Posts

All Saints-A20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Ok breathe. Take a breath. Blessed are you, Jesus said. Beloved, remember each day begins in love. Jesus sermon on the mount seems tailor made for me this week, in these restless and fitful days of pandemic, social upheaval, and the looming presidential election. Blessed are you. Just breathe.

The people came on foot, or perhaps, by donkey. I wonder. What propelled those people out from the safety and comfort of their homes and towns into the wilderness to hear and see Jesus? What made them move, clanging and banging, with all their stuff behind him?

Somewhere in the dusty, rolling hills of Northern Israel, near the sea of Galilee, Jesus sat down. The disciples and a great crowd sat with him. They came from regions to the north, south, east, and west. They came from Syria, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. They sat at Jesus’ feet. The dust of those hills clung to their clothes. It was in their hair and on their feet. Blessed are you, Jesus said. Just breathe.

Their lives were not their own under Roman occupation. Paying taxes to Caesar left little to live on. Religious authorities were focused on helping themselves more than with serving God. The people went out of their way to hear and see Jesus because he opened the door to an upside-down world in, with, and under this one which he called ‘the kingdom of God.’ Some today call it the ‘kindom,’ because it is the family of God. All your heart, soul, and strength find their true purpose through being part of this family and in belonging to the one in whom we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28).

Jesus said the kindom is revealed in those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, in those who are merciful, who are pure in heart, who are peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. “Blessed are you,” Jesus said, “when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11). Just breathe. Breathe and know. You belong to the kindom of God.

Jesus’ words are strength for the weary. Jesus embodies hope for the hopeless. Those early followers gathered up Jesus’ words. They treasured them and pondered them. They chewed on them like bread. They drank them like water. Hearing and seeing Jesus restored their soul.

Some years ago, it was popular to wear a wristband with the letters WWJD, “What Would Jesus Do?” It was supposed to remind whoever wore it to keep their minds focused on Christ. Likewise, the sermon on the mount was written so the essential words and teaching of Jesus could travel with us everywhere. Instead of wearing it, early followers memorized it. Instead of WWJD it is WWJS –“What Would Jesus Say?”

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are you.’ Just breathe. Notice, Jesus’ sermon doesn’t contain a single “should,” “ought,” or “thou shalt.” There is no transactional language at all. No commandments. No moral directives. To embrace Jesus’ teaching was and is to live into an upside-down world where neighbor love is the prime and only directive. (Debi Thomas, The Great Reversal, Journey with Jesus, 10/25/20)

Presbyterian Pastor and author, Frederick Buechner, helpfully writes that Jesus’s upside-down kingdom is like this: “The world says, ‘Mind your own business,’ and Jesus says, ‘There is no such thing as your own business.’ The world says, ‘Follow the wisest course and be a success,’ and Jesus says, ‘Follow me and be crucified.’ The world says, ‘Drive carefully — the life you save may be your own’ — and Jesus says, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’ The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’” One way into the kindom of God is through Jesus’ teaching. WWJS, What would Jesus say?

Great works of fiction can offer us another way to see and live into life as part of God’s eternal family. C.S. Lewis, J.R. Tolkien, and George Lucas are modern examples. Ancient apocalyptic writing like we find in the Book of Revelation, or the Book of Daniel are another. Stories of long, long, ago and far, far away help us get deeper inside the here and now.

Somehow, we get terribly confused by this type of literature when we encounter it in the pages of the bible. Less so when we see it on the big screen. (I feel almost heart-sick about the trans-phobic trouble J.K. Rowling has gotten herself into recently. In the spirit of All Saints Day, I pray that one day God will help us sort it all out.) I mention her because in the climatic Book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling paints a scene that seems it could be written for All Saints.

The hero, Harry Potter, walks to certain death at the hand of the evil Lord Voldemort. He intends to sacrifice himself to protect his friends. But something he carries in his pocket, called the Resurrection Stone, enables the presence of four of the saints who have previously died for him to be there with him, and to talk with him. They give him the courage he needs for the task. They are Harry’s personal cloud of witnesses who give him faith to stand against evil with the power of love.
You see, we cannot enter the upside-down world of God’s kindom alone, but as members of one another. Each one of us remains unique and singular, yet also fully belonging to the one life we live in God. The blessed loved ones we remember today are still with us. They struggle with us. Their love continues to bless us. They remind us to breathe.

Rowling’s Harry Potter Saga, like the Book of Revelation, inspires faith in the power of God’s love as the only power in this world capable of ultimately standing against the hideous reality of human violence. They bring the mighty down from their thrones to elevate the outcast and the seemingly least powerful. As we read from Revelation, we have a place beside those who have come through the ordeal of the same oppressive, imperialistic human violence as Jesus did. We are washed clean in the blood of the lamb (Revelation 7:14). (Paul Nuechterlein, All Saints Day, cycle A, Girardian Lectionary, 10/30/20)

This week, of all weeks, the nation stands as if on the great continental divide of the Rocky Mountains. A glass of water poured out on one side of the divide ultimately finds its way to the Pacific Ocean, while water on the other side runs inevitably to the Atlantic. The path forward diverges into two futures. It’s stressful not knowing how it will all play out or where we will be when we meet again next Sunday. We pray. We watch. We vote! Yet regardless, whatever unfolds, we know. Beloved is where we begin. Just breathe. Breathe and know we belong to each other, and to the entire communion of saints in God.

Amen.

Proper 25A-20-Reformation
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It’s Reformation Sunday 2020. The church is decked out in red. A Mighty Fortress is our featured hymn. But there is no timpani drum, no brass band, no trumpet this year. The church is mostly empty this morning. Like you, I’m at home, as is the lector, and assisting minister. As you listen to each of us lead worship there is silence in the sanctuary on this festival day. Plans included the rite of confirmation, a well-deserved milestone moment celebrating the faith life of one our special youth. But like everything this year, our plans have changed. Sam was folding his laundry here at my house Thursday night when he got a phone call. A co-worker tested positive for the virus. So now we’re quarantined due to possible exposure to Covid-19. Graciously, Natalie and her family agreed. Confirmation will be rescheduled.

Reformation is not only our theme today. It is our lived reality. Pandemic, upheaval, awakening, and record-breaking events are daily news. This year gives a new perspective on Martin Luther and the reformers. Living through a Reformation is much different than celebrating one from a safe distance of 500 years. The future promised them nothing. They could not say whether or when they might be arrested, attacked, or killed. Every day could prove to be their last. Yet they met such grave uncertainty with faith. Faith was their compass in the storm.

There is a storm today. The Reformation brought dramatic religious, political, economic and cultural change that upended people’s lives. Today’s Reformation includes all of these and one more—ecological change. In 2020 Reformation is literally reshaping the landscape. Three of the largest wildfires in Colorado history occurred this year and two are still burning. Snow is falling today over the Northern Rockies providing relief to communities throughout the State. The Cameron Peak fire burned to within 15 miles of our family home in Fort Collins. Fire still threatens Sky Ranch Lutheran camp, the YMCA of the Rockies, Rocky Mountain National Park, and much of the rest of my childhood stomping grounds. Smoke covers the cities along the front range like a thick fog. It’s difficult to see and hard to breath. Two air purifiers work to make sleeping easier for my mom. Now she has two reasons—the smoke and Covid—to feel unsafe going outside.

There is a storm today. In 2020 Reformation threatens cherished institutions of democracy, the constitution and the balance of powers. Political parties are hardening into tribes and go to war. Each calls the other evil. In 2020 Reformation is proving we need a new economic yardstick. Endless growth in GDP is not good economics if the result is planetary death. True prosperity will be achieved when every person has access to life’s essentials in ways the planet can sustain. In 2020 Reformation is giving breathe to those who could not breathe. People of color, women, native American, LGBTQ, and gender queer people are finding that their voices can be heard, and their suffering can finally be seen when it is video streamed through a cell phone. In 2020 Reformation is seeing that children are children are children regardless of their religion, or whether they live in affluent zip codes or poor zip codes, whether they are in war zones or refugee camps. The storm is upon us in 2020, both threatening and promising. Like Martin Luther and the reformers before us, faith must be our compass if we are not to be overwhelmed and undone.

Yet, when we are fearful, anxious, and uncertain faith is most difficult. The faithful way forward is counter-cultural, unexpected, appears foolish, even sentimental in the midst of life’s storms. Yet faith has proven itself trustworthy. Faith reliably leads to healing, reconciliation, flourishing, and shared abundance.

Jesus demonstrated this faith throughout his life but especially in his last days before death on the cross. In our gospel today, it’s the Pharisees turn to play gotcha with Jesus. The Sadducees, Scribes and Herodians all struck out. ‘Teacher’, they ask, ‘Which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ (Matthew 22:36). Jewish scholar’s painstaking careful reading of the Hebrew bible resulted in a list of 613 commandments. Citing any one of them as the greatest would be cause for controversy and trouble.

It all boils down to this, Jesus said: love God and love people. Loving people is a measure of your love of God. Jesus combined the famous Shema from the book of Deuteronomy and the Golden Rule from Leviticus. My Jewish friend has a mezuzah nailed beside every door in his home, each containing the Shema—Deuteronomy 6:4—‘Hear O Israel the Lord is our God…You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The golden rule is, ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18).

Love. That’s it. Sounds too easy. To navigate the stormy conflicts of worldwide Reformation faith must again be our compass. Faith in love must be our guide. Specifically, faith in loving our neighbor will pave the path from chaos to salvation. It’s that simple. It’s that amazing.

Yet even such simple advice proves confusing. We tend to think of love as a feeling. “A spontaneous and free-flowing feeling that arises out of our own enjoyment, our own sense of kinship and affinity. We don’t think of it as discipline, as practice, as exercise, as effort. We fall in love. We insist that love is blind, that it happens at first sight, that it breaks our hearts, and that its course never runs smooth. We talk and think about love as if we have little power or agency in its presence.” (Debi Thomas, The Greatest Commandments, Journey with Jesus, 10/18/20).

Yet for Jesus, love is not only something that just happens to you. It’s a commandment. Have faith in love. Just do it. To love as Jesus loved is to stand in the presence our enemies, and desire what is best for them. To love as Jesus commands is to weep with those who weep. “To laugh with those who laugh. To touch the untouchables, feed the hungry, welcome the children, release the captives, forgive the sinners, confront the oppressors, comfort the oppressed, wash each other’s feet, hold each other close, and tell each other the truth” (Thomas). To love as Jesus loves is to guide each other home through the storm because love is the difference between Reformation and decimation.

Of course, the only way to have and to possess such love is to be continually filled with it to overflowing through the grace of God. By faith alone, by grace alone, through the Word alone the Spirit leads us through the storm of Reformation just as our ancestors were led. In the words of one who’s lived it, Martin Luther, “If they take our house, goods, fame, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The kingdom’s ours forever!”

God’s love is beyond human love, but this does not mean it lacks feeling.
Being Christian is “about participating in God’s passion. This is what we are called to. So, ultimately, being Christian is about loving God and changing the world. It’s as simple and challenging as that, and it is the way of life.” (Marcus Borg)

I close with a prayer written by the North African bishop, St. Augustine, some 1,600 years ago: “O God, from whom to be turned is to fall, toward whom to be turned is to rise, and in whom to stand is to abide forever. Grant us in all our duties your help, in all our perplexities your guidance, in all our dangers your protection, and in all our sorrows your peace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, our Body, and our Blood, our Life and our Nourishment. Amen.

Reformation Sunday, 2019

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

When I was five, I fell asleep on the back of my grandpa’s tractor while he was cutting hay. I got a big ball of dirt and grass in my lungs. “Pneumonia,” they said. I would need regular injections of penicillin. In those days there were no pills to take.  So, that’s how I missed the first two weeks of kindergarten laying in a hospital bed.

I remember the big yellow school bus that came to pick me up my on first day of school-mostly because my mom took a picture of me and our dog, Rusty, standing beside the road.

That same day, for the ride home, my teacher attached a big manila tag to a button on my shirt. It had the bus number written in big black letters. “You still need that tag?” One of the kids asked disbelievingly. After two weeks, the other kids already knew their bus by heart. “You still need that tag?” That question is probably the only other thing I still remember about my first day. How’s it possible you still don’t know? I’m thankful my teacher kept track of my story and took care to provide me with it, because yeah, I did need it. I needed that tag to find my way home again.

Well, the people of Israel should have known. After Exodus, Mt. Sinai, and entry in the Promised Land, they had no excuse.  One could have asked the Israelites, ‘You still need reminding about this whole God thing?”  Well, yes. Yes, they did still need reminding.  So, God wrote a big note for them. It was already written in the book of the Law and the Prophets.  But now, God wrote in big letters on sticky note placed directly on their hearts.  “I will be your God, and you shall be my people… I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33 & 34.)  God is still doing that. In fact, God is that kind of parent who is always leaving us notes.

Jesus commanded that we be baptized and that we meet him at his Table. These are not prerequisites of grace. They’re not how we merit status as God’s children. They’re sticky notes of grace. Remember, you are marked with the cross of Christ.  You are my child. Partake of living bread and drink of my lifeblood. You are one body, one blood, one people, and that’s the truth.

In the Roman Praetorium, standing before Jesus on the night of his crucifixion, Pilate famously asked, “What is truth?” In a time when we can’t even agree about facts, could there be a more modern question? Jesus showed us what to do in chaotic and confusing times.  Look within yourself. See what’s written there. Remember your baptism. Don’t forget what I taught you seated around my Table. Jesus said, if are my disciples you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)

They said to Jesus, “What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free?’” (John 8:33b) We have never been slaves to anyone. They had forgotten their ancestors in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. They overlooked their own obvious everyday reality of Roman occupation.  It’s easy to get lost when you can’t remember where you come from.  It’s hard to know which choice is right when you don’t know where you’re going.

We know its flu season now, but each day of the year is sin season. Blindness to the truth, and forgetting our core values rooted in our God-infused identity, are symptoms of sin.  The antidote is written on your heart, marked on your forehead, and in the food we share today. Remember who you are.  This truth, as Martin Luther said, is what cures the fever dream we all have when our mind, energy, and desire become curved in on ourselves and begin to blot out any thought for God and neighbor. This truth restores us from the many ways we put our self in the place of God.

Lutheran pastor and author, Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, “It can be alcoholism or passive aggression. It can be the hateful things we think but never say or it can be adultery, or it can be that feeling of superiority when we are helping others. Sin is the fact that my ideals and values are never enough to make me always do what I should, feel what I should, think what I should. And anything that reveals those “shoulds” to me is what we call The Law, the Law being the very thing Paul in his letter to the Romans said reveals sin. The “shoulds” in our lives are the things that make us see how far off the mark we are.” Sin is so devious and cunning we can get lost even in our attempt to do what’s right.

This truth sparked the Protestant Reformation. Luther knew what is was like for the Law to convict and accuse him. Feeling this way, Luther read that passage we just heard from Romans, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift.” (Romans 3:23 & 24). Luther realized the church was pawning off Law as Gospel, and he dared to know the difference, and he became a preacher of Grace, and that changed everything.

To quote a single sentence from Pastor Bolz-Weber: “Because God is our creator and because we rebel against the idea of being created beings and insist on trying to be God for ourselves and because God will not play by our rules and because in the fullness of time when God had had quite enough of all of that God became human in Jesus Christ to show us who God really is and because when God came to God’s own and we received him not, and because God would not be deterred God went so far as to hang from the cross we built and did not even lift a finger to condemn but said forgive them they know not what they are doing and because Jesus Christ defeated even death and the grave and rose on the 3rd day and because we all sin and fall short and are forever turned in on ourselves and forget that we belong to God and that none of our success guarantee this and none of our failures exclude this and because God loves God’s creation God refuses for our sin and brokenness and inability to always do the right things to be the last word because God came to save and not to judge and therefore…therefore you are saved by grace as a gift and not by the works of the law and this truth will set you free like no self-help plan or healthy living or social justice work “shoulds” can ever do.” (Nadia Bolz Weber, “Why the Gospel is More Wizard of Oz-y than the Law,” 10/29/12)

Whether or not you are wearing your bus tag, whether you have been baptized or not, whether or not you come to the Table –the truth is you were created in the image of God. You carry a spark of the infinite within your narrow, mortal frame. All things come from God and return to God. That is how we know where we come from and to where we’re going. That is how we know what will matter most when we get there. They were thirsty. Did you give them something to drink? They were hungry and you gave them something to eat. They were cold or naked and we comforted them. And that’s the truth. Truth to live and to die by.  It is written on our hearts, marked on our foreheads, and in the sack lunch we eat each week –so we don’t forget.  We can’t forget –never forget—we belong to Christ. One body, one blood, one living sanctuary of hope and grace.