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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).

Proper 17C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).  The writer of Hebrews hands down hard-won advice—a prized recipe for a well lived life. It is wisdom wrung from the sweat and striving of our forebears in faith. Hebrews counsels us like a loving parent on the eve of becoming an adult. Remember those in prison and those being tortured as though you were being tortured. Honor your marriage vows. Be content with what you have (vs. 3-5).

When asked what they wish most for their children a lot of parents today say they just want their kid to be happy. As words to live by, ‘whatever makes you happy,’ turns out to be sort of empty and confusing. The pursuit of happiness is not a compass well suited to leading through the wilderness of materialism, consumerism, hedonism, racism, sexism, or addiction. We need a more reliable star to steer by if we are to reach the promised land, to enter, and take possession of the inalienable human right, endowed to us by our creator, to life and liberty.

‘Avoid the love of money; do good and share what you have’ (vs. 5 & 16).  Inevitably, just as all the generations before us did, we ask the question, ‘What do I get out of it? If in giving I receive, what exactly is my reward?’  Quid pro quo—right?  I give something.  I should get something—and if I don’t have anything to give, I shouldn’t get. That’s the way of the world.  To which Hebrews responds –yeah—that’s what we thought. Yet, it turns out, we were wrong.

The good life consists in something fundamentally different than anything you can accumulate through give and take.  Quid pro quo must give way to God’s pro quo.  Tell me, how do you measure or calculate repayment of love, or mercy?  How do you put a value on family, friendship, marriage, or partnership? These are the fruits of love and trust.  These cannot be harvested from relationships which are merely transactional.  The dignity of every human life grows from the unmerited, unearned, unwarranted, undeserved love of God.

We hear these words and treasure them.  Perhaps, we honor them in a few private relationships. Enter Jesus to set us straight.  Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them.  He was a popular dinner guest but not a very polite one.  Mealtime scenes with Jesus end in provocations, insults, and/or scandal. A woman of dubious reputation caressed his feet under the table.  He interrupts the meal to heal sick people on the Sabbath. His hosts complain he ate with dirty hands, shared his table with riffraff, and drank more than his enemies considered respectable. We tend to forget this today. Jesus doesn’t put up with any phony baloney.

Jesus asks us to believe that our behavior at the table matters—but not because you know the difference between a dinner fork and a salad fork.  Where we sit speaks volumes, and the people whom we choose to welcome reveals the stuff of our souls.  Favor the ones who cannot repay you.  Prefer the poor.  Choose obscurity. This is God’s world we live in, and nothing here is ordinary.  In the realm of God, the ragged strangers at our doorstep are the angels. Learn how to welcome them as you wish to be welcomed and we are on our way to life well lived-together.

Author and teacher Tony Campolo tells a true story about a time he was traveling. He couldn’t sleep, so he wandered outside and into a doughnut shop where, he overheard a conversation between sex workers. Apparently, it was a place they liked to hang out at the end of the night. One of them, named Agnes, said, ‘Tomorrow’s my birthday. You know, in my whole life, I’ve never had a birthday party.’

That’s right—Tony got an idea. He brought the store manager in on it. They arranged for a cake, candles, and party decorations. The following night when Agnes came in, they shouted, “Surprise — and she couldn’t believe her eyes. They sang, and she began to cry so she could hardly blow out the candles. When time came to cut the cake, she asked if they wouldn’t mind if she didn’t cut it. She preferred to bring it home — just to keep it for a while and savor the moment. She left, carrying her cake like a treasure.

Tony led the remaining guests in a prayer for Agnes, after which the manager asked what kind of church Tony came from, and he replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for sex workers at 3:30 in the morning.” (Abbreviated from Brian McLaren’s in The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything [Thomas Nelson, 2006], pages 145-46.)

“The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations, and plants the humble in their place”(Sirach 10:15). “When we dare to gather at Jesus’s table, we are actively protesting the culture of upward mobility and competitiveness that surrounds us.  There’s nothing easy or straightforward about this; it requires hard work over a long period of time.  To eat and drink with God is to live in tension with the pecking orders that define our boardrooms, our college admissions committees, our church politics, and our presidential elections, and that can be tiring.  But it’s what we’re called to do — to humble ourselves and place our hope in a radically different kingdom” (Debi Thomas, Places of Honor, Journey with Jesus, 8/25/19).

We must admit the history of Western culture is not known for humility –but for arrogance. Confidence in the superiority of western culture, science, and civilization led generations of white Europeans to take the highest place at every table. Yet, even now, at this very moment, the living waters of God’s grace are working within your heart, mind, and soul. Grace strips away our arrogant and worldly way of thinking like paint thinner that. From beneath the soot and sediment the original stamp of the imago Dei, the image of God, is revealed in you and your neighbor.

The good life is lived with honor, equity and joy among neighbors.  Maybe that’s why Jesus attended so many parties, feasts, and banquets. The kingdom of God to which you and I are invited is like a good party. There is always room for one more to be seated at the table of grace. Brian McLaren writes, “Today we could say that God is inviting people to leave their gang fights and come to a party, to leave their workaholism and rat race and come to a party, to leave their loneliness and isolation and join the party, to leave their exclusive parties (political ones, for example, which win elections by dividing electorates) and join one inclusive party of a different sort, to stop fighting or complaining or hating or competing and instead start partying and celebrating the goodness and love of God. (Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything, pages 144-46. In Ch. 16)