Proper 21C-22
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

This is a terrifying parable. Yet, it seems fitting, somehow, for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana. The celebration, which begins today at sundown, ushers in ten days of repentance culminating in the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. Each is consistent with the warning of the prophet Amos in our first reading: let all couch-surfers, and La-Z-Boy riders beware. The revelry of the loungers shall pass away (Amos 6:7).

The bible is sometimes called the ‘Good Book.’ It’s ‘an owner’s manual,’ or a ‘handbook for life.’ Yet those labels fail to capture the spirit of readings like these. Today, the bible more closely resembles ‘The Monster Book of Monsters’ of Harry Potter fame which was not just about terrifying magical creatures, but the book itself was a terrifying magical creature. One mistake at opening the latch on that oversized textbook and you’d be attacked by its razor-teeth. Author J.K. Rowling told an interviewer that she meant to create a “vicious guide to monstrous creatures”—a book that can (literally) eat you alive (Rick Lawrence, De-Boring the Bible, Friday Thoughts, 9/23/22).
The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor once famously said, “the more you poke the bible the more the bible pokes you back.” Indeed, as Christians have always claimed, the “Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

Poet Ogden Nash wrote, “There is only one way to achieve happiness on this terrestrial ball, and that is to have either a clear conscience or none at all.” Having no conscience isn’t really an option for Christians. Eating and drinking the living Word of God ensures there will always be something gnawing at us. Whatever comfort and compassion we receive from grace also afflicts and convicts us whenever we would withhold that very same compassion from any other human being who is suffering and in need.
Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus underscores the extreme urgency of now. There is such thing as being ‘too late’ to stop the unnecessary and unjust pain of today. Our inaction and indifference can launch a thousand indelible consequences for which we must all account for tomorrow. A heavy conscience is God’s way of steering us toward greater peace and wellbeing for everyone. With our own hands, grace would span the chasm between the haves and the have-nots.

This time of year the classic tale, Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol warms our hearts as the days of fall turn to winter. Our gospel today tells much the same tale, except the characters receive no warnings. The angels carry Lazarus to Father Abraham while the rich man descends to Hades to live in agony among the flames. The grace of God is a great comfort for the afflicted but a terrible affliction for the comfortable.

Mary the mother of Jesus sings this same tune in the famous poetic words of a different song. The Lord God “…has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:52). How beautiful the Magnificat sounds at Advent. Yet how terrible and unfair it sounds in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

Lazarus was chronically hungry. He wore rags. His body was covered with lesions. And, as much of the art about this parable emphasizes, the dogs licked his sores. We cannot be followers of Jesus and indifferent to human and non-human suffering.

The first-century hearers of Jesus’ parable would not have assumed that the rich man was evil or that the poor man was righteous. On the contrary, wealth in the ancient world was often viewed as a sign of divine favor, while poverty was viewed as evidence of sin. The rich man’s sin was not that he was rich, but that, during his earthly life, he did not “see” Lazarus, despite his daily presence at the entrance to his home. In fact, the first time he ever sees Lazarus is when, from Hades “he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side” (v. 23). (Daniel Clendenin)

As for Lazarus, we aren’t told he was faithful, but his name means “God helps,” which implies righteousness. Lazarus’s hunger and willingness to eat whatever was at hand remind us of the Prodigal son’s famished, desperate condition in the previous chapter (Luke 15:16). God shows a preference for the poor—not a preference for poverty. Whether our gospel as a parable, or a literal description of the afterlife, the point is the same. To censure your compassion is to make God’s grace an exile.

We know many Lazarus’ in the bible. He is Elizabeth, whom ageism casts aside. He is Mary, whom classism deems unworthy. He is the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet, whom sexism makes sure to spend more time pondering the possibilities of her sin rather than the power of her tender and generous act. We know many Lazarus’ in our own time. He is anyone deemed unworthy to be a true American or to have their vote counted. He is the forced laborer who makes our shoes and our jeans. He is the unseen, the disenfranchised, the hungry, the naked, and the oppressed.

As I say, this is a terrifying parable. For Jesus, exclusive concern for one’s own self-interest qualifies one as a “fool.” The ghost of Jacob Marley fashioned a chain of greed he must carry for eternity. The rich man created a chasm between himself, and Lazarus, fashioned by his own indifference. Yet, before the chasm, there was a wall between the rich man and Lazarus. In the wall was a gate at which Lazarus sat. Opening the gate to become neighbor yields moments of resurrection and new life for us. Opening the gate brings moments of joy. These are the moments that give us peace the world cannot give and that bring the dead to life. (Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2016.) The cruel chain of indifference is broken.

I wonder, can we here at Immanuel help one another loosen our chains, and to open the gates of our hearts and minds, to live the gospel with greater integrity without judgement but with creativity and joy?

Scripture makes clear, justice isn’t God’s job. It’s ours. Justice is God’s will for us. Shalom, harmony, and balance among diverse peoples living as siblings is God’s vision for us. For Luke, this is the God’s-eye vision for our lives we first glimpse not from the mountaintop, but standing shoulder to shoulder upon the plain. With the Prophet Isaiah we proclaim “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Let God’s people say, Amen.

Proper 20C-22
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

This week I am re-reading, The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. A book which Cornell West described as “the secular bible for a new social movement… [and] a grand wake-up call in the midst of a long slumber of indifference to the poor and vulnerable.” Released twelve years ago, I know many of you have read it too. So, you know Alexander traces the brutal control of black people from the beginning of slavery to the creation of Jim Crow and the so-called ‘Black Laws’ (which operated in States like Illinois) to mass incarceration today.

At its root, Alexander observes, ‘It is the failure to care, really care across color lines, that lies at the core of this system of control and every racial caste system that has existed in the United States or anywhere else in the world” (Alexander) It is this indifference which promotes a superficial ethic of success—money, fame, and pleasure—that leaves too many of us well-adjusted to injustice’ (Cornel West)

It’s amazing! At every turn, the effort to uproot and remove the stain of America’s original sin is countered and thwarted by conscious, and often, subconscious demonic hatred. How shrewd. Could we be just as cunning to advance the gospel? Maybe that’s the point of Jesus’ strange parable today.

The parable of the dishonest manager is often regarded as the most puzzling. I mean, what is praiseworthy about this guy? The dishonest manager does all the right stuff for all the wrong reasons. Should we cheat, or lie, or squander someone else’s money, or forgive debts that are not ours to forgive? No. But could we be more cunning to produce better results for Jesus? Yes. In God’s economy, people matter more than profits. Rather than personal gain, or the perpetuation of racist structures and systems, could we be more creative, persistent, and adaptive, to enlarge the Beloved Community?

Both Amos (8:4–7) and our Psalm (113) speak of concern for the poor, the needy and the barren. How we handle money and the way we treat the poor are two sides of the same coin. The psalmist sings of a high and mighty God who “stoops down” from the heavens to tenderly care for the poor. God longs to “raise the poor from the dust, and lift the needy from the ash heap.” God would reverse their fortunes, and “seat them with princes” (Psalm 113:5–8). (Daniel Clendenin, My Journey with Jesus)
“You cannot serve God and money”, Jesus says, in our gospel today (Luke 16:13). The message about the dangers of wealth pops up throughout Luke’s gospel.Whether it is in Mary’s song (1:46-55); the sermons of John the Baptist (3:10-14); quotes from the prophecy of Isaiah (61:1-2 [4:16-30); Jesus’ sermon on the plain; (6:20-25); the parable of the rich fool (12:13-21), warnings about anxiety (12:22-31); advice to guests and hosts (14:7-14); or now these two parables in chapter 16—the dishonest manager and the one for next week—the rich man and Lazarus—Luke’s gospel is serious about the crippling dangers of wealth to our spiritual health.

Can we be both shrewd and saintly? Is a shrewd saint an oxymoron? Must being faithful mean, we must also be naïve? Hmmm…. Jumping to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us be “as wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way, ‘be lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other.’ To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for everyone, including the poor and vulnerable.

Or, put it another way. “The unanimous witness of the ancient fathers and mothers was that hospitality was the primary Christian virtue. From New Testament texts that unambiguously urge believers to “practice hospitality” (Romans 12:13) through St. Augustine in the fifth century, early Christian writings extol hospitality toward the sick, the poor, travelers, widows and orphans, slaves and prisoners, and the dying” (Diana Butler Bass, Radical Hospitality, Sunday Musings, 9/17/22).

This past week we saw what Christian moxie looks like when 50 migrants from Venezuela landed unannounced in Martha’s Vineyard. The Martha’s Vineyard Island Clergy Association did what faithful people do when a crisis happens: They jumped in to lend a hand. For two nights, they hosted the Venezuelans at St. Andrew Episcopal church, providing meals and a place to stay at the parish house, which hosts a shelter four nights a week during the winter. The church hall is already equipped with cots, a large kitchen, showers, and laundry for the shelter. Other churches and community members sent food, clothes, and other supplies. The Martha’s Vineyard Community Fund collected money to support the Venezuelans. Immigration lawyers and other volunteers showed up to help them figure out where to go next. Many were in the U.S. to seek asylum and have contacts here but needed help connecting with them.

The Rev. Janet Newton, a minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha’s Vineyard, said that clergy, like other community leaders and residents of the island, had no idea the migrants were coming. “Ironically,” she said, “we were prepared, even though we had no warning.” In the off-season, she said, many people struggle on Martha’s Vineyard. Affordable housing is hard to come by, and at times, folks who work seasonal jobs can’t make ends meet. As a geographically isolated community, Newton said, year-round residents have learned to take care of each other. “That’s probably a bit of a surprise to the people who sent the planes here,” she said. “They didn’t understand how our community operated or that we could be prepared for this. Hospitality matters here.” “We are taught to welcome the stranger.” (Bob Smeitana, “Little Churches Still Matter”, Religion News Service, 9/16/22)

Likewise, here at Immanuel, it is a joy to see our building begin to return to life not only on Sundays but also on weekdays as we host neighbors and friends at tutoring, compass, the preschool—and today–godly play.

The word for hospitality in the Greek New Testament is philoxenia, which means ‘love of the stranger.’ Its opposite is xenophobia, hatred of the stranger. Philoxenia turns strangers into friends” (Letty Russell). Can you imagine? What a difference savvy, creative, persistent, adaptive philoxenia would make in our world — and in our politics — right now.
Early Christians found both spiritual and social power in acts of creative hospitality to create inclusive community. They also discovered a community of radical welcome and love, could put them at odds with ungodly authorities. “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of our many opponents,” claimed the African, second century theologian Tertullian, “’Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!’” (Diana Butler-Bass)
‘Would that every faith community was like a swarm of bees, running out to meet the displaced, the lost, and the unexpected strangers with the same delight, zeal, and alacrity as the earliest Christians’ (Bass).

In the words of today’s sending hymn, “Your city’s built to music; we are the stones you seek; your harmony is language; we are the words you speak. Our faith we find in service, our hope in other’s dreams, our love in hand of neighbor; our homeland brightly gleams. Inscribe our hearts with justice; your way—the path untried; your truth—the heart of stranger; your life—the Crucified.” (Let Streams of Living Justice, ELW #710)

Proper 19C-22
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

When they were little, I sang to my kids at bedtime. Always the same three hymns, “Silent Night,” “Spirit of Gentleness,” and “Amazing Grace.” I wondered, did the words and images seem odd to them? Dad, what’s a round, yon virgin? Or a Spirit of restlessness? What dangers, toils, and snares? When did grace saved a wretch like you? What’s that about? Fortunately, they didn’t ask and didn’t seem to mind. Although, for years, Leah insisted to her friends Silent Night was not a Christmas song because ‘dad sings it every day all year!’

I admit, I sang in those days as much for myself as for them. It was a once-a-day dose of spiritual medicine during divorce. Amazing Grace is the sending hymn today. When I wasn’t sure who I was anymore – or who I would become those words written in 1772 by John Newton, a slave ship captain turned pastor and abolitionist, sought me out, found me, and walked me out of the wilderness. “I once was lost but now am found. Was blind but now I see.”

I am a witness, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, laid me on his shoulders and carried me. God is with us when we are lost. God finds and brings us through disasters and upheavals like divorce, illness, job loss, or tragedy. God’s grace is truly amazing, not only in times of acute distress but also in the fast pace of every day. Because the truth is my lostness isn’t over. “We get lost over and over again, and God finds us over and over again.” Maybe the great good news of the gospel today is lostness is not a blasphemous aberration; it’s part and parcel of the life of faith. (Debi Thomas, “On Lostness,” Journey with Jesus, 9/08/19

Look at the children of Israel. They were lost, and found, and lost again. It’s one of the great stories of the Hebrew bible. In mid-conversation, on top of Mt. Sinai, God ordered Moses, “Go down [the mountain] at once!” (Exodus 32:7). Impatient at waiting for Moses to return, and with the help of his brother, Aaron, the people had melted their jewelry, molded it into a golden calf, and began to worship it in place of the living God.

Hadn’t they experienced the plagues of Egypt? Could they have already forgotten the pillar of cloud that guided them by day and the pillar of fire that led them by night? Didn’t they walk upon dry ground after God parted waters of the Red Sea? Had they not tasted the quail, or eaten the manna, or drank the water gushing from a rock which God provided to sustain them in the desert? God was, understandably, exasperated!

In fact, as the story goes, God was ready to destroy them—these children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He proposed to start all over again, beginning with Moses. You might think that would sound good to Moses. But Moses talked God down. And remarkably, scripture says, “the Lord, changed his mind” (Exodus 32:14) So, what did Moses say to persuade God to change their divine mind? Notice that he didn’t try to defend the people. In fact, he didn’t appeal to God on behalf of the people at all. Instead, Moses appealed to God’s own character. In essence, Moses asked God, ‘Who do you want to be? Do you want to be the God of steadfast love? –the God who keeps a promise? –or not?’ God relented and the people were not destroyed, and the divine-human drama begun with Abraham and Sarah, that always reaches forward to encompass the present moment, and stretches beyond it toward a hopeful future, continued up to and including this very day.

We, like the children of Israel, get lost. We, like sheep, will go astray. Like a precious coin gone missing, we are often unaware just how lost we are. Yet, the great shepherd, our great Father and Mother, the great lover of our life and soul, whom we know as Christ Jesus, seeks us out and brings us home. Like the children of Israel, lostness happens to God’s people. It happens in the most basic and exasperating ways. It happens within the beloved community. Yet, God has chosen the path of steadfast love, forgiveness, and mercy. God calls us to walk the same path showing forgiveness and grace to others.

“What does it mean to be lost? It means so many things. It means we lose our sense of belonging, we lose our capacity to trust, we lose our felt experience of God’s presence, we lose our will to persevere. Some of us get lost when illness descends on our lives and God’s goodness starts to look not-so-good. Some of us get lost when death comes too soon and too suddenly for someone we love, and we experience a crisis of faith that leaves us reeling. Some of us get lost when our marriages die. Some of us get lost when our children break our hearts. Some of us get lost in the throes of addiction, or anxiety, or lust, or unforgiveness, or hatred, or bitterness.”

If only we had learned the lessons of Mt. Sinai in the days following 911. How might we have responded differently to that tragedy? Instead of vengeance and righteous violence that led to two wars that stretched over two decades, I wonder, could God have shown us a different pathway bending more toward restorative justice?

It seems our lostness has only multiplied since then. Pandemic, systemic racism, climate crisis, a threat to democracy, and anxiety about the future of the church—to name but a few. We take comfort knowing “God is where the lost things are. God experiences authentic, real-time loss [with us]…God searches, God persists, God lingers, and God plods. God wanders over hills and valleys looking for his lost lamb. God turns the house upside down looking for her lost coin. God is in the darkness of the wilderness, God is in the remotest corners of the house, God is where the search is at its fiercest.” If we want to find God, we need look no further than to seek out the lost. We have to get lost. We have to leave the safety of the inside and venture out. we have to recognize our own lostness, and consent to be found. (Thomas)

In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor makes a strong case for these virtues. She argues that lostness makes us “stronger at the edges and softer at the center.” Lostness teaches us about vulnerability. About empathy. About humility. About patience. Lostness shows us who we really are, and who God really is. From lostness comes wisdom and maturity. The 16th century Spanish noblewoman turned Carmelite nun, Teresa of Avila, wrote, “When one reaches the highest degree of human maturity, one has only one question left: ‘How can I be helpful?’” Like a loving parent, God’s righteous anger on Mt. Sinai turned from destroying the children of Israel to guiding, reforming, and transforming them…very slowly, over time.

“The 13th century Sufi mystic, Rumi, said, “What you seek is seeking you.” This is true, and this is grace. But maybe it’s even truer that what I can’t or won’t seek is still seeking me. God looks for us when our lostness is so convoluted and so profound, we can’t even pretend to look for God. But even in that bleak and hopeless place, God finds us. This is amazing grace. And it is ours.” (Thomas)

Proper 18C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Clarence Jordan was the author of the “Cotton Patch” translation of the New Testament, and founder of the inter-racial Koinonia farm in Americus, Georgia.  As he tells it, one day, he was getting the red-carpet tour of another pastor’s church.  The pastor pointed out the rich, imported pews and luxurious decoration.  As they stepped outside, darkness was falling.  A spotlight turned on that shone on a huge cross atop the steeple. “That cross alone cost us ten thousand dollars,” the pastor said with a satisfied smile.  Jordan replied, “You got cheated. Times were when Christians could get them for free.”

According to Martin Luther, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing is worth nothing.”  Today we are challenged by the call of Jesus’ gospel.  We are not called to leave the world and join the church.  Rather, we are called to enter the world and be the church.  Today’s gospel would be much simpler if only it called upon us to build a temple rather than to become a temple.  We are called to be the body of Christ, a temple of living stones, dedicated to our mission, striving to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Our lives, as followers of Jesus, are played out between the gift of grace, and the costly call of discipleship.  Like piano wire, or the strings of an instrument, the music of faith arises in us from this tension.  The pull of the divine lure summons out our response as we commit what we have: our life, our love, our family, our wealth, our energies, and our soul into making the music for which we are specially prepared and gifted, by which the wounded are healed, the prisoner is set free, and the world is restored, according to the demands of God’s peace and justice. ‘Take up the cross and follow me,’ Jesus said (Luke 14:27).

This week, we were told once again, there is a battle being waged for the soul of the nation. Can nations have souls?  Some labor with the notion that God intends for America to be Christian or Judeo-Christian nation and no one else.  Their goal, therefore, is to weed out those who live by a different covenant. Others labor with the notion that the constitution and our form of government is Divinely inspired. Their goal, too, is often to impose their narrow version of the faith into laws that affect us all. Churches, let alone governments, often have a very difficult time distinguishing God’s purposes from human ones. To believe a political community is also a religious body is one of the most egregious and often repeated mistakes of western history.

Misunderstanding soul as somehow special for only certain people and nations is, perhaps, the source of our deepest sadness and most profound divisions. It will help resolve our conflict to recognize a different message found in scripture, that God creates all, dwells in and with all, and everything dwells in God. “In effect, everything is chosen, everything is soulful, everything bears the imprint of the divine, and the holiness of spirit gives life to all. Perhaps it is time to end — not continue — the battle for the American soul. Instead, it is time to envision the shared soulfulness we inhabit.” (Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage, “Do Nations Have Souls,” 9/02/22) Could this be the song rising up in our hearts which we are called to sing? A song to hold both heaven and earth in a single peace. A song to shine on the waste of our wraths and sorrows, and give peace in our church, peace among nations, peace in our city, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts, through our savior Jesus Christ.

Many people do not see the tension.  So, they are apt either to worship a loving Jesus who makes no demands, or to worship religious correctness and without grace.  Both kinds of religion seem to abound in America today.  Many see no tension between the way of Jesus and the common everyday aspirations of American middle-class selfishness and self-centeredness.

The Buddha is supposed to have taught, “attachment is the root of all suffering.”  Today, we read something similar in the challenging words of Jesus, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33).  Child psychologists know that a secure emotional attachment between primary caregiver and infant is a fundamental key to setting children up for the happiness and success they will experience in adulthood. Not all of us had such good and loving parenting. Yet here we have a good and loving parent in Christ Jesus and a secure attachment to the living God through faith in Christ Jesus.  It is the one possession we cannot do without.  It is the indelible mark of identity and dignity that gives us courage and confidence now to be the church in the suffering world and to sing the song of God’s amazing grace even when all else appears lost. This is how we walk the way into the abundant life of God and follow the way of Jesus’ cross.

You can pat yourself on the back and congratulations are due all around, because today, we read all but three verses of one entire book of the bible.  Paul’s letter to his friend and co-worker, Philemon, on behalf of Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, is testimony to the sibling solidarity we all now share in Christ.  In today’s gospel and elsewhere in scripture, Jesus redefined family life, rejecting blood ties in favor of the faith-based sibling-like bond of found-family the Holy Spirit creates among everything and everyone with soul.

Paul profoundly affirmed and implemented Jesus’ vision of a society based on the surrogate kinship of faith-related siblings. Paul’s basic model for the new communities he founded was a family of such “brothers and sisters,” without any person in the group, including himself, enjoying the traditional authority and privileges of an earthly parent. The Greek words for “sister” (adelphe) and “brother” (adelphos) share the same root: delphys, meaning “womb.” In the most literal sense, persons of faith are born from the same mother. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Once Onesimus became a believer and follower of Christ that made him an equal part of the family. He could no longer be treated as a slave but must now be an equal.  Such radical social consequences of the gospel stare us in the face and are met serious resistance and willful blindness among Jesus’ converts. Why?

Jesus’ invitation to follow him is a summons to a whole new orientation to life, where life is seen, not in our possessions or accomplishments, nor in our family connections, but in emptying ourselves to be filled with God’s power and purpose.  We are filled with a new song. With God as our mother and father, we are brothers and sisters now with all creation. As St. Francis of Assisi proclaimed, we are one family with sister sky, and brother earth, and including all people.  Oh, what peace there is walking in the way of Christ! See you become a royal priesthood. You have a message to preach and a song to sing rising within you. It rises from the tension between the gift and call of grace. We are a temple not made with hands, a temple of living stones moving into the world. Together.

Proper 17C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). Like a parent sending their child off into the world, the book of Hebrews hands us hard-won wisdom wrung from the sweat of our forebears in faith. ‘Remember those in prison and those being tortured as though you were being tortured. Honor your marriage vows. Be content with what you have (vs. 3-5).

A lot of parents today are less certain. Overwhelmingly, they say they just want their kids to be happy. As words to live by, ‘whatever makes you happy,’ turns out to be sort of empty and confusing. After all, what does that mean? We need a more reliable star to steer by if we are really to live the good life endowed to us by our creator.

Hebrews offers more concrete guidance.  ‘Avoid the love of money; do good and share what you have’ (vs. 5 & 16). The good life consists in something fundamentally different than anything you can accumulate through give and take. Tell me, can you write a receipt for the value of love, or mercy?  How do you put a price on family, friendship, partnership, or marriage? These fruits cannot be harvested from relationships which are merely transactional. These spring naturally from love and trust. The old ones what you to know: The dignity of every human life grows from the unmerited, unearned, unwarranted, undeserved love of God.

We hear these words and treasure them.  Perhaps, we honor them in a few private relationships. Enter Jesus to set us straight.  Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them.  The strange little story about Jesus at a banquet from our gospel today is an opportunity for us to catch yet another a glimpse of the life God intends –the humble life.  Like always, it is a vision of life that is both too strange and too wonderful.

“The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations, and plants the humble in their place” (Sirach 10:15). “When we dare to gather at Jesus’s table, we are actively protesting the culture of upward mobility and competitiveness that surrounds us. There’s nothing easy or straightforward about this; it requires hard work over a long period of time.  To eat and drink with God is to live in tension with the pecking orders that define our boardrooms, our college admissions committees, our church politics, and our presidential elections, and that can be tiring.  But it’s what we’re called to do — to humble ourselves and place our hope in a radically different kingdom” (Debi Thomas, Places of Honor, Journey with Jesus, 8/25/19).

We must admit the history of Western culture is not known for humility –but for arrogance. Confidence in the superiority of western culture, science, and civilization led generations of white Europeans to take, steal, and plunder the highest place at every table. Yet, grace strips away our arrogant and worldly way of thinking like paint thinner. From beneath the soot and sediment the original stamp of the Imago Dei, the image of God, is revealed in you and our neighbors.

The good life is lived with honor, equity, and joy among neighbors.  Maybe that’s why Jesus attended so many parties, feasts, and banquets. He was a popular dinner guest but not a very polite one. Mealtime scenes with Jesus end in provocations, insults, and/or scandal. A woman of dubious reputation caressed his feet under the table.  He interrupts the meal to heal sick people on the Sabbath. His hosts complain he ate with dirty hands, shared his table with riffraff, and drank more than his enemies considered respectable. We tend to forget this today. Jesus doesn’t put up with any baloney.

The kingdom of God to which you and I are invited today is like a good party, the good life. There is always room for one more to be seated at the table of grace. “Today we could say that God is inviting people to leave their gang fights and come to a party, to leave their workaholism and rat race and come to a party, to leave their loneliness and isolation and join the party, to leave their exclusive parties (political ones, for example, which win elections by dividing electorates) and join one inclusive party of a different sort, to stop fighting or complaining or hating or competing and instead start partying and celebrating the goodness and love of God.” (Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything, pages 144-46. In Ch. 16)

The 14th Century German mystic theologian and philosopher, Meister Eckhardt, said it—the humble person is one “who is watered with grace.”  Shout it from the rooftops. Tell all our children. Share it with all who will listen, humility is the source of mutual love and hospitality that gives life to the life we read about today in the book of Hebrews.  Because they were humble and ready for joyful service our forebears in faith served angels without knowing it.

According to Jesus, our behavior at the table matters—not whether you know the difference between a dinner fork and a salad fork—but where we sit speaks volumes. The people whom we welcome reveals the stuff of our souls. We get more advice. Favor those who cannot repay you. Prefer the poor. Choose obscurity. Here in God’s world, nothing is merely ordinary. In the realm of God, the ragged strangers at our doorstep may be angels. You are inwardly filled with God’s glory. Welcome each other as you would wish to be welcomed and we will be on our way to a life well lived-together.

Proper 16C-22
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“She stood up” (Luke 13:13). We don’t know her name. She is as anonymous as her village. We don’t know where she came from. We don’t know why she was in the synagogue. But we can picture her. A weary woman, resilient and resigned. A woman “bent over,” and “quite unable to stand up” (vs. 11). She lived in a posture of forced humility all the days of her life. She spent her days staring at the ground, looking at her own feet, watching the dusty sandals of passers-by on the road. She cannot make eye contact, or see the sunrise, or remember what the stars look like, or raise her face to the evening breeze. She has suffered this way for 18 years.

Presumably, she came to the synagogue to commune with God, not to talk to Jesus. Jesus is teaching—probably surrounded by a crowd. She doesn’t approach him. She is no Cinderella. No one notices her enter the room—but Jesus does. She didn’t see him, but he saw her. He put his teaching on hold, called her over, and said the thing Jesus always says when he encounters the sick, the broken, the dying, the dead: “You are set free from your ailment” (vs. 12). “He laid his hands on her [and] immediately she stood up straight and began praising God” (v. 13).

For Jesus, the worship space is exactly the place where hunched, crippled, and exhausted people are invited, encouraged, and released to “stand up straight.” Women, people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQI+ community, the poor, the homeless, the elderly, the incarcerated, the mentally ill, the differently abled, the uneducated or under-educated, the spiritually broken, the chronically ill—Christ calls them into a place where their dignity is restored and their full potential realized when they cannot stand up on their own. (Debi Thomas, “She Stood Up Straight,” Journey with Jesus, 8/18/19) This is the place for what is crooked to be made straight; and for the rough places to be made smooth, so with all flesh, we may see the salvation of God again reflected in the beauty of the sunrise, the splendor of the stars, and the feeling of the evening breeze upon our face. (Luke 3:5).

This would seem obvious. Yet, the very moment Jesus unbinds the crippled woman the leader of the synagogue voices his displeasure and indignation. Because Jesus healed this crippled woman at an inappropriate time—on the Sabbath—the leader of the synagogue got all bet out of shape. His angry criticism drowns out her joyful praise: “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he tells the crowd, “Come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day” (Luke 13:14).

Tragically, we are not astonished, but could have predicted, all too often religious communities are not a place of healing but of further bending. There is an unfortunate tendency to bend people over under the weight of shame, judgment, invisibility, false piety, condemnation, prejudice, legalism, and harmful theology.

What’s going on here? Jesus names the power binding both the woman and the synagogue leader as Satan. Satan, who name means, the Accuser, has bent them out of shape. The objection to healing on the sabbath is an example of religion that accuses rather than sets us free. Why do we think we can be more religious by making others feel small? The hunched over woman is suffering from a spirit that crippled her. She and the synagogue leader are loaded under the yoke of oppression of the Satanic power of judgement and accusation.

Notice, Jesus does not do what you would expect him to do if today’s gospel were a movie about exorcism. He doesn’t stand up, point a finger, and shout, ‘Satan be gone!’ Calling someone else Satan, identifying the other as evil, is Satan’s masterful, poisonous game. Instead, his response, his remedy, is compassion, not judgement or revilement. Jesus administers the same medicine the prophet Isaiah declared, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” (Isaiah 58:9b-10).

Faith must proceed from our heart. It cannot live stuck in our head. The Scottish pastor and author and mystic, George MacDonald, the man C.S. Lewis called “my master,” said this about the mission of Jesus: “It was not for our understanding, but our will, that Christ came. He who does that which he sees, shall understand; he who is set upon understanding rather than doing, shall go on stumbling and mistaking and speaking foolishness.”

“We live in a culture of “automation” that locates our faith life in the head, not the heart. An automated relationship with Jesus replaces doing things with understanding and talking about things. I mean, we use our words about Jesus as an effort-reducing substitute for actually living like Jesus.” (Rick Lawrence, “Less Head, More Heart,” Friday Thoughts, 8/19/22)

I gotta say, I’m guilty. I’ve been a word person my whole life. My practiced ability to explore and describe things can become a barrier to protect me from doing the things I’m describing. Then my spirit is weighed down and bent out of shape. “It’s safer to explore ideas about Jesus, or consider how tasty his recipes for Christian living are, than to actually know him and live like him experientially.” (Lawrence) Like the woman in the synagogue, I stop looking for Jesus.

Yet even though I don’t see him, Jesus sees me. Contrary to our expectations; contrary to what we think we need; despite our misgivings; and often overruling our impassioned, self-righteous objections; Jesus touches and moves us into a new kingdom, a new life, a new mind, a different way of seeing, hearing and speaking. When we let ourselves be shaped by God, none of us can know how that might change us, our church, or other people around us.

The great pastor, author, and theologian, Frederick Buechner, died this week at 96. Buechner realized that the problem with steeling yourself against pain, or walling it off with our words, is that you simultaneously close yourself off from being transformed by the power of life itself. In one of his frequently quoted passages, he wrote: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and the pain of it no less than the excitement and the gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace” (David Brooks, “The Man Who Found His Inner Depths,” NYT, 8/18/22).

Follow me, Jesus says. Imitate my life with your hands, your feet, your body, and soul. “You will become like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry” (Isaiah 58:11b). The accuser shall be driven away. Christ bids us to rise, to stand up. To receive the dignity that is ours. To look others in the eye. To see, even when bent over, our worth as children of God. To notice not the mud below but the sky above. And finally, to give thanks. To give thanks for such a beautiful world and a compassionate, gracious God.

Proper 15C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

What’s up with these readings?

Jeremiah declared, “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). Dear church what rocks are we willing to allow God’s “hammer” to shatter in our lives? Will we allow God’s hammering to reshape us from a fear-based life into a love-based life? Are we open to God breaking our hearts with compassion so we can better welcome the stranger, the refugee, the immigrant, and the exile? Are we ready, in this Church, the ELCA, to make room in ourselves to be more diverse and inclusive (as voting members at this week’s Churchwide Assembly made so evidently clear is urgent?)

At his birth, an angelic multitude of the heavenly host sang ‘Peace be upon earth!’ Jesus declared “Peace I leave with you.”  “My peace I give to you.”  Every Sunday we share this peace with each other. “The peace of the Lord be with you.” “And also with you.” Ours is a religion of peace-making, peace-loving, and peace-keeping” (Debie Thomas, Disturbing the Peace, Journey with Jesus, 8/11/19).  So, what does he mean, saying, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three” (Luke 12:49, 51). (Debi Thomas)

Aren’t we tired of all the tension, exhausted by all the violence, and threats of violence? These readings only seem to add fuel to the fire. The narratives being hurled as weapons by political parties are getting people killed. Suddenly, a legal search is grounds for civil war? This week, an Ohio man, fueled by such lies, was killed after breaking into an FBI office in search of vengeance. It’s frightening how ready some people are to jump toward violence. We need a pathway to peace, and we need it now.

Our gospel today is such a pathway. Yet, Jesus warns, the answer to our prayers for peace may not come easily. It won’t come with a snap of our fingers. “These texts invite us — or no, they compel us — to move beyond soft, saccharine Christianity, and wrestle with the hard, high costs of discipleship….It’s not Jesus’s desire or purpose to set fathers against sons or mothers against daughters.  It’s certainly not his will that we stir up conflict for conflict’s sake, or use his words to justify violence or war.  But his words are a necessary reminder that the peace Jesus offers us is not the fake peace of denial, dishonesty, and harmful accommodation. His is a holistic, truth-telling, disinfecting peace. The kind of deep, life-changing peace that doesn’t hesitate to break in order to mend, and cut in order to heal.  Jesus will name realities we don’t want named. He will upset hierarchies we’d rather keep intact. He will expose the lies we tell ourselves out of cowardice, laziness, or obstinacy. And he will disrupt all dynamics in our relationships with ourselves and with each other that keep us from wholeness and holiness.  This is not because Jesus wants us to suffer.  It’s because he knows that real peace is worth fighting for” (Thomas).

Perhaps, this gospel is a far cry from the one we expected.  This is more than we bargained for.  We come to church seeking a place of comfort and quiet consolation. Yet, we must know that when we reach to God to heal us sometimes the medicine will bite.  The gifts of God grace given become in us seeds of mission and discipleship.

God wields a hammer in us by our baptism into Christ. God engages a battle within us in the sacred food we eat at the table.  In ways too wonderful and mysterious, grace transforms and reshapes us, like a hammer breaking stone.  Baptism and eucharist kindle a fire with in us to burn down all our straw-stuffed idols. God’s grace brings both destruction and creation.  Grace brings community and division. God’s Peace includes a disturbance of the peace.  In AA they say that the truth will set you free, but first it might make you miserable.

See what power God wields with the hammer of grace. It is power, not of compulsion, but persuasion. It aims, not to destroy, but to build up. It seeks, not vengeance, but healing. It is power, not for power’s sake, but for love. It is power to resist and to redeem. It is the power of restorative justice. It is power to transform our enemies into allies and friends.

The hammer of grace is not like that of a bullet or a bomb, which only have power to destroy. But like water, the power of grace also gives life. Water has power to shape mountains and toss boulders. Water also renews, refreshes, and cleanses us. Water makes all life possible. Water is persistent, unfailing, untiring, and endlessly persuasive. Water always wins in the end.  We must be like water.

Do not be afraid to pick up this hammer. Let your life go with this flow. In this mighty struggle, know this, you are not alone but are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who cheer for you now from the sidelines. Hebrews chapter 11 is sometimes called the ‘Faith Hall of Fame.’ I confess I find it a bit gruesome, like a Christian Game of Thrones. By faith the saints of God conquered kingdoms, shut the mouths of Lions, and quenched the fury of flames. Many endured torture. They faced jeers and flogging. They were chained and put into prisons.  They were stoned; sawed in half; and died by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, and mistreated –the world was not worthy of them.  They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and in holes in the ground.  They were all commended for their faith but none of them received what had been promised” (Hebrews 11:35-39).  They wielded the hammer of faith.  Like a mighty river their lives bequeathed to us a legacy of compassion, mercy, and prosperity more firmly rooted in justice and shalom.

Rather than keep the peace that is no peace, grace teaches us the proper use of our anger to confront things that are not right and to set about making them better. Speak the truth in love. Confront bigotry with dignity. Overcome ignorance with learning.  Seek wisdom. Speak the truth as you know it, and prayerfully listen. Strive to listen more than you speak.

In this way we keep a song in our hearts and the peace of God that surpasses all understanding in our minds. We dwell in the shelter of our Lord while we strive for the common good. We become more open to one another and to all strangers as though they were the Lord Christ himself, for indeed, that is who they are.  Of course, we will not always be successful. But it is enough to know that in wielding the hammer of loving grace, we share more fully in the divine life at work within us and throughout the world.

Proper 14C-22
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Do not be afraid Abram.” “Do not be afraid little flock.” These words from our gospel and first reading are perhaps the most often repeated message God ever speaks to human beings. ‘Do not be afraid’ the angels say to Zechariah, to Mary, and to the shepherds. Do not be afraid, will echo again from the empty tomb. It does not mean don’t ever be afraid. As in real Christians know no fear, but rather, do not continue to be afraid. Our fears are vanquished in God’s embrace. Our fears are replaced by faith. With the trusting faith of a little child that instinctively reaches for the hand of a trusted adult to lead them across the street, faith in God’s perfect love casts out fear.

Abraham and Sarah took God by the hand and crossed a hostile dessert. They went with God into an uncertain future, they lived the promise and served God’s mission when every worldly indication told them not to. Yahweh reckoned it to them as righteousness. Faith gives us the courage and calm we need to face into change big and small. Faith gives us the wind at our backs to go and serve and be disciples.

Today is one of those days our community faces so many changes and calls to serve that we must wrap our faith around ourselves like a blanket. Today we give thanks and pray for the future of ECT youth group confident God will provide. Today we give thanks and release the call of a good and faithful servant, pastor Emily. Today we give thanks for the outpouring of the Spirit in Holy Baptism and pray for Erin and Rodrigo in their Christian vocation as parents. Today we send two among us, Sue Rothmeyer and Libby Trost in mission and service at the ELCA churchwide Assembly that begins tomorrow in Ohio. Today we say goodbye and Godspeed to Sophia Serger-Pera who, after four years, is moving back to Omaha this week to begin the next chapter of her life.

Pastor Emily began on May 1st, 2011. She accepted the job despite being paid just four hours per week for work among three Lutheran congregations. She was in her last year at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston and already felt a calling to ministry among city kids. In the years that followed there would be a stint at a church in Northbrook and work at North Shore Baptist in Edgewater. Finally, when she was ordained at Edgewater Presbyterian on October 26, 2013, Pastor Emily became our pastor, with the blessing of the Bishop of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod and Chicago Presbytery. Because Lutherans and Presbyterians are in full communion, we can exchange clergy. Pastor Emily, who was raised Presbyterian, attended a Methodist seminary, and was called to serve in three Lutheran congregations. Her position was increased to half-time that year (2013), and eventually to three-quarter time. She has organized countless events, retreats, and service projects. She has traveled to school activities and bought lots of ice cream for 1-1 meetings. She led our youth to three Churchwide Gatherings (2012 New Orleans; 2015 Detroit; 2018 Houston) and was ready for a fourth in 2021 Minneapolis. (We know what happened to that one.) Pastor Emily is generous with her time, generous with her heart, and generous with her resources.
Pastor Emily answered God’s call and stepped out on faith. The Holy Spirit transformed her love and dedication to youth to bless the entire neighborhood of Edgewater, the wider church family, and especially, our three communities of faith. ECT is not just a youth group. It is a Beloved Community of warmth, welcome, mercy, justice, and discipleship. Thanks be to God.

Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34). Here, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is speaking in the plural. How does this shift our understanding of this famous verse? When “your treasure” points to a plurality of persons discovering together their common treasure in Christ Jesus. When we become re-centered in faith then “your heart” can point beyond the narrow confines of your individual self to the oneness we share of many hearts together in one desire to serve God. Fear is replaced by hope and hope leads to action.

Notice how our identities shift and pinball around in Jesus’ teaching today. We are frightened sheep, and we are heirs of a kingdom. We are keepers of treasure, and we are slaves. We are owners of a house, and accomplices in a great robbery. Do we have a part to play in the Son of Man’s stealing back of creation. Sounds scary and exciting!
Indeed, there is a thief who steals and destroys—and there is a Thief who saves. God is a burglar who comes to steal our false priorities and overturn our unjust structures.” When he breaks into our house, we will never be the same. (Alyce McKenzie, “Mise en Place: Reflections on Luke 12:32-40,” Patheos, August 1, 2013.)

Jesus, with the wisdom of a patient shepherd, diagnoses the key factor for telling the one thief from the other: fear (verse 32). We cannot live by fear. We can only die by it. Fear divides us. Fear locks our treasure away—from others and from ourselves. Fear is the root of injustice. Fear is the end of all hope. Jesus tells his little flock how fear can be overcome and how its prison walls can be broken open. “Sell your possessions,” Jesus said, and “give alms” (verse 33). Give your life to God. Take Christ Jesus by the hand. Let Jesus walk you into the uncertain future to be confident our lives will be filled with grace and blessing. When was the last time we have sold anything of genuine value and given it away? When is the last time we lived unafraid, slaves to a God who serves rather than to an empire that destroys? (McKenzie)
“The Son of Man is like a burglar in a deeper way than just his unannounced arrival time. He returns to steal our false priorities and overturn our unjust structures. He returns to toss our complacency and lack of urgency. We will never be the same again….” (McKenzie)

In his last sermon, delivered March 31, 1968, the night before he was assassinated in Memphis Tennessee, you may remember Martin Luther King, Jr. famously declared ‘I have been to the Mountaintop. I have looked over into the Promised Land.’ King said, “It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence…. I believe today that there is a need for all people of good will to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “We ain’t goin’ study war no more.”

Take my hand. Walk in faith. Go for treasure that lasts forever. Jesus doesn’t require we cut out or cut off our desires, but through faith, the Spirit re-center our desires on the vision of God. Do it now. There’s not a minute to lose. There is real urgency in Jesus’ plea guiding us into the way of peace, and out of yet another hellish experience of human violence just around the corner. Today, with the advent of so many ways leading to Mass Destruction, the need to follow in faith to a better future is even more urgent. So, we do not fear change. So, we embrace our mission, trusting God to lead us and guide us.

Proper 11C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Imagine holding a single grain of sand at arm’s length.  That’s roughly the area of the night sky we saw this week in the very first picture taken by the James Webb Space Telescope now in orbit four times further from earth than the moon. In that photo, rather than individual stars or solar systems, we see dozens of galaxies each with billions of stars and billions of planets.  One billion is an unimaginably big number. I’m told that one billion grains of sand would weigh around 11 tons. And it’s all there, in that tiny little speck-of-sand-sized part of the sky—and every other sand-sized speck contains just as many billions of galaxies. (Stephen Johnson, 8 Ways James Webb Space Photos are Giving Me and Existential Crisis, 7/14/22)

Here we read God’s first bible—written in nature itself. Many were moved to tears and filled with awe.  The photographs are beautiful.  We see “…gas cliffs sheltering newborn stars, a four-billion-year-old star cluster appearing to dance across a dark sky, a star shedding its dust toward all corners of the universe, and five galaxies of such luminosity that they seem to be angelic beings.” (Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage, 7/13/22)

The Psalmist cried out, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3) Space is so darn big. It’s just light years of emptiness. You could travel for a billion years at the fastest speed possible and never run into anything. I remember that feeling after hitting the side of my knee on the raised corner of a cement sidewalk.  The pain was intense. I rolled on my back, looked straight up into infinity.  The night sky seemed empty and unfeeling.  Are we alone in a universe of random events?

There is something in nature has always spoken to us of a creator. God’s first revelation kindles a sturdy and primordial faith. Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote, “Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious [person’s] attitude toward history and nature.” Liberation theologian Dorothee Soelle said much the same, “I think that every discovery of the world plunges us into jubilation, a radical amazement that tears apart the veil of triviality.” Wonder. Amazement, Jubilation. Such things bring us human beings to our knees.

Dr. Suess tells the famous children’s tale of an impossibly small world of creatures living on a tiny speck of dust no one can see and who only Horton the elephant, with his impossibly large ears, can hear. No one believes Horton and their tiny world is threatened until every who in Whoville shouts and is finally heard. “We are here! We are here! We are here!” Apparently, in the real world, this story runs in reverse. We are who’s who hear Horton. In nature, and in scripture, in Word, and Sacraments, and most of all, in Christ Jesus, God declares to all of us living on this tiny blue marble in an unremarkable corner of an ordinary galaxy –I am here, I am here!

We are blessed to have seen God’s face.  St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Colossae, “[Christ Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17) And to the Christians in Corinth, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)

Last week, we read the story of the Good Samaritan.  We learned that a disciple of Jesus must continually do works of love of neighbor.  This Sunday, we learn from the example of our good sisters, Mary and Martha (both of whom are founding members of Christ’s church), a disciple of Jesus must also continually sit and listen at Jesus’ feet.  We must center our hearts and minds on Christ Jesus in prayer and contemplation so that our faithful actions may abound in grace.

Poor Martha is familiar to most of us.  We’ve all been there. She is anxious and distracted by her many tasks while her sister Mary sits and learns at Jesus’ feet. The word for what Martha is experiencing is perispaomai. It literally means ‘to be pulled from all directions.’ It is used only this once in the entire New Testament. (Brian Stoffregen, Proper 11C, Cross Marks Christian Resources)

I become perispaomai flipping between Facebook, Twitter, newspapers, email, and the reply I’m thumb-typing in two separate text messages that momentarily disappear because I have an incoming phone call.  Perispaomai is an onomatopoeia –a word that sounds like what it means.  Martha is perispaomai while stewing and steaming at her sister Mary at the same time she is rushing around attending to hosting chores at the arrival of Jesus and his merry band of followers.

The tyranny of the urgent is a timeless human problem. By attending only to whatever is most pressing long-term goals and avowed ideals are crushed under the squeaky wheels that demand our attention.  The Samaritan, Mary, and Martha teach us how us to slay the dragon of false urgency with silence. There must be time in each day and every week to sit at Jesus’ feet. I hope each Sunday at worship is such a time for you. We need time to pray, to sing, and to meditate upon God. Rather than be pulled from all directions, the fever and frenzy of our lives is pulled toward God and propelled by grace.

“Awe,” wrote Abraham Heschel, “enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.”

God’s vision opens us to re-imagine the world. Encounter with God points us in the direction of our life’s work. Focus on Jesus shifts our perspective.  Our hearts and minds and hands are opened to embrace each moment as an opportunity both to receive and to return grace.  The still small voice that speaks from within nature is revealed as loving parent, as mother hen, as a mighty stream, and rolling waters sweeping all things to live and to live better. Mary is freed from restrictive gendered roles. Martha is challenged to taste and see.  The Samaritan sees a neighbor in the suffering stranger. We are pulled from deadly busyness. Our lungs are filled with a cleansing breath. We are not alone but loved. The rocks and hills give praise.  The trees clap their hands. The very universe shouts in thanksgiving.  Let the people say, Amen!

Proper 10C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The lawyer who stood to test Jesus already knew the answer to his question. So do we. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”’ As Jesus made clear the real question is—can you be neighbor?

They are a nation of 125 million people, roughly 1/3 the population of the United States, yet the number of gun-related deaths in Japan is incredibly low. Can you guess how many? You can count them on two hands. In 2018, the total number of deaths by firearms was nine. Here in the U.S. that year there were 39,740, including 24,000 suicides and 14,000 homicides (Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, 2020).

Today, July 10th, is the 187th day of 2022. Yet there have been 306 mass shootings with at least four injuries or deaths in the U.S. so far this year.  That’s just 21 mass shootings shy of the 327 we had in total last year, 2021—with 178 days to go we’re on track to smash last year’s record number (Gun Violence Archive). How can we be neighbor? —to victims of gun violence? —to the perpetrators of gun violence? —to one another to reach a more rational, less fear-based approach to guns? Could being better neighbors do that?

The basic meaning of neighbor in Hebrew, Greek, and English is “to be near.” The beloved parable of the Good Samaritan encourages us to look for God’s grace in unexpected places and unfamiliar people. To love God, serve your neighbor.  To serve your neighbor, love God.  Devotion to God and service of neighbor form the double-helix of the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. Together they form the living structure upon which the whole chapter hangs.

They would appear to be opposites, yet each reinforces and inspires the other. The Good Samaritancares for and helps people. Next Sunday, the hero in our gospel from Luke 10 will be Mary, who sits still and listens to Jesus in contrast to her sister Martha who is frantic with many things.  These stories fit together –loving God and serving neighbor. They sketch the outline of a living faith. We can be better neighbors through our love and devotion to God.

You need to know in Jesus’ time people believed there was no such thing as a ‘Good Samaritan.’ It was an oxymoron. Samaritans were enemies of Judeans and vice versa. One startling lesson we draw from this parable is that we find those close to God by searching near those in need.  This is a better a better barometer of faithfulness than the ability to quote scripture and regardless of religious identity. To become open to a neighbor like the Good Samaritan is to recognize your siblings in Christ even among your enemies and to uncover our common fellowship with humanity.

Parables invite us to turn them over and look through them from every angle for what they reveal about God and about faith. I wonder, is Jesus inviting us to see God suffering in and with the person lying in the ditch? Through death on a cross Christ Jesus brought himself into solidarity with the oppressed of the world, with all victims of injustice, with anyone who has been beaten, abused, lynched, or forgotten.

Indeed, what about when life and circumstances conspire to throw us, or our families, or friends into the ditch? Many of us find it easier to relate to this parable if we get to be the one who helps rather than the one who is helped. We look upon our neighbor merely as someone who needs something from us, rather than as someone who has gifts. We learn important things when we are in the ditch about our own limitations and need for each other. When we are in the ditch it becomes easy to take measure the true size of other people’s heart.  So many of us desire only to impart strength, rather than to receive strength from others. True neighbors take turns being the hero for one another. Can you be neighbor both to receive strength and to give it?

 As you welcome one another, Jesus says, you welcome me. There I am in the midst of you. A somewhat comical story, said to originate in a Russian Orthodox monastery, has an older monk telling a younger one: “I have finally learned to accept people as they are. Whatever they are in the world…it is all the same to me. But sometimes I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?'”(From Dakota by Kathleen Norris)

There are limits on our energy and on our time and on how many people we can care for.  There is a natural tension between our need to be alone and our need to belong. Thomas Merton recognized a paradox at the heart of what it means to love God and be neighbor. He wrote, “We cannot find ourselves within ourselves, but only in others, yet at the same time before we can go out to others we must first find ourselves…Only when we see ourselves in our true human context, as members of a race which is intended to be one organism and “one body,” will we begin to understand…Every other human is a piece of myself, for I am a part and a member of humankind… (Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1955, 1967), 13, 16–17. Note: minor edits made for inclusive language.)

A Greek proverb put it this way: “A society becomes great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.” Neighborliness is not just about the people living next door, not even about people I know or might ever know. It is about God inspired caring for the well-being of each person, and all living things, as we would care about ourselves because that is indeed who and what they are.

Because of this, and because of our human limitations, the Hebrew prophets knew the most important measure of neighborliness is in the society, economy, and culture we create together rather than the compassion we carry only within ourselves. Do good neighbors allow neighbors to arm themselves with weapons of war? Do good neighbors allow alienation and resentment to fester and grow in their young people that they resort to violence? Do good neighbors allow fear and division to overshadow what they hold in common as children of God?

Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer has written a beautiful book called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013) in which she talks about the Mohawk tradition of giving thanks at the outset of every communal gathering. It is a breath-taking example of a culture of neighborliness we seem to have lost but might yet aspire to.

Lawyers, government officials, and non-native people meeting with the tribe invariably look at their watches and roll their eyes with impatience.  The so-called Thanksgiving Address honors the communal nature of all life on earth. It seems to go on forever. Individuals may recite it differently, but generally, there is a petition of thanksgiving to the people, to Mother earth, to the water, the fish, the plants, the food plants, the medicine herbs, the animals, the trees, the birds, the four winds, the Thunderers, the sun, grandmother moon, the stars, the enlightened teachers, the creator, and finally, they conclude, “We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we have named, it was not our intention to leave anything out. If something was forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send such greetings and thanks in their own way. Now our minds are one.”

Kimmerer asks us, “What would it be like to be raised on gratitude, to speak to the natural world as a member of the democracy of species, to raise a pledge of interdependence?

No declarations of political loyalty are required, just a response to a repeated question: Can we agree to be grateful for all that is given?” In the Thanksgiving Address, Kimmerer writes, “I hear respect toward all our nonhuman relatives, not one political entity, but to all of life. What happens to nationalism, to political boundaries, when allegiance lies with winds and waters that know no boundaries, that cannot be bought or sold? . . . The words are simple, but in the art of their joining, they become a statement of sovereignty, a political structure, a Bill of Responsibilities, an educational model, a family tree, and a scientific inventory of ecosystem services. It is a powerful political document, a social contract, a way of being—all in one piece. But first and foremost, it is the credo for a culture of gratitude” (p. 112, 115).

Now our minds are one. Let us join hands and hearts as God gives us that ability.  Let us strive together with God to be good neighbors with each other and all life again.