Proper 22B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Fall is beautiful in Chicago. I think it’s my favorite season. My mom texted pictures of fall colors from her back yard in Colorado this week. Here the trees have just a touch of yellow and red the first sentinels of change. The colors signal change is coming. The colors reassure us change can be as beautiful as it is inevitable.
Our scriptures hold out a lesson for when change seems overwhelming. We’ve had our belly full of change, haven’t we? Some we never saw coming. Changes so sudden and complete it is more accurate to call them a rupture. A rupture is when things torn apart cannot be put together again. A rupture can leave us disoriented, unable to focus, lost in the wilderness, facing into an uncertain future.

The end of a marriage is a good example of rupture. A divorce upends our lives and everyone around us, our children, extended family, friends, and neighbors. The forever-promise to love one person the same way God loves everyone is the foundation marriage is built upon. Yet this preposterous promise is possible for us because God provides unconditional love in such abundance, we may draw upon it as a natural resource to build a life together, become a family, and take part in something larger than ourselves that is more than the sum of its parts.

Jesus said see, “…they are no longer two, but one flesh,” (Mark 10:8). Yet because we hold the forever promise of marriage in the earthen vessels of our lives our vow can be shattered and not go back together again. Once upon a time this is where the preacher stopped preaching this gospel. Marriage is a blessing and divorce is bad. Ask anyone who’s been through it, and they would probably tend to agree. But thanks be to God, the good news of our scriptures extends beyond marriage and divorce to meet us as we are, and where we live, even if that happens to be in the wilderness of our losses and failures.

We are in a wilderness today. We are living in a time that one rupture after another has washed over us in successive waves. The nuclear age undermined confidence in our safety. 9-11 upended our trust in our security. January 6 unraveled our assurance we could be safe with enough surveillance. Cell phone video has forced us to confront our ugly history of genocide, slavery, and systemic racism. Gender equality and sexual orientation is reshaping daily life. Climate change is forcing us to reconsider our lifestyle and our economy. The list goes on –did I mention the pandemic?

Ruptures leave us feeling bereft, unfocused, shattered, exhausted—even when that change is necessary, overdue, and righting historic wrongs. Fortunately, the Good News was made for such a time as this. We are met in our wilderness by the grace of God. God is with us when things fall apart. God will not abandon us to our faults, our failures, our bad decisions, or our broken vows.

Our scriptures point like a compass needle toward the new and brighter future God intends. With striking and welcome unity, all the lessons for worship today focus on the healing power imbued in other people, animals, and all living things. We are fashioned in God’s own image. We are made for embrace. Creation is a love story that opens to us as we turn with compassion and gratitude toward our neighbors and nature.

The truth is, we encounter the living God, not only in marriage relationships, but also in compassionate relation to all living things, including animals and people regarded as unimportant non-persons living among us. God’s grace is a natural resource. It has saving power to heal and redeem us. It flows to us through and from other living things. I’ll give you an example.

In 1991, in upstate New York, a young physician named Bill Thomas took a job as medical director of Chase Memorial Nursing Home, a facility with eighty severely disabled elderly residents. About half of them were physically disabled; four out of five had Alzheimer’s or other forms of cognitive disability. Thomas soon realized working there depressed him. He saw despair lurking in every room. Old timers told him he would get used to it. But he didn’t get used to it. Instead, he tried to fix it. One attempt after the other all failed. Finally, he hit upon a solution that worked. He brought in two dogs, four cats, and one hundred birds. To bring the nursing home to life, we would fill it with life.

“People who we had believed weren’t able to speak started speaking,” Thomas said. “People who had been completely withdrawn and unable to walk started coming to the nurses’ station and saying, ‘I’ll take the dog for a walk.’” All the parakeets were adopted and named by the residents. The lights turned back on in people’s eyes. Soon they added a colony of rabbits and a flock of laying hens. There were also hundreds of indoor plants and a thriving vegetable and flower garden. The home had on-site childcare for the staff and a new after-school program. Now children, animals, live plants, and seniors were all part of daily life of the nursing home.

The number of prescriptions required per resident was cut in half. Total drug costs fell to just 38 percent compared to other nursing homes. Deaths fell by 15 percent. Researchers couldn’t say why. But Thomas thought he could. “I believe that the difference in death rates can be traced to the fundamental human need for a reason to live.” (Atul Gawande, Being Mortal, Chapter 5, “A Better Life”, pps. 111-147)

We could add to Thomas’ answer words which we read from the book of Genesis. God said, ‘It is not good that we should be alone’ (2:18). Indeed, it is very good when we are together. Our lives are strengthened, our hope is restored, as we involve ourselves with one another and with all living things. In these helpers, partners, and friends we find a sustaining purpose for our lives. We walk the road out from the wilderness of rupture and change.

Colors in the trees proclaim a new season is dawning. Change may cause us grief, but the reality of God’s grace assures us each rupture will be followed with healing, and the possibility to begin again. Let us pray. “O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through our Lord and savior Jesus Christ” (ELW, Evening Prayer, p. 317) Amen.

Proper 21B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). Yet this gospel makes me uncomfortable. Unfortunately, these verses have a long and cruel history of literal application. How many hands were cut off, how many feet? How many eyes were plucked out? How many drowned? Who among us doesn’t know someone deeply hurt by the church, or someone claiming religious authority? Religion without grace is a terrible, mean thing that has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus.

Knowing, as we do, the capacity of bad religion to afflict and to wound, the graphic language used by Jesus would seem more fitting for Halloween than the Good News. In fact, Matthew’s gospel trims this story from seven verses to just two. Luke omits these sayings altogether (cf. Luke 17:1-4) (Eugene Boring). Of course, we could skip right over these verses. Just pretend they’re not there. Yet if we ignore the fact our faith calls for sacrifice, that resurrection includes transformation, it is astonishing how quickly piety becomes an empty, arrogant, and unbearably sanctimonious thing.

Grace is a double-edged sword to free us and change us. The cross is anti-dote to human violence and a call to turn from scapegoating and inflicting harm. If we would call ourselves Christian, then we must dispense mercy and forgiveness, just as we ourselves have received mercy and forgiveness by grace through faith.

So, to wring a up cup of grace from the harsh words of today’s gospel, first, I think it helps to remember Jesus is still teaching the disciples with a child seated in his lap (from last Sunday). The “hell” to which Jesus refers is not a time after death but an actual place called the valley of “ben-hinnom,” a place where idol worshiping Israelites had engaged in child sacrifice. Perhaps Auschwitz or Hiroshima are equivalent places today. This kind of hell is not a threat that comes from God, but from our neighbors and each whenever people turn from God. In a world of institutionalized inequality and dehumanization, the choices are stark. Either we embrace the “fire” of recovery (9:49) or live in the “hell” of our addiction to violence.

Western religions tend to teach that you are punished for your sins. Could it be rather that we are punished by our sins? When religion is reduced to a board game with God keeping score the objectives of faith narrow so it becomes all about me and nothing more. Christianity is not a solo endeavor. It’s not a private relationship between with God. This phrase is never found in the bible. Life with Christ is communal. It’s about a church relationship with Jesus committed loving, serving, and sacrificing for one another as Jesus did.

Through water and the word, through bread and wine, through fellowship in the Spirit, Jesus said, we are salted with fire, and purified by the God of grace for the flourishing of the whole community. Jesus uses a metaphor about salt to teach about the power and promise of grace.

What can salt do? Salt lowers the melting point of snow and ice and also raises the boiling point of water. Salt of the Spirit opens our hearts and deepens our compassion even as it helps us manage the conflicts that naturally boil over among us. This grace makes us salty. One of the unique properties of salt is its ability to blend flavors of many different things together to make them complementary. Salt builds community. Salt welcomes diversity. Just as salt enhances the flavor of the food we eat disciples of Christ add flavor to unify the diverse peoples of the world.

The apostle John ran to Jesus saying, “We saw this unknown, un-credentialed healer doing spectacular things and using your name even though he is not one of us.” The disciples wanted Jesus to prevent someone from doing what they have just failed to do (a few chapters before).

“Envy and jealousy are near-sighted sins. They limit our vision and focus our attention on ourselves and our status” (Culpepper, p. 323). Salt is a natural preservative. The salt of the Holy Spirit plucks out of us those things that spoil good community. Here’s where this gospel becomes truly radical. Here’s where we learn the great Good News that begins to heal the strife and division that so afflicts us today. When it comes to connecting with God in the presence of strangers, with people of different religions, and among those with no religion is it anything goes? How do we tell the difference in what is of Christ and what is not of Christ? The answer: taste and see. “By their fruits, you shall know them,” Jesus said (Matthew 7:16).

Martin Luther expanded on this criterion for recognizing the presence of the salt of grace in each other and among strangers. Luther said, ‘whatever preaches Christ is the pure and salty gospel, even if Judas Iscariot said it. Conversely, whatever doesn’t preach Christ is not the gospel, even if Saints Peter or Paul said it.’ It is the salty heart of faith that recognizes the truth about our brothers and sisters in Christ –even when we disagree, even when they play for the opposing team, even though we belong to different tribes.

The salt we have in us is love. It is a love worth living for, changing for, sacrificing for, and dying for. Perhaps because of love we don’t have as much money as we would otherwise have. Perhaps because of love we don’t have as much time as we would like to watch Netflix. We haven’t gone as far as we could have in our career. Our reputation has been damaged. Our hearts have been broken. We have tried and we have failed. Yet we have no regrets.

In these stern words from Jesus today, we find a promise and invitation. God can use whatever you have to give flavor to the world. God’s grace is truly good news for people weary of petty religious battles. Grace is timely good news for people who are wounded, in landscapes that have been shattered, for communities that have been broken by religious intolerance.

Wisdom begins with the knowledge we all stand in need of mercy. See, by grace we are poured out of the saltshaker and into the world. We embrace the things that make us different, not to stand apart, but to stand together. With the salt of grace, God prepares a banquet from the meager stuff of our lives. Bring me who you are. Bring me your weaknesses. I will strengthen them. Bring me your doubts. I will quiet them. Bring me your shortcomings and your limitations. I will fill you with abundance. Amen.

Proper 20B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37). Today, we are blessed by 18 youth who are going to the ELCA national gathering next summer.  We give thanks that tutoring resumes tomorrow night for fully vaccinated youth and volunteers. With your support playgroup children and caregivers have found a welcome and built community in the park across the street. Because of your generosity we continue to provide Covid Assistance grants of $50 per person per household for food and other necessities to neighborhood families laid off or unemployed due to the pandemic. We will send 17 quilts to Lutheran World Relief where they will provide warmth and shelter to refugees who would otherwise have neither.  (Four of them decorate the pews this morning.) This is God’s work that is being done with your hands and it is fitting that we should celebrate all of it today and dedicate it to the glory of God.

While the world wages war, the gospel of Christ calls us to wage wisdom.  Wisdom requires a different set of armaments than those wielded by nations. The letter of James calls us, to outfit ourselves with ‘purity, peace, gentleness, a yielding spirit, mercy, impartiality and integrity’ (James 3:17). These are not the kind of weapons that can be purchased. Instead, these are the fruits God brings into being from faithful hearts and minds and has placed in our hands.

Jesus asked the disciples. “What were you talking about on the way?” Again, we see that evocative phrase which is a common theme in Mark’s gospel. The ‘way,’ was what our religion was called before followers of Christ were known as Christians.  Each of us is ‘on the way’ because in this life we never reach the end of growth in our faith. Here at Immanuel, we chose this name for a process of spiritual growth and renewal. On the Way will resume this year in Advent.  You are invited to join us in our pilgrimage.

On the way through Galilee, Jesus told the disciples a second time about the cross.  He told them the Son of Man must be betrayed into human hands, killed and after three days, rise again (Mark 9:31).  Yet again, Jesus’ language about suffering and death does not compute for the disciples.

Who could blame them? Everywhere, they looked statues and pillars proclaimed the Roman motto “Roma Eturna,” Rome always wins.  Resistance to the military power of Rome meant ruin, subjugation, exile into slavery and death.  The mortar that binds cities and nations into Empire is fear of the threat of violence.  In the disciple’s way of thinking, the coming of the Son of Man would operate by the same logic of war that had built and perpetuated the Roman Empire.  As yet they did not understand how the in-breaking of God’s kingdom fit together loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, and suffering for the sake of the gospel.

Jesus was showing them a more excellent way.  He taught them that we must wage wisdom if we are ever to be free from the endless cycle of violence. He instructed them by saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners community in Washington D.C., tells a story about waging wisdom rather than violence. Years ago, Wallis was mugged right outside his home by four children.  They rushed him, slashed his face, and yelled “Keep him down!  Get his wallet!”

Despite their attempts, he popped up quickly, and seeing no weapons, squared off to face his attackers.  He was shocked when he realized they were just kids –three were no more than fifteen and another couldn’t have been more than thirteen. The one who had jumped him moved into a boxing stance and the little one did a few ineffectual karate kicks.

Wallis began to scold them and to tell them “…to just stop it” …to stop terrorizing people, to stop such violent behavior in their neighborhood …and finally, (he said something that embarrassed him later), he shouted at them, “I’m a pastor!”

The teenagers turned and ran. “Get back here!” Wallis shouted—before he realized that probably wasn’t the smartest thing to say.  But that’s when something surprising happened. The littlest kid, who couldn’t have been more than four feet six, turned and looked back as he ran away.  The young karate kicker said, “Pastor, ask God for a blessing for me.”

Wallis wrote: “He and his friends had just assaulted me.  The little one had tried so hard to be one of the tuff guys.  Yet he knew he needed a blessing.  The young boy knew he was in trouble.  I think they all did.”

Can we overpower tough guys with the power of compassion?  Can victimizers and victims be freed from bondage to anger and conflict?  Can joy arise from hurt and hopelessness?  Slaves sing songs of freedom. Old men and women dream dreams.  Little children see visions.  The lion lies down with the lamb when we wage wisdom, not war.

But “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind” the letter of James says (James 3:16).  On the way through Galilee Jesus stopped to give the disciples an object lesson about waging wisdom. He gave them a children’s sermon –using a real child. Jesus taught them to welcome little children. Not because the child is innocent, or perfect, or pure, or cute, or curious, or naturally religious. Jesus taught them to welcome the child because, in those days, children counted least and last of all.

Warsan Shire is a British writer, poet, editor, and teacher, who was born to Somali parents in Kenya.  Her poem, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon,” could be a lesson for us with the same object –it opens our hearts to the kind of compassion Jesus is talking about that is a key to waging wisdom.


What They Did Yesterday Afternoon

they set my aunts house on fire

i cried the way women on tv do

folding at the middle

like a five pound note.

i called the boy who use to love me

tried to ‘okay’ my voice

i said hello

he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?


i’ve been praying,

and these are what my prayers look like;

dear god

i come from two countries

one is thirsty

the other is on fire

both need water.


later that night

i held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?


it answered




Look for those in your midst who have no standing, no wealth, no voice, no value –and there you will find me Jesus said.  These are the brothers and sister to whom you now belong through your baptism into Christ.  Together with them we follow Jesus now in waging wisdom born of grace that is for healing the grief-stricken world.

Proper 19B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27). Jesus questioned the disciples as they walked toward Caesarea Philippi.  The area was well known for its dedication to the Roman nature-god, Pan; and for honoring Caesar who was often regarded as divine.  Jesus asked them in public as they walked among crowds holding differing views and all the other forces competing for their allegiance.

The disciples parroted back what they had heard others say.  “They answered him, John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets” (Mark 8:28).  I think it’s worth asking, how you would answer Jesus’ question today?

Obviously, Mark has already clued in to the answer.  We know how this story ends.  Moreover, we know what will unfold over the next two thousand years! Yet, in this case, I’m not sure hindsight is 20/20.  Let’s pause a moment. Picture Jesus talking to the disciples in this gospel.  Does your mental image include any women among them?  What about Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9-10 and John 20:17-18), and the other Mary (Matthew 28:8-10), or Joanna, and others (Luke 24:9-10) who are named in all four gospels as the first to witness of the resurrection. Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna were among the first funders of Jesus’ work (Luke 8:1-3). Others like Phoebe, Prisca and Junia, will become leaders, deacons, and even apostles in the early church (Romans 16:7).  If women had kept silent in the church, there wouldn’t be a church.

Now let’s widen this experiment.  What images first come mind when you try to picture God?  Some of you try to tell me you picture a bright light or indwelling love. Yet I’m pretty sure somewhere near the top of the google search for God images stored in each of our brains—a bearded man, or king seated upon a throne, comes to mind. God told Abram my name is El Shaddai (Genesis 17:1).  This name for God occurs 48 times in the bible.  It can mean the “many breasted one,” or “mountain refuge.” In other words, some joke, the ‘Grand Tetons.’ It is a wonderful and feminine image of God as the divine mother of us all.  Yet again and again El Shaddai appears in our English bibles and even some of our liturgical prayers as ‘the almighty.’

Your image of God creates you. We read the bible through a patriarchal lens.

It changes and distorts the way we hear this familiar gospel story. Like Peter, we know the correct answer to Jesus’s next question. Jesus is the son of God. Yet also like Peter, we often have the wrong idea about what this means, if it means we imagine an angry Jesus, ruling from a throne, threatening us with damnation, provoking fear rather than inspiring love, operating in an all-male trinity with God the father and holy Spirit.

Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29a).  We admire Peter, who spoke plainly and with courage.  He said, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29b).  The one who is coming into the world.  God’s anointed, the Christ of God.

Our lesson for today begins with triumph and ends in confession.  Peter had the right answer.  He understood who Jesus was.  But, in the very next breath, he fell miserably short from understanding what Jesus said he must do.  When Peter tried to redirect him away from going to Jerusalem and the cross Jesus rebuked him saying, “Get behind me Satan” (Mark 8:3).

Peter is a fine example of how many of us hear the gospel and see the work of Jesus –of how we can come to church again and again; read the scriptures before going to bed; and still come to the wrong conclusions about who Jesus is and about the real source of his power.  You and I do it all the time.  We want Jesus without the cross.  We want the power without the suffering.  Is it impossible for us to comprehend how power and suffering fit together?  Can we be strong even when we are vulnerable?

For a thousand years the Church gained power by scaring people about what would happen to them without the church. “Are you certain that if you died today, you will spend eternity in paradise?” We are all too familiar with a church of the past which operated more as some type of protection racket, by casting fear than by inspiring love.  But thanks be to God, the gospel of Christ has begun once again to shine through and to re-emerge from behind the patriarchal lens, and from so much other self-interested baggage of the last two thousand years.

This week if feels our nation closed the book that we’ve all be reading together on the past twenty years from 911 to the end of the war in Afghanistan. We were spell bound and in a daze.  We emerge as if stepping out onto the sidewalk after a gripping movie. We now realize that we made mistakes. We overstepped. We often did more harm than good.  Yet also we have learned. We clearly see there is a limit to what military power can accomplish.  When we say, ‘Never forget,’ will this be one of the lessons we carry forward? Jesus has shown us the way.  He told us how to the endless cycle of shame and blame.  He has shown us how to harness the destructive power of fear and use it for doing good. Jesus   points us toward the way of the cross.

Take up your cross, Jesus says.  Take up your mortal, flawed life, soaked in God’s love and tears, and follow me, Jesus says.  Look upon the cross and learn its message.  There is nothing any more that can stop us.  No obstacle is too great.  No loss too daunting.  There is no tragedy too incapacitating that the love of God, through Christ Jesus, cannot open a way for us to make progress toward a better future that is lasting and good.  The fruits of love and grace working to build up God’s kingdom can never be erased.  They cannot be destroyed.  But they become like treasures stored up in heaven “where no thief comes near and no moth destroys” (Luke 12:33).

Rather than a god who is angry and quick to destroy, the God revealed in Mark’s gospel is a patient teacher.  Each of us is ‘on the way.’ Being “on the way” is a common theme throughout Mark’s gospel. We encounter it here in today’s gospel as Jesus and the disciples are walking on the way together to Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27).

We’ll encounter this evocative phrase repeatedly in coming weeks.   In Greek, the word translated the ‘way’, can simply refer to a road or path, or it can refer to a way of life.  Jesus will be “on the way” next week when the disciples argue among themselves about who is greatest (9:33-34).  Jesus will be ‘on the way’ next month when the rich man asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life; and again when he will tell the disciples a third time about the cross and resurrection. (10:17, 10:32).

On Reformation Sunday we’ll read the story of Blind Bartimaeus who calls out to Jesus from the “side of the way” (10:46).  Once Jesus heals him, Bartimaeus is able to follow Jesus “on the way”.  Many of you know that The “Way” became a title of early Christians (Acts 18:25, 26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22).

Little by little, along the way, there comes a realization that only Jesus’ way of the cross can give us what we truly crave—a life that passes through death; bonds of fellowship and belonging that cannot be broken; a purpose and meaning to our mortal endeavors that cannot be erased even after countless ages of time have done their work.  We might wish to be granted honor, safety, success, and power over others.  But God through Christ has shown us the way to life comes through power with others.  It is the power of love.  The power of trust.  The power of faith.  The power of tears.  The way of the cross.

Proper 18B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The gospel is an English translation of a Greek text written about a man who never wrote down anything but who spoke and taught in a third language called, Aramaic. We have here, in our scriptures, what they remembered, what they could not forget, about Jesus. Only a few precious untranslated words remain in his native tongue. They are sprinkled throughout Mark’s gospel like icons. Did these words evoke something particular and essential about what it was like to be with Jesus? He addressed God as “Abba,” or ‘daddy.’ He had said, “Talitha cum,” ‘little girl, get up’ to Jairus’ daughter. They remember he cried out from the cross, “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani,” ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

We have another one of these original Aramaic word-icons of Jesus in our gospel today, “Ephatha,” ‘be opened.’ Ephatha, the gospel of Jesus opens hands, hearts, and minds to grace. Ephatha, last Sunday Jesus opened the eyes of the Pharisees to the cancer of religious legalism. Ephatha, today Jesus opened the ears and speech of a man who could not hear or speak from birth. Ephatha, sometimes this power to open and awaken even worked in the other direction—as when Jesus’ mind was opened to the radical inclusiveness of God’s kingdom by the faith of the unnamed Syrophoenician woman in our gospel today.

It is shocking, but here, we confront Jesus in his full humanity—and give thanks for this moment in which the Kingdom of Heaven broke wide open for Jesus. Personally, I am thankful for Mark’s candor. This unnamed woman became a preacher to Jesus. Jesus’ own consciousness was raised about his ministry and mission. No one is outside the embrace of God. Ephatha. We shall all be opened, changed, transformed in the image of God.

The psalmist says, “The Lord lifts up all who are bowed down” (146:8). Yet Jesus puts this woman down. She is a double outsider. She is not Jewish, and she is a woman. He essentially calls her a dog. I don’t know, maybe Jesus had a lot on his mind. Maybe he was having a bad week. Soon, he will tell the disciples, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him…” (Mark 9:31). Soon, he must say goodbye to everyone he loves in Galilee. Soon he will turn toward Jerusalem. Perhaps he wanted to focus on preparing the disciples for what was coming.

‘It is not fitting’, Jesus said, ‘to take the food that belongs to the little children, and through it to the dogs.’ Nevertheless, she persisted. She reminded him, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (verse 28). Ephatha, something in Jesus opened. Her daughter is healed.

Ephatha. We are being opened. Yet, how often is this transformation in us painfully slow? It can seem like it will never happen at all. Historically, women have been conditioned to remain silent, to be subservient to men. Even now, two thousand years later, we understand very well the expected response from this woman would have been for her to accept Jesus’ insult and turn away. But she does not. She speaks up; she stands her ground. And Jesus takes notice. What a powerful lesson for women and all those who have suffered oppression because of their gender. God does not ask us to keep silent. Instead, God lifts up those who are bowed down. Take courage, God is with you when we raise our voices in the struggle for justice. (Pearl Maria Barros, Sojourners, Santa Clara University in California)

Jesus was open to learning –and now—with his help—we pray so are we. God has no favorites. No favored people, no favored nation, no favored religion, even, but every person is beloved in the eyes of God. We who are marked with the cross of Christ are living signs of this most gracious God. Ephatha, our words and deeds must be brought into line with grace through faith.

The set of readings we have each week for worship take us through the letter of James for five weeks. Some of you remember Martin Luther called this book “an epistle of straw.” Yet I argue this short book offers timely wisdom. James provokes us to wrestle with the question “What do my words and deeds say about my faith and about me?” I invite you to read it yourself. I’m curious what you think. James doesn’t advocate for earning one’s righteousness through works as Luther thought, but instead focuses on the importance of our character in Christ. Character is our identity reflected in what we say or do. (adapted from Aaron Fuller, “Cultivate Character, Living Lutheran, September issue, 2021)

People of God the times call upon us now to open again to grace, to expand our vision, to widen our understanding, to better align our character with the God of our ancestors, the living God of grace who urges us to step forward now. This week, we are on the eve of the twentieth anniversary of 911. What have we learned? Even as he brought the war in Afghanistan to an end, President Joe Biden said, “We will not forgive, we will not forget.” in response to attacks at the Kabul airport (President Joe Biden, 8/26/21). Are we ready to turn from our trust in war and military strength, are we ready to listen to our enemies as Jesus was and to pray for them? Can we be wise as Jesus was wise to know “…forgiveness and justice aren’t mutually exclusive. They may be both/and. We can forgive someone and still hold them accountable. Isn’t that what God’s justice requires of us?” (Angela Khabeb, “Grounds for Forgiveness, Living Lutheran, September issue 2021).

I pray Jesus would take us aside and put his fingers in our ears. I pray he would spit and touch our tongue. Time is running out on the idea we can survive by making a world full of enemies. Time is running out on the belief in whiteness. Time is running out on the idea that this nation’s great wealth was not purchased on the back of slave labor and genocide of native peoples. Time is running out on the idea we can ignore mother nature. On this last one, in particular, scientists plead that we have about a decade to make a difference.

Ephatha. Be opened. Our lord Jesus opened his heart to the unnamed women by responding to her needs in words and deeds. How are we, this church, and our nation being called today to align our character to grace?

I have Richard Anderson to thank for reminding me that yesterday, September 4th, was the day of commemoration for Albert Schweitzer, pastor, theologian, musician, musicologist, philosopher, physician, educator, advocate of ‘reverence for life’, opponent of colonialism, anti-war activist, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. (There is a stained-glass window dedicated to Schweitzer in the church in the east stairway leading to the choir loft.) Albert Schweitzer was the author of famous aphorisms. I’ll read just two of them now. May they be an occasion for Ephatha, for increased openness in us.

“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”

“We must fight against the spirit of unconscious cruelty with which we treat the animals. Animals suffer as much as we do. True humanity does not allow us to impose such sufferings on them. It is our duty to make the whole world recognize it. Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace.”


Proper 17B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” We rely upon mirrors every day, and unfortunately, like the evil queen in the 1812 Brothers Grimm fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, mostly they remind us that the answer to this famous question is ‘not me.’  Am I the only one? Or do mirrors somehow compel, even beautiful people, to focus on the negative. I can’t stop noticing and regretting this terrible haircut!

Mirrors are everywhere, but before 1835, they were rare. Only wealthy people had mirrors. Probably no one had a full-length mirror. In ancient times they were made of polished stone or metal. Reflected images were often faint and distorted. I wonder, how would our lives be different without so many mirrors around?

Fortunately, there is another type of mirror which returns our gaze with love, calls forth our best attributes, that fills our hearts with joy and stills our minds with shalom. Our scriptures today point to a different way to see ourselves regardless of our physical appearance, our clothing style, or our haircut!

A mirror by its nature reflects impartially, equally, effortlessly, spontaneously, and endlessly. It does not produce the image, nor does it filter the image according to its perceptions or preferences. A mirror can only call forth what is already there.  Well, one indelible element of who you are whether you are sleeping or awake is the likeness and image of the living God (Genesis 1:27). God has written the Law in your heart (Jeremiah 31:33).  James writes, ‘God’s Word implanted within you has the power to save your souls’ (James 1:21). Each of you is gifted and blessed with the indwelling and Holy Spirit.

The true and essential work of all religion is to help us recognize the divine image in everyone and every thing.  Looking in a regular mirror we see our natural face; yet one who looks into the gospel, which James calls, the perfect law of liberty, sees their ideal self, the version of your God dreams for you to be.  In this divine mirror, we see our true self in relationship to God.  This image does not fade from memory because we can look upon this mirror wherever we are. In the light of God’s grace, this truth is reflected within us and shines through us into the world through deeds, words, and even by our very presence.

Here’s how the Franciscan mystic Bonaventure (c. 1217–1274) described this mirroring: “We can contemplate God not only outside us and within us but also above us: outside through his vestiges [creations], within through his image and above through the light which shines upon our minds, which is the light of Eternal Truth.” (Richard Rohr, “Mirroring the Mind of Christ,” Daily Meditations, 8/24/21)

The letter of James is talking about an implanted knowing in each of us—an inner mirror, if you will. Today, many would just call it “consciousness,” and poets and musicians might call it the “soul.” Perhaps these terms are interchangeable, approaching the same theme from different backgrounds and expectations. Elsewhere, 1 John puts it quite directly: “My dear people, we are already the children of God” and in the future “all we will know is that we are like God, for we shall finally see God as God really is!” (1 John 3:2) (Rohr).

Jesus was critical of that way of being religious that wants to judge, and ‘lord it over’ others. In today’s gospel, Jesus is less worried about outward behavior that deviates from religious norms than about attitudes of the heart that picks fights, judges others, and sacrifices joy to deadly seriousness.  Mark’s gospel points us toward a spiritual mindfulness centered on the desire to share God’s graceful, abundant life. Look and see! It is in the world because it’s here already in you.

“The “image of God” is absolute and unchanging; it is pure and total gift, given equally to all. There is nothing we humans can do to increase or decrease it. It is not ours to decide who has it or does not have it, deciding who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down, who is “going to heaven” and who is not” (Rohr). Instead, good religion wrestles with the question of how best to love one another.  Good religion works harder to listen than to argue.  Good religion encourages us to risk ourselves in hospitable service to the stranger because good religion focuses on the living God within each of us. Good siblings in Christ help and support one another to see their own reflection in the divine mirror deep within themselves.

“I.C.N.U.” Just like “W.W.J.D.” ICNU can be a helpful acronym. Often it is easier to see the Divine spark in others rather than ourselves. I see in you unique gifts and talents.  I see in you a call to serve, a spirit of joy, a reflection of the spirit of God. This week I was talking to a play group mom who said, “I don’t make it to church as often as I would like. We’ve been to worship a couple times on Christmas Eve, but I feel passionate about the Lutheran church. The message of grace is what we need. It is so refreshing and in contrast to what the big-box churches are saying.  The Playgroups, and particularly Michelle and Gary Knapp, have been such a blessing in our lives.”  ICNU.  Where might you have glimpsed God at work in a person you know? Have you told them? We must help each other to see more clearly.

In your mind’s eye, how do you tend to see yourself?  Through the lens of popular culture?  In the harsh objectifying light of the male gaze? In the internalized criticisms of cruel parents and false friends?  Look instead to the divine mirror within.  Find your reflection in the mind of Christ who dwells in you. Pause to notice God at work in others, in living things, in the earth, and sky. Many are shocked to discover with great joy that same beauty and spark of life dwells within them now and always.

When we bring our focus upon this divine mirror, we are not surprised to find God at work in places we have never been and in people we do not know. We are not afraid to learn and to grow. We do not retreat into moralism and forsake social justice. We do not circle the wagons of traditionalism as if somehow God is to be found in the past and not in the present, or that God cares more about preserving past glories than in working to ensure all life continues to survive and flourish.  We are not afraid to follow the Holy Spirit. We can do this because God is in us, with us, and for us. Immanuel. Look and see. God call us forth to be our best, to be filled with joy, to love and serve one another just as God does.

Can we be thankful?

Proper 16B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
August 22, 2021

“Who am I? Why am I here?” (Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale, Vice-President Debate, 1992). Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale sounded a little like Rumpelstiltskin waking up from a long nap. He was one of the most highly decorated officers in U.S. Navy history. Ross Perot chose him to be his running mate in 1992. But on stage at the nationally televised vice-presidential debate, he sounded just as bewildered as everyone else at why he was running.

Today, many of us feel as bewildered as Jim Stockdale at the daily diet of “oh, now what?’ news. I wonder is this us—the new normal? How did we get here? In today’s gospel, Jesus’ teaching provoked a similar crisis. Many turned back and no longer went about with him (John 6:66). His incendiary language about consuming flesh and blood went against a thousand years of biblical teaching. It was like fingernails on a chalkboard for many ancient Jews. Judas appears to have been among those who decided then and there to cash in his chips. Tell me, when you reach the end of your rope, what’s next?

Re-enter Admiral Stockdale who may not have been a successful politician, but who knew something profound about how to sustain hope and persistence that helps to unlock the meaning of our gospel today. In 1965 he ejected from his burning plane into enemy territory over North Vietnam. He was imprisoned for nearly eight years where he was routinely and brutally tortured. While there, he led a prisoner resistance movement and created a secret “code of conduct” that all prisoners pledged to uphold, including the “proper” response to torture.

He was released in February 1973—his body so broken that he could barely walk. He went on to continue his distinguished career in public service. When asked what kept him going, Stockdale responded: “I never lost faith in the end of the story…[he went on to say]…You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

The redemptive tension required to meet brutal reality with sustained hope and faith in the future has been called the “Stockdale Paradox,” by author and business consultant Jim C. Collins. Collins went on to ask Stockdale what he thought was different about those who survived compared to those who didn’t. “Oh, that’s easy,” replied Stockdale, “[they were] optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Optimism offers false hope because it is not married to “brutal reality.” To experience true freedom, it’s necessary for us to embrace both our brutal realities and our prevailing hope at the same time. Jesus, it turns out, lived in the tension of the Stockdale Paradox. He was always and everywhere exposing brutal realities while pressing forward into prevailing hopes. He blew the lid off the scandalous and humiliating secret life of “the woman at the well,” then offered her the “living water” her soul was desperately thirsty for (John 4:7-29). After his resurrection, he asked his closest friend Peter if he really loves him three times and followed each painful question with a life-giving invitation: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-18). The bread that came down from heaven, is not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:58).

“Following Jesus wholeheartedly means He’ll move us to face the “most brutal facts of our current reality, whatever they might be” while holding onto our absolute certainty that we will “prevail in the end” through his love and grace. Many are familiar with the preamble to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous “Serenity Prayer,” but few know well the “payload” portion of the prayer that follows. Here’s how it begins…”

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

But Niebuhr went further into Stockdale Paradox territory in the less familiar conclusion of his prayer…

“Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.

Our serenity flows to us in the liminal space were brutal reality meets prevailing hope. We cup our hands to hold both truths—the truth of how things really are, and the truth of how things really will be—and eat and drink deeply. This is the bread of life, and the wine of new birth. (Quoted and adapted from an article by Rick Lawrence, Vibrant Faith Executive Director, titled The Stockdale Paradox, 8/20/21 taken from his book, The Jesus-Centered Life.)

Our gospel includes familiar words: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). We often sing these words surrounded with alleluias before the reading of the gospel in worship. We go to Jesus the one who is both the end of and the beginning of our story.

This is how we persist in the face of pandemic, military collapse, humanitarian disasters, climate emergencies, systemic racism, and social injustice. This is how we listen to the stranger with open ears. This is how we forgive our enemies and be generous toward the poor. We stride toward the prize, not by our own strength, but by Christ incarnate in us—we literally enflesh and embody—the love of God that is in the world and for the world.

This love is glorious, and it is also a hard road. Jesus wants us to participate in transformation, beginning with ourselves. Who wants that? Such a transformation is too costly. Why can’t Jesus just do the good work in the world while we watch? The difference is between watching those in love and being in love. To follow Jesus is to give yourself over to falling in love to be a visible sign of God’s invisible grace (St. Augustine).

Transfiguration B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

On the mountain of his transfiguration, Peter, James, and John learn something you and I already know. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Son of God.

The Greek word used is metamorphothe and is translated as transfigured, yet it comes closer to expressing something English can’t quite convey. It wants to say something like “changed shape and beingness and allness into some other form thereof,” or some other equally awkward and wordy translation. What happened, in other words and in the fullest sense, was a “metamorphosis,” which again is Greek and again has no good analog in English. (Phyllis Tickle, God’s Politics, Sojourner’s Magazine)

So, what happened on that mountain was like the barrier between heaven and earth, the visible and the invisible, being ripped in two. The heart and character of Christ was revealed to be the same heart and the same character as that of the living God. On this holiday weekend dedicated to loving devotion, you could say the transfiguration was Jesus’ Valentine. Jesus took the disciples aside, dropped all pretense and declared his eternal love for them and for us. “You are not alone. I see you,” God says. “I love you. I have always loved you and will never stop loving you.”
St. Paul quoted lyrics of an early Christian hymn, “though he [Jesus] was in the form of God, he 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” (Phil. 2:6-7). This is something like what Jesus revealed on the mountain.

One week before Lent, when, in a normal year we would be sitting down to eat pancakes on ‘Shrove Sunday,’ Mark clarifies the true identity and mission of the Messiah. What an incredible spectacle it was, dazzling to the eye! Yet, apparently, Mark’s gospel does not want us to focus on that. It’s not about what the disciples saw. A bright cloud overshadowed and blinded them. What has been called the cloud of unknowing accompanies the very presence of the living God. It is not penetrable by the human eye, but only by the ear. The disciples could not see but they could hear a voice. A voice speaking from the cloud echoed the command at Jesus’ baptism. It said, “This is my son, the Beloved; and with him I am well pleased. Listen to him” (Mark 9:7).
Listen to him. From that moment on, the course of history was set, and, in many ways, the church was born. Although they didn’t know it yet, the peaceful transition of power was set into motion that day, from Jesus to the disciples, and now, to us.

Jesus was transfigured but we are transformed. Our beingness and ‘allness’ is changed. We are born again into Christ. The calculus by which we measure wins and losses in our life has widened. Narrow self-interest is no longer enough. Instead, we cheer at the advance of the mission and purposes of God.
On this last Sunday of Epiphany before the beginning of Lent, we stand once again on the threshold. God invites us to cross over. Resurrection is ours on the other side. Let us bravely step into that unknown future illumined by grace and glimpsed only by the ear. Listen to Jesus.

This Lent our theme is listening. I’d like to highlight for you some of the ways we have prepared for you to do that. This Wednesday @ 7:00 pm, we will gather online for Ash Wednesday worship, and for the all the Wednesdays in Lent we will gather at that time for a six-week prayer project called Be Still, and Know, led by intern Justin Perkins. Each week, we will host a half-hour session that will include a short reflection on the roots of “Christian mindfulness” with the opportunity to learn from the example of different historic figures from the past. Sometime the week after next, I invite you to stop by the church grounds for walking meditation inspired by the stations of the cross as conceived by artist, Mary Button in her series entitled, Refugee Journeys. And finally, we will also let our feet be our prayerful response to hunger in our community through a neighborhood appeal for toiletries, personal care items, and cash donations for our local food pantry, Care for Real.

We must not be like the disciple Peter whose words got in the way of the message on the mountain of Christ’s transfiguration. In this time of division and change we must listen. We must listen more than we speak to heal our country and repair the bond between neighbors. We must speak after listening to transform the dread of this pandemic and the fear of social upheaval into hope for a brighter future. We must listen. Listen and pray. Pray without speaking. Learn to pray without words because, sometimes, our words get in the way of what God may be showing us.

Archbishop Oscar Romero was especially devoted to the Transfigured Christ. Unlike the disciples, Romero understood Christ’s passion; he and the people of El Salvador lived it on a daily basis, caught between a civil war and the state-sponsored terrorism that accompanied it. For Romero, the Transfigured Christ gave him confidence that Jesus will triumph over death and despair. The plight of the poor in El Salvador did not allude God’s attention. In a homily three weeks before his assassination by government forces, Romero said, “The theology of transfiguration is saying that the road of redemption passes through the cross and through Calvary, but that the goal of Christians is beyond history. Not to alienate oneself from history, but rather to give more meaning to history, a definitive meaning.” (Michaela Bruzzese, Sojourners)

Jesus moves from transfiguration to the cross and to resurrection. This is the path we walk by listening. We listen to the living Lord to follow Jesus from his rightful place in glory to an embrace the world God so loves. With eyes wide shut and our ears wide open we step into the unknown through faith. Martin Luther put it this way:

“This life, therefore, is not godliness
but the process of becoming godly,
not health but getting well,
not being but becoming,
not rest but exercise.
We are not now what we shall be,
but are on the way.
The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on.
This is not the goal but it is the right road.
At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle,
but everything is being cleansed.”

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

We’re twenty verses into the first chapter of Mark. Jesus is already collecting disciples and casting out demons. Neither are from places you’d expect. He finds disciples from the hard-scrabble, unrefined, unlearned shores of the Sea of Galilee. He cast out demons from inside the synagogue. In the sanctuary. In the middle of worship. It makes you wonder. Could Jesus find a disciple in you? Would Jesus cast out anything from among us? “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (Mark 1:24)

Scripture says the people were astounded. Literally, Jesus blew their minds. Their come-to-Jesus-meeting aroused curiosity. For some it set their lives on a new course. For others Jesus provoked fear and defensiveness.

What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? We have the same question. I suppose this is the question we ask ourselves every time we open the bible. It’s the central question of every sermon you’ve ever heard. Yet, what in the world do unclean spirits, demons, and an exorcism have to do with us?
This is the part of the sermon modern preachers reach for an exegetical shoehorn to show how it is that this ancient shoe actually fits. The bible is concerned with well-being and communal health, not magic, or sorcery, nor dare I say it, not even the supernatural. Instead, it is focused on the all too natural and worldly problem of evil. But I don’t think we need to do that this year. We don’t need to borrow anything from the supernatural to translate Jesus’ meaning about the imminent and persistent danger of demons–do we?

No. This year we are all witnesses to the captivating demonic power of manipulation, lies, fear mongering, and name-calling to personalize, polarize, enflame, blind and fragment God’s beloved community into warring camps. Our politics, the pandemic, and climate crisis have made plain the deep divisions among us, some of which, we would not have believed nor were we fully aware just a short time ago.

We share the same country, even the same zip codes but not the same reality. There is good health care for some, but not others. The police can be relied upon to serve and protect some while others call upon the police only as a last resort, if at all. We have superlative, top 100 in the nation public schools, but not for everyone. Good food is stacked high and beautifully displayed in our grocery stores, yet 1 in 10 families in our nation are hungry.

Care for Real, our local food pantry, reports a 40% increase in the food distributed, and a 243% increase in new Edgewater households who came to them for food. Immanuel distributed more than $12,000 to neighbors for food, medicine and other necessities through our COVID Assistance fund just since last March. (Thank you for your generosity, by the way.) Yes. We see how income inequality has grown to the extent that just having a job does not ensure you can feed yourself or your family, nor keep the roof over your head.

2020 has been like an epiphany, an awakening, but we can’t claim to be woke while we still point fingers, draw lines, call other side names, or demonize each other. This makes us part of the problem, not the solution. We must cast out the demons that rule our hearts and minds and reveal themselves whenever we see suffering yet do not see the human being that is suffering.

The ministry of Jesus is to free the love God has placed within us, so it once again flows naturally between and among us. It is literally to cast out the demons that divide and separate us from our common humanity.

So again, we ask the same question as the man in the synagogue. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” It can certainly feel that way. After all, what exactly will it cost us to set this world on its proper foundation? How may I be called upon to change my habits? What might I be expected to do? Jesus doesn’t answer these questions, but only said to the disciples, “Come and see.”

The people in the synagogue at Capernaum marveled that Jesus spoke as one who had “authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). To be clear, we all need people like the scribes. We need institutions and the people who run them. We need people who are qualified, accredited, skilled, competent and accountable. That’s one kind of authority and it’s essential—nothing works very well without it.

What people saw in Jesus is another kind of authority to which all those placed in authority must be open and appreciative. It’s the authority of someone who knows the truth and tells the truth because they lived it. It’s the authority of someone who knows what to do and gives instructions about how to act based on their own hard-won experience. This is the kind of authority Moses spoke of in our first reading. It is the authority of prophecy that is unafraid to speak truth to power. It is the kind of authority that we grant to those who know us and love us. This kind of authority has power. It has power even to cast out demons.

This kind of authority is our birth rite as children of God. Yet, we can never possess it, nor can we claim it. This power clings to us all when our words or our actions flow purely from the natural simplicity of God’s grace.

I believe we witnessed this kind of authority with the power to cast out demons eleven days ago on the steps of the U.S. capital. While the nation held its breath at another peaceful transition of power, a young woman with an auditory processing disorder that makes her hypersensitive to sound, raised by a single mother, a National Youth Poet Laureate, took the stage. The young black woman, Amanda Gorman, showed us again what the authority of a truth-teller and a prophet looks like in verse. She cast out demons.

“We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what just is, isn’t always just-ice,” she said. “We lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us…We lay down our arms, so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none and harmony for all…. For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it” (Amanda Gorman, National Poet Laureate, The Hill We Climb).

What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Is it not to speak the truth in love? Insofar as our way of life dehumanizes life, Jesus will always challenge and defy it. As members of the body of Christ, and by his authority of Christ, see, you have power to heal and to be healed. It is power even to cast out demons. In the strong name of Jesus. Amen.

Epiphany 2B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It was a 17-minute speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963. Martin Luther King Jr. had been so preoccupied with the logistics of the historic March on Washington he hadn’t given much thought to what he’d say. He began to write less than 12 hours before. He titled early drafts “Normalcy, Never Again.” Eyewitnesses say it wasn’t until the end of his famous speech that Dr. King stopped reading his notes, looked up and began to preach, after the great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, prompted him to “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” Tell them about the dream. The rest is history.

The miracle of the incarnation is God’s promise to move and speak through us. Epiphanies come in human shapes and sizes. When Dr. King set aside what he prepared to say God began to speak through him. He went from being a speaker to being a prophet. God spoke to the American people and to the world that day. He preached a message for then and for all time: God has a dream and invites you and I to inhabit it. Come and see.

Sadly, this is not 1963. I’d wager there are more police and National Guard on the national mall today than regular people. 10-foot high “unscalable” barricades surround the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and other monuments. I’ve read only 1,000 people will attend the inauguration in-person. That’s 1/200dths of normal. After 10 months of pandemic, nationwide protests, a contentious national election, a bloody insurrection, two impeachments, and continued threats of political violence, cynicism, disillusionment, and exhaustion rule many American hearts and minds. Alcohol and marijuana sales are soaring. Last night, I received an email from Bishop Curry warning that so-called, ‘liberal churches,’ might become targets for extremists.
These feel like the days of Eli from our first reading. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1b). Eli was a priest down on his luck, feeling guilty because he couldn’t stand up to other priests, in particular his own sons, who habitually dishonored God through extortion, greed, and sexual assault. Eli no longer expected to see or hear anything from God because he didn’t have the courage, will, and moral fortitude to do what God desired.

Fast forward about a thousand years to our Gospel reading. We read about Nathanael. We can relate to Nathanael. Upon receiving the good news of the Messiah from Philip his first reaction is skepticism. The disillusionment of Roman occupation and the corruption of religious leaders is not easy to dislodge. Nathanael was sitting under a fig tree—was he social distancing? Was he moping? Does he dare to dream about a better life? Nathanael dismisses Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

Jesus says, to us and to Nathanael, Follow me. Come and see. God has a dream for the world as it should be that requires each one of us. “Who me?” we ask. “You mean right now?” We, too, are incredulous. We can relate to Eli and Nathanael.

The French existentialist philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, tells that when she was caring for her dying mother, it was as if the entire world shrunk to the size of her mother’s hospital room. In times of grief and high anxiety, we can lose track of our dreams. We mistake realism for reality. It can take all the energy we have to look beyond our misfortunes and failures, to behold again the larger vision, the big picture—the power of holy imagination, the lure of an alternate reality—that Jesus called the kingdom of God. Yet within what we perceive to be limitations are possibilities for renewal and growth.

As Dr. King so memorably reminded us, to respond to God’s call is to fall in love with Love itself. Through encounter with Christ, we learn to be lovers of people, because as Christian people, we are called to invite others into the dream, to become members with us in the beloved community. Nathanael wasn’t changed so much as he was set into motion by Jesus’ call. That’s really all that is required to become a disciple. Follow me. Come and see.

Eli’s first and second response to God’s prompting of the boy, Samuel, was confusion and not a little annoyance at being needlessly awakened. Yet, finally, he recognized there was another possibility. Eli put aside his own self-interest. He wasn’t worried about keeping his job or motivated by loyalty to his sons. When Eli realized what might be happening with Samuel, he could have tried to trick him, or to shut him away, or even to have killed him. Yet Eli was faithful to God. Eli is an unsung hero. He proved his faithfulness to God by stepping aside, by passing the baton, by nurturing the next generation of leadership in the story of God’s ongoing mission.

We need more Eli’s today. Can you and I be like Eli? Now that our complacent slumbers have been repeatedly disrupted by violence against black bodies, by a worldwide pandemic, by a culture of subordination and sexual assault against women, by extreme income inequality, and mass extinction will we recognize it is finally time to stop doing business as usual? Can we finally acknowledge the many ways we have participated and/or acquiesced to these wrongs? Despite that, can we step forward, following after Jesus, and like Nathanael, like Eli, walk the way of the cross? Can the vast scene of American carnage stretching be an epiphany for us? Come and see. Follow me, Jesus says.

Jesus invites you and me to dream again like you did when you were a child. As Dr. King so memorably reminded us, to respond to God’s call we must cultivate a holy imagination, because to be Christian is to tell people about the dream that God’s kingdom may come here on earth as it is in heaven.
In 1959, after the successful completion of the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King went on a pilgrimage to India. He desired to learn more about Mahatma Gandhi, the philosophy of nonviolence, and about the people and culture that inspired it. He was received by large crowds as a national dignitary. Yet he was not prepared, when at a school full of admirers, he was enthusiastically introduced as ‘an American Untouchable.” You may know there is a very old caste system in India. It ranks some people ahead of other people. Dalit is a name given to people of the very lowest class. They are literally, considered untouchable, by those of higher classes. The school for Dalit children immediately recognized Dr. King as a hero of their own. Rather than recoil from this loss of face, Dr. King came to embrace the title as a badge of honor.

Like Eli, and Nathanael, and Dr. King we are led on the path of renewal and discipleship by listening to the voice of the Samuel’s of the world, the witness of those on the margins, the no-accounts, the unprivileged, and invisible. It is not a command but a call. It is an invitation to dream again. Come, follow, seek and find healing for your wounds and a purpose to dignify your life. Jesus invites us to walk the path to wellness that will not be easy, and possibly even dangerous. Come, follow me, Jesus says, Let me teach you how to dream again and how to live.