Tag Archive for: Debi Thomas

Proper 15C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

What’s up with these readings?

Jeremiah declared, “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). Dear church what rocks are we willing to allow God’s “hammer” to shatter in our lives? Will we allow God’s hammering to reshape us from a fear-based life into a love-based life? Are we open to God breaking our hearts with compassion so we can better welcome the stranger, the refugee, the immigrant, and the exile? Are we ready, in this Church, the ELCA, to make room in ourselves to be more diverse and inclusive (as voting members at this week’s Churchwide Assembly made so evidently clear is urgent?)

At his birth, an angelic multitude of the heavenly host sang ‘Peace be upon earth!’ Jesus declared “Peace I leave with you.”  “My peace I give to you.”  Every Sunday we share this peace with each other. “The peace of the Lord be with you.” “And also with you.” Ours is a religion of peace-making, peace-loving, and peace-keeping” (Debie Thomas, Disturbing the Peace, Journey with Jesus, 8/11/19).  So, what does he mean, saying, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three” (Luke 12:49, 51). (Debi Thomas)

Aren’t we tired of all the tension, exhausted by all the violence, and threats of violence? These readings only seem to add fuel to the fire. The narratives being hurled as weapons by political parties are getting people killed. Suddenly, a legal search is grounds for civil war? This week, an Ohio man, fueled by such lies, was killed after breaking into an FBI office in search of vengeance. It’s frightening how ready some people are to jump toward violence. We need a pathway to peace, and we need it now.

Our gospel today is such a pathway. Yet, Jesus warns, the answer to our prayers for peace may not come easily. It won’t come with a snap of our fingers. “These texts invite us — or no, they compel us — to move beyond soft, saccharine Christianity, and wrestle with the hard, high costs of discipleship….It’s not Jesus’s desire or purpose to set fathers against sons or mothers against daughters.  It’s certainly not his will that we stir up conflict for conflict’s sake, or use his words to justify violence or war.  But his words are a necessary reminder that the peace Jesus offers us is not the fake peace of denial, dishonesty, and harmful accommodation. His is a holistic, truth-telling, disinfecting peace. The kind of deep, life-changing peace that doesn’t hesitate to break in order to mend, and cut in order to heal.  Jesus will name realities we don’t want named. He will upset hierarchies we’d rather keep intact. He will expose the lies we tell ourselves out of cowardice, laziness, or obstinacy. And he will disrupt all dynamics in our relationships with ourselves and with each other that keep us from wholeness and holiness.  This is not because Jesus wants us to suffer.  It’s because he knows that real peace is worth fighting for” (Thomas).

Perhaps, this gospel is a far cry from the one we expected.  This is more than we bargained for.  We come to church seeking a place of comfort and quiet consolation. Yet, we must know that when we reach to God to heal us sometimes the medicine will bite.  The gifts of God grace given become in us seeds of mission and discipleship.

God wields a hammer in us by our baptism into Christ. God engages a battle within us in the sacred food we eat at the table.  In ways too wonderful and mysterious, grace transforms and reshapes us, like a hammer breaking stone.  Baptism and eucharist kindle a fire with in us to burn down all our straw-stuffed idols. God’s grace brings both destruction and creation.  Grace brings community and division. God’s Peace includes a disturbance of the peace.  In AA they say that the truth will set you free, but first it might make you miserable.

See what power God wields with the hammer of grace. It is power, not of compulsion, but persuasion. It aims, not to destroy, but to build up. It seeks, not vengeance, but healing. It is power, not for power’s sake, but for love. It is power to resist and to redeem. It is the power of restorative justice. It is power to transform our enemies into allies and friends.

The hammer of grace is not like that of a bullet or a bomb, which only have power to destroy. But like water, the power of grace also gives life. Water has power to shape mountains and toss boulders. Water also renews, refreshes, and cleanses us. Water makes all life possible. Water is persistent, unfailing, untiring, and endlessly persuasive. Water always wins in the end.  We must be like water.

Do not be afraid to pick up this hammer. Let your life go with this flow. In this mighty struggle, know this, you are not alone but are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who cheer for you now from the sidelines. Hebrews chapter 11 is sometimes called the ‘Faith Hall of Fame.’ I confess I find it a bit gruesome, like a Christian Game of Thrones. By faith the saints of God conquered kingdoms, shut the mouths of Lions, and quenched the fury of flames. Many endured torture. They faced jeers and flogging. They were chained and put into prisons.  They were stoned; sawed in half; and died by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, and mistreated –the world was not worthy of them.  They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and in holes in the ground.  They were all commended for their faith but none of them received what had been promised” (Hebrews 11:35-39).  They wielded the hammer of faith.  Like a mighty river their lives bequeathed to us a legacy of compassion, mercy, and prosperity more firmly rooted in justice and shalom.

Rather than keep the peace that is no peace, grace teaches us the proper use of our anger to confront things that are not right and to set about making them better. Speak the truth in love. Confront bigotry with dignity. Overcome ignorance with learning.  Seek wisdom. Speak the truth as you know it, and prayerfully listen. Strive to listen more than you speak.

In this way we keep a song in our hearts and the peace of God that surpasses all understanding in our minds. We dwell in the shelter of our Lord while we strive for the common good. We become more open to one another and to all strangers as though they were the Lord Christ himself, for indeed, that is who they are.  Of course, we will not always be successful. But it is enough to know that in wielding the hammer of loving grace, we share more fully in the divine life at work within us and throughout the world.

Third Sunday of Lent

Cycle C

“Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live” says the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 55:3).  Could God really use this crap, our shame, and all we hate in ourselves and our enemies, to nurture lives that flourish and grow?

Sadly, today’s gospel has a tragic history of being used as a weapon against Jews who fail to accept Jesus — which has led to all sorts of anti-Semitic hatred and violence propagated by so-called “turn or burn” Christians. How tempting it is to embrace an interpretation of scripture that does not implicate nor incriminate ourselves?  But, of course, if this be the case then it cannot be the Christian gospel.

Our reading is ripped from ancient headlines. Pontius Pilate had Galilean pilgrims killed in the Temple courtyard, and their blood mixed (either figuratively or actually) with ritual sacrificial blood there, a shocking defilement of both those poor Jews and the Temple itself.  Hated Pilate was so brutal that the emperor Tiberius removed him from office and recalled him to Rome to be put on trial for a genocidal attack on a Samaritan village.

The second bit of breaking news, the tragic tower collapse which killed 18 people, might have been related to Pilate’s great public works project at the time — the construction of a new aqueduct. Pilate had pillaged Jerusalem’s treasury to build it and had (mostly likely) used slave labor to make it happen. The people in Jerusalem rioted against him. And some historians have suggested that the tower collapse may have been an act of sabotage either by Pilate (to keep the workers in line) or angry Jews attempting to stop the entire thing (in which case, it would have involved political suicide).  (Diana Butler Bass, “Graveyard or Vineyard,” Sunday Musings, 3/19/22)

Jesus addressed an audience wondering aloud about whether the victim’s suffering might have been deserved. Did they deserve to die? Was God punishing them for their misdeeds? Does God bang the faithful in the head with tragedies, but never more than they can handle? If God is good, then why do bad things happen to good people?

Such timeless questions find voice in us all at some point or other. It’s only natural when we are hurting to ask God why? The little child we always carry in us supposes the answer that explains every public event must be personal. Did I cause this because I was bad? No. No one is more or less of an offender than anyone else who dies tragically. “No one, in this sense, deserved to die. People just die, especially people held in thrall by violent kingdoms of this world. Because that’s what every Rome in human history always does — kills in order to survive. And Jesus surely doesn’t desire revenge.”

Jesus reframes the question. Poet and healer Pádraig Ó Tuama describes the Buddhist concept of “mu,” or un-asking. If someone asks a question that’s too small, flat, or confining, Ó Tuama writes, you can answer with this word mu, which means, “Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked.” (Pádraig Ó Tuama, In the Shelter: Finding Welcome in the Here and Now). Stop. Take a beat. Catch your breath. Stop your mind, your prayers of endless words, and listen. “Mu.” There is a better question, bigger, broader, less afraid, more insightful. (Debi Thomas, “What Are You Asking?” Journey with Jesus, 3/13/22)

What could it mean to turn from, or “repent” from collaborating with the violence of empire?  “Could we repent of giving in to kingdoms built on injustice, repent of blaming victims for their suffering, and repent of believing that the murderous power of empire is the only power. But how? …Can we resist empire without giving into violence for violence?” (Butler Bass) Mu. Answering these bigger questions, Jesus told a story to contrast the murderous reign of Pilate with a garden containing a certain unfruitful fig tree. The owner orders the gardener to cut it down. But instead of taking an ax to the tree, the gardener begs, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down” (Luke 13:8-9).

Did you know that trees have legal rights in Judaism? That’s right — it is called orlah and it forbids eating the fruit of newly planted trees during their first three years of life. The book of Leviticus commands any fruit in the first three years is forbidden; any gleaned on the fourth year shall be a gift to God, and only in the fifth year may you eat the fruit of the tree (19:23-25). “The landowner isn’t an angry God. The landowner is Caesar. The landowner is Herod. The landowner is Pilate. The landowner is all these murderers — those who destroy people and trees — the breakers of the Law, profiteers at the expense of God’s creation. (Butler Bass)

Mu. Ask a better question. “In what ways am I like the absentee landowner, standing apart from where life and death actually happen?  How am I refusing to get my hands dirty? Where in my life — or in the lives of others — have I prematurely called it quits, saying, “There’s no life here worth cultivating.  Cut it down.” (Thomas)

In what ways am I like the gardener?  Where in my life am I willing to accept Jesus’s invitation to go elbow-deep into the muck and manure? Am I brave enough to sacrifice time, effort, love, and hope into this tree — this relationship, this cause, this tragedy, this injustice — with no guarantee of a fruitful outcome?  (Thomas)

In what ways am I like the fig tree?  Un-enlivened? Un-nourished? Unable or unwilling to nourish others?  Ignored or dismissed?  What kinds of tending would it take to bring me back to life?  Am I willing to receive such intimate, consequential care?  Will I consent to change?  Have I forgotten that the same patient God who gives me another year to thrive will also someday call me to account?” (Thomas)

Mu. Repent –turn around. See what I have shown you. Listen to what I am trying to tell you. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2). See, I have prepared for you a new mind, and a new heart, and new way to live with each other, the way of abundance to enjoy the fruit of the garden I have made for you.

Epiphany 7C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

What do you see when you think of God? An old man seated on a throne?  A brilliant light? Beauty in the world? Perhaps you picture the famous 15th century icon by Andrei Rublev of the Holy Trinity? Three figures: Father, Son and Holy Spirit seated around a table inviting you to join them? Today’s scripture confronts us with a startling image with power to make you sit up in bed from a sound sleep. Look for God, Jesus says, in the face of your enemy.

“I say to you…Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). Don’t do to others as they do to you but do to them as you would have them do. Not only Jesus but also the Psalmist exhorts us to “refrain from anger, and forsake wrath,” because “fretting” over evil only leads to more evil. (Psalm 37:8). In our first reading too, when the tables are turned and Joseph holds power over his brothers who faked his death and sold him into slavery, he says to them: “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”

Love of enemies may be the hardest of Jesus’ commandments, but it hardly comes as a surprise. Yes, Christianity insists on forgiveness. Yet I think forgiveness is something about which we are often confused. Forgiveness is not denial. Forgiveness isn’t a detour or a shortcut.  Forgiveness is not instantaneous. Forgiveness ideally leads to reconciliation and restoration of relationship, but not always. Forgiveness is necessary and life-giving for us when reconciliation is not possible or even desirable.

The sainted Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote, “We can’t create a world without pain or loss or conflict or hurt feelings, but we can create a world of forgiveness. We can create a world of forgiveness that allows us to heal from those losses and pain and repair our relationships” (Desmond Tutu & Mpho Tutu. “The Book of Forgiving,” p. 224). The architect of the Truth and Reconciliation Process in South Africa knew about forgiveness.

Tutu said forgiveness begins with telling our story and in naming the hurt. “There is no way of living with other people without, at some point, being hurt… The response to hurt is universal.  Each of us will experience sadness, pain, anger, or shame. What so often happens is we step unaware into the revenge cycle… If we cannot admit our own woundedness, we cannot see the other as a wounded person who harmed us out of ignorance. We must reject our common humanity” (Desmond Tutu, The Book of Forgiving, pp. 49-51). When we tell our stories and name our hurt, we become able to face our suffering. When we face into and accept our pain, we start to recognize that we don’t have to stay stuck in our story.  In the way of the cross, Jesus has shown us how to metabolize our hurts and suffering to strengthen the bond of connection and community among us.

In loving the enemy what we discover is that forgiveness is a pathway to our own healing and liberation. In her popular memoir, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes that withholding forgiveness is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die. Forgiveness is choosing to live with love instead of resentment. And something else, forgiveness builds trust. Our faithful effort to love the enemy and to forgive has consequences for people and lives surrounding us which can be measured in neighborliness, in respectfulness, and in safety.  I believe Immanuel’s decades-long ministries with young families and youth in which strangers become neighbors, allies, and friends has strengthened bonds of community in Edgewater in ways people can feel just walking down the street or lingering in the park. It has done this even as American culture has become dominated by a climate of fear which distorts the human faces in front of us into monsters, magnifies our own pain, and obstructs that of others.

Democracy is a way of life built on respect for the dignity of each individual. Dignity and respect cannot be taken for granted.  It must be taught. It must be modeled.  It is the product of a life-long commitment to love the neighbor, including our enemies. It is fruit which cannot be grown and tasted without forgiveness. Our secular democracy is faltering. It needs our help and faithfulness. Let your heart and mind be so transformed in Christ Jesus that even strangers around you become neighbors, allies, and friends. Bonds of social trust are extended and strengthened.

Imagine if neighborhood watch programs no longer emphasized surveillance and reporting of suspicious activities to the police but focused on joint neighborhood activities and mutual assistance instead. Imagine a future in which crime rates are reduced. Imagine prisons without bars, chains, or locks. Imagine a criminal justice system that allows inmates to leave for work or school. It sounds too good to be true—doesn’t it?  Yet there is such a place on earth right now where these things are a daily reality.

In the 1970’s U.S., policymakers got “tough on crime” and declared a War on Drugs. “They cemented excessive punishment in a system that has devastated Black and brown communities with mass incarceration.” Since then, the U.S. prison population has grown tenfold to 2 million people. Meanwhile, Finland has one of the lowest prison populations in the world — the number hovers around 3,000 — and one-third of its prisons operate as open—without bars or locks. (Natalie Moore, “How Finland is Reimagining Incarceration,” WBEZ, 11/15/21)

The love we learn here, your acts of faith and discipleship, can have a profound impact on the wider community. We are not made for evil but for goodness. “God is always and everywhere in the business of taking the worst things that happen to us, and going to work on them for the purposes of multiplying wholeness and blessing.  Because God is in the story, we can hope for the resurrection of all things… As Jesus promises his listeners, the measure we give will be given back to us: “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over” (Luke 6:38).  Because God loves us, we don’t have to forgive out of scarcity. We can forgive out of God’s amazing abundance” (Debi Thomas, “The Work of Forgiveness,” Journey with Jesus 2/13/22).

“The work of forgiveness is some of the hardest work we can do in this world.  It is also some of the most important work we can do in this world.  So.  May we stop drinking the poison of incivility and bitterness.  May we glimpse the “better selves” that reside within the people who do us harm.  May we rise.  And may we taste the full measure of the freedom that awaits us when we choose to forgive.” (Thomas)

Epiphany 6C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

On the eastern plains of Colorado on I-76 from Big Springs Nebraska to Denver the earth stretches out over a wide horizon.  Before seeing any water, you always know if and where there is a river from miles away, an irregular line of trees gives it away.  Mostly they are cottonwood trees which can grow three times the size of a Chicago three-flat. They thrive there despite less than 15 inches of annual rainfall because as Jeremiah described, ‘they are trees planted by water, sending out roots by the stream. They do not fear when heat comes, and their leaves stay green; even in the year of drought they are not anxious, and do not cease to flourish and grow’ (Jeremiah 17:8).

Jesus told the people how to thrive like those trees in the sermon on the plain in our Gospel today.  In a riddle of words that don’t seem to compute Jesus said, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, sad, and expendable.  Woe to you who are rich, full, happy, and popular.’ Did you just say word of God, word of life? What’s Jesus up to? Where did he get this?  What’s he saying? You won’t find a teaching like this in the Hebrew bible nor in the literature of ancient Greece. Jesus’ sermon on the plain is the first time in Jewish religious literature that the poor are called the blessed (Hengel, Property) [p.76].  In Jesus day, ‘The blessed ones,’ referred to Greek gods who, according to legend, possessed a life beyond all cares, labors, and death—the very opposite of the earth’s poor.

As Martin Luther loved to say, ‘what does this mean?’ Should we who are rich, full, happy, or popular wallow in guilt or get defensive? Should we romanticize poverty? Avoid happiness? Thanks be to God. No. For proof, just look at Jesus in today’s gospel. He is alleviating suffering in every way possible. No. Pain in and of itself is neither holy nor redemptive to Christians. Jesus, in fact, dispenses healing, abundance, liberation, and joy everywhere he goes. Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez once clarified, “God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will” (“Song and Deliverance,” in Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, 1991).

Notice too, Jesus’s sermon isn’t sorting people into categories of good and bad. Every blessing and every woe apply to every person.  As if to say: this is the human pattern.  This is where we all live. This is how world works. “We invite blessing every time we find ourselves empty and yearning for God, and we invite woe every time we retreat into smug and thoughtless self-satisfaction.  When I am “full” of anything but God, God “empties” me.  Not as punishment, but as grace.  Not as condemnation, but as loving reorientation.  When I am bereft, vulnerable, and empty in the world’s eyes, God blesses me with the fullness of divine mercy and kindness….in the divine economy, we are, all of us, on one level.  Blessed and woeful. Saint and sinner.” (Debi Thomas, “Leveled,” Journey with Jesus, 2/06/22) Beautiful and broken sharing the world together.

We are “like trees planted beside streams of water” (Psalm 1:3). Rather than posturing and pretending to be a storehouse of blessing, God calls us and the church to be a channel of blessing.  Even though great wealth might pass through, a channel remains poor. Even the mightiest river must constantly empty out.  St. Paul wrote, “though [Jesus] was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. [Jesus] humbled himself…to the point of death, even to death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8).

This is gospel medicine. This is how we put down roots that find water in a thirsty land. Not by an act of will, nor by an acquired skill, this is not a self-help program. It is power perfected in weakness (1 Cor. 12:9). It costs nothing and yet requires everything. How well might Jesus’ advice work when applied to your life—or to mine? There’s an old saying, ‘if it won’t preach beside a hospital bed or in a nursing home then it is not the gospel.’ Does Jesus sermon preach in even the most desperate of human predicaments? How might we apply Jesus’ sermon to the perennial problem of addiction, for example? I suspect each of us doesn’t need to reach very far into our family tree or search very long among friends and colleagues to encounter stories of addiction. Lives cut short, families rent apart, dreams lost, people hurt. My own extended family is haunted by stories of addiction.

When Grandpa Louis came to visit, he let me drive his truck. That was quite a thrill for a nine-year-old, but nothing out of the ordinary for a retired farmer like him who learned to handle heavy equipment from childhood.  On his 53rd birthday the whole family climbed in the car to picnic on top of Buckhorn Mountain. The scenery was inspiring. The conversation was warm.  Two weeks later he died a massive heart attack in a janitor’s closet where he worked.  My grandpa was an alcoholic.

And I didn’t know Uncle Roger very well but, I remember, he gave me my first beer.  I was five or six. Two sips later my whole face froze in an expression of bitterness at that awful taste. It may be what prevented me from drinking until college. Uncle Roger was the baby in a family of eleven boys and girls. He was the last one to work the family farm before it was sold but the first one to die.  He was 49.  My Uncle Roger was an alcoholic.

There are many ways for addiction to seize us, beyond drugs or alcohol.  There are people like Doris (not her real name) who leads an active and successful life.  She’s popular and an effective businesswoman.  Happy on the outside, secretly she hates herself because she cannot control her weight.  She is addicted to eating. Then there is Jim, a man of moderation in all things except his work.  Addicted to his own sense of responsibility and need to perform. He is recovering from a heart attack and his family hopes he will slow down.  He doubts that he can.

Addiction forges an unbreakable vice which only gets tighter and tighter until it breaks us. The harder we try the worse it gets.  Yet it is possible to recover. There is hope even after rock bottom. Once we have exhausted our strength and are empty that we can be filled. We don’t have to be like my Grandpa Louis or my uncle Roger. We can get help. Part of the genius of AA is knowing that God does not care what name you call them—just call them. Call on your higher power to draw life and strength from the river of God’s grace to flourish and be blessed again like a tree.

Jesus’ sermon conjures an image of a life that does not seem at first to compute. We only glimpse it before it evaporates faster than spit on an Arizona sidewalk. The preacher, Frederick Buechner writes this: “The world says, ‘Mind your own business,’ and Jesus says, ‘There is no such thing as your own business.’ The world says, ‘Follow the wisest course and be a success,’ and Jesus says, ‘Follow me and be crucified.’ The world says, ‘Drive carefully — the life you save may be your own’ — and Jesus says, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’ The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’ In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.” (Thomas)

“This is not prosperity theology. This is not “blessing” as health, wealth, and happiness. This is a teaching so costly, most of us will do anything to domesticate it. Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, sad, and expendable. Why? Because you have everything to look forward to. Because the Kingdom of God is yours.  Because Jesus came, and comes still, to fill the empty-handed with good things. May the God who gives and takes away, offers comfort and challenge, grant us the grace to sit with woe, and learn the meaning of blessing.” (Thomas) The psalmist said, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

Epiphany 5C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

In Carl Reiner’s 1977 film, O God, the lead character, played by John Denver, slowly drives past a ringing phone booth in his ugly, orange-colored AMC Pacer.  He stops, backs up, and answers the phone.  It’s God of course –played by George Burns—whom we suddenly see in the phone booth next to him dressed in khakis and a pith helmet.  God just called to talk before leaving on safari.

John Denver thinks he must be going crazy, of course. It’s an in-your-face, God will not be denied, call story to rival the one we have today from Isaiah in the temple of God, or Paul on the Damascus Road, or Peter, James, and John beside the Sea of Galilee. What’s your call story?  It’s a question every pastor hears again and again. I’ve heard quite a few. They seldom include such cinematic visions. Like you, pastors don’t see flying seraphs when we pray or receive absolution via tongs and live coals. If God were to appear to you in such dramatic fashion, would you respond with gratitude, or, like John Denver, with fear for our mental health? Like Isaiah, Paul, and Peter might you be overwhelmed with unworthiness at standing in the presence of God?

It is difficult to imagine such dramatic call stories, and yet I wonder, why are you here? Why have you tuned in on YouTube or Facebook?  Whether you have been coming here to Immanuel for three weeks or sixty years, whether this is your very first time, or the first time in a long time, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest you were called.  Called, prompted, urged, provoked, invited, cajoled, or bribed, each of us is somehow or other drawn here by the Divine lure of the Spirit. We are drawn together like a miraculous catch of fish.  Like fish out of water, we are lifted into a life we could not have imagined or nor sustained by ourselves.

As the sun rose over the Sea, Peter and his helpers, James, and John, were simple fisherman.  They lived their lives moving between ship and shore following the feeding rhythms of fish.  Peter was a husband, a homeowner, a businessman, and a resident of Capernaum in Galilee.  When he returned to shore, he would also become the first member of Christ’s church, a fisher for people (Luke 5:11).

Each of us, in our own way, is called to leave the shallow comforts of the familiar and put out into the deep water.  Much of what is called Christianity today is shallow. It may have more to do with keeping the peace, feathering our nests, or avoiding treading too deeply into matters of injustice, systematic racism, xenophobia, fear mongering, deathly materialism, and ecological ruin. Religion’s constant temptation to self-righteousness and moralism can make religious life feel like a cosmetic piety. It only goes so deep.

“There are two utterly different forms of religion: one believes that God will love me if I change; the other believes that God loves me so that I can change.  The first is the most common; the second follows upon an experience of indwelling and personal love” (Richard Rohr, The Enneagram, p. xxii). The gospel of Christ is an invitation to transform our fragile egos.

Here, we are called from death into life. Here, in Word and Sacrament, we behold God’s promise to be always with us beyond these walls.  Here, we slowly understand God’s call doesn’t come from outside –like a phone call from a distant far away heaven—but from inside from God who is at once, immanent and transcendent, incarnate, dwelling within us.  We encounter this God in one another, in people of other races and religions, in solidarity with the poor, in the intricate ecology of the earth, and in weakness. God is with us in our brokenness, in our mortality, and in our aging and inadequate bodies.

Peter could feel the pressure mount up in him until it overwhelmed him, and he cried out, “Go away from me Lord!” (Luke 5:8) In Greek, he said “Get out of my neighborhood!” It was the same thing we heard last Sunday when the people of Nazareth drove him out of the synagogue and meant to throw him off the cliff.  Get away.  Leave me alone.  Except Peter’s reasons were different. The people of Nazareth wanted Jesus out of their neighborhood because he was unwilling to grant them special treatment, while Peter ordered Jesus away because he was not special enough.

God doesn’t withhold love from you until you are changed; God’s love is what enables you to change. The indwelling of God’s love makes us worthy. Yet beware, answering the call may require us to change our definition of success.  God choose Isaiah to preach to people who will not listen.  God asked him to speak in ways that “make the mind of the people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes.”

“The promise that ends Isaiah’s vision isn’t the promise of a packed out mega-church.  It’s not a promise of prosperity or popularity.  It’s the promise of a “stump.”  A remnant.  A “holy seed.” It’s the promise of not much — but exactly enough…There’s a price to pay when we say “yes” to God.  There’s a recalibration of success we have to make when we accept the divine call and say, “Send me.”  What matters after the “yes” is strange and countercultural.  What matters is integrity.  Truthfulness.  Long-suffering.  Patience.  What matters is believing wholeheartedly in the divine economy of stumps and seeds.  Because this is how God works.  This is how God measures success.  Out of the tiny, the hidden, and the barely discernible, God’s life springs.  The wasteland becomes the garden.  The stump becomes a mighty tree.  God takes the palette of dread and desolation, and turns it riotous with color…It might not happen soon.  We might not see it in our lifetimes.  But the vision remains, and its promise sustains, enlivens, and fills us.  Dare we trust the God of mere seeds?” (Debi Thomas,” I Saw the Lord!” Journey with Jesus, 1/30/22)

Answering Jesus’ call led Peter to embrace a mission that was well beyond his imagining, that far exceeded his own strength or capacity to achieve.  We are like fish drawn in a net, pulled out of the life we know, and deposited on the sandy shores of a new kingdom, called Incredibly, unbelievably, to become like fish living out of water. We seek out other fish struggling to breath and gasping for life because they don’t know yet how to live.  We engage in a kind of fishing that is life-giving rather than life-taking.  We use the bait of grace and forgiveness, rather than threats or intimidation. We set sail to journey deeper into suffering and pain. Out of our depth, God’s indwelling love somehow empowers us be more that we could have imagined. God’s people are diverse, but see, we are all becoming part of the One Life, and what joy there is this Life Together. May God be praised!

Advent 3C-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9) Our gospel says John proclaimed good news to the people, but this fire and brimstone preaching seems a far cry from rejoicing—at least to us.

To catch a glimpse of the hope and joy John inspired, which drew people out into the dangerous desert to see and hear him, we must step back to survey the scene.  Picture an entire military, industrial, financial, and ecclesial complex woven together in a system of all-powerful exploitation. The Roman Emperor, Tiberius, his governor Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, and the high priests Annas and Caiaphas were all in cahoots. They horded the lion’s share of power and material wealth for themselves. Adding insult to injury, the high priests “Caiaphas and Annas, abused their position to increase the debt load on the people of the land. Rather than forgiving debt, they were increasing debt” (William Herzog, New Proclamation 2006).

According to John, these mighty would fall. The lowly could be lifted up. John’s message finds an echo in Mary’s song, the Magnificat. John showed people they could belong. They became part of a grace filled community rooted in baptism, outside the control of the old power structures that dominated them.  They became part of the world as it should be, not as it is. People were coming to the desert and to John in droves.

The priests and political powers fashioned a world in their own image. It was an upside-down world compared to the one God created in God’s own image, the imago dei. To put the world right again, John preached, required a new heart and mind. John the Baptist pointed to this new mind and heart in his call to ‘repentance.’ The Greek word for “repent” is “metanoia.” It is closely related to the word ‘metamorphosis’ as in the change from a caterpillar to a butterfly.  The change John called for was a radical change, a transformation of mind, a new source and reason for our lives that follows the call and imitation of God’s love. In this metamorphosis our old self is cut away so Christ may live in us and through us. The world is restored to right side up.

Faith changes from merely private and personal to public and communal. The gospel pitches us into the world. The way of the cross leads to join in common cause with each another. Peace and shalom spring into existence through us with the very same power and persistence of nature itself as our old root, wrapped around all the things we want to preserve and protect for ourselves, is cut away.  See, now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.

Even the underground and hidden parts of our selves are not immune from God’s grace. John the Baptist gets right to the root of the problem.  In the waters of baptism, through the gift of bread and wine, in the company of all the saints and through the gift of the living Word, the good news today is that God will lay an ax against the hidden source of our life and kill it. See we have become a new creation!  Everything is made new.

Three times, three different groups come to John and ask, “What then should we do?”  Among them were tax collectors and soldiers who, by definition, were excluded from worshipping God in the Temple.  Should they abandon their homes and families?  Should they come live in the dessert?  Should they start a revolution?  “Given John’s demeanor, the crowds might very well expect such radicalism. But the answer he gives them is even more radical than they have language to comprehend — so radical we stand in danger of missing it: What should you do?  You should go home. 

Go home to your families, your neighbors, your vocations, your colleagues.  Stop fleeing. Stop insisting that God is far away from the nitty-gritty dailiness of your particular life.  Instead of waiting for a holy someday that will never come, inhabit the stuff of your life as deeply and as generously as you can right now.  Share now.  Be merciful now.  Do justice now.  Inhabit your life, no matter how plain, how obscure, how unglamorous, how routine.  Why?  Because the holy ground that matters most is the ground beneath your feet.” (Debi Thomas, “What Then Should We Do?”, Journey with Jesus, 12/09/18)

Our gospel today is one of a few that specifically address the topic of faith and work. Fifteen centuries before Martin Luther, John the Baptist seems to have promoted the idea that all people, regardless of their job description, can equally be of service to God. Luther taught that all of us have a vocation, or calling, by virtue of our baptism.  Parents are the priests and bishops of their homes. Children and siblings are called to care for each other and for parents. To be neighbor is not an accident of geographical proximity but a calling to contribute to the general wellfare as we would care for ourselves.

Theologian Jürgen Moltmann has said Luther’s concept of vocation is “the third great insight of the Lutheran Reformation,” after Word and Sacrament. Before Luther, only priests and monks could have a vocation or higher calling. Luther insisted that “[e]very occupation has its own honor before God, as well as its own requirements and duties.” “Just as individuals are different, so their duties are different; and in accordance with the diversity of their callings, God demands diverse works of them.”  What makes a job into a calling is not the money you make or the satisfaction you earn by doing it, but the people you serve and help.

If we’re willing to believe that nothing in our lives is too mundane or secular for God, then we’ll understand that all the possibilities for salvation we need are embedded in the lives God has already given us. There is no “outside.”  We don’t have to look “out there.”  The kingdom of heaven is here, within and among us. (Debi Thomas)

Christians become living invitations to a right side up life in an upside-down world. The famous Christian author Huston Smith wrote, “It remained for the 20th century to discover that locked within the atom is the energy of the sun itself. For this energy to be released, however, the atom must be bombarded from without. So too, locked in every human being is a store of love that partakes of the divine — the imago dei, the image of God that is within us. And it too can be activated only through bombardment — in its case, love’s bombardment.”

This perfect love casts out fear.  God’s perfect love lifts our spirits. God’s love is super abundant, shining both day and night. “Shine your future on this place, enlighten every guest, that through us stream your holiness, bright and blest, bright and blest; come dawn, O Sun of grace.” (ELW # 261)  Set us right again, right side up, rekindle our joy and renew our hope.

Proper 28B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

A record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September.” The Great Resignation is in full swing. According to the Washington Post: “Many workers have made the calculation that their old jobs — low paying work in industries like restaurants, which have really struggled to fill holes — are no longer desirable, even as companies dangle raises and bonuses to lure employees back to the workplace.”

Some older workers have taken early retirements, 750,000 people have died from Covid, the U.S. labor force has shrunk. Most cite poor working conditions and lack of childcare as the primary reason for quitting. There’s talk of a “general strike.” The new mantra seems to be: “get me out of this job!” People don’t want to fill the openings posted and don’t want the jobs they have. (Diana Butler Bass, The Great Spiritual Resignation, 11/13/21)

Jesus said, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13: 2b) The 13th chapter of Mark’s gospel is often described as a mini apocalypse. The word ‘apocalypse’ conjures a landscape laid to waste, a civilization in ruins, a dystopian nightmare that is the premise of countless popular movies. Sermons on this gospel preachers will speak of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the fall of Rome, or the scene following a natural disaster. Yet, in these days of the great resignation, when scientists say we have just ten years to make a difference before reaching a climate disaster; when historians and politicians openly speculate about the end of democracy; when doctors and nurses receive death threats for administering medical care, a Mad-Max style end to everything we know doesn’t seem like fiction or ancient history. We are living our own kind of apocalypse now.

Apocalyptic literature was very popular in the centuries before Christ when nothing seemed to be working and the bad guys always won. These strange words of Jesus from Mark 13 we have skipped over and ignored suddenly seem more relevant. Could it be this mini apocalypse is meant for such a time as this?
In contrast to what we might think who have spent hours consuming the movies, tv shows, and novels of dystopia, and of conservative Christian speculation about the end-times, apocalypse is not about destruction. Rather, in the bible, apocalypse means something quite different. An apocalypse is an unveiling, or an uncovering. It is a disclosure of something secret and hidden. To experience an apocalypse is to experience fresh sight. Honest disclosure. Accurate revelation. It is to apprehend reality as we’ve never apprehended it before. (Debi Thomas, Not One Stone, 11/11/18)

If we are living through apocalypse, it is because we are seeing ourselves, our nation, our religion in a difference light. We are confronted with the reflection of ourselves in the potential demise of everything we hold dear and are bewildered and humbled. If the economy of daily life is leading to ecological collapse it is because we have distorted and ignored what it means to be stewards of creation. If we are facing a racial reckoning it is because we have not been honest about the history of this nation. If we have become divided into warring political camps that threaten our democracy and undermine our ability to cope with world-wide pandemic it is because we have not loved, nor listened, to our neighbors as ourselves.

Like the Hebrew prophets of old who warned people of faith of the immanent consequences of their own bad choices, the fruit of apocalypse is disillusionment. In her sermon collection, God in Pain, Barbara Brown argues that disillusionment is essential to the Christian life. “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion — about ourselves, about the world, about God — and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.”

The 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “Let us pray to God that we may be free of God,” implying that our conceptions of God and faith must always fall short, always fail. Let’s name honestly, he suggests, the imposter gods we conjure because we fear who God really is. “Let’s admit that we shape these gods in our own image, and that they serve us as much as we serve them. In other words, let’s endure apocalypse so that truth will set us free. Let’s dare to see what Jesus sees. Things are getting uncovered. Let’s hold each other tight and pull back the veil.” (Debi Thomas)

“Don’t be alarmed,” Jesus says, when truth is shaken, and nations make war, and imposters preach alluring gospels of fear, resentment, and hatred. Don’t give in to terror. Don’t despair. Don’t capitalize on chaos. God is not where people often say he is; God doesn’t fear-monger. God doesn’t incite suspicion. God doesn’t thrive on human dread.

So, let us “avoid hasty, knee-jerk judgments. Be perceptive, not pious. Imaginative, not immature. Make peace, choose hope, cultivate patience, and incarnate love as the world reels and changes. This is the great challenge and gift of the Gospel. Not simply to bear the apocalypse, but to bear it well. To bear it with the radical, self-sacrificial love Jesus models on the cross. (Debi Thomas)

The author of Hebrews holds out the antidote to apocalypse and the job description for any community of faith. “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23-25)

The “Day Approaching” is not destruction but the reconciliation, the final restoration of all creation. The God who made the world still loves it. “This sweet old, fallen world is loved by God and therefore embraced by Christ’s body in the world, by us. In the paschal mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the reign of God is remaking the world. This world has been returned to us as the space for all of our vocations. Our lives take on meaning in the shadow of the Day approaching.” (Stephen P. Bouman, Baptized for This Moment, p. 52-53)

Confronted with apocalypse now, “it’s easy to despair. Or to grow numb. Or to let exhaustion win. But it’s precisely now, now when the world around us feels the most apocalyptic, that we have to respond with resilient, healing love. It’s precisely now, when systemic evil and age-old brokenness threaten to bring us to ruin that we have to “hold each other tight” and allow the veil to part, the walls to fall” (Debi Thomas). What’s happening, Jesus promises, is not death, but birth. Something is struggling to be born. Yes, the birth pangs hurt. But God is our midwife, and what God births will never lead to desolation. What God intends to bring to life in and among us now will end in peace, shalom, and joy.

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 11B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing. The neglected middle child of mental health can dull your motivation and focus — and it may be the dominant emotion of 2021.”  Psychologist Adam Grant seemed to put his finger on what many people are feeling.  It’s not burnout. It’s not depression. We feel empty.  Despondent.  Aimlessness and joylessness.  Grant said languishing can feel like a “dulling of delight” and the “dwindling of desire.”

Jesus said, ‘Come away with me and rest awhile’ (Mark 6:31). I think Jesus’ invitation to the disciples has special resonance for us today. In the early uncertain days of the pandemic our brains were on high alert, ready for fight-or-flight. But after 16 months in emergency-mode, our anguish has begun to sour into languish (Adam Grant, Languishing, NYT April 19, 2021).

Vaccinations opened a doorway to relief, or maybe, a window.  We pray enough people, our friends and family, will be vaccinated throughout our country and around the world so that the pandemic does not force us again to retreat. As Peter declared from the top of Mt. Tabor, “It is good, Lord, for us to be here.” Here, gathered in prayer and song, centered in Word and sacrament, we begin to feel again what it means to be human. Our hearts and minds are calmed, renewed, and restored by grace.

Jesus bid the disciples come away by themselves to a deserted place. They have just returned from their first tour of ministry — they are officially now apprentice apostles. They are exhilarated and exhausted, filled with stories — thrilling accounts of healings, exorcisms, and effective evangelism. Perhaps there are darker stories of failure and rejection to share as well.  Hard stories they needed to process privately with their teacher.

Remember, Jesus also has just lost his beloved cousin and prophet, John the Baptist, the one who had baptized him, and who had spent a lifetime in the wilderness preparing his way.  Worse, John died by violence, a terrifying reminder that the servants of God are not immune to senseless death.  Maybe Jesus’ own end felt closer. Jesus is heartbroken.

Whatever the case, Jesus senses the disciples need a break.  They’re tired, overstimulated, underfed, and in significant need of solitude. As the crowds push in around them at the edge of the Sea of Galilee there is tenderness and longing in Jesus’ words, ‘Come away with me’ (Debi Thomas, The Gift of Rest, Journey with Jesus, 7/11/21).

In a time when the pandemic has further blurred the boundaries between home and work, rest and productivity, it is important we pause here to notice Jesus is not a high-strung workaholic.  “Instead, we find a Jesus who recognizes, honors, and tends to his own tiredness.  We encounter a teacher who pulls his overheated disciples away from their labor and striving.  We discover a savior who probes below the surfaces of our busyness, and pinpoints the hunger our manic culture won’t allow us to name: the hunger for space, reflection, solitude, nourishment, recreation, rest, and sleep.” (Debie Thomas).

God is not like all the slave drivers you’ve ever known in your life.  God is not like the insatiable gods of imperial productivity that would prefer you to be a ‘human resource’ rather than a human being. Even our favorite sports teams, that offer us so much needed fun, can lead to deepening our despair as they worship at the altar of virility, power, and wealth all in the pursuit of winning.  This can add to our own anxiety and restlessness, and manifest in further violence. By contrast, covenantal relationship with God is rooted in fidelity, mercy, compassion and forgiveness –the things that make us human rather than merely being a commodity.

Come away with me.  Jesus offers a simple antidote to a culture of overworking. Jesus offers relief for our languishing spirits. It’s sometimes called Sabbath-keeping. The good thing is you don’t need anything special to keep the sabbath. You don’t have to travel to some exotic destination.  You don’t need Instagram worthy wow.  Sabbath keeping can be as simple as pausing again to take a breath or to say the Lord’s Prayer.

You and I need the sabbath. The need for sabbath is built into creation itself. God rested on the seventh day from all the work God had done (Genesis 2:2).  The commandment about the sabbath is the longest of the commandments.  It takes up nearly one-third of the Ten Commandments.  As Rabbi Abraham Joseph Heschel once pointed out, the Sabbath is the only one of God’s creations called holy.  Everything else is merely called ‘good.’  The sanctification of time preceded the sanctification of persons. The voice of God enters systems of oppression and declares “Let my people go!” (Exodus 5:1) Let my people depart from systems of endless production. God restores my soul and anoints my head with oil. My cup is filled to overflowing.

Even as slaves in Egypt, the people of Israel observed the Sabbath.  The Sabbath was not a day merely for recovering strength.  It was not free time.  It was freedom time.  It was time to recover their identity, time to be re-humanized, re-dignified, reclaimed, and restored.

Our gospel says Jesus had compassion for the crowd for ‘they were like sheep without a shepherd’ (Mark 6:34). How quickly we lose ourselves once we begin to stray from grace. Sabbath reminds us that we are creatures and not the Creator.  Sabbath reminds us we don’t need to be anything more than we already are. Sabbath inspires imagination, rekindles desire, dispels the doldrums of our languishing.  See God shapes us again into a community that says yes to the call to follow Jesus, to love one another and the world.

I leave you today with a poem from Jan Richardson, entitled “Blessing of Rest.”

Blessing of Rest

Curl this blessing

beneath your head

for a pillow.

Wrap it about yourself

for a blanket.

Lay it across your eyes

and for this moment

cease thinking about

what comes next,

what you will do

when you rise.

Let this blessing

gather itself to you

like the stillness

that descends

between your heartbeats,

the silence that comes

so briefly

but with a constancy

on which

your life depends.

Settle yourself

into the quiet

this blessing brings,

the hand it lays

upon your brow,

the whispered word

it breathes into

your ear

telling you

all shall be well

all shall be well

and you can rest

now.

Jan Richardson, Painted Prayerbook.

Proper 10B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

If you stand with your back to the famous Trevi fountain and toss a coin over your left shoulder you are guaranteed a return trip to Rome. Or so, it is said. Thousands make their wish, and cast their coins every day. It takes an hour each day just to sweep them all up. I’m told $15,000 a week, or almost $1 million a year, is collected and distributed to the poor this way. Interestingly, Chicago’s Buckingham Fountain, one of the biggest in the world, makes only about $200 a year. I remember giving coins to my kids to make a wish. All the coins in all the fountains of the world now glisten with a hoped-for wish.

“What should I ask for?” was the question Salome put to her mother, Herodias after her seductive dance won so much drunken admiration from her father, the king, he promised her anything –whatever she asked for—even half his kingdom! (Mark 6:23).

What would you ask for? If someone very rich and powerful promised to grant whatever you wanted? An invitation to Herod’s place was what many aspiring people in Jesus’ time wished for. His palace, next to the Sea of Galilee, rivalled any in the Roman Empire. He demanded the best of everything. Extravagant appointments, exotic entertainment, incredible food, wine, and all the best sort of people.

Herod’s impulsive grandiosity was exceeded only by the murderous treachery of his wife, Herodias, who saw in her daughter’s question an opportunity to end her quarrel with John the Baptist. What should she ask for? John’s head. Which the young girl did—adding her own sordid twist to the tale by requesting that it be brought to her on a platter.

What would I wish for? It’s hard to say. Imagine if the very same invitation came from God. Does that change your answer? Amazingly in scripture, we hear over and over again that God does. Jesus said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15.7). And again, “I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11.24). In the parable of the Prodigal Son, God reveals their own grandiose and reckless character—just like King Herod—is directed exactly opposite from Herod, toward loving all people as their own beloved children. God watches and waits for us to return from our wandering ways with a constant vigilance born of both hope and grief.

It is ironic and fateful that bad king Herod was a direct consequence of the people’s own answer to the question of what to ask God for –from a thousand years before. In the days of the prophet Samuel, “…all the elders of Israel gathered together and asked the prophet Samuel to appoint for them a king. They wanted what all the other nations had. They wanted an earthly king, a standing army, a fortified city, and all the other accompanying signs of their growing power and prestige. In other words, be careful what you wish for.

The all-too-familiar story of death and the exercise of capricious, immature, unilateral power is our gospel today. The execution of John the baptizer, opens a window through which to glimpse the stark contrast between the gospel of Christ and the ways of power that operate in the world. Mark insists that we see this. Mark’s gospel intertwines the story of John and Jesus almost from the very beginning. All the way back in chapter one, Mark told us it was “…after John was arrested, [that] Jesus came to Galilee, [following his baptism by John] proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!” (Mark 1:14).

What should you ask for, wish for, strive for, pray for? The answer to life’s riddle is the secret message of Christ’s gospel hidden in plain sight: live and love as Jesus did. To open the path to your heart’s deepest desire do as Jesus does for Christ to live in you, and for your heart and mind to be changed so that things like infinity, mystery, and forgiveness can resound within you. Our small minds cannot see Great Things because the two are on two different frequencies or channels, as it were. “The Big Mind can know big things, but we must change channels. Like will know like” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, A Tree of Life, 7/11/21).

King Herod heard something like this from John the Baptist. It perplexed and fascinated him to hear the truth about his life from the voice of a wild and wooly man whom he had imprisoned from the deep desert rather than from the corridors of power. God’s saving Word rang in his ears and sang to his heart, but he couldn’t “go there.” Herod never crossed over from spectatorship to discipleship.

How often do we fall into the same trap that Herod did? How different would the story be if Herod passed this test? But he doesn’t. He fails. When push comes to shove, his casual fascination with the truth isn’t enough to transform him. He remains a hearer of the good news — not a doer” (Debi Thomas, Greatly Perplexed, Journey with Jesus, 7/04/21).

Bad King Herod’s extraordinary banquet for the rich and powerful became an occasion for bitterness and betrayal. It exposed his foolishness, his precarious grip on power and lack of control. By contrast, in the passage immediately following our gospel today, Jesus bid people from everywhere to sit on the grass and provided them a feast of abundance for 5,000 men and their families from five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus’ outdoor potluck picnic became an occasion for generosity and joy. It revealed the wisdom of Christ’s gospel and the power of grace to unlock human hearts.

The Lord said to the prophet Amos, “See I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel.” (Amos 7:7b). The gospel of Christ is such a plumb line against which to measure the thru line of our dreams. The plumb line of Christ’s gospel helps us to see the difference between Herod and John is the difference between success as the world measures it, and lasting significance. Let all the coins at the bottom of every fountain proclaim: the things worth wishing for, the things that last, the things that make our life’s striving shine in glory accrue to us as we strive for a better world and love one another. What should I ask for? Who can ask for anything more than this – to love one another as God has loved us? To love and be loved in return? Then justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).