Posts

Proper 17C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).  The writer of Hebrews hands down hard-won advice—a prized recipe for a well lived life. It is wisdom wrung from the sweat and striving of our forebears in faith. Hebrews counsels us like a loving parent on the eve of becoming an adult. Remember those in prison and those being tortured as though you were being tortured. Honor your marriage vows. Be content with what you have (vs. 3-5).

When asked what they wish most for their children a lot of parents today say they just want their kid to be happy. As words to live by, ‘whatever makes you happy,’ turns out to be sort of empty and confusing. The pursuit of happiness is not a compass well suited to leading through the wilderness of materialism, consumerism, hedonism, racism, sexism, or addiction. We need a more reliable star to steer by if we are to reach the promised land, to enter, and take possession of the inalienable human right, endowed to us by our creator, to life and liberty.

‘Avoid the love of money; do good and share what you have’ (vs. 5 & 16).  Inevitably, just as all the generations before us did, we ask the question, ‘What do I get out of it? If in giving I receive, what exactly is my reward?’  Quid pro quo—right?  I give something.  I should get something—and if I don’t have anything to give, I shouldn’t get. That’s the way of the world.  To which Hebrews responds –yeah—that’s what we thought. Yet, it turns out, we were wrong.

The good life consists in something fundamentally different than anything you can accumulate through give and take.  Quid pro quo must give way to God’s pro quo.  Tell me, how do you measure or calculate repayment of love, or mercy?  How do you put a value on family, friendship, marriage, or partnership? These are the fruits of love and trust.  These cannot be harvested from relationships which are merely transactional.  The dignity of every human life grows from the unmerited, unearned, unwarranted, undeserved love of God.

We hear these words and treasure them.  Perhaps, we honor them in a few private relationships. Enter Jesus to set us straight.  Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them.  He was a popular dinner guest but not a very polite one.  Mealtime scenes with Jesus end in provocations, insults, and/or scandal. A woman of dubious reputation caressed his feet under the table.  He interrupts the meal to heal sick people on the Sabbath. His hosts complain he ate with dirty hands, shared his table with riffraff, and drank more than his enemies considered respectable. We tend to forget this today. Jesus doesn’t put up with any phony baloney.

Jesus asks us to believe that our behavior at the table matters—but not because you know the difference between a dinner fork and a salad fork.  Where we sit speaks volumes, and the people whom we choose to welcome reveals the stuff of our souls.  Favor the ones who cannot repay you.  Prefer the poor.  Choose obscurity. This is God’s world we live in, and nothing here is ordinary.  In the realm of God, the ragged strangers at our doorstep are the angels. Learn how to welcome them as you wish to be welcomed and we are on our way to life well lived-together.

Author and teacher Tony Campolo tells a true story about a time he was traveling. He couldn’t sleep, so he wandered outside and into a doughnut shop where, he overheard a conversation between sex workers. Apparently, it was a place they liked to hang out at the end of the night. One of them, named Agnes, said, ‘Tomorrow’s my birthday. You know, in my whole life, I’ve never had a birthday party.’

That’s right—Tony got an idea. He brought the store manager in on it. They arranged for a cake, candles, and party decorations. The following night when Agnes came in, they shouted, “Surprise — and she couldn’t believe her eyes. They sang, and she began to cry so she could hardly blow out the candles. When time came to cut the cake, she asked if they wouldn’t mind if she didn’t cut it. She preferred to bring it home — just to keep it for a while and savor the moment. She left, carrying her cake like a treasure.

Tony led the remaining guests in a prayer for Agnes, after which the manager asked what kind of church Tony came from, and he replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for sex workers at 3:30 in the morning.” (Abbreviated from Brian McLaren’s in The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything [Thomas Nelson, 2006], pages 145-46.)

“The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations, and plants the humble in their place”(Sirach 10:15). “When we dare to gather at Jesus’s table, we are actively protesting the culture of upward mobility and competitiveness that surrounds us.  There’s nothing easy or straightforward about this; it requires hard work over a long period of time.  To eat and drink with God is to live in tension with the pecking orders that define our boardrooms, our college admissions committees, our church politics, and our presidential elections, and that can be tiring.  But it’s what we’re called to do — to humble ourselves and place our hope in a radically different kingdom” (Debi Thomas, Places of Honor, Journey with Jesus, 8/25/19).

We must admit the history of Western culture is not known for humility –but for arrogance. Confidence in the superiority of western culture, science, and civilization led generations of white Europeans to take the highest place at every table. Yet, even now, at this very moment, the living waters of God’s grace are working within your heart, mind, and soul. Grace strips away our arrogant and worldly way of thinking like paint thinner that. From beneath the soot and sediment the original stamp of the imago Dei, the image of God, is revealed in you and your neighbor.

The good life is lived with honor, equity and joy among neighbors.  Maybe that’s why Jesus attended so many parties, feasts, and banquets. The kingdom of God to which you and I are invited is like a good party. There is always room for one more to be seated at the table of grace. Brian McLaren writes, “Today we could say that God is inviting people to leave their gang fights and come to a party, to leave their workaholism and rat race and come to a party, to leave their loneliness and isolation and join the party, to leave their exclusive parties (political ones, for example, which win elections by dividing electorates) and join one inclusive party of a different sort, to stop fighting or complaining or hating or competing and instead start partying and celebrating the goodness and love of God. (Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything, pages 144-46. In Ch. 16)

Proper 16C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“She stood up” (Luke 13:13). We don’t know her name. We don’t know where she came from. We don’t know why she was in the synagogue.  But we can picture her.  A weary woman, resilient and resigned.  A woman “bent over,” and “quite unable to stand up” (vs. 11).  A woman who spent long days staring at the ground, looking at her own feet, watching dusty sandals of passers-by on the road.  She cannot make eye contact, or see the sunrise, or remember what the stars look like, or raise her face to the evening breeze. She has suffered this way for 18 years.  

Presumably, she came to the synagogue to commune with God, not to talk to Jesus.  Jesus is teaching—probably surrounded by a crowd.  She doesn’t approach him.  She is no Cinderella.  No one notices her enter the room—but Jesus does. She didn’t see him, but he saw her. He put his teaching on hold, called her over, and said the thing Jesus always says when he encounters the sick, the broken, the dying, the dead: “You are set free from your ailment” (vs. 12). “He laid his hands on her [and] immediately she stood up straight and began praising God” (v. 13).

I know. It’s astonishing!  This is not the sort of thing we expect in church.  But for Jesus, the Church is exactly the place where hunched, crippled, and exhausted people are invited, encouraged, and released to “stand up straight.”  Women, people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, the poor, the homeless, the elderly, the incarcerated, the mentally ill, the differently abled, the uneducated or under-educated, the spiritually broken—Christ calls us into a place where our dignity is restored and our full potential realized when we cannot stand up on our own. (Debi Thomas) This is the place for what is crooked to be made straight; and the rough places made smooth, so with all flesh, we may see the salvation of God again reflected in the beauty of the sunrise, the splendor of the stars,  and the feeling of the evening breeze upon our face. (Luke 3:5).

Yet the moment Jesus unbinds the crippled woman the leader of the synagogue voices his displeasure and indignation.  His angry criticism drowns out her joyful praise: “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he tells the crowds, “come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day”(Luke 13:14). 

Sadly, this does not surprise us.  Tragically, we are not astonished, but could have predicted, that too often religious communities are not a place of healing but of further bending.  There is an unfortunate tendency to bend people over under the weight of shame, judgment, invisibility, false piety, condemnation, prejudice, legalism, and harmful theology.

We know this.  It’s one reason the church has lost its standing in the wider culture today.  Yet, we also know there is power in the gospel and in God’s grace.  We are called to throw off the weight of this painful history and reclaim the beauty and the power of the gospel, just as the nameless woman did long ago.  

Notice, for a moment, the synagogue leader is not a bad man. Our history, theology and religious traditions are valuable and worthy of respect.  “But what the leader misses is the heart of the Sabbath, the heart of God’s law, the heart of the tradition. What the leader misses is compassion. The kind of compassion that trumps legalism every single time.  The kind of compassion that doesn’t cling to orthodoxy simply for orthodoxy’s sake. The kind of compassion that consistently sees the broken body, the broken soul, the broken spirit — before it sees the broken commandment.” (Debie Thomas, “She Stood Up Straight,” Journey with Jesus, 8/18/19)  

Can our church community be a place of unbending? Saint Augustine, echoed centuries later by Martin Luther, defined human sin as being incurvatus in se.  That’s Latin for saying we somehow always manage to bend in on ourselves, rather than live outward toward neighbor and God.  Worship every week is chiropractic treatment of the mind, body and soul.  By grace we are unbent. The crooked is made straight so we may stand erect and celebrate our dignity as children of God.

Often, we don’t realize how bent-in we have become.  Once, I sat with a large group of people with a big pile of paper clips. (Have you done this?)  The facilitator said, ‘give yourself a paperclip if you had books in the house growing up.’  Take a paperclip if neighbors tend to welcome you in a new neighborhood. You get a paperclip if your parents went to college and/or if they benefited from the G.I. bill.  Conversely, give up a paperclip if you were homeless as a child, if a parent or caregiver suffered from mental illness, addiction, or died prematurely. You probably know what happened. Pretty soon I had a very long chain of paperclips—and so did the other educated, affluent, English speaking, mentally sound, straight, able-bodied, white, Christian men born in the U.S. in the room.

I’m ashamed to say, I felt pride at winning this game.  I sat there smiling when I noticed one of my colleagues holding back tears. He was visibly upset.  He had no paperclips.  Even those he had were taken away. That exercise held a mirror up to myself and the image reflected back was pretty twisted.  All the privileges afforded me by luck and the accidents of birth are connected to the suffering of my brothers and sisters who are being denied that same privilege. It was one step among thousands through which God has slowly, patiently, persistently transformed and matured me. It taught me how persons of goodwill, who want to do everything right, like the synagogue leader, perpetuate the suffering of others. 

Through anointing for healing (which our Parish Nurse, Marcia Smith makes available to you at the back of the church during Communion today), we receive a cross made with oil on our forehead.  A gesture for our body.  An invitation for our soul.  Our restless minds and hearts may go through all kinds of posturing, trying to figure how we can make our lives better, how we can survive our hurt.  We come forward to the Table this day with our hands open, our hearts open, our minds open.  We pray that Christ will show us the living bread that is real and everlasting.  Postures of waiting, postures of trust. Through these sacrament and symbols of the gospel, Christ bids us to rise, to stand up.  To receive the dignity that is ours.  To look others in the eye.  To see, even when bent over, our worth as children of God.  To notice not the mud below but the sky above.  And finally, to give thanks.  To give thanks for such a beautiful world and a compassionate, gracious God.