Posts

Proper 12A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

You’ve heard of United States Representative, civil rights leader, and conscience of the Congress, the late John Lewis, and of Bloody Sunday, the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama on March 7, 1965 which lead to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. No doubt you will have also heard of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery bus boycott which occurred ten years before on December 5, 1955 that gave rise to the American civil rights movement.

But today, I want to tell you a less familiar story from 12 years before in 1942, about the church, racial reconciliation, and the struggle for justice in Americus, Georgia, a town less than 200 miles from Selma and Montgomery. It’s the story of Clarence Jordan and Koinonia farm where blacks and whites lived together and held property in common in what Jordan called an experiment in Christian community. It was fire-bombed, shot at, and boycotted by its Christian neighbors. The great civil rights leader, Andrew Young, said he and other leaders had known about Koinonia farm but never visited because if was considered too dangerous.

Clarence Jordan was a white man. He looked like Marcus Welby and Atticus Finch rolled into one if they had been an agriculturalist and bible scholar rather than a doctor and a lawyer. His home-spun translation of the New Testament is called the Cotton Patch Gospel. He was and is the spiritual father of Habitat for Humanity. Koinonia farm still exists to this day and its work continues.

One day, a neighbor and a deacon from the local Baptist church who led the effort to have Clarence expelled from the congregation for living with black people, drove out to the farm a few days after the vote filled with remorse for what he’d done. He couldn’t sleep for hearing that old hymn play over and over in his head, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Yes, he confessed. He knew that he had been there. In fact, he had led the effort. He told Clarence he planned to resign from the church too. Clarence told him no. It was alright. He didn’t have to do that. “Instead,” he said, “I want you to go back to church and so live as to get kicked out.”

What might happen if we were to so live the gospel? How many places might we be kicked out of? Clarence Jordan’s advice to his neighbor and brother in Christ is a yard stick any of us can use to take the measure of our faith and a good starting point from which to pick up the thread connecting the five parables of Jesus that Matthew presented us with today.

Jesus said, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). The treasures of our tradition are familiar, reliable, trustworthy, and wise. Yet also, by definition, they cannot be enough to tell us always what to do. What is most loving? Where does the Spirit lead? We must furnish the final answer. It’s up to you to decide.
Matthew shows us what it means to live as a person of faith serving the God of our ancestors who is always, already, working within each situation with crazy abundance sowing seeds of grace everywhere hidden in plain sight.

Like some display of fireworks, these five parables seem to point in every direction at once. Each is a work of art. Evocative, memorable, captivating, the meaning of a parable is difficult to put into words. Jesus apparently taught in parables. There is nothing like them in the Hebrew bible. The word means “something cast aside.” They are like something you only just see from the corner of your eye.

Jesus’ parables lead us somewhere new in our understanding. Their content is drawn from everyday life. Parables address themselves to people both inside and outside religion, people of faith and of no faith, to everyone confronting the same basic questions of life.

Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a noxious weed giving shelter to flocking birds.’ The kingdom of heaven is like leavening yeast –which you’ll be surprised to know likely made our ancestors in faith scrunch their mouths into yuck-faces. Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure you’d be willing to steal for. And also, the kingdom of heaven is like a fine pearl you’d give literally everything to possess. And finally, the kingdom of heaven is an incredibly diverse community—like Koinonia farm—in which angels are working to sift out the bad and to keep the good.

The parables of Jesus turn us upside down and inside out. Pieced together, they form a treasure map. An ‘X’ marks the spot. Follow me, Jesus says. Follow the way of the cross. Like the cross, the parables of Jesus, point us toward the kingdom of heaven that is already here but hidden. Our search for treasure most likely leads, not to exotic lands, but next door, or across the street, into the next cubicle, or into conversation with a stranger. It may cause us so to live as to get ourselves kicked out of many fine respectable places.

Clarence Jordan believed “the principal problem of modern Christians was that they wanted God to conform to their agenda—to bless their endeavors and goals. Clarence said that was backwards. God has an agenda and wants God’s people to learn what it is and to become active participants in that agenda.” (Cotton Patch Gospel: Matthew and John.)

If ever there was a Christian who lived on the road mapped out by the gospel it was St. Paul. Brutal treatment, constant harassment, and strong opposition greeted him in nearly every city he visited (1 Thess. 2:2, 2 Cor. 7:5). The book of Acts records at least eight murder attempts on Paul’s life. In Paul’s own words, he compared himself and the first apostles to sheep headed to a slaughter; people in last place; public spectacles; dishonored fools; vagrants who were hungry, thirsty, homeless, and in rags; and even, “the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world (1 Cor. 4:8-13). Therefore we have confidence in Paul’s life-tested assurance that nothing, “[not] death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Perhaps the most important word in all the parables is the first one: ‘Listen’. Hear now what God is saying so that the strength to endure may take hold in you, so that joy in God’s presence may shield you, and the abundant blessings of grace may fill you to overflowing with all the ordinary, wonderful treasures God has hidden around you.

Proper 11A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

COVID-19 is on the rise in Chicago among 18 to 29-year-olds. This week, Mayor Lightfoot threatened to be the mom who would stop the car and make kids walk home if they didn’t take the virus and the public health more seriously. “We are at the precipice,” she said. “We are dangerously close to going back to a dangerous state of conditions.” (Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Sun Times, 7/15/20) Personally, I really hope they listen. Illinois is one of only two states that met all of the federal government’s criteria for reopening before actually reopening. The other was New York State. (Pro Publica, States Are Re-Opening, 5/20/20). I’m proud our state and local leaders have kept us safe while keeping our economy going. Sometimes, I wish God would take charge like them too.

Are you guys still fighting? Get out of the car and walk. In fact, none of your cars, planes, or trains will work. Your guns won’t shoot. Your drones, fighter planes, and bombers won’t fly. You’re not allowed to make another mortgage loan unless it is to a community of color. It’s time for God to get the kids under control. It’s time God set some limits, raised expectations, and demanded accountability because the whole world is at the precipice. We are dangerously close to disaster.

Jesus says we live in a world where the weeds must be left to grow among the wheat. Evil and good are mixed together. ‘It’s like someone went into the field while everyone was sleeping and sowed tares among the wheat,’ Jesus said (Matthew 13:25). The Tares to which Jesus referred is a plant we call bearded Darnel. It has two prominent characteristics: first, it’s poisonous, and second, until it matures, it’s virtually indistinguishable from wheat. The kingdom of God is like a wheat field in which we can’t distinguish good from bad. In the beginning, yes. God created a good world. Indeed, it was very good! But now look. There are poisonous weeds everywhere! What a mess. Why doesn’t God do something?

I suppose religious people, through the ages, may be forgiven for getting impatient. People of faith tend to think they can help God out. First, they circle the wagons of the righteous. They dictate the terms for how every person ought to live and call it God’s plan. Then they go on the attack. They begin naming, judging, and eradicating evil wherever they find it—most often in others. These strategies soon prove tragic and misguided, of course. A religious person trying to create the holy becomes nothing but a hypocrite. The religious person who wields the machete of righteousness soon sees that everything looks to them like a weed. Everything is hacked and cut down. Which, by the way, is exactly what would happen if God were take us up on the invitation to start cleaning house and be more like our political leaders. Soon there wouldn’t be anything left of any of us.

So maybe it’s good –or anyhow—it’s lucky—God has a different plan. On God’s farm weeds become wheat. Our functional but false selves may be transformed through faith in Christ. With patience the poisonous bearded Darnel of our hearts and minds ripens into fruits of the Spirit some one hundred, some sixty, and some thirtyfold.

Our parable and our second reading from St. Paul both counsel patience. The entire universe is in labor. Paul wrote that not only humankind, but “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains” as it waits for God’s salvation. You and I might choose to start over. We would dig everything out and start fresh. New seeds, new plants, fresh soil, we would not show the same patience with creation that God does. There would be no place for us.

Jesus said, ‘I have come not for the righteous, but for sinners. For those who are well have no need of a physician,’ (Matthew 9:13b & 12). Jesus did not weed out Peter, even though he denied him. Jesus did not reject the disciples though they all ran away in fear. Even Judas had a place at Jesus’ table. We feast again today on God’s Word in thanksgiving for the Life Jesus pours out for us with tenderness and mercy, not because we deserve it, but precisely because we so desperately need it.

The paraclete, the Holy Spirit, is quietly at work in us. The Holy One intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words, delicate surgery is going on in us, to transform the weediness of our hearts into grain for the harvest. Our eyes begin to open. Our ears are unstopped. We see and hear differently. Could the poison of selfish pride begin to recede in us? Could America’s original sin of slavery and systemic racism be redeemed? Can freedom and equality join hands?

This week I watched the short documentary film Cooked: Survival by Zip Code. It tells the story of the heatwave that killed more than 700 people in Chicago in 1995. It exposed a pattern, not just in that disaster, but in almost any natural disaster you can name. So often the real killer is poverty and racism. The same pattern of unequal impact is exposed by the pandemic. People in poverty, people who live in specific zip codes, have shorter lives, are more likely to experience gun violence, are less able to access health care, or to get a loan, find a job, or even be able to shop at a grocery store. These neighborhoods consist mostly of people of color. We cannot become wheat without striving to become anti-racists. The poison of bearded Darnel we carry will not leave our veins without doing God’s work with our hands to tear down the barriers that intentionally lock so many out from access to opportunity in America.

Because God is not finished with us but is patient, we dare to hope that while the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends towards justice. Because God is good and created us in God’s own image, we are confident history is on our side. God the great co-sufferer does not leave us in our sins but will work to redeem us. God who has searched and known you, God who has seen the restlessness in your heart, will even now, works to ripen your spirit, restore you in the broken places, and bring you with all creation, into bountiful wholeness.

Proper 10A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

We have green beans! These are the first fruits of the season from my backyard. We always had a garden when I was growing up. I remember eating tomatoes and vegetables, like this, straight from the vine.

A few years back I bought, cut, and screwed together some 2” X 12’s. I caulked, painted and put them out, two hulking wooden rectangles, laid perpendicular in the backyard. I bought maybe four yards of topsoil? They came and dumped it on my driveway. It seemed like an impossibly large amount of dirt. Yet, it all went in, wheel barrel after wheel barrel. So now, we have two raised-bed garden plots.

That was maybe 7 years ago, and I think we’ve planted a garden exactly twice in all that time. It turns out they’re not in the best location. I was too worried to leave room for the kids to play. They’re tucked away under some overhanging tree branches. They never get enough sun. Even so, it would be manageable, if we watered more regularly, if we didn’t try to stuff so many plants in close together, if we picked weeds –in short—if we weren’t such bad gardeners!

Yes. We’re bad gardeners but even we look good compared to God. Jesus says God is like a gardener too. But where we take care to plan and prepare, God is reckless. Where we carefully plant seeds in straight rows, eight inches apart, God is wasteful, like a foolhardy gardener slinging seed everywhere without preparation or care.
“Listen,” Jesus told them, ‘a sower went out to sow. He broadcast seed on the path, on the rocky ground; among the thorns as well as upon good soil’ (Matthew 13:3-8). God’s ways are mystifying. God’s Word is cast in abundance upon the righteous and the unrighteous alike. God’s grace is poured out upon ordinary uneducated fisherman and disreputable tax collectors. God’s saving power was at work with Abraham, Sarah and their descendants. In Christ Jesus, God’s saving grace is poured out again for us today. It sprouts and grows everywhere—especially where we least expect it.

Just take a good look at the patriarchs we’ve been reading about. What’s most striking to me is how truly human they all are. They are flawed, fearful, and selfish. Yet, within their day-to-day challenges of infertility, multiple births, treacherous plots, and deviant behavior, the purposes of God are not turned back, but are steadily carried forward from generation to generation. They were good soil despite themselves.

There’s something reassuring about that. If you and I were to lay out our family tree through four generations and draw a circle around fifty of our closest relatives—how many awkward in-laws and off-putting outlaws; how many strained relationships, and broken dreams would we be likely to find? The children of Abraham and Sarah look a lot like members of our own families. Yet God worked mightily and gloriously through them. God’s profligate extravagant grace was maybe the one unchanging thing they could count on. What could God be up to in these crazy COVID-afflicted days of ours?

“In this time of sickness, scarcity, anxiety, suffering, and loss, what does the world need more than a Sower who is lavish? A Sower who errs on the side of wastefulness? A Sower who’d rather lose a bunch of seeds to inhospitable terrain than withhold a single one?” (Debie Thomas, The Extravagant Sower, Journey with Jesus, 7/05/20) God is at work in you and your relatives. God is at work in this community. Pray the Spirit of God will find good soil.

When it comes to good soil, we make the mistake of thinking only of the receptiveness of ourselves to God—our faith, our deeds, our righteousness. This is absurd. Good soil is the by-product of centuries. The top 2 to 8 inches on average of decaying plant and animal material called humus or topsoil, is incredibly complex and teaming with life. According to the poet Wendell Berry a healthy forest generates just two inches of humus every thousand years. The good soil, to which Jesus is referring, like humus, is the by-product of countless grace-filled lives.

We must take care not to squander the good soil of community as we have already done with so much of our nation’s topsoil. It is time—it is always time—to restore hope, to build up our collective strength, to nourish the Spirit of wisdom God has so lavishly sown among us. It is time to extend the garden to accommodate people of color. It is time to make room for everyone left out and locked out because in God’s garden, just as in creation, our lives flourish when all lives thrive.
The times they are a changin’ (Bob Dylan). They fill us with grief and anxiety about the future even as opportunities for new life sprout and take hold. #MeToo. #BlackLivesMatter. #PeopleandPlanetFirst. Can we dare to hope God will bring a new day of faith to take hold in us and our church in the struggle for justice and equality for all? Will we be good soil?

“The word change normally refers to new beginnings. But the mystery of transformation more often happens not when something new begins, but when something old falls apart…Most of us would never go to new places in any other way. [Christian] mystics use many words to describe this chaos: fire, dark night, death, emptiness, abandonment, trial, the Evil One. Whatever it is, it does not feel good and it does not feel like God. We will normally do anything to keep the old thing from falling apart, yet this is when we need patience and guidance, and the freedom to let go instead of tightening our controls and certitudes” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Change Is Inevitable, July 5, 2020). Open our hands. Cast our seeds. Let them fall where they may. Can we be as reckless as our God
?
Bishop Tim Smith of the North Carolina Synod of the ELCA has said “you can count the number of seeds in an apple, but you cannot count the number of apples in a seed.” Most apples contain five seeds. Many apple tree varieties produce up to five hundred apples each season and can produce fruit for eight or more years. It is too small a thing to live only for ourselves. We are meant to leave a legacy of good soil that will contribute to the flourishing of all the lives who will follow.

As surely as rain comes from clouds, God’s Word falls upon the whole earth. As snow comes from the heavens to refresh the land, the grace of Christ Jesus comes to soften the soil of our lives so that the good seed may grow and ripen into rich fruit in us to return into God’s hand (ELW 508). Just as lichen slowly eats away rock, and plants slowly restore nutrients to sand, the wasteful abundance of God’s grace transforms our hard-scrabble hearts into good soil. May God be praised.

Proper 9A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

12 score and 2 years ago our ancestors brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. “All men,” of course, referred narrowly only to people of that same gender, who were white, who had lived on American soil for at least two years, and could prove they were of good moral character. We have expanded the circle of inclusion ever since, striving for that, ever elusive, more perfect union.
Abraham Lincoln said it at Gettysburg, ‘It is for us the living to be dedicated to the unfinished work our American ancestors in each generation have so nobly advanced.’ “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, 11/19/63)

We all have a stake in this freedom franchise. Whether our ancestors immigrated here in the 19th century like mine or were brought and bought here in bondage against their will, or, whether they walked here during the last ice age, we all have a role in this American experiment in democracy. This strange, COVID-afflicted, safe-distanced anniversary of our nation’s independence, when the meaning of what it is to be American is debated in our national politics, it’s worth remembering this. It is necessary to reassert this so that a new birth of freedom may also be born in our own time.

As luck would have the proper use of our God-given freedom is a question addressed in our readings appointed for today. It is, perhaps, the central question of the great bible narratives of creation, Exodus, Christ and the cross. I would like to think the American dream of human equality is rooted in the witness of scripture and the persistent council of grace in human consciousness that all people are children of God.

Human beings living under every permutation of governance ever devised or bumbled into have asked themselves what am I to do with the miracle of my life?
Chapters 5-8 of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome from which today’s second lesson was taken is a majestic statement of some of Paul’s greatest themes: The love of God embodied in Jesus’ death; the hope, even during suffering, enjoyed by God’s people; Christian freedom from sin, the law and death itself; and the life-giving leading of the Spirit. Countless Christians, in times of great struggle found strength and joy in Paul’s closing words: “Neither height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39) (N.T. Wright, Commentary on Romans)

Many today are misled in believing that, if you are lucky or strong or bold or beautiful and powerful enough, freedom is about living without any obligations, any commitments, any requirements whatsoever. By contrast, Paul invited the Christians in Rome and each of us, to consider the choice we face is not between obedience or freedom, but rather a decision about what we will be freely obedient and dedicated to.

So, it makes perfect sense. That’s why Jesus’ answer to the problem of the proper use of our freedom is this—an animal yoke. What? Yes. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

In fact, what Jesus seems to have in mind in a double yoke like this one. (that I hope you can see now.) Stick your head in this, join with me, Jesus says, and you can’t go far wrong.

It seems counterintuitive to find rest and greater freedom in taking upon us a yoke—even the yoke of Jesus. For most of us, I’d wager, a yoke connotes bondage and servitude, a diminishment of freedom and choice. Indeed, Jesus was relentless in his criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees for making the yoke of religion too heavy. They made religion into something used merely to weigh people down with the artificial demands of righteousness.

Jesus’ yoke is different from the one religious Zealots want to lay on you. Instead, here is wisdom written deep within creation: being kind is not a chore, but a natural and gracious response to the God-given dignity in every other. In this yoke we find our own humanity. In this yoke we find purpose for our freedom. In this yoke we find the inalienable human right of all people to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Human dignity increases as we join ourselves to God’s purpose. In this way we find greater freedom and power. But Jesus’ invitation doesn’t sidestep the fact that a yoke is still a yoke. Faith requires a commitment. Faith assumes there is a load to pull, and that it must be pulled.

People are confused about the purpose of their freedom today. We have an adolescent view of happiness. The yoke of Jesus is humility and concern for the despised. The yoke of Jesus is not a yoke of servitude, or of bondage but of connection, partnership, and sharing our burdens with one another and with Christ who labors alongside us. There will be a new birth of freedom among us in our time when we realize in Christ, we are yoked to those suffering now. We are yoked, so none of can be free when one of us can’t breathe.

We remember the dying words of George Floyd and Eric Garner. “I can’t breathe.” Their deaths sparked national outrage but there were many others you didn’t hear about. Over the past decade, The New York Times found, at least 70 people have died in law enforcement custody after saying the same words — “I can’t breathe.”
The dead ranged in age from 19 to 65. The majority of them had been stopped or held over nonviolent infractions, 911 calls about suspicious behavior, or concerns about their mental health. More than half were black. (I Can’t Breath, NYT, Mike Baker, Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Manny Fernandez and Michael LaForgia, June 29, 2020)

As we face these challenging times, we need wisdom, wisdom born of grace. We need individual wisdom—yes—but perhaps even more, we need our public institutions to have greater wisdom. It is time once again for a new birth of freedom. Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth but have a new beginning. Jesus’ yoke is easy. Take on the yoke of Jesus. Let him show us the way. Yoked to Christ, we can’t go far wrong. Our life’s journey is made easier when we have a companion along the way with whom we can share our worries who is stronger than we are. Let Jesus lift the crushing burdens impossible for us to lift. See, even our griefs and sorrows are transformed into something like love and understanding when we share our burdens with one another in Christ. See greater meaning and purpose for our lives is at hand. Let freedom ring.

Can we be thankful?

Proper 8A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Put ourselves in Abraham’s sandals. God said, “Abraham!” And Abraham said, “Here I am.” God said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, the one I promised you, the one you waited nearly your whole life for, the son whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’(Genesis 22:1)

What do you think would happen if any one of us were to walk a child three days into the wilderness, place them on a pile of wood, and raise a knife intending to kill them? Right. Yet here it is in Genesis 22. In fact, this shocking story about Abraham is so central to scripture it is one of twelve readings appointed for the Easter Vigil every year. You know we read only seven. Yet, I don’t remember the last time we chose this one—if ever.

As children we learned to call this the testing of Abraham—and to shift attention away from the traumatizing violence and betrayal of Isaac. I wonder, did Isaac ever trust his father the same way again? Why would he carry on in the faith? Perhaps in confirmation we learned this story of Abraham and Isaac foreshadows God’s willing sacrifice of his only Son Jesus on the cross. Yet is the God we worship really capable of ordering a hit on both Isaac and Jesus? Or was it the religious leaders whose authority he questioned who wanted him dead? Wasn’t the demand to crucify him rooted in the human rejection of grace common to us all? Isn’t is we, not God, who deny Christ Jesus again and again? But then, if God didn’t demand that Jesus’ die, who told Abraham to head to Moriah with wood and a knife? (Hold that thought a minute.)

Perhaps what we have here is simply conclusive evidence we’ve changed. In the four thousand years since this story was first told we’ve grown up. We instinctively value the life of every child. We preserve, protect, and celebrate all lives equally. Human sacrifice is a thing of the past. Right? Well…except of course, for some people, born in remote parts of the world who provide cheap labor for our factories, or others whom we regard with suspicion. I wonder what George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin would say? And on this Pride Weekend, I wonder what trans men and women would have to say about how our economy, our political system, and our society continue to value the lives of the rich and powerful over those of the poor and marginalized?

Last month former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie urged the U.S. to push ahead reopening the economy despite the pandemic because “there are going to be deaths no matter what.” He compared it to the loss of lives during the two World Wars. We sacrificed those lives “knowing that many of them would not come home alive…We decided to make that sacrifice because what we were standing up for was the American way of life,” he said. “In the very same way now, we have to stand up for the American way of life.” (Chris Christy, CNN interview with Dana Bash, 5/04/20)

Later that same week, Whoopi Goldberg asked Christie when he appeared on “The View,” to name which of his own family members should die. “So, I’m asking, since you’re suggesting that I sacrifice, who are you sacrificing? Who are you going to give up in your family?”

We no longer sacrifice children and marginalized people for the sake of religious ritual, but we seem perfectly comfortable doing so for the economy, for wall street, or so we don’t have to wear a mask. The Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign remarks, “People in power are too comfortable with other people’s deaths.”
To hear the gospel in today’s Old Testament story we must first climb down from our high horse and acknowledge that human sacrifice remains an ugly part of our world too. We must stop ignoring this story in our bible. We must push past the false theology and pious window dressing that’s been erected over the years to shield us from facing into it. Like every passage in scripture, the answer begins with the question, what was the plain meaning of this story? What did it mean to those who first heard? We are so fortunate to live in a time when archeologists, philologists, and historians can help us better answer this question.

One of these scholars writes, “What we must try to see in the story of Abraham’s non-sacrifice of Isaac is that Abraham’s faith consisted, not of almost doing what he didn’t do, but of not doing what he almost did, and not doing it in fidelity to the God in whose name his contemporaries thought it should be done” (Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads,1996, p. 140). It is immensely helpful to know that child sacrifice was actually common in Abraham’s time and place. Our horror at thinking about ritually killing a child was no shock at all in Abraham’s world. In the text, Abraham hears the Lord, Elohim, call him to Moriah, but the voice of God, Yahweh, tells him to stop and provides the stag caught in the bush.

Abraham passed the test of faith not by listening to the voice of the false gods of sacred violence at the story’s opening, but by listening to the voice of Yahweh, “the LORD,” at the story’s close. Abraham heard the voice of the true God telling him to stop, don’t kill. And now almost two thousand years after the voice of our risen Savior forgiving us for our numerous slaughters, and our neglect of the innate dignity of all human lives are we ready to pass the test, too? Are we ready to stop the killing? What could happen in our world if four billion Christians, Jews, and Muslims who claim Abraham as their father could finally recognize what this test of faith is really all about?” (Paul J. Nuechterlein, Prince of Peace Lutheran, Portage, MI, June 26, 2011)

Abraham learned what Christ Jesus proclaims. For Abraham the unveiling of sacred violence meant the unveiling of our false gods and an end to the glorification of all violence among people. In Jesus and Christ together, the God is made known who is both deeply personal and cosmically universal, who has counted even all the hairs on your head. Whose greatest reward is reserved not for the keynote speaker, the celebrity prophet, or the charismatic star at the microphone but goes to the person who serves. It goes to the one who hears the doorbell and opens the door. It goes to the one who hangs up the coats, washes the feet, pours the cool drinks, and sets and clears the table. “The small gesture and the invisible kindness are what please God, who sees everything we do in secret… Why? Because it is in the offering of such simple, essential gifts that Jesus’s kingdom announces itself. Jesus came to bring abundant life, and that life begins with the most elemental of gestures. “Even a cup of cold water?” Yes, even that.” (Debi Thomas, Welcome the Prophet, Journey with Jesus,6/21/20) And for the truth made real in our lives and in our society that Black Lives Matter, Trans Lives Matter because every life is precious to God.

Proper 6A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36) The Greek word for “compassion,” splagchnizomai, has the connotation of having one’s entrails being stirred up. In other words, Jesus had a visceral response upon seeing the crowds and immediately, sent disciples in mission. Visceral compassion generates urgent action.
Splagchnizomai, or visceral compassion, is what has provoked so many in witnessing the murder of George Floyd. It is not yet three weeks and already there have been demonstrations in at least 1,600 places so far, large and small, across all 50 states—and more around the world. Why now, we ask? Why this time and not all the times before? What finally sparked this splagchnizomai? Why did the churn in our belly—our sadness, our empathy, our quiet tears finally set us in motion, move us into the streets, and compel us to demand change? I don’t know. But at least now we know what to call it—splagchnizomai—a Christ-like visceral compassion combined with an urgency to act.

We’ve all heard stories of people in the grips of this visceral compassion who perform heroic deeds and exhibit strength they could not believe they possessed. One of those people has a birthday coming up this week. Next Saturday, June 13th, Patrisse Cullors will be 37.
Ms. Cullors is a multi-media performance artist with undergraduate degrees in philosophy and religion from the University of California, Los Angeles. She is an activist. She is a freedom fighter. She is Black and Queer. Patrisse Cullors is one of three woman who started Black Lives Matter, back in 2013, out of their frustration following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Today Black Lives Matter is an international human rights movement which campaigns against violence and systemic racism towards black people.

From the very beginning Black Lives Matter recognized the need to include the leadership of women and queer and trans people. “To maximize our movement muscle, and to be intentional about not replicating harmful practices that excluded so many in past movements for liberation,” they said, “we made a commitment to placing those at the margins closer to the center” (Black Lives Matter.com, “Herstory”). Yes! We might call this splagchnizomai—a Christ-like visceral compassion and urgency to act for those most in need.

Ms. Cullors was raised with three other siblings by her great-grandmother, Jenny, while her mother worked three jobs to get food on the table. Grandma Jenny was Choctaw, Blackfoot, and African American. She grew up in Oklahoma. Great-Grandma Jenny’s father was a medicine man. Cullors remembers she told lots of stories about the KKK, lots of stories of her father defending their family against the KKK, and about her eventual move to Los Angeles. Ms. Cullors reflects, “I believe if I didn’t have my great grandmother, who deeply believed in me and my siblings, I would not actually be who I am today.” (“The Spiritual Work of Black Lives Matter,” On Being with Krista Tippet, Public Radio, 2/18/16)

Cullors asks, “What is the impact of not being valued? “How do you measure the loss of what a human being does not receive?” Through Black Lives Matter, Cullors says, “You see the light that comes inside of people to other communities that are like, ‘I’m going to stand on the side of black lives.’ You see people literally transforming. And that’s a different type of work. And for me, that is a spiritual work. It’s a healing work. And human to human, if you take a moment to be with somebody, to understand the pains they’re going through, you get to transform yourself.” (On Being)

Jesus’ mission and that of his followers is to bring healing, peace, wholeness—all the elements of true Shalom. Fueled with visceral compassion Jesus sent the disciples to those who were lost and hurting. He sent them to be shepherds to people who were like sheep without a shepherd. He sent them knowing full well that they, themselves, were but simple sheep. He sent them, not as conquering heroes, but “like sheep into the midst of wolves.” He instructed them to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Their objective was not to dominate but to serve. For the sake of compassion, they wielded nothing but compassion.

This is what discipleship looks like. It means dealing with wolves by addressing them in their sheepilness. It means transforming wolves through forgiveness. Discipleship looks like knowing that you are dealing with dangerous people, who are more than likely to be deeply provoked by your innocence and because of that to seek to lynch you.
Today, we are witnessing the results of centuries of unresolved racial violence in our collective body. We cannot address the pain of this without unleashing the wolves within and among us. Discipleship “means deciding, as grateful followers of a brown man who died at the hands of brutal law enforcement two thousand years ago, that we will not tolerate the demon of racism in our midst for one more generation.” (Debie Thomas, I Am Sending You, Journey with Jesus, 6/7/20)

Jesus, our Great Shepherd, creates in us a shepherd’s heart. He calls us to what we were created for. “Jesus knows the cure for our brokenness, our malaise, our boredom, our angst. He knows that when we go out into the world in his name, healing what is diseased, resurrecting what is dead, and casting out what is evil, we participate in the transformation of our own souls. What we’re hearing in these days is the very heart of God within us, deep calling to deep, the Spirit of crying out on behalf of a world desperate for justice and mercy.” (Thomas) It’s a call to action that we call splagchnizomai.

Pentecost Sunday
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Violent wind, tongues of fire, and rivers of living water—these things inspire both fascination and dread. Yet each is a reflection of God’s presence and power in scripture. With the sound of a rushing wind, the wild and mysterious Spirit of God seeks a home in us. Or, put another way, with tongues of burning fire the powerful unpredictable Spirit beacons us to return home in God. Like the prodigal son, or the lost sheep, you are treasure bought with a price.

The arrival of Pentecost startled the first disciples and stirred them to action. Pentecost rang like an alarm clock. Pentecost call us now to awaken to what Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth century Christian mystic said most simply but most radically, that we are not only made by God, we are made of God (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, 1998, p. 129).

In a language spoken by elemental powers Pentecost calls us back into relationship with the sacredness of the earth. Wind, fire, and water counsel that the earth’s well-being is essential to our own well-being. Everything and every creature are inseparable and inter-connected.

Water must flow or become stagnant. Air must move or become stale. Fire must feed or fade. All three are fluid and dynamic. Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So, it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

We need the Spirit and power of Pentecost. After all, it’s been an especially terrible week for our country. So, let me begin with a story. One of the earliest fond memories I have of my dad is running beside him in an open field behind our home in Upstate New York. We were trying, and failing, to fly a kite. There was plenty of wind, but after every launch the kite spun and plunged to the ground. It refused to take to the air even with a running start. It just crashed and dragged along behind us.

Defeated, we went home for dinner. That was when I learned another lesson about cockle-burrs. They stuck all over my socks—but I digress. We tried again the next day, only this time, my dad had an idea. We found a ribbon and made a tail. Sure enough, the kite took to the air. It climbed higher and higher until it reached the end of our string.

We can take a lesson about the power of Pentecost to renew and restore us from that kite. God’s grace occurs naturally, like the wind. It’s available anywhere and everywhere. And like wind, grace beacons us come and soar. First, every kite needs a string. Without an anchor we tumble and blow aimlessly like loose sheets of paper without direction. Grace buoys us up on wings like an eagle through the cord of faith in Christ who is our connection to God. Second, every kite must have a proper tail. Without the shared wisdom of our community, the church, our tradition, and each other, we lack the necessary counterweight to keep us pointed up not down. There are other kites, other communities, other religions, but the great discovery of our faith is that Christ Jesus has revealed the face and character of the awesome God who gives life to us all.

This great discovery gave hope to restore the strength of the first disciples. They did not have to create it. They could not create it. They learned from Jesus they could ride it. As the Psalmist sings, “How manifold are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so, you renew the face of the earth.” (Psalm 104: 24, 30)

Did I mention it’s been a terrible week? 40 million people are unemployed. 100,000 Americans died from the coronavirus—more than in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and Iraq combined. And once again we have seen the unsavory reality of systematic racism captured and played back to us from the clear eye of cell phone videos. These are selfies of the American soul. We cannot deny that systemic racial animus courses through our society channeling hatred and violence in every corner of our nation, even were we might not have expected it. George Floyd didn’t expect it in Minneapolis. That’s why he moved there from Houston. He hoped for a better life for him and his family. We have reached a crisis of unemployment, pandemic, and systemic racism. All three overlap to disproportionally impact the lives of Black families and people of color.

On Monday—Memorial Day—the same day George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by policeman another cell phone video was taken in New York City’s Central Park. A Black man, Christian Cooper confronted a white woman for allowing her dog to run unleashed despite a City ordinance requiring it. She was wrong, yet immediately and almost instinctively, she knew the tables could be turned if she threatened to call the police. She knew it was her prerogative as a white person to police non-white people, not the other way around. ‘I will tell them a Black man is threatening my life,’ she said—and then she actually did it. She was willing to send him to jail rather than put a leash on her dog. Her plan back-fired. That’s the only thing about this story that is surprising. Sure, we need accountability and training for police. The proposed Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (or GAPA) ordinance is supported by Alderman Osterman and Mayor Lightfoot does just that. But if we are honest, the problem runs deeper than that. The crisis compounding the pandemic, driving unemployment, and sparking violence throughout our nation today is the systemic racism hiding in us all.

We need the power of Pentecost to stir us to action. Pentecost rings like an alarm clock. The God of grace beacons us take flight from the narrow individual perspectives that lock us in our fear to see that we are all children of God. We are all George Floyd. Let the power of Pentecost fill our hearts with the fire and passion for justice. Let the Spirit fill our eyes with tears of compassion. “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7: 37-38).

The message of Pentecost is that faithfulness begets fruitfulness. The Greek word for church is ecclesia –it means literally “the called out.” We are called out and set apart from the world to be sent out for the sake of the world. Jesus, our Lord, is in the world and all things were made through him. The Divine calls from deep within come home. Join hands. Open your heart. Together with all my creatures and all creation take flight, rise on the winds of grace and let the fires of my justice burn.

Easter 7A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“For the whole earth is the tomb of famous men [mortals]; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men [all people].” With these words the historian Thucydides honored those who fought and died in the Peloponnesian Wars 2,400 years ago.

Today, this Memorial Day weekend marks the end of school and the beginning of summer. Count me among the guilty who too often forget what this holiday is really about. We trace the first Memorial Day to Arlington National Cemetery three years after the Civil War. Major General John A. Logan declared May 30th as a day to honor the dead. He said, “Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

Perhaps we are accustomed to honorific slogans for those who died in war. Yet these words of Thucydides and Major General Logan are remarkable because they acknowledge the heroism of those who fought on both sides—Spartans and Athenians, Union and Confederate soldiers. For them the terrors of war became a strange witness of the kinship that unites soldiers of every nation who declare from the grave that they are one—one race, one tribe, one people, one family of God. In fact, today, Civil War soldiers from the north and south are laid side by side in Arlington National Cemetery.

The war dead speak to us of the unity for which Jesus prayed. I wonder, could any of their deaths have been prevented if our ancestors had held Jesus closer to their hearts? What future tragedies might be averted if we were to do so now?

In the last moments before his arrest, Jesus looked up to heaven and poured out his heart’s deepest desires to God. Jesus prayed that we would love one another across our differences. He prayed we would be willing to preserve and cherish our God-ordained oneness. He told us we don’t have to make this unity happen–it already just is. We just have to get out of the way, stop denying, judging, and dividing for that unity to be revealed. Jesus prayed that we might awaken to the unity we already have, entrust ourselves to it, live into it—so humanity can avoid tragedies like war.

Jesus still prays for us now. Jesus prays we be one with God and each other because that is precisely how the world will finally see, taste, touch, hear, and find Jesus now. The bible offers many metaphors for faithful union with God. Our name being just one of them, Immanuel, God is with us. St. Paul famously said we have become living parts of one body. The gospel of John said each of us are like branches grafted into and growing from a single true vine. Another biblical image is less familiar but powerfully intimate in which the unity between humanity and God is as close and mutually interdependent as the unborn infant child is to its mother.

The singular form of the Hebrew word for compassion, meaning ‘womb,’ is often used of God in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. (Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 48). To say God is compassionate is to say that God is womblike. Like a womb, God is the one who gives birth to us and all things. As a mother loves her children and feels for them, so God loves and feels for all creation. As we soon will sing Christ has sung for us, “Do not be afraid, I am with you. I have called you each by name. Come and follow me. I will bring you home. I love you and you are mine” (ELW # 581).

Jesus’ prayer issued in a new heaven and a new earth which, even after two thousand years, we have barely begun to comprehend. Perhaps the coronavirus pandemic presents humankind with an opportunity to pause, step back from routines, step closer to the God of true Oneness, and gain perspective on the false gods that preside over Us-vs-Them.

Somehow, despite Jesus’ prayer, we managed to manipulate his message into one that eternally divides humanity into two— believers and unbelievers, the saved and the damned, those who go to heaven and those who go to hell. We have separated God from creation, cut off the baptized from the natural world. We’ve sliced the world into sacred and secular, body and soul, matter and consciousness, human and dead.

Instead of seeing in the Crucified Christ a gracious God who is launching a renewal of creation, we fashioned an idol for ourselves of a wrathful God who sacrifices his Son only to satisfy himself and save a few believing souls for heaven—miraculously, somehow this always includes us, our family, and our friends while excluding everyone else. Yet, while only the few remain Godly while others are ungodly, if some of God’s creatures are merely stuff to be used and not revered, then it should not surprise anyone that we are doomed to repeat endless wars and that the earth continue to die by our own hand.

The setting for Jesus’ prayer was the upper room on Maundy Thursday, and the mood in that room as Jesus spoke to God was heavy and poignant. “He has just said goodbye to his disciples, and every word, deed, and gesture he has offered them is weighted with grief. He has washed their feet, fed them bread and wine, promised them the Holy Spirit, and commanded them to love one another. He has spoken to them with both tenderness and urgency, as if time is running out. Because it is” (Debie Thomas, That They May Be One, Journey with Jesus, 5/17/20).

Yet, just like Memorial Day, many of us lose track of what Jesus’ prayer is actually about. Jesus prayed that heaven be brought down to earth, as the Lord’s other Prayer proclaims, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. The great 14th century English saint, mystic, and abbes, Julian of Norwich said of God: “I am the one who makes you to love; I am the one who makes you to long; I am the one, the endless fulfilling of all true desires.” Strain for this glory for even if it eludes our grasp the mere pursuit fills our hearts and illumines our lives. We live the good life by living as Jesus lived—the life for which he prayed. Life eternal and abundant, the life of the Father to the Son, the life of the Spirit of our ascended Savior, life in God, now and forever. Amen.

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (John 14:18). Jesus’ declaration of love and commitment was hardly reassuring to the disciples on the eve of his arrest and crucifixion. He was throwing them a lifeline before they knew they were drowning. In less than twenty-four hours they were faced with carrying on without him. They were in hiding. Some set out for home. They wouldn’t remember his promise that although he was gone, yet somehow, he would also always remain with them.

You can hear the frustration and bewilderment in Thomas’ voice just moments before when he blurts out with the words “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?!” (John 14:5) Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts once said, “Sometimes I lie awake at night and I ask, ‘Is life a multiple choice test, or is it a true or false test?’…Then a voice comes to me out of the dark and says, ‘We hate to tell you this but life is a thousand word essay.'”

The disciples were feeling abandoned, confused, afraid, and it wasn’t funny. Feelings of abandonment are especially intense. Memories spring to my mind quickly even after many years. I remember feeling abandoned as a preschooler waking up alone in the back seat of the family car. I remember feeling lost and panicked searching for my dad and sisters in a Kmart store. I can still instantly remember when I lost Sam for about 30 minutes at the Taste of Chicago when he was five. In the face of such intense feelings Jesus’ promise of real presence became just words shouted into the wind of their terror and fear. They did not yet realize he had thrown them a lifeline.

I will not abandon you, Jesus said. I will not leave whether in sickness or in health whatever may come. If that sounds familiar, maybe, it’s because this is the vow we make in marriage. Once, we were not related, but now we are family. God declares in baptism we are all children of God. Everyone, each person on the face of the earth is family. Love for family is worth sacrificing for. Defending the wellbeing of family is even worth dying for. God’s gift of love pulls us into loving. Receiving the lifeline of grace makes us more human.

Into our troubled hearts and heart-wrenching questions; into abandonment and loss; into despair and grief; comes the advocate, the Holy Spirit, the comforter to walk alongside us. One contemporary translator of the bible put it this way, Jesus said, “In just a little while the world will no longer see me, but you’re going to see me because I am alive and you’re about to come alive” (John 14:19, Eugene Peterson, The Message, NavPress Publishing Group, 2002).

If ever there was a time when we needed to hear Jesus’ promise to be present, it would be now. Some of you feel listless. Some of you feel harried. Some of you feel cut off and alone. Some I’ve spoken to in nursing homes can’t listen in on worship today. They feel abandoned by the world as the virus closes in. Many are worried about their jobs. Take heart and take hold. Jesus has thrown us a lifeline.

Modern readers of John’s gospel are troubled by that word, “if.” Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (John 14:15-16). This does not mean Jesus withholds the rope while we drown until we confess our love- –rather John means to say the lifeline is there, right beside you. Take hold. Like the first disciples, we just need faith to take a breath, open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, like Jake Bland.

Jake is an essential worker. He’s a garbage man in Louisville, Kentucky. On his route, recently, he noticed that, one of his customers, an elderly single woman, hadn’t put out any trash for two weeks. Something wasn’t right. His dispatcher, Bernice Arthur, called the 91-year-old customer and was relieved that she answered the phone but heartbroken when she found out why she hadn’t taken out her trash. She didn’t have any. For more than two weeks, because her caregiver quit over pandemic fears, she had no way to get food or even leave the house. “She has no family, nobody,” she said, to which Jake replied, well, ‘You do have a family now.’ With the woman’s help he made out grocery list, filled her cupboards, and continues to check in. (Kentucky Garbage Man, Tevye, Dailykos, 5/16/20)

When you go to count your blessings and the cupboard is bare. When life is reduced to dust on an empty shelf, or hunger of an empty stomach, or pain of a broken heart, take hold. We find the way out of the prison of our despair by following the cord of God’s grace that binds us to each other.
If anyone learned to find abundance in adversity in the name of Christ, it would be Paul. Four hundred years after Socrates was summoned before the authorities to defend himself against the charge of corrupting the youth of Athens, the apostle Paul was called to stand on the same spot to explain the Christian gospel. Just like Socrates, his words could bring the penalty of death.

The stakes were very high. Before arriving in Athens, Paul had already logged a few thousand miles journeying to cities around the Mediterranean. He spoke in the marketplaces and in the synagogues (Acts 17:7) with anyone and everyone. He was an experienced public preacher, yet, some of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers who first heard him, ridiculed Paul as a “babbler” who advocated “foreign gods.”

Life may be a thousand-word essay, but Paul’s defense of Christianity needed only 280 words. According to scripture, most who heard Paul’s message scoffed at it. But others, including Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, along with some others, joined Paul and became believers (Acts 17:34). God is not far from each of us, Paul said, for “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Take hold.

Once we were not related, but now we are family. Once we were orphaned and alone but, now, we have Christ to walk alongside. The Advocate is God’s own Spirit, God’s own heart, living within us. ‘You in me, and I in you,’ Jesus said. Take hold of grace as one who is drowning clutches a lifeline. More than salvation, here we find strength and courage to face adversity. “This is our movement, our rhythm, our dance. Over and over again. This is where we begin and end and begin again…The love we are commanded to share is the love we are endlessly given.” (Debie Thomas, Love and Obedience, Journey with Jesus, 05/10/20)
Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus said, “I AM the gate for the sheep.” (John 10:7). “I AM the good shepherd” (John 10:11). These are not throwaway lines in the gospel of John. They are like an open door. We are meant to step to the threshold and walk into newness of life with God. Seven times Jesus uses the phrase ego eimi, “I AM.” He connects his identity with the great I AM—Yahweh—whom Moses encountered in the burning bush. Moses took off his shoes because he was standing on holy ground. It was the beginning of a great adventure.

I AM the gate, Jesus said. Step up and walk through. I AM the Good Shepherd. I lead you to a new land. You might think Jesus mixed his metaphors. How can he be both a gate and a shepherd? It helps to understand an ancient sheepfold was like a pen without a gate. Once the sheep were safely inside the shepherd laid down in the opening. His body literally became the gate to the enclosure to protect the sheep from harm. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” Jesus said (v. 11b).

What’s more, sheep belonging to different shepherds could be mixed together in one sheepfold. You’d think that would create a problem when it came time to leave. Yet upon hearing the voice of their shepherd, the sheep sorted themselves out and followed, because they had trust in the care and compassion of their particular shepherd.

In life many things can bring us to the threshold between old and new. Whether by tragedy, or by accident, or by choice, there are times we all find ourselves betwixt and between, confused, disillusioned, or uncertain. It’s no surprise we don’t particularly enjoy this in-between space. Yet, truth be told, this is among those times when we are most open to learning, most humble, most hungry for grace, most open to searching and looking behind an open door.
Moses turned to look and see the burning bush he had only just glimpsed from the corner of his eye. He was ready for change. If there is a silver lining to these pandemic days it is that we are all standing on a threshold. Once again Jesus is an open gate. May grace abound.

Clinical therapy, twelve-step groups, and everyday spiritual practices like praying, meditating, singing, walking, reading and retreats are aimed at getting people into this in-between space and keeping them there long enough to learn something essential and new. St. Francis, Julian of Norwich (whose feast day is this Friday), Dorothy Day, and Mohandas Gandhi tried to live their entire lives on this threshold, on the edge, or periphery of the dominant culture. “This in-between place is free of illusions and false payoffs. It invites us to discover and live from broader perspectives and with much deeper seeing.” (Richard Rohr, “Between Two Worlds,” Daily Meditations, 4/26/20)

American author and poet Wendell Berry (born 1934) affirms this wisdom in a poem he entitled, “The Real Work.” He writes,

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

As these weeks and days of staying at home string out and blur together, we may be tempted to close our borders and lock our gates—let false shepherds and thieves come offering versions of security that have nothing to do with the abundant life of Jesus.

Media marketers know how keenly we seek fulfillment and purpose and how much we’re willing to sacrifice to acquire it. High-concept advertising campaigns promise to sell you what today’s gospel offers for free. How often will we play out the same fairy tale to discover we’ve traded treasure for magic beans? We paid good money to acquire the abundant life and all we got was pair of sneakers, coffee in a paper cup, or a phone that’s out of date the day we bought it?
Jesus said, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. Standing on the threshold between our pre-covid and post-covid life, we realize again our old ways have brought us further and further into death. Essential workers keep the wheels of commerce turning while exposing themselves and their families to the virus without access to healthcare which, in turn, effects families staying at home. The poor are poorer. The rich are richer. The oceans rise. The planet warms. Entire species disappear. Are we tired of being cheated yet?

Jesus has opened the gate. ‘Look not through human eyes but through God’s eyes’ (Kahlil Gibran). Look through your shepherd’s eyes. Venture out by way of the Jesus gate to pass through the valley of the shadow of death. “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25).

Jesus the gate opens to abundant life. “Abundant living is a matter of walking through the right doors.” Standing on the threshold between what was and an unknown future is a time filled with grace, but often does not feel “graced” in any way. Yet this feeling of vulnerability and openness is what allows room for something genuinely new to happen. We are empty and receptive—erased tablets waiting for new words.

Abundant life passes through the grace of God. Jesus is the gate that protects me. He is the door that opens beside still waters. Jesus the good shepherd unlocks my heart and frees my captive mind. He leads me into green pastures. He restores my soul. Let not your hearts be troubled. Set your sight on Jesus. Turn your eyes aside to see as Moses did. Take off your shoes for you are standing on holy ground. Let this be the beginning. Jesus the gate stands open. Jesus the Good Shepherd is ready to go.