Proper 25A-20-Reformation
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It’s Reformation Sunday 2020. The church is decked out in red. A Mighty Fortress is our featured hymn. But there is no timpani drum, no brass band, no trumpet this year. The church is mostly empty this morning. Like you, I’m at home, as is the lector, and assisting minister. As you listen to each of us lead worship there is silence in the sanctuary on this festival day. Plans included the rite of confirmation, a well-deserved milestone moment celebrating the faith life of one our special youth. But like everything this year, our plans have changed. Sam was folding his laundry here at my house Thursday night when he got a phone call. A co-worker tested positive for the virus. So now we’re quarantined due to possible exposure to Covid-19. Graciously, Natalie and her family agreed. Confirmation will be rescheduled.

Reformation is not only our theme today. It is our lived reality. Pandemic, upheaval, awakening, and record-breaking events are daily news. This year gives a new perspective on Martin Luther and the reformers. Living through a Reformation is much different than celebrating one from a safe distance of 500 years. The future promised them nothing. They could not say whether or when they might be arrested, attacked, or killed. Every day could prove to be their last. Yet they met such grave uncertainty with faith. Faith was their compass in the storm.

There is a storm today. The Reformation brought dramatic religious, political, economic and cultural change that upended people’s lives. Today’s Reformation includes all of these and one more—ecological change. In 2020 Reformation is literally reshaping the landscape. Three of the largest wildfires in Colorado history occurred this year and two are still burning. Snow is falling today over the Northern Rockies providing relief to communities throughout the State. The Cameron Peak fire burned to within 15 miles of our family home in Fort Collins. Fire still threatens Sky Ranch Lutheran camp, the YMCA of the Rockies, Rocky Mountain National Park, and much of the rest of my childhood stomping grounds. Smoke covers the cities along the front range like a thick fog. It’s difficult to see and hard to breath. Two air purifiers work to make sleeping easier for my mom. Now she has two reasons—the smoke and Covid—to feel unsafe going outside.

There is a storm today. In 2020 Reformation threatens cherished institutions of democracy, the constitution and the balance of powers. Political parties are hardening into tribes and go to war. Each calls the other evil. In 2020 Reformation is proving we need a new economic yardstick. Endless growth in GDP is not good economics if the result is planetary death. True prosperity will be achieved when every person has access to life’s essentials in ways the planet can sustain. In 2020 Reformation is giving breathe to those who could not breathe. People of color, women, native American, LGBTQ, and gender queer people are finding that their voices can be heard, and their suffering can finally be seen when it is video streamed through a cell phone. In 2020 Reformation is seeing that children are children are children regardless of their religion, or whether they live in affluent zip codes or poor zip codes, whether they are in war zones or refugee camps. The storm is upon us in 2020, both threatening and promising. Like Martin Luther and the reformers before us, faith must be our compass if we are not to be overwhelmed and undone.

Yet, when we are fearful, anxious, and uncertain faith is most difficult. The faithful way forward is counter-cultural, unexpected, appears foolish, even sentimental in the midst of life’s storms. Yet faith has proven itself trustworthy. Faith reliably leads to healing, reconciliation, flourishing, and shared abundance.

Jesus demonstrated this faith throughout his life but especially in his last days before death on the cross. In our gospel today, it’s the Pharisees turn to play gotcha with Jesus. The Sadducees, Scribes and Herodians all struck out. ‘Teacher’, they ask, ‘Which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ (Matthew 22:36). Jewish scholar’s painstaking careful reading of the Hebrew bible resulted in a list of 613 commandments. Citing any one of them as the greatest would be cause for controversy and trouble.

It all boils down to this, Jesus said: love God and love people. Loving people is a measure of your love of God. Jesus combined the famous Shema from the book of Deuteronomy and the Golden Rule from Leviticus. My Jewish friend has a mezuzah nailed beside every door in his home, each containing the Shema—Deuteronomy 6:4—‘Hear O Israel the Lord is our God…You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The golden rule is, ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18).

Love. That’s it. Sounds too easy. To navigate the stormy conflicts of worldwide Reformation faith must again be our compass. Faith in love must be our guide. Specifically, faith in loving our neighbor will pave the path from chaos to salvation. It’s that simple. It’s that amazing.

Yet even such simple advice proves confusing. We tend to think of love as a feeling. “A spontaneous and free-flowing feeling that arises out of our own enjoyment, our own sense of kinship and affinity. We don’t think of it as discipline, as practice, as exercise, as effort. We fall in love. We insist that love is blind, that it happens at first sight, that it breaks our hearts, and that its course never runs smooth. We talk and think about love as if we have little power or agency in its presence.” (Debi Thomas, The Greatest Commandments, Journey with Jesus, 10/18/20).

Yet for Jesus, love is not only something that just happens to you. It’s a commandment. Have faith in love. Just do it. To love as Jesus loved is to stand in the presence our enemies, and desire what is best for them. To love as Jesus commands is to weep with those who weep. “To laugh with those who laugh. To touch the untouchables, feed the hungry, welcome the children, release the captives, forgive the sinners, confront the oppressors, comfort the oppressed, wash each other’s feet, hold each other close, and tell each other the truth” (Thomas). To love as Jesus loves is to guide each other home through the storm because love is the difference between Reformation and decimation.

Of course, the only way to have and to possess such love is to be continually filled with it to overflowing through the grace of God. By faith alone, by grace alone, through the Word alone the Spirit leads us through the storm of Reformation just as our ancestors were led. In the words of one who’s lived it, Martin Luther, “If they take our house, goods, fame, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The kingdom’s ours forever!”

God’s love is beyond human love, but this does not mean it lacks feeling.
Being Christian is “about participating in God’s passion. This is what we are called to. So, ultimately, being Christian is about loving God and changing the world. It’s as simple and challenging as that, and it is the way of life.” (Marcus Borg)

I close with a prayer written by the North African bishop, St. Augustine, some 1,600 years ago: “O God, from whom to be turned is to fall, toward whom to be turned is to rise, and in whom to stand is to abide forever. Grant us in all our duties your help, in all our perplexities your guidance, in all our dangers your protection, and in all our sorrows your peace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, our Body, and our Blood, our Life and our Nourishment. Amen.

Can we be thankful?

Proper 23A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“The Lord changed his mind” (Exodus 32:14). It might be the most surprising sentence in scripture. God changed his mind. God the all-knowing, the all-powerful, the eternal, flew off the handle. God decided to wipe out the children of Abraham and Sarah where they camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai. After everything they had been through together the children of Israel melted their jewelry and made for themselves a golden idol.

As they prepared to revel around that statue, God looked down at them and said to Moses, ‘This isn’t working. I have to start over. I’m going to start over with you and your children Moses. You’re going to be my new Abraham.’ Maybe a lesser man than Moses would have accepted that deal. But Moses knew God would regret it. So, Moses argued with God, as he had done all those years before at the burning bush, but this time, he prevailed.

What did Moses say to change God’s mind? Notice, he didn’t argue on behalf of the people. They were terrible. Moses knew it. God had every right to start over. Yet, Moses said, if you do then you will no longer be the God of hesed. Scholars still debate the meaning of this word Moses used to change God’s mind. It is most often translated with the phrase, steadfast love. It’s the sort of unconditional love God will later reveal on the cross. Christians call it agape. Suffice it to say if God had chosen to abandon the children of Israel that day at Mt. Sinai, agape would be just another word for love which not even God could live up to. Hesed or agape are words for a kind of love that means ‘we’re family and it lasts forever.

Moses won the argument with God by appealing to God’s own character. ‘I guess it all comes down to what kind of God you want to be’ Moses said. God relented, put away their sword of righteous wrath, because the Lord our God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, or hesed. (Exodus 34:6-7)

Remembering who God has shown us to be is important throughout our lives. But it is especially necessary in order to hear the good news in Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet gone awry. A people destroyed? Their city burned? A poor man bound and thrown into the outer darkness for wearing shabby clothes? The king Jesus portrays looks an awful lot like a tyrant, a great big bully. This is not how God behaves. This is not who God has shown God’s self to be.

Yet this is precisely the mistake many Christian readers, preachers, and theologians have made through the centuries. Turns out, making people afraid of a God as petty, vengeful, hotheaded, and thin-skinned as the king in this parable can be a good way to build churches. Making people get with the program and join the party – by threatening life and limb is pretty motivating. Yet it comes at a steep price. How are we supposed to call out the tyrants of this world when we worship one? Even worse, how can we call ourselves faithful if the God we worship is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses? We must take care that we do not fall into the same easy trap as Moses’ older brother Aaron and the people who worshipped an idol of their own making.

To find our way to the gospel, the good news in this parable, we must find our way back to the plain meaning of scripture. What did those who first heard this gospel understand? Our first clue is remembering who God has shown us to be, the God of steadfast love. A second clue comes from Matthew. Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king [of this world] who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” (Matthew 22:2). History is filled with examples of such self-serving and petty rulers. Our God is not one of them.

“What might we learn if we attempt an honest comparison between God’s coming kingdom, and our current one? Are our tables open to all who come, and does our love extend to those who initially refuse our invitation? Are we willing to extend a welcome to those who show up unprepared, unwashed, unkempt? Do we take offense when people shy away from our banquet, or do we listen as they explain why our invitation strikes them as unappealing or frightening? Do we really want to open our arms wide, or do we have a secret stake in seeing some people end up in the “outer darkness”? In the end, are we known for our impeccable honor, or for our scandalous hospitality?” (Debi Thomas, The God Who Isn’t, Journey with Jesus, 10/04/20).

The person in Jesus’ parable most like Jesus is the one who was thrown out. This is a third clue. This parable comes in his final week after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem as Jesus prepares to go to the cross. Christ the suffering servant will soon be brutally cast out of this world by the very sort of leaders this parable portrays. Yet, the stone which the builders rejected has become our cornerstone.

We are a living sanctuary not made with hands but called into being in flesh and blood by the one who sacrificed his flesh and blood for us and for all. We are clad in robes fashioned by the Holy Spirit and washed clean by the blood of the lamb. We were not made to dance out of fear, but for joy. Come you, all who are weary. I will give you rest. “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy, and eat!” (Isaiah 55:1).

Yes, God’s people do have a dress code. But don’t run out to the store. Put on the life of Christ. As St. Paul wrote, “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12). And again, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3.27). Receiving the gift of God’s love sets a very high bar for us to follow. Serving Jesus means striving to extend the same kindness and grace that God extends to us, even if we fall short. We are reckoned as righteous just by putting on the Spirit of Christ.

The project God began all those years ago with Abraham and Sarah down through Moses continues on in us today. The God who showed us their self also reveals to us who we truly are. Writer Anne Lamott once said, “We begin to find and become ourselves when we notice how we are already found, already truly, entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be.” (Becoming the Person You Were Meant to Be: Where to Start, by Anne Lamott, from the November 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine)

Proper 22A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Mt. Sinai was wrapped in smoke. Thunder and lightning and a thick cloud covered the mountain. A blast of a trumpet so loud it made all the people tremble. (Exodus 19:16). The people were afraid and stood at a distance when God handed down the Ten Commandments to Moses. They are rules to live by, wise guidance for life, an extravagant promise, a simple covenant built on trust. Love God. Love people. Love people in order to love God. Love God in order to love people. The view from Mt. Sinai must have been breath taking.

Fast-forward twelve hundred years to Jesus. The plan that began with Abraham and Sarah continuing through Moses on Mt. Sinai had run aground. We hear Jesus explain to the temple elders, “Listen to another parable!” he told them. The nation of Israel is like a well-appointed vineyard. God provided them with all they needed and more. God placed the whole enterprise into their hands. They are a privileged people. Their whole life, therefore, is really about just one thing: the call to tend and nurture the vineyard, cultivating and caring for God’s people so they might flourish and bloom and become a blessing to themselves, and to others, and to God, a light to the nations revealing God’s grace to the world. Yet the religious leaders exploited and mistreated God’s people — the people of Israel, God’s “vineyard.”

Jesus’ parable exposes the corruption of the religious elite and condemns their obsessions with privilege and power. The chief priests and elders are like the wicked tenants. They abuse their authority, dishonor God’s house, and mistreat God’s messengers. They killed the prophets and now would kill God’s son. Likewise, the wicked tenants in Jesus’ parable meant to put an end to our whole story. But the cross of Christ proved to be a new beginning.

This week, Christians around the world celebrate the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, commemorating the life of a 12th century monk whose values of nonviolence, simplicity, and care for creation become more important with each passing year. In honor of St. Francis we bless our pets and pray for all God’s animals in worship this morning. His graceful, animal loving image adorns many of our homes, including my own. I read that Francis has become of the most popular lawn ornaments sold in America today. And yet it is hard to think of a more radical Christian witness.

The joyful beggar who so famously loved animals and nature, chose simplicity and poverty over status and comfort. He lived in a simple, shared, and non-violent way that shouted good news and joy to the world. Jesus accused the religious leaders of his day of yielding wild, sour grapes. What harvest are we gathering from the collective vineyard of our lives, our community?
We stand at a crossroads. Which way will we go? Like the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai, or the disciples at the foot of the cross, we look to the future with fear and trembling.

“In April of this year, National Geographic published a “flip” issue of their magazine — basically, two issues in one — to explore two starkly different futures for our planet. One half of the magazine presented the worst-case scenario: what Planet Earth will look like in fifty years if we do nothing substantive about climate change.
The writer described a grim, dangerous world of mass extinctions, searing forest fires, deadly heat waves, fierce storms, and widespread suffering for the human race.
The other half portrayed a more hopeful, verdant vision: what Planet Earth could look like in fifty years if we harness our time, ingenuity, resources, and technology now to undo at least some of the damage we have already done. In this scenario, we would find sustainable ways to feed ourselves. We’d clean up our oceans, rivers, and lakes. We’d provide carbon-neutral energy for all. We’d reimagine our homes, streets, cities, and corporations in light of the most pressing needs of the environment. We’d begin to reverse climate change, and prevent many, if not most extinctions. ‘It’s impossible to know who is right,’ Susan Goldberg wrote about the two contrasting visions in her Editor’s Note for the issue. Everything will depend on the decisions we make in the coming days, weeks, months, years, and decades.” (Debi Thomas A Lament for the Vineyard, Journey with Jesus, 9/27/20)

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child” (I Corinthians 13:11). I admit, I used to think we had things pretty well figured out. There is a great awakening today at how much our lives could be better and how urgently we need change. Not only for the planet, but also for gender equality among all our siblings in Christ and justice for all God’s children of color.

Sometimes I feel this generation is like Moses on top of Mt. Nebo—that other mountain. There God showed him the whole promised land while knowing he would never be allowed to walk there. (Deuteronomy 34:1). It feels as if on January 20th we will either be in one world or entirely in another. Once the thunder, cloud, smoke, and trumpet blasts of the election season are finally over we shall we whether the promised land will be for us a reality or remain just a dream. The decisions we face are rarely so urgent and consequential as they are now. It is understandable how we might confuse the question about our future with the outcome of the election. We forget how long has been at this. The moral arc of the universe is very, very long but it bends towards justice. The children of Israel crossed over Jordan as a people. It didn’t matter about Moses. God raised up new leaders from the people, by the people, for the people. It was the people’s work to enter the promised land, to cultivate it, and sustain it. It is our work, regardless of who sits in the oval office, to extend the promise of God’s grace to all people now.

In fact, we already have one leader, one lord, one God of all. God’s money is on the human race. God is heavily invested in you. Who–or what—is your money, your time, your talents riding on? We heard Jesus say that we are stewards. We are privileged and most richly blessed. Let us join hands and welcome the future, as full partners with God. Look, together we enter into a new land of promise where the lives of all, including and every creature, may flourish through the abundance of God’s amazing grace.

Proper 21A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I said yes but I meant no. It was years ago at camp. Sky Ranch is a high-altitude Lutheran bible camp. In the mid-1970’s, the nearest pop machine was at the ranger station in Pingree Park, a mile and a half hike away. A kid named Evan asked me to buy him a coke. I said sure. He gave me the money. I went on the hike. I bought the coke. On the way back I shook that can. I dropped that can. I kicked the can. I beat it up with a stick. The other kids thought it was pretty funny and so did I –until it was time to give Evan his soda. I think I was trying to tell him what a jerk I thought he was. All I did was show what a jerk I was. Words are empty and hurtful things when not backed with our deeds.

Jesus told about a father who asked two sons to work in the vineyard. Which did the will of his father? I know who has my vote. As father to five children, four of them sons, I am delighted when any one of them helps out regardless of how they might have complained about it at first.

The chief priests confronted Jesus in the temple. The day before, Jesus entered the city riding a donkey in triumph. Crowds lined the road, shouting “hosanna!” Afterword, he fashioned a whip of cords and violently drove the moneychangers out from the Temple. The religious leaders are furious with Jesus. They can’t believe this no-name backwater preacher’s nerve. Because their words were empty the faith of their fathers had become poisonous and hurtful. “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you,” Jesus said (Matthew 21:31).

The controversy in the temple that day drew everyone’s attention. The priests asked Jesus, “by what authority are you doing these things…?” (v.23). But there was so much tension they seemed to forget their own question. It’s like what happens to us sometimes in the middle of a twitter storm, or while dealing with a global pandemic, or in a climate emergency, or maybe a national uprising about systemic racism and gender inequality, or on the eve of a national election, or a contentious Supreme court nomination, or when we are worried about how to do school online, or about the economy, specifically our jobs, or how to feed our family, or any one of a number of things that can come at us in life to knock us off our feet and take our breath away.

Who gave you authority Jesus? The priests asked a good question. Maybe they weren’t really interested in hearing Jesus’ answer. Maybe they hoped he would claim to be a God, or a king, or anything else they could use to get the Romans to take him down. The religious leaders might have been saying yes to God, but they were living in a way that said no. Their walk didn’t match their talk.

For the chief priests the price of admission to God’s vineyard was too high. But to us who recognize our need of grace Jesus’ fellowship is a lifeline. Jesus’ answer to the priest’s question is vitally important to us today because it is also our question. In the midst of so much tension and confusion how can we know what is of Christ and what is not? How do we meet adversity without adding to the problem? How do we defeat our enemies without becoming just like them?

I think we find an answer today in Jesus’ story. Jesus said, by their fruits, you will know them (Matthew 7:16). We recognize words of authority by what follows in their wake. Love begets more loving. Mercy begets more compassion. It doesn’t matter about education, or credentials, or status, or power. The mind of Christ is revealed in words and deeds that give life to grace.

Over the centuries, Son number one—the one who said “no” but lived “yes,” has become an icon of what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus. His example points the way out of chaos and into the vineyard where God welcomes sinners even though their hearts and minds remain divided.

“What Jesus opposed through the story of the father and the two sons was all forms of religion that stop at empty words. All forms of piety that don’t move us into the world of concrete action on behalf of justice, mercy, equality, love, and compassion. All forms of Christianity that flicker to life on Sunday morning, but then fade out between Monday and Saturday.” (Debi Thomas: “Words Are Not Enough,” Journey with Jesus, 9/20/20.)

In our second reading from Philippians, Paul reminded us we do not labor alone. More profound than any work we do for God is the work the Holy Spirit does for us, in us and through us. Martin Luther wrote, “It is as if a wolf devoured a sheep and the sheep were so powerful that it transformed the wolf and turned him into a sheep. So, when we eat Christ’s flesh physically and spiritually, the food is so powerful that it transforms us.”

We work out our salvation “with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). We learn to follow Christ to other vineyards. By their fruits we learn to recognize other brothers, other sisters, and other siblings in faith, regardless of their creed or religion. The salvation we work out in fear and trembling in God’s vineyard includes work together to fashion a community characterized by mutual love, harmony, humility, and unselfishness (2:2–4). Rivalry, conceit, and selfishness are evaded, as well as grumbling and complaining (2:3–4, 14). Our salvation, therefore, is not simply the activity of God upon us as passive and solitary human objects but is a work of the transforming power of God’s grace and faithful human activity working together.

At the font and at the table, through water, bread and wine, through Word and witness, we trust in God dwelling within us to provide guidance and counsel—regardless if we are more like the first or the second son – even as we continue to struggle with the questions. In welcoming Christ, we become more generous and hospitable toward each other. In welcoming in each other, we open and give greater honor to Christ. Yielding to God’s authority empties us of selfish rivalries, including those with our enemies, and lends dignity to even the most modest human life. This is the vineyard to which we are called. This is our work. May God strengthen us for it now, and in all the difficult days that may lay ahead, so that we may say “yes” and live “yes” to the glory of God.

Proper 20A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“So, the last will be first and the first last” (Matthew 20:16). These words of Jesus spark either outrage or rejoicing depending upon your place in line. I know I’ve had both reactions.

From the end of the line, the back of the bus, the wrong side of the tracks, or the double-x side of the chromosomal divide, Jesus’ words sound like unbelievable good news. Finally, the last will be first. The put down, pushed aside, beaten, dismissed, and abused may take their rightful place of honor as befits all children of God. It’s probably easy for most of us to cheer for heroes who have advanced the cause of justice and equality for those stuck at the back of the line.

Today, we celebrate civil rights trailblazer, popular cultural icon, and Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who died this Friday at 87, as tireless fighter for gender equality. She was a leading sex-discrimination litigator and strategist in the 1970s. She argued six pioneering sex discrimination cases before the then all-male U.S. Supreme Court, winning five.

In 1970 a woman was not entitled to have her own credit card. She could not serve on a jury. She was not allowed to enroll in an Ivy-league college or attend a military academy. She could not deny sex to her husband. Another way of saying this is that she could not charge him with rape, nor could she get a no-fault divorce, nor could she end an unwanted pregnancy in every State. She had no right to complain about sexual harassment on the job or to work if she became pregnant. A woman could not be a lawyer, an astronaut, run in the Boston Marathon, or be a boxer in the Olympic games. Today, #MeToo and #Equalpay continue to inform us of how far we have yet to go. The last will be first and the first last.

So, what’s the problem? The problem is it’s not fair. Years ago, I joined a line stretching out the building and down the block for the midnight premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 2. It was the last in the series of eight films. People waited all day. Many were dressed in costume. People of all ages excitedly hoped to buy a ticket, to sit with friends, or at least, to get a seat. I can only imagine what would have happened if the theater manager came out and reversed the order of that line! There would have been much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Yet Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to an owner of a vineyard who hired day-laborers to take in the harvest. Some worked twelve hours, some worked nine, others worked for six hours; while others only worked three; and some for only one hour! And yet, he paid them all the same, beginning with the last ones hired to the first. What’s more he paid the workers in reverse order. Wouldn’t it be easier to pay the all-day laborers first, sending them home before they could see what their “less deserving” counterparts received? But no, the landowner wanted them to see what kind of vineyard he ran. He wanted them to experience radical generosity. He wanted them to surrender their envy and join the party.

You can predict what happened. Hey, no fair! Those who worked 12 hours enduring the heat of the day were paid the same as those who only worked one hour. It’s not fair when those who show up late, or didn’t get the best grades, or who come from bad schools, or the wrong zip codes, or who just don’t match our expectations, should get to move to the front of the line and be treated like those at the head of the line.

Honestly, it would be hard to run a school or a business or a church for that matter following the example of the generous vineyard owner. We want people to be responsible. We want people to be qualified. We want hard workers. We want people who know how to be successful, who know how to win. That’s true. Yet we also want people who care about people. We want people who know how to be friend. Most important, we want people who know they need people and remember how many other people helped them become what and who they are.

I don’t think Jesus intends for us to create a world of shirkers and slackers. Rather I think Jesus’ parable is a reminder of what all our striving and hard labor must ultimately be for—the betterment of humankind and not merely myself. Jesus parable reminds us how we all got our start at the back of the line, with no way to redeem ourselves, locked out of the Kingdom of Heaven, until God’s grace broke through our prison and showed us mercy. When it comes to God’s love, we all stand at the back of the line.

This is something heroes like Ruth Bader Ginsburg seem to implicitly understand. Their success is connected to the success of others. Although she graduated at the top of her class no law firm would hire her. Instead, her work became the only work available to her, the work for justice. It is the true work of us all.

God’s grace is our daily wage. God’s mercy is our daily bread. The righteousness God reckons to us for faith comes in only one size. It can’t be cut up and parsed out in smaller or larger increments to the more or lesser deserving. We all work for the same amount, the same reward. This redemption is sufficient for us, no matter how long we’ve been working in the vineyard, because it is all we can hold. It is all we need. It is all we take with us when we die.

Whatever else it may be, the Kingdom of Heaven is not a meritocracy. The Jesus Way is a world of grace and not merit, status reversal instead of status reverence, underserved generosity rather than pay for services rendered.

I’m told infants as young as 18 months know when they’re not getting a fair shake. We humans seem to be hard-wired for fairness. It gets short-circuited when fairness becomes only about protecting ourselves. Instead, fairness must be what compels us always to be respectful of human dignity. Fairness is God’s ever-present grace shining a light revealing the gap between the world as it is, and the world as it should be. Fairness provides the true yardstick against which to measure our progress as Christian disciples. God’s fairness has given us our marching orders.

As I offered myself, Jesus says, so you must now offer yourselves to others. Faithfulness to God meant life didn’t play fair with Jesus. The depth of human evil and selfishness is too great. Faithfulness may mean life won’t play fair with us either.

Yet by God’s grace, we shall be changed, and along with us, the world. “The love of God is broader than the measures of our mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind. But we make this love too narrow by the false limits of our own; and we magnify its strictness with a zeal God will not own.” (ELW # 587)
There is a big difference between the natural human heart and the Divine heart. The heart of God is giving, self-sacrificing and forgiving. It takes an infusion of the Divine heart to turn us into people who rejoice over another person’s good fortune –no matter our own circumstances, no matter whether we are standing at the front or the back of the line.

Proper 18A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

God said to Moses, “…I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt…I am the Lord.” (Exodus 12:12)

Whether or not the gospel sounds like good news depends on your point of view. It certainly did not sound like good news to the Egyptians who lost children and family—not to mention animals and worship places—to God’s unrelenting angel of death. To them the list of ten plagues God inflicted upon their nation read like a list of war crimes. Was it really necessary to inflict such harm? And why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?

This story fills us with questions. Yet in the brutal light of human history this Passover story also rings true. Power is not surrendered without a fight. The struggle for justice always comes at a price.

We ponder, debate, and may even recoil, yet one message is undeniable: God is a liberator. God fights on the side of the oppressed. This Hebrew story of deliverance now stands at the center of the Christian story too. Christ our champion fights to free God’s children from systems of oppression and sin. Christ our reconciler is working to restore human dignity and repair our societies in the image of God’s grace and justice.

In today’s gospel, we heard Jesus’ instructions to resolve conflict when someone sins against you. What about when the sin is ours? What about when pain and brokenness persist for years and even generations? What about when injustice is baked-into everyday ordinary ways of doing business like purchasing a home, getting an education, or finding a job? What’s the process when justice is too long denied as it was for the ancient Israelites?

Systemic racism is like a plague of our own making. The problem is bigger than “a few bad apples.” As actor Will Smith says, “Racism is not worse today –it’s getting filmed.” The sickness runs through the whole tree down to the roots. We must not let our hearts be hardened as Pharaoh’s was.

US District Judge, Carlton Reeves, of the Southern District of Mississippi tells the story of the mistreatment of a black man, Clarence Jamison, at the hands of a white police officer. His account spotlights one of the ways that systemic racism has become baked into our legal system and caused it to fundamentally stray from its core mission of protecting the constitutional rights of all citizens.

Judge Reeves wrote, ‘Clarence Jamison wasn’t jaywalking. That was Michael Brown. He wasn’t outside playing with a toy gun. That was 12-year-old Tamir Rice. He didn’t look like a “suspicious person.” That was Elijah McClain. He wasn’t suspected of “selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.” That was Eric Garner. He wasn’t suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. That was George Floyd. He didn’t look like anyone suspected of a crime. That was Philando Castile and Tony McDade. He wasn’t mentally ill and in need of help. That was Jason Harrison. He wasn’t assisting an autistic patient who had wandered away from a group home. That was Charles Kinsey. He wasn’t walking home from an after-school job. That was 17-year-old James Earl Green. He wasn’t walking back from a restaurant. That was Ben Brown. He wasn’t hanging out on a college campus. That was Phillip Gibbs. He wasn’t standing outside of his apartment. That was Amadou Diallo who was shot 41 times by police. He wasn’t inside his apartment eating ice cream. That was Botham Jean. He wasn’t sleeping in his bed. That was Breonna Taylor. He wasn’t sleeping in his car. That was Rayshard Brooks. He didn’t make an “improper lane change.” That was Sandra Bland. He didn’t have a broken taillight. That was Walter Scott. He wasn’t driving over the speed limit. That was Hannah Fizer. He wasn’t driving under the speed limit. That was Ace Perry.’ (Excerpted from US District Judge Carlton Reeves, Southern District of Mississippi, Jamison v. McClendon, August 4, 2020.)

“No, Clarence Jamison was a Black man driving a Mercedes convertible. As he made his way home to South Carolina from a vacation in Arizona, Jamison was pulled over and subjected to one hundred and ten minutes of an armed police officer badgering him, pressuring him, lying to him, and then searching his car top-to-bottom for drugs.
Nothing was found. Jamison isn’t a drug courier. He’s a welder. Unsatisfied, the officer then brought out a canine to sniff the car. The dog found nothing. So nearly two hours after it started, the officer left Jamison by the side of the road to put his car back together.

Thankfully, Jamison left the stop with his life. Too many others have not. The Constitution says everyone is entitled to equal protection of the law – even at the hands of law enforcement. Over the decades, however, judges have invented a legal doctrine to protect law enforcement officers from having to face any consequences for wrongdoing. The doctrine is called “qualified immunity.” In real life it operates like absolute immunity.” (US District Judge Carlton Reeves, Southern District of Mississippi, Jamison v. McClendon, August 4, 2020.)

When people ask how a police officer can be so calm kneeling on the neck of a dying George Floyd in broad daylight, as bystanders shout at him to get off, and cell phone cameras take video, the answer is qualified immunity. We allow officers of the law to act as police, judge, and executioner with impunity.

As one of my colleagues reflected this week, he considers it a miracle. 12.5 million people stolen from Africa to be slaves in America (nearly two million died before they arrived) and yet, of the 10.7 million Africans who survived, why did so many adopt the religion of their oppressor and become Christians? Could it be they heard the good news the ancient Hebrews heard, that God is a liberator? Did they hear that God was on their side despite whatever their white slave masters said? I wonder, did they understand what would have been unthinkable to their overlords, that Jesus was a man of color like them?
Yes, the bible assures, God hears the cries of the afflicted. God observes the misery of his children. God knows how people of color are suffering. If the good news is to be good news for us, we cannot look away. We must not let our hearts be hardened. We must stand alongside those who are suffering. We must join the fight for justice.

Christ’s mission has become our mission. God called the Christian community into being out of nothing to be healers, reconcilers, and deliverers. At Immanuel, we strive to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace. St. Paul wrote, ‘we are ambassadors for Christ’ called to respond with creativity and urgency giving hope to the hopeless, cultivating trust in the cynical, and attempting to resolve the bitter conflicts that separate us from one another and from God. (2 Cor. 5:20). This is the good fight and the good trouble late Congressmen and Civil Rights hero, John Lewis, spoke of. It is the timeless struggle of God our liberator who seeks, even now, to lead us out together into the promised land of shalom. “Christ our compassion, hope for the journey, bread of compassion, open our eyes. Grant us your vision, set all hearts burning that all creation with you may arise.” (Day of Arising, ELW # 374)

Proper 17A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“The Lord said [to Moses], ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians…’ (Exodus 3:7, 8). God is touched by human suffering and moved to action. This God whose name can be translated “I am who I am,” “I am what I am,” and also “I will be what I will be” can’t be pinned down. God is like the wind, dynamic, ever-changing, and mysterious, a presence in all times and places. And yet this God also waits for us close at hand, attends to us, hidden among us and in nearby things.

I still have a belly ache after watching two weeks of political conventions, layered upon the police shooting of Jacob Blake, and violent vigilante groups. Because I am a person of faith, I am particularly upset at how religion is being used not only to justify our politics but to vilify those we disagree with. If the gospel is in the eye of the beholder it begins to lose all meaning. How are we to discern God’s will for us and our nation against the angry backdrop of competing claims and recriminations we find ourselves in today two months from the presidential election?

I wonder, how did Moses do it? Moses fled to the wilds of the eastern Sinai desert to escape justice. He had just begun to make a new life for himself. He was married. He had meaningful work tending the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro. He started a family. He was setting down roots. He had a belly full of politics already. He grew up in Pharaoh’s court quietly seething at the injustice and oppression of his fellow Israelites.

Moses protested God’s call. It was preposterous. He wasn’t a leader. He wasn’t a public speaker. He stuttered, and if all that were not enough, didn’t God remember he was a murderer on the run. He couldn’t go back to Egypt if he wanted to. It’s true. It would be hard for an independent observer to see what God saw in him. Still, God persisted. God chose Moses to lead the people out of Egypt.

Moses had a decision to make. It was a big decision, one that would change the course of his life, interrupt his family, and put him in harms way. The smart thing might have been to turn away and keep walking.

Moses’ encounter with the living God in that burning bush caught him by surprise. Moses encountered the angel of God, and the God of his ancestors, on his way to work. I wonder, how many times Moses had passed by this blazing bush before he finally saw it? According to Jewish midrash, the bush had stood there burning at the foot of Mt. Sinai for four hundred years already, or ever since the Jewish people became slaves in Egypt.

Moses was just going about his daily routine, like all the rest of us, when he noticed something unusual from the corner of his eye. When he turned aside to see it, he beheld the glory of the living God that is always, already, present in all fullness filling to overflowing all our days and places with the mystery, wonder, and power of grace. When he saw it God told Moses to take off his shoes, because he was standing upon holy ground. (We are ever standing upon holy ground.)

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we must begin our search for answers upon the holy ground God prepares for us in prayer. There –in the corner of your eyes—God is just waiting for us to turn aside to see! God sees your anguish. God has observed your suffering. God is ready to lead us all into a better future regardless of Pharaoh or Caesar. God will point us in the right direction out of the storms of chaos and division.

“We can hope for justice because God Is. We can extend gracious hospitality to the stranger, compassion to the suffering, and friendship no matter what because the God who declared, “I Am” partners with ordinary human beings to do extraordinary things. Moses was full of doubt, but God said I Am. The grammar of this God is action in the present tense, be-ing, [now] and evermore. Humans have the privilege and responsibility to act and be in concert with God.” (Kristin Swenson, Virginia Commonwealth University)

I think this is what Jesus, the incarnation of “I Am,” was trying to tell his disciples when he said he would have to suffer and die –and that they would too. “For those,” he said, “who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

Briefed on God’s grand plan for personal and cosmic transformation, Peter spoke for the disciples and for every Christian ever since when he quietly took Jesus aside and told him, ‘No! There’s got to be some other way.” There has to be an easier way than the way of the cross. It doesn’t make any sense. They’ll kill you, Jesus. They’ll throw your body on the trash heap. Everything you stand for will be forgotten. Everything we’ve worked for will be wasted.

Jesus said, ‘No.’ Jesus says no to us. Just as God gently and persistently said no to Moses. The cross says no. The cross is God’s no to our small self and a pathway to a greater self that includes God and God’s love for the world. The unconditional gift of God’s love is powerful medicine. It comes with a sharp rebuke for the way we live now. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12.2)

In these confusing, conflicted, covid-afflicted days, we, like Moses, discern what is good and acceptable and perfect by turning aside to God in prayer. Standing or kneeling in our socks or bare feet in holy encounter with God we open to God’s love of ourselves and of strangers. Walking in the way of Jesus’ cross, we learn how to be neighbor even to our enemies. We learn where to look for the truth to guide us. Get close, be humble, pay attention to one another.

As Moses learned at the burning bush, and as Jesus revealed by walking the way of the cross, real lives being lived now is our compass. God attends to human suffering. The truth God cares about is revealed in lives people live every day. Injustice reveals itself in suffering. Grace reveals itself in loving. Mercy reveals itself in reconciliation. We know the truth when we see it when our theology and our faith traditions are clouded with divisions because we can read it on people’s faces– people laughing, or crying, or angry, or joyful, or despairing, or hopeful now. Love always points true north. Thus, I’ll move and live and grow in God and God in me. (ELW # 798)

Proper 16A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It looked bad for the Israelites. Once they were welcomed guests. Now they were feared aliens and oppressed slaves. A new king rose up in Egypt who did know Joseph nor remember how he once saved the nation from famine (Exodus 1:8).

Imagine a ruler, wishing to solidify his political base by blaming a scapegoat for problems that plague society. We’ve seen this movie someplace before. In this version, Pharaoh plots to destroy the Israelites, first by forcing them into slave labor, then by ordering that male babies be killed at birth, and when that doesn’t work, finally he commanded the citizens of Egypt to drown male infant Israelites in the Nile.

And that should have been that. And for many, if not most, it was. The suffering and grief must have been enormous. Pharaoh’s persecution of the Israelites went on for years and generations.

But God remembered the promise made to Abraham and Sarah. So, the Israelites thrived despite their oppression. The Spirit of God remained at work. Something Pharaoh forgot became his undoing. Pharaoh targeted men. Yet it was women he should have feared. Specifically, two women named Shiphrah and Puah, lowly midwives. They did not kill the boys as ordered. They refused. They lied to Pharaoh, telling him the Hebrew women give birth too quickly, delivering their babies before they could arrive on the scene. Next, three more women advance the subterfuge each in their own way. Moses’ Hebrew mother, and his sister, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s Egyptian daughter. Separately and together these women plant seeds God will cultivate for the Exodus of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

Each of us has one life. What we choose to do matters. Shiphrah and Puah’s courageous act of civil disobedience changed the course of history. One of the boys they spared will be called Moses and he will lead the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity. I doubt they thought they were changing the course of history, but they were. Just by being faithful, by following the dictates of their hearts, by heeding the call of conscience, they played a decisive role in what would be bound and what was set loose upon the world. (David Lose, The Butterfly Effect, Working Preacher, 8/14/11)

This is the terrifying good news in our scripture today. Your life, and what you do with it matters. It matters forever. Shiphrah and Puah help us to see what Jesus meant when he told Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 16:19A). In Jesus’ time, rabbis spoke of this power to “bind” the law by deciding which commandment was applicable to a particular situation, and they cut “loose” the law when they determined that a word of scripture was not applicable under certain specific circumstances.

You may think it unwise, but God entrusts each of us with lots of keys. The keys of discernment, of judgement, and of choice open possibilities and foreclose others. Your acts of mercy, forgiveness, kindness, and love will bind humanity to certain indelible truths we call ‘the past,’ and free humankind to explore vast new horizons we call ‘the future.’

Ordinary acts of conscience and courage have extraordinary consequences. Author Andy Andrews wrote a little book years ago called, The Butterfly Effect, (2009, Simple Truths, LLC, pp. 90-99) in which he tells the story of another man named Moses, and his wife Susan, who lived in Missouri, a slave state, during the Civil War. They were slave owners but decided they didn’t believe in slavery. This proved to be a problem for a band of raiders who terrorized the area by destroying property, burning and killing. “And sure enough, one cold January night, they rode through Moses’ and Susan’s farm. The outlaws burned the barn, shot several people, and dragged off the slave woman named Mary Washington who refused to let go of her infant son, George. Mary Washington had become Susan’s best friend and with his wife distraught, Moses sent word out through neighbors and towns and two days later managed to secure a meeting with the bandits” (Andrews, p. 94).

On a black horse, Moses rode several hours north to a crossroads in Kansas. There, at the appointed time, in the middle of the night, he met four of the raiders. “They were on horseback, carrying torches, and flour sacks tied over their heads with holes cut out for their eyes. There, Moses traded the only horse he had left on his farm for what they threw him in a dirty burlap bag” (Andrews, p. 95). As they rode off, Moses fell to his knees and pulled from the bag a cold … naked … almost dead … baby boy.

Covering him with his own clothes and relying on the warmth from his own body, Moses turned and walked that baby back home. He promised he would educate the boy to honor his mother, whom they knew was already dead. He gave that baby his name: George Washington Carver. Yes, that George Washington Carver. According to Andrews, there are currently 266 things he developed from the peanut, and 288 things he developed from the sweet potato that we still use today (Andrews, p. 86-87).
When young George was a 19-year-old student at Iowa State University, he would befriend another boy, the son of one of his professors, whose name was Henry Wallace.

George inspired Henry with a love of plants and a vision for what they could do for humanity. Wallace would grow up to become Vice-President of the United States during Franklin Roosevelt’s second term from 1941-1945. Wallace “…used the power of that office to create a station in Mexico whose sole purpose was to hybridize corn and wheat for arid climates. Wallace hired a young man named Norman Borlaug to run it” (Andrews, pp. 78-79).

Norman Borlaug went on to win the Nobel Prize and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He developed seeds that flourished in dry conditions where none thrived before, from Western Africa to our own desert Southwest, from South and Central America, to the plains of Siberia, and across Europe and Asia. “Through the years, it has now been calculated that Norman Borlaug’s work saved from famine more than two billion lives” (Andrews, p. 74).

And so, for the second time in human history, a man named Moses saved the lives of a multitude as numerous as stars in the sky, or grains of sand upon the seashore, just by doing what he knew was right.

Throughout the Bible, writers and prophets have given people hope by revealing God’s deepest intention not just to save the world but also to heal it. In fact, “healing” and “saving” are both meanings contained in the Greek word sozo that appears dozens of times in original New Testament manuscripts but is usually translated as only “save.” With both meanings of sozo in mind, how might we be called right now to imagine a new just and multiracial society? How might we conceive to live in such a way as to restore the earth rather than destroy it?

The apostle Paul wrote, “I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). Each of us is endowed with gifts of the spirit, keys to awakening the prophetic imagination. These are the keys to our shared future. Every single thing you do matters. You have within you the power to re-shape the world. Just by choosing kindness, mercy, justice, courage and conscience, we are making the whole world better for everyone and for all those who follow.

Proper 15A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

They lied, conspired, and hid their crime telling Jacob, their father, Joseph was dead. ‘Probably he was killed by a wild animal,’ they said (Genesis 37:33). No one would blame him for hating his brothers. No one could expect him to forgive them. Yet, as we read, Joseph chose love and forgiveness. His brothers hated and despised him. They trapped and sold him. Yet, when the tables were turned and Joseph had the power to decide if they lived or died, he chose life. He chose reconciliation. He chose mercy. Joseph was a gambler. He dared hope relationship with his brothers could change and the future become better than the past.

Joseph’s great gamble resembles the one God makes with each of us. God’s gamble goes by many names: resurrection, transformation, incarnation. These words are all grounded in love. God has placed a bet on you. At great expense God risked everything for the possibility of relationship with you. God dares to hope we can be changed, and our future become better than our past. God dreams of who we might become when finally grace dwells in us as it did in Joseph. Who are the you God created you to be?

I want to suggest this morning at least part of the answer is you and I become more human the closer we move toward God. You may protest. Being human is the one thing I’m already pretty good at. I mean, do I have any choice? We’re all creatures of the animal kingdom. We are finite and fallible. As Martin Luther might say, ‘This is most certainly true.’ Yet it is also true that you are created in the likeness and image of God. In you all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. God’s gamble on you makes a difference. The divine spark kindles fire within our better qualities. The Holy Spirit activates what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” (Lincoln, 1st Inaugural Address).

I mention this because I believe Jesus shows us how to be more human in our extraordinary gospel reading today. Jesus gets schooled by a nameless Canaanite woman. Her people are the ancient enemies of Israel. Yet, in an amazing role reversal, this time, Jesus becomes the pupil not the teacher. The disciples beg Jesus to send her away. He insulted her, called her a dog, and declared he’s not here for her and her kind.

It’s not an excuse, but here we see Jesus working out the meaning of the divine vocation the Father has given him while on vacation. For the past three Sundays, we’ve seen Jesus in retreat. After the death of John the Baptist he sailed across the Sea but the people followed him along the shore. After feeding and caring for them, Jesus sent the crowds away and walked up a nearby mountain to pray while the disciples headed out across the Sea of Galilee by boat.

And today we find Jesus 70 miles further north, in the district of Tyre and Sidon, cities of Lebanon. He is at least 50 miles north of the border. He intentionally went where no self-respecting Jewish person would go. He wanted privacy to prepare himself and the disciples for what was coming next in Jerusalem. Yet, even here, news of his ministry had spread. He was recognized on sight.

Matthew uses the word “great” 20 times, but only once in connection to faith. Ultimately, Jesus commended this Canaanite woman whom he called a dog for her great faith.
Matthew goes out of his way to tell us she was a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28). The label is strange. In Jesus’ lifetime, nobody was still called a “Canaanite.” It was part of ancient history even then. The region of the Canaanites no longer existed on the map. It would be as if Matthew were calling New York City by its old name New Amsterdam! Matthew calls her a “Canaanite” on purpose: it meant that she is not only an outsider, but she is part of an enemy people.

Love your enemies, Jesus said. But it’s never easy, not even for Jesus. Our gospel today challenges us to look beyond artificial boundaries and borders of ethnicity, nation, and creed that naturally divide people into insiders and outsiders –making us feel safe with some people and afraid of others. Often in scripture, it is the outsider who turns out to be the true insider. One of the defining characteristics of grace is that we are surprised to see it where we found it. Even Jesus had to grow his way into a more comprehensive, all-inclusive understanding of God’s generosity.

We say we believe Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Yet we rarely affirm this in practice. Upsetting this delicate balance in favor of the divine empties ourselves and creation of its inherent value. When we dehumanize Jesus, it is not surprising we can so easily begin to dehumanize others and dishonor ourselves.
So just look how Jesus has shown us to become more faithful and more human! Jesus changes. Jesus listens. Jesus learns even from his enemies. He is open to grace even when it’s not on his agenda. Jesus has shown us that loving others begins with loving yourself the way that God does, all the way down. This is God’s extravagant gamble. For a great price, God invested the divine spark within you. In you—little old you—finite and fallible you in the flesh.

As you channel surf and scroll through all the bad news, seemingly unable to stop or to look away, as you endure these endless Covid days, no one would blame you for feeling overwhelmed. No one has the right to expect you to be hopeful. That’s when I’m most grateful we have a savior in Christ Jesus who knows what despair and human limitations are like. We have the gift of grace to draw upon and give us strength. While the world weighs us down, we have the breath of the Holy Spirit to lift us up. When the body politic is infected we have the wisdom of God to make us healthy and whole again. Like Joseph of old, the grace of God enables us to choose life and to keep choosing it. By grace, we change, we listen, we learn. We break through barriers of our prejudice. We widen the circle of compassion. We learn to be more human and more humane. ‘May the healer of our every ill, our light of each tomorrow, give you peace beyond your fear, and hope beyond your sorrow.’ (ELW # 612)

Proper 12A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

You’ve heard of United States Representative, civil rights leader, and conscience of the Congress, the late John Lewis, and of Bloody Sunday, the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama on March 7, 1965 which lead to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. No doubt you will have also heard of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery bus boycott which occurred ten years before on December 5, 1955 that gave rise to the American civil rights movement.

But today, I want to tell you a less familiar story from 12 years before in 1942, about the church, racial reconciliation, and the struggle for justice in Americus, Georgia, a town less than 200 miles from Selma and Montgomery. It’s the story of Clarence Jordan and Koinonia farm where blacks and whites lived together and held property in common in what Jordan called an experiment in Christian community. It was fire-bombed, shot at, and boycotted by its Christian neighbors. The great civil rights leader, Andrew Young, said he and other leaders had known about Koinonia farm but never visited because if was considered too dangerous.

Clarence Jordan was a white man. He looked like Marcus Welby and Atticus Finch rolled into one if they had been an agriculturalist and bible scholar rather than a doctor and a lawyer. His home-spun translation of the New Testament is called the Cotton Patch Gospel. He was and is the spiritual father of Habitat for Humanity. Koinonia farm still exists to this day and its work continues.

One day, a neighbor and a deacon from the local Baptist church who led the effort to have Clarence expelled from the congregation for living with black people, drove out to the farm a few days after the vote filled with remorse for what he’d done. He couldn’t sleep for hearing that old hymn play over and over in his head, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Yes, he confessed. He knew that he had been there. In fact, he had led the effort. He told Clarence he planned to resign from the church too. Clarence told him no. It was alright. He didn’t have to do that. “Instead,” he said, “I want you to go back to church and so live as to get kicked out.”

What might happen if we were to so live the gospel? How many places might we be kicked out of? Clarence Jordan’s advice to his neighbor and brother in Christ is a yard stick any of us can use to take the measure of our faith and a good starting point from which to pick up the thread connecting the five parables of Jesus that Matthew presented us with today.

Jesus said, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). The treasures of our tradition are familiar, reliable, trustworthy, and wise. Yet also, by definition, they cannot be enough to tell us always what to do. What is most loving? Where does the Spirit lead? We must furnish the final answer. It’s up to you to decide.
Matthew shows us what it means to live as a person of faith serving the God of our ancestors who is always, already, working within each situation with crazy abundance sowing seeds of grace everywhere hidden in plain sight.

Like some display of fireworks, these five parables seem to point in every direction at once. Each is a work of art. Evocative, memorable, captivating, the meaning of a parable is difficult to put into words. Jesus apparently taught in parables. There is nothing like them in the Hebrew bible. The word means “something cast aside.” They are like something you only just see from the corner of your eye.

Jesus’ parables lead us somewhere new in our understanding. Their content is drawn from everyday life. Parables address themselves to people both inside and outside religion, people of faith and of no faith, to everyone confronting the same basic questions of life.

Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a noxious weed giving shelter to flocking birds.’ The kingdom of heaven is like leavening yeast –which you’ll be surprised to know likely made our ancestors in faith scrunch their mouths into yuck-faces. Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure you’d be willing to steal for. And also, the kingdom of heaven is like a fine pearl you’d give literally everything to possess. And finally, the kingdom of heaven is an incredibly diverse community—like Koinonia farm—in which angels are working to sift out the bad and to keep the good.

The parables of Jesus turn us upside down and inside out. Pieced together, they form a treasure map. An ‘X’ marks the spot. Follow me, Jesus says. Follow the way of the cross. Like the cross, the parables of Jesus, point us toward the kingdom of heaven that is already here but hidden. Our search for treasure most likely leads, not to exotic lands, but next door, or across the street, into the next cubicle, or into conversation with a stranger. It may cause us so to live as to get ourselves kicked out of many fine respectable places.

Clarence Jordan believed “the principal problem of modern Christians was that they wanted God to conform to their agenda—to bless their endeavors and goals. Clarence said that was backwards. God has an agenda and wants God’s people to learn what it is and to become active participants in that agenda.” (Cotton Patch Gospel: Matthew and John.)

If ever there was a Christian who lived on the road mapped out by the gospel it was St. Paul. Brutal treatment, constant harassment, and strong opposition greeted him in nearly every city he visited (1 Thess. 2:2, 2 Cor. 7:5). The book of Acts records at least eight murder attempts on Paul’s life. In Paul’s own words, he compared himself and the first apostles to sheep headed to a slaughter; people in last place; public spectacles; dishonored fools; vagrants who were hungry, thirsty, homeless, and in rags; and even, “the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world (1 Cor. 4:8-13). Therefore we have confidence in Paul’s life-tested assurance that nothing, “[not] death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Perhaps the most important word in all the parables is the first one: ‘Listen’. Hear now what God is saying so that the strength to endure may take hold in you, so that joy in God’s presence may shield you, and the abundant blessings of grace may fill you to overflowing with all the ordinary, wonderful treasures God has hidden around you.