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Epiphany 2B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epiphany 2A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I don’t remember when I first looked up and saw the hand on the roof, but I know I was here for years without noticing it. It took someone to point it out to me—and there it was! In the same place most churches have a cross or mount a statute, Immanuel displays a hand and index finger pointing to the sky.
Pastor Eric Gustafson oversaw the building of this place. I wonder if he chose it as a symbol for these post-modern, post Christian times. Pointing a finger is a universal sign even my dog Maddie understands. It means “Look,” “there it is,” or “that’s the one.” Years ago, I asked my kids what they thought the finger on the roof meant. They understood, correctly I think, it’s intended to remind us of God, or as Leah said, ‘where God lives.’

God lives in the sky, right? That finger points to the great beyond. It points to the place we’re headed if we’re good enough—or so the story goes. But it’s worth pointing out, that’s NOT how the story goes in the bible.

We tell our children to look to the sky, but the bible tells us over and over again to look for God in the world. The heavens were torn open. John saw the Spirit descend upon Jesus like a dove. We spent the entire Christmas season hearing about incarnation—God is with us. The fullness of the presence of God is pleased to dwell in you, despite your flaws and limitations. It is only when we let ourselves be loved by grace right down to the core of who we are that we find the capacity to embrace other people as Jesus embraced every disciple, every sinner, every doubter, and every believer who crossed his path.
So, it would be better, or at least more appropriate biblically, if the finger on our roof could turn every direction like a weathervane, or if it could be made to point downward, or better yet, if it could point straight at each of you, or if it could point at the stranger in our midst, the poor, the imprisoned, or our enemies—all the places the bible tells us to look for God in Christ Jesus.
John the Baptist didn’t point to the sky but at God’s unfolding work being done that moment in time and space. As Jesus walked along the riverbank John pointed and said, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:30). The Messiah was hidden in plain sight until John pointed him out. The disciples needed a witness and so do we all. That remains an important job today—to help each other point and name where God is. Can I get a witness?

“Look,” “there it is,” and “that’s the one.” Our lectionary revolves around these words but doesn’t end with them. In fact, it’s just the beginning. Crucially, after noticing the very next thing is following. When Jesus turned and saw the disciples following he asked them, “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38a).
“In your heart, in your secret and quiet places, what are the hungers that drive you forward in your life of faith? Why do you still have skin in this game we call Christianity? As you say goodbye to an old year and welcome a new one, what are you hoping for, asking for, looking for, in your spiritual life? Do you know?” (Debie Thomas, “What Are You Looking For?” Journey with Jesus, 1/12/20)

The disciples were not ready for such a probing question, so they answered Jesus with a question of their own. “Rabbi, where are you staying” (John 1:38b). In other words, with John’s help we only just noticed you may be the Messiah, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself first? What will happen to us if we follow you?
When the disciples press him for details Jesus says only, “Come and see.” (John 1:39) Which is to say: Jesus won’t be pinned down. Following Jesus won’t fit into any category we try to stick him in. “He’s not the type who remains in stasis—he moves. At times, he will not be easy to seek or find. In short: the path that leads to him will become clear only when we decide to walk it. Hence the question we must ask ourselves at every turn: what are we looking for? Jesus? Or something else?” (Debie Thomas) John pointed to Jesus and Jesus points the way to the One life in God—beginning right here, right now: “Look,” “there it is,” “that’s the way.”
Jesus has shown you the way, but your path will only become clear when you walk it. Like so many things in life, we learn faith by doing.

My son Sam recently bought a 2001 GMC Yukon XL. It’s his first car. He’s in love. He dreams of things to personalize and improve it. He’s swapped out the side mirrors. He removed old decals and spot treated the rust. Tuesday night Mehari and I were leaving church after tutoring when we received an SOS. Sam flushed the engine but didn’t have the right wrench to remove the drain plug. He was stuck. Could I bring him one? Rather than run all the way home we went to the auto supply store for a 15-millimeter socket wrench. It worked! Except then the oil pan was too small and overflowed—and the filter he bought was too big and didn’t fit. Back to the store for another filter, bigger oil pan, and stuff to help clean up spilled oil. I made Sam sit on a plastic bag in the front seat because he was so messy. Finally, it was done. He fired up the engine and we exchanged high fives. Mehari and I headed home. Sam said of himself he made mistakes at every turn, but does he now know how to change the oil? You bet he does! A history of making mistakes is what we call experience. Jesus invites us to become experienced today at living our faith. Jesus points the way. Come and see.

Not sure how to pray? Learn by doing. Want to be closer to Jesus? Be curious about others. Proximity to the poor, the imprisoned, the immigrant, the suffering is the first step toward mercy and justice.

I leave you today with words of encouragement and hope from someone who certainly did know how to live his faith. He learned by doing. He wasn’t afraid to make mistakes. In 1958, five years before his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall, and just two years after the successful conclusion of the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. visited Beth Emet Synagogue just around the corner from my house in Evanston. King said:

“I speak to you this evening as one who lives everyday under the threat of death. One who has had to subject his family to dangerous living…In the midst of all of this I have faith in the future. I have faith in the future because I believe in God. I believe there is a creative force in this universe. Call it what you may.

That is a creative force in this universe that seeks to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole. That is a power that works at every moment to bring low prodigious hilltops of evil. And pull down gigantic mountains of injustice. That is something in this universe that justifies Carlyle in saying, ‘No lie can live forever.’ That is something that justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, ‘Truth crushed to earth with rise again.’

So down in Montgomery Alabama, we can walk and never get weary. I believe that. I believe in the future, because I believe in God. I leave you with this challenge. I say work it every moment. To bring into being the ideas and principles of this current period. This is a great time to be alive.” (Tablet Magazine, Excerpt of Speech at Beth Emet Synagogue, 1958)

Come and see!

Prayer Circle Immanuel Lutheran Chicago

Proper 10C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:28) The lawyer’s face-saving question, put another way is, who is not my neighbor? Who can I exclude?

When I think of a neighbor, Mrs. Dugan comes to mind. It was 1970. I was eight years old.  We lived in a house on Rodney drive in Champaign, Illinois. 1970 was a big year for me.  I got to stay up late enough to watch “Love American Style.” It was also the year my dog Frisky died. Our next-door neighbors, the Dugan’s, had a special knock.  Mrs. Dugan would announce herself with that knock and pretty much walk straight into our house.  She helped out when Frisky got sick. Mrs. Dugan even attended the informal back yard funeral we had when she died.  Mrs. Dugan was my neighbor. Neighbors transform streets into neighborhoods.  Local communities of care are great to grow up in.

Today, I notice we seem willing to trade this old-fashioned neighborliness for anonymity and the efficiency of polite, impersonal, transactional relationships.  The barista knows how to make my coffee before I ask for it, without any expectation of friendship or mutuality in return.  Starbucks has literally made a fortune trading on this faux-friendly-familiar but not quite neighborly vibe.  Neighbors like my Mrs. Dugan seem rare these days.

I think we could all use much more neighborliness and perhaps, the task falls to us to create it. Yet it doesn’t seem reasonable for anyone to really know and be neighbor to more than perhaps two dozen people or so.  Life itself imposes a limit on our time and energy. So I wonder, in the neighborhood of God, like the one the VBS kids imagined and display behind our altar today, would people always know everyone in their building? –everyone living on their block? –how about in their zip code?  So, we return to the same question the lawyer asked.  If being neighbor is how I inherit eternal life, surely that can’t include everyone—right?

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘he was glad Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor because certain people are just so hard to like.’  Loving our neighbor as ourselves does not require friendship but to mercy, compassion, kindness, and justice.

The parables of Jesus are like gemstones. We get a different insight into divine mystery by looking through the story from each perspective.  The Good Samaritan offers a glimpse into the extravagant loving character of God. Jesus’ command ‘to go and do likewise,” gives us a window into our own call to discipleship.  The man who lays bleeding and dying in the ditch is synonymous with Christ on the cross. Perhaps the quickest way to immediately answer the lawyer’s question correctly is from the perspective of the victim.  Ask him –who is your neighbor—and the answer is—anyone, anyone—anyone at all who will help me.

In 2006 my father died in hiking accident.  Another hiker, a medical student in training, was the first to come to our aid.  He just showed up. Park Rangers arrived next in response to my 911 call.  They came by truck up an old mining road as far as they could then ran the rest of the way up the mountain.  Others came by helicopter.  It was unbelievable.  To this day, I don’t know their names, or where any of them lived.  I never saw them again.  Each of them was my neighbor.

Our understanding of Jesus’ parable is deepened when we realize that nobody listening would have thought there were any ‘good Samaritans.’ The Samaritans were enemies. Substitute the name gang-banger, or ‘Taliban’ for ‘Samaritan’ and you begin to understand why Jesus’ lovable parable made the temple leaders blood boil.

Notice the wounded man is the only character in the story not defined by profession, social class, or religious belief.  “He has no identity except naked need.  Maybe we have to occupy his place in the story first — maybe we have to become the broken one, grateful to anyone at all who will show us mercy — before we can feel the unbounded compassion of the Good Samaritan.  Why? Because all tribalisms fall away on the broken road.  All divisions of “us” and “them” disappear of necessity. When you’re lying bloody in a ditch, what matters is not whose help you’d prefer, whose way of practicing Christianity you like best, whose politics you agree with.  What matters is whether or not anyone will stop to show you mercy before you die.” (Debie Thomas, Afflicting the Comfortable, Journey With Jesus, 7/07/19)

Jesus shows us that all people are our neighbors; everyone is a child of God. The basic meaning of neighborin Hebrew, Greek, and English is “to be near.” (Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks) The Priest and the priest-helper proved not to be true neighbors because they widenedthe distance between themselves and the injured man lying in the ditch. They looked but did not see.  They saw but were blind. They would not come near the man in the ditch.  They proved they are not true neighbors, despite their impressive credentials.

The Samaritan took the wounded man to the inn keeper and paid for his care. We don’t know what transpired between them after that. It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that we see those who are broken and wounded by life and respond with kindness, mercy, and justice.

There are so many people in the ditch today –what except the power of evil and the devil can explain our willful blindness to them all?  So often it is the weak, powerless, and wounded who are made to bear the brunt of the sins and short-comings of those who are actually responsible. The poor migrant becomes the target for what’s wrong with our broken immigration system rather than the factory owner, the politician, or all the rest of us –the electorate—who benefit from the work done, the taxes paid, and the consumer goods purchased by immigrants living in our community.  Today, as we brace for mass deportations and family separations, our scriptures ask who will be neighbor?

If you want to know God, then love your neighbor.  If you want to know your neighbor, then love God. Loving God and neighbor are not separate items on some pious to-do list. They are two sides of the same coin. They form a single pathway into the abundant life God intends for us all. Devotion to God and service to neighbor form a double-helix in the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. They are the DNA structure upon which the whole chapter hangs, and the key to unlocking the pain and bewilderment we face today.  Here—here is the doorway that opens to the fullness of grace.  It is never far from you, but it is always only as far away as the person next to you.