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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.

Proper 8B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Our gospel is a story within a story. It is a tale of an unnamed women and a prestigious man named Jairus. Or perhaps, it is a tale of Jesus and the disciples. Or perhaps, it is a tale of the bleeding woman and the dead girl. Or in another way of thinking, it is a tale about Jesus and the Beloved Community including all of us. Any way you look at it, today’s gospel weaves our stories together.

It’s like a movie. Our gospel begins again in a boat as Jesus and the disciples step out onto the shore. They have just returned from the foreign side of the sea, and that whole scene with the Gerasene demoniac and that herd of swine which plunged possessed into the sea, when they are immediately swarmed by a large crowd.
Among them is an important man named Jairus, a leader in the synagogue, a well-respected lay person, a father, and patriarch of the community. He steps into the middle of the crowd, throws himself before Jesus, and begs him to heal his daughter. I imagine the disciples smiling at each other at their good fortune—here finally!—was an opportunity to gain favor and prestige for themselves and for Jesus.

But somewhere, unnoticed by either the crowd or the disciples, is a woman slowly approaching Jesus from behind. We don’t know her name. She is homeless, childless, and alone. She had been bleeding for 12 years. She is considered unclean before God. She has suffered under the care of many doctors. She used up all her money searching for a cure. Yet, she only grew worse.

These characters are a study in contrasts. One is privileged. One is outcast. One lingers in the background. The other approached directly. Jairus spoke to Jesus. The woman speaks only to herself. Jairus’ request is met with enthusiasm and a sense of urgency. The woman’s touch is a hindrance and appalling. She’s in the way. The whole procession grinds to a halt. She prevents Jesus from getting to Jairus’ daughter before it’s too late. The disciple’s frustration is palpable. Honestly Jesus, can’t you be a little more focused on your own success? Why are you asking who touched you in the middle of a crowd?

From the crowd we see an example of what it means to be shallow with regard to faith. They flocked to the shore and pressed in to see Jesus only to get near a celebrity. They are mostly oblivious to what is really going on. From the father we learn there is no shame, nothing to be embarrassed about in making a public spectacle of our love or our pain. His suffering made him open to praying before Jesus. I wonder, the next day, were members of his congregation as understanding? From the disciples we see an uncomfortable reflection of our own desire to be a more successful church even if it comes at expense of being less loving to the unprivileged poor.

But perhaps this story is about the woman and the girl. The woman suffered for 12 years. The girl was 12 years old. They are both untouchables. Those with leprosy, those with any kind of bodily discharges, and the dead were regarded unclean and were required to be quarantined from society. Once Jairus’ little girl died, both she and the unnamed woman became lumped into to the same tribe of the damned and the sub-human. But Jesus touched them both and healed them. Jesus touches the untouchable. Jesus not only says I love but he shows it too. While the disciples and everyone in the crowd were counting noses, sizing up the pecking order, doing a cost-benefit analysis, and sorting people into categories of more and less worthiness, Jesus is focused on human need.

From the unnamed woman we uncover a core Christian principle: If it doesn’t look like love, it isn’t Christian. Period. From the little girl we learn it’s never too late for grace. You may think your time is over. You may think the time is not right. You may think of yourself as unworthy or as being untouchable by grace. Jesus lays his hands upon you. He says, ‘Get up’.

“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” (Frederick Buechner). Perhaps that is the power at the heart of this story [within a story] and all of our stories: “the power of new life, new hope, new being.” It comes to us now in Christ Jesus. 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)

Yes. We’re going to need a bag to carry all the goodies this gospel provides for us this week. We’re going to need them all. As we prepare to celebrate another Independence Day, it strikes me that perhaps we have seldom had the patience or the stomach to listen to whole story of our nation’s history. This land we celebrate, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; this land of opportunity, of immigrants, of diversity, of genocide, of slavery, and ongoing systematic violence against people of color; this year after so much suffering and crisis when we are re-examining our priorities, our relationships, and our work, I pray that we are more open to receiving God’s grace so that all our stories may be woven together.

See, God has made a crazy quilt people out of us called the Beloved Community. Each of our stories is being joined together with every other. Jesus stopped, reached out and connected with people who others waved off as a waste of time. God makes a beautiful crazy-quilt community of throwaway people. We find belonging, new life, and a new way as we join hands with Jesus. We become part of each other and all the saints, including the unnamed woman, the little girl, her father, Jairus, and the disciples in our gospel today. Put out your hands, Jesus says. This is my body given for you. Take the cup, this is my blood shed for you. Take my hand, Jesus says. Get up, rise and live. Let us go and make new the lives of all those others who have yet to know how much they are loved.

Hoist a Sail to Sea

Proper 7B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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)

We often say Jesus is a bridge, not a wall, between us and those who are not us—especially including our enemies. Yet, today’s gospel reminds us, this doesn’t mean we can simply gloss over our differences, disagreements, our hurts, or ignore our pain. Art Garfunkel may be a “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” but Jesus bids us travel over life’s stormy waters by boat.

A sailboat, in fact, with a large cross for a mast, is one of the earliest and most persistent symbols of the Church. The place where you are sitting now is called the “nave.” It comes from the Latin, navis, or “ship.” The terrible storm in the middle of the sea in today’s gospel reminds us of that first primal boat, Noah’s ark, that braved the great flood and preserved humanity and all the animals, two by two.

Here in Chicago, like people almost everywhere, we love living beside the lake. It’s cooler in summer and warmer in winter. We walk along the shore, play on the beaches, and swim in the cool water. From the lakeshore, the water is calming and peaceful. Yet it’s another thing entirely to be out on the water, especially, when the weather turns bad.

One day, when I was young, my dad and I were fishing in a small boat on the big reservoir near our home. I ran the outboard motor while my dad cast out in hopes of catching a large rainbow trout. Suddenly we were caught in a summer storm. The waves grew quickly. I was frightened. I thought my dad would take over control of the boat. I didn’t know what to do. He just said, “You can’t outrun the waves and you can’t take them side-ways, that’ll swamp us, just head straight into them.” I thought he was crazy. Watching his expression as we crested over three-foot waves and slammed down the other side, I think he might have thought he was crazy too. But he was right. Truth is, you and I can’t out-run life’s storms. As any good clinical therapist will tell you, ‘The only way out is through.’ Jesus has called us into this boat, into his church, to face into life’s storms.

Perhaps you’ve wondered why Mark, the shortest gospel, repeats itself so much between the 4th and 8th chapters, including our gospel today? 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 was inhabited by people whose religious life was traditional and familiar to the disciples. On the other side, lived people who were viewed as 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 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. The only way out is through.
One beautiful example of this gospel truth came this week. On Thursday President Biden signed into law the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, turning the oldest celebration of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. into the country’s newest national holiday. “Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments,” President Biden said, “… they embrace them. Great nations don’t walk away, they come to terms with the mistakes they’ve made. In remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger.”

Jesus has power to still the storm. Even the wind and waves obey him. We may feel afraid, that’s natural. Preacher William Willimon writes that “there are two kinds of fear: There’s the fear of the death-dealing storms of life. You get a bad report after your physical, you’re living through a pandemic, you hear about gun violence in the news. You see the water and the waves and cry out, “Jesus, don’t you care that we perish?” This is a Good Friday sort of fear. And Jesus rises, rebukes the wind and the waves, and it is calm. And that brings the second kind of fear (which is greater than the first) –Willimon calls it an Easter fear.”

Easter fear is the fear that rises up in our belly when we know that we are about to risk life and limb for the sake of the gospel. It is the fear the disciples no doubt felt when they realized that they really were going to have to confront their enemies, the Gentiles, and learn to call them siblings and friends. It is the fear you and I feel when we leave the safety of our homes and living rooms for the open sea of our streets and neighborhoods. It is the disbelief that we feel when Jesus doesn’t take over the controls of our ship when the weather gets rough –but counsels us–head straight into the waves –the only way out is through.

People of God, we are called to set out upon the turbulent waters of life and to live in the midst of insecurity, with Jesus at the helm. True faith, that which invites us to ever deeper levels of transformation and love, does not insist on “staying positive” and happy all the time, but rather, focuses on “staying true.” The peace that passes all understanding does not paper over differences or avert its gaze from what is wrong or what is hurting. No. We steer this ship of mercy with truth as our compass, knowing that the truth sometimes hurts, but the truth also heals. Speaking the truth as we know it, and giving voice to our anger and hurts, and by prayerfully listening to one another share their truth, the Holy Spirit leads us through the storm to that place of true safety and peace that we call shalom. May God our mother and our father, the Son, and Holy Spirit be praised.