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Proper 9B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

He went to his hometown, and they took offense at him (Mark 6:3b). Now, Nazareth was a small, isolated village with no more than 120 to 150 inhabitants. Most were probably relatives. These were the people who raised him, taught him to love and fear God, and kept him safe through childhood. No doubt, they heard the stories about the miraculous things he did. That sort of news travels fast. Jesus was a local hero, yet he could do no deed of power there in Nazareth (Mark 6:5).

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. In a sermon titled, “Sapping God’s Strength,” the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor points out that the only reason to identify someone by his mother in Jesus’s day was to question his legitimacy. It was to underscore the fact that no one knows for sure who his father is. Referring to Jesus as “the son of Mary” was an attempt to weaponize his birth story to humiliate him into silence. No had taught them yet to sing and to love, as we do, the popular Christmas carol, “Silent night, holy night…round yon virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild…” (Silent Night, ELW #281).

In fact, these same villagers were the people who convinced Jesus’s mother, brothers, and sisters that he was crazy. Remember, his own family attempted to take him into custody on his last visit to Nazareth (Mark 3:31). John’s gospel reports his brothers didn’t believe in him. Luke tells us Jesus’ boyhood friends once tried to toss him over a cliff (Luke 4:30).

We know how the religious elite will accuse Jesus of blasphemy and convince the Roman Imperial authorities, specifically, Pontius Pilate, to execute him. We know that Jesus will draw resistance from the powerful, corrupt, and connected. But it’s sort of a surprise, isn’t it, to uncover such strong opposition from the very people we expect knew him best. Jesus was rejected by the people of his own 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 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 sing Silent Night from memory, would surely have been more open to Jesus had we been there, more loving, and more aware that he is worthy of worship and praise –right?

I wonder. I wonder if this could be the biting point of this gospel story. After all, the people who claim to know Jesus best, who claim to be Christian, are not always the best source for understanding his gospel. Instead of the good news, Christians have often tragically somehow made his gospel into just more bad news of Empire, scapegoating, racism, war, sexism, and destruction of the planet.

The uncomfortable fact is the gospel must offend us or we would not be called to renewal. Transformation can never be an entirely happy experience. “Prophets tend to be misunderstood by the people of their own time and place precisely because a prophet is always calling people to see beyond that time and place. They expand our vision by calling us out of complacency with injustice, reorienting us to the liberating will of God” (Pearl Maria Barros, Santa Clara University, CA). Maybe, if the Jesus we worship never offends us, then it’s not really Jesus we’re worshipping.

We urgently need this bracing tonic of the gospel of Jesus today. This July 4th we are called to expand our understanding, to open our eyes, to widen the circle and not take offense at our siblings who wish to tell us, finally, of the suffering they have endured. Yes. The whole story of our great nation includes some uncomfortable truths. Can we listen without becoming unhelpfully defensive, or feeling personally attacked as the people of Nazareth did? (By the way, this is the very same work we must learn to do in our families in order to heal from our own ugly history of abuse and addiction.)

Jesus said, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:6). Do we have the courage? Can we develop the maturity? Do we have enough faith in Jesus to look the truth about ourselves in the face and not parcel out blame, or begin to hurl insults, or to personalize and polarize, or demonize, or to paint those with whom we disagree with evil intent—as if there is anyone who is good but God? I wonder, in the years ahead, how the telling and re-telling of the American story widen and shift through the rhythm of our seasons as Juneteenth becomes just as ingrained in the American consciousness as July 4th?

I can still picture myself standing beside my desk, hand over my heart, looking up at the flag mounted above the chalk board next to the clock in my kindergarten classroom in Ithaca, NY. Each day began by reciting the pledge of allegiance. ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” I had no idea then about how the Pledge had come about after the Civil War, nor that it wasn’t officially adopted until 1942, nor that the words, “under God,” were not added until 1954. Nor did I know that in this land of the free, the Thirteen, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments, which outlaw slavery, grant citizenship, and guarantee the right to vote to all, respectively, each barely passed, and are bitterly contested to this very day.

The flag stands for many things for each of us. Yet, from its beginning in 1777, the stars and stripes, by its very design, was intended as a statement of human solidarity and unity. The flag is E Pluribus Unum — from many, one, reflecting the Latin motto on the Great Seal of the United States. In these polarized times “If the pluribus overwhelms the unum, then what do we have left?” (John R. Vile, Middle Tennessee State University, “A Fourth of July Symbol of Unity That May No Longer Unite” NYT, 7/3/21) I can salute the flag because it is an echo of our gospel today that all people, all people, all people, are loved by God and created equal.

Jesus was rejected by those he loved and grew up with. Then Jesus called the twelve and sent them out two by two to preach and heal and call others renew their hearts and minds. They didn’t really know what they were doing, but Jesus sent them anyway, to learn by doing and by failing. They traveled light, because you don’t need a lot of extra equipment 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.

Fourth Sunday in Lent – cycle B
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

One of the matriarchs of Immanuel, Ellen Breting, told me several years ago, she used to carry snakes around in a basket as a child. I’ve always shied away from snakes. I take comfort in the fact snakes want to avoid me almost as much as I want to avoid them.

Only 400 of the known 3,000 snakes are poisonous. And the venom can lead to death. More people are killed by bee stings than by snake bites, but that statistic doesn’t stop most of us from having an almost primordial fear of them. A Harris Poll (1999) found nearly 40 percent of Americans listed snakes as the thing they feared most. People are more afraid of snakes than they are of public speaking and spiders! Are you one of them?

You remember the scheming serpent Adam and Eve Encountered in the Garden of Eden. But what about this bizarre, mysterious and fascinating story about Moses, the Israelites, and the poisonous serpents that bit them? Slavery in Egypt is behind them. Somewhere in the middle of their 40-year sojourn to the promised land the people were forced to back track. They had to make a lengthy detour around the territory of Edom rather than go through it. They were already tired and impatient—literally, “short of soul.” This was too much.

So, they complained their usual complaint to Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” (Numbers21:5b). ‘There is no food and no water. We’re sick of this miserable food.”

When they were starving, manna was heaven-sent. But the people were fed up eating manna cakes every day. Vegetarian manna stew, manna and quinoa loaf. It was much too much. “Like us—when things don’t go our way, when patience runs thin, when gratitude is scarce, and when the past is idealized—they grumble. They whine. They complain. The King James Bible says: they murmur!” (Rev. Craig Mueller, “Antivenom,” 4/7/18) Things were so much better back in Egypt, they murmur. Sure, we were slaves, but the food was delicious. So, the people went to Moses to have it out with him. Seeing no end in sight, they fear they will die in the wilderness.

The saying goes, every church, even to this very day, has a back-to-Egypt committee. We all take turns serving on that one. Sometimes, we just want things to go back to the way things were rather than expose ourselves the slings and arrows of the unknown future. So, God answered their murmuring with poisonous snakes. The snakes bit the people back to their senses. And some of them died. Yet it gets the people’s attention, and they repent.

They return to God seeking healing and forgiveness. And God provides a very strange and shocking remedy. Not snake bait, or an exterminator, not even a snake charmer! But an antivenom. The snakes still exist and they continue to bite people, but now, they do not die. God told Moses to make a brass serpent and lift it up on a pole. The snakes are the result of the people’s disobedience and sin. But the snake-on-the-stick is the means to their healing and salvation. They would look at it and live.
If you’re wondering what in the world is antivenom? Snake venom is injected in mammals such as horses, sheep or rabbits. These animals have an immune response that naturally generates antibodies against the venom. The antivenom is harvested from the blood of the animal and stored to treat snake bite victims.
Antivenom. The cure for snakes is a snake. Amazing. As one preacher (Barbara Brown Taylor) said, Moses takes the very source of the people’s fear, their rebellion, and their death. Pulls it up from beneath their feet and puts it on a pole for the people to look at.

Strange story. Yet this is the story Jesus tells the late-night Rabbi, Nicodemus, to explain himself when he came asking about who Jesus is. Jesus said, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him might have eternal life” (John 3:14). Jesus is the antivenom. Jesus takes the poison of this world and gives it back for healing.

In the desert, God simultaneously taught the people about their sin and about God’s grace. The problem and the solution came in the form of the same bronze serpent. Pastor and author Max Lucado says, “To see sin without grace is to despair. To see grace without sin is arrogance. To see them in tandem is conversion.” In the fiery serpent, just as in the cross, sin and grace are combined into one symbol. Jesus, our holy serpent, lifted upon the cross, draws us out from the darkness of our hearts and minds. Jesus will crush underfoot and replace the powers and principalities that rule this age with the air and light and grace of the Kindom of God.

In John’s gospel Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We are comfortable and familiar with this idea. It is Jesus, after all, who gently, patiently, and tirelessly sought us out though we were lost. Yet, for John, Jesus is also the antivenom who meets us in the unseen depths of our hearts and minds. Jesus, our Immanuel, comes among us, slithering into our delusions of self-sufficiency, into our fears, our hatred, our love of violence. Out of his mouth come words that cut like a sword, venomous, prophetic words. They bite and threaten our delusions in order to heal us.

Almost as a reflex, we reach for a club or pole to beat him to death. And yet, by that very pole God lifts him up, raises him toward heaven, exalts him above all other creatures. God delivered us from destruction. Jesus is lifted up on the cross. Jesus is lifted up from the grave. Jesus is lifted up at the ascension and we are lifted up with him.

The poisonous, prophetic Word of Jesus is our anti-venom, our antidote for sin. Jesus takes us by the hand and leads us out of the heart of human darkness. Jesus shined a light upon our path to leads us out of our lostness. Now, we, together with all who meant to kill him, standing at the foot of the pole meant to destroy him, look up and say, ‘Truly this man is the Son of God.’ Lift up your hearts. We lift them to the Lord. We are lifted up. Thanks be to God!

The daily newspaper chronicles our will to death and darkness –political corruption, violence as media entertainment, corporate greed, religious wars, and the extinction of countless species of living things. But “…God 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). Like the bronze serpents of old, Jesus uncoils our fears, cleanses our hearts, is remaking us and our world from the inside out. This is grace. Amazing grace. This is life. Eternal life, beginning now and stretching into forever. This now is our mission. Alive and at work with Jesus to lead all people out from darkness into light, from hatred into mutual love, from judgment into mercy, from death into life. Amen.

Advent 2A-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1).  With beautiful words the prophet Isaiah describes his vision of a future king, like David, who rules with “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (v 2). We lay on hands and say these words to affirm our baptism to become members of this church. In some small way that makes each of you an answer to Isaiah’s prayer. We are tasked with fulfilling Isaiah’s vision of nonviolence and social harmony, building communities where the wolf, the lamb, the leopard and the kid live together in peace.

Soon after Isaiah wrote these famous poetic words, the only thing that would remain real was the stump. The story begun in Eden continuing through Abraham, Sarah, Moses, King David and the Prophets came to an end. The temple soon fell into ruins. The people killed or carted off in chains, neither their time nor their bodies would be their own.  All was cut down, destroyed.

I am aware that I am grieving the decay of our civic life, the erosion of great institutions of government, education, and the church. I am anxious about the inability for all of us to agree even on basic facts. Yet nothing I am worried about today compares with the utter devastation people of faith have coped with in the past. It’s not that our worries and concerns aren’t legitimate and relevant.  But fortunately, we possess the wisdom of our ancestors to guide us through times of doubt or unknowing when it comes to faith.

It happens more than we care to admit. The sense of being stranded in the midst of life can be enough to drain a person’s self-worth. Where did the joy go? Where did the feeling of self-confidence disappear to in the midst of this emptiness? Just yesterday life was clear and vibrant. Today it is endlessly bleak. The darkness is unyielding. Nothing helps; nothing takes it away. There is no light here, we think. But we think wrong.

The Old Ones whisper, there is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate. “It is the glowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the ultimate truth of creation: that there is a God and we are not it. That is the light that shines in darkness.” (Sister Joan Chittister) 

Only the experience of our own darkness gives us the light we need to be of help to others whose journey into unknowing is just beginning. Without that, we are only words. We are false witnesses to the truth of what it means to be pressed to the ground and rise again.

The light we gain in darkness is faith. Faith is our light.  United Church of Christ pastor Mark Longhurst describes how both light and dark are essential for transformation. The light and the darkness are bound up with one another. Periods of seemingly fruitless darkness may in fact highlight all the ways we rob ourselves of wisdom by clinging to the light. Who grows by only looking on the bright side of things? It is only when we lose our certainties that we become able to see past false images of God to discover the grace operating beneath all our self-serving fantasies and fears. (Mark Longhurst, “Beyond Light Supremacy: Let There Be Light *and* Darkness,” Patheos, 10-11-19).

The terrible, disorienting experience of Exile opened the hearts of God’s people wide enough some of them became able to recognize the Messiah even when hanging on a cross. It made some of them ready to live into the radical reality of God’s ubiquitous grace.  One of them was John the Baptist. Like Isaiah, he also speaks to us today about a tree stump This time, it is God doing the chopping to make way for the kingdom. “Even now the axe is lying against the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10). What kind of kingdom you ask?  The peaceable kingdom, like the one Isaiah described.

“John planted himself in the middle of nowhere.  He set up shop in the wilderness, and anyone who wanted to hear what he had to say had to go to a lot of trouble to get there…” and not just trouble, but plenty of danger too.  (Barbara Brown Taylor) To hear him preach about repentance and baptism, a pilgrim from Jerusalem had to take that treacherous Jericho road, made famous in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  They had to trek through blazing desert, carrying all their own food and water, traversing hills and lonely canyons infested with bandits to Jericho and then beyond—to the wilderness beside the Jordan far away from everything.

Ask yourself.  Who would make such a journey?  Who would risk it?  Who would be so desperate?  Many who went out to see John had nothing left to lose. Their lives counted for very little.  They had lost hope in building a life for themselves. They went to the desert in search of a little peace. They returned to become midwives of a new creation of impossible possibilities.

Often God’s little ones are the first to hear the angels or to follow the leading star. The people who flocked to hear John the Baptist were people on the margins, outcasts, thieves, and sinners—and right behind them came a second group of people—those sent out to keep tabs on the people who lived on the margins, to be sure things didn’t get out of hand.

That sets the scene of our gospel today.  John announces the Lord’s coming.  He calls the religious leaders a brood of vipers. He speaks of fiery judgment, and of wrath to come.  Clearly, John the Baptist didn’t get the memo about wishing everyone a very merry Christmas.

John’s Baptism of fire is bad news to those in authority and anyone peddling Christmas like a commodity, but good news to the poor, the grieving, the victims of violence, those who suffer injustice, and anyone longing for the kingdom of God.

Isaiah’s dream and John’s baptism are impossibly good news for everyone.  Isaiah and John boldly declare God’s peaceable kingdom is closer than we realize. The old ways are passing away. Even now, God is bringing something new out of the old, making what was impossible possible.  A shoot is growing from the dead stump of Jesse.  Death gives way to life. John and Isaiah expose the upside-down dreams our so-called common sense is built on and awaken us being part of God’s dream for this world following the light God has placed deep within us, the light only darkness can reveal, the light we call faith.