Tag Archive for: Nature

Lent 4C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Sophia Moskalenko is an expert on the psychology of fairy tales. Mia Bloom, studies children’s mobilization into violent extremism. Together, they study the power of folklore in shaping the worldview of the adults we grow up to be. Intriguingly, they suggest, one factor underlying the unexpected unfolding of events in Ukraine could be a result of the stories soldiers of each army learned as children. (Sophia Moskalenko and Mia Bloom, “How Fairy Tales Shape Fighting Spirit,” The Conversation, March 2022)

Ukraine’s children grow up listening to bedtime stories of underdog heroes, while Russian children hear tales of magical success. Think Harry Potter vs. Dudley Dursley (if Dudley had had a magical helper). In Ukrainian stories the main characters often start out as unlikely heroes, but their courage, cleverness and grit help them succeed against the odds. Russian tales told to children seem to suggest the recipe for success is not to be too smart or work too hard, but to sit tight in hope that magic will take care of everything.

Emelya the fool is a character like many others in Russian folklore.  Emelya is lazy and prefers to sleep on the warm stove while his two older brothers work on the farm.  When his brothers must travel, they instruct Emelya to fetch water and firewood for their wives.  Yet they wives must coax Emelya with gifts to comply. Emelya catches a magical pike at the river that promises to grant him wishes if he would only not eat him but let him go. All he need say, ‘By the pike’s wish, at my command,’ and everything will be done as he desires. One thing follows another until Emelya, suddenly very handsome, is married to the Tsar’s beautiful daughter, and lives in a magnificent palace with many servants.

Children of Ukraine, by contrast, hear about characters like Ivasyk Telesyk.  Once upon a time, there lived an old man and his wife who didn’t have any children. This made them worry about their future. Filled with longing and dread one day the woman told her husband: “Go to the forest and find a piece of wood. We’ll make a cradle, I’ll put the log there and rock it to sleep. Maybe it will help make me calm down.” The old man did as his wife asked. Together, they put a branch into a cradle.  The woman rocked it, sang a lullaby, and went to sleep.

When they awoke, they found a baby-boy in the cradle. The woman named him – Ivasyk-Telesyk. When Ivask Telesyk grew older he went out by boat and brought fish home to the old couple. While at sea, Ivasyk encounters a wily dragon which his mother had warned him about, who tricks him, captures him, and makes plans to eat him with her friends. Again, one thing follows another, until Ivask Telesyk, by his wits and compassion, escapes the dragon, whose friends eat her own daughter rather than himself, and befriends a wild goose who flies Ivasyk home to his parents where he lives happily ever after.

Sophia Moskalenko and Mia Bloom tell us that stories matter. The stories we tell our children, the stories we tell ourselves make a difference in who we are and who we become.  This week, before the tension and demagoguery could unfold, a woman sat before the US Senate Judiciary Committee and told her story in which she named herself.  Judge Jackson’s opening statement, included these words: “When I was born here in Washington, my parents were public school teachers, and to express both pride in their heritage and hope for the future, they gave me an African name; “Ketanji Onyika,” which they were told means “lovely one.”” In Judge Brown’s name, her parents gave her a story: “I am Black, I am proud. I not a victim nor anyone’s prize. I am loved and lovely. I am fully human.” I wonder, was it that story which gave her so much poise and grace that allowed her to remain magnanimous and kind under fire?  (Diana Butler Bass, “What’s in a Name?” The Cottage, 3/24/22)

We have a similar story today. It is the story within all our stories. Let it be our bedtime story. Let it sink in to live in unconsciousness. Could it be the story that points the way to abundant life? “Bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him, the father said; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet” (Luke 15:22).  A robe, a ring, and a pair of sandals were not merely for fashion or comfort but, more importantly, these gifts restored status, ownership, and authority. The wayward son is welcomed home with more than a lavish party.  The Father awarded him a new share in the estate he squandered by half.

We have a God who is like a prodigal father. That is, he is foolish, wasteful, extravagant in his love for you.  The young son is a different kind of prodigal. He is immoderately callous and careless.  An outright failure, he realized the error of his ways.  On the long road home, he rehearses his apology again and again, but didn’t even have time to say it all before the father, who ran to meet him, unbelievably restored his status and belonging.

God sets a higher priority on forgiveness than on being right. God places a higher value on reconciliation than on saving face.  Better to be humiliated than estranged. God has done what many of us would not, could that be part of our problem today?

We live in a time when our stories have begun to fall apart. Do “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”… if they are not men but woman, if they are not white but black, if they are not cisgender but non-binary?  (US. Declaration of Independence). Could we expand the franchise, widen our story to include everyone?  Could we stop defining ourselves over an against a scape goat, a bad guy, an evil empire? Could we stop with the stories of good guys and bad guys?  There is One Life, one family, one people of God. Could we instead foster communities and nations built on mercy, forgiveness, and love as our Father in heaven does? Could the gospel story help us fashion a new and more life-giving national story?

All are created in the image of God. Therefore, regardless of past actions, religious or political beliefs, none of us have the right to treat any one differently. We have no excuse to exclude or condemn a person whom God does not view with unkindness or condemnation.  This is the great good news that can also be a tough pill for us to swallow (just ask the older brother).

We have a prodigal God. For all God’s children family is family. “O Lord of all the living, both banished and restored, compassionate, forgiving, and ever caring Lord, grant now that our transgressing, our faithlessness may cease. Stretch out your hand in blessing, in pardon, and in peace.” (ELW #606)

Advent 1C-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hope not made
of wishes
but of substance,

hope made of sinew
and muscle
and bone,

hope that has breath
and a beating heart,

hope that will not
keep quiet
and be polite,

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

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

hope that raises us
from the dead—

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

—Jan Richardson

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

Christ the King B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With gratitude and thanksgiving, God’s kingdom comes among us. St. Paul wrote to faithful in Philippi: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5–8). And let God’s kingdom come.

All Saints B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

There was a small lake near my boyhood home in Colorado where we kept a rowboat upside down in the tall grass beside the shore. The lake was well stocked with bluegill and cutthroat trout. I carried my fishing pole and tackle box to the end of our street, through a cow pasture, over an irrigation ditch to catch (and release) fish on Claymore Lake. I remember being a little clumsy with the oars. If you’ve ever rowed a boat, you know you must pull each oar equally and evenly. If you’re out of sync just a little you turn in circles. What’s more, you must face backwards to go forwards. To get to the best fishing spot I kept my eyes focused on what was behind me to get where I hoped to go.

It strikes me that facing backwards to go forward is a good metaphor for what we are doing here today. The ancient Celts, who celebrated the festival of Samhain around November 1st, believed the veil between heaven and earth became especially permeable at this time of year. We celebrate Halloween, All Saints, and the Day of the Dead in faith that the beloved dead are alive with us in Christ. Looking to them they provide a reliable reference point to steer us where God wishes us to go.

Ten days ago, my son Sam and I were in rural New Brunswick, Canada bouncing along dirt roads in search of towns that would have been familiar to my great, great, great grandpa Joseph William McFarland born there in 1848 after his parents immigrated from Scotland. A tragic house fire left him and his three siblings to raise themselves with the help of a hired hand who remained with them. He later moved to Minnesota with his sister and brother-in-law, and then, to North Dakota. His two younger brothers remained in Canada and are buried there. Sam and I walked the Presbyterian graveyard in Harvey Station but didn’t find them. A memorial celebrates the early settlers from England and Scotland who “built the foundations deep and wide on which to build throughout the years.”

Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama (yes, apparently, Bruce and Barack are now good friends) have a new book out called Renegades: Born in the USA., in which they reflect on friendship and dealing with their own complicated relationship with their fathers. Springsteen said, “The trick is you have to turn your ghosts into ancestors. Ghosts haunt you. Ancestors walk alongside you and provide you with comfort and a vision of life that’s going to be your own. My father walks alongside me as my ancestor now. It took a long time for that to happen.” (Excerpt from Renegades: Born in the USA, Springsteen and Obama, The Guardian, 10/23/21).

We face backwards to go forwards. It may seem unnatural at first. Except, it turns out we do it every day and even every waking moment of every day. Perception and consciousness do not reflect what is but what was. Expectations and prior experiences profoundly shape what we perceive. Clarity about the past provides clearer vision for what lies ahead.

On this feast of All Saints, we search the past to renew our strength for the present. We light candles to remember the sacred dead in recognition they are a part of us, still. As we reach the end of this liturgical year and approach the start of a new one, we enter what we here at Immanuel honor as a seven-week Advent. We acknowledge our beginnings and endings often overlap and connect. We look backwards to move ahead.

We are surrounded here by signs and symbols of our ancestors in faith. There is Saint Birgitta of the 14th century, Martin Luther of the 16th century, and Nathan Soderblom, and Pope John the 23rd of the 20th century. There is our dear sister, suffragist and social activist, Emmy Evald. There are symbols of eleven apostles and the four gospels.

One former matriarch of Immanuel, Ellen Breting, used to point to the doves with halos in the stained-glass windows who are part of that great cloud of witnesses who dine with us at the Lord’s Table. She gave a few of them names of her own departed loved ones. (I’m sure Ellen would be happy for you to do the same.) Because we are people of faith, we look backward to move forward.

This Thursday is Veteran’s Day. Last week, I was fortunate to spend a half day in Gettysburg. That pivotal battle of the Civil War was the backdrop to President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in which, in just 272 words, he re-framed the war as a war against slavery and challenged Americans to increased devotion inspired by those who died that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” In these politically divisive times, we draw wisdom from when Americans took up arms and declared war on one another to keep us moving through today’s storm. Lincoln inspires us to love our enemies, to listen with compassion for that is the only way we may be reconciled to one another. Abraham Lincoln is someone we look back to, to help us move forward today.

Last Sunday, congregational president, Charles Carper, gave thanks for the works of faith done by each of you to nurture and inspire his own faith. Saints aren’t just those who have died. Saints are those who have been declared holy. Saints are those created in the image of God, including the whole human family. Today we honor those who have gone before us to better honor the living. We strain upon the oars toward a better world of equity and justice.

God has set you apart, claimed you and called you. Anything you do in faith can be called holy –whether you’re changing diapers; volunteering as a tutor; inspiring laughter; caring for the sick; going to the polls; visiting a neighbor; befriending a kid at school others pick on; or anything else you do in faith. God in Christ commands us step out from the grave and gifted us with the work to help one another remove our grave cloths. With borrowed insight, wisdom form each other, we have the calm and peace of mind to pull the oars smoothly and evenly to move us in the right direction. We know where we are headed. We row toward the New Jerusalem.

The prophet Isaiah invites us to a feast upon God’s holy mountain, in the new Jerusalem. In Revelation, John’s vision of God’s holy city, the new Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven from God, adorned as a bride for her husband. (Revelation 21:2) There God will remove the heart of stone in us and replace it with a heart of flesh. Joined together with all the saints of God in Christ, we are moving from grief into joy, from scarcity into generosity, from fear into courage, from death into life.

The Festival of St. Luke

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

For the festival of St. Luke, on which we celebrate the relation between faith and health, let me begin with a story.  In the beginning, God was like an unhappy farmer. The world looked like Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. The earth, covered with red dust (in Hebrew Adamah), was not fertile or hospitable, because there was “no one to till the ground.” So, God caused springs of water to come up from the earth itself, made a clay, and formed a man (adam) from the ground. God breathed into him, and gave life to this “soil creature,” this “earth-man.” God placed Adam in the garden, to grow it, and to care for the rivers, and plants, and animals, and eventually drew Eve (havah, meaning “to become,” “to breathe,” or “life”) from Adam’s body to be his partner.  Thus Adam and Eve, not a literal first couple, but rather Soil and Life (their “names” from Hebrew words) marry, and their union produces the human race. (Diana Butler Bass, Grounded, Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution, p. 42)

“God fashions the first humans by taking the dust of the ground into his hands, holding it so close that it can share in the divine breath, and inspiring it with the freshness of life.  It is only as the ground is suffused with God’s intimate, breathing presence that human life—along with the life of trees and animals and birds—is possible at all.  God draws near to the earth and then animates if from within.” (Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba, Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation, p. 16)

“God’s love is the power that moves the galaxies and the breathes in our bodies. One way to imagine this relationship between God and the world is with the metaphor of the world as God’s body.”  The world, the universe, is the “body of God:” all matter, all flesh, all myriad beings, things, and processes that constitute physical reality are in and of God.  God is not just spirit, but also body.  Hence, God can be thought of in organic terms, as the vast interrelated network of beings that compose our universe.  The “glory” of God, then is not just heavenly, but earthly.”  (Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology)

What we call health, or wellness, therefore, begins with the alignment of body and spirit. Faith is not a cure for finitude or death but the ground-spring of well-being. Perhaps you have experienced this yourself or you have heard the stories of famous examples. People like

Professor Randy Pausch, a 47-year-old father of three who died of pancreatic cancer some years ago.  Professor Pausch, an unknown computer science expert, gave one last lecture to summarize his life’s learning to students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. (Lecture Sept 2007). Thanks to the internet, it became a national sensation. The theme of Professor Pausch’s “Last Lecture” was “Really achieving your childhood dreams.”  He didn’t discuss spirituality or religion, but he spoke with the simple authority of a man looking death in the face and assessing what’s most important about life.  One of the most memorable things about him was his undying enthusiasm for life.  “Never lose the childlike wonder,” he advised. “Show gratitude… Don’t complain; just work harder… Never give up.”

“Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears! Let all the nations gather together, and let the peoples assemble…You are my witnesses, says the LORD…” (Isaiah 43:8-9a) Whether in a hospital room, a board room, a church sanctuary, a hotel room, or your living room, it’s all the same. The bible is a profound interpreter of real life.  By the grace of God, even occasions of illness and injury may become times of peace and shalom, an opportunity to gain new insight into our life.  Illness does not have the power to rob us of dignity.  By faith, we may be made well without ever being cured. Conversely, there are many who are cured without ever being healed.

Albert Schweitzer once said, “It’s supposed to be a professional secret, but I’ll tell you anyway. We doctors do nothing. We only help and encourage the doctor within.” Fully one-fifth of the gospels relate to Jesus’ ministry of healing.  It is a misconception to say that Jesus came to save “sin-sick” souls.  Jesus didn’t stop there. Jesus brought both psychical and mental health to those whom he healed.  He restored balance and vitality to community. His mission was to defeat the powers of evil that permeate our world and fracture the alignment of body, mind, and spirit. This kind of balance and wholeness, the bible calls shalom.

Because God is body and spirit, we may look to everyday life to find examples of a more holistic health. One study examined survivors of heart attacks. These were people who had had triple and quadruple bypass surgery.  They had all shared a life changing event. They each came home from the hospital with arm loads of information and training about how to change their lives. Yet, twelve months later, nine out of ten heart patients were eating the same foods as they did before their surgery and doing the same amount of exercise. Did the 10% who were doing better have more will power? Did they have a scarier experience to set them straight?

No, nothing was different except that they had forged an alliance –they had an exercise buddy.  They had met someone in the hospital or down the street in the same situation and made a pact.  So, when the alarm went off at 6:30 in the morning, Bill don’t hit the snooze bar because he knew Joe would be out on the corner waiting for him –and Joe was out there only because he knew Bill would be there.

Because God is body and soul transformation of health, faith, and life comes through relationships of mutual accountability. It comes as we learn to trust each other.  It comes through forgiving one another. It comes through listening and speaking and praying.  Shalom is a by-product of healthy communities with Christ at the center.

Our gospel proclaims this healing Spirit of the Lord is upon you. The spirit of shalom is upon us at Immanuel. Where there is any weariness, we are called and strengthened to be present as God is present.  Where people are hungry, we are called and strengthened to be bread.  Where there is bitterness and strife, we are called and strengthened to be peacemakers. Where there is illness and despair, we are called and strengthened to share God’s shalom—a ray of light and air so that God’s in-depth healing process can begin.

‘Then water shall appear over the burning sand.  Waters shall break forth in the desert and the thirsty ground shall become a pool.  The tongue of the speechless shall sing for joy and the lame shall leap like a deer’  (Isaiah 35:6-7).

Proper 23B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

A young man runs to Jesus, kneels at his feet, and asks: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). Jesus ‘looked at him and loved him.’ This is the only time in Mark’s gospel where Jesus is said to “love” someone. It’s little wonder, this young man would make any mother-in-law proud. He is a faith do-er. But he lacks one thing. He is not yet a faith-receiver (vs. 30). Salvation must be a gift before it is a call.

Of course, we are always getting this backwards. This was the central dispute of the Protestant Reformation. Lutheran theology recognized grace comes before the law. Trying to ‘do’ our way into God’s good graces is more difficult than passing a camel through the eye of a needle (vs. 25). I cannot see the eye of a needle anymore without glasses. God does what we cannot. God does not keep score. In baptism God cleanses us from selfishness and raises us to new life. At the table, we drink the same cup of suffering and death for the sake of the world that Jesus drank. In this way, Christ abides in us, and we are alive in him. Not by doing, but by receiving God’s love with thanksgiving and joy as a gift.

Seeing things as a gift changes the way I relate to them. If I begin to think of my tennis shoes as a gift of the natural world and from the human hands that made them, perhaps I will wear them longer. If the food I eat is a gift, perhaps I am more mindful of what I consume.

Let’s be clear. This gospel is not a command to burn your paycheck. Wealth is a resource like any other. We do not regard our time and talents as taboo. Neither are material blessings. The young man asked to inherit salvation as one inherits land or real estate. This is where he went wrong. We are not owners. We are not landlords. We are stewards and caretakers with God of one another, the natural world, and ourselves.

So why does this gospel trouble us so? Jesus’ New Economy of grace—the biblical vision of Sabbath economics, spells trouble for the comfortable, and comfort for the troubled. Could it be this gospel brings something into focus we wish not to see?

This question has special significance this weekend when Columbus’ controversial “discovery” is remembered throughout the world. Columbus and the explorers, soldiers, and priests who accompanied him had the blessing of kings and popes and conquered in the name of both Spain and Christianity. And the vast majority of them, confessing Christianity, stole land, resources, and the very lives of native peoples.

Scripture says, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24b). It turns out this is true even for non-human species. Monkeys and chimps, you’ll agree, are famously fast and dexterous. It’s difficult to see one in the wild let alone get close to one. Yet, there is an easy way to capture monkeys unharmed. You don’t need any fancy equipment –just drill a hole of a certain size into a coconut, attach the coconut to a rope secured to a rock or tree, place some rice in the hollowed-out shell, and wait.
When the monkey reaches in to grab the rice it discovers the hole in the coconut is too small to allow it to withdraw its fisted paw. The monkey is trapped, but only if it refuses to let go of the rice. If it lets go it can easily free itself. The trap works by forcing a monkey to choose. The monkey may have its freedom, or it may have the rice (which, I’ve heard is impossible for them to consume), but it may not have both. The monkey is trapped by their greed. Many (if not most) monkeys place a greater value on clutching onto the rice, than in preserving their own freedom. Does it surprise you humans and chimps share 98.8 percent of their DNA?

Money is not an end-in-itself. It is not the goal. If all I leave behind is money, then my life legacy is poor and will soon be forgotten. A legacy of changed lives and lives loved –that is how we store up treasure in heaven. We must die to wealth to become truly rich. But this does not mean we should be dumb and unthinking about it. What if we were to think of our wealth as venture capital for building the kin-dom of God? What if we were to think of our ourselves us entrepreneurs of grace?

One of my favorite examples of an entrepreneur of grace is Muhammad Yunus who leveraged his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University on a bet that wealth and economic systems could serve a higher purpose by helping eliminate poverty, assist the marginalized, and support education for all. In 1976, Yunus founded the Grameen Bank to make very small loans that make a very big difference. “Charity is not the answer to poverty,” Yunus wrote, “It only helps poverty continue. It creates dependency and takes away the individual’s initiative to break through the wall of poverty.”

It would have been more charitable—and certainly a lot easier—just to give poor woman money. But instead, Yunus lent a woman $27. She and several of her friends used the small loan to start a successful furniture-making business to escape the bonds of poverty in their rural Bangladeshi village. (Tom Hundley, Tribune foreign correspondent, Chicago Tribune, October 14, 2006, page 1).

If grace is a gift than you and I are on the hook. It’s up to you –collectively it’s up to us how to steward all that we are entrusted with. How are we called to steward the resources of this congregation? How do we balance support for ministry today with the ministry needs of tomorrow? Do we have it within our power to move toward a sustainable budget in 3, 4, or 5 years? Maybe the answer is that we’re supposed to live the question with humility.

Not long ago someone told me worship at Immanuel gave him confidence to finally take steps to re-start his life. He got a full-time job at a local fast-food restaurant and is making enough money to support himself. Your generosity and spirit of welcome made that possible. It all begins with God’s love.

Jesus looked upon the young man and loved him. Did he love him because the man recognized his need? He knew his life was not complete despite having achieved so much already. But notice Jesus’s love didn’t leave the young man where he was. Jesus’s love isn’t Minnesota “nice.” “It doesn’t prioritize the young man’s comfort over his salvation. Jesus’s love is provocative. It’s incisive. It’s sharp. Even as it offers unconditional welcome, it also offers mind-boggling challenge.” (Debi Thomas, “What Must I Do?” Journey with Jesus, 10/03/21)

The seeker walks away, and love lets go. Mark’s Gospel tells us the young man is “shocked” by Jesus’s invitation, and went away grieving. “What I find shocking is that Jesus lets him. Jesus doesn’t cajole. He doesn’t plead. He doesn’t manipulate. He doesn’t judge. He honors the man’s freedom — even his freedom to refuse eternal life — and allows him to walk away.” (Thomas)

The Galilean vision of God in Mark’s gospel is that God is the invitation of love. It is a love we see fleshed out in Jesus. The answer to who is God is a story about a homeless first-century Jew. This flickering Galilean image of the divine reveals that faith is not something we possess and build upon. It is the invitation to participate in self-giving liberation seeking love. It is an encounter. We get clarity about who God and what God asks of us by actually living in relationship with God.
The coming of the Christ is the invitation to be the Christ –to participate. This is our one and only life. What kind of human being do I want to be? (Tripp Fuller speaking about Process and Reality, by Alfred North Whitehead, p. 342)

Proper 22B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Fall is beautiful in Chicago. I think it’s my favorite season. My mom texted pictures of fall colors from her back yard in Colorado this week. Here the trees have just a touch of yellow and red the first sentinels of change. The colors signal change is coming. The colors reassure us change can be as beautiful as it is inevitable.
Our scriptures hold out a lesson for when change seems overwhelming. We’ve had our belly full of change, haven’t we? Some we never saw coming. Changes so sudden and complete it is more accurate to call them a rupture. A rupture is when things torn apart cannot be put together again. A rupture can leave us disoriented, unable to focus, lost in the wilderness, facing into an uncertain future.

The end of a marriage is a good example of rupture. A divorce upends our lives and everyone around us, our children, extended family, friends, and neighbors. The forever-promise to love one person the same way God loves everyone is the foundation marriage is built upon. Yet this preposterous promise is possible for us because God provides unconditional love in such abundance, we may draw upon it as a natural resource to build a life together, become a family, and take part in something larger than ourselves that is more than the sum of its parts.

Jesus said see, “…they are no longer two, but one flesh,” (Mark 10:8). Yet because we hold the forever promise of marriage in the earthen vessels of our lives our vow can be shattered and not go back together again. Once upon a time this is where the preacher stopped preaching this gospel. Marriage is a blessing and divorce is bad. Ask anyone who’s been through it, and they would probably tend to agree. But thanks be to God, the good news of our scriptures extends beyond marriage and divorce to meet us as we are, and where we live, even if that happens to be in the wilderness of our losses and failures.

We are in a wilderness today. We are living in a time that one rupture after another has washed over us in successive waves. The nuclear age undermined confidence in our safety. 9-11 upended our trust in our security. January 6 unraveled our assurance we could be safe with enough surveillance. Cell phone video has forced us to confront our ugly history of genocide, slavery, and systemic racism. Gender equality and sexual orientation is reshaping daily life. Climate change is forcing us to reconsider our lifestyle and our economy. The list goes on –did I mention the pandemic?

Ruptures leave us feeling bereft, unfocused, shattered, exhausted—even when that change is necessary, overdue, and righting historic wrongs. Fortunately, the Good News was made for such a time as this. We are met in our wilderness by the grace of God. God is with us when things fall apart. God will not abandon us to our faults, our failures, our bad decisions, or our broken vows.

Our scriptures point like a compass needle toward the new and brighter future God intends. With striking and welcome unity, all the lessons for worship today focus on the healing power imbued in other people, animals, and all living things. We are fashioned in God’s own image. We are made for embrace. Creation is a love story that opens to us as we turn with compassion and gratitude toward our neighbors and nature.

The truth is, we encounter the living God, not only in marriage relationships, but also in compassionate relation to all living things, including animals and people regarded as unimportant non-persons living among us. God’s grace is a natural resource. It has saving power to heal and redeem us. It flows to us through and from other living things. I’ll give you an example.

In 1991, in upstate New York, a young physician named Bill Thomas took a job as medical director of Chase Memorial Nursing Home, a facility with eighty severely disabled elderly residents. About half of them were physically disabled; four out of five had Alzheimer’s or other forms of cognitive disability. Thomas soon realized working there depressed him. He saw despair lurking in every room. Old timers told him he would get used to it. But he didn’t get used to it. Instead, he tried to fix it. One attempt after the other all failed. Finally, he hit upon a solution that worked. He brought in two dogs, four cats, and one hundred birds. To bring the nursing home to life, we would fill it with life.

“People who we had believed weren’t able to speak started speaking,” Thomas said. “People who had been completely withdrawn and unable to walk started coming to the nurses’ station and saying, ‘I’ll take the dog for a walk.’” All the parakeets were adopted and named by the residents. The lights turned back on in people’s eyes. Soon they added a colony of rabbits and a flock of laying hens. There were also hundreds of indoor plants and a thriving vegetable and flower garden. The home had on-site childcare for the staff and a new after-school program. Now children, animals, live plants, and seniors were all part of daily life of the nursing home.

The number of prescriptions required per resident was cut in half. Total drug costs fell to just 38 percent compared to other nursing homes. Deaths fell by 15 percent. Researchers couldn’t say why. But Thomas thought he could. “I believe that the difference in death rates can be traced to the fundamental human need for a reason to live.” (Atul Gawande, Being Mortal, Chapter 5, “A Better Life”, pps. 111-147)

We could add to Thomas’ answer words which we read from the book of Genesis. God said, ‘It is not good that we should be alone’ (2:18). Indeed, it is very good when we are together. Our lives are strengthened, our hope is restored, as we involve ourselves with one another and with all living things. In these helpers, partners, and friends we find a sustaining purpose for our lives. We walk the road out from the wilderness of rupture and change.

Colors in the trees proclaim a new season is dawning. Change may cause us grief, but the reality of God’s grace assures us each rupture will be followed with healing, and the possibility to begin again. Let us pray. “O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through our Lord and savior Jesus Christ” (ELW, Evening Prayer, p. 317) Amen.