds cannot see Great Things because the two are on two different frequencies or channels, as it were. “The Big Mind can know big things, but we must change channels. Like will know like” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, A Tree of Life, 7/11/21).

King Herod heard something like this from John the Baptist. It perplexed and fascinated him to hear the truth about his life from the voice of a wild and wooly man whom he had imprisoned from the deep desert rather than from the corridors of power. God’s saving Word rang in his ears and sang to his heart, but he couldn’t “go there.” Herod never crossed over from spectatorship to discipleship.

How often do we fall into the same trap that Herod did? How different would the story be if Herod passed this test? But he doesn’t. He fails. When push comes to shove, his casual fascination with the truth isn’t enough to transform him. He remains a hearer of the good news — not a doer” (Debi Thomas, Greatly Perplexed, Journey with Jesus, 7/04/21).

Bad King Herod’s extraordinary banquet for the rich and powerful became an occasion for bitterness and betrayal. It exposed his foolishness, his precarious grip on power and lack of control. By contrast, in the passage immediately following our gospel today, Jesus bid people from everywhere to sit on the grass and provided them a feast of abundance for 5,000 men and their families from five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus’ outdoor potluck picnic became an occasion for generosity and joy. It revealed the wisdom of Christ’s gospel and the power of grace to unlock human hearts.

The Lord said to the prophet Amos, “See I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel.” (Amos 7:7b). The gospel of Christ is such a plumb line against which to measure the thru line of our dreams. The plumb line of Christ’s gospel helps us to see the difference between Herod and John is the difference between success as the world measures it, and lasting significance. Let all the coins at the bottom of every fountain proclaim: the things worth wishing for, the things that last, the things that make our life’s striving shine in glory accrue to us as we strive for a better world and love one another. What should I ask for? Who can ask for anything more than this – to love one another as God has loved us? To love and be loved in return? Then justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

Proper 9B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

He went to his hometown, and they took offense at him (Mark 6:3b). Now, Nazareth was a small, isolated village with no more than 120 to 150 inhabitants. Most were probably relatives. These were the people who raised him, taught him to love and fear God, and kept him safe through childhood. No doubt, they heard the stories about the miraculous things he did. That sort of news travels fast. Jesus was a local hero, yet he could do no deed of power there in Nazareth (Mark 6:5).

Sometimes this is called the great “un-miracle” story. (Barbara Brown Taylor) The people of Nazareth shut themselves off from receiving the blessings of God. In a sermon titled, “Sapping God’s Strength,” the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor points out that the only reason to identify someone by his mother in Jesus’s day was to question his legitimacy. It was to underscore the fact that no one knows for sure who his father is. Referring to Jesus as “the son of Mary” was an attempt to weaponize his birth story to humiliate him into silence. No had taught them yet to sing and to love, as we do, the popular Christmas carol, “Silent night, holy night…round yon virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild…” (Silent Night, ELW #281).

In fact, these same villagers were the people who convinced Jesus’s mother, brothers, and sisters that he was crazy. Remember, his own family attempted to take him into custody on his last visit to Nazareth (Mark 3:31). John’s gospel reports his brothers didn’t believe in him. Luke tells us Jesus’ boyhood friends once tried to toss him over a cliff (Luke 4:30).

We know how the religious elite will accuse Jesus of blasphemy and convince the Roman Imperial authorities, specifically, Pontius Pilate, to execute him. We know that Jesus will draw resistance from the powerful, corrupt, and connected. But it’s sort of a surprise, isn’t it, to uncover such strong opposition from the very people we expect knew him best. Jesus was rejected by the people of his own hometown.

“Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house,” Jesus said (Mark 6:4). Perhaps, we’ve all experienced something like this. It can be hard to shake off an old role or take on a new one whether in our families or in our workplaces. There can be outright rejection and cruelty toward insiders who attempt to break cherished norms and expectations. We, who sing Silent Night from memory, would surely have been more open to Jesus had we been there, more loving, and more aware that he is worthy of worship and praise –right?

I wonder. I wonder if this could be the biting point of this gospel story. After all, the people who claim to know Jesus best, who claim to be Christian, are not always the best source for understanding his gospel. Instead of the good news, Christians have often tragically somehow made his gospel into just more bad news of Empire, scapegoating, racism, war, sexism, and destruction of the planet.

The uncomfortable fact is the gospel must offend us or we would not be called to renewal. Transformation can never be an entirely happy experience. “Prophets tend to be misunderstood by the people of their own time and place precisely because a prophet is always calling people to see beyond that time and place. They expand our vision by calling us out of complacency with injustice, reorienting us to the liberating will of God” (Pearl Maria Barros, Santa Clara University, CA). Maybe, if the Jesus we worship never offends us, then it’s not really Jesus we’re worshipping.

We urgently need this bracing tonic of the gospel of Jesus today. This July 4th we are called to expand our understanding, to open our eyes, to widen the circle and not take offense at our siblings who wish to tell us, finally, of the suffering they have endured. Yes. The whole story of our great nation includes some uncomfortable truths. Can we listen without becoming unhelpfully defensive, or feeling personally attacked as the people of Nazareth did? (By the way, this is the very same work we must learn to do in our families in order to heal from our own ugly history of abuse and addiction.)

Jesus said, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:6). Do we have the courage? Can we develop the maturity? Do we have enough faith in Jesus to look the truth about ourselves in the face and not parcel out blame, or begin to hurl insults, or to personalize and polarize, or demonize, or to paint those with whom we disagree with evil intent—as if there is anyone who is good but God? I wonder, in the years ahead, how the telling and re-telling of the American story widen and shift through the rhythm of our seasons as Juneteenth becomes just as ingrained in the American consciousness as July 4th?

I can still picture myself standing beside my desk, hand over my heart, looking up at the flag mounted above the chalk board next to the clock in my kindergarten classroom in Ithaca, NY. Each day began by reciting the pledge of allegiance. ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” I had no idea then about how the Pledge had come about after the Civil War, nor that it wasn’t officially adopted until 1942, nor that the words, “under God,” were not added until 1954. Nor did I know that in this land of the free, the Thirteen, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments, which outlaw slavery, grant citizenship, and guarantee the right to vote to all, respectively, each barely passed, and are bitterly contested to this very day.

The flag stands for many things for each of us. Yet, from its beginning in 1777, the stars and stripes, by its very design, was intended as a statement of human solidarity and unity. The flag is E Pluribus Unum — from many, one, reflecting the Latin motto on the Great Seal of the United States. In these polarized times “If the pluribus overwhelms the unum, then what do we have left?” (John R. Vile, Middle Tennessee State University, “A Fourth of July Symbol of Unity That May No Longer Unite” NYT, 7/3/21) I can salute the flag because it is an echo of our gospel today that all people, all people, all people, are loved by God and created equal.

Jesus was rejected by those he loved and grew up with. Then Jesus called the twelve and sent them out two by two to preach and heal and call others renew their hearts and minds. They didn’t really know what they were doing, but Jesus sent them anyway, to learn by doing and by failing. They traveled light, because you don’t need a lot of extra equipment to be the church. You are the equipment.

There aren’t many examples where the pre-Easter disciples show us how to be faithful. But here, the disciples show us how to be the church—the church that is our home but is not a place; the church on the move; the church that widens the circle, the church that exists to be good news in Jesus’ name to hungry people searching for it.

Proper 8B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Our gospel is a story within a story. It is a tale of an unnamed women and a prestigious man named Jairus. Or perhaps, it is a tale of Jesus and the disciples. Or perhaps, it is a tale of the bleeding woman and the dead girl. Or in another way of thinking, it is a tale about Jesus and the Beloved Community including all of us. Any way you look at it, today’s gospel weaves our stories together.

It’s like a movie. Our gospel begins again in a boat as Jesus and the disciples step out onto the shore. They have just returned from the foreign side of the sea, and that whole scene with the Gerasene demoniac and that herd of swine which plunged possessed into the sea, when they are immediately swarmed by a large crowd.
Among them is an important man named Jairus, a leader in the synagogue, a well-respected lay person, a father, and patriarch of the community. He steps into the middle of the crowd, throws himself before Jesus, and begs him to heal his daughter. I imagine the disciples smiling at each other at their good fortune—here finally!—was an opportunity to gain favor and prestige for themselves and for Jesus.

But somewhere, unnoticed by either the crowd or the disciples, is a woman slowly approaching Jesus from behind. We don’t know her name. She is homeless, childless, and alone. She had been bleeding for 12 years. She is considered unclean before God. She has suffered under the care of many doctors. She used up all her money searching for a cure. Yet, she only grew worse.

These characters are a study in contrasts. One is privileged. One is outcast. One lingers in the background. The other approached directly. Jairus spoke to Jesus. The woman speaks only to herself. Jairus’ request is met with enthusiasm and a sense of urgency. The woman’s touch is a hindrance and appalling. She’s in the way. The whole procession grinds to a halt. She prevents Jesus from getting to Jairus’ daughter before it’s too late. The disciple’s frustration is palpable. Honestly Jesus, can’t you be a little more focused on your own success? Why are you asking who touched you in the middle of a crowd?

From the crowd we see an example of what it means to be shallow with regard to faith. They flocked to the shore and pressed in to see Jesus only to get near a celebrity. They are mostly oblivious to what is really going on. From the father we learn there is no shame, nothing to be embarrassed about in making a public spectacle of our love or our pain. His suffering made him open to praying before Jesus. I wonder, the next day, were members of his congregation as understanding? From the disciples we see an uncomfortable reflection of our own desire to be a more successful church even if it comes at expense of being less loving to the unprivileged poor.

But perhaps this story is about the woman and the girl. The woman suffered for 12 years. The girl was 12 years old. They are both untouchables. Those with leprosy, those with any kind of bodily discharges, and the dead were regarded unclean and were required to be quarantined from society. Once Jairus’ little girl died, both she and the unnamed woman became lumped into to the same tribe of the damned and the sub-human. But Jesus touched them both and healed them. Jesus touches the untouchable. Jesus not only says I love but he shows it too. While the disciples and everyone in the crowd were counting noses, sizing up the pecking order, doing a cost-benefit analysis, and sorting people into categories of more and less worthiness, Jesus is focused on human need.

From the unnamed woman we uncover a core Christian principle: If it doesn’t look like love, it isn’t Christian. Period. From the little girl we learn it’s never too late for grace. You may think your time is over. You may think the time is not right. You may think of yourself as unworthy or as being untouchable by grace. Jesus lays his hands upon you. He says, ‘Get up’.

“You who believe, and you who sometimes believe, and [you who] sometimes don’t believe much of anything, and you who would give almost anything to believe if only you could…. ‘Get up,’ he says, all of you–all of you!” Jesus gives life not only to the dead, but to those of us who are “only partly alive…who much of the time live with our lives closed to the wild beauty and the miracle of things, including the wild beauty and miracle of every day we live and even of ourselves” (Frederick Buechner). Perhaps that is the power at the heart of this story [within a story] and all of our stories: “the power of new life, new hope, new being.” It comes to us now in Christ Jesus. Whether we take notice or not, miracles happen around us every day, and “every single breath we take,” “is a free surprise from God.” (Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor). (As found in Sacred Seeds, by Kate Huey)

Yes. We’re going to need a bag to carry all the goodies this gospel provides for us this week. We’re going to need them all. As we prepare to celebrate another Independence Day, it strikes me that perhaps we have seldom had the patience or the stomach to listen to whole story of our nation’s history. This land we celebrate, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; this land of opportunity, of immigrants, of diversity, of genocide, of slavery, and ongoing systematic violence against people of color; this year after so much suffering and crisis when we are re-examining our priorities, our relationships, and our work, I pray that we are more open to receiving God’s grace so that all our stories may be woven together.

See, God has made a crazy quilt people out of us called the Beloved Community. Each of our stories is being joined together with every other. Jesus stopped, reached out and connected with people who others waved off as a waste of time. God makes a beautiful crazy-quilt community of throwaway people. We find belonging, new life, and a new way as we join hands with Jesus. We become part of each other and all the saints, including the unnamed woman, the little girl, her father, Jairus, and the disciples in our gospel today. Put out your hands, Jesus says. This is my body given for you. Take the cup, this is my blood shed for you. Take my hand, Jesus says. Get up, rise and live. Let us go and make new the lives of all those others who have yet to know how much they are loved.

Hoist a Sail to Sea

Proper 7B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus said to them, “Let us go across to the other side” (Mark 4:35). Four times in Mark’s gospel Jesus ordered the disciples into a boat. This time, they set out at night under a threatening sky. They sail into deep water and soon they’re in over their heads. “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.” (Mark 4:37)

We often say Jesus is a bridge, not a wall, between us and those who are not us—especially including our enemies. Yet, today’s gospel reminds us, this doesn’t mean we can simply gloss over our differences, disagreements, our hurts, or ignore our pain. Art Garfunkel may be a “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” but Jesus bids us travel over life’s stormy waters by boat.

A sailboat, in fact, with a large cross for a mast, is one of the earliest and most persistent symbols of the Church. The place where you are sitting now is called the “nave.” It comes from the Latin, navis, or “ship.” The terrible storm in the middle of the sea in today’s gospel reminds us of that first primal boat, Noah’s ark, that braved the great flood and preserved humanity and all the animals, two by two.

Here in Chicago, like people almost everywhere, we love living beside the lake. It’s cooler in summer and warmer in winter. We walk along the shore, play on the beaches, and swim in the cool water. From the lakeshore, the water is calming and peaceful. Yet it’s another thing entirely to be out on the water, especially, when the weather turns bad.

One day, when I was young, my dad and I were fishing in a small boat on the big reservoir near our home. I ran the outboard motor while my dad cast out in hopes of catching a large rainbow trout. Suddenly we were caught in a summer storm. The waves grew quickly. I was frightened. I thought my dad would take over control of the boat. I didn’t know what to do. He just said, “You can’t outrun the waves and you can’t take them side-ways, that’ll swamp us, just head straight into them.” I thought he was crazy. Watching his expression as we crested over three-foot waves and slammed down the other side, I think he might have thought he was crazy too. But he was right. Truth is, you and I can’t out-run life’s storms. As any good clinical therapist will tell you, ‘The only way out is through.’ Jesus has called us into this boat, into his church, to face into life’s storms.

Perhaps you’ve wondered why Mark, the shortest gospel, repeats itself so much between the 4th and 8th chapters, including our gospel today? We have two exorcisms (Mark 1:21-28 and Mark 5:1-20); two healing stories (Mark 5:22-43 and Mark 7:24-37); and two miraculous feedings of the multitudes (Mark 6:32-44 and Mark 8:1-10). The answer to this apparent riddle of redundancy is the sea, the Sea of Galilee. Each instance of these remarkably similar stories happens on opposite sides of the sea as Jesus and the disciples traverse back and forth four times by boat. One side of the sea was inhabited by people whose religious life was traditional and familiar to the disciples. On the other side, lived people who were viewed as alien and threatening.

In other words, it’s a safe bet there’s always going to be a storm when you cross the emotional boundaries between good guys and bad guys, the insiders and outsiders, friends and enemies. Jesus calls us into the boat. As Paul wrote, we have become ambassadors of reconciliation by our baptism into Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). We are called to traverse the dangerous boundaries between hostile peoples. We are called to journey into life’s storms. The only way out is through.
One beautiful example of this gospel truth came this week. On Thursday President Biden signed into law the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, turning the oldest celebration of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. into the country’s newest national holiday. “Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments,” President Biden said, “… they embrace them. Great nations don’t walk away, they come to terms with the mistakes they’ve made. In remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger.”

Jesus has power to still the storm. Even the wind and waves obey him. We may feel afraid, that’s natural. Preacher William Willimon writes that “there are two kinds of fear: There’s the fear of the death-dealing storms of life. You get a bad report after your physical, you’re living through a pandemic, you hear about gun violence in the news. You see the water and the waves and cry out, “Jesus, don’t you care that we perish?” This is a Good Friday sort of fear. And Jesus rises, rebukes the wind and the waves, and it is calm. And that brings the second kind of fear (which is greater than the first) –Willimon calls it an Easter fear.”

Easter fear is the fear that rises up in our belly when we know that we are about to risk life and limb for the sake of the gospel. It is the fear the disciples no doubt felt when they realized that they really were going to have to confront their enemies, the Gentiles, and learn to call them siblings and friends. It is the fear you and I feel when we leave the safety of our homes and living rooms for the open sea of our streets and neighborhoods. It is the disbelief that we feel when Jesus doesn’t take over the controls of our ship when the weather gets rough –but counsels us–head straight into the waves –the only way out is through.

People of God, we are called to set out upon the turbulent waters of life and to live in the midst of insecurity, with Jesus at the helm. True faith, that which invites us to ever deeper levels of transformation and love, does not insist on “staying positive” and happy all the time, but rather, focuses on “staying true.” The peace that passes all understanding does not paper over differences or avert its gaze from what is wrong or what is hurting. No. We steer this ship of mercy with truth as our compass, knowing that the truth sometimes hurts, but the truth also heals. Speaking the truth as we know it, and giving voice to our anger and hurts, and by prayerfully listening to one another share their truth, the Holy Spirit leads us through the storm to that place of true safety and peace that we call shalom. May God our mother and our father, the Son, and Holy Spirit be praised.

Proper 6B
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

At the start of today’s service we prayed, “O God, you are the tree of life, offering shelter to all the world. Graft us into yourself and nurture our growth, that we may bear your truth and love to those in need.”

Where can we find this tree of life? Well, in scripture, it is the cross of Christ upon which he was crucified. It is the tree at the center of the New Jerusalem with fruits for all and leaves that heal the nations. It is the tree standing in the garden of Eden at the beginning of time. It is the tree from which Jesus calls us now in the parable of the mustard seed. Come eat, drink, and be healed.

Can we return to Eden? Can we find the New Jerusalem? Scripture says the Lord God drove Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. God sent them forth ‘to till the ground from which he was they were taken’ (Genesis 3:23). That was about 10,000 years ago. At least, that’s around the time archeologists and historians say year-round agriculture first began.

Humans shifted from living in small bands of hunter-gatherers to settle upon the land. Farming gave rise to cities and the development of many familiar institutions of civilization, such as centralized government, social stratification, organized religion, and organized warfare. It also saw the creation of the first writing system, the first alphabet, the first currency in history, and law codes, early advances that laid the foundations of astronomy and mathematics, and the invention of the wheel—all the way up to modern medical and technological innovations of today.

Truly, humankind did eat of the fruit of that other tree—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Mostly, we celebrate what we have learned. Yet, for all our progress, we have yet to forge a civilization which will not lead inevitably to extinction. In fact, according to historian Yuval Noah Harari, for most of us, even the quality of our days and the variety of our diet does not yet surpass that of the average hunter-gatherer of the Stone Age, when humans wandered God’s Garden, eating whatever the natural world provided.

The truth is, we never left this Garden because there was no place else for us to go beyond planet earth. (At least, not yet.) No. We left the Garden behind when we decided we no longer needed God. We seized control and the Anthropocene age, that is, the period during which human activity became the dominant influence on climate and the environment, began.

I want to suggest to you today that the parables of Jesus, like those we read today, are an invitation to return to God’s Garden. They are an invitation to dream of the New Jerusalem. The flaming sword of the cherubim guarding the way to the Tree of Life allows all those to pass who are disillusioned now. All those who hunger and thirst for justice, those who have lost all hope in mere knowledge to save us, those who are sick from drinking the poison of self-sufficiency, superiority, and self-righteousness will find a key that unlocks the way to new life, to healing wisdom, to the rekindling of hope, to the tree of life itself. It is not this planet that must change but the transformation of our hearts and minds that is the key.

‘The church of Jesus Christ must become, as it once was, an “embodied force opposed,” a beloved community of defiance, a joyful but resilient colony of dissenters from the forces of death—both physical and spiritual—that destroy and marginalize creation. Compliance with the unacceptable, even through apathy or indifference, is a sin. The body of Christ was born to resist in love all that is the enemy of love. This cannot happen, however, until human beings are themselves freed from the illusions that afflict us—that is, until we are “undone.”’ (Excerpt From: Robin Meyers. “Spiritual Defiance.”) Then the way to the tree of life, to God’s Garden, the way to the New Jerusalem stands open again before us.

It is hard to imagine what it would have been like to hear the parable of the sower and the mustard seed for the first time, particularly if you were a tenant farmer in debt to a landlord and in service to the whims of the Roman Empire. Your life and the sweat of your brow were not your own. On their face, neither parable makes any sense. Are you joking, Jesus?

Jesus said, ‘The kingdom is like a farmer who scatters seed on the ground, and goes off to sleep, leaving “the earth to produce of itself.”’ Yet clearly, any tenant farmer would know this is irresponsible behavior, and possibly, might even be criminal. Jesus said, ‘The kingdom is like someone who sows a tiny mustard seed in the ground, and it grows into a gigantic bush, large enough to offer birds shelter in its branches.’ But mustard is an invasive weed. Its soft bendy branches aren’t good for anything. Even to this day, farmers in the Midwest fight to uproot and eliminate it.

But those that have ears to hear will listen. Jesus is saying that God is at work in the world in surprising, counter-cultural ways. Jesus is saying God can work with small. God can take ordinary lives, our poor gifts, and magnify them into something great. “God’s insurgency looks weak. It’s a handful of tiny seeds falling between our fingers, an unpromisingly sown field waiting to produce we know not what (Mark 4). And yet, look! A crop we couldn’t have imagined that the dark loam of the earth throws up overnight, a bush that makes shade for every [kind of] bird. This is the way God’s insurgency of goodness works. It looks pitiably weak. It’s actually unstoppably strong. One day it will flood the world with love the way God has always intended.” (Pastor Jason Byassee, Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C., published by Sojourners.)

Here Jesus topples any self-importance we might have nurtured about our piety, and empties all pompous notions about our prized traditions, institutions, culture, refinement, and the arts. The judgment upon Jesus’ message was decisive. The world flung out the parables and gospel of Jesus onto a garbage pile outside Jerusalem and violently put both him and his message to death on a cross. To which God responded creatively, gracefully and just as decisively with a resurrection for Jesus and also for us. God’s free gift poured out upon all people. Here stands the tree of life for all world-weary eyes to see, and hate-deafened ears to hear.

You and I are invited, not to return to the Stone Age, but to forge a new way of life more in harmony with nature, in collaboration with each other, in an alliance with the stubborn, persistent, opportunistic, creative, relentless, power of grace tirelessly working when we are sleeping and when we are awake for the good of us all and every living thing. Can we imagine a new economy that provides basic necessities for everyone without exceeding the finite capacity of the planet as they have already begun to do in Scotland, Costa Rica, Slovenia, and New Zealand?

The tree of life becomes a living sanctuary. Let life’s storms rage. Let injustice, violence, racism, and hatred do its worst. The kingdom of God will flourish and take over –“so that birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:32). I see the signs this sacred tree here in this courtyard, decimated by the feet of little children who needed a safe place to play during the pandemic. I see other signs too, when you helped families throughout Edgewater put food on the table through Covid Assistance grants; when you provided support and stability for a family torn apart by deportation; when you gather playgroups to play with the parachute in Senn park; when you convene an interfaith dialogue for peace; when you make space for youth to connect and find their voice for social justice; when you help seniors find resources and community; when an Eritrean refugee boy finds a new home (Yes—that has been a profound blessing to me and my family and would not have happened without of you –this community); whenever we gather in person and online to hear and drink God’s Word—you become a living sanctuary.
We would not get there on our own. We could not find this tree of life. We could not enter God’s Garden, nor glimpse the streets of the New Jerusalem without grace that renews our hearts and minds and gives us eyes to see and ears to hear what God makes plain right here in our midst. God knits layer upon layer of strength as our lives are woven together. For too long, humanity has disregarded this sacred tapestry, wearing holes in the web of life, threatening the very life of all life on this planet.

Jesus’ crazy parables are not only about the surprising character of God and of grace, they are an invitation to be planted, to become like seed, to be plunged into the dark earth and there to die alone, in order that our lives might be broken open and our gifts multiplied like bread for the world, to let ourselves be grafted like branches into the tree of life itself, to return to God’s Garden, the Garden of Eden, and to enter the streets of the New Jerusalem with all the saints in light.

Trinity Sunday B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen. Let us pray, “God of Multiplicity, you move fluidly among us without concern for boxes, binaries, or the bounds of doctrine. Wild and free, you reveal yourself in an abundance of forms. May your Spirit come and help us to perceive. Amen.” (That prayer comes from a United Methodist hymnal for Trinity Sunday)

When we say God is the triune God, we are saying something about who God is beyond, before, and after the universe. God is found in every corner of the cosmos. So maybe it won’t sound so strange when I ask. Do you believe in extraterrestrial life? Your answer may help us better understand the core Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

Two-thirds (66%) of Americans say they believe that there’s intelligent life on other planets – up 10% from 2017 (CBS News poll). That same year a Hawaiian telescope glimpsed something just as it was leaving the solar system, an interstellar visitor they called ‘Oumuamua (which means “scout” in Hawaiian). Oddly flat and shaped like a cigar made of rock, it appeared to accelerate as it sped away past the sun. Maybe you remember that old TV show with David Duchovny, The X-Files? If so, you were startled but not surprised to hear the United States government and military services now officially admit they have collected visuals, data and testimonials recording flying objects they cannot explain. The U.S. director of national intelligence was ordered to issue an unclassified report to congress about UFO’s due out next month.

What might it mean to discover we’re not alone in the universe? Astronomers at the nonprofit SETI Institute have used sophisticated radio telescopes for nearly 40 years to search the stars for transmissions from other civilizations like ours without success. Today, we push the limits of modern technology, sophisticated radars and telescopes to find the answer that could become breaking news.

Yet, to our ancestors in faith, the question of extraterrestrial intelligent life was settled long ago. Our forebears worked on this issue for nearly two thousand years. What we so dryly call the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity, could be described as their final report on the pursuit of the origins and character of intelligent life. In fact, their work has direct application in our pursuit of knowledge about both extraterrestrial and intra-terrestrial intelligence that is alive and moving even now, beyond the stars; beneath the sea; within every cell; within each breath.

Of course, ancient peoples didn’t use modern technology. Instead, they used the exquisitely sensitive instrument of human consciousness. People of faith, prayerfully joined together, across communities and spanning time like a vast network of radio telescopes. You and I and little Thorsten who will be baptized here this morning, are a part of this network. By connection to each other, through the sacraments and the holy scriptures and our faith tradition we tune in to the still speaking God. Our forebears were the first to pick up the signals of extraterrestrial life trying to communicate with you from within creation, “It is good,” the message read; and at the burning bush, “I AM Yahweh,” God said. ‘You may call me Trinity. You are my child.’

Ancient people strained the limits of their technology to write it down and preserve the record such as our psalm and first reading today. The “voice of the Lord” in Psalm 29 thunders over mighty waters. We read that God’s word is a powerful and majestic voice that splinters the cedars, twists the oaks, and rips the bark off a tree. The psalmist compares this voice to the flash of lightning. Similarly, Isaiah envisions God “high and lifted up.” Celestial creatures surround God’s throne in worship, covering their eyes at the very sight. “At the sound of their voice,” writes Isaiah, “the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.”

Our forebears were first to discover God is not only out-there, transcendent, infinite, mysterious, and beyond human knowing, but that God is also immanent, near and dear to every person. We pray, “Our Father, in heaven,” (Luke 11:1–13), because Jesus our brother and Lord has told us what God is like. He is like a loving Father. She is like a mother hen nestling her brood under her wings. The Apostle Paul says the same thing in our reading from Romans. When we pray to God as Jesus prayed to his Abba (or daddy), the Spirit prays within us, creating between us and God the same relationship Jesus has with the one who sent him.

Keep your heart and mind tuned in to Christ Jesus to hear the Word of Life streaming in, even now, from all corners of the planet and the heavens. The still, small voice, like the sound of sheer silence dwells within each of us. It calls to us now, stirs and unsettles us, just as it did for Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jewish people. He was a teacher of Israel, a big man around Jerusalem. But he had a problem. He had a problem because his grand life didn’t satisfy him. He felt there must be something more to life and he thought he had glimpsed it in Jesus. So, he waited for an opportunity when no one was looking and went to Jesus at night.

It’s difficult to say. Do the answers from Jesus anger him, or perplex him, or lead him to new life? Nicodemus seemed to be on a journey of faith. Later in John’s gospel we read he steps in to temper the judgment of his angry colleagues who want to arrest Jesus, and later that he helps Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial. God’s grace seemed to be working on him. He felt the call, but we are uncertain how far he was willing to go.

From Nicodemus we learn how God is patient with us, patient and challenging. Sometimes we are more like Nicodemus and sometimes like Peter. Sometimes we are willing to take a leap of faith and sometimes we linger on the diving board. Sometimes we’re ready to throw away our pandemic masks. Other times, we are more hesitant and careful. We keep our covid masks in place long after we are fully vaccinated. Fortunately, the biblical readout on life in the universe is that both are faithful responses. Both Nicodemus and Peter belong dwell in God. We must be patient and kind to one another just as God is patient and kind.

We must be born again from above. We are not alone in the universe. The Good News is we share this world with intelligent life that is as loving as it is mysterious. We may be transformed in the image of this extra- and intra-terrestrial life through Christ our Lord, through God our loving parent, and the Holy abiding Spirit. In God “…we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). “Blessed is every creature and creation – unique and particular. Each, a testimony to God. Through our diversity and differences, divinity is encountered. The glory of God is revealed in our midst. Extravagant and expansive is the image of God. Holy is the collage of life.” (UMC hymnal)

Pentecost Sunday B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

‘There was a sound like the rush of violent wind that filled the whole house.’ “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (Acts 2:2-3). Sounds crazy. Yet I wonder, did those extraordinary events happen only once, and on that particular day, or did the disciples see something existing behind the veil of everyday life, a part of the reality unfolding and continuing to unfold even now? I ask you, would this story matter, either to us or to young Natalie, who confirms her faith today, if it were only the former?

The Day of Pentecost was a eureka moment for the disciples. Their great discovery adds to our own understanding of how to live the good life that is our birthright as children of God. The Holy Spirit is like wind and fire. We are, all of us, flickering with the heat and flame of the burning bush that Moses saw from the corner of his eye. We have but to turn aside to see it.

The Book of Acts tells us there were 120 Christians hiding in the upper room in Jerusalem after Jesus was arrested, including many women. They were an utterly unprecedented and egalitarian community without exclusive boundaries of race, class, or gender. They were a transgressive community, breaking deeply held religious and cultural norms; a new community without walls was being born!” They were also wanted criminals, co-conspirators of an executed political instigator. They were 120 people who knew they had failed. They were counting all the ways they had ignored, misunderstood, dismissed, rejected, and betrayed Jesus when he was alive.
Their great discovery was that God didn’t care about all that. Instead, the undying life revealed in Jesus was now their life too. ‘Give me all your failures and I’ll give you a new life,’ Jesus said. Your body is the temple of God with power to heal and to burn away the old afflictions that haunt us. Mission-impossible became mission-possible. Filled with the Holy Spirit, the disciples went into the streets to proclaim the good news.

Their great discovery was good news for them and for us—but it wasn’t entirely new. A thousand years before, at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, (in 950 B.C.E.), the shekinah (or glory) of Yahweh descended and filled the temple like a thick cloud of fire from heaven (1 Kings 8:10-13). Centuries before that, fire and cloud had filled the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 40:34-35) during the Exodus. Now on Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2:1-13) fire descends from heaven, not on a building or a place, but upon people! All peoples, of every nation, may receive a sign of this Spirit in baptism (Acts 2:38-41) to become living stones of a new sanctuary.
The disciples discovered the temple of God is the human person. They discovered, or more precisely they re-discovered, “You are that Temple!” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 6:16; and Ephesians 2:21-22). They discovered each of us has a standing invitation to become the very Body of Christ alive in the world (1 Corinthians 12:14-30).

Natalie, we can point literally anywhere and everywhere for examples of people whose lives are transformed with an indelible dignity and grace by unity with God. You may have heard about the diary of Anne Frank. She was just 15 when she died. Fewer people know about her adult counterpart, Etty Hillesum (1914 – 1943) who died at Auschwitz at the age of 29. Her diary and letters are published in a book called, “An Interrupted Life.” Etty Hillesum shows us how to live the good life, even in the most extremely violent and evil situations.

Living at the Westerbork transit camp, first as an employee of the Jewish Council and later as an inmate, Hillesum did everything in her power to help others. Etty discovered that her relationship with God deepened in the last two years of her life through solidarity with those who suffered, and more surprisingly, in her attempt to love God even in her enemies as Jesus did.

Etty wrote, “I kneel once more on the rough coconut matting, my hands over my eyes, and pray: “Oh, Lord, let me feel at one with myself. Let me perform a thousand daily tasks with love… Then it won’t really matter what I do and where I am. . . .Etty discovered what the first disciples had discovered that enabled them to come out from hiding and enter the streets through participation in the undying life of God. She wrote, ‘By “coming to terms with life” I mean: the reality of death has become a definite part of my life; my life has, so to speak, been extended by death, by my looking death in the eye and accepting it, by accepting destruction as part of life and no longer wasting my energies on fear of death or the refusal to acknowledge its inevitability. It sounds paradoxical: by excluding death from our life we cannot live a full life, and by admitting death into our life we enlarge and enrich [life]. . . . We could fight war and all its [banal, evil outgrowths] excrescences by releasing, each day, the love that is shackled inside us, and giving it a chance to live. . .Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.’ (Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941–1943; and, Letters from Westerbork, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 70, 96, 155, 95, 164, 185, 198, 218.)

The great shekinah fire and wind of the Holy Spirit transformed fearful fugitives like Etty and the first disciples into bold public witnesses. Nevertheless, some will say they were foolish. Some accused the disciples of being drunk. Yet we have seen a deeper and more lasting truth in Christ Jesus. We are all “walking around like the sun” as the famous Christian monk and theologian, Thomas Merton says. The gospel is not a fire insurance policy for the next world, but a life assurance policy for this world. To be fully alive we must not suppress the shekinah fire of the human spirit but to be that fire.

Natalie, this Pentecost fire of hope and new life is kindled in us as we bring everything to Jesus—our strengths and weaknesses, success and failures, our pride and our shame—put it all on the altar along with the rest of our offerings. God will transform it. God will redeem it. God will set it on fire to bless, purify and dedicate the living sanctuary God has prepared within you to heal the suffering world.

Easter 2B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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