Tag Archive for: hope

CBaptism of our Lord
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“At The End of the Year,” a poem by Irish priest and author John O’Donohue.
“As this year draws to its end,
We give thanks for the gifts it brought
And how they became inlaid within
Where neither time nor tide can touch them…
Days when beloved faces shone brighter
With light from beyond themselves;
And from the granite of some secret sorrow
A stream of buried tears loosened.
We bless this year for all we learned,
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination.”

I wonder, for what do you give thanks from the past year? What have you learned? What have you loved? What have you lost?
Perhaps by blessing the old year — saying goodbye intentionally and purposefully — we’ll find the courage and honesty to face 2022. The world-worn wisdom of poet John O’Donohue withstands the test of time. “Grateful hearts are resilient ones, and thankfulness can actually build a better future, creating what researchers call an “upward spiral” of well-being. I’d sure appreciate 2022 becoming an “upward spiral” of communal health and compassion!” (Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage)

The prophet Isaiah declared, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isaiah 43:2).

We need that promise. We need God’s protective presence right now. When it feels our life has become a long-distance marathon and don’t know for sure when it will end. Two years ago, we put on our running shoes and headed up what looked like a short-but-steep incline called Covid-19. We worked together to move up one learning curve after another. We made it to the top only to see another peak rise in front of us. Every summit revealed yet another one to climb. And yes, our momentum carried us through the first few difficult steps, but our path was obstructed by additional hurdles—”political division” and “racial unrest” and “ecological meltdown,” to name a few. Now, most of us are running on a near-empty tank and we still can’t see the end.

Two weeks ago, the unthinkable happened. I came in early Sunday morning as I usually do to prepare for worship and discovered the baptismal font was bone dry. We keep the level low to reduce the spread of Covid. All the water had evaporated, and no one noticed. We are running on empty. We can’t see the end. We lose heart when we lose hope. We need an infusion of strength to renew that hope, and to offer renewed hope to our community. But where will it come from?

We have learned how much we need one another. This year has taught us we must be fed. Our Lord has prepared for us a bountiful feast. Here is the divine word. Here is bread and wine. Here is the living well-spring of grace that never runs dry, an upward spiral of thanksgiving, wellbeing, and life that draws from the Holy Trinity to renew our hope and strengthen us as we pass through the waters, cross rivers, and walk through the fires of these times. Our font may be empty, but our hearts will never be when we are together in Christ.

The Apostle Paul offers this: “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love” (Romans 5:3-5).

“So, a heart that is filled up with the love of God endures when endurance seems humanly impossible… Dr. Angela Duckworth, whose research into the foundations of personal grit morphed into a bestselling book, found that people who live with a marathon mentality have developed a passion for something higher than themselves. As Paul explains, and Duckworth reiterates in her research, we need a source of strength and hope that is higher than ourselves. It’s only a matter of time before we reach the shallow bottom of our own well—when “hang in there” and “keep fighting” seem like hollow platitudes. When we’re tested beyond our capacity, we naturally look for help outside of that capacity.” (Rick Lawrence, Executive Director of Vibrant Faith, “Creating an Oasis of Hope,” Friday Thoughts, 1/7/22)

As Christians, we learn from Jesus that love is who we are. Who and what we give ourselves to is what ultimately defines us. As Christians, we know all our yes’s and no’s find their proper direction in alignment with God’s yes in baptism. The most beautiful life it is possible for us to live begins and ends with uncovering who we are in God.
God’s words to Jesus, “You are my son,” is God’s graceful Living Word for you: ‘You are my child, a member of my beloved community, a living sanctuary of hope and grace in the midst of a dark world, with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22b)

We wash ourselves daily in the renewing power of these words in the water of our baptism. Brother Luther has said, “A truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued” (Large Catechism). Day by day, through all our yes’s and no’s the old self is drowned, replaced by the Holy Spirit with new life in Christ. Love is who we are.

We will get through this. We lean into 2022 with a song in our heart and ample food for the journey because we have learned that endurance and perseverance come, not from our own meager resources, but from an orientation toward the Diving. Intimacy with God generates the powerful passion that real hope requires. “Deep hope is fed by our experience of Jesus’ heart, not the information we’ve collected about him.” (Lawrence). And so, for ourselves and those we love—we pray. We assemble around Word and sacrament. We sit in silence. We ingest the words and actions of Jesus. We ponder them as Mary did. We take risks based on our trust in Jesus’ heart, not merely because the risk seems strategically sound. We can live in, and invite others into, an Oasis of Hope in a desert of bad news and endless marathons as Christians have done for generations before us. We can do this because we strive to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Christmas Eve-C21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Christmas came early at our house this year. On a pastor’s schedule, in a blended family, it’s normal to celebrate special days on another ordinary random day when all our calendars align. Families do whatever they must do. Mostly it works out just fine. Dinner was homemade macaroni and cheese with lots of fixings—a first. Worship was Holden Evening Prayer at St. Paul’s Lutheran in Evanston—also a first. Leah was the cantor. Back home, we read Luke chapter 2 (our gospel tonight). We sang some carols, and despite our effort to economize, there was a great mass of presents under the tree. As seemed well.

Trouble came as the presents were distributed and piled at our feet. In the scramble to be ready Kari and I got our signals crossed somehow. Parents know, instinctively, the presents must balance out. Yet to anyone looking at the piles it was obvious. Christmas this year would not be fair.

Christmas would not be fair. I still feel bad about it. But then, I think, when has Christmas been fair? Between families, between zip codes, between states, and nations the disparities between what God intends and what actually happens is obvious and extreme.

But still, we expect big things from Christmas. We expect gifts and laughter, rich foods, and sparkling décor. We expect quality time together. We expect conversations with friends and family. We need all these things because we are so lacking in them. The theme song for Christmas 2021 may be that old one that pleads, “we need a little Christmas right this very minute…. For [we’ve] grown a little leaner; grown a little colder; grown a little sadder; grown a little older…[that’ why] we need a little Christmas now” (Need a Little Christmas Now, Lyrics and music by Jerry Herman).

We expect big things from Christmas. So, it’s almost startling to notice, the shepherds didn’t. Clearly, whatever else they may have been expecting that night, they were not expecting angels… or a savior in the form of a peasant child in a cattle stall. Why should they? Their life wasn’t fair. No one expects the unexpected.
What does Christmas mean to a world of people in so much pain? The angelic message came to those living on margins of society, among those living in the fields without a roof or a bed. There is nothing romantic about their theophany; the life of the shepherd was lonely, harsh, and unappreciated. Angels came to simple, unwashed, religiously unclean and unworthy shepherds. God’s glory – mysterious, tremendous, and fascinating, to quote Rudolf Otto – came in such abundance that it overwhelmed the shepherds in its grandeur so much the angels had to comfort them saying, “Do not be afraid.” God brings “good news to all people,” even shepherds, through this joyful birth.

Good news. Great joy—is for all people living throughout this unfair world. Maybe instead of high expectations, Christmas should be a day of shattering our expectations. Maybe this day, among all days, is a day to pause, take a breath, and remember how the miracle of Christmas began—with the utterly unexpected gift of God who is preparing, right now, to light up the sky around you with love and tenderness.

We humans are intensely social creatures. Minimal group studies done by psychologists prove how quickly people will make sturdy alliances even in groups that are totally meaningless and random. People assigned to groups that are barely even groups, assembled on the spot, based on nothing, favor others in their group almost immediately. They give more money and resources to members of their own group. They will try, as much as possible, in cleverly creative, cooperative, and spontaneous ways, to make their group wealthier than others, even when offered the option of maximizing the amount of money for everyone, at no cost.

The fact that we humans have an almost unstoppable propensity to clump ourselves together into groups, I believe, is evidence that we are children of God. But this innate drive and desire goes off the rails when unity is based upon lies, or when our focus is too narrow and small.

The first best gift of Christmas is that you belong. You’re part of a special group. You were assigned, not at random, but because of who you are. You are created in the image of God. You belong, therefore, to the inner circle of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the communion of the Trinity. When Christ becomes a part of our circle, love for family, clan, tribe, political party and nation expands to include everyone, even our enemies. In fact, when Christ is born again in our hearts this Christmas, our natural drive to sacrifice on behalf of our group, aligns with all creation -with all life everywhere.

This first, best Christmas gift is distributed to us all, each day, in every moment. It waits for you wrapped in swaddling clothes. This gift too is unfair, not because it is unequal, but because it is undeserved.

The Christmas Mystery has two parts: the Nativity and the Epiphany. “A deep instinct made the Church separate these two feasts. In the first we commemorate God’s humble entrance into human life, the emergence and birth of the Holy, and in the second its manifestation to the world, the revelation of the Supernatural made in that life. And the two phases concern our inner lives very closely too. The first only happens in order that the second may happen, and the second cannot happen without the first.” (Evelyn Underhill, “Incarnation and Childhood,” in Light of Christ: Addresses Given at the House of Retreat, Pleshey, in May, 1932 (Wipf and Stock: 2004), 40, 41–42, 45.)
Our Christmas devotion, therefore, does not end when we extinguish these candles. The story did not end with the outcry of the shepherds who made known what was told to them about the Christ child (Luke 2:17). God’s most unexpected gift finds its purpose as it reaches all the way in you and takes shape in your chosen lifestyle with an utterly transforming power.

Ye are the light of the world—but only because you are enkindled, made radiant by the One Light of the World. And being kindled, we pray the seed of grace born in you this night takes root and grows so that God’s love becomes manifest in you through your love for all people –and may Christmas be just a little fairer in an unfair world.
The mystic Thomas Merton wrote, “Make ready for the Christ, Whose smile, like lightning, Sets free the song of everlasting glory. That now sleeps, in your paper flesh, like dynamite.” )Thomas Merton, “The Victory”)

Advent 3C-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9) Our gospel says John proclaimed good news to the people, but this fire and brimstone preaching seems a far cry from rejoicing—at least to us.

To catch a glimpse of the hope and joy John inspired, which drew people out into the dangerous desert to see and hear him, we must step back to survey the scene.  Picture an entire military, industrial, financial, and ecclesial complex woven together in a system of all-powerful exploitation. The Roman Emperor, Tiberius, his governor Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, and the high priests Annas and Caiaphas were all in cahoots. They horded the lion’s share of power and material wealth for themselves. Adding insult to injury, the high priests “Caiaphas and Annas, abused their position to increase the debt load on the people of the land. Rather than forgiving debt, they were increasing debt” (William Herzog, New Proclamation 2006).

According to John, these mighty would fall. The lowly could be lifted up. John’s message finds an echo in Mary’s song, the Magnificat. John showed people they could belong. They became part of a grace filled community rooted in baptism, outside the control of the old power structures that dominated them.  They became part of the world as it should be, not as it is. People were coming to the desert and to John in droves.

The priests and political powers fashioned a world in their own image. It was an upside-down world compared to the one God created in God’s own image, the imago dei. To put the world right again, John preached, required a new heart and mind. John the Baptist pointed to this new mind and heart in his call to ‘repentance.’ The Greek word for “repent” is “metanoia.” It is closely related to the word ‘metamorphosis’ as in the change from a caterpillar to a butterfly.  The change John called for was a radical change, a transformation of mind, a new source and reason for our lives that follows the call and imitation of God’s love. In this metamorphosis our old self is cut away so Christ may live in us and through us. The world is restored to right side up.

Faith changes from merely private and personal to public and communal. The gospel pitches us into the world. The way of the cross leads to join in common cause with each another. Peace and shalom spring into existence through us with the very same power and persistence of nature itself as our old root, wrapped around all the things we want to preserve and protect for ourselves, is cut away.  See, now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.

Even the underground and hidden parts of our selves are not immune from God’s grace. John the Baptist gets right to the root of the problem.  In the waters of baptism, through the gift of bread and wine, in the company of all the saints and through the gift of the living Word, the good news today is that God will lay an ax against the hidden source of our life and kill it. See we have become a new creation!  Everything is made new.

Three times, three different groups come to John and ask, “What then should we do?”  Among them were tax collectors and soldiers who, by definition, were excluded from worshipping God in the Temple.  Should they abandon their homes and families?  Should they come live in the dessert?  Should they start a revolution?  “Given John’s demeanor, the crowds might very well expect such radicalism. But the answer he gives them is even more radical than they have language to comprehend — so radical we stand in danger of missing it: What should you do?  You should go home. 

Go home to your families, your neighbors, your vocations, your colleagues.  Stop fleeing. Stop insisting that God is far away from the nitty-gritty dailiness of your particular life.  Instead of waiting for a holy someday that will never come, inhabit the stuff of your life as deeply and as generously as you can right now.  Share now.  Be merciful now.  Do justice now.  Inhabit your life, no matter how plain, how obscure, how unglamorous, how routine.  Why?  Because the holy ground that matters most is the ground beneath your feet.” (Debi Thomas, “What Then Should We Do?”, Journey with Jesus, 12/09/18)

Our gospel today is one of a few that specifically address the topic of faith and work. Fifteen centuries before Martin Luther, John the Baptist seems to have promoted the idea that all people, regardless of their job description, can equally be of service to God. Luther taught that all of us have a vocation, or calling, by virtue of our baptism.  Parents are the priests and bishops of their homes. Children and siblings are called to care for each other and for parents. To be neighbor is not an accident of geographical proximity but a calling to contribute to the general wellfare as we would care for ourselves.

Theologian Jürgen Moltmann has said Luther’s concept of vocation is “the third great insight of the Lutheran Reformation,” after Word and Sacrament. Before Luther, only priests and monks could have a vocation or higher calling. Luther insisted that “[e]very occupation has its own honor before God, as well as its own requirements and duties.” “Just as individuals are different, so their duties are different; and in accordance with the diversity of their callings, God demands diverse works of them.”  What makes a job into a calling is not the money you make or the satisfaction you earn by doing it, but the people you serve and help.

If we’re willing to believe that nothing in our lives is too mundane or secular for God, then we’ll understand that all the possibilities for salvation we need are embedded in the lives God has already given us. There is no “outside.”  We don’t have to look “out there.”  The kingdom of heaven is here, within and among us. (Debi Thomas)

Christians become living invitations to a right side up life in an upside-down world. The famous Christian author Huston Smith wrote, “It remained for the 20th century to discover that locked within the atom is the energy of the sun itself. For this energy to be released, however, the atom must be bombarded from without. So too, locked in every human being is a store of love that partakes of the divine — the imago dei, the image of God that is within us. And it too can be activated only through bombardment — in its case, love’s bombardment.”

This perfect love casts out fear.  God’s perfect love lifts our spirits. God’s love is super abundant, shining both day and night. “Shine your future on this place, enlighten every guest, that through us stream your holiness, bright and blest, bright and blest; come dawn, O Sun of grace.” (ELW # 261)  Set us right again, right side up, rekindle our joy and renew our hope.

Advent 2C-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth” (Luke 3:5).
Ancient words like these about roads don’t sound miraculous anymore. Modern highways everywhere make the way straight and smooth. Bridges raise valleys. Tunnels level mountains. Yet, to our forebears in faith, Isaiah’s roadway was an answer to prayer, an interstate highway home through the dangerous desert wilderness, straight and fast, from Babylon to Israel, from slavery to freedom, from death to life.

When I was in college the road home led south on I-35 to Des Moines, and west on I-80. I remember driving between Minnesota and Colorado late at night in the middle of a winter storm. I could only see the dotted center line to my left and the solid white line to my right. With the foolishness of youth, I just aimed the car between those two lines and trusted the road to be there through miles of open country, over hills and rivers, in the darkness, through blinding snow.

If you’re hiking in the wilderness, once you find a road or path, you find your way. You’re no longer lost. Isaiah’s ancient royal highway led people home without a map, without exhausting themselves, without special knowledge. They didn’t have to do anything but follow the road home.

We take modern roads for granted. Yet, like our ancestors in faith, once again we need God to bring us home. We need to find a road, a path, or a good map that takes us forward. Now, when when so much is uncertain, when what we thought we knew about ourselves as Americans, and as people of faith is changing and even collapsing, we must look to Jesus, our pole star, to point the way.

History has so challenged our Founding Story it is no wonder it feels our world has begun to unravel. French philosopher Régis Debray and historian Yuval Noah Harari point out that such Stories are the ground beneath our feet that enable us as homo sapiens to purposefully cooperate in collective endeavors and to build civilizations. Without a common story, societies can’t hang together and thrive, no less survive. When the story unravels, so then does the society.

What it means to be an American is undergoing profound revision. What it means to be a follower of Jesus is melting away. God has placed both into the refiner’s fire of truth. We pray to God that we will find our way to a more perfect union and that the church will be reborn in flesh and blood.

We are bewildered, confused, lost. Yet the truth is startling. We do not have very far to go to find our way home. One of those road signs should be posted beside the kingdom of God. Maybe you’ve seen one like it that reads, ‘If you lived here, you would be home by now.’ God’s kingdom is already, always, everywhere, here, and now. In fact, this home travels with us. It’s never far away. John stands beside the road signaling at the off ramp for the lost to be found, for those stumbling in deep darkness to find light, for the hungry to find food and for those who thirst to find living water to drink.

It’s John the Baptist, after all, and not St. Nick whom Luke calls “prophet of the Most High” (Luke 1:76). It’s the wild and wooly John whom God appointed to prepare the way for the infant Jesus. So, we should listen when John announces there is something more than a messy pile of ripped boxes and wrapping paper coming into our lives. God is coming. Grace un-folding and abounding is making a way again to us. A royal highway is being prepared. God in Christ Jesus will bring low the high obstacles. Jesus will straighten the crooked pathways. Jesus is working out a way to you and to bring you home again, amid shouts of joy. “If in your heart you make a manger for his birth then God will once again become a child on earth” (Angelus Silesius, b. 1624 – d. 1677).

In the fifteenth year of the emperor, when governor so-and-so, and two other rulers had authority, and the high priesthood of (blank) and of (blankety-blank) were in charge in Jerusalem, the word of God came—not to any of them—but to John, son of nobody you’ve heard of, in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2). Luke’s gospel is a shot across the bow to political and religious windbags and despots everywhere. God’s holy highway breaks through the wilderness, from the margins, among the lowly. The voice in the wilderness cries out for the way of God to be prepared with relentless urgency.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the road Jesus opens also links us with each other. The pathway to God runs to, not over, our fellow human beings. In fact, we reach our destination, not by coming to the end of the road but simply by being on the road. We are in Christ simply by walking the way of Jesus. We are home. Christ is with us, and we are with one another. In the words of Martin Luther, “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.”

God’s home is here. That’s why people matter, justice matters, how we live makes a difference not only for those around us but for us too. The peaceable kingdom is more than a dreamy vision of heaven. It is God’s dream for the world. Once we live there, we are always, already home no matter where we travel. This is our founding story. This is the ground upon which to build a more perfect union.

It comes into view as we move forward in faith, keeping the dotted line of compassion and forgiveness for one another on our left, and the solid line of God’s steadfast love on the right. You don’t need anything more. You don’t need any special knowledge or skill. You don’t have to know where you are to find your way home and into the loving arms of God.

This is how the church becomes the gathering place of those once scattered. Diverse and different, we are one in Christ. The is the way the church also sends us out. We are secure in the house of the Lord—even as we stay on the move, walking the way of the cross as Jesus did. The one who came, and is coming draws us together, holds us together. We are together in our life in God, moving together toward the consummation of all things. (William Willimon) Rich and poor, slaves and free, male and female, young and old, gay and straight, Jew and gentile, Christians and non-Christians. All are welcome. See ‘every mountain and hill is made low.’ We are joined in one great communion by the Advent of our God. Let the people say, Amen!

Advent 1C-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

And so, the story begins. Notice, the Church starts the new year on this first Sunday of Advent as the days grow shorter. In place of swaddling clothes, twinkly stars, and fleecy lambs — each year we begin the story of God looking fiercely and honestly at the world as it is, not as it should be: gorgeous, fragile, and falling apart.
Frodo Baggins, the halfling hero of J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings, famously said, “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” The wise wizard Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” We must learn to kindle and keep our hope.

Advent is not a season for the faint of heart. Perhaps that’s why we used to rush through this season. Advent didn’t even have its own color, blue, until the 1990’s. We didn’t give it a second thought in our hurry toward Christmas. Yet without a proper Advent, Christian hope becomes shallow, as if the Christmas star were nothing but another store-bought light, colorful, but not enough to hold off the crippling power of fear and shadow.

Fearful thinking and living is the enemy Advent emboldens us to confront. “Be on guard,” Jesus warns his disciples. “Be alert.” “Stand up and raise your heads.” Look. We cannot escape our troubles and calamities. God has no mass exit plan from this world to the next. Your personal end will come soon enough and in its own time. Yet this does not mean we are along. God is in, with, under, and beside us.

“People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:26). In prophetic language that sounds distressingly contemporary, Jesus points to a world reeling in pain. “When you see these things,” Jesus says, don’t turn away. Don’t hide. Why? Because it’s when we face reality — when we acknowledge and welcome the “here” of human suffering — that we draw closer to the life of God and to the healing power of grace.

“Raise your head,” Jesus says, “to respond to these apocalyptic signs with staggering hope and confidence. When it feels like the very foundations of the heavens are crumbling, we are to stand up. When the roaring sea and the waves confuse us, when the sun, moon and stars come tumbling out of the sky, we are to raise our heads. When the news cycle feels like an endless fire hose, people pour into the streets in protest, families are separated, and fires blaze through neighborhoods, we are to stand up and confidently usher in and claim the redemption that God promises.” (Lauren Wright Pittman)

In Advent, endings and beginnings run together. Ancient truths and dreams of the future teach a single startling truth: our creator and redeemer are one and the same. Our living God, the Ancient of Days, is our Alpha and Omega, our beginning, and our end. Today, at the start of Advent, the past and future join hands. Lutheran theologians are fond of saying the kingdom of God is both ‘already and not yet.’ The gift of this season shines a light on our path as we navigate the difficulties of this present moment and lead us into the loving embrace and the ongoing work of God that is already, always, and everywhere.

And we do face some difficulties, don’t we? Economic, political, and ecological disasters loom around us. Our fear of the future is also deepened as we navigate the rebuilding and reweaving of our faith. Our old ways of being religious have ruptured. Look! Something new is being born among us. We were taught to seek out and pray to a God whom we imagined to be entirely outside the natural world only to discover, or to rediscover, that God to be found deeply within it and in all that exists, everywhere. “The Trinity reveals that to be and to be in relation become identical, and hence there is no God outside the Trinity, and its characteristic is a constant giving and receiving in love.” Sallie McFague, A New Climate for Christology, p. 72)

The word religion is believed to have come from the Latin, religare, meaning to “bind” or “reconnect.” Religare is about mending what has been broken, recovering what has been mislaid, bringing people together, and reconnecting that which is frayed. From the perspective of its definition, religion should not have caused the breaches, it should not itself be fractured, and it should be part of the solution to the troubles of this world.

“But neat definitions rarely match the messiness of reality. One can rightly claim that religion has always been fractured and fracturing, and it has never embodied its etymological promise. There is another possibility, however. Cicero, the ancient politician and philosopher who lived as the Roman Republic ended and Rome emerged as an empire, believed that religion derived from relegare (not religare), meaning “to re-read” or “to go through again” (as in teaching again or rethinking).
The project of rereading religion – contemporary theologian Catherine Keller refers to it as dreamreading – a kind of reading that awakens new possibilities and leads us to “apocalyptic mindfulness” amid destruction. She asks, “Might facing the Apocalypse in its ancient intensity help us face apocalypse in our own time? Such ‘facing’ would not mean mere recognition, submission, acquiescence. It means to confront the forces of destruction: to crack open, to disclose, a space where late chances, last changes, remain nonetheless real chances.’” (Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage, 11/28/21)

“In the first Gospel text of the new year, Jesus calls his followers to apocalyptic mindfulness – to dreamread the ruptures visible in the world all around and see their meanings more clearly. To Jesus, signs of the end are harbingers of glory, signaling a world saved from evil, pointing toward the full bloom of a just new creation. In Luke, Jesus implores that his disciples will have the “strength to escape” not the crises themselves but the fear and dysfunction and disorientation that come from ruptures. Fear is the trap, inattention the temptation. Know that the Kingdom of God is near, Jesus urged. See what comes over the Advent horizon.” (Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage, 11/28/21)

As we prepare to enter another Advent that will not look quite like we anticipated, I pray for grace to kindle hope. Hope does not wait until we are ready for it and have prepared ourselves for its arrival. It does not hold itself apart from us until we have worked through the worst of our sorrow, our anger, our fear. This is precisely where hope seeks us out, standing with us, in the midst of what most weighs us down. Hope is beautifully stubborn this way. (Jan Richardson)

A Poem by Jan Richardson entitled, “Blessing of Hope”

So may we know
the hope
that is not just
for someday
but for this day—
here, now,
in this moment
that opens to us:

hope not made
of wishes
but of substance,

hope made of sinew
and muscle
and bone,

hope that has breath
and a beating heart,

hope that will not
keep quiet
and be polite,

hope that knows
how to holler
when it is called for,

hope that knows
how to sing
when there seems
little cause,

hope that raises us
from the dead—

not someday
but this day,
every day,
again and
again and
again.

—Jan Richardson

from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief

Christ the King B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Let your kingdom come, Lord God. From the sixth century, beginning in Italy, the seven names which the prophet Isaiah mysteriously ascribed to the coming Messiah are recited, one for each day of the week leading up to Christmas. Here at Immanuel, it’s our tradition to sing one each of the seven Sundays from All Saints to Christmas Day. Today on this the festival of Christ the King at the close of Pentecost, we stand ready to open to the coming year at Advent. We sang the now ancient antiphon, inspired from Isaiah 64:8, “O king whom all peoples desire, you are the cornerstone which makes us one. O come and save us whom you fashioned out of clay” (O antiphon, Rex gentium).

Another proof text for this antiphon is here written in stained glass. “For, to us, a child is born, a son has been given; authority rests upon their shoulders; and they are named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

Christian faith linked this Wonderful Counsellor and Prince of Peace to Jesus, the lowly borne man from Nazareth who, scripture says, carried the cross by himself and was taken out to The Place of the Skull, called Golgotha. “There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side. Pilate had an inscription put on the cross written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’” (John 19:17-20)

Jesus Christ is king. Jesus Christ is ‘the ancient of Days,’ ‘the Alpha and the Omega,’ ‘the one who is and who was and who is to come,’ ‘ruler over the kings of the earth.’ Yet, for centuries now, we have mostly understood this truth in one narrow way that is now falling apart. In its wake, we pray, let your kingdom come, Lord Jesus.
Through the lens of the climate crisis, racial reckoning, and world wars, we are finally starting to see what we thought we knew about Jesus and God was a way to hold the kingdom at bay.

We anchored faith and culture to the story of a heavenly monarch, seated upon his throne, a supernatural and angry God telling his subjects how to behave, who demands a price be paid for sins to grant eternal life in heaven. We fancied ourselves as earthly over-lords, as “managing” or “improving” nature, as deserving all the riches of the planet we can hoard for ourselves. That is, we who are faithful, are entitled to these the fruits of the earth because we are God’s chosen people. By ‘we,’ of course, I mean the classic, desirable model of the human being: Western, young, male, white-skinned, well-to-do, educated, confident, Protestant, and able-bodied.”

Thanks be to God this false vison of God’s kingdom is coming to an end. We know this because even our greatest achievement over nature –our insatiable consumer market economy –has boomeranged back on us and become our greatest threat. We are no longer content to quietly suffer the pain of patriarchy and gender violence. The injustice and hypocrisy of white privilege with its shameful legacy of slavery and genocide will not remain hidden. (We are shocked but not surprised at the verdict of Kyle Rittenhouse.) We find ourselves at a fork in the road. Something old is passing away. Something new begins—let your kingdom come, Lord Jesus.

We lift our eyes, our hearts, our hopes, our prayers to Jesus our lord, our savior, our king. We look again to Jesus, the image of the living God. The true face of God is revealed in the human face of Jesus. We search and sift the scriptures for wisdom as the first Christians did who meditated on the words of the prophet Isaiah. And now, Christians everywhere have begun to see again the foundations a new story, a new throne, a new Lord rooted in the old, old story of Jesus.

We encounter Jesus again and meet him as if for the first time. Jesus is a different kind of king. Jesus has shown us a different kind of God. Christianity is a religion of incarnation. God is alive here in us now. God is present throughout creation. Something old is ending. Something new has begun. Let the kingdom come.

From the Sermon on the Mount, in the parables of Jesus, and gospel stories of grace, from the birth narratives, from Mary’s song, from the self-emptying Christ, and from the cross—a different story of faith and life re-emerges. It is a timeless story told also by God’s first bible, the natural world. It is the story of radical interconnectedness, interdependence and diversity. In evolution, the survival of the fittest turns out to be the survival of the sharers. In scripture and in nature we see a countercultural call to human beings to live “for others” as the only possible response to live in harmony with God’s creation that is characterized by giving and receiving, symbiosis and sharing, reciprocal interdependence, life and death. It is time to let this kingdom come before it is too late.

If Jesus Christ is Lord, then the law that animates everything must be sacrificial love and the flourishing of all life. ‘Evolution claims that a grain of wheat does not nourish unless it dies. The Trinity says that the divine life is a dance of giving and receiving among the three “persons” of the Trinity who widen their circle to invite us to join in their dance. From here to the distant edge of the cosmos reality is characterized by this pattern of giving and receiving; hence the human response must be one of daily radical gratitude.’ (Sallie McFague, New Climate for Christology, Prologue, p. xi)

Which brings me to Thanksgiving. If gratitude is the pulse of the universe, then giving thanks must be more than good manners, it must be good for you. We can test this hypothesis. A study at the Harvard Medical School confirms there are three things that can make you happier than winning the lottery. At the end of a year, most lottery winners revert to their old level of happiness. Some are less happy.

The number one component is purpose. Humans are most happy when they are doing something meaningful in the world. Number two is giving. The few lottery winners who managed to gain lasting happiness gave some of the money to charitable causes they cared about. Number three is gratitude. “Research has shown that if you express gratitude on a regular basis, you’ll be happy, you’ll be more creative, you’ll be more fulfilled–you might even live ten years longer” (Sanjiv Chopra, Harvard Medical School).
The pandemic, with all its loss and suffering, and the continued division in our social lives, families, and politics, has made giving thanks more difficult. The Thanksgiving holiday is an occasion many of us pause to acknowledge the things we are thankful for. Perhaps this Thanksgiving is a good time to try adding other prepositions. Instead of what we are thankful for, try using to, with, through or within:
To whom or what are you grateful?

What challenges have you been grateful through?
Have you been grateful with others?
Where have you discovered gratitude within yourself?
Has something in your life changed by being grateful?
In what circumstances have you experienced thankfulness?
(Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage, 11/19/21)

With gratitude and thanksgiving, God’s kingdom comes among us. St. Paul wrote to faithful in Philippi: “Let the same mind be in you that was in 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 2:5–8). And let God’s kingdom come.

Proper 28B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

A record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September.” The Great Resignation is in full swing. According to the Washington Post: “Many workers have made the calculation that their old jobs — low paying work in industries like restaurants, which have really struggled to fill holes — are no longer desirable, even as companies dangle raises and bonuses to lure employees back to the workplace.”

Some older workers have taken early retirements, 750,000 people have died from Covid, the U.S. labor force has shrunk. Most cite poor working conditions and lack of childcare as the primary reason for quitting. There’s talk of a “general strike.” The new mantra seems to be: “get me out of this job!” People don’t want to fill the openings posted and don’t want the jobs they have. (Diana Butler Bass, The Great Spiritual Resignation, 11/13/21)

Jesus said, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13: 2b) The 13th chapter of Mark’s gospel is often described as a mini apocalypse. The word ‘apocalypse’ conjures a landscape laid to waste, a civilization in ruins, a dystopian nightmare that is the premise of countless popular movies. Sermons on this gospel preachers will speak of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the fall of Rome, or the scene following a natural disaster. Yet, in these days of the great resignation, when scientists say we have just ten years to make a difference before reaching a climate disaster; when historians and politicians openly speculate about the end of democracy; when doctors and nurses receive death threats for administering medical care, a Mad-Max style end to everything we know doesn’t seem like fiction or ancient history. We are living our own kind of apocalypse now.

Apocalyptic literature was very popular in the centuries before Christ when nothing seemed to be working and the bad guys always won. These strange words of Jesus from Mark 13 we have skipped over and ignored suddenly seem more relevant. Could it be this mini apocalypse is meant for such a time as this?
In contrast to what we might think who have spent hours consuming the movies, tv shows, and novels of dystopia, and of conservative Christian speculation about the end-times, apocalypse is not about destruction. Rather, in the bible, apocalypse means something quite different. An apocalypse is an unveiling, or an uncovering. It is a disclosure of something secret and hidden. To experience an apocalypse is to experience fresh sight. Honest disclosure. Accurate revelation. It is to apprehend reality as we’ve never apprehended it before. (Debi Thomas, Not One Stone, 11/11/18)

If we are living through apocalypse, it is because we are seeing ourselves, our nation, our religion in a difference light. We are confronted with the reflection of ourselves in the potential demise of everything we hold dear and are bewildered and humbled. If the economy of daily life is leading to ecological collapse it is because we have distorted and ignored what it means to be stewards of creation. If we are facing a racial reckoning it is because we have not been honest about the history of this nation. If we have become divided into warring political camps that threaten our democracy and undermine our ability to cope with world-wide pandemic it is because we have not loved, nor listened, to our neighbors as ourselves.

Like the Hebrew prophets of old who warned people of faith of the immanent consequences of their own bad choices, the fruit of apocalypse is disillusionment. In her sermon collection, God in Pain, 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.”

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 who God 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. Things are getting uncovered. Let’s hold each other tight and pull back the veil.” (Debi Thomas)

“Don’t be alarmed,” Jesus says, when truth is shaken, and nations make war, and imposters preach alluring gospels of fear, resentment, and hatred. Don’t give in to terror. Don’t despair. Don’t capitalize on chaos. God is not where people often say he is; God doesn’t fear-monger. God doesn’t incite suspicion. God doesn’t thrive on human dread.

So, let us “avoid hasty, knee-jerk judgments. Be perceptive, not pious. Imaginative, not immature. Make peace, choose hope, cultivate patience, and incarnate love as the world reels and changes. This is the great challenge and gift of the Gospel. Not simply to bear the apocalypse, but to bear it well. To bear it with the radical, self-sacrificial love Jesus models on the cross. (Debi Thomas)

The author of Hebrews holds out the antidote to apocalypse and the job description for any community of faith. “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23-25)

The “Day Approaching” is not destruction but the reconciliation, the final restoration of all creation. The God who made the world still loves it. “This sweet old, fallen world is loved by God and therefore embraced by Christ’s body in the world, by us. In the paschal mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the reign of God is remaking the world. This world has been returned to us as the space for all of our vocations. Our lives take on meaning in the shadow of the Day approaching.” (Stephen P. Bouman, Baptized for This Moment, p. 52-53)

Confronted with apocalypse now, “it’s easy to despair. Or to grow numb. Or to let exhaustion win. But it’s precisely now, now when the world around us feels the most apocalyptic, that we have to respond with resilient, healing love. It’s precisely now, when systemic evil and age-old brokenness threaten to bring us to ruin that we have to “hold each other tight” and allow the veil to part, the walls to fall” (Debi Thomas). What’s happening, Jesus promises, is not death, but birth. Something is struggling to be born. Yes, the birth pangs hurt. But God is our midwife, and what God births will never lead to desolation. What God intends to bring to life in and among us now will end in peace, shalom, and joy.

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

everywhere

everywhere

everywhere.

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.