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Epiphany 6A-20

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I saw hearts everywhere this week. Hearts, flowers, cupcakes, and balloons in shiny red and white colors. The playgroup had a Valentine’s Day party. I stumbled on another at Wesley Place. The Tuesday night Compass kids sent Immanuel a Valentine’s card on Facebook. Kari’s cousin is in town. We had a hard time finding a restaurant Friday night that wasn’t filled with dating diners. And now, in the romantic afterglow of Valentine’s Day, we hear Jesus’ talk about lopping off limbs and poking out eyes.

Yikes!  This would be bad enough, but added to that, Jesus’ sermon sounds so transactional—like if you’re good enough God will protect you. If you’re pious then you will be comforted.  If you want a long life make sure your prayers are long too.

Of course, we know this is absurd. God is not an ATM machine. Thankfully, more and more people also understand God is not a rule-obsessed tyrant waiting to zap us if we make a mistake. Yet most of us harbor one or two misconceptions about God lurking in our hearts. We try to get rid of them. They cling to us like bad habits we can’t break.

So, what’s going on here? How do Jesus’ words about anger, adultery, the careless severing of marital bonds, and frivolous oaths add up to the Word of God, word of life? Remember those little candy hearts with messages on them “Be Mine,” “Yours Forever,” “BFF?” Well, it turns out, Valentine’s Day has it partly right. The answer is written on our hearts. Read what God has written there. I am your God. You are my very own beloved child. God pours love into our heart like a mighty river and an ever-flowing stream. God is the headwaters of every kind of love—be it romantic love, the love of friends and neighbors, but most especially the capacity we have to love humankind and all life.

The problem is that as 21st century Christians living in America, we tend to hear Jesus’s sermon the same way we hear everything else—through an individualistic bias. Those who first heard Jesus would have felt the weight of his words fall upon them, not as individuals, but as a group. They would have rightly understood Jesus calling forth a new community.  A blessed community.  A beloved community.  A community to initiate a radical way of doing life on earth. A community to follow in his footsteps and incarnate divine love in world hungry for hope and healing.

Directing Jesus’ challenging words at our community and not only at ourselves provokes different questions. “What would it be like if the children of God helped each other to succeed in all the ways Jesus’s sermon describes?  Imagine what that community would look like!  Jesus words become instructions for building and sustaining a community that is both blessed and commissioned to bless.

Jesus said, I say to you so much more is possible than you have yet comprehended.  “Reach for it.  Walk into it.  Sustain it.  You are loved and you are blessed, right here, right now. It is written on your heart. There is nothing left for you to earn, but there is everything left for you to share.  Be the beloved community you long for.” (Debie Thomas, “But I Say to You,” Journey with Jesus, 2/09/20.)

You may say to yourself –that sounds nice—but not at all realistic. You’d be right, but for grace. Fortunately, Lutheran theology helps us hear these stern words of Jesus, rekindle our imagination, and lead us from cynicism to hope. As Martin Luther taught, whether we’re talking about the Ten Commandments, or the teachings of Jesus, scripture intentionally sets the bar too high for me. A policeman may cite me for what I do, not for what I think, and certainly, not for what I feel.  But that’s not enough for the bible. God wants what’s in my heart too. See what’s written there. My rage, pettiness, and selfish thoughts disqualify me from laying claim righteousness on my own.  Playing by the rules Jesus’ outlines, means everyone loses—and that’s the point. Each of us is stuck in sin. The beloved community would be an impossible dream. But God, who is good, pours out love to cleanse our hearts and renew our spirits. God’s abundant gift of grace makes the impossible possible. There is no one who is good but God alone (Matthew 19:17).  We all stand in need of the grace God pours gives in abundance. Just read what’s written on your heart.

The prophet Isaiah wrote, ‘the ox knows its owner, the donkey knows its master’s crib, but my people do not know’ (Isaiah 1:3). Sheep hear the voice of their shepherd. They trust and follow. The natural world is a wonder of balance, harmony of contrasts, collaboration, and beauty. All things living participate in a symphony of life, not merely as individuals but as part of an entire ecosystem. What might we learn from all living things about being faithful?

Recently, I read that “Before it dies, a Douglas-fir [tree], half a millennium old, will send its storehouse of chemicals back down into its roots and out through its fungal partners, donating its riches to the community pool in a last will and testament.”  Some call these ancient benefactors “giving trees.” (Richard Powers, “The Overstory: A Novel.)

See, the beauty and brokenness in ourselves and in the world are intertwined. The way of Jesus brings an end to the bitter divisions afflicting our lives and reorients us toward the needs of our neighbor. Jesus our great teacher has taught us how to live in love, as the natural world does, so we don’t have to keep going down the disastrous roads that our anger and lust lead us on.

We may try to do this by skill, or will, or the power of our minds alone, but we cannot. There is a missing ingredient and intuition that comes from our heart and body called wisdom. Wisdom brings our heart and mind together in a focused way. Wisdom joins individuals into a community that continues to preserve and celebrate our differences. By wisdom we learn to love as God has loved us.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Through violence you may murder a murderer but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that.”(Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community?) Only wisdom can do that. See what’s written there on your heart.

Jesus has opened the way to life and love. It’s the perfect life for imperfect people.  We are called and equipped for this absurdly blessed life. May God bless this house from roof to floor.  God bless each pilgrim who seeks refuge at our door.  God fill every room with peace and grace, that all who sojourn here find healing [of heart, mind and body] in this place.” (from This House of Peace, Ralph M. Johnson, Earthsongs.)

5th Sunday After Epiphany

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world (Mtt. 5:13a & 14a). Jesus used two memorable metaphors of grace in his Sermon on the Mount. Yet, I don’t thing modern people really know what he meant.  Sure, maybe you’ve experienced what athletes call “hitting the wall,” so you know how awful it feels for your body to run out of sodium. Here in Chicago we all know how good it feels to finally come into some sunlight. But in a time when salt and light are both cheap and abundant, much of Jesus’ meaning gets lost in translation

Reading a two-thousand-year-old book requires us to take a step back in time. We must ask what the plain meaning of Jesus’ words would have been to those who first heard them. How does it add to our understanding of Jesus’ message to think back to a world in which salt and light were precious and rare?

In the movie Castaway, the character played by Tom Hanks is sitting in a private jet clicking a butane lighter on and off, on and off, over and over. He is flying home after years alone on a deserted island where he survived a mid-ocean plane crash only after many miserable attempts and with great effort by learning to make fire. Firelight was the only light humans could make in Jesus’ day right up to the recent past of the industrial age. Light came primarily from the sun, moon, and stars.  But, Jesus said, you and I are light too.

Mark Kurlansky writes in his book, Salt: A World History, “from the beginning of civilization until about one hundred years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.”   It was used in ancient times to ward off evil spirits, to disinfect wounds, stimulate thirst, treat skin diseases, and seal religious covenants. Roman soldiers got paid in salt—hence our English word, salary.” Around ten thousand years ago, dogs were first domesticated using salt; people would leave salt outside their homes to entice the animals.  And of course, in all the centuries before refrigeration, salt was essential for food preservation. (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, Salty, 02/02/20)

Salt and light are precious. Modern people miss out hearing much of Jesus’ message in world where salt and light are cheap and plentiful. Imagine what Jesus’s first followers would have heard when he called them salt and light. “Remember who they were. Remember what sorts of people Jesus addressed in his famous Sermon on the Mount.  The poor, the mournful, the meek, the persecuted. The hungry, the sick, the crippled, the frightened.  The outcast, the misfit, the disreputable, the demon-possessed. “You,” he told them all. “You are the salt of the earth.”” You are the light of the world. (Debie Thomas)

Our reading from the prophet Isaiah helps sketch out Jesus’ meaning a little further. You are salty when you share your bread with the hungry. You are light when you bring the homeless poor into your house. You are the salt to make life savory when you see the naked and cover them. Your light shines in the world when you do not hide yourself from your own kin. “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly, your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.” (Isaiah 58:6-8a) You are salt and light.

This month our nation remembers the story of Black history that began in America in August of 1619 when 20 slaves disembarked from a ship in Jamestown, Virginia, and the captain traded them for provisions of food.  By 1860, the United States census identified four million slaves.

Now 400 yeas later, we acknowledge that neither the Civil War, nor the Emancipation Proclamation, nor the Thirteenth Amendment, nor the Civil rights movement fully abolished what Abraham Lincoln called the “monstrous injustice” of slavery.

Many slaves freed after the Civil War lived into the 1940s. Their stories are preserved in a work called, “Unchained Memories,” about the daily horrors of slave life from those who lived to tell of it — included relentless work, horrendous housing and diet, the denial of education, sexual violence, and even religious violence. They tell how their “slave masters” hoped to use the Christian gospel to keep slaves passive.

It is one of the most counter-intuitive facts of our history that blacks adopted the religion of their white oppressors, a religion used as a weapon in their oppression. It was because the slaves, like the first disciples before them, weak and downtrodden as they were, heard and saw something they weren’t supposed to see. They heard Jesus say that they were salt and light. Their lives had dignity and meaning beyond their economic worth. They were precious. They were siblings in Christ regardless where they came from or who their family was.

Kim Phuc Phan Thi (Kim phoo fan tea) is 58 and living outside Toronto, Canada. She is a well-known author and activist of children who have experienced trauma, but that’s not why she’s famous. There was a time when everyone in America, regardless of age, would recognize her photo. It’s an iconic image hard to forget. A young girl, naked, runs screaming toward the camera in agony after a napalm attack incinerated her village, her clothes, and then her skin. That girl is Kim Phuc. She was 9 years old in 1972 when South Vietnamese planes dropped napalm near her village.

Third degree burns covered 50 percent of her body. Doctors didn’t expect her to live. After 14-months in the hospital and 17 surgical procedures, including skin transplantations, she was able to return home. Yet because her skin doesn’t have any pores she cannot sweat. It makes her feel tired. She has headaches. She lives with pain every day. “It filled me up with hatred, bitterness and anger,” she said. (Kim Phuc’s Brief But Spectacular Take on pain and forgiveness, PBS Newshour)

Ten years after her ordeal, she wanted to take her own life, because she said, “I thought after I die no more suffer no more pain.” It was Christmas that year when somehow, she stumbled on a copy of the New Testament in the library in Saigon and read it and became a Christian. She says that, “Since I have faith, my enemies list became my prayer list.” She realized that praying for her enemies meant to love them. She said, “Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you? (Kim Phúc, NPR in 2008) Kim Phuc’s

We are salt and light. “Jesus’ words are about who we are and what we do.  How we do it and the effectour lives may have upon the wider world.  The salt and light in you can never be stolen from you, beaten out of you, or spoiled even by your own misdeeds.  You are imbued with the distinctive capacity to elicit goodness, and growth leads to personal and global transformation.  Salt and light, Jesus said.  This is the source of your dignity.  This is the source of your power.” (Debie Thomas)

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are a benediction upon the whole world. There is no border, no boundary, no line separating nations, no longitude, nor latitude that divides all living things from the blessings bestowed by God. As in highest heaven so it is also on earth. We are siblings in Christ—children of salt and light.

Presentation of our Lord

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

By now I’m sure most of America is getting ready for the big day. Yes—you know what I mean. It’s Groundhog Day. How many saw the 1993 movie with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell?  So, did I.  According to German folklore transplanted to America in 1887 by Lutherans in central Pennsylvania, if a groundhog comes out of its hole today and sees its shadow it’s means six more weeks of winter; no shadow means an early spring.

Now, even if you did see the movie a bunch of times (again, like me) you could be forgiven for not knowing that Groundhog Day is today, February 2nd, because it is 40 days after Christmas. Our agricultural ancestors noticed that today is also 46 days before the spring equinox (this year on March 19th).  They came to regard this day as a hinge between winter and spring. Yet, originally the dating of Groundhog Day had nothing to do with its relationship to the seasons, but rather, it is rooted in the rhythms of the church year.

Groundhog Day sprang from the ancient Christian recognition of Candlemas, when forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph presented baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem in keeping with Jewish law, and for Mary to undergo postpartum rites of cleansing following childbirth. By remembrance, the Church blessed and distributed candles needed for winter in honor of the Presentation of Our Lord, inspired by Simeon’s words that our Lord Jesus is a light to the nations.”

Since February 2nd falls on Sunday this year, today for Candlemas, we have revived this ancient practice. We will bless the candles we use in worship and the votives you received to connect our place of worship with your home altar.

Apparently, Groundhogs hibernate through winter and emerge from their burrows starting in early February. With nightly news too painful to watch and so much cold weather, I can understand the desire to snuggle into my burrow and throw the blankets over my head.  Wouldn’t you know, for the first time in about 10 days, it’s supposed to be 50 degrees and sunny today! The Groundhog will see his shadow for sure. Is that good news or bad news?

Yes, we understand the desire to retreat from the world. That’s why we are extra thankful for a certain resident prophet named Anna and an old man named Simeon. Despite centuries of hardship and longing for the Messiah, they kept alert and awake waiting and expectantly watching for God’s good news.

Our gospel reminds us how much we need each other. Congregations are those rare communities in which young and old are soulmates, bound together as an extended family in God, who love, support, and sustain one another. Seniors, adults, toddlers, and infants are honored as faithful contributors to community life, wisdom-givers, exemplars of the faith, and worthy recipients of care. It prompts us to ask ourselves how we are making this biblical vision concrete in our lives?”

Upon a time, the Messiah came unexpectedly, as a child.  He came not among those with power, but to shepherds, beasts of the field, and wise men from a distant land.  He came not among those with wealth, but to a manger. When the Messiah finally appeared in the Temple, he didn’t walk but was carried. Yet somehow, Simeon and Anna had faith enough to recognize him.

According to a popular proverb, “Seeing is believing.” For Simeon and Anna, the opposite appears to be true: “They believed, so they were able to see more than the obvious.”. (David Lose) God is present in an infant, in bread and wine, in each other, and in the events of the day. Where God is present, there is salvation for those with the faith to see more than just the obvious. Will we have eyes of faith to recognize and embrace it? Can God be revealed in such ordinary things? Will we walk in daylight and not be afraid –or return to our cozy burrow?

This is one of those surprises that isn’t actually surprising. To Moses, God came as a voice in a burning bush. To Jacob God came as a shadowy figure that wrestled him through the night and left him with a limp come morning.  To the prophet Isaiah, God appeared seated on a heavenly throne.  The fringe of God’s robe filled the temple. Cherubim and Seraphim sang him praises.  But to us a child is born, a son is given. Authority rests upon his shoulders; and his name is Wonderful counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

Luke tells us how Simeon took the infant Jesus into his arms, turned his voice toward God and offered praise for the “light of revelation” that had come into the world. Simeon’s words of comfort, joy, and acceptance of death join Mary’s Magnificat as among the oldest, most persistent Christmas hymns sung by the church.

Jesus the light of grace shines brightly upon the world giving life to all like the rising sun or the approach of Spring. It also reveals our shadow side. Light always casts a shadow. Simeon saw this inherent contradiction and said to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35) The love revealed in Christ Jesus confronts each of us with the sword of decision.  Which way will we go? How do we respond?

We instinctively reject God’s love because along with grace it reveals our shadow side.  We don’t always like what we see when we stumble out of bed and trip over dirty clothes or have to look at yesterday’s dishes still piled in the sink. Sometimes, the light reveals new things too, that developed overnight while we slept that now we have to deal with. Perhaps, there is snow to shovel. Sadly, our 15-year-old dog Maddy is in her last days, so lately she has been leaving little gifts for us to clean up. No, we don’t like everything the light of day reveals. But we who have lived in the gloom of so many cloudy days also know we need some vitamin D!

Let Jesus teach you how not to be afraid of your own shadow.  We don’t have to run back to our holes. Instead, by grace we discover how to love our whole self as God does and how to learn from what God reveals in both light and shadows with honesty and humility. We do this with the help of Christ our teacher in order to love our self, each other, and the world in which we live.

God comes among us, as a child, in flesh and bone.  Truly, this is a gift to ponder; a gift to hold in our hearts and minds to give us courage for living all the rest of our lives. Unwrapping and unfolding this gift the path to abundance opens before us. God’s first, best Christmas gift, so delicately and sincerely offered is yours today and all the days of your life.  May the little Lord Jesus teach you how to love as you have been loved.