Proper 10B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Sadly, today’s gospel depicts a scene of political violence which could be ripped from the headlines of this morning’s news. Our prayers are with former president Trump, those who were shot, and for the families of those killed yesterday at a political rally north of Pittsburgh. We must also continue to pray for peace this week at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee and for the remainder of this election season. Political violence is reprehensible and disgusting, and unfortunately, nothing new. What guidance and counsel does scripture offer us and our country today?

We have the tale of two kings and two dancers. One of the kings is also one of the dancers. King David rejoices, shouts, and dances “with all his might” (2 Samuel 6:14) at the front of a great parade celebrating the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. Michel, David’s wife, did not see it this way. When she looked out her window and saw the king leaping and dancing before the Lord, the text says, “she despised him in her heart.” It made him look like one of the little people.

King David, of course, didn’t always live up to his faith in Yahweh. Yet his dancing and singing would prove memorable. Half, (or 73 of 150) psalms are attributed to him.  A legacy of David’s rule is in demonstrating a different way to belong, a more embodied way to live out our faith, and a new way of doing politics in God’s new community.

In Mark’s gospel, we encounter another dancer and a different king. Herod’s palace, next to the Sea of Galilee, rivalled any in the Roman Empire. He demanded the best of everything. Extravagant appointments, exotic entertainment, incredible food, wine, and that all the best sort of people would be there. At Herod’s table, “…no feet were washed and no prayers of gratitude said. There’s no anticipation of God’s reign, only an insatiable hunger for power. Slaves served the food and women watched the men sate themselves.” (Diana Butler Bass, Sunday Musings, 7/14/24)

Mark’s “flashback” to John’s imprisonment and senseless, brutal death, comes just as Jesus sent out the disciples, two by two, without bread or bag or money, to preach the good news.  King Herod sent out hired men to arrest and to bind John, while Jesus sent out disciples to bring life and wholeness. The gospel of Mark insists we see this stark contrast. Mark intertwines the story of John and Jesus almost from the very beginning. All the way back in chapter one, Mark told us it was “…after John was arrested, [that] Jesus came to Galilee, [following his baptism by John] proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!” (Mark 1:14).

“John was from a priestly family in the tradition of Abijah. Rather than employing his pedigree to enable the regime of Herod Antipas, John gives up his privilege and takes on the prophetic role. His humble lifestyle itself was a critique of the opulence of Herod, his family, and his courtiers. John fiercely advocated for the masses on whose backs Herod built his wealth, its trappings, and his power. The ancient historian Flavius Josephus notes that John became a political prisoner and was executed primarily for criticizing the Roman Empire’s economic and political structures. In the end, John’s head ends up on a platter at Herod’s birthday banquet (Mark 6:14-29) precisely because John criticized Herod’s economic structures that made such a lavish banquet possible.” (Raj Nadella, Proximity to Power, Sojourners, July 2024)

Mark invites us to choose between two kingdoms — the reign of God and the rule of Caesar. Mark’s mockery of the imperial politics at Herod’s birthday gives stark warning of what you get once you choose to attend his private and exclusive party. ‘Where would you rather be? With Jesus and his homeless friends who have “no bread, no bag, no money in their belts” wandering from village to village? Or with Herod and his enablers, in a glistening palace having a gluttonous party with political murder for dessert? The wily world will always call some version of king Herod’s tune. Come, says Herod, come to my party of retribution. Follow me. I’ll feed you well. Dance for me.’ (Butler Bass)

Here today we are moving to a different tune, one called by the Lord of the dance. Christ, the incarnation, dances that shape and pattern rising from the heart of reality. It is a dance of transformation, joy and of life, while the world-dance leads to anxiety and death. Which do you choose? Sadly, we make the wrong choice again and again unless and until Jesus calls the tune.

Catholic Brother and author, Richard Rohr, outlines this transformation in three stages: Growing Up, Waking Up, and Cleaning Up. Growing Up refers to the process of psychological and emotional maturity that comes with constructively and creatively confronting, both personally and culturally, the pain and suffering of life. Waking Up refers to the goal of all spiritual work, the sacraments, worship, and Bible study involving an abiding awareness of the presence of God. Cleaning Up is largely about the need for early impulse control and creating necessary ego boundaries so we can show up in the real and much bigger world.

Unfortunately, Rohr says, too often Christianity pushed all waking up into something that would hopefully happen later, in heaven or after death, or as a reward for good behavior in this world. This, he says, was a major loss and defeat for Christianity and a disastrous misplacement of attention. When religion is focused on Cleaning Up more than Waking Up it becomes almost exclusively about a narrow personal morality, rather than any deep transformation of consciousness.

Instead, John the Baptist and the disciples were worrisome to king Herod, because transformation in Christ made them members of a new humanity. They were citizens of the kingdom of God and not Herod’s kingdom. They were part of God’s already and not yet. When Christ calls the tune, we begin to move from false self to true self, from little self to big self, from death into abundant life.

Growing Up, Waking Up and Cleaning Up means Showing Up. It means we stand for love, fairness, and flourishing of all people in all nations rather than those of any single nation. It means our person well-being is bound up with the well-being of others. It means our hope, compassion, and energy can be restored again. It means having the courage to enter the fray like king David, being willing to appear foolish or to make mistakes. Showing up is the full and final result of cleaning up, growing up, and waking up. It’s God’s fully transformed “work of art” which is best version of you. (Richard Rohr, “Growing Up, Waking Up, and Cleaning Up,” Daily Meditations, 7/9/24)

Proper 9B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Our son, Mehari, became a U.S. citizen four months ago on March 13th.  At the ceremony, everyone got a small U.S. flag.  New Americans from over 60 countries embraced and waved the flag with joy.  Some of us may have a complicated relationship with the flag.  Standing in the courtroom that day, it was clear, the flag stood for liberty, justice, and freedom for all. Freedom is not an American dream it is a dream of every human being everywhere.

By its very design, beginning in 1777, the stars and stripes were intended to be a statement of human solidarity and unity. The flag echoes the Latin motto on the Great Seal of the United States: E Pluribus Unum—from many, one. The beautiful idea that is America is diminished and rings hollow when we start to ask which ones? I am relieved that Mehari is now a U.S. citizen and cannot be rounded up and deported as some are now proposing—at least I hope so—for that would mean our people have rejected the spirit and meaning of America’s own creed that all people are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Today’s gospel is a story of what happens to a community that turns away and rejects its own best values and spiritual inheritance. Jesus led the disciples to his hometown, and the people there took offense at him (Mark 6:3b). Nazareth was a small village with no more than 120 to 150 inhabitants. Most were probably relatives of Jesus. These people had raised him, taught him to love and fear God, and kept him safe through childhood. No doubt, they had heard about the miraculous things he did. Jesus was famous, yet he could do no deed of power there in Nazareth (Mark 6:5). Does God’s grace require some small place in our heart in order to do it’s work?

Sometimes this is called the great “un-miracle” story. (Barbara Brown Taylor) The people of Nazareth shut themselves off from receiving the blessings of God. “Where did this man get all this?” they say. “What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!  Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2b-3)

Notice, they called Jesus the ‘son of Mary.’ Scholars point out this was a clear insult intended to question his legitimacy. Does anyone know who Jesus’ real father is?  Extended family, lifelong friends and neighbors weaponized his birth story.  Did they hope to humiliate him into silence? No doubt, the hostility of these same villagers was what convinced Jesus’s mother, brothers, and sisters to take Jesus in hand during his previous visit to Nazareth (Mark 3:31). In John’s gospel we read that his brothers didn’t believe in him.  In Luke’s gospel we read the people of Nazareth tried to toss him over a cliff (Luke 4:30).

We know very well how the religious elite will accuse Jesus of blasphemy and conspire with the Roman authorities, specifically, Pontius Pilate, to execute him.  We know that Jesus will draw resistance from the powerful, corrupt, and connected.  But it’s a surprise, isn’t it, to uncover such strong opposition from the very people who knew him best. Jesus was rejected by the people of his hometown.

“Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house,” Jesus said (Mark 6:4). Perhaps, we’ve all experienced something like this.  It can be hard to shake off an old role from childhood or take on a new one whether in our families or in our workplaces.  There can be outright rejection and cruelty toward insiders who attempt to break cherished norms and expectations.  We, who know the whole truth and can sing Silent Night from memory, would be more open to Jesus had we been there –right?

Perhaps this is the big question our gospel confronts us with.  After all, today, we are Jesus’ kinsfolk. We are the body of Christ. We’re the ones who claim to know him best.  We are the modern-day equivalent of Jesus’s ancient townspeople. Will we follow when Jesus leads us into new and uncomfortable territory?  To see him where we least desire to look? “The uncomfortable fact is, Jesus offends his beloved community in this story.  Maybe, if the Jesus we worship never offends us, then it’s not really Jesus we’re worshipping.” (Debi Thomas, “Hometown Prophets,” Journey with Jesus, 7/27/21)

 Pastor and best-selling author, Brian Zahnd tells the story of how he began making big theological changes at his church to the liturgy and to re-center on the sacraments. Members of his congregation accepted all these easily. It wasn’t until he began to point out that the kingdom of God is not synonymous with America he discovered where people’s foundational beliefs lay.  America is many things, Zahnd says. America is a nation, and a culture. Each is a mixed bag of things to celebrate and to lament. America is an empire, by which he defines as a rich and powerful nation that believes it has a manifest destiny to shape history and a divine right to rule other nations. An empire presents itself as a rival to the kingdom of Christ. Worse, America has also become a religion. This is the faith Zahnd discovered people in his congregation held more deeply than the Christian gospel. God, flag, and country are tightly wound together. This, of course, is idolatry.

In the desert for forty days Jesus said ‘no’ to the devil. There are those today who wish to circle back and take up the devil’s offer to gain power over all the kingdoms of the world.  They would prefer to build crosses for their enemies rather than take up the cross and follow Christ. In doing this they would overthrow the core principles that makes America great, and the gospel gift be children of God. Notice that lack of faith among the people of Nazareth wasn’t a mere technicality; it had real and lamentable consequences.  “It constrains Jesus.  It blocks the healing work he longs to do for the people he loves.” (Thomas)

The call of the Gospel is not a call to stand still.  It is a call to choose movement over stasis, change over security, growth over decay.  Do I allow the people I am close to to grow?  Do I allow myself to explore?  Or do I cut myself and others off with expectations that are severe and stifling? (Thomas)

After Nazareth, Jesus sent the twelve out two by two to preach and heal and call others to renew their hearts and minds. They didn’t know what they were doing. Jesus sent them anyway to learn by failing and by doing. They traveled light, because you don’t need a lot of baggage to be the church. You are the equipment.

There aren’t many examples where the pre-Easter disciples show us how to be faithful.  But here, the disciples show us how to be the church—the church that is our home but is not a place; the church on the move; the church that widens the circle, the church that exists to be good news in Jesus’ name to hungry people searching for it.

Proper 8B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus is barely out of the boat when he is met by a large crowd. He and the disciples have just recrossed from the Gentile side of the sea where they encountered, healed, and restored to community the Gerasene demoniac. The disciples had probably expected trouble from the people who lived on that other side. Yet now on the Hebrew side, Jesus meets two daughters of Abraham who are likewise marginalized. Neither is named. Both are condemned. Neither a bleeding woman nor a dead girl could be physically touched without transmitting their uncleanness to others. But Jesus did because that’s what love does.

On both sides of the sea, Jesus embraced those who were cast out. “It didn’t matter about sides when it came to healing. He saw the humanity of all those he encountered; he touched their wounds and made them whole.” ‘And he spoke powerfully against the actions of those who purposefully, and with malice, built walls between human beings to forward their own empires.” (Diana Butler Bass, “The Other Side and Both Sides,” Sunday Musings, 6/29/24)  Because that’s what love does. Love braves the turbulent waters that divide people from people and finds common cause with the outcast and suffering on both sides of the sea.

“I’m speculating here, but I wonder what Jairus, the ultimate religious insider, experiences as he watches Jesus embrace and empower a bleeding, unclean woman, the ultimate religious outsider.  I wonder if Jairus recognizes his own role — as an enforcer of the synagogue’s religious taboos — in the woman’s isolation and suffering.  I wonder if he experiences a leveling, a reordering of who is “in” and who is “out” in God’s economy.  I wonder if he flinches when he realizes that the woman has made Jesus unclean by touching him. I wonder if he marvels at the fact that Jesus is wholly unconcerned with his own purity, that he proceeds straight to Jairus’s house anyway, bringing his “uncleanness” with him.  I wonder if Jairus learns something about the danger of religious taboos.  The importance of women’s voices.  The healing power of compassion.” Because that’s what love does. (Debi Thomas, “Not Dead But Sleeping,” Journey with Jesus, 6/20/21)

 “We don’t know — but I hope so.  I hope that when Jairus embraces his resurrected daughter, he also embraces a new vision of who God is, and what God values.  In Jairus’s story, Jesus demands that we not see death where he sees life.  In the bleeding woman’s story, he demands that legalism give way to love every single time.  In each story, Jesus restores a lost child of God to community and intimacy.  In each story, Jesus embraces what is “impure” (the menstruating woman, the dead body) in order to practice mercy.  In each story, a previously hopeless daughter “goes in peace” because Jesus isn’t a pronouncer of death; he is a giver of new life.” (Thomas) Because that’s what love does.

Can this ancient story about a people divided by geography, religion, and tradition open for us the way forward that is both hopeful and wise? As we prepare to celebrate Independence Day, can the parts of our story that have been broken, hidden, and held out of the American story be joined together to make of us a more perfect union?  Because isn’t that what love does?

On July 5, 1852, the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, invited Frederick Douglass to give a speech on the 76th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It was 10 years before the start of the Civil War.  Aproximately 3.5 million African Americans were enslaved, or roughly 14% of the total population of the United States. Douglass, who had escaped his enslavers only 13 years prior to that time, famously addressed the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society with a central piercing question: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”

Douglass handed the good-willed ladies of Rochester a stinging indictment of the hypocrisy in white American celebrations of independence: “This Fourth July is yours,” he said, “not mine.” “You may rejoice, I must mourn… I am not included… The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.” Douglass was asking his white audience to hold their naive patriotism up next to his personal reality, not to condemn them but to light the road yet to be traveled. Because that’s what love does.

Fast forward to June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed legislation adding Juneteenth to the list of national holidays for all Americans. Juneteenth celebrates the date —June 19, 1865—two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation—when U.S. Major General Gordon Granger declared to the people of Texas that “all slaves are free.” Juneteenth is the oldest celebration of emancipation from slavery in the country.

Some Black communities, especially those living in Texas, grew up celebrating Juneteenth. Yet most white Americans have had little awareness of, and almost no experience with, the holiday prior to three years ago. Echoing Frederick Douglass, we may ask, what to the white American, is the 19th of June?  Might it be an invitation to a new birth of freedom?

Juneteenth comes only 15 days before Independence Day but the gap that separates them appears as wide as the sea of Galilee. What would love do?  Love crosses the turbulent waters that divide people from people. Could our newest federal holiday help rehabilitate the 4th of July from the militaristic Christian nationalism it all too often evokes? Like binary stars, these holidays orbit one another, generating the contemplative space for new season of critical patriotism.

“Conceptualizing the 19th of June and the 4th of July together, in a creative mutual orbit where each is held by the gravitational force of the other, can help us develop rituals and stories that are honest about our country’s failings while also being hopeful about its possibilities.”  Just as Frederick Douglass admonished his fellow Americans to do because that’s what love does. (Robert P. Jones, “What, to the White American, is the 19th of June? Toward a Season of Critical Patriotism between Juneteenth and Independence Day,” White Too Long, 6/18/24)

Jesus will not force you into this boat. But neither will Jesus stop asking that you do so. Jesus gently took Jairus’ daughter by the hand. “Little girl”, he said, “get up.” Jesus spoke to her and to each of us, with tenderness and power.  We may think we are safely outside this gospel story. What a surprise it is when Jesus turns up.  Jesus lays hands on you.  He says, ‘Get up,’ because that’s what love does.

“You who believe, and you who sometimes believe, and [you who] sometimes don’t believe much of anything, and you who would give almost anything to believe if only you could…. ‘Get up,’ he says, all of you–all of you!” Jesus gives life not only to the dead, but to those of us who are “only partly alive…who much of the time live with our lives closed to the wild beauty and the miracle of things, including the wild beauty and miracle of every day we live and even of ourselves.”  Whether we take notice or not, miracles happen around us every day, and “every single breath we take,” “is a free surprise from God.” (Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor). (As found in Sacred Seeds, by Kate Huey)

Love builds beloved community that is resilient, compassionate, truthful, and wise out of strangers and even enemies. Crossing divides is stormy and the journey makes waves. Yet this is who we are because that’s what love does.  We are born again in the waters of grace and in the womb of God’s Word to become children of a new human family because that’s what love does.

Proper 7B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

June 23, 2024

The disciples feared they were perishing. The dramatic scene in our gospel today is famously depicted Rembrandt— Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Twelve men in a boat nearly capsizing. Five struggle to keep the rigging from flying apart. One leans into the rudder with both hands while another hangs over the edge to throw up. Three appear to be praying while two try to rouse Jesus asleep on the cushion. Thirty years ago, the painting was stolen from a museum in Boston and remains missing, but you can search the image on your phone. Jesus awoke. Rebuked the wind and the sea “…and there was a dead calm… And they were filled with great awe” (Mark 4: 40-41).

There are sixty-six books in the bible united in saying two things about the being in the presence of God. First, they reassure us, ‘Do not be afraid.’  And second, they point to the experience of awe.  “Awe threads throughout the scriptures. It whispers with creation and thunders in God’s mighty works. It sings its psalms in the Hebrew Bible. It is vocalized by Lady Wisdom. In the New Testament, it is often the emotional response of the disciples or the crowds who follow Jesus. There are entire experiences of awe reported — like the Transfiguration, the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus, and the events attending the emergence of the new community of the Spirit in Acts. The Bible is many things — poetry, wisdom, history, teachings, and law. And it is also an extended record of awe in relation to the long story of shalom and salvation and justice and generosity experienced by those who followed the God of Abraham and Jesus” (Diana Butler Bass, Sunday Musings, 6/23/24).

The famous 20th century Rabbi and theologian, Abraham Heschel, once said, “Awe 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.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, 1955)

Tune in to awe. Our prayer, our worship, our song, our devotion turns us slowly and sometimes if we are lucky, all at once, from the anxiety and fears that loudly play in our mind and body to the frequency of awe and wonder. One of the things I used to do in the 1980’s while driving through empty stretches of Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota, was to slowly turn the AM dial on my car radio. There were powerful stations from very far away from Denver, Dallas, Chicago, and Cincinnati—and little stations very close by reading the want-adds to local farmers.  The search for God is like that. The God frequency is awe.

The disciples were filled with great awe….  “Awe is the emotion of “vastness” that arises from the sense of wonder, an experience of mystery, or when we encounter something that transcends our understanding” (Butler-Bass).   Scholar Marcus Borg wrote, [that] “Given all of life’s ambiguities and the reality of impermanence and suffering, our existence is remarkable, wondrous. It evokes awe and amazement. We need to pay attention. Really pay attention. Lest we become blind to the awe and wonder that fills our days.” (Days of Awe and Wonder: How to be a Christian in the 21st Century, 2017)

Yes, awe is an aspect of the miraculous. It is mysterious. We understand that it somehow belongs in the realm of faith. But, in the last decade, science has discovered that it also has things to say about the remarkable emotion of vastness as a powerful force to create community and do good. (Butler-Bass)

“Faith and science have turned toward each other in a surprising new quest to explore awe. Turns out that awe experiences are cultivated by silence, mindfulness, and meditation — and staring at the stars, walking in the woods, or listening to a great symphony — all these things enhance “prosocial tendencies.” In other words, people who are attuned to awe want to help others, assist those in danger, care for the suffering, share their resources, and collaborate and cooperate with others for the greater good. (Butler-Bass)

People attuned to awe are also better able to navigate through life’s many storms. Jesus said to them, “Let us go across to the other side” (Mark 4:35). Four times in Mark’s gospel Jesus ordered the disciples into a boat. This time, they set out at night under a threatening sky. They sail into deep water and soon they’re in over their heads. “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.” (Mark 4:37)

Have you noticed? Mark’s gospel repeats itself between the 4th and 8th chapters. We have two exorcisms (Mark 1:21-28 and Mark 5:1-20); two healing stories (Mark 5:22-43 and Mark 7:24-37); and two miraculous feedings of the multitudes (Mark 6:32-44 and Mark 8:1-10).  The answer to this apparent riddle of redundancy is the sea, the Sea of Galilee. Each instance of these remarkably similar stories happens on opposite sides of the sea as Jesus and the disciples traverse back and forth four times by boat. One side of the sea is inhabited by people whose religious life was traditional and familiar to the disciples. The other side held people who were alien and threatening.

In other words, it’s a safe bet there’s always going to be a storm when you cross the emotional boundaries between the good guys and bad guys, the insiders and outsiders, friends and enemies. Jesus calls us into the boat. As Paul wrote, we have become ambassadors of reconciliation by our baptism into Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20).  We are called to traverse the dangerous boundaries between hostile peoples. We are called to journey into life’s storms. Do not be afraid. Tune into awe to engage the spirit of creativity and collaboration rather than the primitive mind of fight or flight.

People of God, we are called and equipped to set out upon turbulent waters with Jesus at the helm. Our faith calls us to ever deeper levels of transformation and love, not by “staying positive” and happy all the time, but rather, by focusing on “staying true.” Stay true by being tuned in to awe. The peace that passes all understanding does not paper over differences or avert its gaze from what is wrong or what is hurting. No. Together, we steer this ship of mercy with truth as our compass, knowing that the truth sometimes hurts, but that truth also heals. Speaking the truth in love, as best we know it, by giving voice to our anger and hurts, and by prayerfully listening to one another give witness to conscience, the Holy Spirit will lead us through the storm to that new and promised land of true safety and peace that we call shalom. May God our mother and our father, the Son, and Holy Spirit be praised.

Proper 5B-24 – Semi-continuous

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus must have been really, really, tired.  Just three chapters into Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ itinerary is exhausting: Jesus has gone from his hometown, to the wilderness, to Galilee, to the sea, to Capernaum, to a house, to a deserted place, and back out to the towns of Galilee, (we’re still in the first chapter), then back to Capernaum, and to home, then to the sea again, to Levi’s house, though the grain fields, and to the synagogue, back to the sea, where he got into a boat to teach, up a mountain where he appointed the twelve apostles, and then, finally, now, finally he is home again.

Yet, he doesn’t even have time to eat.  Dinner with the disciples is interrupted by a crowd inside the house who surrounds him with requests for healing. Then here comes his mom and his brothers, criticizing him in their own (loving) way, who are there to do some kind of family intervention. They are there to restrain him. (The Greek word used here is “an aggressive Greek verb that can mean ‘seize,’ ‘grab,’ or ‘arrest.'” We’ll hear Mark use it again when the authorities come to arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.)

And now a group of religious leaders accuse him of being in league with the devil. The people are clamoring for Jesus to touch them or to teach them; others are clamoring to control him or to kill him. Such was the chaotic setting for Jesus’ first parable. He answered them all with a riddle. Tell me, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” Jesus asks. “A divided kingdom cannot stand” (Mark 3:23-26).

Today’s gospel may evoke memories of Abraham Lincoln’s ‘House Divided’ speech from three years before the start of the Civil War (June 16, 1858).  Lincoln’s words might be more famous than Jesus’ words.  ‘A house divided cannot stand. The government cannot endure half slave and half free.’

The lesson Lincoln drew from today’s gospel was about the necessity of national unity and integrity to values laid out in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal.” (The U.S. Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776).

All deference to Abraham Lincoln aside, exhausted Jesus’ riddle aims at an even bigger point. Jesus is addressing the chaotic and acrimonious situation he found himself in—and that we also so often find ourselves in.  He likened himself to a thief breaking into a house and tying up the occupier before ransacking their goods. “No one,” he said, “can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered” (Mark 3:23-27).

In other words, Jesus was getting ready to plunder Satan’s house. Jesus is going to pick the devil’s pocket. The devil and all the forces that defy God; the powers of this world that rebel against God; the ways of sin that draw you from God will be dispelled like a fever dream by the gospel medicine of grace.

The truth Jesus means us to see is that the human way of trying to keep our house together will never ultimately work because it always relies on expelling someone or being over against someone. In fact, “Satan casting out Satan” is the briefest description of the mechanism which has ordered human community since its beginnings. It describes the sinful ordering of our origins; it names our Original Sin (Paul Nuechterlein, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, Proper 5B). Jesus has come to expose and expel this sin which operates mostly at the level of our subconscious. This riddle about Satan is the first glimpse.

By contrast, Jesus comes proclaiming the kingdom — the household — of God—a home for all built on the stone the builders rejected. Jesus will let himself be cast out under the satanic accusation, in part, to reveal to us how God can build a more stable and sturdy home for us based on forgiveness. Satan’s reign is at an end. Satan simply evaporates like the dew on the morning grass when it is exposed to the sun of God’s grace.

This is because Satan is not divine. Satan is not a demi-god. Satan is not like some Marvel comics character. Satan has no reality outside of our human relations. In naming him we allude to something essential to human life. ‘Satan’ is a name for the way human beings are often not aware of the circular destructive processes in which they are trapped. We read an example from 1 Samuel. The people demanded to have a king. The people got their way. And for four hundred years, Israel will be governed by kings who, with few exceptions, “will rule them into ruin” (Jo Ann Post, “What Happens When Samuel Reads the Fine Print?” The Christian Century, 5/19/21).

If we were to organize differently, Satan’s power would disappear. Jesus came inaugurating that different way of organizing, around forgiveness rather than accusation. By unveiling these satanic powers Jesus dealt them a death blow. How does the power of the accuser operate among us today?

The poet Wendell Berry has said the “dominant theme of our time is the violence done against human life and the land.” Or perhaps Satan now goes by a different name called ‘the invisible hand of the free market,’ which is another way of not taking responsibility for the consequences of our complex collective actions. But Satan is losing his transcendent powers; Satan’s house is being plundered. Satan falls from heaven like lightning, bringing an exhausted Jesus, and all of us, some peace and quiet.

World renowned scholar and theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, died this week.  In his book, Theology of Hope, Moltmann said hope is rooted in the conflict between the present and the future. Jesus transfigures and transforms the present into something new. He does this is the most unimaginable way.

Jesus is beaten down, humiliated, stripped, and flogged, made a symbol of utter failure, of the inability for the reign of God to bring about a new world. This is the terror of Rome’s cross, that in Jesus God appears as dying, as dead, as void. The crucifixion is as much a mirror for our present moment as it is an insight into the life of Jesus. We experience the crucifixion today in the total rejection of queer people from the life of Christian faith. We experience the crucifixion today in the attempt to totally obliterate Gaza and Palestinians, and for it to be done in the name of religion, in the name of God, in the name of the God of Jesus of Nazareth.

We see it in the despair of Mary who wept over the death of Jesus. There at the tomb, she faces the crucifixion in its haunting silence. She experiences the failure of her religion. She sees only the present. Then she hears Jesus’s voice and Satan’s house is plundered.

This is the impossibility God now makes possible. It is the gift of a future that is not limited or determined by the past. When grace abounds the future that opens before us would seem to be contradicted by the present.  It is the possibility of a future even after the world has turned God into nothing. For Moltmann, this is the ground of our Christian hope.

The gospels proclaim the oncoming of despair. And just as we feel this finality, resurrection takes the despairing world into itself and transforms it entirely.  (Colton R. Bernasol, Sojourners Magazine)

A series of interconnected hearts held together by a cross in the colors of the progress Pride flag

Trinity B-24
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

John’s gospel reminds us, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). What our eyes cannot perceive is nevertheless detected in, with, under, and above lived experience. The apostle Paul finds God in the intimacy our groaning. Paul writes, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes with groans too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). The trinitarian life of God’s Self abides in the human being at prayer—the Trinity inside of us, in our body’s sighs, our wordless prayers. “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” Paul says, “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (verses 15b-16).

This is a bold claim which the church, through the centuries, has often worked to undermine. This is because it applies, not only to each of us who call ourselves Christians, but to everyone, everywhere, and always. “Abba” is the Aramaic word Jesus used for God. It is a word little children use father, or ‘daddy.’ “For Abba so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Where Jesus meant to build bridges, the Church of Christendom and Empire built walls. They treated grace like a product only the church could dispense and control. They built a fence around the gospel and charged admission. The bold claim of discipleship still applied equally to everyone, everywhere, and always but God’s abundant grace was limited and meted out only to the right type of Christian, which of course, changes according to whoever is in charge.

But thanks be to God, the walls of Christendom are beginning to fall. Enslaved people, woman, and LGBTQIA+ people find welcome. God’s good creation, all manner of living things, find renewed voice. It’s written on the walls here at Immanuel, in worship folders, and the website. “We are committed to welcoming all people to this place, no matter where you come from, no matter your age, race, socioeconomic or family status, no matter your gender identity or sexual orientation. Grace is for everyone, or it isn’t grace. It’s that simple! It’s that amazing. Thanks be to God.”

Many of us learned to sing an old bible song when we were children which proclaimed the simple truth. “They will know we are Christians by our love.” This simple, reliable guiding principle also works in reverse –we can recognize our siblings in Christ, regardless of race, clan, religion, or no religion by the love they display for us and for one another. Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16). Let us return to Abba. Let us sit as his table and drink from his living water. Let us learn from him what we are.

Jesus called God, Abba, but within the early Christian community, confusion soon arose as to how we should address God. In addition to Abba, Jesus spoke of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. The gospels called Jesus the anointed one, the savior, the Christ, the logos. Jesus was living water, the bread of life, the light of the world, the rock, a mother hen, the true vine, and the good shepherd. Early Christian communities wondered and debated about the relationship between Jesus and God, Jesus and the Spirit, and the Spirit and God.

Christians wondered and debated about this for nearly three hundred years before finally arriving upon the name, “Trinity.” Trinity became the name in which we baptize. The name in which we confess our faith. Trinity is not a mathematical statement. It’s a name that encapsulates a whole lot of gospel teaching in a single word.
Trinity means God is relationship itself. It’s one thing to say that God values community. Or that God thinks community is good for us. It’s altogether more to say that God is communal. That God is relationship, intimacy, connection, and unity in diversity. If the Three is the deepest nature of the One — then who are we to isolate ourselves and/or to exclude and to cut off others?

Trinity also means that God is sacrificial love. The Trinity at its heart is an expression of deep, unfaltering, and life-giving love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the image of that you and I were created and into which you and I are called. The relationship between the persons of the Godhead is not a relationship of domination, power-mongering, manipulation, or jealousy. It is a relationship of unselfish, sacrificial love. We are the children of a mysterious, fluid, diverse, communal, hospitable, and loving God who wants to guide us into the whole truth of who God is and who we are.’ (Debi Thomas, “The Undivided Trinity,” Journey with Jesus, 5/31/2020)

Trinity means God sees you. God loves you. God calls you to honest, intimate relationship. God calls you and equips you to be fully yourself. No boxes. No binaries. No stereotypes. Just you. Just us. Just all of us dwelling together in the shelter of the Lord to be the hands and feet and voice of Jesus for a suffering world.
The world, its creatures, and its many peoples are suffering now. We are threatened by political strife, by the approaching climate storm, by the breathless and unbridled rise of artificial intelligence, by an economy of extraction and mass death that views God’s children and all of creation as mere ‘resources’ to be exploited to maximize profits for the few.

Anthropologists tell us groups of more than 140 people cannot function without shared stories to focus and direct their shared imagination and energy in creative and collaborative ways. People that become an ‘us’ through their shared stories will quickly organize to undermine, exclude, exploit and destroy anyone or anything that is ‘not us.’

We cannot rise to address the many challenges we face today because our stories are broken, and in many places, have shattered. Stories of what it means to be faithful to God differ from one community to the next. Our stories of what it means to be an American citizen are in dispute and under threat. But we have that story. It goes by the name of Trinity. Christians have the antidote but only if they are willing forego the copyright and let go of the franchise. The God of grace revealed in Christ Jesus has power to end the divisions that plague us and begin the healing of the nations and ecosystems, all peoples, all creatures, people of every religion and no religion.

Our ancient siblings in faith grab us by the elbow and make us look at the world with new eyes. ‘See,’ they say—’God made light, the dome of the sky, the waters and the dry land, the sun, the stars, and the moon. The universe is not a collection of objects, but a communion of subjects (Thomas Berry). Nothing stands alone. Each living thing is different yet part of the whole.’ Be beautiful. Be you. Discover your true self in all your many colors. Become part of the dance of the Trinity. Love somebody. Be compassionate. Be forgiving. Be kind. Be human. Be the body of Christ. Together, we do God’s work with our hands. Then we become a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Easter 7B-24
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Only one American artist was allowed to exhibit her work with the 19th century French Impressionists. Her name was Mary Cassatt. Born this month of May in 1844, Cassatt grew up near Pittsburgh, but lived most of her adult life in France, where she befriended artists such as Edgar Degas.

Cassatt is best known for a series of unselfconscious paintings on the theme of mother and child. She is famous for me personally, because a print of one of her paintings hangs in my childhood home. The original now belongs to the collection displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago. I bet one or more of you have it too –or will recall having seen it.
The Child’s Bath, 1893, is one of Cassatt’s masterworks. In it, mother and daughter are lovingly absorbed in the mundane bodily routine of bathing. Somehow Cassatt invokes in us the memory, or perhaps, inspires in us the feeling of loving protection emanating from good mothering. Love that is strong enough to encircle an entire household and make it a home. Cassatt brings us inside this circle of tender care.

Cassatt’s intimate image of mother and child invites the observer into the expansive, other-focused, and fully human self that God calls us to become in Christ Jesus. Lay your narrow, small, narcissistic self aside. Abide in me, Jesus prayed, so that you all may be one with each another, just as Jesus and the Father are one in the Spirit. (John 17:11)

“If you google the history of Mother’s Day, the internet will tell you that Mother’s Day began in 1908 when Anna Jarvis decided to honor her mother. But “Mothers’ Day”—with the apostrophe not in the singular spot, but in the plural—actually started in the 1870s, when the sheer enormity of the death caused by the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War convinced writer and reformer Julia Ward Howe that women must take control of politics from the men who had permitted such carnage. Mothers’ Day was not designed to encourage people to be nice to their mothers. It was part of women’s effort to gain power to change society.” (Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American, May 11, 2024).
The Civil War was the springboard would launch the Woman Suffrage movement. Fifty years of advocacy and struggle ended with the right to vote in 1920. We proudly point to that human dynamo, Emmy Evald, the daughter of the first pastor and the wife of the second pastor of Immanuel, who took part in the movement in Illinois and in Washington D.C., and famously hosted Susan B. Anthony in the church parsonage. And yet, it took another fifty-five years, in 1975, that Mildred Nelson would become the first woman at Immanuel to serve on the church council.

Jesus prayed that we may all be one. According to St. Paul the early church was eclectic and inclusive, “neither Jew or Greek, slaver nor free, male and female, but all are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). Even so, persistent, insistent, and pernicious patriarchy remains a core teaching of many, if not most, Christian churches throughout the world today.

According to cultural critic bell hooks, “Patriarchy is political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.” There can be no freedom for patriarchal men of all races as long as they advocate the subjugation of women. So yes, on this Mother’s Day, be nice to your mom. But also, let us be transformed, by the renewal of our hearts and minds, to be the kind of community for which Jesus prayed that is no longer racist or sexist in which all humans are free to shape their destinies.

Chapters 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17 of John’s gospel –five chapters!—linger with Jesus and the disciples on this last night as time was running out. On the night he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus prayed. “Holy Father, protect them in your name so that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11) Chapter 17 of John’s gospel is sometimes called the other Lord’s Prayer. It is not a prescribed prayer; It isn’t a bossy or controlling sort of prayer like those you might have experienced from a false Christian friend. Jesus is not trying to manipulate his followers or God. It isn’t a fix-it prayer. Instead, it sounds rather desperate — Jesus is about to go to the cross and he actually seems to be begging God to shield his friends from the consequences of his impending death.

The word “protect” dominates the prayer. The words “oneness” and “love” dominate the second half of the prayer (John 17:20-26). Jesus wants those he loves to be safe, and to find a sense of security in their unity with each other, with him, and with God. Jesus invites us inside the circle of love that is the Holy Trinity. The 14th century anchoress, mystic, and theologian, Julian of Norwich used an obscure old English word to refer to the kind of enveloping and protective love that Mary Cassatt makes the subject of her paintings. She called it “Oneing.”

Notice how different this “oneing” is from the vision many of us grew up with of an angry God who must be appeased so as not to destroy us. Notice how different our faith lives become when we understand Jesus’ prayed so that we might be fully one with God starting right now and not waiting until after we die to prove we are worthy of God’s love. This healing vision of union with the living God frees us from the prison of us versus them thinking. Our old, worldly mind divides the world into mine and yours, same and different, better, and worse, slave and free, male, and female. Jesus’ prayer moves us beyond these old dualisms so that what is mine and what is yours becomes ours. In union with Christ, we remain different and diverse without being homogenized or colonized. We are united without loss of identity and without walls of hostility. Jesus shows us by his actions that prayer isn’t a magic trick or manipulation. But it is mystery and transformation.

“John 17 is a model for how we all should pray — for protection, unity, awareness, and love. Even when we’re anxious. Or desperate. [Like right now.] When we care so much about others that we long for their well-being and safety in difficult times. Perhaps especially then” (Diana Butler Bass, “Jesus prayed for his disciples. What?”, Sunday Musings, 5/12/24). “…one with the saints in one unbroken peace, one with the saints in one unbounded love…[one with each other and people of faith around the world, one body] with the Trinity in unity.” (ELW #463, “Lord, Who the Night You Were Betrayed”)

Easter 6B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

If I provide my child with security, shelter, all manner of clothing and ample food but do not have love for them, no one will call me father or mother and my house is not a home. If I am generous in my tithe, regular in worship, and can recite scripture from memory but do not have love, I do not abide in Christ’s church nor do I match stride with the beloved community.  If I pay taxes, vote in every election, mow my lawn, and return all library books but do not have love, I cannot call myself a neighbor, let alone a good neighbor, but I am like the priest and the Levite who crossed over to the opposite side of the road to pass by the suffering Samaritan laying in the ditch.

Jesus did not merely say, but commanded us, to love one another. (John 15:17). Love your frail self. Love the sick and the lame. Love the Jew and the Muslim, the Israeli and the Palestinian. Love the gay and lesbian person, the transexual and every kind of queer person that we have begun to see belong and always have belonged to God’s good creation.

Love is not merely what God expects of us. It is the operating system which God has woven in, with, under, and above everything.  Psalm 98 inspired the famous Christmas hymn “Joy to the World” (ELW #267). In the psalmist’s vision of the universe, the sea and rivers are not alien elements that need to be tamed by humans but are equal partners in celebrating divine salvation. In a beautiful image that seems straight out of a Disney movie, the hills ring out with joy, all the lands sing with trumpets, and the whole Earth and rivers join the party, clapping their hands to celebrate the redemption of the Lord. God is present in the world for the purpose of establishing justice and setting things right on a world-encompassing scale, including “equity” among all “the peoples.”

In nature, love is an open, as opposed to a closed system. Likewise, the Easter church opened the doors of their upper room and entered the streets. They were propelled, not by their sorrows, but by their joy. The church, just as in nature, is renewed and re-vitalized by the energy and resources, people and ideas that come from the outside.

Peter, Paul, Philip, and the rest of the early Jesus community did not set up an attractive yard sign. They put themselves out there.  They carried the gospel upon their lips.  Peter got up and preached to Cornelius, a Roman Centurion of the Italian Cohort.  He lived among the Gentiles. Philip sat beside the Ethiopian eunuch.  Paul went among the diverse peoples of the Mediterranean world.

A casual look across the landscape makes it obvious the creator values diversity. God finds beauty in the harmony of contrasts. Ecosystems of diverse plants and animals, leads to greater stability and resilience.  These diverse communities also have a distinctive aesthetic quality. They are beautiful, fragrant, and fertile. Why on earth have so many Christian congregations and denominations stubbornly insisted on being monocultures?

It is distressing how many Christians are untethered from the gospel. They are not accountable to the law of love but rally around their civil religion, ethnic purity, exclusion, and conformity. They would impose their will through the power of the government, through autocracy and theocracy.  “The problem with theocracy is that everyone wants to be Theo” (Bill Leonard, Wake Forest School of Divinity). This rise of religious authoritarianism is not merely an American problem, a 2024 problem, but a global phenomenon. Beloved, simply in loving your neighbor and your enemy as yourself, we are a prophetic church, we are a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Abide in my love. Make a home for yourself in my love. Jesus said, ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15:9 & 15). Today we head Jesus pray for the disciples.  In his final hours before arrest and crucifixion Jesus prayed—not so they would create an orthodox system of beliefs, but that they would foster a very unorthodox way of being in the world. (Robin Meyers, Spiritual Defiance, A Beloved Community of Resistance

Yet we resist.  We are like trees that withdraw from the sun or like an infant child that flees from its mother’s embrace or a petulant teenager who slams the door on caring friends. Who does that?  We do that. Jesus prayed and continues to pray that we make a different and more natural choice.

But we say, ‘Who can we be ordered to love?  Does love obey decrees?  Is Jesus being like that exasperated parent commanding their kids from the front seat of the car to love each other? “Why can’t you all just get along?”  “Share your toys.” “Say sorry.”  “Don’t hit.”  “Use kind words.”  No. Jesus offers an alternative. Once again, we hear Jesus offer a single, straightforward answer: “Abide in my love.”  It is an extension of last week’s Gospel about the vine and branches. Jesus calls upon us to rest, to cling, to make ourselves at home.  Not simply in him, but in his love.

“Jesus’s love is not our example; it’s our source.  It’s where our love originates and deepens.  Where it replenishes itself.  In other words, if we don’t abide, we can’t love.  Jesus’s commandment to us is not that we wear ourselves out, trying to conjure love from our own easily depleted resources. Rather, it’s that we abide in the holy place where divine love becomes possible.  That we make our home in Jesus’s love — the most abundant and inexhaustible love in existence.” (Debi Thomas, “It’s All About Love, Journey with Jesus, 5/2/21)

“Letting go into God is coming home to our true selves” (Ilia Delio, Oneing, Fall 2023). As is so often the case in our lives as Christians, Jesus’s commandment leads us straight to paradox: we are called to action via rest.  These are finally not two separate actions.  They are one and the same.  We are called to become love as we abide in love.  Drink your fill of the Source, which is Christ, let your cup run over to bless the world, and return to the Source for a fresh in-filling.  “This is our movement, our rhythm, our dance.  Over and over again.  This is where we begin and end and begin again” (Thomas).

This is the fountain of our joy.  Joy that exceeds all happiness. Joy that cannot be manufactured or purchased.  Joy in Christ which does not depend on things going well but may arise amidst our pain. Joy that springs forth from us in love. Joy that flows from the presence and promise of God fills our heart with a new song. Let the Sea and what fills it resound. The rivers clap shall their hands and the hills ring out with joy. God has triumphed. Alleluia. He is risen!  (He is risen indeed, alleluia.)

Easter 5B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Along the coast of Baja, California, row upon row of vines run across the valleys, turning the brown dusty soil into vast carpets of green.  Once the growing season is over, the verdant branches are pruned.  The land returns to brown. The vines are cut back almost to nothing.  Huge plants are reduced to mere stumps which look as though they will never produce anything again. But every year, as some vines have done for a hundred years, the growth returns –first the branches, then the leaves, followed by the fruit.  Incredible, full bunches of grapes pull the vines nearly to the ground with their weight.

Grapevines are a metaphor about our life together in Christ as well as our faith life as individuals. By all outward appearances, a vine is a tangled mess, an interwoven web. “I am the true vine,” Jesus said. (John 15:1). From one end to the other, it is not clear where one branch ends, and another begins. In the church egos are subsumed into the whole.

The prophet Hosea described Israel as a “luxuriant vine” (Hosea 10:1).  During the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 A.D., that ended on the rocky cliff top fortress of Masada in 73 A.D., the national symbol affixed to coins and emblazoned upon flags was the image of a vine. Like branches of a vine stretching across the world and throughout time we are joined together in Christ the vine, each in our own season.

“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus said (John 15:5a). Joined to this ancient root, tearing, breaking, chopping, and pruning each branch stimulates their growth. Cut from that root, they immediately wither and die. In today’s gospel, the small band of Jesus people are about to be pruned. They don’t know it yet, but Jesus will be taken from them. It will feel like their heart is being cut out. Everything they worked for and dreamed of is about to end. Hope will seem all but lost.  But in three days, after the resurrection, they will rise again. Filled with new wine, the life-giving sap of the Holy Spirit, they will be changed. They will become stronger, and more verdant than before. Alleluia.  Christ is risen! (R)

The French Jesuit, Catholic priest, scientist, paleontologist, theologian, philosopher, and teacher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, the first duty of every Christian, like the branches of a vine, is to grow to the fullest extent possible. You must take every opportunity to develop your talents and to fully be your unique yourself. Paradoxically, the pursuit of your own advance ripens into maximum fruitfulness only through full communion with the root, the ancient of days, which we come to realize is a greater myself (p. 89). This yes to God is not a one-time event but an ongoing practice. Each of us must learn to hold open our ‘yes’ on a moment-to-moment basis just as branches abide in the vine.

Philip mysteriously encountered a wealthy Ethiopian official seated in a fabulous chariot in the middle of the desert, reading aloud from a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, in the noonday sun. That official oversaw the treasury for the whole Ethiopian kingdom. He was very powerful. He was black, and he was a eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). Philip would have known that Jewish purity codes excluded a eunuch from entering the temple.  In fact, no one would be allowed to talk with him, or have a meal with him, or even to touch him, no matter how rich, and powerful he was (Deuteronomy 23:1).  (Clarice J. Martin “A Chamberlain’s Journey, and the Challenge of Interpretation for Liberation)

According to the religious teaching Philip had grown up with, this eunuch was a “dead branch,” someone outside God’s reign and revelation. And yet, God had other plans. Abiding in the true vine, Philip held himself open to God’s yes. Provoked and inspired by Philip’s teaching about Jesus, the Ethiopian exclaims: “Look, here is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?  Can I, who was humiliated at the temple in Jerusalem be grafted into the true vine, the living body of Christ?

Notice, Philip did not convene a blue-ribbon panel to study the question. In this brief encounter, we find the first real test of the inclusive vision of the early church to be open to the mysteries of growth that God brings. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7).

The true vine flourishes in pruning the hearts of the faithful within us. Likewise, in order for the true vine to flourish we must be ready to root out and remove the things which threaten and choke it from without. The Ethiopian eunuch would ask us, their Christians siblings in Christ, ‘Why is property generally worth less money if it’s owned by a Black American?’ Just look at the numbers. 150 years of assessment data, underpins points to persistent inequality.

“Black Americans’ properties have been undervalued by home appraisers and overvalued by tax assessors. That double punch has left Black homeowners more prone to falling behind on their taxes and, ultimately, to dispossession. “…In 1961 Evelina Jenkins, a Black woman living in South Carolina, lost 66 acres of prime coastal real estate that she owned after a white man she had entrusted deliberately failed to deliver her $26 tax bill to the county treasurer and then promptly snatched her land at the county tax sale. Today, houses on Horse Island in South Carolina sell for upward of $2.5 million. Jenkins died penniless.” (Adeel Hassan, “The damage the ‘Black tax’ inflicted on generations of African Americans,” NYT, 4/26/24)

Another Black landowner in North Carolina lost his land in 1920. That loss affected the family line across generations, and his great-great grandson, George Floyd, was murdered by a police officer after a phone call to the authorities in Minneapolis about a counterfeit $20 bill one century later. (Hassan) “By the most conservative estimates, racialized patterns of over-assessment forced every Black person in America to pay an annual extra $100 (in 2024 dollars) for the past 150 years. That adds up to nearly $300 billion.” (Hassan)

Who are the eunuchs and the Philips of our day who would lead us into the Way of Christ the vine? What must be pruned? What among us must be cut away for all people to flourish? As Jesus broke bread, so we are broken; as Jesus poured out the new wine of the Spirit, so we are poured out. As Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them, so we welcome one another us as living parts of the one true vine. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their siblings, are liars; for those who do not love a sibling whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:7 & 20). See! Love is the fruit God brings to life in us. Whatever tastes of love is of God. Whatever does not taste of love is not of God. Taste and see the Lord is good.

Easter 4B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

My great grandpa, Tom Flynn, was from a family of schoolteachers.  His sister became the first woman to be principal of the school in her small Minnesota town. Tom, by contrast, fell on hard times in the middle of the roaring twenties.  My great grandma, Cecilia Rose, said the two Flynn boys caught her eye because they could really dance, but she had picked the wrong Flynn.  ‘He was good man,” she said, “except for the drink.”

Alcoholism devastated their family. In 1928, Tom left Cecelia and their 11 children in search of work.  My grandmother, Lois, was four at the time. Then the Great Depression hit, and things got much, much worse. Grandpa Tom returned home long enough to give Cecilia two more children. She had 13 children in all. They wore clothing stitched together from used gunny sacks. They lived in a building built to store corn, not people. The children worked on nearby farms and households.  Grandma Lois wouldn’t remember ever seeing her father until years later when she was an adult.

Great Grandpa Tom drifted. He finally caught on as a shepherd in Montana.  He died alone.  He died believing he was a failure –and probably most people, including my grandmother Lois, would have agreed. Even in Jesus’ time, being a shepherd was not a high calling.  In ancient Israel, a shepherd’s daily work made them ritually unclean before God. Shepherds had an unsavory reputation.  It was a job reserved for women, children, the enslaved, or the elderly — all people who were socially marginalized.

Yet, each year on the fourth week after Easter, we celebrate ‘Good Shepherd Sunday.’  The risen Lord gathers us with the lame and the lost into the undying life of God as a shepherd gathers sheep. Recalling the voice from the burning bush which revealed God’s name to Moses, Yahweh, I Am Who I Am (Exodus 3:14), Jesus told the disciples, “I Am the Good Shepherd (John 10:11a).

Christians have always been fond of this image. We have it here in the stained glass of the baptistry in the side chapel. Early Christians adapted and adopted this famous image from ones which had depicted the Greed god, Hermes, famously carrying a ram draped around his shoulders which he intended to sacrifice. In contrast, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, carries the lamb upon his shoulders, not to sacrifice it, but to save it.   Alleluia, Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed, alleluia.)

Like the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’, the ‘Good Shepherd’ is a story of reversal with radical implications. It would have sounded a bit like an oxymoron to those first disciples, as if Jesus were to identify himself with any number of unpopular jobs today: I am the good migrant farm laborer; I am the good dishwasher; I am the good sanitation worker; I am the good day-laborer. Respectable people listening to Jesus must have winced.

My Great Grandpa Tom was a shepherd.  He may have been a good shepherd for all I know.  But in the things that mattered most, like the care of his wife and children, he was more like the bad shepherds that Jesus talks about in John’s gospel who lose sight of their job to protect the sheep.  Yet our gospel tells us Jesus sought him out. Jesus would gather him in with all the other lost sheep of his sheepfold.

The new community Jesus fosters in, with, above, under, and through us, isn’t based on money and status, but on compassion, care, mutuality, and service.  “This is the comfort and safety of God’s commonwealth — God loves, the Good Shepherd loves, and the community is constituted by and bound by love. Jesus imagines an entirely different kind of flock, not one owned by some greedy and distant overlord, but an inclusive human family tended by the motherly care of God and led by little children.” (Diana Butler Bass, “A Shepherd, Really?”, Sunday Musings, April 21, 2024)

Now, God themself promises to be our shepherd. (vs.15). Christ Jesus lovingly stoops to tend our wounds, even those we are guilty of causing ourselves. Christ, the Good Shepherd calls each one of us by name.  Christ beckons me to lie down in green pastures. They lead me beside still waters.  They restore my soul.

We call church leaders “pastors,” from the Latin word, poimen, for ‘shepherd’.  All of us, not just professional leaders, are joined in a community of lost lambs, that is being transformed and sent out to serve as shepherds, following the way of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Tomorrow, Earth Day is a good occasion to remember that we who have been gathered are also sent.  Together, we are called to repent of the violence and harsh heartedness of the faith community that has lost and scattered Christ’s lambs and left them vulnerable to predators.  We are called to rebuild trust and to bring them home—not just the lost human lambs, but also the real lambs, together with all things living threatened or made vulnerable by our own indifference and greed.

We are called to reach out and not forget those like my Great Grandpa Tom, whose lives are crushed by the weight of our ever-changing economy, and whose hope is being snuffed out by the evil power of addiction. We must pray to be guided by God’s care for us, so that we may rightly offer our lives in love to God and to our neighbors in need…really.   Jesus waits to lead you deeper into the mysteries of God’s grace.  On this Good Shepherd Sunday, we encounter God’s invitation to be incorporated again, in the undying life of Jesus, who, like a Good Shepherd, is constantly in search of ways to make all life flourish throughout God’s creation.

The bible calls us to manage the care of the earth, to shepherd God’s people, and to faithfully steward the resources, gifts, and responsibilities entrusted to us by God as members of God’s household or family. We are to strive, with all the creativity and energy we can muster, not so that we may enter the kingdom of heaven someday, but to be part of God’s kingdom alive and at work in the world today.  We become better disciples of Jesus by becoming more tender-hearted, more honest with ourselves, more accepting of our limitations, and more caring for each other. Put more simply, we become better Christians by becoming more human.  Striving to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace, let it be said those people at Immanuel really know how to live life to its fullest. Together with my great-grandpa Tom, and all the saints in light, let the people say, Amen!