Category Archives: biblical reflection

Muscle Memory

Most Wednesday evenings, I momentarily plunge into a tunnel of darkness.

Thursday is the day they pick up the garbage at our place.  By 6 am on Thursday morning, the two big plastic garbage cans on wheels have to be rolled down our long driveway to the road. Usually, it’s after dark on Wednesday before I get around to it. Close to the house, the sky is open; the same at the road. But in between, there’s a section of driveway that is covered by a canopy of thick cedar branches. So, even when the moon is bright or the stars are out, it is completely dark. I’ve walked it enough times now that I can get through just on muscle memory. Still, for those few moments and those 50 or so steps, I’m putting one foot in front of the other with no visual confirmation that I’m going in the right direction.

I gathered with some of my people earlier this week for bible class. There was a heaviness in the room. We had been together on Sunday morning; there and then we acknowledged the violent week we had just lived through — the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, the spate of mailed pipe bombs, the shooting at the Kroger store — but no one was able to give voice to their grief. At bible class, we took time for that. Ironically, we were scheduled to study John 6 that morning and began with John’s account of Jesus walking on the water (vs. 16-21). As John tells the story, he does his best to paint a picture of the proverbial dark and stormy night. There’s darkness, a sudden and strong wind, an angry sea, and an absent Jesus. I can’t help but picture John writing to his people for whom the experience of the world was dark and stormy. And the message is clear. In the midst of all that, Jesus comes.

I believe that. I believe that in the midst of all the darkness — and believe me, I feel the darkness. As we run up towards next week’s election, the fear-mongering rhetoric is getting ramped up even more. I wish we could have a break from all of that. But my experience over the past two years tells me that we will not get a break, even after the election. That’s the new normal.

Yet, we live in hope. That’s part of my calling as pastor to remind people that we live in hope. Part of that hope is knowing that as a community of the called, gathered, and enlightened people of God, we know what to do, even when it’s dark. In the darkness, we live from muscle memory. Even when we can’t see the way forward, we know what to do. When we can’t see, we still put one foot in front of the other. We know what to do. It’s the little, common, ordinary things. Love those around us, and love them fiercely. Look out for our neighbor, especially the vulnerable ones. Reach out to the stranger. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.

St. Matthias, Patron Saint of Ordinary People

Actually, I made it up that Matthias is patron saint of ordinary people. But he should be.

Today is the feast day for Matthias, Apostle. If you’ve never heard of him or taken note of him, there’s no shame.  You’re probably not alone. He was the one chosen to replace Judas after Jesus’ ascension. Coincidentally, yesterday in church, we read the few verses from Acts that tell the story of his election. If you want to call it that. There were only two candidates, Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, aka Justus. The one qualification was that they had been a part of the larger band of those who followed Jesus from the beginning. Luke reports they both filled the bill. But there doesn’t seem to have been any search committee, any careful study of their curriculum vitae, no checking the references. There was no vote. They simply flipped a coin, or the first century equivalent. That’s it.

And then we never hear of either one of them again. We can speculate that both of them went on to serve in some capacity in the early church. Matthias now carried the authority of an apostle. But there is never any report in the canonical scriptures of where he went or what he did.

Not even the tradition agrees about Matthias. The Greeks say that Matthias did missionary work in Cappadocia and on the coasts of the Caspian Sea. Nicephorus records that he first preached the Gospel in Judea, then in what is modern day Georgia and was there stoned to death. Still another tradition has him in Ethiopia. I know enough about geography to know that both of those traditions are probably not true. Take your pick. What seems more clear is that Matthias was an ordinary guy who became an apostle, and went about doing his work faithfully. Ordinarily. Not even 15 minutes of fame. More like 5 verses of fame (Acts 1:21-26).

For a long time now, I’ve gotten to work with ordinary people in the church. Like the couple who shows up early every Sunday to make sure everything is set for the service, even if it’s not their job. More often than I’d care to admit, we have no ushers assigned, so they step in. Because someone needs to do the job. I hear frequently that she has offers to give someone else a ride to Green Bay to the doctor or shopping or whatever. That’s a 3 hour round trip. The church is ordinary people. She is church.

One of my colleagues got up yesterday and gave eloquent testimony, sharing the stories of the people who are struggling in our community. She challenged the rest of us to see them and to be the hands of Christ for them. She is kind and generous, passionate about serving others. She knows everyone in Door County, it seems. I think she is extraordinary. Yet, she is probably not known outside of northern Door County. I’d be surprised if anyone at the denominational headquarters has ever heard of her. There have been no articles written about her service. The church is ordinary people. She is church.

I’ve heard over and over at funerals the sentimental notion that our loved ones will be remembered forever. While I get it that we want our lives to count for something and for those we love not to have lived in vain, the truth is that very few of us will be remembered beyond a few decades after our deaths, if that long.

Yet, the work of the church, the work of the kingdom, could not be done without the countless ordinary followers of Jesus, thousands of whom I’ve had the privilege to work with. I think about you today as we celebrate Matthias. I give thanks for what I’ve learned from you and for the profound gift that our lives have been graciously intertwined.

You ordinary followers of Jesus, I honor you and celebrate you. Lift a glass to yourself. We could not be church without you.

An Odd Day, an Odd Faith — a Sermon for Ash Wednesday When It Falls on Valentine’s Day

This is the text of the sermon preached on Ash Wednesday, February 14, at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in northern Door County, Wisconsin.

What an odd, odd day. Ash Wednesday is odd enough in itself, but when it falls on Valentine’s it’s even more odd. Many of my clergy friends have been making the most of this strange calendric convergence.  One posted on Facebook this imaginary conversation: “So, what are your Valentine’s Day plans?” “Oh, I have to work and remind everyone that they’re going to die.”  Another toyed with the idea of plastering the sign of the cross on her parishioner’s foreheads with melted chocolate. I, on the other hand, have been threatening to make an ashen heart on your foreheads.

While Valentine’s Day takes its name from two separate Christian martyrs who were both executed in the 3rd century A.D. by the Roman emperor Claudius II, the holiday has come to extol romantic love — it’s the day to send chocolates or roses to your true love, or to the one you hope will become your true love.

Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, seems to be the exact opposite. It’s not a party, but the definition of a non-party. The Old Testament lesson from Joel blows a trumpet to announce the darkness of sin and suffering. Joel urges the ancient people of God and us, all of us, from nursing infants to the most aged among us to come before God and pay attention to those things that are most important — our sin, our mortality, our need for divine forgiveness, and the accompanying assurance that God is merciful.

Ash Wednesday calls us to face the harsh and precious reality that each of us was molded by the hand of God out of the elements of creation and each of us will once again become those elements. Yet we don’t speak of this reality in a cold or clinical way like we might approach a cadaver in a morgue. We do so with a sense of wonder, and again, with a eye to the promises of God. The ashes we allow to be inscribed on our foreheads are understood as symbols of our frail mortality and certain death. The ashes point beyond themselves to a hidden life-giving power.

For a few years before moving to Door County, Sheryl and I volunteered at the Nachusa Grasslands Nature Conservancy Prairie Preserve. It’s a project in western Illinois that now encompasses nearly 4000 acres and is being returned to its original state as a biologically diverse grasslands. Key to that restoration is the annual controlled burning in the spring of the year. Regular burning is a necessary step in the health and vitality of the prairie. The heat germinates certain seeds and clears the way for others to sprout and grow.

Here is the paradoxical truth of Ash Wednesday. The loving presence of God is hidden in the dust and ashes that dominate this day. Far deeper than the romantic love of Valentine’s Day and chocolates and roses, God comes to us with a love that rescues us from our violent ways with each other, from the limits of our mortality, and promises life that endures beyond our death.

See, the season of Lent that we begin today is going somewhere. Where? We’re headed to Easter, that grand celebration of death that gets turned into life. There’s this part of the communion liturgy we call the Proper Preface. It comes right after the opening sentences. You’ll recognize it because it begins, “It is indeed our duty and delight that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to you, almighty and merciful God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And then it goes on in poetic language to tie this eucharistic celebration to the themes of the church year. I kind of miss the old one for lent; they changed it in this new hymnal; the old one proclaimed that where death began, life will be restored and that the Evil One who by a tree once overcame will likewise by a tree be overcome. That infamous apple tree of the Garden of Eden will be superseded by a cross-shaped tree on a gruesome hill outside Jerusalem; there the possibility of life with God was born. Indeed, dear church, because we are so truthful today about our mortality, the promise of resurrection is all the more sweet.

This is an odd day, this Ash Wednesday, made all the more odd by the juxtaposition with Valentine’s Day. But then ours is an odd faith, a faith that began in the dust and ashes of a borrowed tomb, a grave, a place of death. That womb of dust and ash and death was the resting place of Christ who loved the world all the way to death on a cross.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  These are the words that will be spoken over you in a matter of minutes. Your life is fleeting. The clock is ticking. But the mark of the cross reminds you that there is so much more. Death gives way to the life that was promised at your baptism. Ashes are not forever. Endings always call up new beginnings. Now, even now, in the midst of dust and ashes on this day of love, it is a day of deep grace, the day of our salvation.

For That Time When the World’s a Hot Mess

I usually don’t post my sermons on this blog, but we had this thing happen in northern Door County on Saturday. Snow. Quite a bit of it. And by Sunday morning, not too many people had dug themselves out, so we had a pretty small attendance in church on Sunday. So, this is mostly for the benefit of Shepherd of the Bay folks who may have missed the Sunday service. Here it is: a sermon based on the first lesson for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Isaiah 40:21-3. And remember, this approximates, but does not duplicate what was preached. Sermons are for hearing, not so much for reading. 

It’s a hot mess out there. Every week we’re subjected to more drama in Washington, and it’s having consequences. I don’t that to be a partisan statement or a criticism of any one person or a particular party’s politics. It seems to me, there’s enough dysfunction to go around. Some days its exhausting, and some days its simply overwhelming. It’s a hot mess out there.

In the middle of a hot mess, it’s good for us to hear these words from Isaiah. We listen in on words from the prophet Isaiah who is speaking to the Israelites who are in exile. When we listen in, it has been a generation already since they were conquered by the Babylonians and had been forcibly moved from Jerusalem to Babylon. In this section of the book of Isiaiah, the prophet proclaims over and over again that the Judeans who have been living so far from home for so long are about to be released and allowed to return home. But this isn’t just the prophet whistling his pipe dreams. There is strong theological foundation for his proclamation. The prophet’s confidence is in the power and the gracious will of God.

First, a little set-up. I want to take you back to the first part of the chapter, the part we didn’t read this morning.  You would find the words that we read back in December as we were awaiting the birth of Jesus, “Comfort, comfort, my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her exile is over.” That’s a pretty good clue that the prophet intends these words we hear this morning as words of comfort and strength.

The part we did read this morning is a section dominated by rhetorical questions. You know rhetorical questions, right? The kind my mother used to ask when she was irritated with me.. “Jimmy, do you think that trash is to take itself out?” “Jimmy, do you think that bed is going to make itself?” “Jimmy, do you think someone else is going to do your homework for you?” Rhetorical questions make assertions by assuming answers and they lay foundations for the responses that follow. When someone asks a rhetorical question, they’re not really asking a question; they’re making a statement. You’re supposed to know the answer to the question.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” What the exiled Israelites should have known but have apparently forgotten is that the one who sits above the circle of the earth — namely, Yahweh, the God of Israel, their God, the God of the covenant — is also the one who brings down princes and rulers. In other words Yahweh, the God of Israel, their God, the God of the covenant, is ruler over history. God is the one who is in charge, even when it looks like the world is a hot mess. And believe me, when the Judeans were in Babylon under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar, they were not feeling like Yahweh was in control. Their world was a hot mess.

There’s more. “To whom will you compare me? Who is my equal?” And of course, the answer is that there is no equal. And if you want some evidence, the look around you, the prophet says. Look at the heavens, the stars, and sun and moon. Look at the extraordinary moonrise last Wednesday evening, the convergence of the blue moon and the supermoon. Look at the extraordinary diversity and beauty of the flora and fauna of Door County. Look at the intersection of land and water where we live. And know that the one who has created it all knows the name of each star, of each plant, of each animal. Don’t you think the one who knows each star cares more deeply and lovingly for each of you? (That’s a rhetorical question and you’re supposed to know the answer!)

The third section of today’s reading begins with an actual question — not a rhetorical question, but an actual question that communicates Israel’s sense that they have been abandoned by God. The have believed that God is absent from their lives and from the hot mess in the world. Again, it seems to me that the notion that God was absent from their lives was a perfectly logical for the exiled people of God. So, the people ask, is God unaware of what’s going on? Why is God ignoring the cause of the righteous? Why does it seem like evil is winning and there are so few voices for justice and righteousness anymore? 

Here’s where the voice of God sounds most powerful and most gracious as the prophet repeats the rhetorical questions from the very beginning of our reading. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” And in what follows, the assertions move from the cosmic to the personal. Listen, dear people of God. The assertions move from the cosmic to the personal. God, our God, is the everlasting God, the creator of the whole earth who never tires and whose understanding is beyond human comprehension. That same one gives power to the faint, to those who are weary and fearful. God gives strength to the powerless, to the ones who look at the hot mess and think there’s nothing that can be done and that there’s no hope. Listen:  “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” 

What images of comfort and strength and hope! Think of the image of an eagle soaring, gliding effortlessly on the breezes. The promise of walking back home from Babylon to Jerusalem and never growing tired. Of moving on and on and on through whatever the journey brings, full of confidence and strength and hope. That’s the image of the journey of faith for those who wait for the Lord. To wait for the Lord is to have confidence, faith, trust. To wait for the Lord is to commit yourself to God in hopeful expectation. To wait for the Lord is to know that despite what you see going on around you, the God who has redeemed you, the God who went to the cross to give you life, the God who has called you his own in the waters of baptism, the God who every week calls you to this table to receive strength and nourishment for the journey, that God, our God is in charge. To wait for the Lord is to acknowledge that we don’t see what’s going on in the mind of God, nor are we fully aware of God’s plan for the princes and rulers and nations of this world. To wait for the Lord is to confess again that we walk by faith and not by sight. The one who calls you to freedom is the God who created all things, who calls out the stars, whose strength knows no limits, and who gives that strength to the faint and the powerless, to us. God gives those who wait for God the power to fly. 

I guess that’s why this weekly gathering is so important to me. It’s easy to get bogged down in whatever is going on around us. Over the past few weeks, I’ve learned about the burdens that many of you are facing, that go beyond the hot mess of our national life. So, we come. We hear the Word and we sing; we pray. We remind each other that God is faithful and that God is in charge. We remember our baptism, our new life that springs from Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we come to the table for this taste of manna, bread for the journey, nourishment for whatever we face. Have you not known? the prophet asks. Have you not heard? Of course we have.

Neither Delusional nor Pretending

This past weekend, I had the honor of preaching at the Door County Service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Here is the written version of my sermon for that service.

As Nazareth is to Jerusalem, so Door County is to cities like Chicago or New York. Here we are in the relative boondocks holding a service to celebrate and pray for Christian unity. The irony is not lost on me that we do so at a time when in our national life we are so sharply divided that we are almost unable to talk to each other.

And while we’re at it, we might as well put it right out there that even within the Christian Church — perhaps even among the pastors and congregations represented here — our divisions are sharp and deep. We have sliced and diced our traditions, theologies, and practices every which way, Catholics, mainliners, evangelicals. And to you Moravians in the room, I have no idea where the you fit. Pro-life, pro-choice. Some ordain women, some don’t; some embrace gay marriage some don’t. Some of us think the current administration is saving the country, and some of us think he’s driving it off a cliff. Some of us embrace our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, some of us believe their only hope for salvation is conversion to Christianity.

I’ve long been curious about how good people, faithful people can read the same sacred texts and come to such different conclusions. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about that in his fascinating book, The Righteous Mind. Haidt makes the case that we don’t make our moral decisions rationally. Rather, we make them in our gut, emotionally, intuitively; then we scan the landscape of religion and politics and culture to find substantiation for the decisions we’ve already made in our gut. It makes a whole lot of sense to me in explaining what I see and experience in the church, but it leaves me a bit troubled about the extent to which we as people of God are really listening to the voice of God in our sacred texts.

So, why would we even bother in this context to get together to talk about unity? Are we delusional? Or worse, just pretending? Here’s what I mean about the pretending part: maybe we have this sense, thus burden even, that we really should be unified — after all, Jesus prayed that his followers should be one — but we know deep down that we are not suspect we never will be. But we just go on pretending anyway.

Listen to this passage from Philippians 2. It’s the great hymn to Christ, a grand poem that you likely have heard many, many times. Pay particular attention how Paul introduces the hymn:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

   did not regard equality with God

   as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

   taking the form of a slave,

   being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

   he humbled himself

   and became obedient to the point of death—

   even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

   and gave him the name

   that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus’

   every knee should bend,

   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

   that Jesus Christ is Lord,

   to the glory of God the Father.

One of the powerful lessons from this grand Christological hymn is that our unity is not a goal to be achieved; it is a gift that has been given. Our unity lies in the reality that we have been given divine life through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Too often I admit, that reality is hidden; nevertheless we are one in Christ by divine gift. That divine gift frees us from having to pretend and allows us the joy of celebrating everywhere and always the unity we have in Christ.

The challenge is to live out that unity for the sake of witness to the world. Here’s where Paul’s grand hymn is so helpful. The hymn of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation not only reminds us that our life is in Christ’s death and resurrection, it gives us also the pattern for our own life as church. For Paul, living in Christ means living in surrender for the sake of others. That is only possible when Jesus is Lord and where people call on his name. Only out of the foundational event described in Philippians 2 can community be formed and divisions overcome. Our back-slapping appeals to solidarity, urging us to just be friends, to get along, to acknowledge our brotherhood and sisterhood are inadequate. The sibling rivalries — our various ideologies, and self-righteous certainties in our own versions of the truth — they’re just too strong.

But if we can live from the dying and rising of Jesus, then we can become something new in the world. Then the differences that normally destroy a community will become our treasures, our wealth. See, there really are differences between us, and not to acknowledge them again is to pretend. In theology, practice, tradition, culture, we are not the same and we don’t want to be. But from our differences, through the power of the Holy Spirit can arise a living community that bears witness to the God who so loved the world that God sent God’s son.

Over and over again, Paul describes our differences in terms of different gifts for ministry. In the Christian community of Door County and beyond, there are a variety of gifts. Some communities have the gift of serving as an entry point for seekers, some care for one another really well, some are places where those with doubts and questions will find a home, some are places where the faith is expressed with more emotion than reason, others with more reason than emotion. Some are seedbeds to meet the needs of the people in our community who struggle. To each is given gifts according to the Spirit.

We are the people of God. We are the the Body of Christ. Even in the midst of our differences, our differing gifts, what binds us together in agape love is something that is not possible on our own, but a gift of the Spirit, that same Spirit released through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The agape love that God has demonstrated for us, that we have for one another is also our posture towards the world. “Let each of you look not to you own needs but to the needs of others.”

In our unity, we become the place where the rich come to the aid of the poor, where the laughing console those who weep, the healthy minister to the sick, those who live in families become companions to the lonely. And we discover in the practice of that love that the converse is also true, something that is more than a mere social institution can muster: the poor teach the rich what it means to trust God; the sick teach the healthy by demonstrating joy in the midst of suffering; the weak have a sensitivity to the needs of the community that they share with the strong.

No, friends, we are not delusional; we are realists; and we are Christians. We understand that what binds us together is not our intentions nor our frail and weak-kneed actions, nor our mealy-mouthed pronouncements. What binds us together, what gives us unity, what makes us one is nothing less than Jesus’ death and resurrection, the life we have in him, the community that has been formed by his love.  Now we are called to live that love. And dear God, does the world need to see and feel and be shown that love, especially at a time when hatred and fear and sexism and racism and xenophobia are bearing such miserable fruit. Our unity is in Christ. Our calling is to love. It’s really that simple.    

The Incarnation from 10,000 Feet

This is an edited version of the sermon I preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Northern Door County, Wisconsin on Christmas Day, 2017. It’s based on the gospel lesson for the day, John 1:1-14.

As a new resident of Door County, I want to tell you that I have fallen in love with this place. I love it here. But I can love more than one place, right. I also love downtown Chicago. I love the vibe, the buildings; I love Grant Park, the Lakefront. I love standing at Waterpower Place and looking up at the Hancock building, and the shops and stores along Michigan Avenue. I also love coming into Chicago on an airplane, when you can see the entire scope of the city, it’s vastness and also it’s lakeshore location. Two different views. One smack dab in the middle of the details of it all. The other the whole big city in one look.

That’s sort of the way it is with the two versions of the Christmas story. Last night, we heard Luke’s version of it — with the warmth and the very human angle of two young parents and their firstborn son, born in a cave with barnyard animals as the only witnesses. That’s the view up close.

This morning we get the view at 10,000 feet. Today, we hear the story of Christ’s entrance into this world on the grand cosmic scale. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John takes us back to the very beginning of time, to the creation of the universe, a grand action at which the pre-Incarnate Christ was a full participant.  John goes way out on a limb and asserts that of all the things that have been created, none of it was created without his direct participation.

And then we get to this: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Not just came alive, John says, but became flesh. The stuff of this human life, skin and bones and muscles and arteries and a brain and hair and toenails and lungs. This one, the Creator of the universe, the One whom the Greek Church calls Pantokrator, ruler of everything, became human with all that being human involves. That same Greek Church is fond of saying God became like us so that we might become like God. 

Let me try a different take on this. You know what it’s like when you go to the zoo, right? You walk around on sidewalks to look at the animals as an observer. There are fences between you and the animals. And in some cases, there are big panes of glass between you and the animals. You watch them, but in most cases you cannot interact with them. And for the most part, you cannot smell them or touch them, or even hear them. While you may be near them, you do not interact with them. You are an observer.

God could have done that. And who would have blamed God. There is something messy about human life, our wrenching agonies and our chaotic ecstasies, our drama and our dysfunction, our brokenness and seeming inability to learn from our mistakes. Who could have blamed God for coming among us, not as a participant, but as an observer? At arm’s length. Ready to tell us something, but not to get God’s hands dirty. Ready with some hopeful future, but the story told from a distance, where God would not have to smell us or look into our heartbroken eyes or feel the pain of our diseases and sharp poke of our demons.

But that’s not how God came. He came and dwelt among us. That word could be translated, set up his tent among us. Slept on the same hard ground that we sleep on, cooked on the same campfire that we cook on, walked to the same latrines that we walk to, subject to the same burned fingers at the campfire and the same blisters from the hike that went a few miles too long.

And this one came to set up his tent among us as the Light.

I don’t know about you, but I need that Light. I feel the weight of the darkness. I feel the burden of the struggling who every time they think they are about to get a leg up, someone kicks it out from under them. I feel the pain of the way we castigate those whose skin is a different color or who come from a different place and speak a different language or who worship God differently than we do. I hear the stories of broken relationships and diseased bodies and empty checking accounts. Sometimes the darkness is overwhelming.

But there is light. And his name is Jesus. He came full of grace and truth. He came to show us that the darkness will not win.

There’s a song that has become important to me. It comes out of the struggle of Black South Africans in their struggle against apartheid. The text was written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The black South Africans went through dark days. But they could always sing of the light. And of the victory of the One who came to shatter the darkness.It’s not a Christmas song, but I want you to sing it with me. As much as any song or hymn, it captures the essence of the good news of these opening words of John’s gospel. 

Goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate. Light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, victory is ours, through God who loves us.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.

With Gratitude for Those with Burning Hearts

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571 – 1610
The Supper at Emmaus
1601
Oil and tempera on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm
Presented by the Hon. George Vernon, 1839
NG172
https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG172

I walked into the gallery and immediately was struck by the size. Seeing a painting in a brochure doesn’t prepare you for a confrontation with a near life-sized painting. The Michelangelo Caravaggio “Supper at Emmaus”  was on loan from The National Gallery in London to The Art Institute of Chicago.

There’s the calm, peaceful countenance of Jesus at the center, his eyes serenely closed, his right hand extended in blessing. And I love the different reactions of the three sitting at table with Jesus. For the guy standing behind him, everything is reduced to a profound sense of wonder. The guy seated across from Jesus leans forward trying to believe the unbelievable, ready to reach across the table to verify with his hand what his eyes are telling him. The guy seated at the side of the table is retelling the story with his wild, broad gesticulating as if in the retelling it will make more sense.

The one detail that consistently grabs me is the dish teetering on the edge of the table. At the Art Institute, the crowd studied the painting from a carefully demarcated viewing area, stanchions separating the humans from the painting. I had this urge to reach across the divide and push that dish away from the edge.

For me that dish is the locus of tension. Is the dish going to hold or fall of the edge? One little bump on the table — which I can assure you I would have done inadvertently had I been there — and it goes crashing to the floor. Maybe it’s a visible sign of the tension still in the hearts and minds of those disciples. Was the Jesus sitting across the table real? Was the story he told them really true? Those questions and that tension are palpable in their postures and gestures. I can only imagine how acute the tension must have been when shortly after the moment captured in the painting  Jesus vanished from their sight.

I know that tension. I experience moments of extraordinary clarity, when God’s presence and God’s goodness are so real I can reach out and touch God’s wounded hands. And I experience moments when I wonder whether any of it is true,  when I feel acutely God’s  absence.  In those moments, I wonder if it will all hold together. Or will it go crashing to the floor? Is the resurrection life that Jesus promises more than just wishful thinking? 

Luke tells us that after Jesus disappeared, their hearts were burning within them, as if he became more real in his absence than in his presence.

I have my own version of Cleopas and his companions. They accompany me on the road with the risen Christ, who, by the way, is there whether we recognize him or not. Sometimes the road is only 7 miles; sometimes it feels like a lot longer. I’m grateful not to have to walk the road alone. Companions hold me up with their excitement at seeing the risen Christ, telling me how their hearts burn within them, even when whatever it is that I possess feels more like a flicker than a flame.

I met this week with a couple of nonagenarians whose faith had the quality of a fine, aged wine. They have endured the trials and can see God’s goodness and presence with the sharp-eyed vision of an eagle. They are the very incarnation of what last Sunday’s second lesson (1 Peter 1:3-9) described as an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” faith that has been refined by trial and has come out the other side as pure and precious as gold. I also had coffee the other day with a guy who told me of his deep prayer life and how God was answering his prayers and about the opportunities for ministry that came out of those prayers. The burning quality of his faith was contagious.

I don’t very often experience my faith with that kind of sharp clarity. My experience is more like Paul’s metaphor of seeing through a glass dimly. More like a dish teetering on the edge of the table and about to fall off. Why is that, I sometimes wonder. A function of temperament? Personal defect? Not trying hard enough? I never come up with an answer.

Which makes me all the more grateful for those with burning hearts. My fellow pilgrims and their witness are often the proof of the presence of the risen Christ. I’m grateful that my faith is not just a me and Jesus thing. My fellow travelers have seen the risen Christ, and that is enough encouragement to keep walking.