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Can we be thankful?

Proper 23A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 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.