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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.

Baptism of our Lord B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

For now, we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.
—1 Corinthians 13:12

We navigate by the uncertain light of epiphany. Without all the details, we make decisions. Unsure where it will lead, we choose a path. Despite not knowing fully even ourselves, we commit to truths and values to live by.

“We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Epiphanies are a part of everyday life yet, for most of us, they do not occur every day. That is why you must remember what you saw, what you experienced, or what you heard about the character of God from the Sacraments; or beside the font; or at the Table; or in the Living Word of holy scripture; or in the prayers, or in the church engaged in mission; or in the testimony of prophets, poets, and artists; or the testimony of activists and organizers; or the testimony of other religions; or from the voices of the oppressed; or in the face of a neighbor—remember what you learned from moments of Epiphany that shine out in your memory when you realized just a little bit more about your life.

It is rare that the feast day commemorating Epiphany corresponds with an actual epiphany, let alone a national one. Yet, last Wednesday, on January 6th, it happened. What did you see? Remember what you saw. Ponder it as Mary pondered the words of the Angel Gabriel. Talk among yourselves for greater clarity. It is never entirely clear what an epiphany means. It can take a lifetime to unpack. Yet, with grace, we see just enough to steer by.

We had ourselves an Epiphany this week –really—we’ve had so many this past year. Sometimes, when the lights come on, we are unhappy about what we see. We see there is a lot of dirty work that needs doing the morning after a party. There may be a personal reckoning that must be faced in the aftermath of our mistakes. Epiphanies can be like that.

On Wednesday, I saw how whiteness—the belief that white people are superior—is a big lie and that it’s killing us. The commitment to white supremacy is ripping the people of this nation apart and separating us all from the democratic values we hold dear. I saw that democracy is fragile not inevitable. Democracy must be nourished. It requires our participation, civil debate, and trust.

It’s not an overstatement to say this year has taught many of us systemic racism is real and diminishes us all. Misogyny is real and diminishes us all. Xenophobia is real and diminishes us all. Climate change is real and diminishes us all. Despite this, a record number, more than 73 million people, showed by their vote a willingness to ignore, if not condone, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and climate change. 40% of these people are evangelical Christians. Covid-19 showed us how interdependent we really are including people and nations around the world. Social media has shown us that too. Social distancing may be right for the pandemic, but it is not the solution for these other problems we see that plague us today.

So, what to do? We turn for guidance to another epiphany the church calls baptism. Jesus said, ‘Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:19). Very simply, we baptize because Jesus commanded us to. This gift has been given to you not as a loyalty test, not as a prerequisite that must be accomplished before receiving God’s love, not as fire insurance to get into heaven, but as a sacrament of graceful intimate presence with you to have and to hold from this day forward, in joy and in sorrow, in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish all the days of your life, from now and until forever.

You recognize those words? The gift of God’s love in baptism makes possible the preposterous vow we make in marriage to love one person the way God loves all people and all creatures of creation. This gift makes also makes possible the covenant we share to be citizens of this nation, and more simply, to be neighbor. By grace, the Samaritan climbed down from his horse to assist the man in the ditch. By grace the Father kept constant vigil for the return of the prodigal son.

Belovedness is a central theme in the baptism of Jesus. In Mark, the heavenly voice speaks directly to Jesus for his own sake: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It is part of the majesty and glory of God that God is not only the creator. God is a creator of co-creators. God is a lover of artists. God delights to see what new and beautiful things we can make from what God has given. Artists creatively bring into existence from what did not exist, that which gracefully transforms and renews. God made baptism as a sign for us of the new life we share in Christ as artists of grace—as co-creators with God of a more hopeful future.

Baptism is an epiphany. Helping other people in need matters. Speaking up when other people have been wronged matters. Contributing to the greater good of the world makes a difference. As Jesus was coming up out of the waters of baptism, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10).

The baptism of Jesus tore through the boundary between heaven and earth. Now presumably, what is opened can be closed again. But what has been torn apart must remain open for all time. Through Christ Jesus, Mark says, the realms of heaven and the realms of earth have become mixed together.

The Spirit of God is mixed and folded within you. It’s a theme Mark will repeat at the moment of Jesus’ death on a cross. Just as Jesus breathed his last, the curtain in the Temple that separated the profane world from the Holy of Holies was torn in two, from top to bottom (Mark 15:38).

God cannot be contained by our holy spaces. God will not be confined to the heavenly realm. God is loose in the land. God’s presence fills the world. We meet God through encounter with our neighbor regardless of their party affiliation, gender, race, ethnicity, ability, or sexual orientation. All are endowed with dignity reflecting the likeness and image of God. Dearly beloved, the grace of God is revealed in the shadow of human hearts when we walk together by the lantern light of epiphany trusting in what God has shown and taught us to create order and blessing from the chaos of our lives.

Christmas 2B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Every sermon I’ve written since 2005 is on the computer through which I’m speaking to you now. Yet there was no sermon for the second Sunday of Christmas—until now. Last year, on New Year’s Eve, I was embarrassing my kids on the dance floor at the YMCA of the Rockies. I couldn’t have imagined all the changes this year would bring, including the undoing of holiday traditions for my family.

My sister forwarded a list circulating on the internet of twelve things to ponder for the New Year. Number one flatly states, “The dumbest thing I ever bought was a 2020 planner.” Number five, “This morning I saw a neighbor talking to her cat. It was obvious she thought her cat understood her. I came home & told my dog. We laughed a lot.” I could relate to that one.

Perhaps it is always true. None of us can predict the future, but it feels more-true now. In the wake of an unpredictable year, on this, the 10th Day of Christmas, just when we thought we couldn’t be surprised any more by surprises, our scriptures bring us Sophia, the power of God in the form of Woman-Wisdom who, scriptures say dwells in all creation.

You may not have heard of Sophia. Yet she sings out from the appointed readings for today. At the opening of John’s gospel Jesus is identified with the Woman-Wisdom of Sophia. Sophia means “wisdom” in Greek. According to Catholic theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson, “Jesus is Sophia incarnate.” It is a transgender moment in God’s story. The Wisdom of God took on flesh and became the Word of God. Jesus the Word is Wisdom the woman. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

You may not have heard of Sophia. Yet the Wisdom of Solomon retells the story of the Exodus as Sophia’s doing. She is the one who delivered God’s people from a nation of oppressors (10:15). She sheltered them with a cloud and guided them with a pillar of fire. The exodus from slavery was the work of Sophia, who led the people through the sea and into freedom. In Ephesians 1, Jesus incarnates Sophia’s liberation in the church: Christ is our “redemption,” our deliverance in his/her sharing with us of “wisdom” (verses 7-8). Christ is the Sophia of God, calling us into her work of liberation.

The book of Sirach, which is one of the optional readings appointed for today, instructs us that Woman-Wisdom is like the mist, covering the earth with God’s presence. She lives in the clouds, the pillars of the sky. She rides the waves of the sea. She has a tent in Jerusalem, where she lives with God’s people.
Woman-Wisdom featured prominently in the writings of the ancient desert mothers and fathers of the fourth century. They lived in a time of even greater uncertainty and upheaval than our own. They fled the corruption of church and society to seek Christ in the solitude of the Egyptian desert. They cared less about Christian doctrine and more about living the mystery of the Christian life. (A Coptic monastery from that period North of Cairo, Egypt is one of the memorable and beautiful places I’ve ever visited. (photo)

You might consider choosing from among their wisdom “sayings,” as you think about New Year resolutions this week. I find them interesting and amusing: “Never stop starting over,” (Arsenios, 5th century). “Live intentionally, not aimlessly,” (St. Mark the Ascetic, 5th century). “Pray simply, not stupidly,” Abba Macarius. “Stay put,” Mother Syncletica (4th century). “Acknowledge my brokenness,” (St. Maximos the Confessor, 7th century). “Be ruthlessly realistic,” (St. Makarios of Egypt, 5th century). “Read the obituaries,” “At the moment of our death we will all know for certain what is the outcome of our life” (St. Gregory of Sinai, 13th century). (“My New Year’s Resolutions” (From the Fourth Century) Daniel Clendenin, Journey with Jesus, 12/27/20)

Poet Kathleen Norris found a natural affinity with the desert wisdom of the fourth-century monastics: Like them, Norris “made a counter-cultural choice to live in what the rest of the world considers a barren waste;” her “idea of what makes a place beautiful had to change.”

Norris left New York City for the house built by her grandparents in an isolated town on the border between North and South Dakota. After years of estrangement from Christianity, it was on the Great Plains that Norris returned to that tradition, making a spiritual home there. Dakota is, Norris writes, “my spiritual geography, the place where I’ve wrestled my story out of the circumstances of landscape and inheritance…writing about Dakota has been my means of understanding that inheritance and reclaiming what is holy in it.” The great gift of Sophia is the discovery that the place we are standing now is holy ground.

Years ago, a book by Paulo Coelho called “The Alchemist,” made the top-seller lists. In it a recurring dream troubles Santiago, a young shepherd living in Spain. He has the dream every time he sleeps under a sycamore tree that grows out of the ruins of a church. In the dream, a child tells him to seek treasure at the foot of the Egyptian pyramids. We follow Santiago through a lifetime of adventure, stops and starts, diversions, and mysterious coincidences, until finally he arrives at a certain Coptic monastery in Northern Egypt, and finally at the foot of the Pyramids. There, he doesn’t find any treasure, instead, he is beaten up by thieves who try to rob him. They let Santiago go after they realize he doesn’t have anything of value. To prove to him what a fool he is one of the thieves tells Santiago about his own worthless of dreams of treasure buried in an abandoned church in Spain where a sycamore tree grows—the very same church where Santiago’s journey began. He returns to Spain to find a chest of jewels and gold buried under the tree and returns with it to build a home in a place called Al-Fayoum, where he reunites with Fatima, whom he loved and who awaits him.

As we embark together on a new year, Sophia reminds us the fullness of the presence of God dwells with us and walks with us starting in the all-too-familiar, loneliness, and uncertainty of our pandemic lives. Like Santiago, we find the treasure of God’s wisdom buried here in the place that we are, hidden within the current moment. Yet, perhaps, it is not in the possession of wisdom but in its pursuit that we find the adventure of our lives, acquire new skills, discover hidden talents, meet new people, and finally find ourselves at home. The Woman-Wisdom of God is revealed as we commit ourselves to the pursuit of God’s dream living our faith. All things are united in Christ, things in heaven and things on Earth” (Ephesians 1:10). Heaven and earth are united here in our frail bodies to be the body of Christ for the world. In all that is to come, and in whatever is to be. God with us – comes to be born again in us and through us, and Sophia joyfully claps her hands.

Christmas Day B-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Have you opened gifts yet? I got off easy this Christmas. I installed a closet clothing rod in Joe’s room before he came home.

Other years, I’ve assembled a bicycle, a free-standing basketball hoop, and an outdoor playhouse. And, of course, many things from Ikea. There’s a storage unit in our home that shall go unspecified in which one the shelves is upside down.

Why do we do it? Why do we put up with the aggravation? Because without the assembly –it’s just a bunch of junk in a box.

You and I are sort of like that too. In John’s gospel today we learned that we are made for each other.

Old-timers will remember when we went from a green hymnal to a red one. Among the many changes the new red hymnal made was to substitute the word ‘Assembly’ where the old green book used the word ‘congregation.’

Assembly is required because we cannot worship alone. We must be gathered in order to consecrate Holy Communion. In the body of Christ, the hand cannot decide to move apart from the foot. The heart cannot survive without the head. We are knit together in mystical oneness with one another and with God by our baptism into Christ.

This is what has been so painful for Christian worship in this pandemic year. Christians may be forced to by circumstances to be apart but like two magnets we feel the constant pull to be together again. Like a thunderbolt we follow the path of least resistance in order to reach common ground. We must find connection any way we can even if it is only here in virtual space.

Can cyberspace become holy ground? We have all been living that question for the past ten months, haven’t we? I think we are learning—yes—that it can, especially when we are virtually gathered, like this morning, in real time even if not in actual space. As I understand it, this is the heart of the debate about when and whether it is ever appropriate to have online communion. The jury is still out on that one. The gears of church theology and liturgical practice grind slowly which makes our tradition trustworthy. For now, I am very glad it is possible for you to be here and that we are gathered –at the same time I am mindful of those who cannot reach this space because they can’t afford a computer, or good internet, or just can’t manage the technology.
In the beautiful stained-glass window over the altar at Immanuel we read the words:
God is with Us. It’s a beautiful statement of the incarnation. But what we often miss is the ‘us.’ Over the centuries, Christians have drawn the circle of who is included in the ‘us’ smaller and smaller until it includes only baptized Christians, or only Christians of a certain denomination, or only me and my family and hang the rest.

We have made the circle of inclusion small in other ways too. We take Jesus’ words to heart. ‘Each of you, beloved, is of more value than many sparrows.’ (Matthew 10:31) Yet where did we get the idea that God doesn’t care about all sparrows? We treat human life as if it were the only life that matters.

Then, drawing the circle smaller still, we create, participate, and help to sustain a culture that values some human beings more than others, as though what it means to truly be a child of God is to be white.

Out in the streets this year, we heard the call to ‘say their names.’ George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Philando Castile. It goes on and on. We say their names in order to humanize them. We shout their names to say to ourselves and to everyone that all lives do not matter until black lives do. But there are many in this country that we love today who prize whiteness over the U.S. constitution, or the balance of powers, or even more than democracy itself.

People of faith, people of the Christian faith, will gather in communities around the world this morning in the tens of millions who will not question how they may be excluding people of color, or non-human life, or people of different faith traditions. Somehow, they will listen again to the familiar stories of the birth of the Christ child and will feel themselves affirmed but not convicted.

Hear again, the gospel of John: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:3-4) The incarnation of grace did not become flesh in the little town of Bethlehem and no place else. But what has been revealed in Christ Jesus is the spirit of life and love that is in, with, and under all of creation—now beyond the stars, in every creature, reflected in every human heart.

For the incarnation to happen, assembly is required. It can be quite daunting to look the piles of pieces we have strewn about us and try to make something out of them. It’s like trying to furnish an entire apartment with furniture from Ikea. How do we restore broken relationships? How do we begin to repair the breach in our cities and our nation? How do we bring civility back to our civic life? How do we put together the human family? How do we restore balance between human life and all life? It feels overwhelming. It truly is too big for any one of us.

Like any project, we do it best if we begin with the instructions. We’re not in this alone. There is wisdom we can draw upon. We can learn from the hard-won experience and good counsel we find in each other. Most especially, we lean upon the grace of God. We pray. We meditate. We worship—so that our hearts and minds may be centered upon God as we set out to re-assemble the world.

Over the years, poets and mystics have described the miracle of the incarnation in many ways. One of my favorites is attributed to several people but may have originated with Blaise Pascal, “God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Another is handed down from Angelus Silesius and recently made famous by composer Ana Hernandez: “If in your heart you make a manger for his birth then God will once again become a child on earth.” For the incarnation, assembly is required. Yet it is not so much work that we must do, so much as it is something we are drawn into participation with. Love incarnate has come as a gift for you again this Christmas. Let it affirm you. Let it convict you. Let us join our hands, hearts, and voices and say Amen!

4th Sunday of Advent
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

As I sit here the little light next to the built-in camera on my laptop is shining green. I can see many of you, although not all of you, on a large external monitor. I have on my clergy shirt. I’m wearing my blue stole for the Advent season. I’ve lighted all four candles on my Advent wreath. So, I have the feeling, I can be pretty sure, today is Sunday.

Some mornings, I admit, I’m a bit confused. Compost gets picked up on Wednesdays. Trash goes on Thursdays. Worship is on Sunday. Otherwise, the days seem pretty much the same. Pandemic days blur together.

Biblical scholar Karoline Lewis, writing for the Living Lutheran magazine comments, “The time in which we find ourselves—as individuals, communities, a nation, a world and a church—is much more than unprecedented. It’s unnerving, unsettling. Upending and upheaving—suspended in that in-between space caused by pandemic and protest, by disbelief and dystopia, by resistance and revolution. But as Christians, we know this time well—the time between the already and the not yet of the kingdom of heaven. The time between God so loved the world and waiting for it to come true. The kind of time that Mary understood. The kind of time coiled with the tension between “How can this be?” and “Nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:34, 37). (Karoline M. Lewis, Living in Mary’s Time, The Living Lutheran, 12/11/20).

After all, the life of a young peasant girl living in poverty in a backwater town of ancient Palestine was likely even more monotonous and people-starved than our own. Mary’s question “How can this be?” resonates within our own weariness. Could there yet be some magic of grace hidden behind the four walls of our quarantine, or the unending sameness of our days?

Or perhaps, Mary was simply incredulous at being pregnant. “How can I possibly be carrying a child when I am a virgin?” Or perhaps, Gabriel’s message had filled her mind with a swarm of questions: “What am I supposed to tell my family?” Or “Who is going to be there during labor?” Or “How will I protect myself from the rocks and stones my friends and neighbors will throw?” Or “How am I supposed to raise a baby by myself?” Or “Who am I for God to choose me?” (Karoline Lewis)
The angel Gabriel anticipates her layered fear: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33). To which Mary replied, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (vs. 38). Mary shows us how to live with the tension between ‘How can this be?’ and “Let it be.”

The careful listener will notice, Gabriel called Mary the ‘favored one.’ Yet it is a strange blessing. Is this the special honor God bestows upon his “favored ones?” Obviously, divine favor does not equate with wealth, health, comfort, or ease. Mary’s favored status meant losing out on the blessings of normal family life to be marked with the stain of scandal, danger, and the trauma of her son’s crucifixion. God’s call was profoundly countercultural, and not the sort of thing a young girl typically dreams of. It required a steadfast commitment to God’s vision that flew in the face of everything her community expected of her. No wonder Mary fled to the safety and security of her cousin Elizabeth. How did she know Elizabeth and Zechariah would welcome her?

That moment on cousin Elizabeth’s doorstep inspired Mary’s song—the Magnificat. This gorgeous song of God’s justice is the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the entire New Testament. Notice too that Mary sang while Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, the “official” priest and spokesperson of God, endured his divine silencing. Mary’s song echoed the words and stories of long-suffering faithful women–Miriam, Hannah, Judith, and Deborah. The Magnificat is one of the Church’s oldest Advent hymns. It has inspired countless composers to set it to music. Yet it is a song so subversive that it was officially banned from being sung during British rule in India, and during the so-called ‘dirty war’ in Argentina.

In a sermon on today’s gospel, Martin Luther noticed something in Mary’s response to the Angel that is instructive about faith. Faith isn’t about knowing the facts, he said. Faith is the willingness to stake “goods, life and honor” upon the promise of God’s love and the hope that springs from it. Faith always involves at least some risk and vulnerability. (Did you write that on your list this Christmas this year?) Mary shows us faith must follow the way of the cross as we journey from belief into action, as we step across the threshold of Advent, moving from ‘How can this be?’, to ‘let it be.’

This is what’s so lovely and so terrifying about the incarnation. Faced with Mary’s choice to be God-bearers or home makers of successful, enviable Christian homes—we often choose the way of looking good rather than the way of the cross. Yet, when we make a home for grace like Mary did, or like Elizabeth did, we become wholemakers, uniting what is scattered, creating a deeper unity in love. “Christian life is a commitment to love, to give birth to God in one’s own life and to become midwives of divinity in this evolving cosmos. We are to be wholemakers of love in a world of change.” [Ilia Delio, “Love at the Heart of the Universe,” “The Perennial Tradition,” Oneing, vol. 1, no. 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), 22.]

Can we do that? In this bleak midwinter of pandemic, unrest, and upheaval can God breathe new life into being in us and fill our hearts once again with joy? How can this be? Mary gently instructs us. Say the words. Ponder them. Let them rekindle the flame of hope in your heart. “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Like Mary, our mind is filled with questions. Yet this gift of grace has power to fill our humble days with beauty and meaning. See we are standing once again upon the threshold of God’s Advent—a new birth of freedom, of justice, and of sustainability. Cast off your pandemic doldrums. What a tremendous opportunity there is within our grasp. Let it be.

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.