Posts

Easter 3B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

He showed them his hands and his feet (Luke 24:40). He showed them his wounds. When Luke and John tell us, Jesus invited the disciples to touch and to see him, it wasn’t merely to identify him as the same person. It was a way to ratify the gospel message.  In life, Jesus proclaimed the kindom of God in words and deeds. After rising from tomb, he taught them the meaning of resurrection in flesh and bone. Yes.  Violence has consequences. It scars and wounds us. Yet truly, goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than shadow; life is stronger than death (ELW #721).  Violence, torture, and even death on a cross cannot erase the life we share in God.

Jesus proclaimed the good news in flesh and bone. Today’s gospel is astonishingly intimate. Our bodies tell a story –don’t they? One which we are quick to cover up and ignore. Many of us feel more comfortable imagining ourselves before St. Peter at the Pearly Gates than standing in front of a full-length mirror. Each successive year adds to the record of the pluses and minuses that somehow add up exactly to who you are now. Jesus, wounded yet living, proclaims that our poor flesh is not shameful but is the dwelling place of God. God with us, our mistakes become “experience.”  God in us, our scars can become a source of compassion and wisdom.  And we are scarred—aren’t we?  Our bodies testify to all the ways we have been wounded, if we would listen, in body, mind, heart, and soul.

This makes Christianity unique among religions by its portrayal of God as one who bears wounds, like us. “We become forgetful that Jesus is the prophet of the losers not the victors camp, the one who proclaims that the first will be last, that the weak are the strong and the fools are the wise” ( Malcolm Muggeridge). To those most afflicted, whether by slavery, by war, by famine, injustice, racism, or hypocrisy—this fact has always been a source of the most profound hope.

In the midst of WWI, pastor Edward Shillito’s poem pays homage to “Jesus of the Scars.” He wrote, “The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak; They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone” (Edward Shillito,1872-1948).

Like our bodies, faith must be nourished. It cannot be stockpiled but requires daily a pattern of replenishment. The answer to someone’s hunger is not to ask why they are hungry. Nor is the answer to doubt a question about why they cannot believe. The answer is food. The answer is Jesus’ real presence in flesh and blood. When our stomachs are rumbling, when faced with the lingering fear wrought from trauma and violence, time is not always a healer. Our deepest wounds can take decades to fade without gospel medicine, the bread of life and living water to restore us in body, mind, heart, and soul. This is what Jesus in flesh and bone means to us at Easter.

When faced with trauma, some people manage to emerge stronger than ever. How do they manage it?  Marie (not her real name), a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, should expect to endure a life of avoidance and anguish due to her experience of violence and trauma. When Marie was 16, a group of militiamen came to her village, killed her family and many of their neighbors, and took her as a slave into the forest. She was assaulted continuously for weeks, before one of the soldiers took pity on her and led to the Rwandan border. From there she found her way to the capital, Kigali, and eventually by plane to Turkey.

At first, she slept on the street, then in a center run by the Turkish government. She was taken to hospital, where she discovered she was four months pregnant. She regularly hallucinated about her mother, and she had severe PTSD: “I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I was very scared. I couldn’t stay five minutes on my own. I couldn’t be in the dark because I would see the soldiers in my mind and all that they did to me. I was afraid of men. In a bus I couldn’t be near them. I didn’t even want to sit next to a beautiful woman. I’d rather sit next to a veiled woman so no one would look at us.”

Marie ended up at The Center for Behavior Research and Therapy in Istanbul. She found new friends who encouraged her to sit on buses, to walk in the street, to sleep in the dark. They watched documentaries about sexual assault.  Victims of torture say the healing begins when we can show one another, our trusted friends, our wounds.

Marie is much better now. Although she avoids eye contact and twists her hands together when she describes what happened, she is no longer trying to hide from life. She has started working in a hair salon.

Resilience and recovery do not require extraordinary resources or an innate toughness. It doesn’t require us to ‘just get over it,’ or somehow diminish the horror of what happened.  It comes with help when we show our wounds and let them tell their story in all honesty. It comes with a recognition that the future doesn’t have to be determined by the past. It comes with awareness that there is something which can never be destroyed or erased that is meaningful and purposeful about our life.

The Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, during his internment in Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps during World War II, helped his fellow prisoners endure the horror around them by getting them to focus on the lives they might lead after the war – the work they would do, or the nurturing of their children. In his most famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, first published in 1946, he observed that prisoners who lost faith in the future lost their “spiritual hold” on themselves, and quickly declined mentally and physically. (Michael Bond, “The secrets of extraordinary survivors,” BBC, 8/14/15)

Faith in the future, confidence that we are loved, knowledge that our dignity as human beings is indelible, and the realization that we do not bear our grief and suffering alone but that God is with us and suffers too, that God can heal our wounds and transform them into something like wisdom –this is the essence of Easter.

I am heartsick this week at hearing about guns in America. As of April 16th, there have already been 147 mass shootings, and 11 mass murders. (Daniel Victor and Derrick Bryson Taylor, “A Partial List of Mass Shootings in the United States in 2021,” NYT, 4/16/21) Since testimony in Derek Chauvin’s trial began on March 29, more than three people a day have died at the hands of law enforcement, at least 64 people nationwide, with Black and Latino people representing more than half of the dead.” (John Eligon and Shawn Hubler, “Throughout Trial Over George Floyd’s Death, Killings by Police Mount,” The New York Times, 4/17/18) We cannot be healed of our affliction of violence and death while we cover our wounds and pretend that they are not happening. We must honestly reckon with the toll in flesh and blood.

During his ministry, Jesus healed so many wounded people. On Easter evening, Jesus was the one with wounds. The disciples had witnessed Jesus restoring the sight of many blind people. Now they were the ones called to open their eyes. Jesus had touched and ministered to the unclean, often breaking the Sabbath and purification rules. Now the disciples were asked to break the rules—to touch this convicted and executed criminal. Jesus says to them, “Touch me and see.” The disciples are invited to begin a new community where we acknowledge that we all are wounded, that we are both righteous and unrighteous, Yet, by our wounds, we may also be healed. Thanks be to God!

Can we be thankful?

Proper 23C-2019
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.