Posts

Proper 28C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

On February 14th, 1990 the Voyager I space probe sent a love letter.  It was Valentine’s Day. The probe had already travelled 13 years and nearly 4 billion miles from earth when the late-great astronomer Carl Sagan, convinced NASA engineers to turn Voyager’s camera toward earth for one final photo. The famous image, called “Pale Blue Dot,” depicts a single pinprick of light in a dark, vast, empty, expanse of space.  Voyager has travelled 43 years without stopping and is now more than thirteen billion miles from earth. It is the first human-made object to leave our solar system.

Carl Sagan wrote that pale blue dot, “That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was…every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” (Carl Sagan, “Pale Blue Dot,” 1994)

This is what Bulgarian-born writer Maria Popova has called a telescopic perspective on our world. It’s when we think of life, not in the span of days or years or even generations, but across geological epochs and cosmic space. From such a distance we ask ourselves different questions — not, “What matters to me?” but instead: What does it mean to matter? And what must we choose to care for when life is both so precious and so lonely in the universe?

As we end one year reading the gospel of Luke and are about to begin a new one reading from Matthew, our story pans out to include the beginning and the end.  This stretch of Sundays, from All Saints to Christmas, our bible trains us to look at life through this telescopic perspective with its language about the end-times.  From this vantage point so-called big things become very small and certain small things loom large.

As they walked past the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus told the disciples, not one stone would be left upon another.  The ruin of it must have been impossible to imagine.

The historian Josephus wrote: “The outward face of the Temple…was covered with gold plates of great weight, which at sunrise, reflected a fiery splendor that forced those who looked upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays.  At a distance this golden Temple appeared like a snow-covered mountain, for…those parts…not covered in gold… where exceedingly white. (As quoted by William Barclay).

When the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., it was a bewildering event that seemed to signal the end of the world.  Josephus’ account of the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans just thirty years after Jesus’ resurrection is no less spectacular that his description of the Temple itself.  He writes, “The roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the falling victims; and owing to the height of the hill and the mass of the burning pile, one would have thought that the whole city was ablaze” (War 6.271-275) [p. 359].

We are not the first people to live in a time it seems everything is upended.  In a new twist on an old story, Jesus points to the beginning that is beyond the end. He invites us to look at life as if through a telescope. Regardless of our leaders, Jesus Christ is king. Of all the things that exist today, tomorrow, and yesterday, only the Word of God is eternal. God opens the way that rekindles our hope even as kingdoms the world are brought low.

In a sermon collection titled, God in Pain, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown argues that disillusionment is essential to the Christian life: “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion — about ourselves, about the world, about God — and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.”

Viewing life through the telescopic perspective of the end-of-days, may provoke grief and disorientation in us. Like Job, sitting in the ashes of our own human striving, we cry out to God, ‘What does it mean?’

As we envision ourselves in the disciples’ place, listening in bewilderment as Jesus pops our spiritual bubbles, we start asking ourselves different questions: What lies, and illusions do I mistake for truth? In what memories or traditions do I attempt to “house” God?  On what shiny religious edifice do I pin my hopes, instead of trusting Jesus? (My denomination?  My church?  My spiritual heritage?)   Why do I cling to permanence when Jesus invites me to evolve?

Am I willing to sit with the fact that things fall apart?  (Things I love, things I built, things I cried and prayed and strived for?)   Can I embrace a journey of faith that includes rubble, ruin, and failure? (Debie Thomas, By Your Endurance, Journey with Jesus, 11/10/19)

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

From the perspective of eternity and the far-flung distance of space big things that fill our minds and calendars begin to look small and certain small things loom large. From four billion miles we can clearly see life itself is breath-taking and miraculous. The most important legacy of our lives is in sustaining and extending life on this beautiful pale blue dot rather than in subduing and extinguishing it. Our fate rests in how we choose to care for what’s right in front of us, day after day, no matter how miniscule that may seem. As Carl Sagan wrote of that distant image of our tiny world, “It underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

You do this at Immanuel when you take time to help a child learn to read and be successful in school. When you build community among young families. Through your support of an immigrant family torn apart by detention and deportation. By welcoming young people to Christ and belonging as siblings of God. When you take time to listen to a co-worker, care for a friend or family member, or take risks to oppose injustice.  When you lift your voices to sing and give God praise.  When you answer the sabbath call to gather here for worship to hear the word, to be nourish at the table, and made new in the waters of the font. The sacrifice of your time, sweat, and money for these small things loom large because these are the very things that sustain us and add to the vibrancy of all life.  All the angels in heaven sing, and all that is, was, and is to be, will join us in celebration. May Christ be praised. Amen!

Proper 27C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The leaves are mostly down now.  The trees along the parkway across the street, displayed a fiery red. The little Maple near the front walkway is still a glowing yellow. Some people, like trees, reveal their inner glory late in life. To appreciate fall is to savor transience and transition. Being is becoming that becomes being again—which is beautiful and terrifying of course.

Fall begs the question.  What happens when I die?  Unfortunately, the Sadducees, who actually asked Jesus, were not interested in the answer. Instead, they engaged in combat. The Sadducees sat at the top the religious hierarchy.  They controlled the Temple.  They were privileged, landed, elite, arrogant, and often in cahoots with the Roman Empire. In forty years, both they and the Temple would be gone.  But this was their final chance to put Jesus in his place before they committed themselves to dispatch him by violence.

Their contrived outlandish hypothetical question about a woman who marries and is widowed by seven brothers was a trap. Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?  They’re point was to prove that life after death is absurd.

Fortunately, Jesus didn’t answer their question.  He came closer to answering ours. Jesus realized there is no right answer to a wrong question—especially one designed as a trap. Because the Sadducees’ only read the first five books of the bible, the Pentateuch, Jesus quoted Moses.  Moses had stood beside the burning bush in the wilderness and addressed “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Luke 20:37) Therefore, the Lord is not God of the dead, Jesus said, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:38)  The dead become like angels.  Jesus will also say, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so would I have told you I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2) He will say to the criminal crucified beside him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) And that’s it.  That is literally all Jesus had to say about what happens when we die.  Jesus didn’t offer many details.  As pastor, what I often say is, scripture offers assurance that this God whom we have come to know and trust with our life, will also be trustworthy in our death. The realms of heaven go beyond my imagining.

Martin Luther said something like this. He taught that we actually undergo two deaths—one big and one small.  We have already undergone a big death in baptism.  We are children of God forever. The smaller one is our physical death.  We are alive in Christ forever–beginning now, now, now, now, and persisting into eternity.  How does that knowledge change the way we live today?

Jesus didn’t have a lot to say about when we die, but he never stopped talking about the kingdom that is coming.  A realm where no human being “belongs” to any other, because all belong equally to God. It is the very kin-dom we invite to take hold every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. For Jesus, God’s kingdom was not a distant future event but a powerful nearby reality. Our true citizenship has already been transferred into Christ’s kingdom. Christians waiting for the second coming have missed the bus.  The good news is there’s always another one coming.  Like the old song says, ‘You don’t need a ticket.  You just get on board.’

This season in the church, the seven Sundays between All Saints and Christmas, this set of readings, are a wake-up call to an ever-present reality. Each season of the church year offers a new window into the life of faith. What makes this stretch of Sundays important is this chance to incorporate an eschatological lens to our life in God. The Alpha is our Omega, our beginning is also our end. God has joined these together in an eternal now Jesus called the kingdom of God.

Dwelling in this kin-dom brings an end to business-as-usual. A new “Day” is upon us.  It puts an end to our fear. It protects us from the slings and arrows of this world. We are servants of the God of the living. So, we hold out for the impossible.  We may dare to live as Jesus longs for us to live. We set out to advance this kin-dom. We work right beside God confident that the love which propels us has also embraced us and will never let go.

For the next seven Sundays our bible talks a lot about the end times. It will often do so in a language and style popular among ancient people called apocalyptic literature. Earthquakes, plagues, wars, and famines are its dreadful portents, great signs from heaven that God’s judgement is loose upon the land.  This baffles modern Christians unfamiliar with this literary style.  We often become apocalyptic literalists, by trying to reconcile details from different stories as if these were secret divine messages to be decoded.  At best, this is an exercise in futility. At its worst, as in Christian Zionism, it becomes foreign policy, as when Christians send money to Israel hoping to provoke holy war and the second coming.

So, these seven Sundays are important not just for faith but also to prevent violence and suffering from the misuse of scripture. This gospel about God’s kingdom that is coming does indeed set fire to the world as we know it –but it does so from within our hearts and minds. The war being waged now is one of spirit and of faith.

We are a resurrection people.  Christ has opened the door to undying life.  Jesus affirms the dead are alive to God.  God gives life and preserves life.  The resurrected life has a different character than life lived only in the present.  Jesus taught us, the resurrection is not only a future hope, but an urgent and crucial aspect of our life today.  The true dignity and power of human life within us comes from beyond us as a gift from God.  Our fragile and finite lives are caught up and joined together in the one eternal life of God.

We do not know what the future or what heaven will be like.  We only know at its center will be the One we have always known, who has loved us, and calls us by name.

All Saints C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

John of Patmos foretold peoples of all nations streaming to the City of God. In worship, time and eternity are joined in the eternal now. Saints of every time and place crowd in among us. Seems like a great opportunity to ask one of them about Jesus’ sermon on the plain.

In life, she stood five feet tall and couldn’t read or write. Yet she led 70 slaves to freedom without losing a single one. During the Civil War she served as Union scout, spy, and nurse. She is also the first woman to lead a U.S. military operation in what is known as the Combahee Ferry Raid. She guided Union boats through mine-filled waters and successfully rescued more than 700 slaves from nearby plantations, while dodging bullets and artillery shells of slave owners and Confederate soldiers.

Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland in 1822. At 27, she fled on foot and alone 90-miles north to Pennsylvania.  Later she recounted, “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything. The Sun came like gold through the trees and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”

Tubman escaped from hell then returned to it. She returned to slave territory between 13 – 19 times. She risked her life each time. Her astonishing success at using and expanding the secret network, known as the Underground Railroad, led the abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, to call her “Moses of her people.”

Tubman credited her success with an ability to take instructions directly from God.  Harriet had fainting spells and visions throughout her life stemming from a brain injury when she was 13.  Stories differ. By one account, a slave master threw a metal weight at someone else, that fractured her skull. She spent upwards of two months in a coma without medical treatment. Harriet’s documented uncanny ability to avoid capture despite the determined efforts of slave owners and armed slave hunters, she later said, was due to the fact that the old injury had made God’s voice easier for her to hear.

After the war, Tubman was recognized as a war hero, but she wasn’t paid. She petitioned the government but was repeatedly denied compensation because she was a woman. She supported herself by selling homemade pies, gingerbread and root beer. Despite meager resources, she opened her home in Auburn, NY to orphans, the elderly, and freed slaves looking for help.  On March 10, 1913, she died of pneumonia, surrounded by family and friends. A devout Christian until the end, her final words were, “I go to prepare a place for you.”

If her courage and achievements weren’t testament enough, these last words attest to her dedication to others, seeking no glory or fame. A woman who became an American icon by hiding in shadows. A woman who escaped the hell of being a slave and set about helping others to do the same.

I imagine, if we asked Harriet, she would point out Jesus stood on a level place as he preached. Here Jesus, the Son of God, walks among humankind as an equal.  Here Jesus taught there is no place for me to stand that is any higher or lower with respect to God than you.  Whether we walk up the steps to the altar or gather in an open field, God is with us.  Every human life is precious.  God doesn’t want people to own people.

I imagine Harriet might say this is what Jesus aimed to show us when he took on flesh and lived among us (John 1:14) Christ Jesus, “Who, though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). Jesus stands with the suffering, the afflicted, the no-account, the invisible poor who make our shoes. To follow Jesus is to walk the way of his cross. Jesus made himself subject to human capriciousness and malice in solidarity with those who become its targets.  Let the heavenly chorus sing for joy.

Harriet would not fail to notice all the “blessings” mentioned in Jesus’ sermon are what most people would call woes; and all the woes are what we usually count as blessings.  Jesus preached woe to the wealthy, and those who have plenty to eat, who are laughing now and possess the esteem of others who all speak well of them.  Aren’t these the very things we often pray for?  As for hunger, weeping, and the hatred of others who exclude, revile, defame us on account of Jesus—who among us would call these blessings?  Well, apparently, Jesus did and does.

But, as Harriet would be quick to say, this is not because Jesus wants us to weep more, or to become poorer, or to be hated. This does not please to God.  Rather, Jesus the great revealer, shows us the fullness of God dwells now in the abandoned places of human despair. God is with you in your struggles.  God is there when you’re not being very good at being religious, let alone spiritual.  God is present in distress, tragedy, and injustice –not because God wants more of these things—but because God intends to put an end to such things.  In fact, God has already turned the tide. (Nadia Bolz-Weber) Christ Jesus has called us to come stand beside him in this fight.

Jesus goes on to up the ante saying, ‘Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, look them in the eye and offer the other cheek also. If anyone takes your coat offer them your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you. If anyone steals your stuff, don’t ask for it back. Do unto others as you would have them do to you.’ (Luke 6:27-31)

Theologians will say these Beatitudes are descriptive of God’s kingdom, not prescriptive of what we need to try and be more of.  Regular people say, ‘Sure Jesus, in an ideal world, I might be willing to do all these things—but in case you haven’t noticed—this not an ideal world!’  That’s when our strong faithful new friend Harriet might gently pull on our elbow. Jesus knows the power of evil is real. But there’s no way to begin making a better world unless evil is returned with forgiveness and mercy. Let all the Saints sing alleluia!

I go to prepare a place for you.  There’s a reserved seat for you right beside Harriet at the great banquet Jesus has laid out for us. Come, share in the inheritance of all the saints. Come to the table prepared for you.

Reformation Sunday, 2019

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

When I was five, I fell asleep on the back of my grandpa’s tractor while he was cutting hay. I got a big ball of dirt and grass in my lungs. “Pneumonia,” they said. I would need regular injections of penicillin. In those days there were no pills to take.  So, that’s how I missed the first two weeks of kindergarten laying in a hospital bed.

I remember the big yellow school bus that came to pick me up my on first day of school-mostly because my mom took a picture of me and our dog, Rusty, standing beside the road.

That same day, for the ride home, my teacher attached a big manila tag to a button on my shirt. It had the bus number written in big black letters. “You still need that tag?” One of the kids asked disbelievingly. After two weeks, the other kids already knew their bus by heart. “You still need that tag?” That question is probably the only other thing I still remember about my first day. How’s it possible you still don’t know? I’m thankful my teacher kept track of my story and took care to provide me with it, because yeah, I did need it. I needed that tag to find my way home again.

Well, the people of Israel should have known. After Exodus, Mt. Sinai, and entry in the Promised Land, they had no excuse.  One could have asked the Israelites, ‘You still need reminding about this whole God thing?”  Well, yes. Yes, they did still need reminding.  So, God wrote a big note for them. It was already written in the book of the Law and the Prophets.  But now, God wrote in big letters on sticky note placed directly on their hearts.  “I will be your God, and you shall be my people… I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33 & 34.)  God is still doing that. In fact, God is that kind of parent who is always leaving us notes.

Jesus commanded that we be baptized and that we meet him at his Table. These are not prerequisites of grace. They’re not how we merit status as God’s children. They’re sticky notes of grace. Remember, you are marked with the cross of Christ.  You are my child. Partake of living bread and drink of my lifeblood. You are one body, one blood, one people, and that’s the truth.

In the Roman Praetorium, standing before Jesus on the night of his crucifixion, Pilate famously asked, “What is truth?” In a time when we can’t even agree about facts, could there be a more modern question? Jesus showed us what to do in chaotic and confusing times.  Look within yourself. See what’s written there. Remember your baptism. Don’t forget what I taught you seated around my Table. Jesus said, if are my disciples you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)

They said to Jesus, “What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free?’” (John 8:33b) We have never been slaves to anyone. They had forgotten their ancestors in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. They overlooked their own obvious everyday reality of Roman occupation.  It’s easy to get lost when you can’t remember where you come from.  It’s hard to know which choice is right when you don’t know where you’re going.

We know its flu season now, but each day of the year is sin season. Blindness to the truth, and forgetting our core values rooted in our God-infused identity, are symptoms of sin.  The antidote is written on your heart, marked on your forehead, and in the food we share today. Remember who you are.  This truth, as Martin Luther said, is what cures the fever dream we all have when our mind, energy, and desire become curved in on ourselves and begin to blot out any thought for God and neighbor. This truth restores us from the many ways we put our self in the place of God.

Lutheran pastor and author, Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, “It can be alcoholism or passive aggression. It can be the hateful things we think but never say or it can be adultery, or it can be that feeling of superiority when we are helping others. Sin is the fact that my ideals and values are never enough to make me always do what I should, feel what I should, think what I should. And anything that reveals those “shoulds” to me is what we call The Law, the Law being the very thing Paul in his letter to the Romans said reveals sin. The “shoulds” in our lives are the things that make us see how far off the mark we are.” Sin is so devious and cunning we can get lost even in our attempt to do what’s right.

This truth sparked the Protestant Reformation. Luther knew what is was like for the Law to convict and accuse him. Feeling this way, Luther read that passage we just heard from Romans, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift.” (Romans 3:23 & 24). Luther realized the church was pawning off Law as Gospel, and he dared to know the difference, and he became a preacher of Grace, and that changed everything.

To quote a single sentence from Pastor Bolz-Weber: “Because God is our creator and because we rebel against the idea of being created beings and insist on trying to be God for ourselves and because God will not play by our rules and because in the fullness of time when God had had quite enough of all of that God became human in Jesus Christ to show us who God really is and because when God came to God’s own and we received him not, and because God would not be deterred God went so far as to hang from the cross we built and did not even lift a finger to condemn but said forgive them they know not what they are doing and because Jesus Christ defeated even death and the grave and rose on the 3rd day and because we all sin and fall short and are forever turned in on ourselves and forget that we belong to God and that none of our success guarantee this and none of our failures exclude this and because God loves God’s creation God refuses for our sin and brokenness and inability to always do the right things to be the last word because God came to save and not to judge and therefore…therefore you are saved by grace as a gift and not by the works of the law and this truth will set you free like no self-help plan or healthy living or social justice work “shoulds” can ever do.” (Nadia Bolz Weber, “Why the Gospel is More Wizard of Oz-y than the Law,” 10/29/12)

Whether or not you are wearing your bus tag, whether you have been baptized or not, whether or not you come to the Table –the truth is you were created in the image of God. You carry a spark of the infinite within your narrow, mortal frame. All things come from God and return to God. That is how we know where we come from and to where we’re going. That is how we know what will matter most when we get there. They were thirsty. Did you give them something to drink? They were hungry and you gave them something to eat. They were cold or naked and we comforted them. And that’s the truth. Truth to live and to die by.  It is written on our hearts, marked on our foreheads, and in the sack lunch we eat each week –so we don’t forget.  We can’t forget –never forget—we belong to Christ. One body, one blood, one living sanctuary of hope and grace.

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 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.