The Festival of St. Luke

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

For the festival of St. Luke, on which we celebrate the relation between faith and health, let me begin with a story.  In the beginning, God was like an unhappy farmer. The world looked like Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. The earth, covered with red dust (in Hebrew Adamah), was not fertile or hospitable, because there was “no one to till the ground.” So, God caused springs of water to come up from the earth itself, made a clay, and formed a man (adam) from the ground. God breathed into him, and gave life to this “soil creature,” this “earth-man.” God placed Adam in the garden, to grow it, and to care for the rivers, and plants, and animals, and eventually drew Eve (havah, meaning “to become,” “to breathe,” or “life”) from Adam’s body to be his partner.  Thus Adam and Eve, not a literal first couple, but rather Soil and Life (their “names” from Hebrew words) marry, and their union produces the human race. (Diana Butler Bass, Grounded, Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution, p. 42)

“God fashions the first humans by taking the dust of the ground into his hands, holding it so close that it can share in the divine breath, and inspiring it with the freshness of life.  It is only as the ground is suffused with God’s intimate, breathing presence that human life—along with the life of trees and animals and birds—is possible at all.  God draws near to the earth and then animates if from within.” (Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba, Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation, p. 16)

“God’s love is the power that moves the galaxies and the breathes in our bodies. One way to imagine this relationship between God and the world is with the metaphor of the world as God’s body.”  The world, the universe, is the “body of God:” all matter, all flesh, all myriad beings, things, and processes that constitute physical reality are in and of God.  God is not just spirit, but also body.  Hence, God can be thought of in organic terms, as the vast interrelated network of beings that compose our universe.  The “glory” of God, then is not just heavenly, but earthly.”  (Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology)

What we call health, or wellness, therefore, begins with the alignment of body and spirit. Faith is not a cure for finitude or death but the ground-spring of well-being. Perhaps you have experienced this yourself or you have heard the stories of famous examples. People like

Professor Randy Pausch, a 47-year-old father of three who died of pancreatic cancer some years ago.  Professor Pausch, an unknown computer science expert, gave one last lecture to summarize his life’s learning to students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. (Lecture Sept 2007). Thanks to the internet, it became a national sensation. The theme of Professor Pausch’s “Last Lecture” was “Really achieving your childhood dreams.”  He didn’t discuss spirituality or religion, but he spoke with the simple authority of a man looking death in the face and assessing what’s most important about life.  One of the most memorable things about him was his undying enthusiasm for life.  “Never lose the childlike wonder,” he advised. “Show gratitude… Don’t complain; just work harder… Never give up.”

“Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears! Let all the nations gather together, and let the peoples assemble…You are my witnesses, says the LORD…” (Isaiah 43:8-9a) Whether in a hospital room, a board room, a church sanctuary, a hotel room, or your living room, it’s all the same. The bible is a profound interpreter of real life.  By the grace of God, even occasions of illness and injury may become times of peace and shalom, an opportunity to gain new insight into our life.  Illness does not have the power to rob us of dignity.  By faith, we may be made well without ever being cured. Conversely, there are many who are cured without ever being healed.

Albert Schweitzer once said, “It’s supposed to be a professional secret, but I’ll tell you anyway. We doctors do nothing. We only help and encourage the doctor within.” Fully one-fifth of the gospels relate to Jesus’ ministry of healing.  It is a misconception to say that Jesus came to save “sin-sick” souls.  Jesus didn’t stop there. Jesus brought both psychical and mental health to those whom he healed.  He restored balance and vitality to community. His mission was to defeat the powers of evil that permeate our world and fracture the alignment of body, mind, and spirit. This kind of balance and wholeness, the bible calls shalom.

Because God is body and spirit, we may look to everyday life to find examples of a more holistic health. One study examined survivors of heart attacks. These were people who had had triple and quadruple bypass surgery.  They had all shared a life changing event. They each came home from the hospital with arm loads of information and training about how to change their lives. Yet, twelve months later, nine out of ten heart patients were eating the same foods as they did before their surgery and doing the same amount of exercise. Did the 10% who were doing better have more will power? Did they have a scarier experience to set them straight?

No, nothing was different except that they had forged an alliance –they had an exercise buddy.  They had met someone in the hospital or down the street in the same situation and made a pact.  So, when the alarm went off at 6:30 in the morning, Bill don’t hit the snooze bar because he knew Joe would be out on the corner waiting for him –and Joe was out there only because he knew Bill would be there.

Because God is body and soul transformation of health, faith, and life comes through relationships of mutual accountability. It comes as we learn to trust each other.  It comes through forgiving one another. It comes through listening and speaking and praying.  Shalom is a by-product of healthy communities with Christ at the center.

Our gospel proclaims this healing Spirit of the Lord is upon you. The spirit of shalom is upon us at Immanuel. Where there is any weariness, we are called and strengthened to be present as God is present.  Where people are hungry, we are called and strengthened to be bread.  Where there is bitterness and strife, we are called and strengthened to be peacemakers. Where there is illness and despair, we are called and strengthened to share God’s shalom—a ray of light and air so that God’s in-depth healing process can begin.

‘Then water shall appear over the burning sand.  Waters shall break forth in the desert and the thirsty ground shall become a pool.  The tongue of the speechless shall sing for joy and the lame shall leap like a deer’  (Isaiah 35:6-7).

Proper 23B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

A young man runs to Jesus, kneels at his feet, and asks: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). Jesus ‘looked at him and loved him.’ This is the only time in Mark’s gospel where Jesus is said to “love” someone. It’s little wonder, this young man would make any mother-in-law proud. He is a faith do-er. But he lacks one thing. He is not yet a faith-receiver (vs. 30). Salvation must be a gift before it is a call.

Of course, we are always getting this backwards. This was the central dispute of the Protestant Reformation. Lutheran theology recognized grace comes before the law. Trying to ‘do’ our way into God’s good graces is more difficult than passing a camel through the eye of a needle (vs. 25). I cannot see the eye of a needle anymore without glasses. God does what we cannot. God does not keep score. In baptism God cleanses us from selfishness and raises us to new life. At the table, we drink the same cup of suffering and death for the sake of the world that Jesus drank. In this way, Christ abides in us, and we are alive in him. Not by doing, but by receiving God’s love with thanksgiving and joy as a gift.

Seeing things as a gift changes the way I relate to them. If I begin to think of my tennis shoes as a gift of the natural world and from the human hands that made them, perhaps I will wear them longer. If the food I eat is a gift, perhaps I am more mindful of what I consume.

Let’s be clear. This gospel is not a command to burn your paycheck. Wealth is a resource like any other. We do not regard our time and talents as taboo. Neither are material blessings. The young man asked to inherit salvation as one inherits land or real estate. This is where he went wrong. We are not owners. We are not landlords. We are stewards and caretakers with God of one another, the natural world, and ourselves.

So why does this gospel trouble us so? Jesus’ New Economy of grace—the biblical vision of Sabbath economics, spells trouble for the comfortable, and comfort for the troubled. Could it be this gospel brings something into focus we wish not to see?

This question has special significance this weekend when Columbus’ controversial “discovery” is remembered throughout the world. Columbus and the explorers, soldiers, and priests who accompanied him had the blessing of kings and popes and conquered in the name of both Spain and Christianity. And the vast majority of them, confessing Christianity, stole land, resources, and the very lives of native peoples.

Scripture says, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24b). It turns out this is true even for non-human species. Monkeys and chimps, you’ll agree, are famously fast and dexterous. It’s difficult to see one in the wild let alone get close to one. Yet, there is an easy way to capture monkeys unharmed. You don’t need any fancy equipment –just drill a hole of a certain size into a coconut, attach the coconut to a rope secured to a rock or tree, place some rice in the hollowed-out shell, and wait.
When the monkey reaches in to grab the rice it discovers the hole in the coconut is too small to allow it to withdraw its fisted paw. The monkey is trapped, but only if it refuses to let go of the rice. If it lets go it can easily free itself. The trap works by forcing a monkey to choose. The monkey may have its freedom, or it may have the rice (which, I’ve heard is impossible for them to consume), but it may not have both. The monkey is trapped by their greed. Many (if not most) monkeys place a greater value on clutching onto the rice, than in preserving their own freedom. Does it surprise you humans and chimps share 98.8 percent of their DNA?

Money is not an end-in-itself. It is not the goal. If all I leave behind is money, then my life legacy is poor and will soon be forgotten. A legacy of changed lives and lives loved –that is how we store up treasure in heaven. We must die to wealth to become truly rich. But this does not mean we should be dumb and unthinking about it. What if we were to think of our wealth as venture capital for building the kin-dom of God? What if we were to think of our ourselves us entrepreneurs of grace?

One of my favorite examples of an entrepreneur of grace is Muhammad Yunus who leveraged his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University on a bet that wealth and economic systems could serve a higher purpose by helping eliminate poverty, assist the marginalized, and support education for all. In 1976, Yunus founded the Grameen Bank to make very small loans that make a very big difference. “Charity is not the answer to poverty,” Yunus wrote, “It only helps poverty continue. It creates dependency and takes away the individual’s initiative to break through the wall of poverty.”

It would have been more charitable—and certainly a lot easier—just to give poor woman money. But instead, Yunus lent a woman $27. She and several of her friends used the small loan to start a successful furniture-making business to escape the bonds of poverty in their rural Bangladeshi village. (Tom Hundley, Tribune foreign correspondent, Chicago Tribune, October 14, 2006, page 1).

If grace is a gift than you and I are on the hook. It’s up to you –collectively it’s up to us how to steward all that we are entrusted with. How are we called to steward the resources of this congregation? How do we balance support for ministry today with the ministry needs of tomorrow? Do we have it within our power to move toward a sustainable budget in 3, 4, or 5 years? Maybe the answer is that we’re supposed to live the question with humility.

Not long ago someone told me worship at Immanuel gave him confidence to finally take steps to re-start his life. He got a full-time job at a local fast-food restaurant and is making enough money to support himself. Your generosity and spirit of welcome made that possible. It all begins with God’s love.

Jesus looked upon the young man and loved him. Did he love him because the man recognized his need? He knew his life was not complete despite having achieved so much already. But notice Jesus’s love didn’t leave the young man where he was. Jesus’s love isn’t Minnesota “nice.” “It doesn’t prioritize the young man’s comfort over his salvation. Jesus’s love is provocative. It’s incisive. It’s sharp. Even as it offers unconditional welcome, it also offers mind-boggling challenge.” (Debi Thomas, “What Must I Do?” Journey with Jesus, 10/03/21)

The seeker walks away, and love lets go. Mark’s Gospel tells us the young man is “shocked” by Jesus’s invitation, and went away grieving. “What I find shocking is that Jesus lets him. Jesus doesn’t cajole. He doesn’t plead. He doesn’t manipulate. He doesn’t judge. He honors the man’s freedom — even his freedom to refuse eternal life — and allows him to walk away.” (Thomas)

The Galilean vision of God in Mark’s gospel is that God is the invitation of love. It is a love we see fleshed out in Jesus. The answer to who is God is a story about a homeless first-century Jew. This flickering Galilean image of the divine reveals that faith is not something we possess and build upon. It is the invitation to participate in self-giving liberation seeking love. It is an encounter. We get clarity about who God and what God asks of us by actually living in relationship with God.
The coming of the Christ is the invitation to be the Christ –to participate. This is our one and only life. What kind of human being do I want to be? (Tripp Fuller speaking about Process and Reality, by Alfred North Whitehead, p. 342)

Proper 22B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Fall is beautiful in Chicago. I think it’s my favorite season. My mom texted pictures of fall colors from her back yard in Colorado this week. Here the trees have just a touch of yellow and red the first sentinels of change. The colors signal change is coming. The colors reassure us change can be as beautiful as it is inevitable.
Our scriptures hold out a lesson for when change seems overwhelming. We’ve had our belly full of change, haven’t we? Some we never saw coming. Changes so sudden and complete it is more accurate to call them a rupture. A rupture is when things torn apart cannot be put together again. A rupture can leave us disoriented, unable to focus, lost in the wilderness, facing into an uncertain future.

The end of a marriage is a good example of rupture. A divorce upends our lives and everyone around us, our children, extended family, friends, and neighbors. The forever-promise to love one person the same way God loves everyone is the foundation marriage is built upon. Yet this preposterous promise is possible for us because God provides unconditional love in such abundance, we may draw upon it as a natural resource to build a life together, become a family, and take part in something larger than ourselves that is more than the sum of its parts.

Jesus said see, “…they are no longer two, but one flesh,” (Mark 10:8). Yet because we hold the forever promise of marriage in the earthen vessels of our lives our vow can be shattered and not go back together again. Once upon a time this is where the preacher stopped preaching this gospel. Marriage is a blessing and divorce is bad. Ask anyone who’s been through it, and they would probably tend to agree. But thanks be to God, the good news of our scriptures extends beyond marriage and divorce to meet us as we are, and where we live, even if that happens to be in the wilderness of our losses and failures.

We are in a wilderness today. We are living in a time that one rupture after another has washed over us in successive waves. The nuclear age undermined confidence in our safety. 9-11 upended our trust in our security. January 6 unraveled our assurance we could be safe with enough surveillance. Cell phone video has forced us to confront our ugly history of genocide, slavery, and systemic racism. Gender equality and sexual orientation is reshaping daily life. Climate change is forcing us to reconsider our lifestyle and our economy. The list goes on –did I mention the pandemic?

Ruptures leave us feeling bereft, unfocused, shattered, exhausted—even when that change is necessary, overdue, and righting historic wrongs. Fortunately, the Good News was made for such a time as this. We are met in our wilderness by the grace of God. God is with us when things fall apart. God will not abandon us to our faults, our failures, our bad decisions, or our broken vows.

Our scriptures point like a compass needle toward the new and brighter future God intends. With striking and welcome unity, all the lessons for worship today focus on the healing power imbued in other people, animals, and all living things. We are fashioned in God’s own image. We are made for embrace. Creation is a love story that opens to us as we turn with compassion and gratitude toward our neighbors and nature.

The truth is, we encounter the living God, not only in marriage relationships, but also in compassionate relation to all living things, including animals and people regarded as unimportant non-persons living among us. God’s grace is a natural resource. It has saving power to heal and redeem us. It flows to us through and from other living things. I’ll give you an example.

In 1991, in upstate New York, a young physician named Bill Thomas took a job as medical director of Chase Memorial Nursing Home, a facility with eighty severely disabled elderly residents. About half of them were physically disabled; four out of five had Alzheimer’s or other forms of cognitive disability. Thomas soon realized working there depressed him. He saw despair lurking in every room. Old timers told him he would get used to it. But he didn’t get used to it. Instead, he tried to fix it. One attempt after the other all failed. Finally, he hit upon a solution that worked. He brought in two dogs, four cats, and one hundred birds. To bring the nursing home to life, we would fill it with life.

“People who we had believed weren’t able to speak started speaking,” Thomas said. “People who had been completely withdrawn and unable to walk started coming to the nurses’ station and saying, ‘I’ll take the dog for a walk.’” All the parakeets were adopted and named by the residents. The lights turned back on in people’s eyes. Soon they added a colony of rabbits and a flock of laying hens. There were also hundreds of indoor plants and a thriving vegetable and flower garden. The home had on-site childcare for the staff and a new after-school program. Now children, animals, live plants, and seniors were all part of daily life of the nursing home.

The number of prescriptions required per resident was cut in half. Total drug costs fell to just 38 percent compared to other nursing homes. Deaths fell by 15 percent. Researchers couldn’t say why. But Thomas thought he could. “I believe that the difference in death rates can be traced to the fundamental human need for a reason to live.” (Atul Gawande, Being Mortal, Chapter 5, “A Better Life”, pps. 111-147)

We could add to Thomas’ answer words which we read from the book of Genesis. God said, ‘It is not good that we should be alone’ (2:18). Indeed, it is very good when we are together. Our lives are strengthened, our hope is restored, as we involve ourselves with one another and with all living things. In these helpers, partners, and friends we find a sustaining purpose for our lives. We walk the road out from the wilderness of rupture and change.

Colors in the trees proclaim a new season is dawning. Change may cause us grief, but the reality of God’s grace assures us each rupture will be followed with healing, and the possibility to begin again. Let us pray. “O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through our Lord and savior Jesus Christ” (ELW, Evening Prayer, p. 317) Amen.

Proper 21B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). Yet this gospel makes me uncomfortable. Unfortunately, these verses have a long and cruel history of literal application. How many hands were cut off, how many feet? How many eyes were plucked out? How many drowned? Who among us doesn’t know someone deeply hurt by the church, or someone claiming religious authority? Religion without grace is a terrible, mean thing that has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus.

Knowing, as we do, the capacity of bad religion to afflict and to wound, the graphic language used by Jesus would seem more fitting for Halloween than the Good News. In fact, Matthew’s gospel trims this story from seven verses to just two. Luke omits these sayings altogether (cf. Luke 17:1-4) (Eugene Boring). Of course, we could skip right over these verses. Just pretend they’re not there. Yet if we ignore the fact our faith calls for sacrifice, that resurrection includes transformation, it is astonishing how quickly piety becomes an empty, arrogant, and unbearably sanctimonious thing.

Grace is a double-edged sword to free us and change us. The cross is anti-dote to human violence and a call to turn from scapegoating and inflicting harm. If we would call ourselves Christian, then we must dispense mercy and forgiveness, just as we ourselves have received mercy and forgiveness by grace through faith.

So, to wring a up cup of grace from the harsh words of today’s gospel, first, I think it helps to remember Jesus is still teaching the disciples with a child seated in his lap (from last Sunday). The “hell” to which Jesus refers is not a time after death but an actual place called the valley of “ben-hinnom,” a place where idol worshiping Israelites had engaged in child sacrifice. Perhaps Auschwitz or Hiroshima are equivalent places today. This kind of hell is not a threat that comes from God, but from our neighbors and each whenever people turn from God. In a world of institutionalized inequality and dehumanization, the choices are stark. Either we embrace the “fire” of recovery (9:49) or live in the “hell” of our addiction to violence.

Western religions tend to teach that you are punished for your sins. Could it be rather that we are punished by our sins? When religion is reduced to a board game with God keeping score the objectives of faith narrow so it becomes all about me and nothing more. Christianity is not a solo endeavor. It’s not a private relationship between with God. This phrase is never found in the bible. Life with Christ is communal. It’s about a church relationship with Jesus committed loving, serving, and sacrificing for one another as Jesus did.

Through water and the word, through bread and wine, through fellowship in the Spirit, Jesus said, we are salted with fire, and purified by the God of grace for the flourishing of the whole community. Jesus uses a metaphor about salt to teach about the power and promise of grace.

What can salt do? Salt lowers the melting point of snow and ice and also raises the boiling point of water. Salt of the Spirit opens our hearts and deepens our compassion even as it helps us manage the conflicts that naturally boil over among us. This grace makes us salty. One of the unique properties of salt is its ability to blend flavors of many different things together to make them complementary. Salt builds community. Salt welcomes diversity. Just as salt enhances the flavor of the food we eat disciples of Christ add flavor to unify the diverse peoples of the world.

The apostle John ran to Jesus saying, “We saw this unknown, un-credentialed healer doing spectacular things and using your name even though he is not one of us.” The disciples wanted Jesus to prevent someone from doing what they have just failed to do (a few chapters before).

“Envy and jealousy are near-sighted sins. They limit our vision and focus our attention on ourselves and our status” (Culpepper, p. 323). Salt is a natural preservative. The salt of the Holy Spirit plucks out of us those things that spoil good community. Here’s where this gospel becomes truly radical. Here’s where we learn the great Good News that begins to heal the strife and division that so afflicts us today. When it comes to connecting with God in the presence of strangers, with people of different religions, and among those with no religion is it anything goes? How do we tell the difference in what is of Christ and what is not of Christ? The answer: taste and see. “By their fruits, you shall know them,” Jesus said (Matthew 7:16).

Martin Luther expanded on this criterion for recognizing the presence of the salt of grace in each other and among strangers. Luther said, ‘whatever preaches Christ is the pure and salty gospel, even if Judas Iscariot said it. Conversely, whatever doesn’t preach Christ is not the gospel, even if Saints Peter or Paul said it.’ It is the salty heart of faith that recognizes the truth about our brothers and sisters in Christ –even when we disagree, even when they play for the opposing team, even though we belong to different tribes.

The salt we have in us is love. It is a love worth living for, changing for, sacrificing for, and dying for. Perhaps because of love we don’t have as much money as we would otherwise have. Perhaps because of love we don’t have as much time as we would like to watch Netflix. We haven’t gone as far as we could have in our career. Our reputation has been damaged. Our hearts have been broken. We have tried and we have failed. Yet we have no regrets.

In these stern words from Jesus today, we find a promise and invitation. God can use whatever you have to give flavor to the world. God’s grace is truly good news for people weary of petty religious battles. Grace is timely good news for people who are wounded, in landscapes that have been shattered, for communities that have been broken by religious intolerance.

Wisdom begins with the knowledge we all stand in need of mercy. See, by grace we are poured out of the saltshaker and into the world. We embrace the things that make us different, not to stand apart, but to stand together. With the salt of grace, God prepares a banquet from the meager stuff of our lives. Bring me who you are. Bring me your weaknesses. I will strengthen them. Bring me your doubts. I will quiet them. Bring me your shortcomings and your limitations. I will fill you with abundance. Amen.

Proper 20B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37). Today, we are blessed by 18 youth who are going to the ELCA national gathering next summer.  We give thanks that tutoring resumes tomorrow night for fully vaccinated youth and volunteers. With your support playgroup children and caregivers have found a welcome and built community in the park across the street. Because of your generosity we continue to provide Covid Assistance grants of $50 per person per household for food and other necessities to neighborhood families laid off or unemployed due to the pandemic. We will send 17 quilts to Lutheran World Relief where they will provide warmth and shelter to refugees who would otherwise have neither.  (Four of them decorate the pews this morning.) This is God’s work that is being done with your hands and it is fitting that we should celebrate all of it today and dedicate it to the glory of God.

While the world wages war, the gospel of Christ calls us to wage wisdom.  Wisdom requires a different set of armaments than those wielded by nations. The letter of James calls us, to outfit ourselves with ‘purity, peace, gentleness, a yielding spirit, mercy, impartiality and integrity’ (James 3:17). These are not the kind of weapons that can be purchased. Instead, these are the fruits God brings into being from faithful hearts and minds and has placed in our hands.

Jesus asked the disciples. “What were you talking about on the way?” Again, we see that evocative phrase which is a common theme in Mark’s gospel. The ‘way,’ was what our religion was called before followers of Christ were known as Christians.  Each of us is ‘on the way’ because in this life we never reach the end of growth in our faith. Here at Immanuel, we chose this name for a process of spiritual growth and renewal. On the Way will resume this year in Advent.  You are invited to join us in our pilgrimage.

On the way through Galilee, Jesus told the disciples a second time about the cross.  He told them the Son of Man must be betrayed into human hands, killed and after three days, rise again (Mark 9:31).  Yet again, Jesus’ language about suffering and death does not compute for the disciples.

Who could blame them? Everywhere, they looked statues and pillars proclaimed the Roman motto “Roma Eturna,” Rome always wins.  Resistance to the military power of Rome meant ruin, subjugation, exile into slavery and death.  The mortar that binds cities and nations into Empire is fear of the threat of violence.  In the disciple’s way of thinking, the coming of the Son of Man would operate by the same logic of war that had built and perpetuated the Roman Empire.  As yet they did not understand how the in-breaking of God’s kingdom fit together loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, and suffering for the sake of the gospel.

Jesus was showing them a more excellent way.  He taught them that we must wage wisdom if we are ever to be free from the endless cycle of violence. He instructed them by saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners community in Washington D.C., tells a story about waging wisdom rather than violence. Years ago, Wallis was mugged right outside his home by four children.  They rushed him, slashed his face, and yelled “Keep him down!  Get his wallet!”

Despite their attempts, he popped up quickly, and seeing no weapons, squared off to face his attackers.  He was shocked when he realized they were just kids –three were no more than fifteen and another couldn’t have been more than thirteen. The one who had jumped him moved into a boxing stance and the little one did a few ineffectual karate kicks.

Wallis began to scold them and to tell them “…to just stop it” …to stop terrorizing people, to stop such violent behavior in their neighborhood …and finally, (he said something that embarrassed him later), he shouted at them, “I’m a pastor!”

The teenagers turned and ran. “Get back here!” Wallis shouted—before he realized that probably wasn’t the smartest thing to say.  But that’s when something surprising happened. The littlest kid, who couldn’t have been more than four feet six, turned and looked back as he ran away.  The young karate kicker said, “Pastor, ask God for a blessing for me.”

Wallis wrote: “He and his friends had just assaulted me.  The little one had tried so hard to be one of the tuff guys.  Yet he knew he needed a blessing.  The young boy knew he was in trouble.  I think they all did.”

Can we overpower tough guys with the power of compassion?  Can victimizers and victims be freed from bondage to anger and conflict?  Can joy arise from hurt and hopelessness?  Slaves sing songs of freedom. Old men and women dream dreams.  Little children see visions.  The lion lies down with the lamb when we wage wisdom, not war.

But “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind” the letter of James says (James 3:16).  On the way through Galilee Jesus stopped to give the disciples an object lesson about waging wisdom. He gave them a children’s sermon –using a real child. Jesus taught them to welcome little children. Not because the child is innocent, or perfect, or pure, or cute, or curious, or naturally religious. Jesus taught them to welcome the child because, in those days, children counted least and last of all.

Warsan Shire is a British writer, poet, editor, and teacher, who was born to Somali parents in Kenya.  Her poem, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon,” could be a lesson for us with the same object –it opens our hearts to the kind of compassion Jesus is talking about that is a key to waging wisdom.

 

What They Did Yesterday Afternoon

they set my aunts house on fire

i cried the way women on tv do

folding at the middle

like a five pound note.

i called the boy who use to love me

tried to ‘okay’ my voice

i said hello

he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?

 

i’ve been praying,

and these are what my prayers look like;

dear god

i come from two countries

one is thirsty

the other is on fire

both need water.

 

later that night

i held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?

 

it answered

everywhere

everywhere

everywhere.

Look for those in your midst who have no standing, no wealth, no voice, no value –and there you will find me Jesus said.  These are the brothers and sister to whom you now belong through your baptism into Christ.  Together with them we follow Jesus now in waging wisdom born of grace that is for healing the grief-stricken world.

Proper 19B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27). Jesus questioned the disciples as they walked toward Caesarea Philippi.  The area was well known for its dedication to the Roman nature-god, Pan; and for honoring Caesar who was often regarded as divine.  Jesus asked them in public as they walked among crowds holding differing views and all the other forces competing for their allegiance.

The disciples parroted back what they had heard others say.  “They answered him, John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets” (Mark 8:28).  I think it’s worth asking, how you would answer Jesus’ question today?

Obviously, Mark has already clued in to the answer.  We know how this story ends.  Moreover, we know what will unfold over the next two thousand years! Yet, in this case, I’m not sure hindsight is 20/20.  Let’s pause a moment. Picture Jesus talking to the disciples in this gospel.  Does your mental image include any women among them?  What about Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9-10 and John 20:17-18), and the other Mary (Matthew 28:8-10), or Joanna, and others (Luke 24:9-10) who are named in all four gospels as the first to witness of the resurrection. Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna were among the first funders of Jesus’ work (Luke 8:1-3). Others like Phoebe, Prisca and Junia, will become leaders, deacons, and even apostles in the early church (Romans 16:7).  If women had kept silent in the church, there wouldn’t be a church.

Now let’s widen this experiment.  What images first come mind when you try to picture God?  Some of you try to tell me you picture a bright light or indwelling love. Yet I’m pretty sure somewhere near the top of the google search for God images stored in each of our brains—a bearded man, or king seated upon a throne, comes to mind. God told Abram my name is El Shaddai (Genesis 17:1).  This name for God occurs 48 times in the bible.  It can mean the “many breasted one,” or “mountain refuge.” In other words, some joke, the ‘Grand Tetons.’ It is a wonderful and feminine image of God as the divine mother of us all.  Yet again and again El Shaddai appears in our English bibles and even some of our liturgical prayers as ‘the almighty.’

Your image of God creates you. We read the bible through a patriarchal lens.

It changes and distorts the way we hear this familiar gospel story. Like Peter, we know the correct answer to Jesus’s next question. Jesus is the son of God. Yet also like Peter, we often have the wrong idea about what this means, if it means we imagine an angry Jesus, ruling from a throne, threatening us with damnation, provoking fear rather than inspiring love, operating in an all-male trinity with God the father and holy Spirit.

Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29a).  We admire Peter, who spoke plainly and with courage.  He said, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29b).  The one who is coming into the world.  God’s anointed, the Christ of God.

Our lesson for today begins with triumph and ends in confession.  Peter had the right answer.  He understood who Jesus was.  But, in the very next breath, he fell miserably short from understanding what Jesus said he must do.  When Peter tried to redirect him away from going to Jerusalem and the cross Jesus rebuked him saying, “Get behind me Satan” (Mark 8:3).

Peter is a fine example of how many of us hear the gospel and see the work of Jesus –of how we can come to church again and again; read the scriptures before going to bed; and still come to the wrong conclusions about who Jesus is and about the real source of his power.  You and I do it all the time.  We want Jesus without the cross.  We want the power without the suffering.  Is it impossible for us to comprehend how power and suffering fit together?  Can we be strong even when we are vulnerable?

For a thousand years the Church gained power by scaring people about what would happen to them without the church. “Are you certain that if you died today, you will spend eternity in paradise?” We are all too familiar with a church of the past which operated more as some type of protection racket, by casting fear than by inspiring love.  But thanks be to God, the gospel of Christ has begun once again to shine through and to re-emerge from behind the patriarchal lens, and from so much other self-interested baggage of the last two thousand years.

This week if feels our nation closed the book that we’ve all be reading together on the past twenty years from 911 to the end of the war in Afghanistan. We were spell bound and in a daze.  We emerge as if stepping out onto the sidewalk after a gripping movie. We now realize that we made mistakes. We overstepped. We often did more harm than good.  Yet also we have learned. We clearly see there is a limit to what military power can accomplish.  When we say, ‘Never forget,’ will this be one of the lessons we carry forward? Jesus has shown us the way.  He told us how to the endless cycle of shame and blame.  He has shown us how to harness the destructive power of fear and use it for doing good. Jesus   points us toward the way of the cross.

Take up your cross, Jesus says.  Take up your mortal, flawed life, soaked in God’s love and tears, and follow me, Jesus says.  Look upon the cross and learn its message.  There is nothing any more that can stop us.  No obstacle is too great.  No loss too daunting.  There is no tragedy too incapacitating that the love of God, through Christ Jesus, cannot open a way for us to make progress toward a better future that is lasting and good.  The fruits of love and grace working to build up God’s kingdom can never be erased.  They cannot be destroyed.  But they become like treasures stored up in heaven “where no thief comes near and no moth destroys” (Luke 12:33).

Rather than a god who is angry and quick to destroy, the God revealed in Mark’s gospel is a patient teacher.  Each of us is ‘on the way.’ Being “on the way” is a common theme throughout Mark’s gospel. We encounter it here in today’s gospel as Jesus and the disciples are walking on the way together to Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27).

We’ll encounter this evocative phrase repeatedly in coming weeks.   In Greek, the word translated the ‘way’, can simply refer to a road or path, or it can refer to a way of life.  Jesus will be “on the way” next week when the disciples argue among themselves about who is greatest (9:33-34).  Jesus will be ‘on the way’ next month when the rich man asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life; and again when he will tell the disciples a third time about the cross and resurrection. (10:17, 10:32).

On Reformation Sunday we’ll read the story of Blind Bartimaeus who calls out to Jesus from the “side of the way” (10:46).  Once Jesus heals him, Bartimaeus is able to follow Jesus “on the way”.  Many of you know that The “Way” became a title of early Christians (Acts 18:25, 26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22).

Little by little, along the way, there comes a realization that only Jesus’ way of the cross can give us what we truly crave—a life that passes through death; bonds of fellowship and belonging that cannot be broken; a purpose and meaning to our mortal endeavors that cannot be erased even after countless ages of time have done their work.  We might wish to be granted honor, safety, success, and power over others.  But God through Christ has shown us the way to life comes through power with others.  It is the power of love.  The power of trust.  The power of faith.  The power of tears.  The way of the cross.

Proper 18B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The gospel is an English translation of a Greek text written about a man who never wrote down anything but who spoke and taught in a third language called, Aramaic. We have here, in our scriptures, what they remembered, what they could not forget, about Jesus. Only a few precious untranslated words remain in his native tongue. They are sprinkled throughout Mark’s gospel like icons. Did these words evoke something particular and essential about what it was like to be with Jesus? He addressed God as “Abba,” or ‘daddy.’ He had said, “Talitha cum,” ‘little girl, get up’ to Jairus’ daughter. They remember he cried out from the cross, “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani,” ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

We have another one of these original Aramaic word-icons of Jesus in our gospel today, “Ephatha,” ‘be opened.’ Ephatha, the gospel of Jesus opens hands, hearts, and minds to grace. Ephatha, last Sunday Jesus opened the eyes of the Pharisees to the cancer of religious legalism. Ephatha, today Jesus opened the ears and speech of a man who could not hear or speak from birth. Ephatha, sometimes this power to open and awaken even worked in the other direction—as when Jesus’ mind was opened to the radical inclusiveness of God’s kingdom by the faith of the unnamed Syrophoenician woman in our gospel today.

It is shocking, but here, we confront Jesus in his full humanity—and give thanks for this moment in which the Kingdom of Heaven broke wide open for Jesus. Personally, I am thankful for Mark’s candor. This unnamed woman became a preacher to Jesus. Jesus’ own consciousness was raised about his ministry and mission. No one is outside the embrace of God. Ephatha. We shall all be opened, changed, transformed in the image of God.

The psalmist says, “The Lord lifts up all who are bowed down” (146:8). Yet Jesus puts this woman down. She is a double outsider. She is not Jewish, and she is a woman. He essentially calls her a dog. I don’t know, maybe Jesus had a lot on his mind. Maybe he was having a bad week. Soon, he will tell the disciples, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him…” (Mark 9:31). Soon, he must say goodbye to everyone he loves in Galilee. Soon he will turn toward Jerusalem. Perhaps he wanted to focus on preparing the disciples for what was coming.

‘It is not fitting’, Jesus said, ‘to take the food that belongs to the little children, and through it to the dogs.’ Nevertheless, she persisted. She reminded him, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (verse 28). Ephatha, something in Jesus opened. Her daughter is healed.

Ephatha. We are being opened. Yet, how often is this transformation in us painfully slow? It can seem like it will never happen at all. Historically, women have been conditioned to remain silent, to be subservient to men. Even now, two thousand years later, we understand very well the expected response from this woman would have been for her to accept Jesus’ insult and turn away. But she does not. She speaks up; she stands her ground. And Jesus takes notice. What a powerful lesson for women and all those who have suffered oppression because of their gender. God does not ask us to keep silent. Instead, God lifts up those who are bowed down. Take courage, God is with you when we raise our voices in the struggle for justice. (Pearl Maria Barros, Sojourners, Santa Clara University in California)

Jesus was open to learning –and now—with his help—we pray so are we. God has no favorites. No favored people, no favored nation, no favored religion, even, but every person is beloved in the eyes of God. We who are marked with the cross of Christ are living signs of this most gracious God. Ephatha, our words and deeds must be brought into line with grace through faith.

The set of readings we have each week for worship take us through the letter of James for five weeks. Some of you remember Martin Luther called this book “an epistle of straw.” Yet I argue this short book offers timely wisdom. James provokes us to wrestle with the question “What do my words and deeds say about my faith and about me?” I invite you to read it yourself. I’m curious what you think. James doesn’t advocate for earning one’s righteousness through works as Luther thought, but instead focuses on the importance of our character in Christ. Character is our identity reflected in what we say or do. (adapted from Aaron Fuller, “Cultivate Character, Living Lutheran, September issue, 2021)

People of God the times call upon us now to open again to grace, to expand our vision, to widen our understanding, to better align our character with the God of our ancestors, the living God of grace who urges us to step forward now. This week, we are on the eve of the twentieth anniversary of 911. What have we learned? Even as he brought the war in Afghanistan to an end, President Joe Biden said, “We will not forgive, we will not forget.” in response to attacks at the Kabul airport (President Joe Biden, 8/26/21). Are we ready to turn from our trust in war and military strength, are we ready to listen to our enemies as Jesus was and to pray for them? Can we be wise as Jesus was wise to know “…forgiveness and justice aren’t mutually exclusive. They may be both/and. We can forgive someone and still hold them accountable. Isn’t that what God’s justice requires of us?” (Angela Khabeb, “Grounds for Forgiveness, Living Lutheran, September issue 2021).

I pray Jesus would take us aside and put his fingers in our ears. I pray he would spit and touch our tongue. Time is running out on the idea we can survive by making a world full of enemies. Time is running out on the belief in whiteness. Time is running out on the idea that this nation’s great wealth was not purchased on the back of slave labor and genocide of native peoples. Time is running out on the idea we can ignore mother nature. On this last one, in particular, scientists plead that we have about a decade to make a difference.

Ephatha. Be opened. Our lord Jesus opened his heart to the unnamed women by responding to her needs in words and deeds. How are we, this church, and our nation being called today to align our character to grace?

I have Richard Anderson to thank for reminding me that yesterday, September 4th, was the day of commemoration for Albert Schweitzer, pastor, theologian, musician, musicologist, philosopher, physician, educator, advocate of ‘reverence for life’, opponent of colonialism, anti-war activist, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. (There is a stained-glass window dedicated to Schweitzer in the church in the east stairway leading to the choir loft.) Albert Schweitzer was the author of famous aphorisms. I’ll read just two of them now. May they be an occasion for Ephatha, for increased openness in us.

“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”

“We must fight against the spirit of unconscious cruelty with which we treat the animals. Animals suffer as much as we do. True humanity does not allow us to impose such sufferings on them. It is our duty to make the whole world recognize it. Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace.”

Amen.

Proper 17B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” We rely upon mirrors every day, and unfortunately, like the evil queen in the 1812 Brothers Grimm fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, mostly they remind us that the answer to this famous question is ‘not me.’  Am I the only one? Or do mirrors somehow compel, even beautiful people, to focus on the negative. I can’t stop noticing and regretting this terrible haircut!

Mirrors are everywhere, but before 1835, they were rare. Only wealthy people had mirrors. Probably no one had a full-length mirror. In ancient times they were made of polished stone or metal. Reflected images were often faint and distorted. I wonder, how would our lives be different without so many mirrors around?

Fortunately, there is another type of mirror which returns our gaze with love, calls forth our best attributes, that fills our hearts with joy and stills our minds with shalom. Our scriptures today point to a different way to see ourselves regardless of our physical appearance, our clothing style, or our haircut!

A mirror by its nature reflects impartially, equally, effortlessly, spontaneously, and endlessly. It does not produce the image, nor does it filter the image according to its perceptions or preferences. A mirror can only call forth what is already there.  Well, one indelible element of who you are whether you are sleeping or awake is the likeness and image of the living God (Genesis 1:27). God has written the Law in your heart (Jeremiah 31:33).  James writes, ‘God’s Word implanted within you has the power to save your souls’ (James 1:21). Each of you is gifted and blessed with the indwelling and Holy Spirit.

The true and essential work of all religion is to help us recognize the divine image in everyone and every thing.  Looking in a regular mirror we see our natural face; yet one who looks into the gospel, which James calls, the perfect law of liberty, sees their ideal self, the version of your God dreams for you to be.  In this divine mirror, we see our true self in relationship to God.  This image does not fade from memory because we can look upon this mirror wherever we are. In the light of God’s grace, this truth is reflected within us and shines through us into the world through deeds, words, and even by our very presence.

Here’s how the Franciscan mystic Bonaventure (c. 1217–1274) described this mirroring: “We can contemplate God not only outside us and within us but also above us: outside through his vestiges [creations], within through his image and above through the light which shines upon our minds, which is the light of Eternal Truth.” (Richard Rohr, “Mirroring the Mind of Christ,” Daily Meditations, 8/24/21)

The letter of James is talking about an implanted knowing in each of us—an inner mirror, if you will. Today, many would just call it “consciousness,” and poets and musicians might call it the “soul.” Perhaps these terms are interchangeable, approaching the same theme from different backgrounds and expectations. Elsewhere, 1 John puts it quite directly: “My dear people, we are already the children of God” and in the future “all we will know is that we are like God, for we shall finally see God as God really is!” (1 John 3:2) (Rohr).

Jesus was critical of that way of being religious that wants to judge, and ‘lord it over’ others. In today’s gospel, Jesus is less worried about outward behavior that deviates from religious norms than about attitudes of the heart that picks fights, judges others, and sacrifices joy to deadly seriousness.  Mark’s gospel points us toward a spiritual mindfulness centered on the desire to share God’s graceful, abundant life. Look and see! It is in the world because it’s here already in you.

“The “image of God” is absolute and unchanging; it is pure and total gift, given equally to all. There is nothing we humans can do to increase or decrease it. It is not ours to decide who has it or does not have it, deciding who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down, who is “going to heaven” and who is not” (Rohr). Instead, good religion wrestles with the question of how best to love one another.  Good religion works harder to listen than to argue.  Good religion encourages us to risk ourselves in hospitable service to the stranger because good religion focuses on the living God within each of us. Good siblings in Christ help and support one another to see their own reflection in the divine mirror deep within themselves.

“I.C.N.U.” Just like “W.W.J.D.” ICNU can be a helpful acronym. Often it is easier to see the Divine spark in others rather than ourselves. I see in you unique gifts and talents.  I see in you a call to serve, a spirit of joy, a reflection of the spirit of God. This week I was talking to a play group mom who said, “I don’t make it to church as often as I would like. We’ve been to worship a couple times on Christmas Eve, but I feel passionate about the Lutheran church. The message of grace is what we need. It is so refreshing and in contrast to what the big-box churches are saying.  The Playgroups, and particularly Michelle and Gary Knapp, have been such a blessing in our lives.”  ICNU.  Where might you have glimpsed God at work in a person you know? Have you told them? We must help each other to see more clearly.

In your mind’s eye, how do you tend to see yourself?  Through the lens of popular culture?  In the harsh objectifying light of the male gaze? In the internalized criticisms of cruel parents and false friends?  Look instead to the divine mirror within.  Find your reflection in the mind of Christ who dwells in you. Pause to notice God at work in others, in living things, in the earth, and sky. Many are shocked to discover with great joy that same beauty and spark of life dwells within them now and always.

When we bring our focus upon this divine mirror, we are not surprised to find God at work in places we have never been and in people we do not know. We are not afraid to learn and to grow. We do not retreat into moralism and forsake social justice. We do not circle the wagons of traditionalism as if somehow God is to be found in the past and not in the present, or that God cares more about preserving past glories than in working to ensure all life continues to survive and flourish.  We are not afraid to follow the Holy Spirit. We can do this because God is in us, with us, and for us. Immanuel. Look and see. God call us forth to be our best, to be filled with joy, to love and serve one another just as God does.

Can we be thankful?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary, Mother of our Lord-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Mary, Mother of our Lord. The Queen of Heaven. Our Lady of Quadalupe. Theotokos, the God-bearer. So much is layered upon Mary. Medieval and Renaissance paintings depict her holding court, surrounded by admiring angel attendants while caring for Jesus in fine a European castle.  We must be ready to smash the icons we have of Mary if we are to reach her where we find her today in Luke chapter 1.

We must see her as she saw herself. By worldly standards, she is the most unlikely choice to become the mother of the Son of God.  No one could have been more surprised than Mary to receive the invitation of the angel Gabriel. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is a song about surprise, amazement, and wonder.  Mary’s song opens us all to imagine the unimaginable.  Even now, even now, when so much tragedy befalls us, and so much divides us, and so much evil threatens us, could the world be about to turn?

Last week, Kari, Mehari, Leah, Russell and I hiked to Muir’s grove, which covers 215 acres in a relatively remote location of Sequoia National Park. The sequoia is the largest tree on earth. It has a lifespan of about 4,000 years. There, in the grove named for the famous naturalist and father of the National Parks, John Muir, there is a stand of twelve sequoia trees in a tight rectangular formation surrounding an area roughly the size of this courtyard. Older than the Parthenon in Athens or the Coliseum in Rome and standing taller than each of them is a cathedral of light and air to rival any wrought by human hands.  Once upon a time, each tree began with this (a sequoia pinecone). It’s hard to believe something so small could produce something so large, isn’t it?

Yet, the news that Mary sings about is even more startling!  Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is like a Mustard seed.  Or, in other words, like this (a dandelion!) a weed, that grows into a tree so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches (Matthew 13:32). Preposterous you say?  Ridiculous. Unimaginable?  Mary’s song is an invitation to open our hearts to what God has done and has always done, to open our eyes to what God is now doing all around us. How might it change how we live if we understood the whole world was alive? How does it change our relationship to the stuff we use, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe if we received them as gifts rather than commodities?

Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is so famous and familiar, we tend to think we already know all about it. Now, in the dogdays of summer, we have an opportunity to listen to what Mary has to say about the Christian message while our thoughts about Christmas are still a long way off.  Once we bring Mary out from behind the veil of Christmas and popular piety, the plain meaning of her message holds some surprises for us.

When there are so many people who would stand between you and the bible, Lord it over you, and say with bald confidence that it’s all about predicting the end times; or, this bible is all about preserving the American way of life by any means necessary; or, this bible is about becoming more affluent –it becomes even more important that Mary’s song break through again to pierce our hearts and open our eyes.  Here, the plain meaning of the gospel is hidden in plain sight.  Mary’s spirit rejoices, not because Joseph bought her the perfect Christmas gift— but because “…[God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”  Mary’s song is essentially about social justice.

New Testament scholar Scott McKnight points out that in the 1980s, the government of Guatemala banned singing of Mary’s Magnificat for Christmas because, unlike Away in a Manger, her song was considered subversive and politically dangerous. “Authorities worried that it might incite the oppressed people to riot.” (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds) Mary’s song, this familiar bible song—a song of joy and faith—is a danger to the status quo.  Like the slaves of the American South before them, poor people in Latin American base communities began to read the Bible themselves in the 1980’s and heard in the Good News that God did not want their children to die of hunger and disease, or their husbands and sons to be disappeared, or their to be daughters lost in poverty.  Is it ironic, or simply tragic, that the governmental authorities of Guatemala paid more attention to the meaning of Mary’s song than do most of us as we sing our hymns or read the bible? (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds)

Sometimes, we must be willing to smash our beloved icons if we are to receive the life-giving gospel, for Mary’s song to reach our ears and inspire us again.  A pine corn must be opened by fire to become a seed. What might Mary’s song call forth in you? Notice, Mary’s revolutionary road is not characterized by conflict, polarization, or partisanship but by solidarity, accompaniment, and partnership with outsiders and the poor.  Mary answers God’s call with a boldness that is unbelievable to most of us.  But she is no ideologue.  She doesn’t pontificate.  She ponders.  She doesn’t count her blessings as evidence of her privilege, but as evidence of God’s grace.  She celebrates the mystery and glory of God by taking each step as God’s plan unfolds without knowing where it will lead but trusting in God to work grace and power through her.

Mary says Yes to God, and that entails many No’s.  Mary surrenders to God’s authority, not by becoming a tiresome, self-righteous, religious snob, but through receiving life as a gift.  Grace transforms Mary as each of us is called to be transformed.  Faith in God makes her a true friend.  She is filled with joy, not deadly seriousness. As Mother Teressa once said, “One filled with joy preaches without preaching.”  The gospel, according to Mary, is a song to be sung.  Faith is a dance that involves us completely—mind, body, and soul.

A Blessing Called Sanctuary -—by Jan Richardson, from Circle of Grace

You hardly knew

how hungry you were

to be gathered in,

to receive the welcome

that invited you to enter

entirely—

nothing of you

found foreign or strange,

nothing of your life

that you were asked

to leave behind

or to carry in silence

or in shame.

 

Tentative steps

became settling in,

leaning into the blessing

that enfolded you,

taking your place

in the circle

that stunned you

with its unimagined grace.

 

You began to breathe again,

to move without fear,

to speak with abandon

the words you carried

in your bones,

that echoed in your being.

 

You learned to sing.

 

But the deal with this blessing

is that it will not leave you alone,

will not let you linger

in safety,

in stasis.

 

The time will come

when this blessing

will ask you to leave,

not because it has tired of you

but because it desires for you

to become the sanctuary

that you have found—

to speak your word

into the world,

to tell what you have heard

with your own ears,

seen with your own eyes,

known in your own heart:

 

that you are beloved,

precious child of God,

beautiful to behold,*

and you are welcome

and more than welcome

here.