Posts

Easter 2B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Lutheran pastor and historian, Martin Marty, recalls a story of a summer day in his boyhood town of West Point, Nebraska, when one of those grand miracles of childhood occurred. A watermelon truck flipped over right in front of his house.  The driver was not injured. He jumped out to watch helplessly as neighborhood kids from everywhere raced to the scene of that blessed event and dove into the spilled cargo for a sticky picnic on the pavement.  Right in front of Marty’s house!

That was the good news.  The bad news was that he was out of town that day visiting his grandmother.  Alas. Life is like that sometimes. We happen to be where the action isn’t.  While other kids are there to catch the bouncing watermelons, we’re miles away.

And so it was, for the disciple Thomas –same as for you and me—and just about every other Christian who has ever lived.  We were not in the tomb where it happened. We missed Jesus’ party with the disciples on Easter night. So, like Thomas perhaps, we too have a hard time reconciling the Easter story with our own understanding of the way the world works. Like Thomas, we lament, if only Jesus would appear to us then our questions would be answered, then we could have faith, then we’d really believe –right?  Thomas was emphatic, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails in his hands, and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 19: 25b).

Well, one lesson we could take from today’s gospel is, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ When the moment finally comes, Thomas doesn’t insist on any of these things.  His response is one part contrition and one part exclamation, “My Lord, and my God!” (vs. 28). Why? Could it be in that moment, Thomas realized Jesus’ resurrection was not merely about what happened to Jesus?

The Christian claim has always been far more radical.  The Easter story is about our own resurrection from the dead. “It is saying that we also are larger than life, Being Itself, and therefore made for something good, united, and beautiful…The problem is not that you have a body; the problem is that you think you are separate from others—and from God. And you are not!” (Richard Rohr)

Jesus, whom they betrayed, did not return with vengeance, but peace, shalom, oneness, reconciliation, and unity with the undying life of God.  Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (vs. 22). The word is ‘emphusao.’  It’s the same word used in Genesis (chapter 2). God breathed life into the nostrils of the earth-man and he became a living being. It’s the same word used in Ezekiel 37. God breathed life into the dry bones of Israel so that they returned to life and stood on their feet a vast multitude.  This Easter story is Pentecost and creation rolled into one.

John invites us to face our doubts, speak our fears, and yearn for more. Thanks to the story of Thomas, we’re invited to say the “heretical” things we might very well feel as we descend from the mountaintop of Easter to look for the risen Christ in the midst of the world.

Jesus gives permission to learn wisdom and humility from our doubts, questions, and failings, and not just to repress them out of fear. To reach the goal of Christian maturity it will be necessary for us to be immature. (Little Arabella, who will be baptized today, didn’t hear that.) God is an expert at working with mistakes and failure. In fact, that is about all God does. Mistakes do not seem to be a problem for God; they are only a problem for our ego that wants to be perfect and self-sufficient. We first tend to do things wrong before we even know what right feels like. I am not sure there is any other way. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation series on Human Bodies)

Jesus pointed to his wounds and said, “see, as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Show me your wounds, Jesus says, and I will show you your strengths.  Show me your love of others and I will show you the fruits of the kin-dom of God. One of the great ironies in the history of Christianity is that Jesus came with the gift of peace and proclaimed a gospel of love with authority over Caesar. Yet, somehow, over and over again, we have made our Lord Jesus into a kind of Caesar who rules from a distant throne, who heaps misery upon those who question, and withholds grace from those who fail him.

But look, God answers with a blessed event unfolding now like an overturned truck filled with watermelons!  We testify “…to what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life –so that you may have fellowship with us” (1 John 1:1).  We testify to what Thomas and the first Christians learned at Easter that every Christian is an eyewitnesses to the resurrection.

One of those eyewitnesses of the resurrection, is Julian of Norwich [1343–c. 1416].  She lived her entire life during a raging pandemic, the bubonic plague. Despite being ignored because she was a woman, she found her voice. She is credited with writing the first book in English by a woman. Today her works are influential among theologians and the faithful alike.  Julian taught that each of our lives is part of a glorious whole. Each life, so miniscule in and of itself, is connected to the vast web of life held in being by God.  A watermelon truck of grace is spilled out before us.

Julian wrote, “God is within us, at home, patiently and kindly awaiting our recognition. As Maker of all, God is in everything, present in all places and at all times…All those who are on the spiritual path contain the whole of creation, and the Creator. That is because God is inside us, and inside God is everything. And so, whoever loves God loves all that is.”  (The Showings of Julian of Norwich: A New Translation, Mirabai Starr (Hampton Roads: 2013), 23–24.

Christ is here and we are witnesses.  Christ is here at the font. Christ is here at the table.  Christ is alive in our questions. Jesus is among us now.  We see Christ in each other, and especially, in the poor, the stranger and the outsider.  Christ is not dead but lives when we speak the truth of our differences in love, taking care to strengthen the body of Christ and not to tear it down.  In Christ we become wounded healers.  Christ unlocks the doors closed by fear and leads us out. He spreads a banquet before us –a joyful surprise—like a feast of watermelon poured out at our feet. Enjoy!

Easter B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I have Easter morning memories of wicker-woven baskets lined with fluorescent green plastic grass and princess pony purple paper, colorful foil-wrapped chocolate eggs and bunnies, oh-my-God yellow marshmallow chicks and jellybeans. It was fun making hand-dyed, hard boiled eggs, as is hiding the plastic ones for egg hunts. There were fancy new clothes at Easter, especially for mom and my sisters, and a big holiday meal, featuring ham, lamb, or turkey—or, sometimes, all three.

Easter has always been a bit over the top. Easter isn’t embarrassed to show its pre-Christian roots celebrating the Spring Equinox, and joyful commemorations of the passing of winter, and of the miracle of fertility as evidenced by the blooming of flowers, buds on the trees, and baby bunnies—lots of bunnies!
But Easter has also always been about something more. There is another, deeper meaning of Easter not made for children’s ears or mass consumer consumption. It is harder to swallow than a fist full of jellybeans. Easter is by definition, unsettling, disruptive, and messy.

All four gospels follow the women as they go to the tomb early Easter morning. They expect to find a body. Instead, they find an empty tomb and an outrageous message. Christ is risen. (He is risen, indeed, alleluia). Yet they are not overjoyed but filled with fear. Trembling and bewildered, Mark’s gospel tells us they “fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8)

The fact that we are gathered here, two thousand years later, is evidence that eventually they in fact tell someone. Yet “Mark’s ending points to a truth that often gets lost in the celebration: Easter is a frightening prospect. For the women, the only thing more terrifying than a world with Jesus dead was one in which he was alive.” (Esau McCaulley, The Unsettling Power of Easter, The New York Times, 4/02/21)

It would be easier to be left alone in our grief. Anti-Black racism; the anti-Asian racism; the anti-Trans phobia; the struggles of families throughout the world fleeing war, poverty, and disease; the rising body count after a mass shooting, the looming threat of mass-extinction; the collective shrug of indifference to all this pain and suffering because we are too addicted to our guns, and our violence, and our fluorescent green plastic grass is familiar, predictable. Keep your mouth shut, your doors locked and your eyes closed. Get what you can for as long as you can. Drown out the world with Netflix and alcohol and the whatever the next big consumer event on the calendar is.

We put it all in a tomb that contains our dead hopes and dreams for what our families, our neighborhood, our church, or the country could be. We are left with only our tears. We know how to walk with the women to the grave. They were not looking for hope. They wanted a quiet place to comfort one another in their grief and despair. “The terrifying prospect of Easter is that God called these women to return to the same world that crucified Jesus with a very dangerous gift: hope in the power of God, the unending reservoir of forgiveness and an abundance of love. It would make them seem like fools. Who could believe such a thing? Christians, at their best, are the fools who dare believe in God’s power to call dead things to life.” (McCaulley)

That is the testimony of the church still here after two thousand years. It’s not that we have good music (we do), or stirring liturgy (we do), or a tradition of good preaching (we do). The testimony of the church is that “in times of deep crisis we somehow become more than our collective ability. We become a source of hope that did not originate in ourselves.” (McCaulley)

We are beyond ready to return to a post-pandemic world of parties, nightlife, large venue gatherings, and rejoicing. It’s true. Parties have their place. But let’s not forget what this year has taught us in vivid detail. We will return to a world of hatred, cruelty, division and a thirst for power that was never quarantined. The unsettling power of Easter has rolled away the stone, opened our eyes, our minds, and hearts. It must open our hands, our wallets, and our calendars too.

If there is one thing today’s strange gospel story should teach us, it is that it is okay to be afraid. Fear is an enemy to faith, but God seems not to judge us too harshly for it. Fear is an almost constant theme throughout the gospels. Peter walks on water beside Jesus, until fear sent him sinking beneath the waves (Matthew 14:29). Out of fear, the disciples fail to recognize Jesus’ authority over the storming wind and waters, (4:40-41). Peter suggested they build booths on the mountain of Christ’s transfiguration out of fear (9:6). Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death elicited much fear and consternation (9:32). In all cases, fear isolates the disciples from Jesus. Fear gets in the way of God’s plan for them and for us. In the silence of the empty tomb, the theme of human failure in Mark’s gospel is complete. The religious authorities, the people of Jesus’ hometown, the disciples, the crowds, the Roman authorities, and even the women, all fail him. (R. Alan Culpepper, Mark). The hostility that put Jesus on the cross reduced them all to flight and fearful silence.

Scholars say, Mark wrote this gospel for a church that was small, and on the margins, feeling expendable, and suffering some form of religious and economic persecution. The message that God triumphed in Christ despite the failures of the first disciples must have come as quite a relief. God can bring faith even out of human weakness, fear, and failure. Perhaps that’s what’s most unsettling about Easter. We must die to ourselves in a death like his in order to be born again into a life like his.

“The mystery of the cross teaches us how to stand against hate without becoming hate, how to oppose evil without becoming evil ourselves. We find ourselves stretching in both directions—toward God’s goodness and also toward recognition of our own complicity in evil. In that moment, we will feel crucified. We hang in between, without resolution, our very life a paradox held in hope by God (see Romans 8:23–25).” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, 3/30/21). Easter issues this post-pandemic challenge. Freed from death and the power of death, freed from fear, daring to hope, see, we are the fools who dare believe and know, God has power to call dead things to life.

Passion Sunday, Cycle B
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Where do we stand? Where do you line up? Can you see yourself parading with the peace marchers who threw their garments on the ground and waved palm branches in the air striding into Jerusalem through the East gate? They shouted Hosanna! It means, ‘Lord save us!” (Mark 11:9)
Or perhaps could you picture yourself on the other side of town at that other larger and more organized parade scholars tell us rode into Jerusalem that day by the West gate, the one celebrating the power of Empire, and the mighty spectacle of military hardware, human ingenuity, order, and discipline represented by the Roman army? They were like so many who crowd the lakeshore at the Air and Water show here in Chicago.
Or perhaps, you can see yourself lining up with that other crowd of religious nationalists and cynics who found fellowship with each other in heaping scorn upon a scapegoat. Finding someone to blame for all their troubles, they shouted, “crucify him.” (Mark 15:13) Or are we like Simon of Cyrene, compelled into service, somehow, almost by accident, we became part of this story through no decision or desire of our own? (Mark 15:21)
Or perhaps, you see yourself lining up with that battle-hardened, world-weary Centurion standing at the foot of the cross, who declared, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39) The bible doesn’t say. I wonder, what did that Centurion see that no one else did? Some say the Centurion was merely being satirical and ironic rather than faithful.
The peace march, and the military parade, the self-righteous, and the accidental tourist, both the faithful and the cynical confessor –I confess, I have played them all. I have visited all these places. Whether by commission or omission, I have marched in all these parades.
But Mark seems to say something we haven’t thought of. Mark seems to see us standing, not among the living, but among the dead. He tells us the curtain in the temple was torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death. Literally, the realms of heaven and earth are now joined together. The undying life of God now lays in, with, and under, all that is. So that even the sky could see and mourn the tragedy of Jesus’ death.
We are like poor Lazarus stumbling out from his tomb, called from darkness into the light. Freed from death we would yet close our eyes. We long to lay down again in the cold comfort of our graves, but for the call of the Lord of Life, who now stands with the crucified, the bloodied, the brutalized, the betrayed, the executed, the lynched, the refugee, the suffering, the afflicted, the poor. God with us. We stand with Jesus, who emptied himself and took the form of a slave, even to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Philippians 2: 6-8) Our parade follows the winding way of Jesus and his cross, so that, like him, our weakness may become our strength, our emptiness a fountain of abundance, our unknowing a source of wisdom, our very mortality a gateway to eternal life.
  This Thursday, March 25th, was the anniversary of my baptism. Some of you will remember I didn’t always know the day that I was baptized, or the place, or even (briefly) I worried whether I was baptized at all —until we undertook a baptismal project here at Immanuel some years ago. I had to do some sleuthing.
March 25th is significant for another less personal reason. Nine months before Christmas, in which the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would give birth to the Son of God, it is a festival day, the Annunciation of Our Lord. The ancient church believed that this was also the date of the world’s creation and of Jesus’ death on the cross. March 25 was marked as New Year’s Day in many pre-modern Christian countries.
Christmas and the cross go together. In Mark’s gospel, the cross, like the day of Christ’s birth, is a sign of the incarnation. I was marked with the sign of this cross at my baptism, as you were. We would be mere clay and ash but for the breath God breathed into us. Where do we stand? We stand with Jesus. Where do you line up? We line up behind the Lord. Stand beneath the warm gaze of God to be healed. The cross shouts once and for all, stop striving and trying and planning to make yourself better and stronger. Try instead this other plan. Let love draw you. Let fellowship with Christ elevate you. Let the undying life of God fill you. To God be given praise.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

We’re twenty verses into the first chapter of Mark. Jesus is already collecting disciples and casting out demons. Neither are from places you’d expect. He finds disciples from the hard-scrabble, unrefined, unlearned shores of the Sea of Galilee. He cast out demons from inside the synagogue. In the sanctuary. In the middle of worship. It makes you wonder. Could Jesus find a disciple in you? Would Jesus cast out anything from among us? “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (Mark 1:24)

Scripture says the people were astounded. Literally, Jesus blew their minds. Their come-to-Jesus-meeting aroused curiosity. For some it set their lives on a new course. For others Jesus provoked fear and defensiveness.

What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? We have the same question. I suppose this is the question we ask ourselves every time we open the bible. It’s the central question of every sermon you’ve ever heard. Yet, what in the world do unclean spirits, demons, and an exorcism have to do with us?
This is the part of the sermon modern preachers reach for an exegetical shoehorn to show how it is that this ancient shoe actually fits. The bible is concerned with well-being and communal health, not magic, or sorcery, nor dare I say it, not even the supernatural. Instead, it is focused on the all too natural and worldly problem of evil. But I don’t think we need to do that this year. We don’t need to borrow anything from the supernatural to translate Jesus’ meaning about the imminent and persistent danger of demons–do we?

No. This year we are all witnesses to the captivating demonic power of manipulation, lies, fear mongering, and name-calling to personalize, polarize, enflame, blind and fragment God’s beloved community into warring camps. Our politics, the pandemic, and climate crisis have made plain the deep divisions among us, some of which, we would not have believed nor were we fully aware just a short time ago.

We share the same country, even the same zip codes but not the same reality. There is good health care for some, but not others. The police can be relied upon to serve and protect some while others call upon the police only as a last resort, if at all. We have superlative, top 100 in the nation public schools, but not for everyone. Good food is stacked high and beautifully displayed in our grocery stores, yet 1 in 10 families in our nation are hungry.

Care for Real, our local food pantry, reports a 40% increase in the food distributed, and a 243% increase in new Edgewater households who came to them for food. Immanuel distributed more than $12,000 to neighbors for food, medicine and other necessities through our COVID Assistance fund just since last March. (Thank you for your generosity, by the way.) Yes. We see how income inequality has grown to the extent that just having a job does not ensure you can feed yourself or your family, nor keep the roof over your head.

2020 has been like an epiphany, an awakening, but we can’t claim to be woke while we still point fingers, draw lines, call other side names, or demonize each other. This makes us part of the problem, not the solution. We must cast out the demons that rule our hearts and minds and reveal themselves whenever we see suffering yet do not see the human being that is suffering.

The ministry of Jesus is to free the love God has placed within us, so it once again flows naturally between and among us. It is literally to cast out the demons that divide and separate us from our common humanity.

So again, we ask the same question as the man in the synagogue. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” It can certainly feel that way. After all, what exactly will it cost us to set this world on its proper foundation? How may I be called upon to change my habits? What might I be expected to do? Jesus doesn’t answer these questions, but only said to the disciples, “Come and see.”

The people in the synagogue at Capernaum marveled that Jesus spoke as one who had “authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). To be clear, we all need people like the scribes. We need institutions and the people who run them. We need people who are qualified, accredited, skilled, competent and accountable. That’s one kind of authority and it’s essential—nothing works very well without it.

What people saw in Jesus is another kind of authority to which all those placed in authority must be open and appreciative. It’s the authority of someone who knows the truth and tells the truth because they lived it. It’s the authority of someone who knows what to do and gives instructions about how to act based on their own hard-won experience. This is the kind of authority Moses spoke of in our first reading. It is the authority of prophecy that is unafraid to speak truth to power. It is the kind of authority that we grant to those who know us and love us. This kind of authority has power. It has power even to cast out demons.

This kind of authority is our birth rite as children of God. Yet, we can never possess it, nor can we claim it. This power clings to us all when our words or our actions flow purely from the natural simplicity of God’s grace.

I believe we witnessed this kind of authority with the power to cast out demons eleven days ago on the steps of the U.S. capital. While the nation held its breath at another peaceful transition of power, a young woman with an auditory processing disorder that makes her hypersensitive to sound, raised by a single mother, a National Youth Poet Laureate, took the stage. The young black woman, Amanda Gorman, showed us again what the authority of a truth-teller and a prophet looks like in verse. She cast out demons.

“We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what just is, isn’t always just-ice,” she said. “We lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us…We lay down our arms, so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none and harmony for all…. For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it” (Amanda Gorman, National Poet Laureate, The Hill We Climb).

What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Is it not to speak the truth in love? Insofar as our way of life dehumanizes life, Jesus will always challenge and defy it. As members of the body of Christ, and by his authority of Christ, see, you have power to heal and to be healed. It is power even to cast out demons. In the strong name of Jesus. Amen.

Epiphany 2B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It was a 17-minute speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963. Martin Luther King Jr. had been so preoccupied with the logistics of the historic March on Washington he hadn’t given much thought to what he’d say. He began to write less than 12 hours before. He titled early drafts “Normalcy, Never Again.” Eyewitnesses say it wasn’t until the end of his famous speech that Dr. King stopped reading his notes, looked up and began to preach, after the great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, prompted him to “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” Tell them about the dream. The rest is history.

The miracle of the incarnation is God’s promise to move and speak through us. Epiphanies come in human shapes and sizes. When Dr. King set aside what he prepared to say God began to speak through him. He went from being a speaker to being a prophet. God spoke to the American people and to the world that day. He preached a message for then and for all time: God has a dream and invites you and I to inhabit it. Come and see.

Sadly, this is not 1963. I’d wager there are more police and National Guard on the national mall today than regular people. 10-foot high “unscalable” barricades surround the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and other monuments. I’ve read only 1,000 people will attend the inauguration in-person. That’s 1/200dths of normal. After 10 months of pandemic, nationwide protests, a contentious national election, a bloody insurrection, two impeachments, and continued threats of political violence, cynicism, disillusionment, and exhaustion rule many American hearts and minds. Alcohol and marijuana sales are soaring. Last night, I received an email from Bishop Curry warning that so-called, ‘liberal churches,’ might become targets for extremists.
These feel like the days of Eli from our first reading. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1b). Eli was a priest down on his luck, feeling guilty because he couldn’t stand up to other priests, in particular his own sons, who habitually dishonored God through extortion, greed, and sexual assault. Eli no longer expected to see or hear anything from God because he didn’t have the courage, will, and moral fortitude to do what God desired.

Fast forward about a thousand years to our Gospel reading. We read about Nathanael. We can relate to Nathanael. Upon receiving the good news of the Messiah from Philip his first reaction is skepticism. The disillusionment of Roman occupation and the corruption of religious leaders is not easy to dislodge. Nathanael was sitting under a fig tree—was he social distancing? Was he moping? Does he dare to dream about a better life? Nathanael dismisses Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

Jesus says, to us and to Nathanael, Follow me. Come and see. God has a dream for the world as it should be that requires each one of us. “Who me?” we ask. “You mean right now?” We, too, are incredulous. We can relate to Eli and Nathanael.

The French existentialist philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, tells that when she was caring for her dying mother, it was as if the entire world shrunk to the size of her mother’s hospital room. In times of grief and high anxiety, we can lose track of our dreams. We mistake realism for reality. It can take all the energy we have to look beyond our misfortunes and failures, to behold again the larger vision, the big picture—the power of holy imagination, the lure of an alternate reality—that Jesus called the kingdom of God. Yet within what we perceive to be limitations are possibilities for renewal and growth.

As Dr. King so memorably reminded us, to respond to God’s call is to fall in love with Love itself. Through encounter with Christ, we learn to be lovers of people, because as Christian people, we are called to invite others into the dream, to become members with us in the beloved community. Nathanael wasn’t changed so much as he was set into motion by Jesus’ call. That’s really all that is required to become a disciple. Follow me. Come and see.

Eli’s first and second response to God’s prompting of the boy, Samuel, was confusion and not a little annoyance at being needlessly awakened. Yet, finally, he recognized there was another possibility. Eli put aside his own self-interest. He wasn’t worried about keeping his job or motivated by loyalty to his sons. When Eli realized what might be happening with Samuel, he could have tried to trick him, or to shut him away, or even to have killed him. Yet Eli was faithful to God. Eli is an unsung hero. He proved his faithfulness to God by stepping aside, by passing the baton, by nurturing the next generation of leadership in the story of God’s ongoing mission.

We need more Eli’s today. Can you and I be like Eli? Now that our complacent slumbers have been repeatedly disrupted by violence against black bodies, by a worldwide pandemic, by a culture of subordination and sexual assault against women, by extreme income inequality, and mass extinction will we recognize it is finally time to stop doing business as usual? Can we finally acknowledge the many ways we have participated and/or acquiesced to these wrongs? Despite that, can we step forward, following after Jesus, and like Nathanael, like Eli, walk the way of the cross? Can the vast scene of American carnage stretching be an epiphany for us? Come and see. Follow me, Jesus says.

Jesus invites you and me to dream again like you did when you were a child. As Dr. King so memorably reminded us, to respond to God’s call we must cultivate a holy imagination, because to be Christian is to tell people about the dream that God’s kingdom may come here on earth as it is in heaven.
In 1959, after the successful completion of the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King went on a pilgrimage to India. He desired to learn more about Mahatma Gandhi, the philosophy of nonviolence, and about the people and culture that inspired it. He was received by large crowds as a national dignitary. Yet he was not prepared, when at a school full of admirers, he was enthusiastically introduced as ‘an American Untouchable.” You may know there is a very old caste system in India. It ranks some people ahead of other people. Dalit is a name given to people of the very lowest class. They are literally, considered untouchable, by those of higher classes. The school for Dalit children immediately recognized Dr. King as a hero of their own. Rather than recoil from this loss of face, Dr. King came to embrace the title as a badge of honor.

Like Eli, and Nathanael, and Dr. King we are led on the path of renewal and discipleship by listening to the voice of the Samuel’s of the world, the witness of those on the margins, the no-accounts, the unprivileged, and invisible. It is not a command but a call. It is an invitation to dream again. Come, follow, seek and find healing for your wounds and a purpose to dignify your life. Jesus invites us to walk the path to wellness that will not be easy, and possibly even dangerous. Come, follow me, Jesus says, Let me teach you how to dream again and how to live.

Proper 9A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

12 score and 2 years ago our ancestors brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. “All men,” of course, referred narrowly only to people of that same gender, who were white, who had lived on American soil for at least two years, and could prove they were of good moral character. We have expanded the circle of inclusion ever since, striving for that, ever elusive, more perfect union.
Abraham Lincoln said it at Gettysburg, ‘It is for us the living to be dedicated to the unfinished work our American ancestors in each generation have so nobly advanced.’ “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, 11/19/63)

We all have a stake in this freedom franchise. Whether our ancestors immigrated here in the 19th century like mine or were brought and bought here in bondage against their will, or, whether they walked here during the last ice age, we all have a role in this American experiment in democracy. This strange, COVID-afflicted, safe-distanced anniversary of our nation’s independence, when the meaning of what it is to be American is debated in our national politics, it’s worth remembering this. It is necessary to reassert this so that a new birth of freedom may also be born in our own time.

As luck would have the proper use of our God-given freedom is a question addressed in our readings appointed for today. It is, perhaps, the central question of the great bible narratives of creation, Exodus, Christ and the cross. I would like to think the American dream of human equality is rooted in the witness of scripture and the persistent council of grace in human consciousness that all people are children of God.

Human beings living under every permutation of governance ever devised or bumbled into have asked themselves what am I to do with the miracle of my life?
Chapters 5-8 of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome from which today’s second lesson was taken is a majestic statement of some of Paul’s greatest themes: The love of God embodied in Jesus’ death; the hope, even during suffering, enjoyed by God’s people; Christian freedom from sin, the law and death itself; and the life-giving leading of the Spirit. Countless Christians, in times of great struggle found strength and joy in Paul’s closing words: “Neither height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39) (N.T. Wright, Commentary on Romans)

Many today are misled in believing that, if you are lucky or strong or bold or beautiful and powerful enough, freedom is about living without any obligations, any commitments, any requirements whatsoever. By contrast, Paul invited the Christians in Rome and each of us, to consider the choice we face is not between obedience or freedom, but rather a decision about what we will be freely obedient and dedicated to.

So, it makes perfect sense. That’s why Jesus’ answer to the problem of the proper use of our freedom is this—an animal yoke. What? Yes. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

In fact, what Jesus seems to have in mind in a double yoke like this one. (that I hope you can see now.) Stick your head in this, join with me, Jesus says, and you can’t go far wrong.

It seems counterintuitive to find rest and greater freedom in taking upon us a yoke—even the yoke of Jesus. For most of us, I’d wager, a yoke connotes bondage and servitude, a diminishment of freedom and choice. Indeed, Jesus was relentless in his criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees for making the yoke of religion too heavy. They made religion into something used merely to weigh people down with the artificial demands of righteousness.

Jesus’ yoke is different from the one religious Zealots want to lay on you. Instead, here is wisdom written deep within creation: being kind is not a chore, but a natural and gracious response to the God-given dignity in every other. In this yoke we find our own humanity. In this yoke we find purpose for our freedom. In this yoke we find the inalienable human right of all people to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Human dignity increases as we join ourselves to God’s purpose. In this way we find greater freedom and power. But Jesus’ invitation doesn’t sidestep the fact that a yoke is still a yoke. Faith requires a commitment. Faith assumes there is a load to pull, and that it must be pulled.

People are confused about the purpose of their freedom today. We have an adolescent view of happiness. The yoke of Jesus is humility and concern for the despised. The yoke of Jesus is not a yoke of servitude, or of bondage but of connection, partnership, and sharing our burdens with one another and with Christ who labors alongside us. There will be a new birth of freedom among us in our time when we realize in Christ, we are yoked to those suffering now. We are yoked, so none of can be free when one of us can’t breathe.

We remember the dying words of George Floyd and Eric Garner. “I can’t breathe.” Their deaths sparked national outrage but there were many others you didn’t hear about. Over the past decade, The New York Times found, at least 70 people have died in law enforcement custody after saying the same words — “I can’t breathe.”
The dead ranged in age from 19 to 65. The majority of them had been stopped or held over nonviolent infractions, 911 calls about suspicious behavior, or concerns about their mental health. More than half were black. (I Can’t Breath, NYT, Mike Baker, Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Manny Fernandez and Michael LaForgia, June 29, 2020)

As we face these challenging times, we need wisdom, wisdom born of grace. We need individual wisdom—yes—but perhaps even more, we need our public institutions to have greater wisdom. It is time once again for a new birth of freedom. Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth but have a new beginning. Jesus’ yoke is easy. Take on the yoke of Jesus. Let him show us the way. Yoked to Christ, we can’t go far wrong. Our life’s journey is made easier when we have a companion along the way with whom we can share our worries who is stronger than we are. Let Jesus lift the crushing burdens impossible for us to lift. See, even our griefs and sorrows are transformed into something like love and understanding when we share our burdens with one another in Christ. See greater meaning and purpose for our lives is at hand. Let freedom ring.

Can we be thankful?

Proper 8A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Put ourselves in Abraham’s sandals. God said, “Abraham!” And Abraham said, “Here I am.” God said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, the one I promised you, the one you waited nearly your whole life for, the son whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’(Genesis 22:1)

What do you think would happen if any one of us were to walk a child three days into the wilderness, place them on a pile of wood, and raise a knife intending to kill them? Right. Yet here it is in Genesis 22. In fact, this shocking story about Abraham is so central to scripture it is one of twelve readings appointed for the Easter Vigil every year. You know we read only seven. Yet, I don’t remember the last time we chose this one—if ever.

As children we learned to call this the testing of Abraham—and to shift attention away from the traumatizing violence and betrayal of Isaac. I wonder, did Isaac ever trust his father the same way again? Why would he carry on in the faith? Perhaps in confirmation we learned this story of Abraham and Isaac foreshadows God’s willing sacrifice of his only Son Jesus on the cross. Yet is the God we worship really capable of ordering a hit on both Isaac and Jesus? Or was it the religious leaders whose authority he questioned who wanted him dead? Wasn’t the demand to crucify him rooted in the human rejection of grace common to us all? Isn’t is we, not God, who deny Christ Jesus again and again? But then, if God didn’t demand that Jesus’ die, who told Abraham to head to Moriah with wood and a knife? (Hold that thought a minute.)

Perhaps what we have here is simply conclusive evidence we’ve changed. In the four thousand years since this story was first told we’ve grown up. We instinctively value the life of every child. We preserve, protect, and celebrate all lives equally. Human sacrifice is a thing of the past. Right? Well…except of course, for some people, born in remote parts of the world who provide cheap labor for our factories, or others whom we regard with suspicion. I wonder what George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin would say? And on this Pride Weekend, I wonder what trans men and women would have to say about how our economy, our political system, and our society continue to value the lives of the rich and powerful over those of the poor and marginalized?

Last month former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie urged the U.S. to push ahead reopening the economy despite the pandemic because “there are going to be deaths no matter what.” He compared it to the loss of lives during the two World Wars. We sacrificed those lives “knowing that many of them would not come home alive…We decided to make that sacrifice because what we were standing up for was the American way of life,” he said. “In the very same way now, we have to stand up for the American way of life.” (Chris Christy, CNN interview with Dana Bash, 5/04/20)

Later that same week, Whoopi Goldberg asked Christie when he appeared on “The View,” to name which of his own family members should die. “So, I’m asking, since you’re suggesting that I sacrifice, who are you sacrificing? Who are you going to give up in your family?”

We no longer sacrifice children and marginalized people for the sake of religious ritual, but we seem perfectly comfortable doing so for the economy, for wall street, or so we don’t have to wear a mask. The Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign remarks, “People in power are too comfortable with other people’s deaths.”
To hear the gospel in today’s Old Testament story we must first climb down from our high horse and acknowledge that human sacrifice remains an ugly part of our world too. We must stop ignoring this story in our bible. We must push past the false theology and pious window dressing that’s been erected over the years to shield us from facing into it. Like every passage in scripture, the answer begins with the question, what was the plain meaning of this story? What did it mean to those who first heard? We are so fortunate to live in a time when archeologists, philologists, and historians can help us better answer this question.

One of these scholars writes, “What we must try to see in the story of Abraham’s non-sacrifice of Isaac is that Abraham’s faith consisted, not of almost doing what he didn’t do, but of not doing what he almost did, and not doing it in fidelity to the God in whose name his contemporaries thought it should be done” (Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads,1996, p. 140). It is immensely helpful to know that child sacrifice was actually common in Abraham’s time and place. Our horror at thinking about ritually killing a child was no shock at all in Abraham’s world. In the text, Abraham hears the Lord, Elohim, call him to Moriah, but the voice of God, Yahweh, tells him to stop and provides the stag caught in the bush.

Abraham passed the test of faith not by listening to the voice of the false gods of sacred violence at the story’s opening, but by listening to the voice of Yahweh, “the LORD,” at the story’s close. Abraham heard the voice of the true God telling him to stop, don’t kill. And now almost two thousand years after the voice of our risen Savior forgiving us for our numerous slaughters, and our neglect of the innate dignity of all human lives are we ready to pass the test, too? Are we ready to stop the killing? What could happen in our world if four billion Christians, Jews, and Muslims who claim Abraham as their father could finally recognize what this test of faith is really all about?” (Paul J. Nuechterlein, Prince of Peace Lutheran, Portage, MI, June 26, 2011)

Abraham learned what Christ Jesus proclaims. For Abraham the unveiling of sacred violence meant the unveiling of our false gods and an end to the glorification of all violence among people. In Jesus and Christ together, the God is made known who is both deeply personal and cosmically universal, who has counted even all the hairs on your head. Whose greatest reward is reserved not for the keynote speaker, the celebrity prophet, or the charismatic star at the microphone but goes to the person who serves. It goes to the one who hears the doorbell and opens the door. It goes to the one who hangs up the coats, washes the feet, pours the cool drinks, and sets and clears the table. “The small gesture and the invisible kindness are what please God, who sees everything we do in secret… Why? Because it is in the offering of such simple, essential gifts that Jesus’s kingdom announces itself. Jesus came to bring abundant life, and that life begins with the most elemental of gestures. “Even a cup of cold water?” Yes, even that.” (Debi Thomas, Welcome the Prophet, Journey with Jesus,6/21/20) And for the truth made real in our lives and in our society that Black Lives Matter, Trans Lives Matter because every life is precious to God.

Proper 6A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36) The Greek word for “compassion,” splagchnizomai, has the connotation of having one’s entrails being stirred up. In other words, Jesus had a visceral response upon seeing the crowds and immediately, sent disciples in mission. Visceral compassion generates urgent action.
Splagchnizomai, or visceral compassion, is what has provoked so many in witnessing the murder of George Floyd. It is not yet three weeks and already there have been demonstrations in at least 1,600 places so far, large and small, across all 50 states—and more around the world. Why now, we ask? Why this time and not all the times before? What finally sparked this splagchnizomai? Why did the churn in our belly—our sadness, our empathy, our quiet tears finally set us in motion, move us into the streets, and compel us to demand change? I don’t know. But at least now we know what to call it—splagchnizomai—a Christ-like visceral compassion combined with an urgency to act.

We’ve all heard stories of people in the grips of this visceral compassion who perform heroic deeds and exhibit strength they could not believe they possessed. One of those people has a birthday coming up this week. Next Saturday, June 13th, Patrisse Cullors will be 37.
Ms. Cullors is a multi-media performance artist with undergraduate degrees in philosophy and religion from the University of California, Los Angeles. She is an activist. She is a freedom fighter. She is Black and Queer. Patrisse Cullors is one of three woman who started Black Lives Matter, back in 2013, out of their frustration following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Today Black Lives Matter is an international human rights movement which campaigns against violence and systemic racism towards black people.

From the very beginning Black Lives Matter recognized the need to include the leadership of women and queer and trans people. “To maximize our movement muscle, and to be intentional about not replicating harmful practices that excluded so many in past movements for liberation,” they said, “we made a commitment to placing those at the margins closer to the center” (Black Lives Matter.com, “Herstory”). Yes! We might call this splagchnizomai—a Christ-like visceral compassion and urgency to act for those most in need.

Ms. Cullors was raised with three other siblings by her great-grandmother, Jenny, while her mother worked three jobs to get food on the table. Grandma Jenny was Choctaw, Blackfoot, and African American. She grew up in Oklahoma. Great-Grandma Jenny’s father was a medicine man. Cullors remembers she told lots of stories about the KKK, lots of stories of her father defending their family against the KKK, and about her eventual move to Los Angeles. Ms. Cullors reflects, “I believe if I didn’t have my great grandmother, who deeply believed in me and my siblings, I would not actually be who I am today.” (“The Spiritual Work of Black Lives Matter,” On Being with Krista Tippet, Public Radio, 2/18/16)

Cullors asks, “What is the impact of not being valued? “How do you measure the loss of what a human being does not receive?” Through Black Lives Matter, Cullors says, “You see the light that comes inside of people to other communities that are like, ‘I’m going to stand on the side of black lives.’ You see people literally transforming. And that’s a different type of work. And for me, that is a spiritual work. It’s a healing work. And human to human, if you take a moment to be with somebody, to understand the pains they’re going through, you get to transform yourself.” (On Being)

Jesus’ mission and that of his followers is to bring healing, peace, wholeness—all the elements of true Shalom. Fueled with visceral compassion Jesus sent the disciples to those who were lost and hurting. He sent them to be shepherds to people who were like sheep without a shepherd. He sent them knowing full well that they, themselves, were but simple sheep. He sent them, not as conquering heroes, but “like sheep into the midst of wolves.” He instructed them to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Their objective was not to dominate but to serve. For the sake of compassion, they wielded nothing but compassion.

This is what discipleship looks like. It means dealing with wolves by addressing them in their sheepilness. It means transforming wolves through forgiveness. Discipleship looks like knowing that you are dealing with dangerous people, who are more than likely to be deeply provoked by your innocence and because of that to seek to lynch you.
Today, we are witnessing the results of centuries of unresolved racial violence in our collective body. We cannot address the pain of this without unleashing the wolves within and among us. Discipleship “means deciding, as grateful followers of a brown man who died at the hands of brutal law enforcement two thousand years ago, that we will not tolerate the demon of racism in our midst for one more generation.” (Debie Thomas, I Am Sending You, Journey with Jesus, 6/7/20)

Jesus, our Great Shepherd, creates in us a shepherd’s heart. He calls us to what we were created for. “Jesus knows the cure for our brokenness, our malaise, our boredom, our angst. He knows that when we go out into the world in his name, healing what is diseased, resurrecting what is dead, and casting out what is evil, we participate in the transformation of our own souls. What we’re hearing in these days is the very heart of God within us, deep calling to deep, the Spirit of crying out on behalf of a world desperate for justice and mercy.” (Thomas) It’s a call to action that we call splagchnizomai.