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The Festival of St. Luke

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 23B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 22B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 21B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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