I was thinking about grace this week, that catchall word that we now throw around like a fireman throws candy in a parade. I was thinking about the beauty of grace, which is both the world’s creation and its redemption, both its beginning and its transformation. I was thinking about what grace means for us, the door that appears when we can’t find a way out, the invitation that appears without warning in our locked and bolted rooms. I was thinking, not as much as I should have been thinking, about a nondescript, unremarkable man from Galilee, who walked unseen from a tomb and somehow remains with us in all his strange power, power that comes without violence or intimidation, but with a love that overcomes all his enemies and binds all people into one, despite their own enmities and systems and ideologies. Love is the message of the Reformation, and it means that all the scaffolding we build to climb to God, the torture chambers we endure to prove our worth to God, the spiritual calisthenics we perform to allow ourselves the presumption of speaking to God, are worthless because God has come to us, wherever we are, a locked room, or encircled by despair, or even in the pride of our own strength and intelligence, and has come to speak the words we long to hear but cannot say to ourselves: that God’s love transforms us. That it is written on our hearts, that we can’t prove to God we’re worth it, which is just another way of proving to ourselves that God is worth it. I was thinking of those things, but then I thought of a poem by E.E. Cummings which you may have run across in English 101, or high school, the one that goes like this:
2 Timothy 3:14–4:5
I first heard the story of Jacob and the angel, or God, or the mysterious stranger for the first time in Kansas, when we got U2’s The Joshua Tree in the mail and my dad put it on the CD player for the first time. That album starts with a sound that might be twilight or might be sunrise and builds and layers around wails and grunts and guitar until you realize that you’re waking up, that it is sunrise—until you get to the song Bullet the Blue Sky. It’s a seriously scary song, especially if you’re a boy listening to it for the first time, scary because the music sounds hopeless and cruel and includes words about bullets and lyrics about government corruption and fleeing into the arms of America. It also includes this line, “Jacob wrestled the angel, and the angel was overcome.” Bullet the Blue Sky is a song about the violence in Central America, violence that was in part facilitated and encouraged by the US government, that forced people to flee their homes and search for shelter today. The song ends with a man meant to be Ronald Reagan paying bribes while fighter jets rip holes in the sky, rain driving through the gaping wound, driving the women and children into the arms of America. If anyone has wrestled with God, I suppose it is the people huddling and fleeing from the war jets, the bombs, and men armed with impunity. Jacob wrestled the angel, and the angel was overcome. When we see what happens in the world, I wonder if we don’t sometimes want to go out by the river at night and wait for God, just so we can get our hands on him, look him in the eye, and hear what he has to say.
Habbakuk 1: 1-4, 2:1-4
Psalm 37: 1-9
2 Timothy 1:1-14
If you knew for certain that tomorrow the world was ending, what would you do? Would you buy a ticket to fly, hope against hope to ring the doorbell of a long-lost lover, just to see his face and confess your love before the world ended – would you make plans to get something off your chest? Would you take your kids the most beautiful spot within a few hours drive, to see the sun go down one last time, to laugh and hold one another? Maybe you’d go on a bender and spend all your money on pleasure – because the world’s ending anyway.
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
1 Timothy 6:6-19
What do you love about money? Some people love that money can get them things—jewelry, houses, boilers. Some people love that money can give them power, because if they can use their money to give things to people, the people might do things they want them to do. Money and its use give us labor, in every form, from the empowering to the degrading. Other people, like me, love that money can give them security: a place to live, food, perhaps enough for retirement, if you’re lucky enough to have some golden years, without passing any debt on to your children. What do you love about money? And, of course, there is the side of those who don’t have enough money, and the way that lack feels. Is that loving money too much? And how does it feel to consider, as it is written in the first letter to Timothy, that this love that we have for money, each of us in our way, is the root of all kinds of evil?
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 150 (Choir Anthem)
Let me just start with a question: Does Jesus mean what he says? Just raise your hand. Ok—here’s another question. Do you think Jesus wants you to hate your mom? Just raise your hand. Does Jesus want you to hate your mom? He says so—“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Says it right there. Luke 14:26. When I preach, I assume that Jesus means what he says, because if he doesn’t, it would mean that we’re all pretty much wasting our time here, although the music is generally worth your time. And there were pancakes earlier, too, so maybe it’s not so bad, spending the morning hearing good music and eating pancakes. But you probably didn’t count on these words from Jesus. I’ve been thinking about them for days, and I’m still not ready to hear them.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Do you know how to pray? Do you pray every day? Do you feel that when you pray somebody listens, somebody hears you? I am continually surprised, although I should not be, that most people I encounter don’t seem to pray, don’t seem to take prayer seriously. You can say what you want about the disciples, but it’s clear that they want to draw closer to God, and so they ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. And I think that desire is on some of our hearts, too—we just wish we knew how to pray.
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Well, it has happened again—it seems like we’ve all made it through another 4th of July with all of our toes and fingers still attached to our hands and feet, and with both eyeballs firmly stuck in their sockets. Our bodies seem as whole, more or less, as before the war zone that is our neighborhood for one night of the year. Can the same be said about our body politic as our bodies? It’s hard to say which appendages of democracy will still work after this car crash is over. What about the body of Christ? Well, at least we know that the body of Christ, as the disciples saw it, is a wounded body, a riven side, marked hands, showing up unbidden in hidden rooms, in disguise on the road, and in the sunrise as tired men look back the beach. The body of Christ is known by the words it speaks: Peace be with you, let me explain the scriptures and break the bread, have some breakfast, do you love me? I suppose that is true of the church, which we say is also the body of Christ. It is also known by what it preaches and what it practices: peace be with you, let’s study the Scriptures together, here’s some food, can we love each other? Isn’t that a question for our times: can we love each other?
Third Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21;
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
It’s always easy to follow Jesus when Jesus is doing what you think he ought to do. When he’s healing the sick and sticking it to the man, when the crowds hang on his every word, when he’s traveling the countryside and casting out demons as the possessed writhe, when he’s winning the debates with the learned and the famous—that’s often when we squint carefully at the texts and say, “Yeah. I’m a follower of Jesus. I’m right there with him. I’m proud to stand next to him.”
Selection from Haydn’s “Creation”
I mentioned in my blurb this week that the Ascension—this story of Jesus going into heaven—formed the basis of a book I read in a church library that attempted to prove the Bible was proof of alien visitation to earth. I will also say that if a cool-minded, rational person were presented with the choice of the Ascension of Jesus or the Visitation of the Aliens, the rational choice might very well be the Visitation of the Aliens. The Bible is a strange book, although I believe that other book was weirder without being smarter, if that makes any sense. But we should be glad to have this part of Jesus’ story, weird as it is, as long as we can hear it in a way that makes sense.
Our Saviour's Atonement Lutheran Church (ELCA)
178 Bennett Avenue,
New York, NY 10040
one block west of Broadway
at 189th Street
We are within walking distance of both the 1 and A trains as well as the M4, M100, and Bx7 bus lines.