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Can we be thankful?

Proper 23C-2019
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It’s bedtime on a school night years ago. Leah washes her face and brushes her teeth. I fetch a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and open to where we left off the night before. Leah comes and shows me her new sparkly boots and other stuff mom bought her at the outlet mall. I say, “Yeah? You know what I got?” “Nothing!” “Ahh,” she said, giving me a big hug. “You know what you’re getting tomorrow?” she asked. “Another new day!” “Yeah, whatever” I said. Then she says, real incredulous, “Hey!! That’s a gift from God mister!”

Another new day. She was right—each day a gift from God. Can’t argue with that. So how come I don’t feel grateful? That question still haunts me and feels more urgent today. I am beleaguered and I in shock by daily events. Here’s where our gospel steps up to meet me where I am. Here’s where the bible presents me with a life hack gleaned from real life by ancestors in faith who coped and thrived in times more chaotic, difficult, and dangerous than today. It sounds simple—even simple minded. Jesus’ sage advice is remember to give thanks.

There’s a spot on the drive home to grandma’s house just east of Ft. Collins, Colorado, on highway 14 where the entire town, foothills, and mountains rising above tree line to 14,000 feet, come into focus all at once. I’ve stopped there, many times, just to take in that view. It’s so beautiful, it almost commands you stop and give thanks.

But I know from having lived there it doesn’t take long for that view and those mountains to recede into the background like pretty pictures hanging on a wall. Pretty soon, like any place, what seems to matter most are daily routines and the torrent of your private thoughts, and your strategies to cope with whatever variety of stress is on offer that day. Truth is, every place is beautiful. Each day is a gift, like young Leah said, yet we get so turned in on ourselves that beauty doesn’t rise to our consciousness. We don’t remember to say thanks which leads to our own impairment.

Last week we heard Jesus scold the disciples. He told them not to expect thanks for all the good things they do in Jesus’ name. They are worthless servants who are doing only what is asked (Luke 17:10). Today, we hear the rest of the story. Don’t wait to receive thanks, Jesus says, but always remember to give it. Because thanksgiving is not a duty but a lifeline. Thanksgiving—literally eucharist—is a means to grab onto grace and hold it inside ourselves like lighting in a bottle. Gratitude spills over into love. Thanksgiving heals, redeems and sanctifies.

Victor Frankl, the eminent psychologist, and author of the famous book Man’s Search for Meaning, was prisoner in a Nazi death camp during WWII. He lost his father, mother, brother, and wife –his entire family perished—everyone except his sister.

Later Frankl was asked how he could continue to believe in the value of life? He answered with a brief story. “One day, a few days after liberation,” he said, “I walked through the country, past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. [Meadow] Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the lark’s jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around and up to the sky—and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world. I had but one sentence in mind—always the same: ‘I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and he answered me in the freedom of space.’ How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence, memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed until I again became a human being.” (Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning)

Why does a leper give thanks? Why does a man who lost everything in a death camp give God praise? Because giving thanks gives life. Gratitude is healing for us. Gratitude is living water to quench our thirsty souls. Gratitude gets lost in the ledger when we keep accounts and life becomes small. Gratitude, like love, grows when it is shared.

Our gospel says ten lepers were cured. God’s grace falls upon everyone and everything like rain. But only one was made whole—the one who returned to Jesus and to give thanks. Here, our gospel opens to teach us something more. The one who gave thanks was a Samaritan—a despised foreigner. As a group the Samaritans go 2 for 3 in Luke’s gospel: they refuse to host the disciples (9:53), but the Good Samaritan is exemplary, as is this former leper.

The Good Samaritan is a Christ-like figure. Here, this Samaritan leper is a church-like figure, who embodies the essential elements of Christian worship. The leper is exemplary of the sort of devotion God expects but does not always receive.

The Samaritan leper points where the church must go. It must be the place where the gratitude of a foreigner and outcast receives welcome. The leper’s story is about the kingdom of God — about who is invited, who belongs, and who thrives in the realm where God dwells. What does it mean that in Christ, we are all one? What is our ongoing responsibility to the stranger, the alien, the Other? What happens to our differences at the foot of the Cross?

The church is called into places like where we find Jesus today. He’s in a no-man’s land. He is traveling back and forth across the border between Samaria and Galilee. He is somewhere between being in and out of a nameless village. He is somewhere between being in and out of proximity to unclean lepers whom everyone else shunned. He has been on his way to Jerusalem since chapter 9, yet here near the end of chapter 17 it seems he hasn’t made any progress.

It strikes me that our life in Christ often feels like this. We are working and toiling but have no idea how to judge whether we’re making progress. We’re making dinner for our family, or doing our best to listen to the story of a struggling friend, or trying to be graceful while staring down the barrel of economic uncertainty, chronic illness or grief –and it seems like only one person in ten even takes time to notice or care —and that’s on a good day.

To journey with Jesus is to stand with him and pronounce thanksgiving upon those places and those moments. It is to be standing on the border of an unnamed and unlocated village, halfway between being in and out; between being insiders and outsiders in a kind of liminal space, a twilight zone, a space where we cannot always be sure what’s happening and give “thanks.”

Here is ancient hard-won wisdom of our forebears. This is how the grace of God will lift us out of the worry and striving of what is now our daily life to buoy us up and place us on a new and broad horizon by searching for the coming of God’s kingdom in the company of new friends and being fearless enough always to say “thanks.”

Amen.

Proper 22C-19
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Lord, increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). Jesus and the disciples make their way from Galilee to Jerusalem. They walk. Jesus talks. The disciples are taking notes. Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13b). ‘Offer forgiveness to everyone who asks –not seven times, but seventy times seven!’ (vs. 4). They’re starting to feel inadequate. Have we all been there?

Earlier, when they returned from their mission trip with the 70, they felt powerful and filled with joy. But now the thought of living up to Jesus’ expectations fills the disciple’s with fear. They’re painfully aware of what they lack. We need more faith, more people, more resources, more strength! (As we prepare the 2020 budget, I certainly can relate to that.)

Yet, Jesus knew it was not going to play out that way for the disciples. Even what little they had would soon be taken away. He would be crucified, die, and be buried. How do we apply this lesson to our lives today?
Jesus’ brusque reply to the disciple’s earnest request for more faith is mixed with judgment and hope. ‘If you had faith the size of a tiny mustard seed, you could move mountains and mulberry trees’ (v. 6). Episcopal pastor and author Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, we waste a great deal of time and energy looking for the “key to the treasure box of More.” All we lack, she argues, “is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.”
Jesus is frustrated the disciples are looking at faith all wrong. “More” faith isn’t “better” faith. Faith isn’t a thing. It’s not a noun but a verb. Faith is trust. When my daughter Leah was a toddler the stairs in our house were long and very steep. I fell on them once or twice myself. Faith is what Leah shockingly bestowed upon me one evening as I was climbing up those stairs. She was about two years old when she came running and jumped from the top step into my arms.

Jesus reminds us ‘you have faith already.’ It’s not about proportion. It’s not a recipe, or incantation, but an invitation. Go! Live according to what you have seen, heard, and know. That is all. That’s enough. That’s the key. Just do it.

While the good people of Bethlehem slept quietly in their beds, turning a cold shoulder to a young family in need, our savior was born in a manger attended by humble animals. The prophet Isaiah writes, “The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1.3).
And from Job, we read this sage advice: “…ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being” (Job 12:7-10).

For a lesson in faith, look no further than your pets. The animals that love us are here today. The spiritual wisdom of all God’s creatures is a recurring theme in the bible.

Carlo Carretto (1910–1988) was a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, a community of contemplatives based on the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi.Carretto describes Francis’ experience with a hungry old wolf who had been terrifying the people of Gubbio and preying on their livestock.

According to legend, Francis went out to meet the wolf armed only with love. The townspeople were sure the wolf would eat Francis. But Francis simply considered the needs of both the wolf and the community. He discerned that the wolf was too old to hunt wild animals and just needed to eat, while the people needed safety for themselves and their animals. Francis proposed that the wolf be given food each day, and the wolf agreed to leave their sheep and chickens alone.

Carretto writes in Francis’ voice: “No, brothers [and sisters], I was not afraid [to meet with the wolf]. Not since I had experienced the fact that my God is the wolf’s God too.” Father Richard Rohr commenting on this story writes, “What is extraordinary in the incident of the wolf of Gubbio is not that the wolf grew tame, but that the people of Gubbio grew tame, and that they ran to meet the cold and hungry wolf not with pruning knives and hatchets but with bread and hot porridge. This is the miracle of love: to discover that all creation is one, flung out into space by a God who is a Father, and that if you present yourself as [God] does, unarmed and peaceably, creation will recognize and meet you with a smile.”(Daily Meditations, St. Francis and the Wolf, 10/6/19)

Welcoming everyone equally with warm and generous hearts may come easily to our pets, but it doesn’t come naturally to us. Jesus pressed the disciples on this point asking them, which of you would say to your slave, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table?’ (Luke 17:7). Well, the answer is no one would. It’s like another story Jesus told, ‘Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one, would leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one?’ Nobody would do that either. But God does, and that’s the point.

All we need is here. All we need to become disciples is provided for us. Faith in the fact of God’s grace is the key that unlocks the treasure box of more in life and—God has already given it to you.

Here, at the Lord’s Table, we are welcomed who don’t deserve to be served. Here, Jesus our Master is both host and food. Here, we find rest and comfort to heal our wounds. Here, the faith we received as a gift is reckoned to us as righteousness. Here, we are loved in a way that far exceeds what each of us is capable of. Before our well-being, there is God’s graciousness, before our delight, there is God’s generosity, before our joy, there is God’s good will. (Walter Brueggemann, Awed by Heaven, Rooted in Earth, 137-38) Let all God’s creatures rejoice! Amen.

Michael and All Angels

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Cosmic battles. Heaven and earth caught in a war between good and evil. Satan is thrown down from heaven onto earth where the combat continues until someday soon, when the archangel Michael and the hosts of heaven finally push the devil and his minions into oblivion and the abyss.

Today’s scripture reads like gazing into a riddle wrapped in a mystery. We are frightened and a little mystified by the book of Revelation. In part that’s because popular media has turned its meaning upside down. The book is filled with stories of conflict and violence. Yet, Revelation is more about how to defeat terror than inflict it. The deadly force wielded by worldly powers to perpetuate injustice is conquered by Christ the lamb. To defeat Satan and the “beasts” of this world, all we have to do is testify to this “lamb power” –the power of God’s love made vulnerable through forgiveness and mercy.

This is apocalyptic literature. Daniel and Revelation sprang from times of turmoil like these. It offers hope for when we feel hopeless; encouragement for when we are exhausted; inspiration to answer despair. With its angels and demons, apocalyptic literature offers lessons we can learn through translation. Know that you are accompanied in all your struggles and grief.  You are never alone. God and all the realms of heaven battle beside you. The angels and archangels are in our fight with cancer, or chronic illness, addiction, joblessness, or homelessness, or perhaps—in just trying to cope with another week like the last one.

Last weekend we heard about deployment of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia. On Monday sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg and the UN Action Climate Summit presented more alarming news about ecological damage and mass displacement of peoples due to global warming. On Wednesday, the U.S. Congress officially launched an impeachment inquiry into the president.

God is with us, they say.  But also, they teach us how to fight.  Our forebears in faith have shown us how to dismantle systems of hate and oppression. They offer time-worn reconnaissance on how to destroy the handiwork of the devil, our old foe.

Revelation saw the devil at work in the great beast then known as the Roman Empire. Lutheran pastor and biblical scholar Barbara Rossing writes, “John [Revelation] was pulling back the curtain to expose the true power behind Rome— much like Toto’s pulling back of the curtain to expose “the great and powerful Wizard of Oz.” Through its apocalyptic journeys Revelation offered a way of seeing—God’s vision of hope for the world—as an alternative to Rome’s violence and power.” (Barbara R. Rossing. “The Rapture Exposed, Chapter 4, Prophecy and Apocalypse.)

The antidote to persistent evil is Jesus, the cross, and the power of the lamb. We read, “they haveconquered him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (Revelation 12:11).

Victory is ours through the blood of the lamb. Forty-three years ago, next month, October 27, 1976, a nationally televised show called, All in the Family, aired one of its most talked about episodes. The racist, misogynist, patriarch, Archie Bunker, finds out the life-saving blood infusion administered during his gall bladder surgery came from his black, Puerto Rican, female doctor—he was healed by black blood.

Of course, there is no such thing biologically, but socially and culturally we have made it into the thing, and it is the work of the devil. But we are being healed from diseases like systemic racism by regular infusions of the blood of the lamb. The end of Satan’s reign begins with the covenant God made with us in baptism. It continues at the Lord’s Table in Holy Communion. We are one family, one blood, one body. Here we glimpse the truth that frees us from the endless cycle of violence.

Because I am part of you, and you are part of me, and we are all part of one life in God, now, the innocent blood spilled in the street by gun violence is also my blood.  Now it is my blood, my children, who are born in the wrong zip code and denied access to the American Dream.  My blood, my mother, my father who are being targeted and imprisoned. My brother living on two dollars a day. My sister, my niece and nephew dying in a detention center at the border.  Let the whole angel chorus sing, Amen!

We find release from the chains binding us to the satanic power of injustice simply by remembering the blood we share and testify to the truth of these things. This is the power the archangel Michael wields like a sword. It proceeds from the words of his mouth.  Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? I renounce them. Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? I renounce them. Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God? I renounce them. The Devil and his empty promises are undone by the power of the lamb. “The strife is o’er, the battle done; now is the victor’s triumph won! Alleluia!” (ELW # 366)

Lutheran pastor and bible scholar, Barbara Rossing writes, “Revelation’s first-century readers knew first-hand Rome’s conquering power over the whole world. They were its victims. We, too, live in a world in which terror makes us feel powerless and we wonder how God can be victorious over evil. The “beasts” of the Roman Empire are long gone, but today’s “beasts” of violence, economic vulnerability, global injustice, and other threats still stalk our world, causing almost irrational fear. In a post-September 11 world, we need to testify to the wonder-working power of God’s slain Lamb today more than ever.” (Barbara R. Rossing)

The famous verse from Hebrews urges us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).  The reverse is also true.  Sometimes, in going the extra mile, you become one of God’s angels for someone else. Like these quilts and school kits we bless today and send off through Lutheran World Relief, the works of our hands become a seed of hope and grace to take root and grow in the hearts of strangers halfway around the world. Because you didn’t have to but you did; because we are one blood, one body; because we share in the one life, and have one Lord, Satan will fall once more like lightning.

The power of God’s truth gives us confidence in the face of evil on earth, even in the face of our own death. As we gather around the Lord’s Table, we are joined with choirs of angels, archangels, cherubim and seraphim in singing God’s praise. Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might heaven and earth are indeed full of your glory and blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

Proper 20C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor… The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely, I will never forget any of [your] deeds” (Amos 8:4, 7).  Today’s gospel makes me thankful for the Hebrew prophets. You can rely on Amos to tell you straight.  The good ol’ prophets reveal God’s truth with the- matter-of-factness of a carpenter’s square, or a plumb bob.  They’re quick to show where you step out of line.

Heal the sick, defend the poor, remember the widow, welcome the stranger, visit the incarcerated and do all of these in proportion to how much you love and serve God because the one is an exact measure of the other.

In contrast to the prophets the parables of Jesus seldom answer questions about God with a simple “yes” or “no.”  The parables do not speak in black or white, but “both…and.” Parables turn the message of the prophets into a story that is like a riddle then patiently wait for life or lived experience to reveal something to us about their meaning.  Using every color in a 64-crayon box, Jesus’ parables paint a picture of grace in all the shades, shadows, and hues of real life.

Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13b). That certainly sounds like something the prophets were always saying. Wealth is both a blessing and a responsibility. Do you realize there are more than 2,300 verses in scripture that mention money, wealth, or possessions? 16 out of 38 parables mention money as do one in ten gospel verses (288).  Much of the bible takes a dim view of borrowing except when it comes to lending to God. Proverbs 19:17 affirms, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD and will be repaid in full.” While plastic money on revolving credit multiplies plastic gods.

Mark Allan Powell tells how ancient warriors of Gaul converting to Christianity held their sword-arm in the air as missionaries dunked them under the water so they could proclaim ‘This arm is not baptized!’ if war were to break out.  Powell suggests many contemporary Christians do the same thing. They hold their wallet above the baptismal water. You may have all of me Lord—except this. (Giving to God: The Bible’s Good News about Living a Generous Life, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006). German theologian, Helmut Thielicke said, “Our pocketbooks can have more to do with heaven, and also with hell, than our hymnbooks.”

The truth is we were not made for the thrill of shopping.  We are made for the thrill of touching, talking, giving and loving.  The American dream becomes a lie, and all those who have sacrificed their youth, innocence, sweat, blood, and indeed their very lives to sustaining this dream will have sacrificed in vain if in the end it only means living worse in a bigger house.  We are not made to serve our wealth.  Our wealth is meant to serve us to the glory of God.

We could stop right here if we were only talking about Amos. Yet this is where Jesus begins to add new textures and nuance to the message of the prophet. It sounds bizarre yet Jesus says that those who strive for the Kingdom of God are like a dishonest manager and/or a capricious rich man.  What does Jesus mean by telling us a story in which the hero is a crook? Why did the boss commend the bad manager? What is Jesus trying to tell us? Suddenly, just like real life, we don’t have quick and simple answers.

Jesus describes a world we know only too well. A world in which dishonesty, corruption, self-interest, and ill-gotten wealth rule the day. A world in which selfish ambition often secures praise and prosperity, while honesty garners cynicism and contempt. A world in which ethical living is neither straightforward nor easy.

“Maybe the parable of the shrewd manager is simply a grim but truthful portrait of the world as it is— the real world in which we are called to be “children of light.” Maybe the story is an acknowledgment that the calling is both radically countercultural and painfully hard.” (Debi Thomas)

Unrighteous mammon cannot be separated from righteous wealth, just as the sinner in us cannot be separated from the saint.  There are weeds growing among the wheat. We await the harvest when the wheat can be separated from the chaff. But this truth does not lead to despair or inaction among God’s children, but to thanksgiving. We are indeed thankful God does not share our contempt for such folk as the dishonest manager, but has love for him, in the same way God does not abandon us to our misdeeds but has compassion for us. In the meantime, our faithful striving is being transformed into treasures. Our gifts, the sweat of our brow, and even our very lives, are wiped clean as we lay them upon the altar of Christ and as we return to wash them in the waters of baptism.

In God’s economy, people matter more than profits.  Notice, the dishonest manager adopts a whole new approach to the problem of amassing resources. He realized that generosity was the best investment he could make. He doesn’t try to hide or hang on to the money. He uses money and possessions to make friends. He gets himself out of a hole by building social capital. Rather than be slave to it he uses the money to perform a service. Money will one day forsake him, but hopefully his new-found friends will not. Could this be how Jesus turns the message of the prophets into a parable for our own lives?

Jesus has reached out to grasp our dirty hands. The children of light get busy and get their hands dirty in the real world working beside Jesus. But blessed are you when you make unrighteous mammon righteous because you used it to feed the poor and hungry, to clothe the naked.  Enter into the joy of your master! Blessed are you when you make friends through sharing the same mercy and forgiveness Christ Jesus has shown you.  Let your joy be complete! “Where there is forgiveness, there is God.  Where there is unburdening, where there is liberation, where there is crazy, radical generosity — there is God.” (Debi Thomas, Notes to the Children of Light, Journey with Jesus, September 15, 2019)

“As is ever the case with the parables of Jesus, we are dealing with an overabundance of meanings, truths, and possibilities — not a lack.  But the calling, still, is to live as children of light in a world that sorely needs solace, grace, forgiveness, and freedom” (Debi Thomas). Jesus calls us to enter into that calling with our whole hearts and minds — creatively, urgently, shrewdly—for the redemption and renewal of the real world.  Amen.

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)

Proper 16C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“She stood up” (Luke 13:13). We don’t know her name. We don’t know where she came from. We don’t know why she was in the synagogue.  But we can picture her.  A weary woman, resilient and resigned.  A woman “bent over,” and “quite unable to stand up” (vs. 11).  A woman who spent long days staring at the ground, looking at her own feet, watching dusty sandals of passers-by on the road.  She cannot make eye contact, or see the sunrise, or remember what the stars look like, or raise her face to the evening breeze. She has suffered this way for 18 years.  

Presumably, she came to the synagogue to commune with God, not to talk to Jesus.  Jesus is teaching—probably surrounded by a crowd.  She doesn’t approach him.  She is no Cinderella.  No one notices her enter the room—but Jesus does. She didn’t see him, but he saw her. He put his teaching on hold, called her over, and said the thing Jesus always says when he encounters the sick, the broken, the dying, the dead: “You are set free from your ailment” (vs. 12). “He laid his hands on her [and] immediately she stood up straight and began praising God” (v. 13).

I know. It’s astonishing!  This is not the sort of thing we expect in church.  But for Jesus, the Church is exactly the place where hunched, crippled, and exhausted people are invited, encouraged, and released to “stand up straight.”  Women, people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, the poor, the homeless, the elderly, the incarcerated, the mentally ill, the differently abled, the uneducated or under-educated, the spiritually broken—Christ calls us into a place where our dignity is restored and our full potential realized when we cannot stand up on our own. (Debi Thomas) This is the place for what is crooked to be made straight; and the rough places made smooth, so with all flesh, we may see the salvation of God again reflected in the beauty of the sunrise, the splendor of the stars,  and the feeling of the evening breeze upon our face. (Luke 3:5).

Yet the moment Jesus unbinds the crippled woman the leader of the synagogue voices his displeasure and indignation.  His angry criticism drowns out her joyful praise: “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he tells the crowds, “come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day”(Luke 13:14). 

Sadly, this does not surprise us.  Tragically, we are not astonished, but could have predicted, that too often religious communities are not a place of healing but of further bending.  There is an unfortunate tendency to bend people over under the weight of shame, judgment, invisibility, false piety, condemnation, prejudice, legalism, and harmful theology.

We know this.  It’s one reason the church has lost its standing in the wider culture today.  Yet, we also know there is power in the gospel and in God’s grace.  We are called to throw off the weight of this painful history and reclaim the beauty and the power of the gospel, just as the nameless woman did long ago.  

Notice, for a moment, the synagogue leader is not a bad man. Our history, theology and religious traditions are valuable and worthy of respect.  “But what the leader misses is the heart of the Sabbath, the heart of God’s law, the heart of the tradition. What the leader misses is compassion. The kind of compassion that trumps legalism every single time.  The kind of compassion that doesn’t cling to orthodoxy simply for orthodoxy’s sake. The kind of compassion that consistently sees the broken body, the broken soul, the broken spirit — before it sees the broken commandment.” (Debie Thomas, “She Stood Up Straight,” Journey with Jesus, 8/18/19)  

Can our church community be a place of unbending? Saint Augustine, echoed centuries later by Martin Luther, defined human sin as being incurvatus in se.  That’s Latin for saying we somehow always manage to bend in on ourselves, rather than live outward toward neighbor and God.  Worship every week is chiropractic treatment of the mind, body and soul.  By grace we are unbent. The crooked is made straight so we may stand erect and celebrate our dignity as children of God.

Often, we don’t realize how bent-in we have become.  Once, I sat with a large group of people with a big pile of paper clips. (Have you done this?)  The facilitator said, ‘give yourself a paperclip if you had books in the house growing up.’  Take a paperclip if neighbors tend to welcome you in a new neighborhood. You get a paperclip if your parents went to college and/or if they benefited from the G.I. bill.  Conversely, give up a paperclip if you were homeless as a child, if a parent or caregiver suffered from mental illness, addiction, or died prematurely. You probably know what happened. Pretty soon I had a very long chain of paperclips—and so did the other educated, affluent, English speaking, mentally sound, straight, able-bodied, white, Christian men born in the U.S. in the room.

I’m ashamed to say, I felt pride at winning this game.  I sat there smiling when I noticed one of my colleagues holding back tears. He was visibly upset.  He had no paperclips.  Even those he had were taken away. That exercise held a mirror up to myself and the image reflected back was pretty twisted.  All the privileges afforded me by luck and the accidents of birth are connected to the suffering of my brothers and sisters who are being denied that same privilege. It was one step among thousands through which God has slowly, patiently, persistently transformed and matured me. It taught me how persons of goodwill, who want to do everything right, like the synagogue leader, perpetuate the suffering of others. 

Through anointing for healing (which our Parish Nurse, Marcia Smith makes available to you at the back of the church during Communion today), we receive a cross made with oil on our forehead.  A gesture for our body.  An invitation for our soul.  Our restless minds and hearts may go through all kinds of posturing, trying to figure how we can make our lives better, how we can survive our hurt.  We come forward to the Table this day with our hands open, our hearts open, our minds open.  We pray that Christ will show us the living bread that is real and everlasting.  Postures of waiting, postures of trust. Through these sacrament and symbols of the gospel, Christ bids us to rise, to stand up.  To receive the dignity that is ours.  To look others in the eye.  To see, even when bent over, our worth as children of God.  To notice not the mud below but the sky above.  And finally, to give thanks.  To give thanks for such a beautiful world and a compassionate, gracious God. 

Mary, Mother of our Lord

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth (Luke 1.39-40). A newly pregnant teenager makes for the hills. She doesn’t slow down until she reaches the home of her also-pregnant cousin.  She flees toward her kinswoman, toward refuge. She finds solidarity and sanctuary.

‘On a well-swept doorstep, two women meet to share the ancient, womanly experience of being with child. Mary and Elizabeth are two ordinary, pregnant women in the most extraordinary time and circumstances, on the brink of greatness, but first attending to their relationship with each other and with God. Motherhood is daunting for every woman, especially the first time, and these two women found themselves pregnant under most unusual and unexpected terms: one past the age to conceive, and the other unmarried. So, like women in every place and time, they spend time together, keeping each other company, learning and praying and perhaps laughing together, as they faced first-time childbirth and motherhood’ (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds).  

In his book, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey, Henri Nouwen asks what must have gone through Mary’s mind?  “Who could ever understand? Who could ever believe it? Who could ever let it happen? The Angel’s proposed plan was preposterous and dangerous, but Mary said “yes!”  When her kinswoman welcomes her, she bursts into song — a song so subversive, governments twenty centuries later will ban its public recitation. According to scripture, Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, or until John after was born. Then returned home to an uncertain future with Joseph in Nazareth (Luke 1: 56).

John the Baptist proclaimed of Jesus, “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). We must pause a moment to acknowledge the tragic and painful ways the beautiful story of Mary has been weaponized by the church against women. When the history of all the words said of Mary is laid before Jesus, a whole lot of unquenchable fire will be required to burn away the layers of misogyny and theological malpractice heaped upon Mary to obscure, nullify, and outright contradict her story.  How many women throughout history and across cultures have been bludgeoned with the cudgel of religious shame into self-loathing for failing to live up to the impossible standard of being both a virgin and a mother at the same time?

Yet, the self-righteous, the self-interested, the liars, bullies and Christmas marketing people could not steal the gospel from us. For them, Mary’s message contains surprises that will not be quiet. Mary’s spirit rejoices, not because Joseph bought her the perfect Christmas gift— but because “…[God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52b)  Mary’s song is essentially about social justice.

New Testament scholar Scott McKnight points out that in the 1980s, the government of Guatemala banned singing of Mary’s Magnificat for Christmas because, unlike Away in a Manger, this song was considered subversive and politically dangerous. “Authorities worried that it might incite the oppressed people to riot.” (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds)

The Magnificat was excluded from evening prayer in churches run by the British East India Company in colonial India. Years later, on the final day of imperial rule in India, Mahatma Gandhi requested Mary’s song be read everywhere the British flag was being lowered. The junta in Argentina forbade the singing of Mary’s song after the Mothers of the Disappeared displayed its words on placards in the capital plaza. And during the 1980s, the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador prohibited any public recitation of the song.

What made Mary’s song so dangerous?  Mary’s song of joy and faith is anthem of solidarity with the poor. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52a).  Mary and Elizabeth, like people of faith of every generation, expanded the powerful bond of their kinship with one another for belonging in the ever-widening circle of the kin-dom of God.  They shifted their allegiances and loyalties.  They went from living in an “us versus them” world, to a world of love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace for all.  That is why we celebrate Mary (and Elizabeth) today.  They are heroes of faith who show us the way to walk toward transformation and renewal by the way of the cross. 

Mary and Elizabeth afforded one another safety and strength through the gift of sanctuary.  Can we, like them, grow in our stated mission, striving to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace?  This month, our church, at its national Churchwide Assembly, voted to become a sanctuary denomination.  By this, the ELCA has publicly declared that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith. They affirmed that we are called to use our hands and voices in obedience to Jesus’ command to welcome the most vulnerable.  Specifically, the Churchwide Assembly’s resolution challenges us to seek for ways that we may provide concrete resources to respond to the needs of our human family who are suffering now—especially immigrants and asylum seekers.  This national resolution has drawn criticism for being too radical. Yet, in substance, how is it any different than Mary’s song? Mary’s song is a lullaby conjuring dreams of new worlds as we sleep.

This week, August 23-25, our nation commemorates the 400th anniversary of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Most of us learned about the arrival of 102 passengers on the Mayflower in 1620. What you didn’t learn in history class was that a year earlier, August of 1619, 20 enslaved Africans from the Kingdom of Ndongo in Angola landed at Point Comfort (now in Virginia) on the White Lion, a 160-ton English privateer slave ship.  The transatlantic slave trade was the biggest forced migration of people in world history.

The Mother of Exiles, the Statue of Liberty has a broken shackle and chain laying at her feet as she walks forward, to commemorate the national abolition of slavery in 1865.  Could Mary’s song of solidarity be the cure that alludes us? Can we finally stand with the children of those who never knew welcome to our shores, as members of one wonderfully diverse human family? In 1992, Toni Morrison told the Guardian newspaper: “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” When can our allegiances and loyalties shift? When will our national story expand to become part of the universal story—of the ever-widening circle of the kin-dom of God? Listening to Mary’s song will end the fever of racism animating the irrational, tragic, and self-defeating anger against people of color and immigrants today. 

In a world that longs for a gentle peace, a generous sharing of the goods of the earth, a time of quiet joy and healing, Mary points the way to becoming expectant with hope and filled to the brim with joy. See, even now we are being filled with joy and delight in God’s grace so that the song of our lives may give praise to God and our souls magnify God’s grace.

Proper 14C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Perhaps, it is part of the unfortunate legacy of the piety many of us grew up with we are apt to hear many reasons to judge ourselves reading today’s gospel. We list them out: “Do not be afraid…” “Sell your possessions…” “You must be ready…,” but miss the graceful promise. It is God’s great pleasure to give you treasure. There is no waiting. In fact, God has already done this. All that remains is the search. Except of course, we’d rather not search.  Who has time or energy to play games? Give us faith now.

Is it with wry humor that Jesus describes faith in this way? Scripture doesn’t say.  We remember how God poked fun at Jonah’s self-pity and discomfort as he lay beneath the withered broom tree.  Like Jonah, we protest. It’s so awful. Do you not see what is happening, how the land suffers, how hate walks the land, how people are at each other’s throats, how people are forced from their homes and lands by war, climate, famine, racism and injustice?  And now, I don’t even recognize my own country. We are entitled to feel weary. Yet as with Jonah, and all the faithful generations before us, God answers our complaints and self-doubting with a strange, excited non-sequitur: come and see! Take up your mat and walk! Have faith.

Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:34) He seems to consider that having faith is like accepting an invitation to undertake a great adventure, like a thrilling a hunt for buried treasure.  This illusive gift of faith aligns our hearts and minds, our striving and desire, with God’s promise to bring in the Kingdom. (The mission, should you accept it, is in building a neighborhood of God like the one our children imagined and created for us behind me.)  This faith, hidden in plain sight, clears our mind from fever dreams of conquest and control. It is God’s desire is to give us all these good things through faith.

Having faith is like hunting for treasure. It’s something we do, rather than something to possess. The hunt for treasure surely is a powerful lure. As a motivation it has few rivals in human history. Vacationing in New Mexico last week, we saw plenty of evidence of how the dream of literal and spiritual treasure carried Spanish priests and explorers of the 17thcentury over the ocean and across the desert plains throughout the American southwest within decades after Columbus. Many of us can testify how the dream of a better life inspired our immigrant ancestors to brave hardships and risk many dangers for the sake of the same hope. The same dream calls to immigrants and asylum seekers today.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). The faithful shall ‘be dressed for action and have [their] lamps lit.’ (Luke 12:35). To be faithful is to be restless, like those searching for a better life. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes that to have faith is to “Believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”(Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 20th century)

Mircea Eliade, the late professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, Divinity School, used to tell a story about a Polish rabbi from Kraców named Eisik.  Eisik had a recurring dream. In this dream he was told to travel more than 300 miles to Prague. There, under the bridge leading to the royal castle, he would find hidden treasure.  The dream repeated itself three times, and he decided to go.  In Prague he found the bridge, but it was guarded by soldiers. As he loitered nearby, one of the soldiers noticed him and asked him what he was doing.  The rabbi told his dream and the soldier burst into laughter. “Poor man,” the soldier said, “have you worn out your shoes coming all this way simply because of a dream?”  “I too, once had a dream,” said the soldier, “It spoke to me of Kraców, ordered me to go there and look for a treasure in the house of a rabbi named Eisik. The treasure was to be found in a dusty old corner behind the stove.”  “But,” said the soldier, “being a reasonable man and not trusting in dreams, I decided not to go.” The rabbi thanked the soldier, returned to Kraców, dug behind the stove, found the treasure, and put an end to his poverty.”

Being reasonable and not trusting has been the cause of premature death before the grave for countless human lives. Life presents us with a choice. We can be like the Rabbi or the soldier. To have life is to have faith and to have faith is to search, as one does for buried treasure. Like it or not, the essential ingredient to faith is human effort.

Like the rabbi, pursuing your faith dreams can be thrilling, surprising, even miraculous—even if as in today’s gospel—the only money Jesus talks about comes from your own pocket. Faith fills our hearts to overflowing. The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is complacency, apathy, resignation, and cynicism. As with the soldier, and like Jonah, life without faith predictably becomes self-pitying.

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Jesus invites us on a hunt for buried treasure—and God must have a sense of humor because the gospel tells us to dig—right under our nose! The unfailing treasure of grace is always found in the present moment even though it is also true that finding this treasure may require a kind of quest. Yet ultimately, as St. Teresa of Avila once said, “The truth is that the treasure lies within our very selves.”

When Rome was overthrown in 410 C.E., the great Christian theologian, Augustine, was asked why it was that Christians were so badly treated.  If God is so great, why didn’t God protect them?  Augustine’s answer was that the difference between people is not what happens to them, but in how they respond to what happens to them.

Faith means we need not fear the future.  Faith means we need not mourn the past. Our lives are difficult, but God is good.  Like Abraham and Sarah, our destiny is clothed in God’s abundance, our reward is cast as wide and deep and numerous as sand beside the sea, or the number of stars in the sky.