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Prayer Circle Immanuel Lutheran Chicago

Proper 10C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:28) The lawyer’s face-saving question, put another way is, who is not my neighbor? Who can I exclude?

When I think of a neighbor, Mrs. Dugan comes to mind. It was 1970. I was eight years old.  We lived in a house on Rodney drive in Champaign, Illinois. 1970 was a big year for me.  I got to stay up late enough to watch “Love American Style.” It was also the year my dog Frisky died. Our next-door neighbors, the Dugan’s, had a special knock.  Mrs. Dugan would announce herself with that knock and pretty much walk straight into our house.  She helped out when Frisky got sick. Mrs. Dugan even attended the informal back yard funeral we had when she died.  Mrs. Dugan was my neighbor. Neighbors transform streets into neighborhoods.  Local communities of care are great to grow up in.

Today, I notice we seem willing to trade this old-fashioned neighborliness for anonymity and the efficiency of polite, impersonal, transactional relationships.  The barista knows how to make my coffee before I ask for it, without any expectation of friendship or mutuality in return.  Starbucks has literally made a fortune trading on this faux-friendly-familiar but not quite neighborly vibe.  Neighbors like my Mrs. Dugan seem rare these days.

I think we could all use much more neighborliness and perhaps, the task falls to us to create it. Yet it doesn’t seem reasonable for anyone to really know and be neighbor to more than perhaps two dozen people or so.  Life itself imposes a limit on our time and energy. So I wonder, in the neighborhood of God, like the one the VBS kids imagined and display behind our altar today, would people always know everyone in their building? –everyone living on their block? –how about in their zip code?  So, we return to the same question the lawyer asked.  If being neighbor is how I inherit eternal life, surely that can’t include everyone—right?

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘he was glad Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor because certain people are just so hard to like.’  Loving our neighbor as ourselves does not require friendship but to mercy, compassion, kindness, and justice.

The parables of Jesus are like gemstones. We get a different insight into divine mystery by looking through the story from each perspective.  The Good Samaritan offers a glimpse into the extravagant loving character of God. Jesus’ command ‘to go and do likewise,” gives us a window into our own call to discipleship.  The man who lays bleeding and dying in the ditch is synonymous with Christ on the cross. Perhaps the quickest way to immediately answer the lawyer’s question correctly is from the perspective of the victim.  Ask him –who is your neighbor—and the answer is—anyone, anyone—anyone at all who will help me.

In 2006 my father died in hiking accident.  Another hiker, a medical student in training, was the first to come to our aid.  He just showed up. Park Rangers arrived next in response to my 911 call.  They came by truck up an old mining road as far as they could then ran the rest of the way up the mountain.  Others came by helicopter.  It was unbelievable.  To this day, I don’t know their names, or where any of them lived.  I never saw them again.  Each of them was my neighbor.

Our understanding of Jesus’ parable is deepened when we realize that nobody listening would have thought there were any ‘good Samaritans.’ The Samaritans were enemies. Substitute the name gang-banger, or ‘Taliban’ for ‘Samaritan’ and you begin to understand why Jesus’ lovable parable made the temple leaders blood boil.

Notice the wounded man is the only character in the story not defined by profession, social class, or religious belief.  “He has no identity except naked need.  Maybe we have to occupy his place in the story first — maybe we have to become the broken one, grateful to anyone at all who will show us mercy — before we can feel the unbounded compassion of the Good Samaritan.  Why? Because all tribalisms fall away on the broken road.  All divisions of “us” and “them” disappear of necessity. When you’re lying bloody in a ditch, what matters is not whose help you’d prefer, whose way of practicing Christianity you like best, whose politics you agree with.  What matters is whether or not anyone will stop to show you mercy before you die.” (Debie Thomas, Afflicting the Comfortable, Journey With Jesus, 7/07/19)

Jesus shows us that all people are our neighbors; everyone is a child of God. The basic meaning of neighborin Hebrew, Greek, and English is “to be near.” (Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks) The Priest and the priest-helper proved not to be true neighbors because they widenedthe distance between themselves and the injured man lying in the ditch. They looked but did not see.  They saw but were blind. They would not come near the man in the ditch.  They proved they are not true neighbors, despite their impressive credentials.

The Samaritan took the wounded man to the inn keeper and paid for his care. We don’t know what transpired between them after that. It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that we see those who are broken and wounded by life and respond with kindness, mercy, and justice.

There are so many people in the ditch today –what except the power of evil and the devil can explain our willful blindness to them all?  So often it is the weak, powerless, and wounded who are made to bear the brunt of the sins and short-comings of those who are actually responsible. The poor migrant becomes the target for what’s wrong with our broken immigration system rather than the factory owner, the politician, or all the rest of us –the electorate—who benefit from the work done, the taxes paid, and the consumer goods purchased by immigrants living in our community.  Today, as we brace for mass deportations and family separations, our scriptures ask who will be neighbor?

If you want to know God, then love your neighbor.  If you want to know your neighbor, then love God. Loving God and neighbor are not separate items on some pious to-do list. They are two sides of the same coin. They form a single pathway into the abundant life God intends for us all. Devotion to God and service to neighbor form a double-helix in the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. They are the DNA structure upon which the whole chapter hangs, and the key to unlocking the pain and bewilderment we face today.  Here—here is the doorway that opens to the fullness of grace.  It is never far from you, but it is always only as far away as the person next to you.

Proper 9C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

July 7, 2019

“See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3).  I remember reading the Gospel of Luke for a required college course in religion when these words of Jesus jumped out at me the first time.  I felt both delighted and terrified.  

With these words, Jesus sent the 70 (as he sends all of us now) outside familiar circles of safety and tells us to expect a chilly response if and when we preach the gospel. With these words, Jesus issues a challenge to the established church, the so-called mainline church, the comfortable, everybody-knows-my-name church, like the one I grew up in. Jesus issues a call to be courageous and prophetic.  He sends his followers to battle the world and the devil bearing nothing more than the gifts of the spirit.  As St. Paul wrote, ‘we gird our loins with truth. We wear a breastplate of righteousness and shod our feet with peace. We carry the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit’ (Ephesians 6:13-17).  As we say about grace, it’s that simple. It’s that amazing!

When Jesus is our pole star, it re-sets our moral compass. There are no borders nor boundaries to God’s saving grace.  For Christians, there is no geographic center of the world, but only a constellation of points equidistant from the heart of God. There is no ‘most favored nation’ in the kingdom of God.  As our nation celebrates independence Jesus declares true victory is won through inter-dependence

May these gifts of the spirit rekindle a new birth of freedom in us this holiday weekend so that the better angels of our nature can lead us to a more perfect union.  I pray this spirit recall and reclaim us as a nation so we may return to who we have always been, and to what has made us strong.  We are a nation of immigrants, founded upon a faith-based ideal, however imperfectly perceived, that our collective health and resilience flows naturally from people of every nation living together as children of God –including people of other faiths and of no faith. 

It can be that simple for us because your success doesn’t depend upon what you’re carrying now in your purse or wallet. It doesn’t matter about your personal baggage or your choice of foot ware.  Remember what Jesus told his followers. “Speak peace when you enter a house. Eat what is placed before you. Invest in one home, one family, one town. Speak of what is near, not far. Don’t linger in hopeless places. Don’t get cocky; remember that the kingdom of God comes near whether you are accepted or rejected. Trust that any peace which is spurned will return to you; nothing in God’s kingdom is wasted.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, 6/30/19)

Christian author and essay writer, Debie Thomas, writes, “In other words, the task Jesus sets before the seventy is hard because it is easy.  In fact, it’s so easy, it feels both counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.  It’s so easy, it makes us wary, suspicious, and cynical.  What is the task?  The task is to live simply and vulnerably. The task is to rely on the grace and hospitality of others.  The task is to stay in one place — to encounter, to engage, and to go deep. The task is to live as guests, sharing our faith with others as if they’re our hosts, the people we depend on for sustenance and shelter.  The task is to speak peace, first and last. The task is to let go in love.  The task is to believe always in the abundance and nearness of God’s economy.” (Journey with Jesus, 6/30/19)

Take up these gifts of the Spirit. Go live like a lamb among wolves. Perhaps hearing the challenge and promise of these words again partly explains why this week I took up reading (or actually, listening to) another old book I’m sure was required reading for many of you.  This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse Five. It is subtitled ‘The Children’s Crusade, because as Mary, the wife of one of his old war buddies says, “You were just babies in the war!”

The lasting power of Vonnegut’s book about WWII, published during the turbulent Vietnam years, is that it was among the first of its generation that dared to tell the truth about war.  In a radio interview, Vonnegut once said “The truth, it turns out, is a very powerful thing.”  As further proof of this statement, and of our gospel today, Slaughterhouse Five is still listed as number 29 on the American Library Association’s list of banned or challenged classics. 

And so it goes. Vonnegut tells the tale based on events between February 13 and February 15, 1945. Allied bombers dropped nearly four thousand tons of high explosives and incendiaries on the uniquely beautiful historic German city of Dresden. “The effect was elemental: Air became fire. Vonnegut, an American prisoner of war, was there—but 60 feet underground. Captured during the Battle of the Bulge, conveyed to Dresden by boxcar, and billeted in a derelict slaughterhouse as the bombs fell, he was sheltering with some fellow POWs and a couple of dazed German guards in a basement meat locker. They emerged to rubble, ash, twisted metal, death. Somewhere between 18,000 and 25,000 people (we still don’t know) had been killed “ (James Parker, The Atlantic Magazine, 3/31/19).

If Slaughterhouse had a single meaning, which of course, it doesn’t, it would have to be something about the stupidity and wastefulness of war.  To their credit, our top military commanders seem to have some understanding about this today after decades of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The true battle ground, they tell us, is the one for hearts and minds –a struggle in which tanks and bombs are of no use. 

Which brings us back to Jesus. Thirty-five pairs of followers go out from Jesus like lambs into the midst of wolves.  As they fan out and set to work, Jesus will later say he ‘watched Satan fall again and again from heaven like lightening.’ (Luke 10:18)

Upon their return, the seventy are almost giddy with the thrill of their first endeavors. They are filled with joy and amazement. This decentralized gospel proved unstoppable working through their mortal hands and voices. For proof they offer the same evidence that Jesus did in response to questions of John the Baptist: The blind see, the lame walk, the spirit is with us, Christ is alive. 

This same spirit is in us now. This same spirit that animates our church is in stark contrast to the culture of death that loves things and uses people. In the sixteenth century the words of St. Teresa of Avila remind disciples of all times and places what our gospel declares to us today: 

“Christ has no body on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out to the world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless others now.”  

Go now, like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry nothing but the good news meant for the salvation of all people. It’s that simple. It’s that amazing!

Proper 8C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

June 30, 2019

“He set his face to go up to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51-62). And so, Jesus begins his faithful sojourn to the cross.  From now until November 10th our gospel each Sunday follows Jesus on this journey as recorded in ten chapters of Luke (9:51- 19:28).  

Every trek has a beginning.  Every odyssey includes a moment of decision, a call to commitment, a challenge to respond.  Jesus’ challenge was to pick up the cross.  It was journey which was to be less about the destination as it was about a way of life.  Jerusalem, Gethsemane, and Golgotha are not important as places, but for what Jesus’ showed us on the way there about how we are to live. The cross was not a transaction, or paying a debt demanded by God.  Rather, it is urgently important for what it reveals about how we walk in faithfulness to God’s grace, with every step, in every day, for the rest of our lives.  The path into life and the abundance of life goes through opening our self and becoming vulnerable. By exposing our weaknesses, we find our strength.  In serving each other, we obtain satisfaction. In losing our life we find it. 

It wasn’t a sure thing. In fact, many, if not most, would call it a foolish bet. Jesus set his face to go up to Jerusalem, not knowing how it would turn out –who would follow—how many would heed his message, our join him on this path.  In fact, the jury is still out even up to this day. Jesus bet his money and his life on caring how well we live with compassion and faith. The way of the cross transforms our ultimate goal from mere survival to entering upon God’s glory. ‘Going my way,” Jesus asks? Ready to know the way to freedom? Ready to discover simple abundance and what will save you? Follow me, Jesus says. 

Jesus doesn’t sugar coat it.  The way to life and the cross requires sacrifice.  It requires we persist through resistance, sabotage, and even hatred. Yet we do so know that God walks with us and fights beside us.

There is real urgency in our readings today.  Every moment counts.  Don’t look back, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” There’s no time even to say goodbye.  For every time there is a season.  The time has come for Jesus and the disciples to head toward Jerusalem.  In every Christian life, there is a time to enter into mission. 

Today’s gospel speaks to any of us who recognize our tendency to put off decisions that have big consequences.  It speaks to us who come to Jesus with ready excuses to defer our Christian walk until we are in a better place, or a better time, or when all the stars align. There comes a time to stop making excuses until “I get my stuff figured out.”  Are we waiting for others to stand up for those the world rejects? Or will you seize the moment and say God’s love is for all?  There comes a time to stop waiting for God’s action, get up on our own two feet, and be the body of Christ.  

We heard St. Paul say, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) In his famous Treatise on Christian Liberty, Martin Luther succinctly captured the gospel message regarding our freedom as people who have found new life in Christ.  He wrote, “A Christian is perfectly free, Lord of all, subject to none. [and] A Christian is perfectly dutiful, servant of all, subject to all.”  If you wish to love God then love your neighbor as yourself—just don’t expect all your neighbors to be happy about it.  

This past week, 30 adult and youth volunteers welcomed 43 children to Immanuel for Vacation Bible School.  We sang, danced, did crafts, projects, and plays to inquire together about a single question, “Who is my neighbor?”  In Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan we learned neighbors are not just the people who happen to live next to us but anyone in need. We heard Jesus call to love and serve one another in radical, surprising ways, which is really another way of calling to follow him in the way of the cross.  We heard Jesus’ challenge to build a neighborhood (like the one represented behind me), where all are welcome and support one another in lives of dignity and meaning.  We march with pride today in solidarity with those who like Jesus set their face toward making life better for us all even at the expense of their own flesh and blood. We will carry on spreading this message of hope. 

With Jesus, we were so bold to teach this lesson to our children at Vacation Bible School even though as many as 4,500 people were arrested last year alone by our Federal government and charged with a crime for aiding and abetting immigrants by providing things like water, food, or clothing.

Luke tells us the moment Jesus turned to the cross he met immediate resistance.  Ironically, first from the Samaritans, who had been cheering him on, but who now turn away because they despised Jerusalem.  Then his own friends, James and John, offended by the Samaritan’s rejection are moved to react with violence.  Does insult entitle one to inflict injury? Does being right or having a holy cause justify the use of force? 

“Elijah had called down fire on the Samaritans; could not Jesus’ followers do the same? Misunderstanding the identity of the one they followed, the disciples mistakenly thought they could achieve his ends by violence. How often have those who claimed to be following Christ repeated the mistake of these early disciples? They had yet to learn that violence begets violence, and that Jesus had come to break the cycle of violence by dying and forgiving rather than by killing and exacting vengeance.” [Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Luke- John, p. 216]  

“The radicality of Jesus’ words lies in his claim to priority over the best, not the worst, of human relationships. Jesus never said to choose him over the devil but to choose him over the family. And the remarkable thing is that those who have done so have been freed from possession and worship of family and have found the distance necessary to love them.” (Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Commentaries p. 144)

As the sun marks the turning of the seasons from Spring into Summer, so the cross of Christ declares the steadfast love of God that never ceases. God’s mercies never come to an end; but arrive new each morning. (Lamentations 3:22-23)  

By way of the cross, Jesus transforms this world so often cold, lonely, and mean. There is so much suffering all around us.  Yet the good news of Jesus Christ is we may all find the life we so desperately need in become a living sanctuary of hope and grace to one another by walking the way of the cross.  That is why this mission is so urgent.  That is why the time for action must be now.  Will you come and follow me, Jesus says, so the blind may see, to let the prisoners go free, to kiss the lepers clean, and let God’s love be revealed in you? (ELW # 798)

immanuel lutheran chicago

Proper 7C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Years ago, I spent a week with 18 high school youth on mission trip to Juarez, Mexico. We helped build a community center and lead vacation bible school for a small church. Every day one youth sent a reflection back home by email.  Often, they wrote about the poverty they observed.  One wrote, ‘It is remarkable how little we actually need. I feel almost liberated.  Back home, we fiercely guard our possessions. But I wonder, is it we who possess all our stuff, or does all our stuff possess us?’

We waived goodbye as we drove away in a beat-up old school bus that broke down before we reached El Paso. We walked the last two miles or so.  We carried our backpacks and suitcases to the bridge and across the border.  We were relieved to be home.  Yet, our crossing taught us about some of the human costs inherent in our way of life.  Following Jesus in mission can quickly lead us to question what we think we already know.

The prophet Elijah is another example. It seems like he had everything figured out. In the chapters preceding our first reading (1 Kings 17-18), Elijah is a prophet “in charge.” Everything goes his way. He confronts kings and followers of Baal, performs miracles, raises the dead, and calls down lightning from heaven.  But now, in 1 Kings 19, everything is changed. Elijah is intimidated, filled with complaints, and plagued with self-doubt. Like so many servants of God before and after him, Elijah is deeply discouraged when things don’t go his way.  To be fair, serving God put his life in danger. Now he wants out of the whole prophet-of-God business.

On Mt. Sinai, a despondent Elijah encounters a persistent God who refuses to let him off the hook regardless of the difficulty of his mission.  On the very same mountain God handed Moses the Ten Commandments, God confronts Elijah—not with a mighty wind, not with an earthquake, nor with fire, but in the sound of sheer silence—as if to say God will not be confined to one way of speaking.  Don’t expect divine power always to show up “obvious” ways. Contrary to what Elijah thought, he was not alone, but one among a whole community, a holy remnant, numbering at least seven thousand (1 Kings 19:18) faithful people.

Doing God’s work, speaking God’s words, transforms hearts and minds—beginning with our own. It happens again when Jesus orders the disciples into a boat and said, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ (Luke 8:22).

To them it must have seemed like a bad idea from the start.  This wasn’t a little trip from one side of a lake to the other.  It was a journey into a foreign land, the unknown, the defiled, the less than human. To make matters worse, they nearly drowned on their way. Now, from the moment they step onto dry land, they’re confronted by the so-called Gerasene demoniac, a naked, filthy, and demon-possessed man who lived among the tombs! The experience must have confirmed all their stereotypes about unclean Gentiles.

It turns out the people of Gerasene would also have preferred that Jesus stayed away too.  Sure, they’d admit, life with a demoniacwas a little crazy at times, but they had learned to cope.  It wasn’t perfect, but it worked most of the time. At some point, they figured out how to keep him chained, post a guard, and isolate him from other people. Problem solved. It worked for everyone –everyone of course except the so-called demoniac.

Trailing broken chains behind him, he wandered the wilds, tearing at his skin until it bled, trading one kind of pain for another. If he had a name, no one knew it. If he had a history, no one remembers it. If he has a soul worth saving inside his living corpse, no one sees it. No one looks. Until Jesus does. (Debie Thomas, “Legion,” Journey with Jesus, 6/16/19)

Our gospel confronts us with the confounding reluctance and resistance in ourselves that rebels against God’s grace to heal us and to reshape our communities. Like Elijah, and all of us on that mission trip years ago, serving God in Christ opens hearts, minds, and hands even where we did not realize we had closed them.

For all their supposed differences, the Jewish-born disciples and the foreign-born Gerasenes shared something in common: they were more than willing to leave well enough alone rather than make the sacrifices or take the risks required to truly make things better.

The Gerasene demoniac fell down before Jesus and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” (Luke 8:28).  It must have been terrifying and overwhelming.  Yet Jesus shows us exactly where to begin in such situations. He began by asking him a simple, direct question. “What is your name?” Jesus starts to recall the broken man to himself. To his humanity, to his beginnings.  To his unique and precious identity as a beloved child of God.

The problems that afflict, torment, and distort our minds may be legion, multi-faceted, and myriad.  The sources of our brokenness may be braided together. And yet the way of hope and salvation lays open for us in Jesus. The crazy man speaks for us all and shows us how our own healing may begin. When the demoniac sees Jesus, he falls down before him without hesitation or apology.

Our gospel ends with Jesus commissioning the healed man to stay where he is and serve as the first missionary to his townspeople— the same townspeople who feared, shunned, trapped, and shackled him for years. Isn’t that just so like Jesus? “To choose the very people we consider the most unholy, the most unredeemable, the most repulsive and unworthy— and commission them to teach us the Gospel? THAT is God all over.” (Debie Thomas)

When we follow Jesus in mission, when we prayerfully apply ourselves to be his hands, his feet, his word, we may be surprised to discover, how this strange gospel story becomes our story. Here, we find a story about our truest names. Here is the story we share with the faithful of every time and place about our resistance and resurrection. Here is a story about the Jesus who found us naked among the tombs, clothed us with dignity, scattered the demons to save our soul, and turned us into storytellers who help heal the world. Here, then, is our story wrapped within God’s story. “Here is the One who makes us one. The One who breaks the darkness, turning blindness into sight” (ELW #843). Here is the One who opens our fisted minds and will teach us how to live.