Posts

Proper 17B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” We rely upon mirrors every day, and unfortunately, like the evil queen in the 1812 Brothers Grimm fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, mostly they remind us that the answer to this famous question is ‘not me.’  Am I the only one? Or do mirrors somehow compel, even beautiful people, to focus on the negative. I can’t stop noticing and regretting this terrible haircut!

Mirrors are everywhere, but before 1835, they were rare. Only wealthy people had mirrors. Probably no one had a full-length mirror. In ancient times they were made of polished stone or metal. Reflected images were often faint and distorted. I wonder, how would our lives be different without so many mirrors around?

Fortunately, there is another type of mirror which returns our gaze with love, calls forth our best attributes, that fills our hearts with joy and stills our minds with shalom. Our scriptures today point to a different way to see ourselves regardless of our physical appearance, our clothing style, or our haircut!

A mirror by its nature reflects impartially, equally, effortlessly, spontaneously, and endlessly. It does not produce the image, nor does it filter the image according to its perceptions or preferences. A mirror can only call forth what is already there.  Well, one indelible element of who you are whether you are sleeping or awake is the likeness and image of the living God (Genesis 1:27). God has written the Law in your heart (Jeremiah 31:33).  James writes, ‘God’s Word implanted within you has the power to save your souls’ (James 1:21). Each of you is gifted and blessed with the indwelling and Holy Spirit.

The true and essential work of all religion is to help us recognize the divine image in everyone and every thing.  Looking in a regular mirror we see our natural face; yet one who looks into the gospel, which James calls, the perfect law of liberty, sees their ideal self, the version of your God dreams for you to be.  In this divine mirror, we see our true self in relationship to God.  This image does not fade from memory because we can look upon this mirror wherever we are. In the light of God’s grace, this truth is reflected within us and shines through us into the world through deeds, words, and even by our very presence.

Here’s how the Franciscan mystic Bonaventure (c. 1217–1274) described this mirroring: “We can contemplate God not only outside us and within us but also above us: outside through his vestiges [creations], within through his image and above through the light which shines upon our minds, which is the light of Eternal Truth.” (Richard Rohr, “Mirroring the Mind of Christ,” Daily Meditations, 8/24/21)

The letter of James is talking about an implanted knowing in each of us—an inner mirror, if you will. Today, many would just call it “consciousness,” and poets and musicians might call it the “soul.” Perhaps these terms are interchangeable, approaching the same theme from different backgrounds and expectations. Elsewhere, 1 John puts it quite directly: “My dear people, we are already the children of God” and in the future “all we will know is that we are like God, for we shall finally see God as God really is!” (1 John 3:2) (Rohr).

Jesus was critical of that way of being religious that wants to judge, and ‘lord it over’ others. In today’s gospel, Jesus is less worried about outward behavior that deviates from religious norms than about attitudes of the heart that picks fights, judges others, and sacrifices joy to deadly seriousness.  Mark’s gospel points us toward a spiritual mindfulness centered on the desire to share God’s graceful, abundant life. Look and see! It is in the world because it’s here already in you.

“The “image of God” is absolute and unchanging; it is pure and total gift, given equally to all. There is nothing we humans can do to increase or decrease it. It is not ours to decide who has it or does not have it, deciding who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down, who is “going to heaven” and who is not” (Rohr). Instead, good religion wrestles with the question of how best to love one another.  Good religion works harder to listen than to argue.  Good religion encourages us to risk ourselves in hospitable service to the stranger because good religion focuses on the living God within each of us. Good siblings in Christ help and support one another to see their own reflection in the divine mirror deep within themselves.

“I.C.N.U.” Just like “W.W.J.D.” ICNU can be a helpful acronym. Often it is easier to see the Divine spark in others rather than ourselves. I see in you unique gifts and talents.  I see in you a call to serve, a spirit of joy, a reflection of the spirit of God. This week I was talking to a play group mom who said, “I don’t make it to church as often as I would like. We’ve been to worship a couple times on Christmas Eve, but I feel passionate about the Lutheran church. The message of grace is what we need. It is so refreshing and in contrast to what the big-box churches are saying.  The Playgroups, and particularly Michelle and Gary Knapp, have been such a blessing in our lives.”  ICNU.  Where might you have glimpsed God at work in a person you know? Have you told them? We must help each other to see more clearly.

In your mind’s eye, how do you tend to see yourself?  Through the lens of popular culture?  In the harsh objectifying light of the male gaze? In the internalized criticisms of cruel parents and false friends?  Look instead to the divine mirror within.  Find your reflection in the mind of Christ who dwells in you. Pause to notice God at work in others, in living things, in the earth, and sky. Many are shocked to discover with great joy that same beauty and spark of life dwells within them now and always.

When we bring our focus upon this divine mirror, we are not surprised to find God at work in places we have never been and in people we do not know. We are not afraid to learn and to grow. We do not retreat into moralism and forsake social justice. We do not circle the wagons of traditionalism as if somehow God is to be found in the past and not in the present, or that God cares more about preserving past glories than in working to ensure all life continues to survive and flourish.  We are not afraid to follow the Holy Spirit. We can do this because God is in us, with us, and for us. Immanuel. Look and see. God call us forth to be our best, to be filled with joy, to love and serve one another just as God does.

Proper 10B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

If you stand with your back to the famous Trevi fountain and toss a coin over your left shoulder you are guaranteed a return trip to Rome. Or so, it is said. Thousands make their wish, and cast their coins every day. It takes an hour each day just to sweep them all up. I’m told $15,000 a week, or almost $1 million a year, is collected and distributed to the poor this way. Interestingly, Chicago’s Buckingham Fountain, one of the biggest in the world, makes only about $200 a year. I remember giving coins to my kids to make a wish. All the coins in all the fountains of the world now glisten with a hoped-for wish.

“What should I ask for?” was the question Salome put to her mother, Herodias after her seductive dance won so much drunken admiration from her father, the king, he promised her anything –whatever she asked for—even half his kingdom! (Mark 6:23).

What would you ask for? If someone very rich and powerful promised to grant whatever you wanted? An invitation to Herod’s place was what many aspiring people in Jesus’ time wished for. His palace, next to the Sea of Galilee, rivalled any in the Roman Empire. He demanded the best of everything. Extravagant appointments, exotic entertainment, incredible food, wine, and all the best sort of people.

Herod’s impulsive grandiosity was exceeded only by the murderous treachery of his wife, Herodias, who saw in her daughter’s question an opportunity to end her quarrel with John the Baptist. What should she ask for? John’s head. Which the young girl did—adding her own sordid twist to the tale by requesting that it be brought to her on a platter.

What would I wish for? It’s hard to say. Imagine if the very same invitation came from God. Does that change your answer? Amazingly in scripture, we hear over and over again that God does. Jesus said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15.7). And again, “I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11.24). In the parable of the Prodigal Son, God reveals their own grandiose and reckless character—just like King Herod—is directed exactly opposite from Herod, toward loving all people as their own beloved children. God watches and waits for us to return from our wandering ways with a constant vigilance born of both hope and grief.

It is ironic and fateful that bad king Herod was a direct consequence of the people’s own answer to the question of what to ask God for –from a thousand years before. In the days of the prophet Samuel, “…all the elders of Israel gathered together and asked the prophet Samuel to appoint for them a king. They wanted what all the other nations had. They wanted an earthly king, a standing army, a fortified city, and all the other accompanying signs of their growing power and prestige. In other words, be careful what you wish for.

The all-too-familiar story of death and the exercise of capricious, immature, unilateral power is our gospel today. The execution of John the baptizer, opens a window through which to glimpse the stark contrast between the gospel of Christ and the ways of power that operate in the world. Mark insists that we see this. Mark’s gospel intertwines the story of John and Jesus almost from the very beginning. All the way back in chapter one, Mark told us it was “…after John was arrested, [that] Jesus came to Galilee, [following his baptism by John] proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!” (Mark 1:14).

What should you ask for, wish for, strive for, pray for? The answer to life’s riddle is the secret message of Christ’s gospel hidden in plain sight: live and love as Jesus did. To open the path to your heart’s deepest desire do as Jesus does for Christ to live in you, and for your heart and mind to be changed so that things like infinity, mystery, and forgiveness can resound within you. Our small minds cannot see Great Things because the two are on two different frequencies or channels, as it were. “The Big Mind can know big things, but we must change channels. Like will know like” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, A Tree of Life, 7/11/21).

King Herod heard something like this from John the Baptist. It perplexed and fascinated him to hear the truth about his life from the voice of a wild and wooly man whom he had imprisoned from the deep desert rather than from the corridors of power. God’s saving Word rang in his ears and sang to his heart, but he couldn’t “go there.” Herod never crossed over from spectatorship to discipleship.

How often do we fall into the same trap that Herod did? How different would the story be if Herod passed this test? But he doesn’t. He fails. When push comes to shove, his casual fascination with the truth isn’t enough to transform him. He remains a hearer of the good news — not a doer” (Debi Thomas, Greatly Perplexed, Journey with Jesus, 7/04/21).

Bad King Herod’s extraordinary banquet for the rich and powerful became an occasion for bitterness and betrayal. It exposed his foolishness, his precarious grip on power and lack of control. By contrast, in the passage immediately following our gospel today, Jesus bid people from everywhere to sit on the grass and provided them a feast of abundance for 5,000 men and their families from five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus’ outdoor potluck picnic became an occasion for generosity and joy. It revealed the wisdom of Christ’s gospel and the power of grace to unlock human hearts.

The Lord said to the prophet Amos, “See I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel.” (Amos 7:7b). The gospel of Christ is such a plumb line against which to measure the thru line of our dreams. The plumb line of Christ’s gospel helps us to see the difference between Herod and John is the difference between success as the world measures it, and lasting significance. Let all the coins at the bottom of every fountain proclaim: the things worth wishing for, the things that last, the things that make our life’s striving shine in glory accrue to us as we strive for a better world and love one another. What should I ask for? Who can ask for anything more than this – to love one another as God has loved us? To love and be loved in return? Then justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

Easter 2B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Lutheran pastor and historian, Martin Marty, recalls a story of a summer day in his boyhood town of West Point, Nebraska, when one of those grand miracles of childhood occurred. A watermelon truck flipped over right in front of his house.  The driver was not injured. He jumped out to watch helplessly as neighborhood kids from everywhere raced to the scene of that blessed event and dove into the spilled cargo for a sticky picnic on the pavement.  Right in front of Marty’s house!

That was the good news.  The bad news was that he was out of town that day visiting his grandmother.  Alas. Life is like that sometimes. We happen to be where the action isn’t.  While other kids are there to catch the bouncing watermelons, we’re miles away.

And so it was, for the disciple Thomas –same as for you and me—and just about every other Christian who has ever lived.  We were not in the tomb where it happened. We missed Jesus’ party with the disciples on Easter night. So, like Thomas perhaps, we too have a hard time reconciling the Easter story with our own understanding of the way the world works. Like Thomas, we lament, if only Jesus would appear to us then our questions would be answered, then we could have faith, then we’d really believe –right?  Thomas was emphatic, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails in his hands, and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 19: 25b).

Well, one lesson we could take from today’s gospel is, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ When the moment finally comes, Thomas doesn’t insist on any of these things.  His response is one part contrition and one part exclamation, “My Lord, and my God!” (vs. 28). Why? Could it be in that moment, Thomas realized Jesus’ resurrection was not merely about what happened to Jesus?

The Christian claim has always been far more radical.  The Easter story is about our own resurrection from the dead. “It is saying that we also are larger than life, Being Itself, and therefore made for something good, united, and beautiful…The problem is not that you have a body; the problem is that you think you are separate from others—and from God. And you are not!” (Richard Rohr)

Jesus, whom they betrayed, did not return with vengeance, but peace, shalom, oneness, reconciliation, and unity with the undying life of God.  Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (vs. 22). The word is ‘emphusao.’  It’s the same word used in Genesis (chapter 2). God breathed life into the nostrils of the earth-man and he became a living being. It’s the same word used in Ezekiel 37. God breathed life into the dry bones of Israel so that they returned to life and stood on their feet a vast multitude.  This Easter story is Pentecost and creation rolled into one.

John invites us to face our doubts, speak our fears, and yearn for more. Thanks to the story of Thomas, we’re invited to say the “heretical” things we might very well feel as we descend from the mountaintop of Easter to look for the risen Christ in the midst of the world.

Jesus gives permission to learn wisdom and humility from our doubts, questions, and failings, and not just to repress them out of fear. To reach the goal of Christian maturity it will be necessary for us to be immature. (Little Arabella, who will be baptized today, didn’t hear that.) God is an expert at working with mistakes and failure. In fact, that is about all God does. Mistakes do not seem to be a problem for God; they are only a problem for our ego that wants to be perfect and self-sufficient. We first tend to do things wrong before we even know what right feels like. I am not sure there is any other way. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation series on Human Bodies)

Jesus pointed to his wounds and said, “see, as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Show me your wounds, Jesus says, and I will show you your strengths.  Show me your love of others and I will show you the fruits of the kin-dom of God. One of the great ironies in the history of Christianity is that Jesus came with the gift of peace and proclaimed a gospel of love with authority over Caesar. Yet, somehow, over and over again, we have made our Lord Jesus into a kind of Caesar who rules from a distant throne, who heaps misery upon those who question, and withholds grace from those who fail him.

But look, God answers with a blessed event unfolding now like an overturned truck filled with watermelons!  We testify “…to what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life –so that you may have fellowship with us” (1 John 1:1).  We testify to what Thomas and the first Christians learned at Easter that every Christian is an eyewitnesses to the resurrection.

One of those eyewitnesses of the resurrection, is Julian of Norwich [1343–c. 1416].  She lived her entire life during a raging pandemic, the bubonic plague. Despite being ignored because she was a woman, she found her voice. She is credited with writing the first book in English by a woman. Today her works are influential among theologians and the faithful alike.  Julian taught that each of our lives is part of a glorious whole. Each life, so miniscule in and of itself, is connected to the vast web of life held in being by God.  A watermelon truck of grace is spilled out before us.

Julian wrote, “God is within us, at home, patiently and kindly awaiting our recognition. As Maker of all, God is in everything, present in all places and at all times…All those who are on the spiritual path contain the whole of creation, and the Creator. That is because God is inside us, and inside God is everything. And so, whoever loves God loves all that is.”  (The Showings of Julian of Norwich: A New Translation, Mirabai Starr (Hampton Roads: 2013), 23–24.

Christ is here and we are witnesses.  Christ is here at the font. Christ is here at the table.  Christ is alive in our questions. Jesus is among us now.  We see Christ in each other, and especially, in the poor, the stranger and the outsider.  Christ is not dead but lives when we speak the truth of our differences in love, taking care to strengthen the body of Christ and not to tear it down.  In Christ we become wounded healers.  Christ unlocks the doors closed by fear and leads us out. He spreads a banquet before us –a joyful surprise—like a feast of watermelon poured out at our feet. Enjoy!

Easter B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I have Easter morning memories of wicker-woven baskets lined with fluorescent green plastic grass and princess pony purple paper, colorful foil-wrapped chocolate eggs and bunnies, oh-my-God yellow marshmallow chicks and jellybeans. It was fun making hand-dyed, hard boiled eggs, as is hiding the plastic ones for egg hunts. There were fancy new clothes at Easter, especially for mom and my sisters, and a big holiday meal, featuring ham, lamb, or turkey—or, sometimes, all three.

Easter has always been a bit over the top. Easter isn’t embarrassed to show its pre-Christian roots celebrating the Spring Equinox, and joyful commemorations of the passing of winter, and of the miracle of fertility as evidenced by the blooming of flowers, buds on the trees, and baby bunnies—lots of bunnies!
But Easter has also always been about something more. There is another, deeper meaning of Easter not made for children’s ears or mass consumer consumption. It is harder to swallow than a fist full of jellybeans. Easter is by definition, unsettling, disruptive, and messy.

All four gospels follow the women as they go to the tomb early Easter morning. They expect to find a body. Instead, they find an empty tomb and an outrageous message. Christ is risen. (He is risen, indeed, alleluia). Yet they are not overjoyed but filled with fear. Trembling and bewildered, Mark’s gospel tells us they “fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8)

The fact that we are gathered here, two thousand years later, is evidence that eventually they in fact tell someone. Yet “Mark’s ending points to a truth that often gets lost in the celebration: Easter is a frightening prospect. For the women, the only thing more terrifying than a world with Jesus dead was one in which he was alive.” (Esau McCaulley, The Unsettling Power of Easter, The New York Times, 4/02/21)

It would be easier to be left alone in our grief. Anti-Black racism; the anti-Asian racism; the anti-Trans phobia; the struggles of families throughout the world fleeing war, poverty, and disease; the rising body count after a mass shooting, the looming threat of mass-extinction; the collective shrug of indifference to all this pain and suffering because we are too addicted to our guns, and our violence, and our fluorescent green plastic grass is familiar, predictable. Keep your mouth shut, your doors locked and your eyes closed. Get what you can for as long as you can. Drown out the world with Netflix and alcohol and the whatever the next big consumer event on the calendar is.

We put it all in a tomb that contains our dead hopes and dreams for what our families, our neighborhood, our church, or the country could be. We are left with only our tears. We know how to walk with the women to the grave. They were not looking for hope. They wanted a quiet place to comfort one another in their grief and despair. “The terrifying prospect of Easter is that God called these women to return to the same world that crucified Jesus with a very dangerous gift: hope in the power of God, the unending reservoir of forgiveness and an abundance of love. It would make them seem like fools. Who could believe such a thing? Christians, at their best, are the fools who dare believe in God’s power to call dead things to life.” (McCaulley)

That is the testimony of the church still here after two thousand years. It’s not that we have good music (we do), or stirring liturgy (we do), or a tradition of good preaching (we do). The testimony of the church is that “in times of deep crisis we somehow become more than our collective ability. We become a source of hope that did not originate in ourselves.” (McCaulley)

We are beyond ready to return to a post-pandemic world of parties, nightlife, large venue gatherings, and rejoicing. It’s true. Parties have their place. But let’s not forget what this year has taught us in vivid detail. We will return to a world of hatred, cruelty, division and a thirst for power that was never quarantined. The unsettling power of Easter has rolled away the stone, opened our eyes, our minds, and hearts. It must open our hands, our wallets, and our calendars too.

If there is one thing today’s strange gospel story should teach us, it is that it is okay to be afraid. Fear is an enemy to faith, but God seems not to judge us too harshly for it. Fear is an almost constant theme throughout the gospels. Peter walks on water beside Jesus, until fear sent him sinking beneath the waves (Matthew 14:29). Out of fear, the disciples fail to recognize Jesus’ authority over the storming wind and waters, (4:40-41). Peter suggested they build booths on the mountain of Christ’s transfiguration out of fear (9:6). Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death elicited much fear and consternation (9:32). In all cases, fear isolates the disciples from Jesus. Fear gets in the way of God’s plan for them and for us. In the silence of the empty tomb, the theme of human failure in Mark’s gospel is complete. The religious authorities, the people of Jesus’ hometown, the disciples, the crowds, the Roman authorities, and even the women, all fail him. (R. Alan Culpepper, Mark). The hostility that put Jesus on the cross reduced them all to flight and fearful silence.

Scholars say, Mark wrote this gospel for a church that was small, and on the margins, feeling expendable, and suffering some form of religious and economic persecution. The message that God triumphed in Christ despite the failures of the first disciples must have come as quite a relief. God can bring faith even out of human weakness, fear, and failure. Perhaps that’s what’s most unsettling about Easter. We must die to ourselves in a death like his in order to be born again into a life like his.

“The mystery of the cross teaches us how to stand against hate without becoming hate, how to oppose evil without becoming evil ourselves. We find ourselves stretching in both directions—toward God’s goodness and also toward recognition of our own complicity in evil. In that moment, we will feel crucified. We hang in between, without resolution, our very life a paradox held in hope by God (see Romans 8:23–25).” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, 3/30/21). Easter issues this post-pandemic challenge. Freed from death and the power of death, freed from fear, daring to hope, see, we are the fools who dare believe and know, God has power to call dead things to life.

Advent 2B-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Comfort O Comfort my people, says the Lord. Speak tenderly to them (Isaiah 40:1&2). Comfort is hard to come by this holiday season. It’s time to celebrate small victories. Did I tell you? We sat on the back porch for Thanksgiving this year. Kari’s parents came down from Milwaukee. We ate at separate tables wrapped in electric blankets. It worked! What’s more, the day before Thanksgiving, we went out and bought a tree. It must be the earliest day ever for us.

Celebrate small victories. Give thanks for creature comforts. You don’t have to keep it all together after everything has already fallen apart. So, this Friday, December 11th, 2020 at 6:00 PM, I hereby declare, according to the authority entrusted to me as your pastor, theologian in residence, and official keeper of the keys, special dispensation to join us on Zoom to sing Christmas carols despite it still being Advent –and it not truly being caroling for neighbors in nursing homes or shut-ins. I only wish it could be so. You have my blessing to set up your tree, or to wear a silly sweater, to bake cookies and eat them all, and/or to do whatever it is that helps you through these pandemic days with a smile and with grace.

But listen! Incline your ear and hear again to tales from of old of God’s grace and of the voice crying out in the wilderness. This year when our holidays are all messed up, our days tinged with grief, and we shake our heads in frustration and longing, there is an opportunity in it to draw closer to hearing the still-speaking God in this season of Advent.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1). These words resonate today despite being more than 2,500 years old. They are from a time, the Psalmist sings (Psalm 137), when the people lived in exile and could not sing. “By the waters of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept. Our tormentors asked us to sing songs of Zion. How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1 & 4)

Their homes had been destroyed and their families ripped apart. They lived in slavery for 49 years –fully two generations. These words we quote from Isaiah are the tale of a second Exodus. They were like water raining down upon a dry land. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his pathway straight” (Isaiah 40:3). A royal highway would lead them home.

It was the beginning of the good news for the ancient Israelites. For us today, the beginning of the good news of our own exodus into freedom is announced by John the Baptist. It is a gift wrapped in camel’s hair, mixed with locusts and wild honey for when everything has already fallen apart. Because, truly, for most of us it is only after there is no way that we stand ready and open to God’s way. Then, as we sang today, ‘Steadfast love and faithfulness shall meet together; and righteousness and peace shall kiss’ (Psalm 85:10).

“Advent is defined by in-between-ness—the gap between the now and the not-yet-now… It’s the muddled middle between the Annunciation and the “angels we have heard on high”… Or the manger and the cross… This gap is a “liminal” space, from the Latin word “limens,” which means “threshold.””
Standing in the doorway between what is familiar and what we only dare to hope could be a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading us. It is when you have left the tried and true but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you, your ego and the inertia of the familiar are finally out of the way. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer that is Advent. If you are not prepared to sit with anxiety, to live with ambiguity, to entrust and to wait, you will run. Normally we would do anything to flee from what has been called this terrible cloud of unknowing. (adapted from Richard Rohr)

This terrible Advent cloud of unknowing” is pregnant with possibility. Sadly, we seldom grow and mature without uncertainty and pain. This Advent, more than others in recent memory, is collectively our moment in the middle. “There is that moment in the middle…The middle between the old thing and the new thing…The good thing and the better thing…The hard thing and the harder thing… The old you and the new you… And we call that moment in the middle…Fear, Excitement, Dread, Determination, Dependence, Risk, Faith. But it’s true name is…Transformation.” (Transformation and the Muddled Middle of Advent, by Rick Lawrence, Executive Director, Vibrant Faith)

So, we celebrate small victories. Give thanks for creature comforts. Do what you can to get through these pandemic days. Yes. But in the true spirit of Advent stand ready and open to receive the gift of Christ’s return wrapped in camel’s hair, without hype or glitz, to make more perfect your particular version of imperfection.

It is not enough that we survive this pandemic but that we follow the spirit’s prompting to push beyond the boundaries of what we thought possible for our culture, our society, and for our church to forge a more just, more equitable, more sustainable future together.
It is time to return to our roots. Remember, “[Christianity] began as a revolutionary nonviolent movement promoting a new kind of aliveness on the margins of society. . . . It claimed that everyone, not just an elite few, had God-given gifts to use for the common good. It exposed a system based on domination, privilege, and violence and proclaimed in its place a vision of mutual service, mutual responsibility, and peaceable neighborliness. It put people above profit, and made the audacious claim that the Earth belonged not to rich tycoons or powerful politicians, but to the Creator who loves every sparrow in the trees and every wildflower in the field. It was a peace movement, a love movement, a joy movement, a justice movement, an integrity movement, an aliveness movement.” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (Jericho Books: 2015), xvii–xix.)

Comfort O Comfort my people, says the Lord. Prepare the way. Lift every valley. Make the crooked places straight. God who became flesh in Jesus is the hidden God of whom the prophets speak, and the psalmists sing. He shows himself by way of those who are the absent, anonymous people of history. He is revealed in the margins. He has called us out of our houses to stand upon the threshold. We stand there now this Advent. It is the beginning of the transformation. Christ our healer comes. “All earth is hopeful, the savior comes at last!” (ELW #266).

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus said, “I AM the gate for the sheep.” (John 10:7). “I AM the good shepherd” (John 10:11). These are not throwaway lines in the gospel of John. They are like an open door. We are meant to step to the threshold and walk into newness of life with God. Seven times Jesus uses the phrase ego eimi, “I AM.” He connects his identity with the great I AM—Yahweh—whom Moses encountered in the burning bush. Moses took off his shoes because he was standing on holy ground. It was the beginning of a great adventure.

I AM the gate, Jesus said. Step up and walk through. I AM the Good Shepherd. I lead you to a new land. You might think Jesus mixed his metaphors. How can he be both a gate and a shepherd? It helps to understand an ancient sheepfold was like a pen without a gate. Once the sheep were safely inside the shepherd laid down in the opening. His body literally became the gate to the enclosure to protect the sheep from harm. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” Jesus said (v. 11b).

What’s more, sheep belonging to different shepherds could be mixed together in one sheepfold. You’d think that would create a problem when it came time to leave. Yet upon hearing the voice of their shepherd, the sheep sorted themselves out and followed, because they had trust in the care and compassion of their particular shepherd.

In life many things can bring us to the threshold between old and new. Whether by tragedy, or by accident, or by choice, there are times we all find ourselves betwixt and between, confused, disillusioned, or uncertain. It’s no surprise we don’t particularly enjoy this in-between space. Yet, truth be told, this is among those times when we are most open to learning, most humble, most hungry for grace, most open to searching and looking behind an open door.
Moses turned to look and see the burning bush he had only just glimpsed from the corner of his eye. He was ready for change. If there is a silver lining to these pandemic days it is that we are all standing on a threshold. Once again Jesus is an open gate. May grace abound.

Clinical therapy, twelve-step groups, and everyday spiritual practices like praying, meditating, singing, walking, reading and retreats are aimed at getting people into this in-between space and keeping them there long enough to learn something essential and new. St. Francis, Julian of Norwich (whose feast day is this Friday), Dorothy Day, and Mohandas Gandhi tried to live their entire lives on this threshold, on the edge, or periphery of the dominant culture. “This in-between place is free of illusions and false payoffs. It invites us to discover and live from broader perspectives and with much deeper seeing.” (Richard Rohr, “Between Two Worlds,” Daily Meditations, 4/26/20)

American author and poet Wendell Berry (born 1934) affirms this wisdom in a poem he entitled, “The Real Work.” He writes,

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

As these weeks and days of staying at home string out and blur together, we may be tempted to close our borders and lock our gates—let false shepherds and thieves come offering versions of security that have nothing to do with the abundant life of Jesus.

Media marketers know how keenly we seek fulfillment and purpose and how much we’re willing to sacrifice to acquire it. High-concept advertising campaigns promise to sell you what today’s gospel offers for free. How often will we play out the same fairy tale to discover we’ve traded treasure for magic beans? We paid good money to acquire the abundant life and all we got was pair of sneakers, coffee in a paper cup, or a phone that’s out of date the day we bought it?
Jesus said, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. Standing on the threshold between our pre-covid and post-covid life, we realize again our old ways have brought us further and further into death. Essential workers keep the wheels of commerce turning while exposing themselves and their families to the virus without access to healthcare which, in turn, effects families staying at home. The poor are poorer. The rich are richer. The oceans rise. The planet warms. Entire species disappear. Are we tired of being cheated yet?

Jesus has opened the gate. ‘Look not through human eyes but through God’s eyes’ (Kahlil Gibran). Look through your shepherd’s eyes. Venture out by way of the Jesus gate to pass through the valley of the shadow of death. “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25).

Jesus the gate opens to abundant life. “Abundant living is a matter of walking through the right doors.” Standing on the threshold between what was and an unknown future is a time filled with grace, but often does not feel “graced” in any way. Yet this feeling of vulnerability and openness is what allows room for something genuinely new to happen. We are empty and receptive—erased tablets waiting for new words.

Abundant life passes through the grace of God. Jesus is the gate that protects me. He is the door that opens beside still waters. Jesus the good shepherd unlocks my heart and frees my captive mind. He leads me into green pastures. He restores my soul. Let not your hearts be troubled. Set your sight on Jesus. Turn your eyes aside to see as Moses did. Take off your shoes for you are standing on holy ground. Let this be the beginning. Jesus the gate stands open. Jesus the Good Shepherd is ready to go.