Proper 20B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37). Today, we are blessed by 18 youth who are going to the ELCA national gathering next summer.  We give thanks that tutoring resumes tomorrow night for fully vaccinated youth and volunteers. With your support playgroup children and caregivers have found a welcome and built community in the park across the street. Because of your generosity we continue to provide Covid Assistance grants of $50 per person per household for food and other necessities to neighborhood families laid off or unemployed due to the pandemic. We will send 17 quilts to Lutheran World Relief where they will provide warmth and shelter to refugees who would otherwise have neither.  (Four of them decorate the pews this morning.) This is God’s work that is being done with your hands and it is fitting that we should celebrate all of it today and dedicate it to the glory of God.

While the world wages war, the gospel of Christ calls us to wage wisdom.  Wisdom requires a different set of armaments than those wielded by nations. The letter of James calls us, to outfit ourselves with ‘purity, peace, gentleness, a yielding spirit, mercy, impartiality and integrity’ (James 3:17). These are not the kind of weapons that can be purchased. Instead, these are the fruits God brings into being from faithful hearts and minds and has placed in our hands.

Jesus asked the disciples. “What were you talking about on the way?” Again, we see that evocative phrase which is a common theme in Mark’s gospel. The ‘way,’ was what our religion was called before followers of Christ were known as Christians.  Each of us is ‘on the way’ because in this life we never reach the end of growth in our faith. Here at Immanuel, we chose this name for a process of spiritual growth and renewal. On the Way will resume this year in Advent.  You are invited to join us in our pilgrimage.

On the way through Galilee, Jesus told the disciples a second time about the cross.  He told them the Son of Man must be betrayed into human hands, killed and after three days, rise again (Mark 9:31).  Yet again, Jesus’ language about suffering and death does not compute for the disciples.

Who could blame them? Everywhere, they looked statues and pillars proclaimed the Roman motto “Roma Eturna,” Rome always wins.  Resistance to the military power of Rome meant ruin, subjugation, exile into slavery and death.  The mortar that binds cities and nations into Empire is fear of the threat of violence.  In the disciple’s way of thinking, the coming of the Son of Man would operate by the same logic of war that had built and perpetuated the Roman Empire.  As yet they did not understand how the in-breaking of God’s kingdom fit together loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, and suffering for the sake of the gospel.

Jesus was showing them a more excellent way.  He taught them that we must wage wisdom if we are ever to be free from the endless cycle of violence. He instructed them by saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners community in Washington D.C., tells a story about waging wisdom rather than violence. Years ago, Wallis was mugged right outside his home by four children.  They rushed him, slashed his face, and yelled “Keep him down!  Get his wallet!”

Despite their attempts, he popped up quickly, and seeing no weapons, squared off to face his attackers.  He was shocked when he realized they were just kids –three were no more than fifteen and another couldn’t have been more than thirteen. The one who had jumped him moved into a boxing stance and the little one did a few ineffectual karate kicks.

Wallis began to scold them and to tell them “…to just stop it” …to stop terrorizing people, to stop such violent behavior in their neighborhood …and finally, (he said something that embarrassed him later), he shouted at them, “I’m a pastor!”

The teenagers turned and ran. “Get back here!” Wallis shouted—before he realized that probably wasn’t the smartest thing to say.  But that’s when something surprising happened. The littlest kid, who couldn’t have been more than four feet six, turned and looked back as he ran away.  The young karate kicker said, “Pastor, ask God for a blessing for me.”

Wallis wrote: “He and his friends had just assaulted me.  The little one had tried so hard to be one of the tuff guys.  Yet he knew he needed a blessing.  The young boy knew he was in trouble.  I think they all did.”

Can we overpower tough guys with the power of compassion?  Can victimizers and victims be freed from bondage to anger and conflict?  Can joy arise from hurt and hopelessness?  Slaves sing songs of freedom. Old men and women dream dreams.  Little children see visions.  The lion lies down with the lamb when we wage wisdom, not war.

But “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind” the letter of James says (James 3:16).  On the way through Galilee Jesus stopped to give the disciples an object lesson about waging wisdom. He gave them a children’s sermon –using a real child. Jesus taught them to welcome little children. Not because the child is innocent, or perfect, or pure, or cute, or curious, or naturally religious. Jesus taught them to welcome the child because, in those days, children counted least and last of all.

Warsan Shire is a British writer, poet, editor, and teacher, who was born to Somali parents in Kenya.  Her poem, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon,” could be a lesson for us with the same object –it opens our hearts to the kind of compassion Jesus is talking about that is a key to waging wisdom.


What They Did Yesterday Afternoon

they set my aunts house on fire

i cried the way women on tv do

folding at the middle

like a five pound note.

i called the boy who use to love me

tried to ‘okay’ my voice

i said hello

he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?


i’ve been praying,

and these are what my prayers look like;

dear god

i come from two countries

one is thirsty

the other is on fire

both need water.


later that night

i held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?


it answered




Look for those in your midst who have no standing, no wealth, no voice, no value –and there you will find me Jesus said.  These are the brothers and sister to whom you now belong through your baptism into Christ.  Together with them we follow Jesus now in waging wisdom born of grace that is for healing the grief-stricken world.

Proper 19B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27). Jesus questioned the disciples as they walked toward Caesarea Philippi.  The area was well known for its dedication to the Roman nature-god, Pan; and for honoring Caesar who was often regarded as divine.  Jesus asked them in public as they walked among crowds holding differing views and all the other forces competing for their allegiance.

The disciples parroted back what they had heard others say.  “They answered him, John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets” (Mark 8:28).  I think it’s worth asking, how you would answer Jesus’ question today?

Obviously, Mark has already clued in to the answer.  We know how this story ends.  Moreover, we know what will unfold over the next two thousand years! Yet, in this case, I’m not sure hindsight is 20/20.  Let’s pause a moment. Picture Jesus talking to the disciples in this gospel.  Does your mental image include any women among them?  What about Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9-10 and John 20:17-18), and the other Mary (Matthew 28:8-10), or Joanna, and others (Luke 24:9-10) who are named in all four gospels as the first to witness of the resurrection. Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna were among the first funders of Jesus’ work (Luke 8:1-3). Others like Phoebe, Prisca and Junia, will become leaders, deacons, and even apostles in the early church (Romans 16:7).  If women had kept silent in the church, there wouldn’t be a church.

Now let’s widen this experiment.  What images first come mind when you try to picture God?  Some of you try to tell me you picture a bright light or indwelling love. Yet I’m pretty sure somewhere near the top of the google search for God images stored in each of our brains—a bearded man, or king seated upon a throne, comes to mind. God told Abram my name is El Shaddai (Genesis 17:1).  This name for God occurs 48 times in the bible.  It can mean the “many breasted one,” or “mountain refuge.” In other words, some joke, the ‘Grand Tetons.’ It is a wonderful and feminine image of God as the divine mother of us all.  Yet again and again El Shaddai appears in our English bibles and even some of our liturgical prayers as ‘the almighty.’

Your image of God creates you. We read the bible through a patriarchal lens.

It changes and distorts the way we hear this familiar gospel story. Like Peter, we know the correct answer to Jesus’s next question. Jesus is the son of God. Yet also like Peter, we often have the wrong idea about what this means, if it means we imagine an angry Jesus, ruling from a throne, threatening us with damnation, provoking fear rather than inspiring love, operating in an all-male trinity with God the father and holy Spirit.

Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29a).  We admire Peter, who spoke plainly and with courage.  He said, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29b).  The one who is coming into the world.  God’s anointed, the Christ of God.

Our lesson for today begins with triumph and ends in confession.  Peter had the right answer.  He understood who Jesus was.  But, in the very next breath, he fell miserably short from understanding what Jesus said he must do.  When Peter tried to redirect him away from going to Jerusalem and the cross Jesus rebuked him saying, “Get behind me Satan” (Mark 8:3).

Peter is a fine example of how many of us hear the gospel and see the work of Jesus –of how we can come to church again and again; read the scriptures before going to bed; and still come to the wrong conclusions about who Jesus is and about the real source of his power.  You and I do it all the time.  We want Jesus without the cross.  We want the power without the suffering.  Is it impossible for us to comprehend how power and suffering fit together?  Can we be strong even when we are vulnerable?

For a thousand years the Church gained power by scaring people about what would happen to them without the church. “Are you certain that if you died today, you will spend eternity in paradise?” We are all too familiar with a church of the past which operated more as some type of protection racket, by casting fear than by inspiring love.  But thanks be to God, the gospel of Christ has begun once again to shine through and to re-emerge from behind the patriarchal lens, and from so much other self-interested baggage of the last two thousand years.

This week if feels our nation closed the book that we’ve all be reading together on the past twenty years from 911 to the end of the war in Afghanistan. We were spell bound and in a daze.  We emerge as if stepping out onto the sidewalk after a gripping movie. We now realize that we made mistakes. We overstepped. We often did more harm than good.  Yet also we have learned. We clearly see there is a limit to what military power can accomplish.  When we say, ‘Never forget,’ will this be one of the lessons we carry forward? Jesus has shown us the way.  He told us how to the endless cycle of shame and blame.  He has shown us how to harness the destructive power of fear and use it for doing good. Jesus   points us toward the way of the cross.

Take up your cross, Jesus says.  Take up your mortal, flawed life, soaked in God’s love and tears, and follow me, Jesus says.  Look upon the cross and learn its message.  There is nothing any more that can stop us.  No obstacle is too great.  No loss too daunting.  There is no tragedy too incapacitating that the love of God, through Christ Jesus, cannot open a way for us to make progress toward a better future that is lasting and good.  The fruits of love and grace working to build up God’s kingdom can never be erased.  They cannot be destroyed.  But they become like treasures stored up in heaven “where no thief comes near and no moth destroys” (Luke 12:33).

Rather than a god who is angry and quick to destroy, the God revealed in Mark’s gospel is a patient teacher.  Each of us is ‘on the way.’ Being “on the way” is a common theme throughout Mark’s gospel. We encounter it here in today’s gospel as Jesus and the disciples are walking on the way together to Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27).

We’ll encounter this evocative phrase repeatedly in coming weeks.   In Greek, the word translated the ‘way’, can simply refer to a road or path, or it can refer to a way of life.  Jesus will be “on the way” next week when the disciples argue among themselves about who is greatest (9:33-34).  Jesus will be ‘on the way’ next month when the rich man asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life; and again when he will tell the disciples a third time about the cross and resurrection. (10:17, 10:32).

On Reformation Sunday we’ll read the story of Blind Bartimaeus who calls out to Jesus from the “side of the way” (10:46).  Once Jesus heals him, Bartimaeus is able to follow Jesus “on the way”.  Many of you know that The “Way” became a title of early Christians (Acts 18:25, 26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22).

Little by little, along the way, there comes a realization that only Jesus’ way of the cross can give us what we truly crave—a life that passes through death; bonds of fellowship and belonging that cannot be broken; a purpose and meaning to our mortal endeavors that cannot be erased even after countless ages of time have done their work.  We might wish to be granted honor, safety, success, and power over others.  But God through Christ has shown us the way to life comes through power with others.  It is the power of love.  The power of trust.  The power of faith.  The power of tears.  The way of the cross.