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Advent 4A-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I hatched a plan to surprise my parents with a fresh cut Christmas tree. I think I imagined it to be a proud moment. I was all grown up. I was five years old. Had I been successful, I probably wouldn’t remember it so well.  Shame leaves an indelible imprint on the mind.

The details are sketchy. I have to fill the story in from family photos and things I’m told. My dad was getting a post-doctoral degree that year.  We were house-sitting for some professor and living in a grand old farmhouse in upstate New York. I remember rolling farmland, two barns, a nearby forest, and best of all, a playhouse the size of a small shed. I can just remember a plot of evergreens, three or four rows deep, planted in tight neat rows—the scene of the crime.

I picked a nice one. It was close to the house. I suppose it couldn’t have been much taller than I was.  I set to work.  I remember being surprised. It was hard work cutting down that tree. I stopped several times to rest. The next thing I remember is how my parent’s reacted. It was memorable but not for what I’d expected. They were not happy. They were horrified.  Rather than display it, they hid it. Rather than pride, I felt ashamed. My dad threw it out in the middle of the pond. It sat out there on the ice until Spring. I remember looking out at it from the living room window—right next to where we put up the other Christmas tree we had that year—the one we kept.

Like my five-year-old self, Joseph had other plans. Joseph expected to make his parents proud and prove he was all grown up. He was warmly regarded in the community. He was a righteous man. He learned a good trade. He was engaged to be married. Instead, he had a big mess on his hands.

Even today, it’s easy to imagine the stain of scandal buzzing around the small, mountain town of Nazareth. Joseph was in a bind. The woman to whom he was betrothed was pregnant. The townspeople were within their rights to throw rocks at her until she was dead. Mercifully Joseph quietly decided to divorce her.  Even so, the news would bring down heavy shame upon both their families.

Matthew doesn’t go into much detail about Joseph’s anguish.  However, in the Gospel of James, an extracanonical text from the 2nd century C.E, “we get a fuller, harsher picture of the carpenter’s pain.  When Joseph sees Mary’s swollen belly, he throws himself on the ground, strikes his own face, and cries bitterly.  He wonders long and hard how to respond, and asks Mary why she has betrayed both him and God so cruelly.”   (Debie Thomas)

In a jam like this we might raise our fist and shout, “Why me, Lord?”  What have I done to deserve this?  Joseph was right in the middle of a miracle yet it’s easy to understand why he would complain about it.  Harder to understand how Joseph was able to look past the pain of humiliation, shame, and broken dreams to take the angel Gabriel’s message to heart, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. The child she has conceived is from God. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:20 &21)

“Away in a Manger?” “Silent Night?” “Joy to the World?” The hymns we sing about the conception and birth of Jesus evoke such warm feelings and teary-eyed tenderness we forget what stress the Holy Family must have been under.

The psalms are full of the lament of the faithful searching for answers from God.  “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?” Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1).  “How long will your anger fume when your people pray?” (Psalm 80:4).  Its well known that Mother Teresa once had a profoundly vivid experience of the presence of Jesus as a young woman.  That vision was the beginning of her legendary ministry among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India.  Years later, near the end of her life, she was asked about it in an interview.  The reporter assumed she must have had many such experiences all through her amazing life.  Her answer was a surprise.  No, she said, it had happened only just that once –and never again.  Yet she had lived her entire life in faithfulness to that dream and that is why we honor her.

Joseph’s willingness to forsake conventional righteousness, ennobled him. That he changes direction overnight in a dark conversation makes him an Advent icon.  As Carl Jung might have said, Joseph was awakened by his dream. No careful tending of the embers of his prior ambitions could revive them.  As ephemeral as this new dream was, both Mary and Joseph proved willing to turn their lives inside out so that the urgent prayers of Israel could be answered by the birth of a baby whose name would be, “save”  (Suzanne, Suzanne Guthrie, At The Edge of the Enclosure, 2013).

Names were very important in that ancient world.  First, the angel says, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people.” The Hebrew name Jesus is the verb save. Jesus will save from sin and guilt.  Advent is being ready for the saving one who will come when we cannot save ourselves. (Walter Brueggeman)

But notice, the angel actually gave Joseph two names for the baby.  His second name is Emmanuel or, God is with us. It is the faith of the church that in Jesus God is decisively present in the world.  Scripture tells us that wherever Jesus comes, he shows up where people are in need.  Jesus saved lepers, the deaf, the blind, the lame, the hungry, the unclean, even the dead. His very presence makes new life possible, and the church consists in all the people who have been awakened to the reality of God who comes to be with us in this season of need and of joy –all through this miraculous baby, and this preposterous dream. (Walter Brueggeman)

Joseph had a dream and suddenly he was willing to look like a fool to his family and friends. Can we do that?  Shame leaves an indelible imprint on the mind. Avoiding it can be a powerful motivator. It easily becomes a barrier to grace taking shape in us. Joseph was willing to act upon the script of miracle and blessing rather than the script of shame and scarcity, and social convention.  Like Joseph, we are called to stand apart in order to stand for the whole—to give ourselves to God’s dreams for fallen people and this broken world regardless of what others may say—for God to call you blessed.

 

Easter Darkness

Advent 3A-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

December 15, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent 2A-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1).  With beautiful words the prophet Isaiah describes his vision of a future king, like David, who rules with “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (v 2). We lay on hands and say these words to affirm our baptism to become members of this church. In some small way that makes each of you an answer to Isaiah’s prayer. We are tasked with fulfilling Isaiah’s vision of nonviolence and social harmony, building communities where the wolf, the lamb, the leopard and the kid live together in peace.

Soon after Isaiah wrote these famous poetic words, the only thing that would remain real was the stump. The story begun in Eden continuing through Abraham, Sarah, Moses, King David and the Prophets came to an end. The temple soon fell into ruins. The people killed or carted off in chains, neither their time nor their bodies would be their own.  All was cut down, destroyed.

I am aware that I am grieving the decay of our civic life, the erosion of great institutions of government, education, and the church. I am anxious about the inability for all of us to agree even on basic facts. Yet nothing I am worried about today compares with the utter devastation people of faith have coped with in the past. It’s not that our worries and concerns aren’t legitimate and relevant.  But fortunately, we possess the wisdom of our ancestors to guide us through times of doubt or unknowing when it comes to faith.

It happens more than we care to admit. The sense of being stranded in the midst of life can be enough to drain a person’s self-worth. Where did the joy go? Where did the feeling of self-confidence disappear to in the midst of this emptiness? Just yesterday life was clear and vibrant. Today it is endlessly bleak. The darkness is unyielding. Nothing helps; nothing takes it away. There is no light here, we think. But we think wrong.

The Old Ones whisper, there is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate. “It is the glowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the ultimate truth of creation: that there is a God and we are not it. That is the light that shines in darkness.” (Sister Joan Chittister) 

Only the experience of our own darkness gives us the light we need to be of help to others whose journey into unknowing is just beginning. Without that, we are only words. We are false witnesses to the truth of what it means to be pressed to the ground and rise again.

The light we gain in darkness is faith. Faith is our light.  United Church of Christ pastor Mark Longhurst describes how both light and dark are essential for transformation. The light and the darkness are bound up with one another. Periods of seemingly fruitless darkness may in fact highlight all the ways we rob ourselves of wisdom by clinging to the light. Who grows by only looking on the bright side of things? It is only when we lose our certainties that we become able to see past false images of God to discover the grace operating beneath all our self-serving fantasies and fears. (Mark Longhurst, “Beyond Light Supremacy: Let There Be Light *and* Darkness,” Patheos, 10-11-19).

The terrible, disorienting experience of Exile opened the hearts of God’s people wide enough some of them became able to recognize the Messiah even when hanging on a cross. It made some of them ready to live into the radical reality of God’s ubiquitous grace.  One of them was John the Baptist. Like Isaiah, he also speaks to us today about a tree stump This time, it is God doing the chopping to make way for the kingdom. “Even now the axe is lying against the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10). What kind of kingdom you ask?  The peaceable kingdom, like the one Isaiah described.

“John planted himself in the middle of nowhere.  He set up shop in the wilderness, and anyone who wanted to hear what he had to say had to go to a lot of trouble to get there…” and not just trouble, but plenty of danger too.  (Barbara Brown Taylor) To hear him preach about repentance and baptism, a pilgrim from Jerusalem had to take that treacherous Jericho road, made famous in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  They had to trek through blazing desert, carrying all their own food and water, traversing hills and lonely canyons infested with bandits to Jericho and then beyond—to the wilderness beside the Jordan far away from everything.

Ask yourself.  Who would make such a journey?  Who would risk it?  Who would be so desperate?  Many who went out to see John had nothing left to lose. Their lives counted for very little.  They had lost hope in building a life for themselves. They went to the desert in search of a little peace. They returned to become midwives of a new creation of impossible possibilities.

Often God’s little ones are the first to hear the angels or to follow the leading star. The people who flocked to hear John the Baptist were people on the margins, outcasts, thieves, and sinners—and right behind them came a second group of people—those sent out to keep tabs on the people who lived on the margins, to be sure things didn’t get out of hand.

That sets the scene of our gospel today.  John announces the Lord’s coming.  He calls the religious leaders a brood of vipers. He speaks of fiery judgment, and of wrath to come.  Clearly, John the Baptist didn’t get the memo about wishing everyone a very merry Christmas.

John’s Baptism of fire is bad news to those in authority and anyone peddling Christmas like a commodity, but good news to the poor, the grieving, the victims of violence, those who suffer injustice, and anyone longing for the kingdom of God.

Isaiah’s dream and John’s baptism are impossibly good news for everyone.  Isaiah and John boldly declare God’s peaceable kingdom is closer than we realize. The old ways are passing away. Even now, God is bringing something new out of the old, making what was impossible possible.  A shoot is growing from the dead stump of Jesse.  Death gives way to life. John and Isaiah expose the upside-down dreams our so-called common sense is built on and awaken us being part of God’s dream for this world following the light God has placed deep within us, the light only darkness can reveal, the light we call faith.

Advent 1A-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The prophet Isaiah calls us, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that God may teach us God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” (Isaiah 2:3) Scripture tells of many mountains upon which people of faith draw nearer to God. Today marks a new year in our worship calendar told mostly by Matthew. Seeking God on the mountaintop is a recurring theme of Matthew’s gospel.

In my youth, there was one mountain that loomed over everything in Northern Colorado. At 14, 259 feet, Long’s Peak can be seen anywhere from Denver to Ft. Collins. Climbing that mountain always started around three in the morning.  We’d get in the car pre-loaded with food and gear the night before and drive three hours to reach the trail head by 6:00 AM. After signing in with the ranger, we’d start winding through silent forests of Pingree pine, Blue Spruce, and Aspen.  By about 9:30, we’d break from the trees, passing gnarled wind-twisted pines and stunted undergrowth, emerging onto the open tundra. “God’s country,” it’s called. It’s too high in elevation and too harsh for trees to grow, nevertheless life flourishes there.  With its delicate small flowers and silky grasses, it’s a world of miniatures in a land of giant geological structures that stretches for miles and hundreds of miles.

On top of Long’s Peak, six hours and 5,000 feet above your car, nearly a mile above the trailhead, ordinary lives are transformed.  Life is a party. Several people have been married on top of Long’s Peak.  In the mid-70’s, half of a 12-piece brass band assembled on the summit to play the Star-Spangled Banner, and Nearer My God to Thee.  Strangers celebrate together like old friends.

The day I was there, someone did a headstand to pose for a picture.  Another shot golf balls over the diamond face.  That day, we were entertained by a glider, piloted by someone who overcome a different set of obstacles, riding the winds that spiral above the mountains to carry his plane silently just over our heads.

Mountain tops are wonderful, enchanted places, where nothing seems out of place except the ordinary.  They are foreboding, majestic, even sacred places which lift our minds and spirits to God.  Mountain tops can be a place to feel the presence of God, a place of revelation, understanding, and light.  They would seem to be the perfect place for Advent.  A perfect place to stand watch for the coming of God.  Indeed, Jesus seem to love to pray and teach on mountaintops as a way to prepare himself and the disciples for what they would confront in the world.

As Jesus sat and spoke to the disciples in our gospel today, he is somewhere on the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron valley from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  The time and manner of his coronation as Lord and King remain unimaginable and largely unanticipated by his little band of followers.  The disciples still don’t know what’s about to hit them although Jesus already told them on three separate occasions.

Maybe we hoped we could avoid this.  We would rather not confront our pain, our shadowy selves, let alone all the suffering that exists in the world. We comfort ourselves with popular books based on bad theology about a rapture that is supposed to helicopter us out of this war zone—right?  A closer look at our gospel (Matthew 24) reveals the righteous remain to fight the good fight while the unrighteous were taken up in the flood.

The message of Advent is, “Wake up!”  The message of Matthew today is, “Keep watch!”  The call of the season is to recognize that we’re not paying attention to what really matters.  It is to confess that we are alive and yet dangerously asleep to what is real. God so loved the world that God sent the Son and now sends us to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace in the midst of a confusing and hopeless planet. Remember, Jesus walks with you.

In a sermon entitled, “The Face in the Sky,” Frederick Buechner describes God’s descent into the world in Christ as a kind of scandal — one that requires us to ponder the shocking unpredictability of God: “Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in the stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.”

Strong winds and blowing snow forced all the roads to Longs Peak trail to close today. But it is never impossible to take another day hike with Jesus. We walk beside Jesus into valleys of the shadow of death like frail, confused, and mortal angels shining the borrowed light of heaven upon our path.  We do not know the way to go.  Yet we remain confident knowing the end of our journey will always return to our beginning in God.

Advent wants to shake us out of our complacency, out of our cynicism, out of prejudice, ideologies and learned expectations –all the things that keep us from seeing things new and fresh as they really are. As St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “…you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…” (Romans 13:11, 12a).

Remember the mountaintop.  Remember that you are mine.  Remember the fellowship you experienced with strangers, for you are all my children. Remember the feast of joy prepared for you at the heavenly banquet. Always remember that you belong to the kingdom of God as you follow my way of the cross. As a child, we journeyed to the mountaintop from far below on the plains.  Our spiritual journey runs in the opposite direction.  It begins in our home on God’s holy mountain and continues into the world God so passionately loves.

 

 

Proper 28C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

On February 14th, 1990 the Voyager I space probe sent a love letter.  It was Valentine’s Day. The probe had already travelled 13 years and nearly 4 billion miles from earth when the late-great astronomer Carl Sagan, convinced NASA engineers to turn Voyager’s camera toward earth for one final photo. The famous image, called “Pale Blue Dot,” depicts a single pinprick of light in a dark, vast, empty, expanse of space.  Voyager has travelled 43 years without stopping and is now more than thirteen billion miles from earth. It is the first human-made object to leave our solar system.

Carl Sagan wrote that pale blue dot, “That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was…every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” (Carl Sagan, “Pale Blue Dot,” 1994)

This is what Bulgarian-born writer Maria Popova has called a telescopic perspective on our world. It’s when we think of life, not in the span of days or years or even generations, but across geological epochs and cosmic space. From such a distance we ask ourselves different questions — not, “What matters to me?” but instead: What does it mean to matter? And what must we choose to care for when life is both so precious and so lonely in the universe?

As we end one year reading the gospel of Luke and are about to begin a new one reading from Matthew, our story pans out to include the beginning and the end.  This stretch of Sundays, from All Saints to Christmas, our bible trains us to look at life through this telescopic perspective with its language about the end-times.  From this vantage point so-called big things become very small and certain small things loom large.

As they walked past the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus told the disciples, not one stone would be left upon another.  The ruin of it must have been impossible to imagine.

The historian Josephus wrote: “The outward face of the Temple…was covered with gold plates of great weight, which at sunrise, reflected a fiery splendor that forced those who looked upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays.  At a distance this golden Temple appeared like a snow-covered mountain, for…those parts…not covered in gold… where exceedingly white. (As quoted by William Barclay).

When the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., it was a bewildering event that seemed to signal the end of the world.  Josephus’ account of the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans just thirty years after Jesus’ resurrection is no less spectacular that his description of the Temple itself.  He writes, “The roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the falling victims; and owing to the height of the hill and the mass of the burning pile, one would have thought that the whole city was ablaze” (War 6.271-275) [p. 359].

We are not the first people to live in a time it seems everything is upended.  In a new twist on an old story, Jesus points to the beginning that is beyond the end. He invites us to look at life as if through a telescope. Regardless of our leaders, Jesus Christ is king. Of all the things that exist today, tomorrow, and yesterday, only the Word of God is eternal. God opens the way that rekindles our hope even as kingdoms the world are brought low.

In a sermon collection titled, God in Pain, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown argues that disillusionment is essential to the Christian life: “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion — about ourselves, about the world, about God — and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.”

Viewing life through the telescopic perspective of the end-of-days, may provoke grief and disorientation in us. Like Job, sitting in the ashes of our own human striving, we cry out to God, ‘What does it mean?’

As we envision ourselves in the disciples’ place, listening in bewilderment as Jesus pops our spiritual bubbles, we start asking ourselves different questions: What lies, and illusions do I mistake for truth? In what memories or traditions do I attempt to “house” God?  On what shiny religious edifice do I pin my hopes, instead of trusting Jesus? (My denomination?  My church?  My spiritual heritage?)   Why do I cling to permanence when Jesus invites me to evolve?

Am I willing to sit with the fact that things fall apart?  (Things I love, things I built, things I cried and prayed and strived for?)   Can I embrace a journey of faith that includes rubble, ruin, and failure? (Debie Thomas, By Your Endurance, Journey with Jesus, 11/10/19)

The 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “Let us pray to God that we may be free of God,” implying that our conceptions of God and faith must always fall short, always fail.  “Let’s name honestly, he suggests, the imposter gods we conjure because we fear the Mystery who really is.  Let’s admit that we shape these gods in our own image, and that they serve us as much as we serve them.  In other words, let’s endure apocalypse so that truth will set us free.  Let’s dare to see what Jesus sees.” (Debie Thomas)

From the perspective of eternity and the far-flung distance of space big things that fill our minds and calendars begin to look small and certain small things loom large. From four billion miles we can clearly see life itself is breath-taking and miraculous. The most important legacy of our lives is in sustaining and extending life on this beautiful pale blue dot rather than in subduing and extinguishing it. Our fate rests in how we choose to care for what’s right in front of us, day after day, no matter how miniscule that may seem. As Carl Sagan wrote of that distant image of our tiny world, “It underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

You do this at Immanuel when you take time to help a child learn to read and be successful in school. When you build community among young families. Through your support of an immigrant family torn apart by detention and deportation. By welcoming young people to Christ and belonging as siblings of God. When you take time to listen to a co-worker, care for a friend or family member, or take risks to oppose injustice.  When you lift your voices to sing and give God praise.  When you answer the sabbath call to gather here for worship to hear the word, to be nourish at the table, and made new in the waters of the font. The sacrifice of your time, sweat, and money for these small things loom large because these are the very things that sustain us and add to the vibrancy of all life.  All the angels in heaven sing, and all that is, was, and is to be, will join us in celebration. May Christ be praised. Amen!

Proper 27C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The leaves are mostly down now.  The trees along the parkway across the street, displayed a fiery red. The little Maple near the front walkway is still a glowing yellow. Some people, like trees, reveal their inner glory late in life. To appreciate fall is to savor transience and transition. Being is becoming that becomes being again—which is beautiful and terrifying of course.

Fall begs the question.  What happens when I die?  Unfortunately, the Sadducees, who actually asked Jesus, were not interested in the answer. Instead, they engaged in combat. The Sadducees sat at the top the religious hierarchy.  They controlled the Temple.  They were privileged, landed, elite, arrogant, and often in cahoots with the Roman Empire. In forty years, both they and the Temple would be gone.  But this was their final chance to put Jesus in his place before they committed themselves to dispatch him by violence.

Their contrived outlandish hypothetical question about a woman who marries and is widowed by seven brothers was a trap. Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?  They’re point was to prove that life after death is absurd.

Fortunately, Jesus didn’t answer their question.  He came closer to answering ours. Jesus realized there is no right answer to a wrong question—especially one designed as a trap. Because the Sadducees’ only read the first five books of the bible, the Pentateuch, Jesus quoted Moses.  Moses had stood beside the burning bush in the wilderness and addressed “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Luke 20:37) Therefore, the Lord is not God of the dead, Jesus said, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:38)  The dead become like angels.  Jesus will also say, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so would I have told you I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2) He will say to the criminal crucified beside him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) And that’s it.  That is literally all Jesus had to say about what happens when we die.  Jesus didn’t offer many details.  As pastor, what I often say is, scripture offers assurance that this God whom we have come to know and trust with our life, will also be trustworthy in our death. The realms of heaven go beyond my imagining.

Martin Luther said something like this. He taught that we actually undergo two deaths—one big and one small.  We have already undergone a big death in baptism.  We are children of God forever. The smaller one is our physical death.  We are alive in Christ forever–beginning now, now, now, now, and persisting into eternity.  How does that knowledge change the way we live today?

Jesus didn’t have a lot to say about when we die, but he never stopped talking about the kingdom that is coming.  A realm where no human being “belongs” to any other, because all belong equally to God. It is the very kin-dom we invite to take hold every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. For Jesus, God’s kingdom was not a distant future event but a powerful nearby reality. Our true citizenship has already been transferred into Christ’s kingdom. Christians waiting for the second coming have missed the bus.  The good news is there’s always another one coming.  Like the old song says, ‘You don’t need a ticket.  You just get on board.’

This season in the church, the seven Sundays between All Saints and Christmas, this set of readings, are a wake-up call to an ever-present reality. Each season of the church year offers a new window into the life of faith. What makes this stretch of Sundays important is this chance to incorporate an eschatological lens to our life in God. The Alpha is our Omega, our beginning is also our end. God has joined these together in an eternal now Jesus called the kingdom of God.

Dwelling in this kin-dom brings an end to business-as-usual. A new “Day” is upon us.  It puts an end to our fear. It protects us from the slings and arrows of this world. We are servants of the God of the living. So, we hold out for the impossible.  We may dare to live as Jesus longs for us to live. We set out to advance this kin-dom. We work right beside God confident that the love which propels us has also embraced us and will never let go.

For the next seven Sundays our bible talks a lot about the end times. It will often do so in a language and style popular among ancient people called apocalyptic literature. Earthquakes, plagues, wars, and famines are its dreadful portents, great signs from heaven that God’s judgement is loose upon the land.  This baffles modern Christians unfamiliar with this literary style.  We often become apocalyptic literalists, by trying to reconcile details from different stories as if these were secret divine messages to be decoded.  At best, this is an exercise in futility. At its worst, as in Christian Zionism, it becomes foreign policy, as when Christians send money to Israel hoping to provoke holy war and the second coming.

So, these seven Sundays are important not just for faith but also to prevent violence and suffering from the misuse of scripture. This gospel about God’s kingdom that is coming does indeed set fire to the world as we know it –but it does so from within our hearts and minds. The war being waged now is one of spirit and of faith.

We are a resurrection people.  Christ has opened the door to undying life.  Jesus affirms the dead are alive to God.  God gives life and preserves life.  The resurrected life has a different character than life lived only in the present.  Jesus taught us, the resurrection is not only a future hope, but an urgent and crucial aspect of our life today.  The true dignity and power of human life within us comes from beyond us as a gift from God.  Our fragile and finite lives are caught up and joined together in the one eternal life of God.

We do not know what the future or what heaven will be like.  We only know at its center will be the One we have always known, who has loved us, and calls us by name.

All Saints C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

John of Patmos foretold peoples of all nations streaming to the City of God. In worship, time and eternity are joined in the eternal now. Saints of every time and place crowd in among us. Seems like a great opportunity to ask one of them about Jesus’ sermon on the plain.

In life, she stood five feet tall and couldn’t read or write. Yet she led 70 slaves to freedom without losing a single one. During the Civil War she served as Union scout, spy, and nurse. She is also the first woman to lead a U.S. military operation in what is known as the Combahee Ferry Raid. She guided Union boats through mine-filled waters and successfully rescued more than 700 slaves from nearby plantations, while dodging bullets and artillery shells of slave owners and Confederate soldiers.

Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland in 1822. At 27, she fled on foot and alone 90-miles north to Pennsylvania.  Later she recounted, “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything. The Sun came like gold through the trees and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”

Tubman escaped from hell then returned to it. She returned to slave territory between 13 – 19 times. She risked her life each time. Her astonishing success at using and expanding the secret network, known as the Underground Railroad, led the abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, to call her “Moses of her people.”

Tubman credited her success with an ability to take instructions directly from God.  Harriet had fainting spells and visions throughout her life stemming from a brain injury when she was 13.  Stories differ. By one account, a slave master threw a metal weight at someone else, that fractured her skull. She spent upwards of two months in a coma without medical treatment. Harriet’s documented uncanny ability to avoid capture despite the determined efforts of slave owners and armed slave hunters, she later said, was due to the fact that the old injury had made God’s voice easier for her to hear.

After the war, Tubman was recognized as a war hero, but she wasn’t paid. She petitioned the government but was repeatedly denied compensation because she was a woman. She supported herself by selling homemade pies, gingerbread and root beer. Despite meager resources, she opened her home in Auburn, NY to orphans, the elderly, and freed slaves looking for help.  On March 10, 1913, she died of pneumonia, surrounded by family and friends. A devout Christian until the end, her final words were, “I go to prepare a place for you.”

If her courage and achievements weren’t testament enough, these last words attest to her dedication to others, seeking no glory or fame. A woman who became an American icon by hiding in shadows. A woman who escaped the hell of being a slave and set about helping others to do the same.

I imagine, if we asked Harriet, she would point out Jesus stood on a level place as he preached. Here Jesus, the Son of God, walks among humankind as an equal.  Here Jesus taught there is no place for me to stand that is any higher or lower with respect to God than you.  Whether we walk up the steps to the altar or gather in an open field, God is with us.  Every human life is precious.  God doesn’t want people to own people.

I imagine Harriet might say this is what Jesus aimed to show us when he took on flesh and lived among us (John 1:14) Christ Jesus, “Who, though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). Jesus stands with the suffering, the afflicted, the no-account, the invisible poor who make our shoes. To follow Jesus is to walk the way of his cross. Jesus made himself subject to human capriciousness and malice in solidarity with those who become its targets.  Let the heavenly chorus sing for joy.

Harriet would not fail to notice all the “blessings” mentioned in Jesus’ sermon are what most people would call woes; and all the woes are what we usually count as blessings.  Jesus preached woe to the wealthy, and those who have plenty to eat, who are laughing now and possess the esteem of others who all speak well of them.  Aren’t these the very things we often pray for?  As for hunger, weeping, and the hatred of others who exclude, revile, defame us on account of Jesus—who among us would call these blessings?  Well, apparently, Jesus did and does.

But, as Harriet would be quick to say, this is not because Jesus wants us to weep more, or to become poorer, or to be hated. This does not please to God.  Rather, Jesus the great revealer, shows us the fullness of God dwells now in the abandoned places of human despair. God is with you in your struggles.  God is there when you’re not being very good at being religious, let alone spiritual.  God is present in distress, tragedy, and injustice –not because God wants more of these things—but because God intends to put an end to such things.  In fact, God has already turned the tide. (Nadia Bolz-Weber) Christ Jesus has called us to come stand beside him in this fight.

Jesus goes on to up the ante saying, ‘Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, look them in the eye and offer the other cheek also. If anyone takes your coat offer them your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you. If anyone steals your stuff, don’t ask for it back. Do unto others as you would have them do to you.’ (Luke 6:27-31)

Theologians will say these Beatitudes are descriptive of God’s kingdom, not prescriptive of what we need to try and be more of.  Regular people say, ‘Sure Jesus, in an ideal world, I might be willing to do all these things—but in case you haven’t noticed—this not an ideal world!’  That’s when our strong faithful new friend Harriet might gently pull on our elbow. Jesus knows the power of evil is real. But there’s no way to begin making a better world unless evil is returned with forgiveness and mercy. Let all the Saints sing alleluia!

I go to prepare a place for you.  There’s a reserved seat for you right beside Harriet at the great banquet Jesus has laid out for us. Come, share in the inheritance of all the saints. Come to the table prepared for you.

Reformation Sunday, 2019

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

When I was five, I fell asleep on the back of my grandpa’s tractor while he was cutting hay. I got a big ball of dirt and grass in my lungs. “Pneumonia,” they said. I would need regular injections of penicillin. In those days there were no pills to take.  So, that’s how I missed the first two weeks of kindergarten laying in a hospital bed.

I remember the big yellow school bus that came to pick me up my on first day of school-mostly because my mom took a picture of me and our dog, Rusty, standing beside the road.

That same day, for the ride home, my teacher attached a big manila tag to a button on my shirt. It had the bus number written in big black letters. “You still need that tag?” One of the kids asked disbelievingly. After two weeks, the other kids already knew their bus by heart. “You still need that tag?” That question is probably the only other thing I still remember about my first day. How’s it possible you still don’t know? I’m thankful my teacher kept track of my story and took care to provide me with it, because yeah, I did need it. I needed that tag to find my way home again.

Well, the people of Israel should have known. After Exodus, Mt. Sinai, and entry in the Promised Land, they had no excuse.  One could have asked the Israelites, ‘You still need reminding about this whole God thing?”  Well, yes. Yes, they did still need reminding.  So, God wrote a big note for them. It was already written in the book of the Law and the Prophets.  But now, God wrote in big letters on sticky note placed directly on their hearts.  “I will be your God, and you shall be my people… I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33 & 34.)  God is still doing that. In fact, God is that kind of parent who is always leaving us notes.

Jesus commanded that we be baptized and that we meet him at his Table. These are not prerequisites of grace. They’re not how we merit status as God’s children. They’re sticky notes of grace. Remember, you are marked with the cross of Christ.  You are my child. Partake of living bread and drink of my lifeblood. You are one body, one blood, one people, and that’s the truth.

In the Roman Praetorium, standing before Jesus on the night of his crucifixion, Pilate famously asked, “What is truth?” In a time when we can’t even agree about facts, could there be a more modern question? Jesus showed us what to do in chaotic and confusing times.  Look within yourself. See what’s written there. Remember your baptism. Don’t forget what I taught you seated around my Table. Jesus said, if are my disciples you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)

They said to Jesus, “What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free?’” (John 8:33b) We have never been slaves to anyone. They had forgotten their ancestors in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. They overlooked their own obvious everyday reality of Roman occupation.  It’s easy to get lost when you can’t remember where you come from.  It’s hard to know which choice is right when you don’t know where you’re going.

We know its flu season now, but each day of the year is sin season. Blindness to the truth, and forgetting our core values rooted in our God-infused identity, are symptoms of sin.  The antidote is written on your heart, marked on your forehead, and in the food we share today. Remember who you are.  This truth, as Martin Luther said, is what cures the fever dream we all have when our mind, energy, and desire become curved in on ourselves and begin to blot out any thought for God and neighbor. This truth restores us from the many ways we put our self in the place of God.

Lutheran pastor and author, Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, “It can be alcoholism or passive aggression. It can be the hateful things we think but never say or it can be adultery, or it can be that feeling of superiority when we are helping others. Sin is the fact that my ideals and values are never enough to make me always do what I should, feel what I should, think what I should. And anything that reveals those “shoulds” to me is what we call The Law, the Law being the very thing Paul in his letter to the Romans said reveals sin. The “shoulds” in our lives are the things that make us see how far off the mark we are.” Sin is so devious and cunning we can get lost even in our attempt to do what’s right.

This truth sparked the Protestant Reformation. Luther knew what is was like for the Law to convict and accuse him. Feeling this way, Luther read that passage we just heard from Romans, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift.” (Romans 3:23 & 24). Luther realized the church was pawning off Law as Gospel, and he dared to know the difference, and he became a preacher of Grace, and that changed everything.

To quote a single sentence from Pastor Bolz-Weber: “Because God is our creator and because we rebel against the idea of being created beings and insist on trying to be God for ourselves and because God will not play by our rules and because in the fullness of time when God had had quite enough of all of that God became human in Jesus Christ to show us who God really is and because when God came to God’s own and we received him not, and because God would not be deterred God went so far as to hang from the cross we built and did not even lift a finger to condemn but said forgive them they know not what they are doing and because Jesus Christ defeated even death and the grave and rose on the 3rd day and because we all sin and fall short and are forever turned in on ourselves and forget that we belong to God and that none of our success guarantee this and none of our failures exclude this and because God loves God’s creation God refuses for our sin and brokenness and inability to always do the right things to be the last word because God came to save and not to judge and therefore…therefore you are saved by grace as a gift and not by the works of the law and this truth will set you free like no self-help plan or healthy living or social justice work “shoulds” can ever do.” (Nadia Bolz Weber, “Why the Gospel is More Wizard of Oz-y than the Law,” 10/29/12)

Whether or not you are wearing your bus tag, whether you have been baptized or not, whether or not you come to the Table –the truth is you were created in the image of God. You carry a spark of the infinite within your narrow, mortal frame. All things come from God and return to God. That is how we know where we come from and to where we’re going. That is how we know what will matter most when we get there. They were thirsty. Did you give them something to drink? They were hungry and you gave them something to eat. They were cold or naked and we comforted them. And that’s the truth. Truth to live and to die by.  It is written on our hearts, marked on our foreheads, and in the sack lunch we eat each week –so we don’t forget.  We can’t forget –never forget—we belong to Christ. One body, one blood, one living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Can we be thankful?

Proper 23C-2019
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It’s bedtime on a school night years ago. Leah washes her face and brushes her teeth. I fetch a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and open to where we left off the night before. Leah comes and shows me her new sparkly boots and other stuff mom bought her at the outlet mall. I say, “Yeah? You know what I got?” “Nothing!” “Ahh,” she said, giving me a big hug. “You know what you’re getting tomorrow?” she asked. “Another new day!” “Yeah, whatever” I said. Then she says, real incredulous, “Hey!! That’s a gift from God mister!”

Another new day. She was right—each day a gift from God. Can’t argue with that. So how come I don’t feel grateful? That question still haunts me and feels more urgent today. I am beleaguered and I in shock by daily events. Here’s where our gospel steps up to meet me where I am. Here’s where the bible presents me with a life hack gleaned from real life by ancestors in faith who coped and thrived in times more chaotic, difficult, and dangerous than today. It sounds simple—even simple minded. Jesus’ sage advice is remember to give thanks.

There’s a spot on the drive home to grandma’s house just east of Ft. Collins, Colorado, on highway 14 where the entire town, foothills, and mountains rising above tree line to 14,000 feet, come into focus all at once. I’ve stopped there, many times, just to take in that view. It’s so beautiful, it almost commands you stop and give thanks.

But I know from having lived there it doesn’t take long for that view and those mountains to recede into the background like pretty pictures hanging on a wall. Pretty soon, like any place, what seems to matter most are daily routines and the torrent of your private thoughts, and your strategies to cope with whatever variety of stress is on offer that day. Truth is, every place is beautiful. Each day is a gift, like young Leah said, yet we get so turned in on ourselves that beauty doesn’t rise to our consciousness. We don’t remember to say thanks which leads to our own impairment.

Last week we heard Jesus scold the disciples. He told them not to expect thanks for all the good things they do in Jesus’ name. They are worthless servants who are doing only what is asked (Luke 17:10). Today, we hear the rest of the story. Don’t wait to receive thanks, Jesus says, but always remember to give it. Because thanksgiving is not a duty but a lifeline. Thanksgiving—literally eucharist—is a means to grab onto grace and hold it inside ourselves like lighting in a bottle. Gratitude spills over into love. Thanksgiving heals, redeems and sanctifies.

Victor Frankl, the eminent psychologist, and author of the famous book Man’s Search for Meaning, was prisoner in a Nazi death camp during WWII. He lost his father, mother, brother, and wife –his entire family perished—everyone except his sister.

Later Frankl was asked how he could continue to believe in the value of life? He answered with a brief story. “One day, a few days after liberation,” he said, “I walked through the country, past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. [Meadow] Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the lark’s jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around and up to the sky—and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world. I had but one sentence in mind—always the same: ‘I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and he answered me in the freedom of space.’ How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence, memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed until I again became a human being.” (Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning)

Why does a leper give thanks? Why does a man who lost everything in a death camp give God praise? Because giving thanks gives life. Gratitude is healing for us. Gratitude is living water to quench our thirsty souls. Gratitude gets lost in the ledger when we keep accounts and life becomes small. Gratitude, like love, grows when it is shared.

Our gospel says ten lepers were cured. God’s grace falls upon everyone and everything like rain. But only one was made whole—the one who returned to Jesus and to give thanks. Here, our gospel opens to teach us something more. The one who gave thanks was a Samaritan—a despised foreigner. As a group the Samaritans go 2 for 3 in Luke’s gospel: they refuse to host the disciples (9:53), but the Good Samaritan is exemplary, as is this former leper.

The Good Samaritan is a Christ-like figure. Here, this Samaritan leper is a church-like figure, who embodies the essential elements of Christian worship. The leper is exemplary of the sort of devotion God expects but does not always receive.

The Samaritan leper points where the church must go. It must be the place where the gratitude of a foreigner and outcast receives welcome. The leper’s story is about the kingdom of God — about who is invited, who belongs, and who thrives in the realm where God dwells. What does it mean that in Christ, we are all one? What is our ongoing responsibility to the stranger, the alien, the Other? What happens to our differences at the foot of the Cross?

The church is called into places like where we find Jesus today. He’s in a no-man’s land. He is traveling back and forth across the border between Samaria and Galilee. He is somewhere between being in and out of a nameless village. He is somewhere between being in and out of proximity to unclean lepers whom everyone else shunned. He has been on his way to Jerusalem since chapter 9, yet here near the end of chapter 17 it seems he hasn’t made any progress.

It strikes me that our life in Christ often feels like this. We are working and toiling but have no idea how to judge whether we’re making progress. We’re making dinner for our family, or doing our best to listen to the story of a struggling friend, or trying to be graceful while staring down the barrel of economic uncertainty, chronic illness or grief –and it seems like only one person in ten even takes time to notice or care —and that’s on a good day.

To journey with Jesus is to stand with him and pronounce thanksgiving upon those places and those moments. It is to be standing on the border of an unnamed and unlocated village, halfway between being in and out; between being insiders and outsiders in a kind of liminal space, a twilight zone, a space where we cannot always be sure what’s happening and give “thanks.”

Here is ancient hard-won wisdom of our forebears. This is how the grace of God will lift us out of the worry and striving of what is now our daily life to buoy us up and place us on a new and broad horizon by searching for the coming of God’s kingdom in the company of new friends and being fearless enough always to say “thanks.”

Amen.

Proper 22C-19
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Lord, increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). Jesus and the disciples make their way from Galilee to Jerusalem. They walk. Jesus talks. The disciples are taking notes. Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13b). ‘Offer forgiveness to everyone who asks –not seven times, but seventy times seven!’ (vs. 4). They’re starting to feel inadequate. Have we all been there?

Earlier, when they returned from their mission trip with the 70, they felt powerful and filled with joy. But now the thought of living up to Jesus’ expectations fills the disciple’s with fear. They’re painfully aware of what they lack. We need more faith, more people, more resources, more strength! (As we prepare the 2020 budget, I certainly can relate to that.)

Yet, Jesus knew it was not going to play out that way for the disciples. Even what little they had would soon be taken away. He would be crucified, die, and be buried. How do we apply this lesson to our lives today?
Jesus’ brusque reply to the disciple’s earnest request for more faith is mixed with judgment and hope. ‘If you had faith the size of a tiny mustard seed, you could move mountains and mulberry trees’ (v. 6). Episcopal pastor and author Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, we waste a great deal of time and energy looking for the “key to the treasure box of More.” All we lack, she argues, “is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.”
Jesus is frustrated the disciples are looking at faith all wrong. “More” faith isn’t “better” faith. Faith isn’t a thing. It’s not a noun but a verb. Faith is trust. When my daughter Leah was a toddler the stairs in our house were long and very steep. I fell on them once or twice myself. Faith is what Leah shockingly bestowed upon me one evening as I was climbing up those stairs. She was about two years old when she came running and jumped from the top step into my arms.

Jesus reminds us ‘you have faith already.’ It’s not about proportion. It’s not a recipe, or incantation, but an invitation. Go! Live according to what you have seen, heard, and know. That is all. That’s enough. That’s the key. Just do it.

While the good people of Bethlehem slept quietly in their beds, turning a cold shoulder to a young family in need, our savior was born in a manger attended by humble animals. The prophet Isaiah writes, “The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1.3).
And from Job, we read this sage advice: “…ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being” (Job 12:7-10).

For a lesson in faith, look no further than your pets. The animals that love us are here today. The spiritual wisdom of all God’s creatures is a recurring theme in the bible.

Carlo Carretto (1910–1988) was a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, a community of contemplatives based on the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi.Carretto describes Francis’ experience with a hungry old wolf who had been terrifying the people of Gubbio and preying on their livestock.

According to legend, Francis went out to meet the wolf armed only with love. The townspeople were sure the wolf would eat Francis. But Francis simply considered the needs of both the wolf and the community. He discerned that the wolf was too old to hunt wild animals and just needed to eat, while the people needed safety for themselves and their animals. Francis proposed that the wolf be given food each day, and the wolf agreed to leave their sheep and chickens alone.

Carretto writes in Francis’ voice: “No, brothers [and sisters], I was not afraid [to meet with the wolf]. Not since I had experienced the fact that my God is the wolf’s God too.” Father Richard Rohr commenting on this story writes, “What is extraordinary in the incident of the wolf of Gubbio is not that the wolf grew tame, but that the people of Gubbio grew tame, and that they ran to meet the cold and hungry wolf not with pruning knives and hatchets but with bread and hot porridge. This is the miracle of love: to discover that all creation is one, flung out into space by a God who is a Father, and that if you present yourself as [God] does, unarmed and peaceably, creation will recognize and meet you with a smile.”(Daily Meditations, St. Francis and the Wolf, 10/6/19)

Welcoming everyone equally with warm and generous hearts may come easily to our pets, but it doesn’t come naturally to us. Jesus pressed the disciples on this point asking them, which of you would say to your slave, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table?’ (Luke 17:7). Well, the answer is no one would. It’s like another story Jesus told, ‘Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one, would leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one?’ Nobody would do that either. But God does, and that’s the point.

All we need is here. All we need to become disciples is provided for us. Faith in the fact of God’s grace is the key that unlocks the treasure box of more in life and—God has already given it to you.

Here, at the Lord’s Table, we are welcomed who don’t deserve to be served. Here, Jesus our Master is both host and food. Here, we find rest and comfort to heal our wounds. Here, the faith we received as a gift is reckoned to us as righteousness. Here, we are loved in a way that far exceeds what each of us is capable of. Before our well-being, there is God’s graciousness, before our delight, there is God’s generosity, before our joy, there is God’s good will. (Walter Brueggemann, Awed by Heaven, Rooted in Earth, 137-38) Let all God’s creatures rejoice! Amen.