Posts

Proper 20C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor… The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely, I will never forget any of [your] deeds” (Amos 8:4, 7).  Today’s gospel makes me thankful for the Hebrew prophets. You can rely on Amos to tell you straight.  The good ol’ prophets reveal God’s truth with the- matter-of-factness of a carpenter’s square, or a plumb bob.  They’re quick to show where you step out of line.

Heal the sick, defend the poor, remember the widow, welcome the stranger, visit the incarcerated and do all of these in proportion to how much you love and serve God because the one is an exact measure of the other.

In contrast to the prophets the parables of Jesus seldom answer questions about God with a simple “yes” or “no.”  The parables do not speak in black or white, but “both…and.” Parables turn the message of the prophets into a story that is like a riddle then patiently wait for life or lived experience to reveal something to us about their meaning.  Using every color in a 64-crayon box, Jesus’ parables paint a picture of grace in all the shades, shadows, and hues of real life.

Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13b). That certainly sounds like something the prophets were always saying. Wealth is both a blessing and a responsibility. Do you realize there are more than 2,300 verses in scripture that mention money, wealth, or possessions? 16 out of 38 parables mention money as do one in ten gospel verses (288).  Much of the bible takes a dim view of borrowing except when it comes to lending to God. Proverbs 19:17 affirms, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD and will be repaid in full.” While plastic money on revolving credit multiplies plastic gods.

Mark Allan Powell tells how ancient warriors of Gaul converting to Christianity held their sword-arm in the air as missionaries dunked them under the water so they could proclaim ‘This arm is not baptized!’ if war were to break out.  Powell suggests many contemporary Christians do the same thing. They hold their wallet above the baptismal water. You may have all of me Lord—except this. (Giving to God: The Bible’s Good News about Living a Generous Life, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006). German theologian, Helmut Thielicke said, “Our pocketbooks can have more to do with heaven, and also with hell, than our hymnbooks.”

The truth is we were not made for the thrill of shopping.  We are made for the thrill of touching, talking, giving and loving.  The American dream becomes a lie, and all those who have sacrificed their youth, innocence, sweat, blood, and indeed their very lives to sustaining this dream will have sacrificed in vain if in the end it only means living worse in a bigger house.  We are not made to serve our wealth.  Our wealth is meant to serve us to the glory of God.

We could stop right here if we were only talking about Amos. Yet this is where Jesus begins to add new textures and nuance to the message of the prophet. It sounds bizarre yet Jesus says that those who strive for the Kingdom of God are like a dishonest manager and/or a capricious rich man.  What does Jesus mean by telling us a story in which the hero is a crook? Why did the boss commend the bad manager? What is Jesus trying to tell us? Suddenly, just like real life, we don’t have quick and simple answers.

Jesus describes a world we know only too well. A world in which dishonesty, corruption, self-interest, and ill-gotten wealth rule the day. A world in which selfish ambition often secures praise and prosperity, while honesty garners cynicism and contempt. A world in which ethical living is neither straightforward nor easy.

“Maybe the parable of the shrewd manager is simply a grim but truthful portrait of the world as it is— the real world in which we are called to be “children of light.” Maybe the story is an acknowledgment that the calling is both radically countercultural and painfully hard.” (Debi Thomas)

Unrighteous mammon cannot be separated from righteous wealth, just as the sinner in us cannot be separated from the saint.  There are weeds growing among the wheat. We await the harvest when the wheat can be separated from the chaff. But this truth does not lead to despair or inaction among God’s children, but to thanksgiving. We are indeed thankful God does not share our contempt for such folk as the dishonest manager, but has love for him, in the same way God does not abandon us to our misdeeds but has compassion for us. In the meantime, our faithful striving is being transformed into treasures. Our gifts, the sweat of our brow, and even our very lives, are wiped clean as we lay them upon the altar of Christ and as we return to wash them in the waters of baptism.

In God’s economy, people matter more than profits.  Notice, the dishonest manager adopts a whole new approach to the problem of amassing resources. He realized that generosity was the best investment he could make. He doesn’t try to hide or hang on to the money. He uses money and possessions to make friends. He gets himself out of a hole by building social capital. Rather than be slave to it he uses the money to perform a service. Money will one day forsake him, but hopefully his new-found friends will not. Could this be how Jesus turns the message of the prophets into a parable for our own lives?

Jesus has reached out to grasp our dirty hands. The children of light get busy and get their hands dirty in the real world working beside Jesus. But blessed are you when you make unrighteous mammon righteous because you used it to feed the poor and hungry, to clothe the naked.  Enter into the joy of your master! Blessed are you when you make friends through sharing the same mercy and forgiveness Christ Jesus has shown you.  Let your joy be complete! “Where there is forgiveness, there is God.  Where there is unburdening, where there is liberation, where there is crazy, radical generosity — there is God.” (Debi Thomas, Notes to the Children of Light, Journey with Jesus, September 15, 2019)

“As is ever the case with the parables of Jesus, we are dealing with an overabundance of meanings, truths, and possibilities — not a lack.  But the calling, still, is to live as children of light in a world that sorely needs solace, grace, forgiveness, and freedom” (Debi Thomas). Jesus calls us to enter into that calling with our whole hearts and minds — creatively, urgently, shrewdly—for the redemption and renewal of the real world.  Amen.

Proper 17C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).  The writer of Hebrews hands down hard-won advice—a prized recipe for a well lived life. It is wisdom wrung from the sweat and striving of our forebears in faith. Hebrews counsels us like a loving parent on the eve of becoming an adult. Remember those in prison and those being tortured as though you were being tortured. Honor your marriage vows. Be content with what you have (vs. 3-5).

When asked what they wish most for their children a lot of parents today say they just want their kid to be happy. As words to live by, ‘whatever makes you happy,’ turns out to be sort of empty and confusing. The pursuit of happiness is not a compass well suited to leading through the wilderness of materialism, consumerism, hedonism, racism, sexism, or addiction. We need a more reliable star to steer by if we are to reach the promised land, to enter, and take possession of the inalienable human right, endowed to us by our creator, to life and liberty.

‘Avoid the love of money; do good and share what you have’ (vs. 5 & 16).  Inevitably, just as all the generations before us did, we ask the question, ‘What do I get out of it? If in giving I receive, what exactly is my reward?’  Quid pro quo—right?  I give something.  I should get something—and if I don’t have anything to give, I shouldn’t get. That’s the way of the world.  To which Hebrews responds –yeah—that’s what we thought. Yet, it turns out, we were wrong.

The good life consists in something fundamentally different than anything you can accumulate through give and take.  Quid pro quo must give way to God’s pro quo.  Tell me, how do you measure or calculate repayment of love, or mercy?  How do you put a value on family, friendship, marriage, or partnership? These are the fruits of love and trust.  These cannot be harvested from relationships which are merely transactional.  The dignity of every human life grows from the unmerited, unearned, unwarranted, undeserved love of God.

We hear these words and treasure them.  Perhaps, we honor them in a few private relationships. Enter Jesus to set us straight.  Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them.  He was a popular dinner guest but not a very polite one.  Mealtime scenes with Jesus end in provocations, insults, and/or scandal. A woman of dubious reputation caressed his feet under the table.  He interrupts the meal to heal sick people on the Sabbath. His hosts complain he ate with dirty hands, shared his table with riffraff, and drank more than his enemies considered respectable. We tend to forget this today. Jesus doesn’t put up with any phony baloney.

Jesus asks us to believe that our behavior at the table matters—but not because you know the difference between a dinner fork and a salad fork.  Where we sit speaks volumes, and the people whom we choose to welcome reveals the stuff of our souls.  Favor the ones who cannot repay you.  Prefer the poor.  Choose obscurity. This is God’s world we live in, and nothing here is ordinary.  In the realm of God, the ragged strangers at our doorstep are the angels. Learn how to welcome them as you wish to be welcomed and we are on our way to life well lived-together.

Author and teacher Tony Campolo tells a true story about a time he was traveling. He couldn’t sleep, so he wandered outside and into a doughnut shop where, he overheard a conversation between sex workers. Apparently, it was a place they liked to hang out at the end of the night. One of them, named Agnes, said, ‘Tomorrow’s my birthday. You know, in my whole life, I’ve never had a birthday party.’

That’s right—Tony got an idea. He brought the store manager in on it. They arranged for a cake, candles, and party decorations. The following night when Agnes came in, they shouted, “Surprise — and she couldn’t believe her eyes. They sang, and she began to cry so she could hardly blow out the candles. When time came to cut the cake, she asked if they wouldn’t mind if she didn’t cut it. She preferred to bring it home — just to keep it for a while and savor the moment. She left, carrying her cake like a treasure.

Tony led the remaining guests in a prayer for Agnes, after which the manager asked what kind of church Tony came from, and he replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for sex workers at 3:30 in the morning.” (Abbreviated from Brian McLaren’s in The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything [Thomas Nelson, 2006], pages 145-46.)

“The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations, and plants the humble in their place”(Sirach 10:15). “When we dare to gather at Jesus’s table, we are actively protesting the culture of upward mobility and competitiveness that surrounds us.  There’s nothing easy or straightforward about this; it requires hard work over a long period of time.  To eat and drink with God is to live in tension with the pecking orders that define our boardrooms, our college admissions committees, our church politics, and our presidential elections, and that can be tiring.  But it’s what we’re called to do — to humble ourselves and place our hope in a radically different kingdom” (Debi Thomas, Places of Honor, Journey with Jesus, 8/25/19).

We must admit the history of Western culture is not known for humility –but for arrogance. Confidence in the superiority of western culture, science, and civilization led generations of white Europeans to take the highest place at every table. Yet, even now, at this very moment, the living waters of God’s grace are working within your heart, mind, and soul. Grace strips away our arrogant and worldly way of thinking like paint thinner that. From beneath the soot and sediment the original stamp of the imago Dei, the image of God, is revealed in you and your neighbor.

The good life is lived with honor, equity and joy among neighbors.  Maybe that’s why Jesus attended so many parties, feasts, and banquets. The kingdom of God to which you and I are invited is like a good party. There is always room for one more to be seated at the table of grace. Brian McLaren writes, “Today we could say that God is inviting people to leave their gang fights and come to a party, to leave their workaholism and rat race and come to a party, to leave their loneliness and isolation and join the party, to leave their exclusive parties (political ones, for example, which win elections by dividing electorates) and join one inclusive party of a different sort, to stop fighting or complaining or hating or competing and instead start partying and celebrating the goodness and love of God. (Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything, pages 144-46. In Ch. 16)

Proper 16C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“She stood up” (Luke 13:13). We don’t know her name. We don’t know where she came from. We don’t know why she was in the synagogue.  But we can picture her.  A weary woman, resilient and resigned.  A woman “bent over,” and “quite unable to stand up” (vs. 11).  A woman who spent long days staring at the ground, looking at her own feet, watching dusty sandals of passers-by on the road.  She cannot make eye contact, or see the sunrise, or remember what the stars look like, or raise her face to the evening breeze. She has suffered this way for 18 years.  

Presumably, she came to the synagogue to commune with God, not to talk to Jesus.  Jesus is teaching—probably surrounded by a crowd.  She doesn’t approach him.  She is no Cinderella.  No one notices her enter the room—but Jesus does. She didn’t see him, but he saw her. He put his teaching on hold, called her over, and said the thing Jesus always says when he encounters the sick, the broken, the dying, the dead: “You are set free from your ailment” (vs. 12). “He laid his hands on her [and] immediately she stood up straight and began praising God” (v. 13).

I know. It’s astonishing!  This is not the sort of thing we expect in church.  But for Jesus, the Church is exactly the place where hunched, crippled, and exhausted people are invited, encouraged, and released to “stand up straight.”  Women, people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, the poor, the homeless, the elderly, the incarcerated, the mentally ill, the differently abled, the uneducated or under-educated, the spiritually broken—Christ calls us into a place where our dignity is restored and our full potential realized when we cannot stand up on our own. (Debi Thomas) This is the place for what is crooked to be made straight; and the rough places made smooth, so with all flesh, we may see the salvation of God again reflected in the beauty of the sunrise, the splendor of the stars,  and the feeling of the evening breeze upon our face. (Luke 3:5).

Yet the moment Jesus unbinds the crippled woman the leader of the synagogue voices his displeasure and indignation.  His angry criticism drowns out her joyful praise: “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he tells the crowds, “come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day”(Luke 13:14). 

Sadly, this does not surprise us.  Tragically, we are not astonished, but could have predicted, that too often religious communities are not a place of healing but of further bending.  There is an unfortunate tendency to bend people over under the weight of shame, judgment, invisibility, false piety, condemnation, prejudice, legalism, and harmful theology.

We know this.  It’s one reason the church has lost its standing in the wider culture today.  Yet, we also know there is power in the gospel and in God’s grace.  We are called to throw off the weight of this painful history and reclaim the beauty and the power of the gospel, just as the nameless woman did long ago.  

Notice, for a moment, the synagogue leader is not a bad man. Our history, theology and religious traditions are valuable and worthy of respect.  “But what the leader misses is the heart of the Sabbath, the heart of God’s law, the heart of the tradition. What the leader misses is compassion. The kind of compassion that trumps legalism every single time.  The kind of compassion that doesn’t cling to orthodoxy simply for orthodoxy’s sake. The kind of compassion that consistently sees the broken body, the broken soul, the broken spirit — before it sees the broken commandment.” (Debie Thomas, “She Stood Up Straight,” Journey with Jesus, 8/18/19)  

Can our church community be a place of unbending? Saint Augustine, echoed centuries later by Martin Luther, defined human sin as being incurvatus in se.  That’s Latin for saying we somehow always manage to bend in on ourselves, rather than live outward toward neighbor and God.  Worship every week is chiropractic treatment of the mind, body and soul.  By grace we are unbent. The crooked is made straight so we may stand erect and celebrate our dignity as children of God.

Often, we don’t realize how bent-in we have become.  Once, I sat with a large group of people with a big pile of paper clips. (Have you done this?)  The facilitator said, ‘give yourself a paperclip if you had books in the house growing up.’  Take a paperclip if neighbors tend to welcome you in a new neighborhood. You get a paperclip if your parents went to college and/or if they benefited from the G.I. bill.  Conversely, give up a paperclip if you were homeless as a child, if a parent or caregiver suffered from mental illness, addiction, or died prematurely. You probably know what happened. Pretty soon I had a very long chain of paperclips—and so did the other educated, affluent, English speaking, mentally sound, straight, able-bodied, white, Christian men born in the U.S. in the room.

I’m ashamed to say, I felt pride at winning this game.  I sat there smiling when I noticed one of my colleagues holding back tears. He was visibly upset.  He had no paperclips.  Even those he had were taken away. That exercise held a mirror up to myself and the image reflected back was pretty twisted.  All the privileges afforded me by luck and the accidents of birth are connected to the suffering of my brothers and sisters who are being denied that same privilege. It was one step among thousands through which God has slowly, patiently, persistently transformed and matured me. It taught me how persons of goodwill, who want to do everything right, like the synagogue leader, perpetuate the suffering of others. 

Through anointing for healing (which our Parish Nurse, Marcia Smith makes available to you at the back of the church during Communion today), we receive a cross made with oil on our forehead.  A gesture for our body.  An invitation for our soul.  Our restless minds and hearts may go through all kinds of posturing, trying to figure how we can make our lives better, how we can survive our hurt.  We come forward to the Table this day with our hands open, our hearts open, our minds open.  We pray that Christ will show us the living bread that is real and everlasting.  Postures of waiting, postures of trust. Through these sacrament and symbols of the gospel, Christ bids us to rise, to stand up.  To receive the dignity that is ours.  To look others in the eye.  To see, even when bent over, our worth as children of God.  To notice not the mud below but the sky above.  And finally, to give thanks.  To give thanks for such a beautiful world and a compassionate, gracious God. 

Mary, Mother of our Lord

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth (Luke 1.39-40). A newly pregnant teenager makes for the hills. She doesn’t slow down until she reaches the home of her also-pregnant cousin.  She flees toward her kinswoman, toward refuge. She finds solidarity and sanctuary.

‘On a well-swept doorstep, two women meet to share the ancient, womanly experience of being with child. Mary and Elizabeth are two ordinary, pregnant women in the most extraordinary time and circumstances, on the brink of greatness, but first attending to their relationship with each other and with God. Motherhood is daunting for every woman, especially the first time, and these two women found themselves pregnant under most unusual and unexpected terms: one past the age to conceive, and the other unmarried. So, like women in every place and time, they spend time together, keeping each other company, learning and praying and perhaps laughing together, as they faced first-time childbirth and motherhood’ (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds).  

In his book, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey, Henri Nouwen asks what must have gone through Mary’s mind?  “Who could ever understand? Who could ever believe it? Who could ever let it happen? The Angel’s proposed plan was preposterous and dangerous, but Mary said “yes!”  When her kinswoman welcomes her, she bursts into song — a song so subversive, governments twenty centuries later will ban its public recitation. According to scripture, Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, or until John after was born. Then returned home to an uncertain future with Joseph in Nazareth (Luke 1: 56).

John the Baptist proclaimed of Jesus, “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). We must pause a moment to acknowledge the tragic and painful ways the beautiful story of Mary has been weaponized by the church against women. When the history of all the words said of Mary is laid before Jesus, a whole lot of unquenchable fire will be required to burn away the layers of misogyny and theological malpractice heaped upon Mary to obscure, nullify, and outright contradict her story.  How many women throughout history and across cultures have been bludgeoned with the cudgel of religious shame into self-loathing for failing to live up to the impossible standard of being both a virgin and a mother at the same time?

Yet, the self-righteous, the self-interested, the liars, bullies and Christmas marketing people could not steal the gospel from us. For them, Mary’s message contains surprises that will not be quiet. Mary’s spirit rejoices, not because Joseph bought her the perfect Christmas gift— but because “…[God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52b)  Mary’s song is essentially about social justice.

New Testament scholar Scott McKnight points out that in the 1980s, the government of Guatemala banned singing of Mary’s Magnificat for Christmas because, unlike Away in a Manger, this song was considered subversive and politically dangerous. “Authorities worried that it might incite the oppressed people to riot.” (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds)

The Magnificat was excluded from evening prayer in churches run by the British East India Company in colonial India. Years later, on the final day of imperial rule in India, Mahatma Gandhi requested Mary’s song be read everywhere the British flag was being lowered. The junta in Argentina forbade the singing of Mary’s song after the Mothers of the Disappeared displayed its words on placards in the capital plaza. And during the 1980s, the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador prohibited any public recitation of the song.

What made Mary’s song so dangerous?  Mary’s song of joy and faith is anthem of solidarity with the poor. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52a).  Mary and Elizabeth, like people of faith of every generation, expanded the powerful bond of their kinship with one another for belonging in the ever-widening circle of the kin-dom of God.  They shifted their allegiances and loyalties.  They went from living in an “us versus them” world, to a world of love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace for all.  That is why we celebrate Mary (and Elizabeth) today.  They are heroes of faith who show us the way to walk toward transformation and renewal by the way of the cross. 

Mary and Elizabeth afforded one another safety and strength through the gift of sanctuary.  Can we, like them, grow in our stated mission, striving to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace?  This month, our church, at its national Churchwide Assembly, voted to become a sanctuary denomination.  By this, the ELCA has publicly declared that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith. They affirmed that we are called to use our hands and voices in obedience to Jesus’ command to welcome the most vulnerable.  Specifically, the Churchwide Assembly’s resolution challenges us to seek for ways that we may provide concrete resources to respond to the needs of our human family who are suffering now—especially immigrants and asylum seekers.  This national resolution has drawn criticism for being too radical. Yet, in substance, how is it any different than Mary’s song? Mary’s song is a lullaby conjuring dreams of new worlds as we sleep.

This week, August 23-25, our nation commemorates the 400th anniversary of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Most of us learned about the arrival of 102 passengers on the Mayflower in 1620. What you didn’t learn in history class was that a year earlier, August of 1619, 20 enslaved Africans from the Kingdom of Ndongo in Angola landed at Point Comfort (now in Virginia) on the White Lion, a 160-ton English privateer slave ship.  The transatlantic slave trade was the biggest forced migration of people in world history.

The Mother of Exiles, the Statue of Liberty has a broken shackle and chain laying at her feet as she walks forward, to commemorate the national abolition of slavery in 1865.  Could Mary’s song of solidarity be the cure that alludes us? Can we finally stand with the children of those who never knew welcome to our shores, as members of one wonderfully diverse human family? In 1992, Toni Morrison told the Guardian newspaper: “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” When can our allegiances and loyalties shift? When will our national story expand to become part of the universal story—of the ever-widening circle of the kin-dom of God? Listening to Mary’s song will end the fever of racism animating the irrational, tragic, and self-defeating anger against people of color and immigrants today. 

In a world that longs for a gentle peace, a generous sharing of the goods of the earth, a time of quiet joy and healing, Mary points the way to becoming expectant with hope and filled to the brim with joy. See, even now we are being filled with joy and delight in God’s grace so that the song of our lives may give praise to God and our souls magnify God’s grace.

Proper 14C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Perhaps, it is part of the unfortunate legacy of the piety many of us grew up with we are apt to hear many reasons to judge ourselves reading today’s gospel. We list them out: “Do not be afraid…” “Sell your possessions…” “You must be ready…,” but miss the graceful promise. It is God’s great pleasure to give you treasure. There is no waiting. In fact, God has already done this. All that remains is the search. Except of course, we’d rather not search.  Who has time or energy to play games? Give us faith now.

Is it with wry humor that Jesus describes faith in this way? Scripture doesn’t say.  We remember how God poked fun at Jonah’s self-pity and discomfort as he lay beneath the withered broom tree.  Like Jonah, we protest. It’s so awful. Do you not see what is happening, how the land suffers, how hate walks the land, how people are at each other’s throats, how people are forced from their homes and lands by war, climate, famine, racism and injustice?  And now, I don’t even recognize my own country. We are entitled to feel weary. Yet as with Jonah, and all the faithful generations before us, God answers our complaints and self-doubting with a strange, excited non-sequitur: come and see! Take up your mat and walk! Have faith.

Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:34) He seems to consider that having faith is like accepting an invitation to undertake a great adventure, like a thrilling a hunt for buried treasure.  This illusive gift of faith aligns our hearts and minds, our striving and desire, with God’s promise to bring in the Kingdom. (The mission, should you accept it, is in building a neighborhood of God like the one our children imagined and created for us behind me.)  This faith, hidden in plain sight, clears our mind from fever dreams of conquest and control. It is God’s desire is to give us all these good things through faith.

Having faith is like hunting for treasure. It’s something we do, rather than something to possess. The hunt for treasure surely is a powerful lure. As a motivation it has few rivals in human history. Vacationing in New Mexico last week, we saw plenty of evidence of how the dream of literal and spiritual treasure carried Spanish priests and explorers of the 17thcentury over the ocean and across the desert plains throughout the American southwest within decades after Columbus. Many of us can testify how the dream of a better life inspired our immigrant ancestors to brave hardships and risk many dangers for the sake of the same hope. The same dream calls to immigrants and asylum seekers today.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). The faithful shall ‘be dressed for action and have [their] lamps lit.’ (Luke 12:35). To be faithful is to be restless, like those searching for a better life. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes that to have faith is to “Believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”(Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 20th century)

Mircea Eliade, the late professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, Divinity School, used to tell a story about a Polish rabbi from Kraców named Eisik.  Eisik had a recurring dream. In this dream he was told to travel more than 300 miles to Prague. There, under the bridge leading to the royal castle, he would find hidden treasure.  The dream repeated itself three times, and he decided to go.  In Prague he found the bridge, but it was guarded by soldiers. As he loitered nearby, one of the soldiers noticed him and asked him what he was doing.  The rabbi told his dream and the soldier burst into laughter. “Poor man,” the soldier said, “have you worn out your shoes coming all this way simply because of a dream?”  “I too, once had a dream,” said the soldier, “It spoke to me of Kraców, ordered me to go there and look for a treasure in the house of a rabbi named Eisik. The treasure was to be found in a dusty old corner behind the stove.”  “But,” said the soldier, “being a reasonable man and not trusting in dreams, I decided not to go.” The rabbi thanked the soldier, returned to Kraców, dug behind the stove, found the treasure, and put an end to his poverty.”

Being reasonable and not trusting has been the cause of premature death before the grave for countless human lives. Life presents us with a choice. We can be like the Rabbi or the soldier. To have life is to have faith and to have faith is to search, as one does for buried treasure. Like it or not, the essential ingredient to faith is human effort.

Like the rabbi, pursuing your faith dreams can be thrilling, surprising, even miraculous—even if as in today’s gospel—the only money Jesus talks about comes from your own pocket. Faith fills our hearts to overflowing. The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is complacency, apathy, resignation, and cynicism. As with the soldier, and like Jonah, life without faith predictably becomes self-pitying.

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Jesus invites us on a hunt for buried treasure—and God must have a sense of humor because the gospel tells us to dig—right under our nose! The unfailing treasure of grace is always found in the present moment even though it is also true that finding this treasure may require a kind of quest. Yet ultimately, as St. Teresa of Avila once said, “The truth is that the treasure lies within our very selves.”

When Rome was overthrown in 410 C.E., the great Christian theologian, Augustine, was asked why it was that Christians were so badly treated.  If God is so great, why didn’t God protect them?  Augustine’s answer was that the difference between people is not what happens to them, but in how they respond to what happens to them.

Faith means we need not fear the future.  Faith means we need not mourn the past. Our lives are difficult, but God is good.  Like Abraham and Sarah, our destiny is clothed in God’s abundance, our reward is cast as wide and deep and numerous as sand beside the sea, or the number of stars in the sky.

Proper 12C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Last Saturday, Kari and I attended a summer wedding. Our own Kevin Crowder married Katie Davis. I gave a nuptial blessing as part of a lovely ecumenical service that blended their Catholic and Lutheran traditions with beautiful music, thoughtful prayers, two great homilies and selections from scripture.  Marriage today celebrates love between equals, partners, who take turns being strong for each other, washing one another’s feet.

Lutheran pastor, historian, and scholar Martin Marty once described all of scripture as ‘love-letters from God.’  In today’s scripture, love and marriage give us the proper framework to understand what the heck is happening when we pray, guidance for how we should pray, and why we should do it without ceasing. 

Marriage is a metaphor for faith found in both the Hebrew and Christian Testaments.  However, it’s not like the one Kari and I experienced between Keven and Katie.  The marriage metaphor for faith is not one between equals.  It is loving and life-giving. But if we’re being honest, the covenantal vow of love between God and Israel; between Christ and the church; between Jesus and each of us—is according to Hosea, like a wedding between a prophet and a prostitute. (Ouch!  Prophets can be kind of mean.  And in case you are about to stand up and fight for the dignity of sex workers I commend you.  But maybe it makes a difference knowing Hosea wrote for an audience 2,700 years ago –although things are not all that different today.) 

Christ is the perfect groom and the Church is his imperfect bride. Christ looks lovingly on the Church, the people of God, who are corrupted and corroded, and covered with sin. The story of unequally yoked marriage partners is a parable about grace. It is the message that God loves sinful, imperfect people.

The inalienable dignity of every human being is rooted in the fact of this unearned love. In any marriage, even one between unequal partners, honest, vulnerable communication is necessary to sustain and even deepen the bond of love. The church calls this communication with God, prayer. In fidelity to this life-long covenantal loving relationship marked with water and the sign of the cross in baptism, nourished at the table where everyone is invited, and everyone has a place, we pray. 

The Lord’s Prayer provides a handy outline for all our prayers. Martin Luther called the Lord’s Prayer “a summary of the whole gospel.”  The Omaha Home for Boys published this memorable poem, “You cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer and even once say ‘I.’  You cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer and even once say ‘my.’  Nor can you pray the Lord’s Prayer and not pray for one another, and when you ask for daily bread, you must include your brothers and sisters.  For others are included in each and every plea, from the beginning to the end of it, it does not once say ‘me.’” By the way, neither does the Lord’s prayer say anything about damnation, nor does it even mention the name of Jesus.  I remember being surprised at hearing the Lord’s Prayer said at interfaith gatherings. It can be prayed by people of any faith community.

William H. Willimon comments, “It’s curious that physical deterioration has become the contemporary North American church’s main concern in prayer.  Jesus is most notable for teaching that we are to pray—not for recent gall bladder surgery—but for our enemies!” 

Prayer is the talking and listening that goes on between a lover and the beloved.  It is not a way to get something you want, like from Amazon, or to make something magical happen. We’re probably all guilty of praying this way at one time or another. “As if God were a cosmic gumball machine into which we can insert our prayers like so many shiny quarters to get whatever we want.” (Debi Thomas)

Ask, seek, knock. Talk to me, Jesus says, with your whole heart.  Pray like a psalmist, don’t hold anything back.  And what do we get for this?  Jesus gives us the answer. God answers all our prayers with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. That’s it.  That’s all.  That’s everything! 

In Luke’s gospel, there is no greater gift. The Holy Spirit empowers John the Baptist (1:15). The Holy Spirit enables Mary to bring forth the Savior (1:35). The Holy Spirit inspires Zechariah to prophesy (1:67) and Simeon and Anna to recognize the infant Jesus (2:28).  Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit. This Spirit is nothing less than the power of God to bring about redemption and new creation. 

This should make it clear the Lord’s Prayer isn’t just for church.  It’s an outline of talking points that goes with you everywhere –just like God does.  I have to tell you a story about the Lord’s Prayer that goes back to the 1960’s. 

Back then my parents joined a little Lutheran church in Ithaca, NY that helped hide the famous Vietnam-era war protesters, the Berrigan brothers, from the FBI.  The experience knocked the socks off my North Dakota farm kid parents.  The pastor preached the church’s mission was to challenge as much as to comfort. Ultimately the brothers became part of a group called the “Cantonsville Nine.”  On May 17, 1968, the nine went into the Selective Service offices in Catonsville, Maryland, and burned several hundred draft records in a direct action again the Vietnam War.  They were arrested, tried, and found guilty of destroying government property.  After the nine were sentenced, one of them, the Catholic priest named Daniel Berrigan, asked the judge if the Lord’s Prayer could be recited.  All in the courtroom, including the judge and the prosecuting attorneys, rose and joined in the prayer. Dan Berrigan and his brother were both sentenced to several years in prison.

Now what do you suppose God did with that prayer?  God only knows –but I’ll bet everyone in that courtroom knew they were human. Each of them stood equally in need of grace—that all of them were children of God.  In a time of great tension and division in our country, perhaps it helped those in authority and those who challenged authority respect each other for playing their part in a higher calling.

Prayer is a language of love between Christ and his bride –between us and God. Prayer talk fills us with the Holy Spirit.  Prayer joins us to each another. Prayer gives us eyes to see everything like Thea Bowman (1937–1990) did. Thea, a black Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration born in Mississippi, said “God is present in everything. In the universe, in creation, in me and all that happens to me, in my brothers and sisters, in the church, and in the Eucharist—everywhere… God is bread when you’re hungry, water when you’re thirsty, a harbor from the storm. God’s father to the fatherless, a mother to the motherless. God’s my sister, my brother, my leader, my guide, my teacher, my comforter, my friend…God’s my all in all, my everything.” (Thea Bowman: A Gift to the Church,” Modern Spiritual Masters: Writings on Contemplation and Compassion, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Orbis Books: 2008), 141-142.) Prayer changes hearts and minds.  Pray every day, without ceasing to renew your weary hearts, rekindle hope, find strength to answer weakness, and quench your dry thirsty soul.

Easter Sunday Immanuel Lutheran Chicago

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus only had time for a few last words before his arrest and crucifixion.  He told them to love one another as I have loved you. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

It’s interesting to notice what Jesus didn’t say.  He didn’t say ‘keep a systematic theology.’ He didn’t instruct them about proper worship, the sacraments, the priesthood, what to say or what to write down as gospel.  He urged them to love. In fact, he commanded them. Discipleship consists of loving one another the same perfect and unconditional way that God loves the whole world.

They sat in the second pew on the lectern side. Student pastor Betty Rendón, husband Carlos, daughter Paula, and grand-daughter Layla attended Immanuel for a year or so before leaving to serve Emaus Lutheran in Racine, Wisconsin. Betty had helped outreach to Latino familiesatMonday night tutoring, vacation bible school, and other community events. Layla was baptized in this church last July. ELCA bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod, Rev. Paul D. Erickson, said says the Rendóns have “been a blessing to every community that they’ve ever been a part of.”

Despite this, a week ago last Wednesday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents forced their way into Betty’s home with their guns drawn. They had violently apprehended Carlos outside the home, thrown him against his car, and ordered him to open the door.  Once inside they arrested Betty in her pajamas in front of her five-year-old granddaughter and reportedly were “jubilant” after the arrest. When they left, the ICE officers failed to secure the door. Their home was ransacked, and any items of value were stolen.

Betty and Carlos fled to the U.S. from Colombia with their daughter Paula after armed guerrillas attacked the school where Betty taught. They applied for asylum in the US but was eventually denied due to the lack of a police report, although Betty says everyone in the area knew of the attack. Once her appeals were exhausted, she was issued an order of deportation, but it was never executed.

Your church, this congregation, stands with Betty, Carlos, Paula and Layla –and with immigrant families everywhere. Members of Immanuel stood in an interfaith prayer vigil outside the detention facility last Wednesday night, and national Lutheran leaders have called on federal officials to release her from detention.  With help from Stephen Bouman and Mary Campbell of the ELCA’s AMMPARO Betty and Carlos have legal representation from the National immigrant Justice Center. In less than 24 hours, staff and members of Immanuel wrote letters of support demanding their release from custody and a stay of deportation. On Friday, we met with Paula, provided a small amount of material support, helped re-connect her to legal services, and we have prayed.

We pray for the children and families in detention facilities throughout our country being blamed and victimized for our broken immigration system. It’s not right. People fleeing violence deserve compassion and to be treated with dignity.  Children deserve our protection and care.  Jesus said, they will know you are my disciples in how you love one another. Whose disciple do we become when authorities, serving in our name, traumatize and even kidnap children?  When vulnerable people are demonized?  When an ELCA pastor and her family, dedicated to loving and serving God, are arrested and treated like violent criminals?  We work and pray for the soul of our nation even as we seek to do the work of the church, the work Jesus commanded us to do—love one another.

Throughout Easter, we read about people dreaming dreams. Our scriptures are filled with stories about people hearing voices. Our lessons come from people we could easily dismiss with a wave of the hand or a roll of our eyes. They are people just brave enough, or fed up enough, or foolish enough to cast the reality of what is aside and give themselves to try to make something better.

They are people who discovered a deeper life within the world as it is turns on an axis of mystery and grace. They are ordinary people who come to know that hearing voices and dreaming dreams is what leads to awakening in us all. They don’t hang up when the Holy Spirit calls. They don’t let it roll over into voicemail.  They accept the invitation, the opportunity, the challenge, the sacrifice, the grace, and the glory.

Mary acts on the advice of an angel.  Joseph cleaves to a startling choice while he is asleep.  Peter rises from a trance to proclaim a vision of a new humanity in Christ.  Afterword, Christianity would become a world religion rather than another obscure brand of Judaism. John “saw a new heaven and a new earth” including all the tribes and nations of earth living together in harmony with God in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21)

Jesus has given us, his disciples, a new commandment, a new mandate, a new standard by which to measure our progress toward an impossibly grand goal. They are among Jesus’ last words at the Last Supper on the night in which he was betrayed. Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

They will know we are Christians if we’re crazy enough, or brave enough, or fed up enough to live in such a way among ourselves that God’s dream of love for all things now living becomes a daily reality.  It’s what people of faith do, what we have always done and will continue to do.  Because Peter didn’t just go back to back to sleep.  He didn’t ignore the people standing outside his door.  He didn’t just tell people to shut up when his fellow Christians called him on the carpet to explain himself once he got back home.

Because we are people who hear voices and dream dreams that lead to awakening and transformation that is intended for the redemption of us all.  We stand with the hungry.  We stand beside the poor, the imprisoned, and the immigrant. We stand with Betty, Carlos, Paula, Layla –and Carlos’ cousin Felipé as one communion united in Christ.  We walk with the Spirit on the way to living the life God intended for us as children of a new humanity, citizens of the New Jerusalem, residents of a new heaven and a new earth, one people with God in harmony and solidarity with all the people of God.  And all the people say—Amen!