Posts

All Saints-A20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Ok breathe. Take a breath. Blessed are you, Jesus said. Beloved, remember each day begins in love. Jesus sermon on the mount seems tailor made for me this week, in these restless and fitful days of pandemic, social upheaval, and the looming presidential election. Blessed are you. Just breathe.

The people came on foot, or perhaps, by donkey. I wonder. What propelled those people out from the safety and comfort of their homes and towns into the wilderness to hear and see Jesus? What made them move, clanging and banging, with all their stuff behind him?

Somewhere in the dusty, rolling hills of Northern Israel, near the sea of Galilee, Jesus sat down. The disciples and a great crowd sat with him. They came from regions to the north, south, east, and west. They came from Syria, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. They sat at Jesus’ feet. The dust of those hills clung to their clothes. It was in their hair and on their feet. Blessed are you, Jesus said. Just breathe.

Their lives were not their own under Roman occupation. Paying taxes to Caesar left little to live on. Religious authorities were focused on helping themselves more than with serving God. The people went out of their way to hear and see Jesus because he opened the door to an upside-down world in, with, and under this one which he called ‘the kingdom of God.’ Some today call it the ‘kindom,’ because it is the family of God. All your heart, soul, and strength find their true purpose through being part of this family and in belonging to the one in whom we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28).

Jesus said the kindom is revealed in those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, in those who are merciful, who are pure in heart, who are peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. “Blessed are you,” Jesus said, “when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11). Just breathe. Breathe and know. You belong to the kindom of God.

Jesus’ words are strength for the weary. Jesus embodies hope for the hopeless. Those early followers gathered up Jesus’ words. They treasured them and pondered them. They chewed on them like bread. They drank them like water. Hearing and seeing Jesus restored their soul.

Some years ago, it was popular to wear a wristband with the letters WWJD, “What Would Jesus Do?” It was supposed to remind whoever wore it to keep their minds focused on Christ. Likewise, the sermon on the mount was written so the essential words and teaching of Jesus could travel with us everywhere. Instead of wearing it, early followers memorized it. Instead of WWJD it is WWJS –“What Would Jesus Say?”

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are you.’ Just breathe. Notice, Jesus’ sermon doesn’t contain a single “should,” “ought,” or “thou shalt.” There is no transactional language at all. No commandments. No moral directives. To embrace Jesus’ teaching was and is to live into an upside-down world where neighbor love is the prime and only directive. (Debi Thomas, The Great Reversal, Journey with Jesus, 10/25/20)

Presbyterian Pastor and author, Frederick Buechner, helpfully writes that Jesus’s upside-down kingdom is like this: “The world says, ‘Mind your own business,’ and Jesus says, ‘There is no such thing as your own business.’ The world says, ‘Follow the wisest course and be a success,’ and Jesus says, ‘Follow me and be crucified.’ The world says, ‘Drive carefully — the life you save may be your own’ — and Jesus says, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’ The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’” One way into the kindom of God is through Jesus’ teaching. WWJS, What would Jesus say?

Great works of fiction can offer us another way to see and live into life as part of God’s eternal family. C.S. Lewis, J.R. Tolkien, and George Lucas are modern examples. Ancient apocalyptic writing like we find in the Book of Revelation, or the Book of Daniel are another. Stories of long, long, ago and far, far away help us get deeper inside the here and now.

Somehow, we get terribly confused by this type of literature when we encounter it in the pages of the bible. Less so when we see it on the big screen. (I feel almost heart-sick about the trans-phobic trouble J.K. Rowling has gotten herself into recently. In the spirit of All Saints Day, I pray that one day God will help us sort it all out.) I mention her because in the climatic Book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling paints a scene that seems it could be written for All Saints.

The hero, Harry Potter, walks to certain death at the hand of the evil Lord Voldemort. He intends to sacrifice himself to protect his friends. But something he carries in his pocket, called the Resurrection Stone, enables the presence of four of the saints who have previously died for him to be there with him, and to talk with him. They give him the courage he needs for the task. They are Harry’s personal cloud of witnesses who give him faith to stand against evil with the power of love.
You see, we cannot enter the upside-down world of God’s kindom alone, but as members of one another. Each one of us remains unique and singular, yet also fully belonging to the one life we live in God. The blessed loved ones we remember today are still with us. They struggle with us. Their love continues to bless us. They remind us to breathe.

Rowling’s Harry Potter Saga, like the Book of Revelation, inspires faith in the power of God’s love as the only power in this world capable of ultimately standing against the hideous reality of human violence. They bring the mighty down from their thrones to elevate the outcast and the seemingly least powerful. As we read from Revelation, we have a place beside those who have come through the ordeal of the same oppressive, imperialistic human violence as Jesus did. We are washed clean in the blood of the lamb (Revelation 7:14). (Paul Nuechterlein, All Saints Day, cycle A, Girardian Lectionary, 10/30/20)

This week, of all weeks, the nation stands as if on the great continental divide of the Rocky Mountains. A glass of water poured out on one side of the divide ultimately finds its way to the Pacific Ocean, while water on the other side runs inevitably to the Atlantic. The path forward diverges into two futures. It’s stressful not knowing how it will all play out or where we will be when we meet again next Sunday. We pray. We watch. We vote! Yet regardless, whatever unfolds, we know. Beloved is where we begin. Just breathe. Breathe and know we belong to each other, and to the entire communion of saints in God.

Amen.

Proper 25A-20-Reformation
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can we be thankful?

Proper 23A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 22A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 21A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 20A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 18A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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