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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)

Proper 17A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“The Lord said [to Moses], ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians…’ (Exodus 3:7, 8). God is touched by human suffering and moved to action. This God whose name can be translated “I am who I am,” “I am what I am,” and also “I will be what I will be” can’t be pinned down. God is like the wind, dynamic, ever-changing, and mysterious, a presence in all times and places. And yet this God also waits for us close at hand, attends to us, hidden among us and in nearby things.

I still have a belly ache after watching two weeks of political conventions, layered upon the police shooting of Jacob Blake, and violent vigilante groups. Because I am a person of faith, I am particularly upset at how religion is being used not only to justify our politics but to vilify those we disagree with. If the gospel is in the eye of the beholder it begins to lose all meaning. How are we to discern God’s will for us and our nation against the angry backdrop of competing claims and recriminations we find ourselves in today two months from the presidential election?

I wonder, how did Moses do it? Moses fled to the wilds of the eastern Sinai desert to escape justice. He had just begun to make a new life for himself. He was married. He had meaningful work tending the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro. He started a family. He was setting down roots. He had a belly full of politics already. He grew up in Pharaoh’s court quietly seething at the injustice and oppression of his fellow Israelites.

Moses protested God’s call. It was preposterous. He wasn’t a leader. He wasn’t a public speaker. He stuttered, and if all that were not enough, didn’t God remember he was a murderer on the run. He couldn’t go back to Egypt if he wanted to. It’s true. It would be hard for an independent observer to see what God saw in him. Still, God persisted. God chose Moses to lead the people out of Egypt.

Moses had a decision to make. It was a big decision, one that would change the course of his life, interrupt his family, and put him in harms way. The smart thing might have been to turn away and keep walking.

Moses’ encounter with the living God in that burning bush caught him by surprise. Moses encountered the angel of God, and the God of his ancestors, on his way to work. I wonder, how many times Moses had passed by this blazing bush before he finally saw it? According to Jewish midrash, the bush had stood there burning at the foot of Mt. Sinai for four hundred years already, or ever since the Jewish people became slaves in Egypt.

Moses was just going about his daily routine, like all the rest of us, when he noticed something unusual from the corner of his eye. When he turned aside to see it, he beheld the glory of the living God that is always, already, present in all fullness filling to overflowing all our days and places with the mystery, wonder, and power of grace. When he saw it God told Moses to take off his shoes, because he was standing upon holy ground. (We are ever standing upon holy ground.)

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we must begin our search for answers upon the holy ground God prepares for us in prayer. There –in the corner of your eyes—God is just waiting for us to turn aside to see! God sees your anguish. God has observed your suffering. God is ready to lead us all into a better future regardless of Pharaoh or Caesar. God will point us in the right direction out of the storms of chaos and division.

“We can hope for justice because God Is. We can extend gracious hospitality to the stranger, compassion to the suffering, and friendship no matter what because the God who declared, “I Am” partners with ordinary human beings to do extraordinary things. Moses was full of doubt, but God said I Am. The grammar of this God is action in the present tense, be-ing, [now] and evermore. Humans have the privilege and responsibility to act and be in concert with God.” (Kristin Swenson, Virginia Commonwealth University)

I think this is what Jesus, the incarnation of “I Am,” was trying to tell his disciples when he said he would have to suffer and die –and that they would too. “For those,” he said, “who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

Briefed on God’s grand plan for personal and cosmic transformation, Peter spoke for the disciples and for every Christian ever since when he quietly took Jesus aside and told him, ‘No! There’s got to be some other way.” There has to be an easier way than the way of the cross. It doesn’t make any sense. They’ll kill you, Jesus. They’ll throw your body on the trash heap. Everything you stand for will be forgotten. Everything we’ve worked for will be wasted.

Jesus said, ‘No.’ Jesus says no to us. Just as God gently and persistently said no to Moses. The cross says no. The cross is God’s no to our small self and a pathway to a greater self that includes God and God’s love for the world. The unconditional gift of God’s love is powerful medicine. It comes with a sharp rebuke for the way we live now. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12.2)

In these confusing, conflicted, covid-afflicted days, we, like Moses, discern what is good and acceptable and perfect by turning aside to God in prayer. Standing or kneeling in our socks or bare feet in holy encounter with God we open to God’s love of ourselves and of strangers. Walking in the way of Jesus’ cross, we learn how to be neighbor even to our enemies. We learn where to look for the truth to guide us. Get close, be humble, pay attention to one another.

As Moses learned at the burning bush, and as Jesus revealed by walking the way of the cross, real lives being lived now is our compass. God attends to human suffering. The truth God cares about is revealed in lives people live every day. Injustice reveals itself in suffering. Grace reveals itself in loving. Mercy reveals itself in reconciliation. We know the truth when we see it when our theology and our faith traditions are clouded with divisions because we can read it on people’s faces– people laughing, or crying, or angry, or joyful, or despairing, or hopeful now. Love always points true north. Thus, I’ll move and live and grow in God and God in me. (ELW # 798)

Proper 16A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It looked bad for the Israelites. Once they were welcomed guests. Now they were feared aliens and oppressed slaves. A new king rose up in Egypt who did know Joseph nor remember how he once saved the nation from famine (Exodus 1:8).

Imagine a ruler, wishing to solidify his political base by blaming a scapegoat for problems that plague society. We’ve seen this movie someplace before. In this version, Pharaoh plots to destroy the Israelites, first by forcing them into slave labor, then by ordering that male babies be killed at birth, and when that doesn’t work, finally he commanded the citizens of Egypt to drown male infant Israelites in the Nile.

And that should have been that. And for many, if not most, it was. The suffering and grief must have been enormous. Pharaoh’s persecution of the Israelites went on for years and generations.

But God remembered the promise made to Abraham and Sarah. So, the Israelites thrived despite their oppression. The Spirit of God remained at work. Something Pharaoh forgot became his undoing. Pharaoh targeted men. Yet it was women he should have feared. Specifically, two women named Shiphrah and Puah, lowly midwives. They did not kill the boys as ordered. They refused. They lied to Pharaoh, telling him the Hebrew women give birth too quickly, delivering their babies before they could arrive on the scene. Next, three more women advance the subterfuge each in their own way. Moses’ Hebrew mother, and his sister, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s Egyptian daughter. Separately and together these women plant seeds God will cultivate for the Exodus of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

Each of us has one life. What we choose to do matters. Shiphrah and Puah’s courageous act of civil disobedience changed the course of history. One of the boys they spared will be called Moses and he will lead the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity. I doubt they thought they were changing the course of history, but they were. Just by being faithful, by following the dictates of their hearts, by heeding the call of conscience, they played a decisive role in what would be bound and what was set loose upon the world. (David Lose, The Butterfly Effect, Working Preacher, 8/14/11)

This is the terrifying good news in our scripture today. Your life, and what you do with it matters. It matters forever. Shiphrah and Puah help us to see what Jesus meant when he told Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 16:19A). In Jesus’ time, rabbis spoke of this power to “bind” the law by deciding which commandment was applicable to a particular situation, and they cut “loose” the law when they determined that a word of scripture was not applicable under certain specific circumstances.

You may think it unwise, but God entrusts each of us with lots of keys. The keys of discernment, of judgement, and of choice open possibilities and foreclose others. Your acts of mercy, forgiveness, kindness, and love will bind humanity to certain indelible truths we call ‘the past,’ and free humankind to explore vast new horizons we call ‘the future.’

Ordinary acts of conscience and courage have extraordinary consequences. Author Andy Andrews wrote a little book years ago called, The Butterfly Effect, (2009, Simple Truths, LLC, pp. 90-99) in which he tells the story of another man named Moses, and his wife Susan, who lived in Missouri, a slave state, during the Civil War. They were slave owners but decided they didn’t believe in slavery. This proved to be a problem for a band of raiders who terrorized the area by destroying property, burning and killing. “And sure enough, one cold January night, they rode through Moses’ and Susan’s farm. The outlaws burned the barn, shot several people, and dragged off the slave woman named Mary Washington who refused to let go of her infant son, George. Mary Washington had become Susan’s best friend and with his wife distraught, Moses sent word out through neighbors and towns and two days later managed to secure a meeting with the bandits” (Andrews, p. 94).

On a black horse, Moses rode several hours north to a crossroads in Kansas. There, at the appointed time, in the middle of the night, he met four of the raiders. “They were on horseback, carrying torches, and flour sacks tied over their heads with holes cut out for their eyes. There, Moses traded the only horse he had left on his farm for what they threw him in a dirty burlap bag” (Andrews, p. 95). As they rode off, Moses fell to his knees and pulled from the bag a cold … naked … almost dead … baby boy.

Covering him with his own clothes and relying on the warmth from his own body, Moses turned and walked that baby back home. He promised he would educate the boy to honor his mother, whom they knew was already dead. He gave that baby his name: George Washington Carver. Yes, that George Washington Carver. According to Andrews, there are currently 266 things he developed from the peanut, and 288 things he developed from the sweet potato that we still use today (Andrews, p. 86-87).
When young George was a 19-year-old student at Iowa State University, he would befriend another boy, the son of one of his professors, whose name was Henry Wallace.

George inspired Henry with a love of plants and a vision for what they could do for humanity. Wallace would grow up to become Vice-President of the United States during Franklin Roosevelt’s second term from 1941-1945. Wallace “…used the power of that office to create a station in Mexico whose sole purpose was to hybridize corn and wheat for arid climates. Wallace hired a young man named Norman Borlaug to run it” (Andrews, pp. 78-79).

Norman Borlaug went on to win the Nobel Prize and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He developed seeds that flourished in dry conditions where none thrived before, from Western Africa to our own desert Southwest, from South and Central America, to the plains of Siberia, and across Europe and Asia. “Through the years, it has now been calculated that Norman Borlaug’s work saved from famine more than two billion lives” (Andrews, p. 74).

And so, for the second time in human history, a man named Moses saved the lives of a multitude as numerous as stars in the sky, or grains of sand upon the seashore, just by doing what he knew was right.

Throughout the Bible, writers and prophets have given people hope by revealing God’s deepest intention not just to save the world but also to heal it. In fact, “healing” and “saving” are both meanings contained in the Greek word sozo that appears dozens of times in original New Testament manuscripts but is usually translated as only “save.” With both meanings of sozo in mind, how might we be called right now to imagine a new just and multiracial society? How might we conceive to live in such a way as to restore the earth rather than destroy it?

The apostle Paul wrote, “I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). Each of us is endowed with gifts of the spirit, keys to awakening the prophetic imagination. These are the keys to our shared future. Every single thing you do matters. You have within you the power to re-shape the world. Just by choosing kindness, mercy, justice, courage and conscience, we are making the whole world better for everyone and for all those who follow.

Proper 15A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

They lied, conspired, and hid their crime telling Jacob, their father, Joseph was dead. ‘Probably he was killed by a wild animal,’ they said (Genesis 37:33). No one would blame him for hating his brothers. No one could expect him to forgive them. Yet, as we read, Joseph chose love and forgiveness. His brothers hated and despised him. They trapped and sold him. Yet, when the tables were turned and Joseph had the power to decide if they lived or died, he chose life. He chose reconciliation. He chose mercy. Joseph was a gambler. He dared hope relationship with his brothers could change and the future become better than the past.

Joseph’s great gamble resembles the one God makes with each of us. God’s gamble goes by many names: resurrection, transformation, incarnation. These words are all grounded in love. God has placed a bet on you. At great expense God risked everything for the possibility of relationship with you. God dares to hope we can be changed, and our future become better than our past. God dreams of who we might become when finally grace dwells in us as it did in Joseph. Who are the you God created you to be?

I want to suggest this morning at least part of the answer is you and I become more human the closer we move toward God. You may protest. Being human is the one thing I’m already pretty good at. I mean, do I have any choice? We’re all creatures of the animal kingdom. We are finite and fallible. As Martin Luther might say, ‘This is most certainly true.’ Yet it is also true that you are created in the likeness and image of God. In you all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. God’s gamble on you makes a difference. The divine spark kindles fire within our better qualities. The Holy Spirit activates what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” (Lincoln, 1st Inaugural Address).

I mention this because I believe Jesus shows us how to be more human in our extraordinary gospel reading today. Jesus gets schooled by a nameless Canaanite woman. Her people are the ancient enemies of Israel. Yet, in an amazing role reversal, this time, Jesus becomes the pupil not the teacher. The disciples beg Jesus to send her away. He insulted her, called her a dog, and declared he’s not here for her and her kind.

It’s not an excuse, but here we see Jesus working out the meaning of the divine vocation the Father has given him while on vacation. For the past three Sundays, we’ve seen Jesus in retreat. After the death of John the Baptist he sailed across the Sea but the people followed him along the shore. After feeding and caring for them, Jesus sent the crowds away and walked up a nearby mountain to pray while the disciples headed out across the Sea of Galilee by boat.

And today we find Jesus 70 miles further north, in the district of Tyre and Sidon, cities of Lebanon. He is at least 50 miles north of the border. He intentionally went where no self-respecting Jewish person would go. He wanted privacy to prepare himself and the disciples for what was coming next in Jerusalem. Yet, even here, news of his ministry had spread. He was recognized on sight.

Matthew uses the word “great” 20 times, but only once in connection to faith. Ultimately, Jesus commended this Canaanite woman whom he called a dog for her great faith.
Matthew goes out of his way to tell us she was a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28). The label is strange. In Jesus’ lifetime, nobody was still called a “Canaanite.” It was part of ancient history even then. The region of the Canaanites no longer existed on the map. It would be as if Matthew were calling New York City by its old name New Amsterdam! Matthew calls her a “Canaanite” on purpose: it meant that she is not only an outsider, but she is part of an enemy people.

Love your enemies, Jesus said. But it’s never easy, not even for Jesus. Our gospel today challenges us to look beyond artificial boundaries and borders of ethnicity, nation, and creed that naturally divide people into insiders and outsiders –making us feel safe with some people and afraid of others. Often in scripture, it is the outsider who turns out to be the true insider. One of the defining characteristics of grace is that we are surprised to see it where we found it. Even Jesus had to grow his way into a more comprehensive, all-inclusive understanding of God’s generosity.

We say we believe Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Yet we rarely affirm this in practice. Upsetting this delicate balance in favor of the divine empties ourselves and creation of its inherent value. When we dehumanize Jesus, it is not surprising we can so easily begin to dehumanize others and dishonor ourselves.
So just look how Jesus has shown us to become more faithful and more human! Jesus changes. Jesus listens. Jesus learns even from his enemies. He is open to grace even when it’s not on his agenda. Jesus has shown us that loving others begins with loving yourself the way that God does, all the way down. This is God’s extravagant gamble. For a great price, God invested the divine spark within you. In you—little old you—finite and fallible you in the flesh.

As you channel surf and scroll through all the bad news, seemingly unable to stop or to look away, as you endure these endless Covid days, no one would blame you for feeling overwhelmed. No one has the right to expect you to be hopeful. That’s when I’m most grateful we have a savior in Christ Jesus who knows what despair and human limitations are like. We have the gift of grace to draw upon and give us strength. While the world weighs us down, we have the breath of the Holy Spirit to lift us up. When the body politic is infected we have the wisdom of God to make us healthy and whole again. Like Joseph of old, the grace of God enables us to choose life and to keep choosing it. By grace, we change, we listen, we learn. We break through barriers of our prejudice. We widen the circle of compassion. We learn to be more human and more humane. ‘May the healer of our every ill, our light of each tomorrow, give you peace beyond your fear, and hope beyond your sorrow.’ (ELW # 612)

Proper 12A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

You’ve heard of United States Representative, civil rights leader, and conscience of the Congress, the late John Lewis, and of Bloody Sunday, the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama on March 7, 1965 which lead to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. No doubt you will have also heard of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery bus boycott which occurred ten years before on December 5, 1955 that gave rise to the American civil rights movement.

But today, I want to tell you a less familiar story from 12 years before in 1942, about the church, racial reconciliation, and the struggle for justice in Americus, Georgia, a town less than 200 miles from Selma and Montgomery. It’s the story of Clarence Jordan and Koinonia farm where blacks and whites lived together and held property in common in what Jordan called an experiment in Christian community. It was fire-bombed, shot at, and boycotted by its Christian neighbors. The great civil rights leader, Andrew Young, said he and other leaders had known about Koinonia farm but never visited because if was considered too dangerous.

Clarence Jordan was a white man. He looked like Marcus Welby and Atticus Finch rolled into one if they had been an agriculturalist and bible scholar rather than a doctor and a lawyer. His home-spun translation of the New Testament is called the Cotton Patch Gospel. He was and is the spiritual father of Habitat for Humanity. Koinonia farm still exists to this day and its work continues.

One day, a neighbor and a deacon from the local Baptist church who led the effort to have Clarence expelled from the congregation for living with black people, drove out to the farm a few days after the vote filled with remorse for what he’d done. He couldn’t sleep for hearing that old hymn play over and over in his head, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Yes, he confessed. He knew that he had been there. In fact, he had led the effort. He told Clarence he planned to resign from the church too. Clarence told him no. It was alright. He didn’t have to do that. “Instead,” he said, “I want you to go back to church and so live as to get kicked out.”

What might happen if we were to so live the gospel? How many places might we be kicked out of? Clarence Jordan’s advice to his neighbor and brother in Christ is a yard stick any of us can use to take the measure of our faith and a good starting point from which to pick up the thread connecting the five parables of Jesus that Matthew presented us with today.

Jesus said, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). The treasures of our tradition are familiar, reliable, trustworthy, and wise. Yet also, by definition, they cannot be enough to tell us always what to do. What is most loving? Where does the Spirit lead? We must furnish the final answer. It’s up to you to decide.
Matthew shows us what it means to live as a person of faith serving the God of our ancestors who is always, already, working within each situation with crazy abundance sowing seeds of grace everywhere hidden in plain sight.

Like some display of fireworks, these five parables seem to point in every direction at once. Each is a work of art. Evocative, memorable, captivating, the meaning of a parable is difficult to put into words. Jesus apparently taught in parables. There is nothing like them in the Hebrew bible. The word means “something cast aside.” They are like something you only just see from the corner of your eye.

Jesus’ parables lead us somewhere new in our understanding. Their content is drawn from everyday life. Parables address themselves to people both inside and outside religion, people of faith and of no faith, to everyone confronting the same basic questions of life.

Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a noxious weed giving shelter to flocking birds.’ The kingdom of heaven is like leavening yeast –which you’ll be surprised to know likely made our ancestors in faith scrunch their mouths into yuck-faces. Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure you’d be willing to steal for. And also, the kingdom of heaven is like a fine pearl you’d give literally everything to possess. And finally, the kingdom of heaven is an incredibly diverse community—like Koinonia farm—in which angels are working to sift out the bad and to keep the good.

The parables of Jesus turn us upside down and inside out. Pieced together, they form a treasure map. An ‘X’ marks the spot. Follow me, Jesus says. Follow the way of the cross. Like the cross, the parables of Jesus, point us toward the kingdom of heaven that is already here but hidden. Our search for treasure most likely leads, not to exotic lands, but next door, or across the street, into the next cubicle, or into conversation with a stranger. It may cause us so to live as to get ourselves kicked out of many fine respectable places.

Clarence Jordan believed “the principal problem of modern Christians was that they wanted God to conform to their agenda—to bless their endeavors and goals. Clarence said that was backwards. God has an agenda and wants God’s people to learn what it is and to become active participants in that agenda.” (Cotton Patch Gospel: Matthew and John.)

If ever there was a Christian who lived on the road mapped out by the gospel it was St. Paul. Brutal treatment, constant harassment, and strong opposition greeted him in nearly every city he visited (1 Thess. 2:2, 2 Cor. 7:5). The book of Acts records at least eight murder attempts on Paul’s life. In Paul’s own words, he compared himself and the first apostles to sheep headed to a slaughter; people in last place; public spectacles; dishonored fools; vagrants who were hungry, thirsty, homeless, and in rags; and even, “the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world (1 Cor. 4:8-13). Therefore we have confidence in Paul’s life-tested assurance that nothing, “[not] death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Perhaps the most important word in all the parables is the first one: ‘Listen’. Hear now what God is saying so that the strength to endure may take hold in you, so that joy in God’s presence may shield you, and the abundant blessings of grace may fill you to overflowing with all the ordinary, wonderful treasures God has hidden around you.

Proper 11A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

COVID-19 is on the rise in Chicago among 18 to 29-year-olds. This week, Mayor Lightfoot threatened to be the mom who would stop the car and make kids walk home if they didn’t take the virus and the public health more seriously. “We are at the precipice,” she said. “We are dangerously close to going back to a dangerous state of conditions.” (Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Sun Times, 7/15/20) Personally, I really hope they listen. Illinois is one of only two states that met all of the federal government’s criteria for reopening before actually reopening. The other was New York State. (Pro Publica, States Are Re-Opening, 5/20/20). I’m proud our state and local leaders have kept us safe while keeping our economy going. Sometimes, I wish God would take charge like them too.

Are you guys still fighting? Get out of the car and walk. In fact, none of your cars, planes, or trains will work. Your guns won’t shoot. Your drones, fighter planes, and bombers won’t fly. You’re not allowed to make another mortgage loan unless it is to a community of color. It’s time for God to get the kids under control. It’s time God set some limits, raised expectations, and demanded accountability because the whole world is at the precipice. We are dangerously close to disaster.

Jesus says we live in a world where the weeds must be left to grow among the wheat. Evil and good are mixed together. ‘It’s like someone went into the field while everyone was sleeping and sowed tares among the wheat,’ Jesus said (Matthew 13:25). The Tares to which Jesus referred is a plant we call bearded Darnel. It has two prominent characteristics: first, it’s poisonous, and second, until it matures, it’s virtually indistinguishable from wheat. The kingdom of God is like a wheat field in which we can’t distinguish good from bad. In the beginning, yes. God created a good world. Indeed, it was very good! But now look. There are poisonous weeds everywhere! What a mess. Why doesn’t God do something?

I suppose religious people, through the ages, may be forgiven for getting impatient. People of faith tend to think they can help God out. First, they circle the wagons of the righteous. They dictate the terms for how every person ought to live and call it God’s plan. Then they go on the attack. They begin naming, judging, and eradicating evil wherever they find it—most often in others. These strategies soon prove tragic and misguided, of course. A religious person trying to create the holy becomes nothing but a hypocrite. The religious person who wields the machete of righteousness soon sees that everything looks to them like a weed. Everything is hacked and cut down. Which, by the way, is exactly what would happen if God were take us up on the invitation to start cleaning house and be more like our political leaders. Soon there wouldn’t be anything left of any of us.

So maybe it’s good –or anyhow—it’s lucky—God has a different plan. On God’s farm weeds become wheat. Our functional but false selves may be transformed through faith in Christ. With patience the poisonous bearded Darnel of our hearts and minds ripens into fruits of the Spirit some one hundred, some sixty, and some thirtyfold.

Our parable and our second reading from St. Paul both counsel patience. The entire universe is in labor. Paul wrote that not only humankind, but “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains” as it waits for God’s salvation. You and I might choose to start over. We would dig everything out and start fresh. New seeds, new plants, fresh soil, we would not show the same patience with creation that God does. There would be no place for us.

Jesus said, ‘I have come not for the righteous, but for sinners. For those who are well have no need of a physician,’ (Matthew 9:13b & 12). Jesus did not weed out Peter, even though he denied him. Jesus did not reject the disciples though they all ran away in fear. Even Judas had a place at Jesus’ table. We feast again today on God’s Word in thanksgiving for the Life Jesus pours out for us with tenderness and mercy, not because we deserve it, but precisely because we so desperately need it.

The paraclete, the Holy Spirit, is quietly at work in us. The Holy One intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words, delicate surgery is going on in us, to transform the weediness of our hearts into grain for the harvest. Our eyes begin to open. Our ears are unstopped. We see and hear differently. Could the poison of selfish pride begin to recede in us? Could America’s original sin of slavery and systemic racism be redeemed? Can freedom and equality join hands?

This week I watched the short documentary film Cooked: Survival by Zip Code. It tells the story of the heatwave that killed more than 700 people in Chicago in 1995. It exposed a pattern, not just in that disaster, but in almost any natural disaster you can name. So often the real killer is poverty and racism. The same pattern of unequal impact is exposed by the pandemic. People in poverty, people who live in specific zip codes, have shorter lives, are more likely to experience gun violence, are less able to access health care, or to get a loan, find a job, or even be able to shop at a grocery store. These neighborhoods consist mostly of people of color. We cannot become wheat without striving to become anti-racists. The poison of bearded Darnel we carry will not leave our veins without doing God’s work with our hands to tear down the barriers that intentionally lock so many out from access to opportunity in America.

Because God is not finished with us but is patient, we dare to hope that while the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends towards justice. Because God is good and created us in God’s own image, we are confident history is on our side. God the great co-sufferer does not leave us in our sins but will work to redeem us. God who has searched and known you, God who has seen the restlessness in your heart, will even now, works to ripen your spirit, restore you in the broken places, and bring you with all creation, into bountiful wholeness.

Proper 10A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

We have green beans! These are the first fruits of the season from my backyard. We always had a garden when I was growing up. I remember eating tomatoes and vegetables, like this, straight from the vine.

A few years back I bought, cut, and screwed together some 2” X 12’s. I caulked, painted and put them out, two hulking wooden rectangles, laid perpendicular in the backyard. I bought maybe four yards of topsoil? They came and dumped it on my driveway. It seemed like an impossibly large amount of dirt. Yet, it all went in, wheel barrel after wheel barrel. So now, we have two raised-bed garden plots.

That was maybe 7 years ago, and I think we’ve planted a garden exactly twice in all that time. It turns out they’re not in the best location. I was too worried to leave room for the kids to play. They’re tucked away under some overhanging tree branches. They never get enough sun. Even so, it would be manageable, if we watered more regularly, if we didn’t try to stuff so many plants in close together, if we picked weeds –in short—if we weren’t such bad gardeners!

Yes. We’re bad gardeners but even we look good compared to God. Jesus says God is like a gardener too. But where we take care to plan and prepare, God is reckless. Where we carefully plant seeds in straight rows, eight inches apart, God is wasteful, like a foolhardy gardener slinging seed everywhere without preparation or care.
“Listen,” Jesus told them, ‘a sower went out to sow. He broadcast seed on the path, on the rocky ground; among the thorns as well as upon good soil’ (Matthew 13:3-8). God’s ways are mystifying. God’s Word is cast in abundance upon the righteous and the unrighteous alike. God’s grace is poured out upon ordinary uneducated fisherman and disreputable tax collectors. God’s saving power was at work with Abraham, Sarah and their descendants. In Christ Jesus, God’s saving grace is poured out again for us today. It sprouts and grows everywhere—especially where we least expect it.

Just take a good look at the patriarchs we’ve been reading about. What’s most striking to me is how truly human they all are. They are flawed, fearful, and selfish. Yet, within their day-to-day challenges of infertility, multiple births, treacherous plots, and deviant behavior, the purposes of God are not turned back, but are steadily carried forward from generation to generation. They were good soil despite themselves.

There’s something reassuring about that. If you and I were to lay out our family tree through four generations and draw a circle around fifty of our closest relatives—how many awkward in-laws and off-putting outlaws; how many strained relationships, and broken dreams would we be likely to find? The children of Abraham and Sarah look a lot like members of our own families. Yet God worked mightily and gloriously through them. God’s profligate extravagant grace was maybe the one unchanging thing they could count on. What could God be up to in these crazy COVID-afflicted days of ours?

“In this time of sickness, scarcity, anxiety, suffering, and loss, what does the world need more than a Sower who is lavish? A Sower who errs on the side of wastefulness? A Sower who’d rather lose a bunch of seeds to inhospitable terrain than withhold a single one?” (Debie Thomas, The Extravagant Sower, Journey with Jesus, 7/05/20) God is at work in you and your relatives. God is at work in this community. Pray the Spirit of God will find good soil.

When it comes to good soil, we make the mistake of thinking only of the receptiveness of ourselves to God—our faith, our deeds, our righteousness. This is absurd. Good soil is the by-product of centuries. The top 2 to 8 inches on average of decaying plant and animal material called humus or topsoil, is incredibly complex and teaming with life. According to the poet Wendell Berry a healthy forest generates just two inches of humus every thousand years. The good soil, to which Jesus is referring, like humus, is the by-product of countless grace-filled lives.

We must take care not to squander the good soil of community as we have already done with so much of our nation’s topsoil. It is time—it is always time—to restore hope, to build up our collective strength, to nourish the Spirit of wisdom God has so lavishly sown among us. It is time to extend the garden to accommodate people of color. It is time to make room for everyone left out and locked out because in God’s garden, just as in creation, our lives flourish when all lives thrive.
The times they are a changin’ (Bob Dylan). They fill us with grief and anxiety about the future even as opportunities for new life sprout and take hold. #MeToo. #BlackLivesMatter. #PeopleandPlanetFirst. Can we dare to hope God will bring a new day of faith to take hold in us and our church in the struggle for justice and equality for all? Will we be good soil?

“The word change normally refers to new beginnings. But the mystery of transformation more often happens not when something new begins, but when something old falls apart…Most of us would never go to new places in any other way. [Christian] mystics use many words to describe this chaos: fire, dark night, death, emptiness, abandonment, trial, the Evil One. Whatever it is, it does not feel good and it does not feel like God. We will normally do anything to keep the old thing from falling apart, yet this is when we need patience and guidance, and the freedom to let go instead of tightening our controls and certitudes” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Change Is Inevitable, July 5, 2020). Open our hands. Cast our seeds. Let them fall where they may. Can we be as reckless as our God
?
Bishop Tim Smith of the North Carolina Synod of the ELCA has said “you can count the number of seeds in an apple, but you cannot count the number of apples in a seed.” Most apples contain five seeds. Many apple tree varieties produce up to five hundred apples each season and can produce fruit for eight or more years. It is too small a thing to live only for ourselves. We are meant to leave a legacy of good soil that will contribute to the flourishing of all the lives who will follow.

As surely as rain comes from clouds, God’s Word falls upon the whole earth. As snow comes from the heavens to refresh the land, the grace of Christ Jesus comes to soften the soil of our lives so that the good seed may grow and ripen into rich fruit in us to return into God’s hand (ELW 508). Just as lichen slowly eats away rock, and plants slowly restore nutrients to sand, the wasteful abundance of God’s grace transforms our hard-scrabble hearts into good soil. May God be praised.

Proper 9A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can we be thankful?

Proper 8A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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