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Lent 4A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Three weeks ago, was Ash Wednesday. Back then, we still gathered for worship and went about business as usual. If you would have asked me, I would have thought social distancing was a dating strategy not public health policy. None of us expected to give up so much for Lent. Now Lent threatens to overrun Easter. It’s surprising how quickly our lives have changed.

One commentator suggested maybe “change” isn’t the right word. Rather what we’re experiencing right now feels “apocalyptic.” “After all, an apocalypse, rightly defined, is an unveiling, a revelation of things previously unseen or unknown. Maybe the world hasn’t changed so much as it has been exposed, uncovered, made plain, laid bare. Maybe we were blind before, and the time has now come to see.” (Debi Thomas, “Now I See,” Journey with Jesus, 3/15/20)
The story of the man born blind man is about seeing what we didn’t used to see. It’s a story about the advent of faith and the new life that follows. This story has inspired Christians throughout the history of the church. The blind man appears in second-century frescoes in the catacombs of Rome (as does the Samaritan woman at the well we read about last week).

The blind man’s movement from unseeing to enlightenment is part of the church’s celebration of the power of baptism as far back as the fourth and fifth centuries. His journey into faith mirrors our own. We see what we didn’t used to see. The blind man’s words echo the famous hymn Amazing Grace we sing again today, “I once was blind, but now I see.” Following Jesus’ way of the cross opens our hearts, hands, and minds to those who are suffering.
The gospel of John measures relationship with God relative to what we see in Jesus. When we look upon Jesus through the eyes of faith, we see the living God. In Baptism we put on the body of Christ like a pair of glasses. Looking through the spiritual spectacles of the incarnation makes what matters in the world and our place in it look different—from fuzzy to clear, as though a veil is lifted.

Notice John’s gospel doesn’t regard judgment day as a far distant event. We stand as before the Pearly gates right now to answer St. Peter’s urgent question. Who do you say Jesus is? The Blind man answered. “He is a prophet. He is from God. He is the Son of Man.” (John 4: 17,33, & 38)
In contrast to what many of us learned in Sunday School, for John, sin does not arise from wrong actions, or immoral deeds, but from whether or not we see God revealed in Christ Jesus. The only way to be excluded from grace is to turn your back on it. Bible scholar Gail O’Day writes, “John’s gospel is the most radical statement of salvation by grace anywhere in the New Testament” (NIB, p. 664).

The disciples asked Jesus whether the man’s blindness was caused by sin –either his own or that of his parents. Even today many of us are strongly tempted to see God’s judgment in our own tragic circumstances. But thanks be to God, through faith in looking upon Jesus, we have begun to see things differently. We can stop looking for evidence of God’s wrath when bad things happen to good people. Jesus doesn’t care about assigning blame, but about unveiling and revealing God at work in the world.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, regardless of your infirmities or your failings –so let the world see Christ who is alive in you. Let them see the living God.
When we put on the eyes of Christ, what do we see? When the apocalyptic veil is lifted by some crisis like the coronavirus what is revealed? We see that only a few things really matter. We recognize how connected and interdependent we are with people and communities around the world. We’re all in this together—every continent, country, class, religion, race, age, or gender. Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell, has said, “There’s a way a disaster throws people into the present and gives them this supersaturated immediacy that also includes a deep sense of connection. It’s as though, in some violent gift, you’ve been given a kind of spiritual awakening where you’re close to mortality in a way that makes you feel more alive.” (Rebecca Solnit, On Being, 2016.)
That’s Ash Wednesday in a nutshell. That’s our burial and resurrection in Christ through baptism. That’s what we see in Christ, through Christ, with Christ. The way of the cross reveals itself to be the way into fullness of life.
Like a blind man who has just regained his sight, we follow behind Jesus with a spirit of joy and deep humility, not quite comprehending what it is that we see and comforted in the fact we don’t have to manage all on our own but have someone in Christ Jesus to show us the way.

Perhaps it is easy to understand the blind man’s joy in regaining his sight. But why do I say it was also with deep humility? I say it because it is so easy for us to fall into the trap of believing what we see as being exclusive of what others see that we do not see.
Stories of Jesus giving sight to the blind are found in all four Gospels. Some were healed with a simple touch (Matthew 9:27-28; 20:29-33), others without a touch at all (Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43). One was healed when Jesus touched him twice and put spit on his eyes (Mark 8:22-26). Finally, the man born blind we read about today (John 9:1-42), was healed when Jesus mixed saliva with mud, spread it on the man’s eyes, and told him to go wash. Naturally, since each one thought that their healing was better than all the others, later they divided themselves into different factions: the muddites, spittites and touchites. (Stoffregan). Religious denominations were born.

We are reminded today, that our faith tradition, like a pair of glasses, offer the advantage of a certain way of seeing which otherwise might not be possible for us. In this case, each blind man has a particular insight into Christ’s gospel. Each is partly right, but also partly wrong. None of us can avoid looking for Christ through some set of religious spectacles –without them we would not grasp the gospel at all. So, we shall not to set aside our Lutheran tradition, but celebrate it. Yet, at the same time, we must also watch for the limitations that our own denominational perspective as Lutheran Christians brings. Likewise, we must remain open to learning from others who would inform us about the blind-spots of our own particular privilege, culture, and gender that obstruct our view of the whole truth.

The blind man washed in the pool called Sent. Likewise, we are sent into the world to be God’s people. “During this Lenten season, may we, too, confess our blindness and receive sight. May we also praise the one who kneels in the dirt and gets his hands dirty in order to heal us.” (Debi Thomas) May we open our hearts, hands, and minds to those who are suffering, so that when new life appears in whatever surprising guise God chooses, we will embrace, cherish, celebrate, and share the good news, too.

Can we be thankful?

Lent 3A-20

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

When Jesus tells the Samaritan woman who he is, she leaves her water jar at the well, runs back to her city, and said, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (John 4:29)

She left her water jar. You can’t run a household, cook food, wash clothes, or sustain your body without water. She left her water jar. She forgot all about her timetable and what she was doing.  She left her water jar. Suddenly she ran to all the people she had avoided. She left her water jar. She moved fast, unburdened, excited, and free. Her urgent good news overwhelmed her desire to remain anonymous and invisible. Her painful history of loss and regret no longer weighs her down. Now it becomes evidence she uses to proclaim Jesus is the Messiah. She invites them. “Come and see,” because there are no words, because Jesus can’t be reduced to a platitude or formula. She tells all from the heart with honesty without shame or guile while her faith is still young, still in process, still forming. She doesn’t have answers. She has questions. Her questions spark curiosity in others who come and see for themselves.  (Debi Thomas, The Woman at the Well, Journey with Jesus, 3/08/20)

On one level this story is about evangelism. It is about how we tell the story of Jesus.  We do it with excitement and feeling because to tell about Jesus is personal. We do it with humility because we can only speak of what we know. We do it with urgency because there is the stuff of life in it that makes all the water bearing, schedule keeping, and responsibilities we observe worth it.

On another level this story is about inclusion—all people, all races, all religions, all genders—Jesus honors, blesses, and validates them all.  Jesus rested around 12 noon and struck up the longest conversation recorded in the bible between him and any other person. John writes that Jesus stayed in the woman’s city for two days. She, like John the Baptist, like the Apostles, like Mary Magdalene, like Paul, “prepares the way of the Lord” — and Jesus encouraged her to do so.  “Many Samaritans from that city,” the Gospel writer tells us, “believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”  Jesus was more radically inclusive of women than we are today.

She went to the well to fetch and carry water. Every gallon of water weighs more than 8 pounds. What have we carried here? What burdens did we bring to the well?  How much does it weigh on us? What timetables, what worries, what fear of our neighbors, what pain from the past, what anxiety do we have squeezed between our shoulder blades, or pounding through our heads, and/or fisting up in our stomach?

Let’s pause for a minute to let this story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman soak in like water into dry ground. Let it make your heart soft and pliable again. Let it make you into good soil again.

  • Here, the Son of God is tired, weary and thirsty. Jesus knows your need.
  • Here, the Messiah, despite that weariness, listens with understanding to an outsider and potential enemy. Jews and Samaritans did not share things in common with Samaritans (John 4:9). Not even hand sanitizer.
  • Here, Jesus breaks through the barriers of nationality; the political separation between warring factions; the social barriers between a man and a woman; and the religious divide between a woman and her God.
  • Here Jesus broke the barriers of orthodoxy and what it means to be religious.
  • Here is the universality of the gospel.
  • Here, grace is poured out like water, on everyone and everything like rain.
  • Here, God acts through Christ Jesus to love the world, not in theory, but in words and deeds.

In Holy Baptism, we give thanks for the gift of water, ‘for in the beginning [God’s] Spirit moved over the waters and by [the] Word created the world, calling forth life in which [God] took delight. Through the waters of the flood [God] delivered Noah and his family, and through the sea led [the] people Israel from slavery into freedom.  At the river [God’s] Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Holy Spirit.  By the baptism of Jesus’ death and resurrection [God] set us free from the power of sin and death and [raised] us up to live in Christ” (ELW p. 230).

Water, like grace, has weird, mysterious properties. Water expands when it freezes. Water seeks its own level. Water is not native to earth. Every drop of water came from outer space. Water remains water even when it is consumed. The amount of water in the world is never diminished but is endlessly recycled. Water, wears, rusts, cracks and soaks through everything because water dissolves almost everything.

Like water, God’s Spirit will not be constrained by false boundaries, social conventions, patterns of injustice, or religious intolerance.  Like water God’s grace is not reduced when shared. Soap of the gospel and water always wins. It will not be restrained but moves—just as God’s love cannot be contained but must flow through us.

That is why we will stay connected. The church was made for times such as these. We are going to have to get creative.  We’re going to have to learn new things. Make phone calls. Connect online. Check in with neighbors. Read and pray God’s word to keep your heart soft and strong. Together we will find a way through this Coronavirus valley.

“Who is speaking the Good News into your life?  How are you receiving their testimony?  In the most unlikely places, through the most unexpected voices, from the minds and bodies of the disempowered and the overlooked, the Word of God speaks, and the Living Water flows.  During this Lenten season, may we have ears to hear it, hearts to drink it in, and humility to honor and bless its proclamation.” (Debi Thomas)

Lent 1A-20

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Sometime in July 1673, seven men left the Mississippi to paddle up the Illinois to the Des Plaines River. They found an Indian trail running along what is now Irving Park Road, portaged a mile and a half, then put into the Chicago River which they were startled to discover opened into Lake Michigan.

Jacque Marquette and Louis Joliet were among the first Europeans to enter the Chicago region. They marveled at the fertility of the land and the abundance of wildlife. They said, ‘We have seen nothing like it before.’ “For a distance of 80 leagues (270 miles), I did not pass a quarter of an hour without seeing some (wild game).”

It’s difficult to imagine now.  Chicago was once a wilderness of prairie grasses, boggy marshes, and wetlands. The Illinois and Michigan Canal Commission drew the city grid we all know in 1833, but could not change the contours left behind when the glaciers receded some 10,000 years ago, nor did they erase the path lines ancient indigenous peoples and wild animals created as they traversed the gentle ridges, followed the rivers, skirted the wetlands, and moved along the Michigan shoreline. The Potowatomi, Mishigama, Inoka, and Iliani peoples left a legacy we see today in our diagonal streets and six-sided intersections. Lincoln avenue follows a slight geological rise, as does Elston Avenue and Waukegan road. Milwaukee was apparently once an old buffalo trail. Clark, Ridge, and Green Bay scribe the contours of Lake Michigan.

Chicagoland has changed a lot in 350 years. But wilderness comes in all shapes and sizes. Barbara Brown Taylor writes that, “the only way you can really tell if you’re in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty.”  That’s a wilderness.

Urban people can experience wilderness in city streets, next to hospital beds, school classrooms, online chatrooms, in our homes, and/or in public parks. Wilderness can look like walking out of work with the news that your job is ending.  Wilderness can be the stress of someone in your family who is really, really struggling or sick. Wilderness is staying too long in a bad a relationship or suddenly ending a good one.  ‘The ashes we wore on Wednesday speak of the wilderness ash of grief and weary exhaustion, sin that sickens us and our world, of things that imprison us, the fears that eat away at us. Needless to say, no one prays for this wilderness.’ (Rev. Lindsay Mack, Luther Memorial, ELCA) Yet, we all find ourselves there.

After his baptism, ‘Jesus, was led by the Spirit into the wilderness’ (Matthew 4:1). It is a place of isolation and death.  He goes alone, without fanfare, or survival gear.  He goes without a map or an extra pair of sandals. There, Jesus entered a lethal hall of mirrors. He is tormented by an articulate Torah-toting, scripture quoting devil.  Satan’s tries to make Jesus betray God and to misuse his power.  Jesus passed the test.

Later, Jesus will turn a couple fish and five barley loaves into a feast for 5000 but refuses to use that same power to transform stones into bread to feed himself. Later, Jesus will walk on water, calm the stormy seas, and pass through the violent mob at Nazareth.  But now, he refuses to jump from the top of the temple just to prove himself to the devil. Later, a taunting mob will repeat this challenge from the foot of the cross. ‘If you are the Son of God, save yourself and come down from that cross, so that we may believe in you’ (Matthew 27:40).  But Jesus won’t jump from the top of the temple. He won’t come down from the cross.  Jesus doesn’t misuse his power to do magic tricks or to benefit himself.  Jesus has a single-minded approach to life that will guide and sustain him; protect and dignify him; save and redeem him above all others.  Jesus is not motivated by his own needs, but solely by the Word of God.

The wilderness taught Jesus who he was and proved to us all we can trust him. Jesus lived the abundant life no matter what scene of tragedy, suffering, betrayal or despair confronted him.  Jesus stood for the whole. Jesus stands for you and me regardless of the cost, despite many hardships, even at the cost of his life. Because he clung to the undying life that was his in God, Jesus was free to give his life fully to God’s dream of a better life for all on earth as it is in heaven.

We learn from Jesus that while our wilderness experiences may be uncomfortable and a little frightening, they are also sacred. Wilderness can be the source of true clarity and hard-won wisdom if we don’t just rush for the exits or try to deny they exist altogether. The people of Israel lingered in the wilderness for forty years. Quick fixes and the hurry to flee from pain of failure and sin have undone the Spirit’s deep and challenging work of transformation too many times to count. The wilderness afforded the children of Israel a time and place to learn the proper use of their God-given freedom and discover how God intended them to fashion neighborly communities. They learned what to say no to and what to say yes. We walk into wilderness every year at worship for these forty days of Lent. It is an intentional time and place for the Spirit to show us how to live again—beyond mere survival. God is faithful. God is with us. God comes to us in the ash of life.

This wilderness road we have known and will know has been walked before. It may be built out, and paved over, partly obscured, and almost unrecognizable now, hidden by everything we once staked our lives on that we now find to be crumbling, false, and untrustworthy. Yet the shape of the landscape and meandering pathways of old remain.As we walk the contours of our hearts this Lenten season, I wonder how we might be shaped and emboldened by God?  How God might prepare us as disciples for ministry?

This Lent when you are traveling around the city, walking up Clark Street, or riding the bus on Irving Park Road, or even driving the diagonal Kennedy expressway (which I’m told is also an old Native American trail), “I wonder if you might pause and slow down and remember to walk those offbeat contours of your own heart. Just as Jesus began in his wilderness, so we will begin in ours, again and again. Because while, yes, this holy life we live is laced with wilderness and ash, it is also painted with beauty and hope.  Blessed be the journey.” (Lindsay Mack)

Transfiguration A-20

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

500 years before Christ, Rabbis called Mount Tabor “the navel of the world.”  The peak rises abruptly, yet gently, from the plain like the belly of a pregnant woman. It is modest, covered in pine, about 11 miles west of the Sea of Galilee. It rises almost 2,000 feet above sea level. Today, a hiking trail leads to the top. It’s just three miles—about an hour’s walk.  It would have been an obvious and inviting choice for Jesus’ early-morning climb.  It’s the logical and probable setting for today’s gospel.

Jesus and the disciples had been walking for six days, nearly a week. They were moving south from Galilee, through soft, shallow hills that mark the beginning of the slow, steady climb to Jerusalem.  Jesus left before breakfast. He took Peter, James, and John with him.  They climbed a nearby mountain. There Jesus’ face shone like the sun!

The view from Mt. Tabor is famously beautiful.  Local’s say it’s one of the best places to watch the sunrise. From Christ’s holy mountain heaven and earth are laid out at our feet.  The barrier between the visible and invisible is broken. Now we see the two are connected and woven of the same fabric. The light God pours into all things shone out from Jesus.

Marilynn Robinson wrote a novel called Gilead about one man’s attempt to write down all the wisdom and understanding his one long-life-lived in God’s grace had illuminated for him, so he might pass it along to his young son before he dies.  He writes at a small desk in a modest house somewhere in Kansas while watching his son play outside on a swing.

“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life.  And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. . . . But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration.  You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.  Only, who could have the courage to see it?” (Gilead, p. 245).

St. Paul writes that God dwells in “unapproachable light” (1 timothy 6:16).  It is this light which illuminates the darkness of human minds.  To the Romans Paul wrote: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God –what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).  To the brothers and sisters in Corinth he explained, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Jesus has a job to do. He set his face toward Jerusalem. He is headed to the cross. It is deadly serious business. So, it is for that very reason, that now, he departs from the path. He takes some time to clear his head, center his heart, exercise his body, and explore a nearby mountain. Jesus took time to pray. Jesus took the sabbath time he needed to prepare himself and the disciples for the cross. True to form, Peter says the words people of faith repeat down through the centuries, “Lord, it is good for us to be here” (Matthew 17:4).

It is good for us to be here to “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8). Sabbath is rest for the weary and hope for those who despair. Sabbath is the bridge that joins our love of God who calls us to rest with God’s love and concern for neighbor. (Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, p.17). Sabbath gives rhythm to our week and centers our hearts in grace. Sabbath was God’s antidote to a life of slavery under Pharaoh. We are not human resources. We are human. We are children of God. Even now, we are being transformed to shine with the unapproachable light of God in which heaven and earth are joined together.

You and I, just like the first disciples, do not always or very often know where Jesus is leading us.  It is in the walking—in the following—that we learn who Jesus is. Here during sabbath time, at the altar, the font, in song, in the Word, and in prayer we discover again the true light of our lives.  Here that Jesus uncovers the power of God’s grace already within us to heal and transform the world.

Scripture says that the church is like a city on a hill, enlightened to go into the world, bearing the light of Christ.  We do not understand how it is that we do this.  Often, we cannot see the light that we bear. Yet somehow we become a living-sanctuary of hope and grace.  Take a moment this morning to read This is Us in your worship folder today. See the comments of neighbors who come each week for the play groups. They are Immanuel’s extended family. Yes Lord, it is good for us to be here!

When James Finley was a young monk at the monastery of Gethsemane, he shared with Thomas Merton (who was his spiritual director) his frustration at his seemingly inept efforts to experience God’s presence. Merton responded: “How does an apple ripen? It just sits in the sun.” We are drawn to the Sabbath as living things respond to daylight. Let the light of God’s grace season, flavor and ripen you.  Yes Lord, it is good for us to be here.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was interviewed about his daily practice of morning prayer. He said, “I have come to realize more and more that prayer is just being in the presence deeply [of the One who] Who loves you with a love that will not let you go. And so, when I get up in the morning I try to spend as much time as I can in the sense of being quiet in the presence of his love. And it’s often like saying I want to be sitting—it’s a cold day and I’m sitting in front of a warm fire.  I don’t have to do anything.  The fire warms me. All I have to do is to lay in front of the fire. And after a while, I may have the qualities of the fire change me.  So, I have the warmth of the fire.  I may have the glow of the fire.  And it is so also with me and God. That I just have to be there. Quiet.” Yes Lord, it is good for us to be here.

Sometimes the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. On the mountaintop or in the valley, right here, right now, just the way you are, sabbath makes us one again with the one who loves us. Oh, wonderous image, Oh vision fair, by grace we see Christ’s glory face to face.

Epiphany 6A-20

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I saw hearts everywhere this week. Hearts, flowers, cupcakes, and balloons in shiny red and white colors. The playgroup had a Valentine’s Day party. I stumbled on another at Wesley Place. The Tuesday night Compass kids sent Immanuel a Valentine’s card on Facebook. Kari’s cousin is in town. We had a hard time finding a restaurant Friday night that wasn’t filled with dating diners. And now, in the romantic afterglow of Valentine’s Day, we hear Jesus’ talk about lopping off limbs and poking out eyes.

Yikes!  This would be bad enough, but added to that, Jesus’ sermon sounds so transactional—like if you’re good enough God will protect you. If you’re pious then you will be comforted.  If you want a long life make sure your prayers are long too.

Of course, we know this is absurd. God is not an ATM machine. Thankfully, more and more people also understand God is not a rule-obsessed tyrant waiting to zap us if we make a mistake. Yet most of us harbor one or two misconceptions about God lurking in our hearts. We try to get rid of them. They cling to us like bad habits we can’t break.

So, what’s going on here? How do Jesus’ words about anger, adultery, the careless severing of marital bonds, and frivolous oaths add up to the Word of God, word of life? Remember those little candy hearts with messages on them “Be Mine,” “Yours Forever,” “BFF?” Well, it turns out, Valentine’s Day has it partly right. The answer is written on our hearts. Read what God has written there. I am your God. You are my very own beloved child. God pours love into our heart like a mighty river and an ever-flowing stream. God is the headwaters of every kind of love—be it romantic love, the love of friends and neighbors, but most especially the capacity we have to love humankind and all life.

The problem is that as 21st century Christians living in America, we tend to hear Jesus’s sermon the same way we hear everything else—through an individualistic bias. Those who first heard Jesus would have felt the weight of his words fall upon them, not as individuals, but as a group. They would have rightly understood Jesus calling forth a new community.  A blessed community.  A beloved community.  A community to initiate a radical way of doing life on earth. A community to follow in his footsteps and incarnate divine love in world hungry for hope and healing.

Directing Jesus’ challenging words at our community and not only at ourselves provokes different questions. “What would it be like if the children of God helped each other to succeed in all the ways Jesus’s sermon describes?  Imagine what that community would look like!  Jesus words become instructions for building and sustaining a community that is both blessed and commissioned to bless.

Jesus said, I say to you so much more is possible than you have yet comprehended.  “Reach for it.  Walk into it.  Sustain it.  You are loved and you are blessed, right here, right now. It is written on your heart. There is nothing left for you to earn, but there is everything left for you to share.  Be the beloved community you long for.” (Debie Thomas, “But I Say to You,” Journey with Jesus, 2/09/20.)

You may say to yourself –that sounds nice—but not at all realistic. You’d be right, but for grace. Fortunately, Lutheran theology helps us hear these stern words of Jesus, rekindle our imagination, and lead us from cynicism to hope. As Martin Luther taught, whether we’re talking about the Ten Commandments, or the teachings of Jesus, scripture intentionally sets the bar too high for me. A policeman may cite me for what I do, not for what I think, and certainly, not for what I feel.  But that’s not enough for the bible. God wants what’s in my heart too. See what’s written there. My rage, pettiness, and selfish thoughts disqualify me from laying claim righteousness on my own.  Playing by the rules Jesus’ outlines, means everyone loses—and that’s the point. Each of us is stuck in sin. The beloved community would be an impossible dream. But God, who is good, pours out love to cleanse our hearts and renew our spirits. God’s abundant gift of grace makes the impossible possible. There is no one who is good but God alone (Matthew 19:17).  We all stand in need of the grace God pours gives in abundance. Just read what’s written on your heart.

The prophet Isaiah wrote, ‘the ox knows its owner, the donkey knows its master’s crib, but my people do not know’ (Isaiah 1:3). Sheep hear the voice of their shepherd. They trust and follow. The natural world is a wonder of balance, harmony of contrasts, collaboration, and beauty. All things living participate in a symphony of life, not merely as individuals but as part of an entire ecosystem. What might we learn from all living things about being faithful?

Recently, I read that “Before it dies, a Douglas-fir [tree], half a millennium old, will send its storehouse of chemicals back down into its roots and out through its fungal partners, donating its riches to the community pool in a last will and testament.”  Some call these ancient benefactors “giving trees.” (Richard Powers, “The Overstory: A Novel.)

See, the beauty and brokenness in ourselves and in the world are intertwined. The way of Jesus brings an end to the bitter divisions afflicting our lives and reorients us toward the needs of our neighbor. Jesus our great teacher has taught us how to live in love, as the natural world does, so we don’t have to keep going down the disastrous roads that our anger and lust lead us on.

We may try to do this by skill, or will, or the power of our minds alone, but we cannot. There is a missing ingredient and intuition that comes from our heart and body called wisdom. Wisdom brings our heart and mind together in a focused way. Wisdom joins individuals into a community that continues to preserve and celebrate our differences. By wisdom we learn to love as God has loved us.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Through violence you may murder a murderer but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that.”(Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community?) Only wisdom can do that. See what’s written there on your heart.

Jesus has opened the way to life and love. It’s the perfect life for imperfect people.  We are called and equipped for this absurdly blessed life. May God bless this house from roof to floor.  God bless each pilgrim who seeks refuge at our door.  God fill every room with peace and grace, that all who sojourn here find healing [of heart, mind and body] in this place.” (from This House of Peace, Ralph M. Johnson, Earthsongs.)

5th Sunday After Epiphany

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world (Mtt. 5:13a & 14a). Jesus used two memorable metaphors of grace in his Sermon on the Mount. Yet, I don’t thing modern people really know what he meant.  Sure, maybe you’ve experienced what athletes call “hitting the wall,” so you know how awful it feels for your body to run out of sodium. Here in Chicago we all know how good it feels to finally come into some sunlight. But in a time when salt and light are both cheap and abundant, much of Jesus’ meaning gets lost in translation

Reading a two-thousand-year-old book requires us to take a step back in time. We must ask what the plain meaning of Jesus’ words would have been to those who first heard them. How does it add to our understanding of Jesus’ message to think back to a world in which salt and light were precious and rare?

In the movie Castaway, the character played by Tom Hanks is sitting in a private jet clicking a butane lighter on and off, on and off, over and over. He is flying home after years alone on a deserted island where he survived a mid-ocean plane crash only after many miserable attempts and with great effort by learning to make fire. Firelight was the only light humans could make in Jesus’ day right up to the recent past of the industrial age. Light came primarily from the sun, moon, and stars.  But, Jesus said, you and I are light too.

Mark Kurlansky writes in his book, Salt: A World History, “from the beginning of civilization until about one hundred years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.”   It was used in ancient times to ward off evil spirits, to disinfect wounds, stimulate thirst, treat skin diseases, and seal religious covenants. Roman soldiers got paid in salt—hence our English word, salary.” Around ten thousand years ago, dogs were first domesticated using salt; people would leave salt outside their homes to entice the animals.  And of course, in all the centuries before refrigeration, salt was essential for food preservation. (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, Salty, 02/02/20)

Salt and light are precious. Modern people miss out hearing much of Jesus’ message in world where salt and light are cheap and plentiful. Imagine what Jesus’s first followers would have heard when he called them salt and light. “Remember who they were. Remember what sorts of people Jesus addressed in his famous Sermon on the Mount.  The poor, the mournful, the meek, the persecuted. The hungry, the sick, the crippled, the frightened.  The outcast, the misfit, the disreputable, the demon-possessed. “You,” he told them all. “You are the salt of the earth.”” You are the light of the world. (Debie Thomas)

Our reading from the prophet Isaiah helps sketch out Jesus’ meaning a little further. You are salty when you share your bread with the hungry. You are light when you bring the homeless poor into your house. You are the salt to make life savory when you see the naked and cover them. Your light shines in the world when you do not hide yourself from your own kin. “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly, your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.” (Isaiah 58:6-8a) You are salt and light.

This month our nation remembers the story of Black history that began in America in August of 1619 when 20 slaves disembarked from a ship in Jamestown, Virginia, and the captain traded them for provisions of food.  By 1860, the United States census identified four million slaves.

Now 400 yeas later, we acknowledge that neither the Civil War, nor the Emancipation Proclamation, nor the Thirteenth Amendment, nor the Civil rights movement fully abolished what Abraham Lincoln called the “monstrous injustice” of slavery.

Many slaves freed after the Civil War lived into the 1940s. Their stories are preserved in a work called, “Unchained Memories,” about the daily horrors of slave life from those who lived to tell of it — included relentless work, horrendous housing and diet, the denial of education, sexual violence, and even religious violence. They tell how their “slave masters” hoped to use the Christian gospel to keep slaves passive.

It is one of the most counter-intuitive facts of our history that blacks adopted the religion of their white oppressors, a religion used as a weapon in their oppression. It was because the slaves, like the first disciples before them, weak and downtrodden as they were, heard and saw something they weren’t supposed to see. They heard Jesus say that they were salt and light. Their lives had dignity and meaning beyond their economic worth. They were precious. They were siblings in Christ regardless where they came from or who their family was.

Kim Phuc Phan Thi (Kim phoo fan tea) is 58 and living outside Toronto, Canada. She is a well-known author and activist of children who have experienced trauma, but that’s not why she’s famous. There was a time when everyone in America, regardless of age, would recognize her photo. It’s an iconic image hard to forget. A young girl, naked, runs screaming toward the camera in agony after a napalm attack incinerated her village, her clothes, and then her skin. That girl is Kim Phuc. She was 9 years old in 1972 when South Vietnamese planes dropped napalm near her village.

Third degree burns covered 50 percent of her body. Doctors didn’t expect her to live. After 14-months in the hospital and 17 surgical procedures, including skin transplantations, she was able to return home. Yet because her skin doesn’t have any pores she cannot sweat. It makes her feel tired. She has headaches. She lives with pain every day. “It filled me up with hatred, bitterness and anger,” she said. (Kim Phuc’s Brief But Spectacular Take on pain and forgiveness, PBS Newshour)

Ten years after her ordeal, she wanted to take her own life, because she said, “I thought after I die no more suffer no more pain.” It was Christmas that year when somehow, she stumbled on a copy of the New Testament in the library in Saigon and read it and became a Christian. She says that, “Since I have faith, my enemies list became my prayer list.” She realized that praying for her enemies meant to love them. She said, “Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you? (Kim Phúc, NPR in 2008) Kim Phuc’s

We are salt and light. “Jesus’ words are about who we are and what we do.  How we do it and the effectour lives may have upon the wider world.  The salt and light in you can never be stolen from you, beaten out of you, or spoiled even by your own misdeeds.  You are imbued with the distinctive capacity to elicit goodness, and growth leads to personal and global transformation.  Salt and light, Jesus said.  This is the source of your dignity.  This is the source of your power.” (Debie Thomas)

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are a benediction upon the whole world. There is no border, no boundary, no line separating nations, no longitude, nor latitude that divides all living things from the blessings bestowed by God. As in highest heaven so it is also on earth. We are siblings in Christ—children of salt and light.

Presentation of our Lord

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

By now I’m sure most of America is getting ready for the big day. Yes—you know what I mean. It’s Groundhog Day. How many saw the 1993 movie with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell?  So, did I.  According to German folklore transplanted to America in 1887 by Lutherans in central Pennsylvania, if a groundhog comes out of its hole today and sees its shadow it’s means six more weeks of winter; no shadow means an early spring.

Now, even if you did see the movie a bunch of times (again, like me) you could be forgiven for not knowing that Groundhog Day is today, February 2nd, because it is 40 days after Christmas. Our agricultural ancestors noticed that today is also 46 days before the spring equinox (this year on March 19th).  They came to regard this day as a hinge between winter and spring. Yet, originally the dating of Groundhog Day had nothing to do with its relationship to the seasons, but rather, it is rooted in the rhythms of the church year.

Groundhog Day sprang from the ancient Christian recognition of Candlemas, when forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph presented baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem in keeping with Jewish law, and for Mary to undergo postpartum rites of cleansing following childbirth. By remembrance, the Church blessed and distributed candles needed for winter in honor of the Presentation of Our Lord, inspired by Simeon’s words that our Lord Jesus is a light to the nations.”

Since February 2nd falls on Sunday this year, today for Candlemas, we have revived this ancient practice. We will bless the candles we use in worship and the votives you received to connect our place of worship with your home altar.

Apparently, Groundhogs hibernate through winter and emerge from their burrows starting in early February. With nightly news too painful to watch and so much cold weather, I can understand the desire to snuggle into my burrow and throw the blankets over my head.  Wouldn’t you know, for the first time in about 10 days, it’s supposed to be 50 degrees and sunny today! The Groundhog will see his shadow for sure. Is that good news or bad news?

Yes, we understand the desire to retreat from the world. That’s why we are extra thankful for a certain resident prophet named Anna and an old man named Simeon. Despite centuries of hardship and longing for the Messiah, they kept alert and awake waiting and expectantly watching for God’s good news.

Our gospel reminds us how much we need each other. Congregations are those rare communities in which young and old are soulmates, bound together as an extended family in God, who love, support, and sustain one another. Seniors, adults, toddlers, and infants are honored as faithful contributors to community life, wisdom-givers, exemplars of the faith, and worthy recipients of care. It prompts us to ask ourselves how we are making this biblical vision concrete in our lives?”

Upon a time, the Messiah came unexpectedly, as a child.  He came not among those with power, but to shepherds, beasts of the field, and wise men from a distant land.  He came not among those with wealth, but to a manger. When the Messiah finally appeared in the Temple, he didn’t walk but was carried. Yet somehow, Simeon and Anna had faith enough to recognize him.

According to a popular proverb, “Seeing is believing.” For Simeon and Anna, the opposite appears to be true: “They believed, so they were able to see more than the obvious.”. (David Lose) God is present in an infant, in bread and wine, in each other, and in the events of the day. Where God is present, there is salvation for those with the faith to see more than just the obvious. Will we have eyes of faith to recognize and embrace it? Can God be revealed in such ordinary things? Will we walk in daylight and not be afraid –or return to our cozy burrow?

This is one of those surprises that isn’t actually surprising. To Moses, God came as a voice in a burning bush. To Jacob God came as a shadowy figure that wrestled him through the night and left him with a limp come morning.  To the prophet Isaiah, God appeared seated on a heavenly throne.  The fringe of God’s robe filled the temple. Cherubim and Seraphim sang him praises.  But to us a child is born, a son is given. Authority rests upon his shoulders; and his name is Wonderful counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

Luke tells us how Simeon took the infant Jesus into his arms, turned his voice toward God and offered praise for the “light of revelation” that had come into the world. Simeon’s words of comfort, joy, and acceptance of death join Mary’s Magnificat as among the oldest, most persistent Christmas hymns sung by the church.

Jesus the light of grace shines brightly upon the world giving life to all like the rising sun or the approach of Spring. It also reveals our shadow side. Light always casts a shadow. Simeon saw this inherent contradiction and said to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35) The love revealed in Christ Jesus confronts each of us with the sword of decision.  Which way will we go? How do we respond?

We instinctively reject God’s love because along with grace it reveals our shadow side.  We don’t always like what we see when we stumble out of bed and trip over dirty clothes or have to look at yesterday’s dishes still piled in the sink. Sometimes, the light reveals new things too, that developed overnight while we slept that now we have to deal with. Perhaps, there is snow to shovel. Sadly, our 15-year-old dog Maddy is in her last days, so lately she has been leaving little gifts for us to clean up. No, we don’t like everything the light of day reveals. But we who have lived in the gloom of so many cloudy days also know we need some vitamin D!

Let Jesus teach you how not to be afraid of your own shadow.  We don’t have to run back to our holes. Instead, by grace we discover how to love our whole self as God does and how to learn from what God reveals in both light and shadows with honesty and humility. We do this with the help of Christ our teacher in order to love our self, each other, and the world in which we live.

God comes among us, as a child, in flesh and bone.  Truly, this is a gift to ponder; a gift to hold in our hearts and minds to give us courage for living all the rest of our lives. Unwrapping and unfolding this gift the path to abundance opens before us. God’s first, best Christmas gift, so delicately and sincerely offered is yours today and all the days of your life.  May the little Lord Jesus teach you how to love as you have been loved.

Epiphany 3A-20

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matthew 4:19). Simon and Andrew, then James and John, heard and followed Jesus. Perhaps they meant to follow only for a moment, or just to satisfy their curiosity. Yet moments would become hours, then days, a week, a season, and finally, a way of life. The disciples followed him and kept following him. They were hooked. They left their nets, their boats, family members, and everything they knew to follow Jesus and never look back.

I don’t even own a fishing pole anymore. I used to go quite a bit when I was a kid. We used worms and jigs to catch Crappie. Fish eggs for trout or anything that looked like a bug if you were fly-fishing. Worms and bobbers made fishing a more relaxing —just cast it out and wait for a nibble. It was also important to know the time fish would be feeding, to recognize the best spots to find them, and how to approach without scaring them away. And of course, even amateurs like me carried a whole tackle box of lures, baits, swivels, hooks, line, and other tools.

What was so enticing and persuasive it had power to transform the lives of the disciples so completely? What was the bait Jesus put on the hook? It could only be one thing, just one Divine Lure in his tackle box— the euangelion—the good news—the gospel. The root from which we get the word, “evangelize.” Jesus cast good news into the turbulent waters of the world to pull people out the pain and suffering caused by hate, fear, hopelessness, poverty, and any other thing that degrades and dehumanizes us. Jesus cast the good news of grace and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.

Where we find him today, Jesus has rejected the comforts of nearby cities like Tiberius and Sepphoris, places you might expect a talented young Rabbi to go. He is searching out fertile fishing grounds among those in need. Capernaum was in the back-water territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. It was the “wild west,” a rough, unruly place frequented by bandits and revolutionaries derided by religious authorities in Jerusalem as uncivilized, semi-literate, and infected by paganism.  It was a land familiar with brutality, poverty, and hunger, a land unaccustomed to hope.

Imagine a place where security and safety are stripped away. Every asset may be claimed by conquerors of the moment. Every child born can be taken by the powerful into slavery. Every harvest can be seized by the mighty. Every hope for the future could be stolen by masters who have the final say. ”This is ‘the land of deep darkness’ into which Jesus journeyed.  (Amy Oden, Dean and Professor of History of Christianity, Wesley Theological Seminary)

That’s the place Jesus went in search of disciples. It was a fertile place to fish for human hearts and minds hungry for hope. Jesus was not interested in their resumes. Simon and Andrew, James and John were not the best and brightest of their generation. The only qualification that is necessary to be a disciple of Christ is to follow him. They responded to the good news, hooked by the divine lure, the fabulous, preposterous message Jesus declared: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”

The bait Jesus used was his very own life. With this hook Jesus showed them how to live.  Look, we are being drawn out of isolation into communion. Hooked, pulled, fighting, resisting we have become like fish out of water, thrown into a life we could not imagine. The kingdom of God in which we now find ourselves is not a place, or a destination, but a way of life.  Now we finally understand we belong to each other and to all people, our brothers and sisters in Christ, whom God created, named, and loves.

Now, as the body of Christ, we become bait for people like us who are lost and hurting—people like a young boy named Alfredo. When Alfredo was small his house in rural Mexico burned down. His whole family died in the fire. He was left with scars he couldn’t hide. His face and mouth were permanently disfigured. Alfredo didn’t belong to anybody.  Although he was only about ten years old, no one took him in. He drifted from place to place, sleeping and eating wherever he could.

One day, he was drawn by the sound of children laughing. He watched other children play from a hiding place behind a schoolground wall. Later he would tell how he pressed his face up to the bars on the windows to get a better look.  It was a Christian orphanage run by an order of Franciscans. But he was afraid.  He was afraid of rejection.  He was afraid about what the other children might say when they saw him.  Yet he was desperate to find a home. So, one day, Alfredo got up the courage to show himself to the priest. He told him his story. The Priest wanted to take him in but he also knew how the other children might respond. So, he assembled the whole school.  He told them Alfredo’s story and put the decision about what was to be done about him in their hands.

Of course, all the children said, bring him in, we won’t mind.  But the priest warned them.  He said, you’ve never seen anyone like this boy. The grainy, low budget 1969 re-enactment of this story shows the priest call Alfredo to stand before the other children.  A long awkward silence falls over them in the courtyard.  The children stood and stared at Alfredo for a long time.   Finally, one of them, a boy about the same age, steps forward, stood before Alfredo, and declared simply, “You are my brother.”  He took Alfredo by the hand and led him among the other children.

What was it that drew Alfredo? Laughter, play, community, belonging, these are all good news. There is nothing too rough, unrefined, or shameful to bring to this church, these waters, or that table. In fact, these are the very things that draws us to Jesus and make us hungry for the gospel.

We read Jesus went to “Galilee of the Gentiles,” literally, the land of ‘those who are not us.’ We will see the same word appear again, translated as “nations” in the Great Commission Jesus issues the nascent Church at the end of Matthew’s gospel. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,” (Matthew 28:19-20).  Who are the Gentiles—those who are not us—among whom Jesus moves today? Jesus hooks and draws us together with them into one body, one people, one life. This is the good news. Follow me.

Epiphany 2A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come and see!

Christmas Eve-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and all that fills it.” (Psalm 96:11) “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)

The story of Jesus’ birth is about union with God, one another, and all creation. Emmanuel, ‘God with us,” or incarnation is the best and most important gift of the Christian story to the world. The fullness of God took on flesh and lived among us. This God is not content to dwell in you, or only in us, but the Spirit of God is being poured out to fill all things in heaven and earth with beauty and grace.

“All the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all peoples. Scripture teaches us to listen for God in the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; watch for God in the exultation fields, and everything growing within it. ‘All the trees of the forest sing for joy’ at the Lord’s coming (Psalm 96:11-12). The earth and cosmos resonate as with music at the coming Messiah.

Somehow, we seem to have lost this sense of enchantment that came naturally to ancient peoples. The message of Christmas is the perfect antidote. Incarnation means everything sparkles with the fullness and presence of God. Matter is not empty, but everything speaks of the one life. Spirit and nature. Sacred and secular. Body and soul. Light and darkness. Insider and outsider. Saints and sinners. Life and death. In Christ we see these dualisms are illusions. God is in with and under it all. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

But if you didn’t know anything about Jesus or this story and instead only listened to what many Christians in America say today, you could be forgiven for thinking the most important thing Christianity values is worldly power — the power to control and compel, to impose one’s will on others, to vanquish one’s enemies. Blessed are the politically powerful and the well connected, you might assume, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The birth and life of Jesus shatter this narrative. When this broken world became God’s dwelling place, God stepped into human clothing, into history and into the world barely without a ripple of notice, without protocol, without pretension, without the most basic of creature comforts. It was an entrance characterized not by privilege, comfort, public celebration or self-glorification; it was marked instead by lowliness, obscurity, humility, fragility.

What is shocking is not just that God came, but how God came, and what God means to teach us through becoming incarnate among us. The savior of the world is born to a poor peasant woman in an occupied country in an animal stall because they were homeless at the time of his birth.

The unchanging character of God praised by forests, oceans, and Jesus Christ is revealed in flesh and blood through power made perfect in weakness –as St. Paul said to the Christians of Corinth so long ago. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Most of us know we learn more in times of weakness rather than strength, in hardship rather than success. This is true for people of different faiths and people of no faith. It’s not that God intends for human weakness and suffering to be ends in themselves. Sometimes hardships and suffering simply overwhelm us and no good comes from them. But it’s also true that weakness can open the way for greater wisdom, self-reflection, and focus on what is essential rather than ephemeral.

“Our weakness finally opens our eyes to the need for a Savior. Nothing prevents that more than our strength. No one has ever said, ‘I was so successful I just had to come to Jesus.’” (Craig Barnes, Princeton Theological Seminary) Power understood through the prism of the incarnation is different from how the world generally understands power. It’s the difference between power over others, and the power of connecting with others, which requires us to be open and vulnerable.

Jesus continually turns the world upside down in regard to power, might, worldly success, and achievement. Jesus’ subversive challenges to human-crafted structures that oppress and bind others hold out hope that there is a third way — the Jesus way—that takes us beyond either/or and opens into both/and. This way of Jesus brings healing to individuals, communities and nations. (Pastor Renée Notkin,  Union Church Seattle)

“What the incarnation represents is God entering history not as the screenwriter of the drama but as an actor within it. Jesus is the suffering protagonist. No one thought it would start quite this way, an infant placed in a manger in a troubled corner of a troubled world. You would have thought he [that baby] would be among the most inconsequential individuals ever. You would have been wrong.” (Peter Wehner, Christmas Should Humble Us, NYT, 12/24/19)

We wonder at these things.  Scripture only says, ‘Mary treasured all the words people said about Jesus and pondered them in her heart’ (Luke 2:19). At the rail and the font, in scripture and in prayer, and wherever two are three are gathered in his name, we are midwives to the incarnation of grace God is bringing into being among us.

I leave you with a poem written by liturgical artist some of you know. Jan Richardson writes:

I cannot tell you how the light comes.

What I know is that it is more ancient than imagining.

That it travels across an astounding expanse to reach us.

That it loves searching out what is hidden, what is lost, what is forgotten or in peril or in pain.

That it has a fondness for the body, for finding its way toward the flesh, for tracing the edges of form, for shining forth through the eye, the hand, the heart.

I cannot tell you how the light comes, but that it does.

That it will.

That it works its way into the deepest dark that enfolds you, though it may seem long ages in coming or arrive in a shape you did not foresee.

And so, may we this day turn ourselves toward it.

May we lift our faces to let it find us.

May we bend our bodies to follow the arc it makes.

May we open and open more and open still to the blessed light

that comes.

(How The Light Comes, Jan Richardson, printed in Circle of Grace, p.59)