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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 6B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Ecologist Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia grew up in a logging family in Canada. She was a 20-year-old forester when she noticed a particular young spruce tree, planted in a clear-cut forest, was dying, but others nearby were not. That was 40 years ago. Her life’s work is about explaining how forests are not collections of isolated organisms but webs of constantly evolving relationships. Her latest book, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, was published last month.

There is a scientific revolution underway that can help open our hearts and minds to today’s gospel. You’ve heard that evolution is propelled by survival of the fittest. Yet as biologists progressed from studying individual organisms, to species, to communities of species, to ecosystems, to higher levels of organization, they began to notice other forces at work: cooperation, collaboration, and even memory. Nature loves diversity. More plants and animals leads to greater stability and resilience. These diverse communities also have a distinctive aesthetic quality. They’re beautiful to look at, fragrant to the sense of smell, full of sounds, and textures. Mature forest communities are in some respects more egalitarian and efficient than our own.

Jesus said, ‘Love one another as I have loved you. Abide in my love.’ (John 15:9 & 15). Are we surprised to discover that we live in a world of subjects, and not mere objects? John’s gospel famously proclaims, “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3 & 4). Could a forest or a prairie teach us what abiding in God looks like, feels like, sounds like, and even smells like? Today we hear Jesus pray for the disciples. In his final hours before arrest and crucifixion Jesus prayed—not so they would create an orthodox system of beliefs, but that they would foster a very unorthodox way of being in the world. (Robin Meyers, Spiritual Defiance: A Beloved Community of Spiritual Resistance)

Yet we refuse. We are like trees that withdraw from the sun or attempt to remove our roots from the soil. We do not abide. It’s absurd. We are like an infant child that flees from its mother’s embrace or a petulant teenager who slams the door on caring friends. Who does that? We do that. Jesus prayed and continues to pray that we make a different and more natural choice.

Tanitoluwa Adewumi — better known as Tani —is ten years old now. He and his family are refugees. When Tani was a toddler they fled Nigeria because of fears of Boko Haram, the terrorist group. When Tani was seven he was living in a homeless shelter in New York when he sat down at a chess board in school and learned how to play. His school then agreed to his mom’s plea to waive fees for him to join the chess club. Tani wasn’t any good at first. His initial chess rating was 105, barely above the lowest possible rating, 100. After little more than a year, at age 8, he won the New York State chess championship for his age group, beating well-coached children from rich private schools. When people heard about Tani they helped raise $250,000. The family used the money to set up a foundation that helps other homeless people and refugees.

This month, as a fifth grader, Tani won a tournament in Connecticut open to advanced players of all ages. He emerged with a chess rating of 2223, making him a national master. Tani said, “I want to be the youngest grandmaster. I want to have it when I’m 11 or 12.” The youngest person ever to become a grandmaster, Sergey Karjakin, achieved that honor at 12 years 7 months.

A reporter said, “The larger lesson of Tani’s story is simple: Talent is universal, while opportunity is not. In Tani’s case, everything came together. His homeless shelter was in a school district that had a chess club, the school waived fees, he had devoted parents who took him to every practice, he won the state tournament (by a hair) and readers responded with extraordinary generosity. But opportunity shouldn’t require a perfect alignment of the stars. (Nicholas Kristof, Remember the Homeless Chess Champion? The Boy Is Now a Chess Master,” NYT, 5/8/21) How many talented Tani’s are there in the world, or here in the United States, or right here in Chicago, who miss out on connecting with their potential? We are all the poorer for it.

There’s an old Swedish proverb that says, “Sorrow shared is cut in half; but joy shared is doubled.” Jesus came and taught us. He showed us how to live in harmony with the natural world and with each other “…so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11) The early church thrived and grew as it lived into the radical, inclusivity of the gospel to break down barriers of privilege, of culture, and of religious self-righteousness. They put themselves out there. They went into the streets. They went person to person. They carried the gospel upon their lips. They used their hands and feet. Peter got up and preached to Cornelius, a Roman Centurion of the Italian Cohort. He lived among the Gentiles. Philip sat beside the Ethiopian eunuch. Paul went among the diverse peoples of the Mediterranean world.

Abide in me. Abide in my love, Jesus said. Be rooted in Christ. Let your hearts and minds become as clear and pure as a mountain stream. Then you will know the wisdom of the forest and of all living things. We cannot be saved while others suffer. We cannot be the church and be indifferent to the plight of the poor, the oppressed, the victims, the perpetrators, and all those caught up in the endless grinding cycle of violence, fear, and hate.

You have heard it said Jesus came only to save Christians, but the gospel of Christ says, the knowledge of God and the love of one another are equivalents. To know God is to love, and to love is to have true life. To share the love of God is to make our joy complete by sharing it with each other, with strangers, and all living things. This is the path to true joy, true wisdom, the truly abundant life. Abide in my love. Then we shall find abiding peace and shalom welling up like a spring of water from deep within. Then we shall discover and know the true joy of every living thing. Then The sea and what fills it will resound. The rivers shall clap their hands, and the mountains shout with them for joy (Psalm 98).