Posts

Can we be thankful?

Proper 16B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
August 22, 2021

“Who am I? Why am I here?” (Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale, Vice-President Debate, 1992). Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale sounded a little like Rumpelstiltskin waking up from a long nap. He was one of the most highly decorated officers in U.S. Navy history. Ross Perot chose him to be his running mate in 1992. But on stage at the nationally televised vice-presidential debate, he sounded just as bewildered as everyone else at why he was running.

Today, many of us feel as bewildered as Jim Stockdale at the daily diet of “oh, now what?’ news. I wonder is this us—the new normal? How did we get here? In today’s gospel, Jesus’ teaching provoked a similar crisis. Many turned back and no longer went about with him (John 6:66). His incendiary language about consuming flesh and blood went against a thousand years of biblical teaching. It was like fingernails on a chalkboard for many ancient Jews. Judas appears to have been among those who decided then and there to cash in his chips. Tell me, when you reach the end of your rope, what’s next?

Re-enter Admiral Stockdale who may not have been a successful politician, but who knew something profound about how to sustain hope and persistence that helps to unlock the meaning of our gospel today. In 1965 he ejected from his burning plane into enemy territory over North Vietnam. He was imprisoned for nearly eight years where he was routinely and brutally tortured. While there, he led a prisoner resistance movement and created a secret “code of conduct” that all prisoners pledged to uphold, including the “proper” response to torture.

He was released in February 1973—his body so broken that he could barely walk. He went on to continue his distinguished career in public service. When asked what kept him going, Stockdale responded: “I never lost faith in the end of the story…[he went on to say]…You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

The redemptive tension required to meet brutal reality with sustained hope and faith in the future has been called the “Stockdale Paradox,” by author and business consultant Jim C. Collins. Collins went on to ask Stockdale what he thought was different about those who survived compared to those who didn’t. “Oh, that’s easy,” replied Stockdale, “[they were] optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Optimism offers false hope because it is not married to “brutal reality.” To experience true freedom, it’s necessary for us to embrace both our brutal realities and our prevailing hope at the same time. Jesus, it turns out, lived in the tension of the Stockdale Paradox. He was always and everywhere exposing brutal realities while pressing forward into prevailing hopes. He blew the lid off the scandalous and humiliating secret life of “the woman at the well,” then offered her the “living water” her soul was desperately thirsty for (John 4:7-29). After his resurrection, he asked his closest friend Peter if he really loves him three times and followed each painful question with a life-giving invitation: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-18). The bread that came down from heaven, is not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:58).

“Following Jesus wholeheartedly means He’ll move us to face the “most brutal facts of our current reality, whatever they might be” while holding onto our absolute certainty that we will “prevail in the end” through his love and grace. Many are familiar with the preamble to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous “Serenity Prayer,” but few know well the “payload” portion of the prayer that follows. Here’s how it begins…”

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

But Niebuhr went further into Stockdale Paradox territory in the less familiar conclusion of his prayer…

“Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.
Amen.”

Our serenity flows to us in the liminal space were brutal reality meets prevailing hope. We cup our hands to hold both truths—the truth of how things really are, and the truth of how things really will be—and eat and drink deeply. This is the bread of life, and the wine of new birth. (Quoted and adapted from an article by Rick Lawrence, Vibrant Faith Executive Director, titled The Stockdale Paradox, 8/20/21 taken from his book, The Jesus-Centered Life.)

Our gospel includes familiar words: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). We often sing these words surrounded with alleluias before the reading of the gospel in worship. We go to Jesus the one who is both the end of and the beginning of our story.

This is how we persist in the face of pandemic, military collapse, humanitarian disasters, climate emergencies, systemic racism, and social injustice. This is how we listen to the stranger with open ears. This is how we forgive our enemies and be generous toward the poor. We stride toward the prize, not by our own strength, but by Christ incarnate in us—we literally enflesh and embody—the love of God that is in the world and for the world.

This love is glorious, and it is also a hard road. Jesus wants us to participate in transformation, beginning with ourselves. Who wants that? Such a transformation is too costly. Why can’t Jesus just do the good work in the world while we watch? The difference is between watching those in love and being in love. To follow Jesus is to give yourself over to falling in love to be a visible sign of God’s invisible grace (St. Augustine).

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).