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Easter 2B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Lutheran pastor and historian, Martin Marty, recalls a story of a summer day in his boyhood town of West Point, Nebraska, when one of those grand miracles of childhood occurred. A watermelon truck flipped over right in front of his house.  The driver was not injured. He jumped out to watch helplessly as neighborhood kids from everywhere raced to the scene of that blessed event and dove into the spilled cargo for a sticky picnic on the pavement.  Right in front of Marty’s house!

That was the good news.  The bad news was that he was out of town that day visiting his grandmother.  Alas. Life is like that sometimes. We happen to be where the action isn’t.  While other kids are there to catch the bouncing watermelons, we’re miles away.

And so it was, for the disciple Thomas –same as for you and me—and just about every other Christian who has ever lived.  We were not in the tomb where it happened. We missed Jesus’ party with the disciples on Easter night. So, like Thomas perhaps, we too have a hard time reconciling the Easter story with our own understanding of the way the world works. Like Thomas, we lament, if only Jesus would appear to us then our questions would be answered, then we could have faith, then we’d really believe –right?  Thomas was emphatic, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails in his hands, and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 19: 25b).

Well, one lesson we could take from today’s gospel is, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ When the moment finally comes, Thomas doesn’t insist on any of these things.  His response is one part contrition and one part exclamation, “My Lord, and my God!” (vs. 28). Why? Could it be in that moment, Thomas realized Jesus’ resurrection was not merely about what happened to Jesus?

The Christian claim has always been far more radical.  The Easter story is about our own resurrection from the dead. “It is saying that we also are larger than life, Being Itself, and therefore made for something good, united, and beautiful…The problem is not that you have a body; the problem is that you think you are separate from others—and from God. And you are not!” (Richard Rohr)

Jesus, whom they betrayed, did not return with vengeance, but peace, shalom, oneness, reconciliation, and unity with the undying life of God.  Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (vs. 22). The word is ‘emphusao.’  It’s the same word used in Genesis (chapter 2). God breathed life into the nostrils of the earth-man and he became a living being. It’s the same word used in Ezekiel 37. God breathed life into the dry bones of Israel so that they returned to life and stood on their feet a vast multitude.  This Easter story is Pentecost and creation rolled into one.

John invites us to face our doubts, speak our fears, and yearn for more. Thanks to the story of Thomas, we’re invited to say the “heretical” things we might very well feel as we descend from the mountaintop of Easter to look for the risen Christ in the midst of the world.

Jesus gives permission to learn wisdom and humility from our doubts, questions, and failings, and not just to repress them out of fear. To reach the goal of Christian maturity it will be necessary for us to be immature. (Little Arabella, who will be baptized today, didn’t hear that.) God is an expert at working with mistakes and failure. In fact, that is about all God does. Mistakes do not seem to be a problem for God; they are only a problem for our ego that wants to be perfect and self-sufficient. We first tend to do things wrong before we even know what right feels like. I am not sure there is any other way. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation series on Human Bodies)

Jesus pointed to his wounds and said, “see, as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Show me your wounds, Jesus says, and I will show you your strengths.  Show me your love of others and I will show you the fruits of the kin-dom of God. One of the great ironies in the history of Christianity is that Jesus came with the gift of peace and proclaimed a gospel of love with authority over Caesar. Yet, somehow, over and over again, we have made our Lord Jesus into a kind of Caesar who rules from a distant throne, who heaps misery upon those who question, and withholds grace from those who fail him.

But look, God answers with a blessed event unfolding now like an overturned truck filled with watermelons!  We testify “…to what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life –so that you may have fellowship with us” (1 John 1:1).  We testify to what Thomas and the first Christians learned at Easter that every Christian is an eyewitnesses to the resurrection.

One of those eyewitnesses of the resurrection, is Julian of Norwich [1343–c. 1416].  She lived her entire life during a raging pandemic, the bubonic plague. Despite being ignored because she was a woman, she found her voice. She is credited with writing the first book in English by a woman. Today her works are influential among theologians and the faithful alike.  Julian taught that each of our lives is part of a glorious whole. Each life, so miniscule in and of itself, is connected to the vast web of life held in being by God.  A watermelon truck of grace is spilled out before us.

Julian wrote, “God is within us, at home, patiently and kindly awaiting our recognition. As Maker of all, God is in everything, present in all places and at all times…All those who are on the spiritual path contain the whole of creation, and the Creator. That is because God is inside us, and inside God is everything. And so, whoever loves God loves all that is.”  (The Showings of Julian of Norwich: A New Translation, Mirabai Starr (Hampton Roads: 2013), 23–24.

Christ is here and we are witnesses.  Christ is here at the font. Christ is here at the table.  Christ is alive in our questions. Jesus is among us now.  We see Christ in each other, and especially, in the poor, the stranger and the outsider.  Christ is not dead but lives when we speak the truth of our differences in love, taking care to strengthen the body of Christ and not to tear it down.  In Christ we become wounded healers.  Christ unlocks the doors closed by fear and leads us out. He spreads a banquet before us –a joyful surprise—like a feast of watermelon poured out at our feet. Enjoy!

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.