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All Saints C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

John of Patmos foretold peoples of all nations streaming to the City of God. In worship, time and eternity are joined in the eternal now. Saints of every time and place crowd in among us. Seems like a great opportunity to ask one of them about Jesus’ sermon on the plain.

In life, she stood five feet tall and couldn’t read or write. Yet she led 70 slaves to freedom without losing a single one. During the Civil War she served as Union scout, spy, and nurse. She is also the first woman to lead a U.S. military operation in what is known as the Combahee Ferry Raid. She guided Union boats through mine-filled waters and successfully rescued more than 700 slaves from nearby plantations, while dodging bullets and artillery shells of slave owners and Confederate soldiers.

Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland in 1822. At 27, she fled on foot and alone 90-miles north to Pennsylvania.  Later she recounted, “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything. The Sun came like gold through the trees and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”

Tubman escaped from hell then returned to it. She returned to slave territory between 13 – 19 times. She risked her life each time. Her astonishing success at using and expanding the secret network, known as the Underground Railroad, led the abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, to call her “Moses of her people.”

Tubman credited her success with an ability to take instructions directly from God.  Harriet had fainting spells and visions throughout her life stemming from a brain injury when she was 13.  Stories differ. By one account, a slave master threw a metal weight at someone else, that fractured her skull. She spent upwards of two months in a coma without medical treatment. Harriet’s documented uncanny ability to avoid capture despite the determined efforts of slave owners and armed slave hunters, she later said, was due to the fact that the old injury had made God’s voice easier for her to hear.

After the war, Tubman was recognized as a war hero, but she wasn’t paid. She petitioned the government but was repeatedly denied compensation because she was a woman. She supported herself by selling homemade pies, gingerbread and root beer. Despite meager resources, she opened her home in Auburn, NY to orphans, the elderly, and freed slaves looking for help.  On March 10, 1913, she died of pneumonia, surrounded by family and friends. A devout Christian until the end, her final words were, “I go to prepare a place for you.”

If her courage and achievements weren’t testament enough, these last words attest to her dedication to others, seeking no glory or fame. A woman who became an American icon by hiding in shadows. A woman who escaped the hell of being a slave and set about helping others to do the same.

I imagine, if we asked Harriet, she would point out Jesus stood on a level place as he preached. Here Jesus, the Son of God, walks among humankind as an equal.  Here Jesus taught there is no place for me to stand that is any higher or lower with respect to God than you.  Whether we walk up the steps to the altar or gather in an open field, God is with us.  Every human life is precious.  God doesn’t want people to own people.

I imagine Harriet might say this is what Jesus aimed to show us when he took on flesh and lived among us (John 1:14) Christ Jesus, “Who, though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). Jesus stands with the suffering, the afflicted, the no-account, the invisible poor who make our shoes. To follow Jesus is to walk the way of his cross. Jesus made himself subject to human capriciousness and malice in solidarity with those who become its targets.  Let the heavenly chorus sing for joy.

Harriet would not fail to notice all the “blessings” mentioned in Jesus’ sermon are what most people would call woes; and all the woes are what we usually count as blessings.  Jesus preached woe to the wealthy, and those who have plenty to eat, who are laughing now and possess the esteem of others who all speak well of them.  Aren’t these the very things we often pray for?  As for hunger, weeping, and the hatred of others who exclude, revile, defame us on account of Jesus—who among us would call these blessings?  Well, apparently, Jesus did and does.

But, as Harriet would be quick to say, this is not because Jesus wants us to weep more, or to become poorer, or to be hated. This does not please to God.  Rather, Jesus the great revealer, shows us the fullness of God dwells now in the abandoned places of human despair. God is with you in your struggles.  God is there when you’re not being very good at being religious, let alone spiritual.  God is present in distress, tragedy, and injustice –not because God wants more of these things—but because God intends to put an end to such things.  In fact, God has already turned the tide. (Nadia Bolz-Weber) Christ Jesus has called us to come stand beside him in this fight.

Jesus goes on to up the ante saying, ‘Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, look them in the eye and offer the other cheek also. If anyone takes your coat offer them your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you. If anyone steals your stuff, don’t ask for it back. Do unto others as you would have them do to you.’ (Luke 6:27-31)

Theologians will say these Beatitudes are descriptive of God’s kingdom, not prescriptive of what we need to try and be more of.  Regular people say, ‘Sure Jesus, in an ideal world, I might be willing to do all these things—but in case you haven’t noticed—this not an ideal world!’  That’s when our strong faithful new friend Harriet might gently pull on our elbow. Jesus knows the power of evil is real. But there’s no way to begin making a better world unless evil is returned with forgiveness and mercy. Let all the Saints sing alleluia!

I go to prepare a place for you.  There’s a reserved seat for you right beside Harriet at the great banquet Jesus has laid out for us. Come, share in the inheritance of all the saints. Come to the table prepared for you.

Mary, Mother of our Lord

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth (Luke 1.39-40). A newly pregnant teenager makes for the hills. She doesn’t slow down until she reaches the home of her also-pregnant cousin.  She flees toward her kinswoman, toward refuge. She finds solidarity and sanctuary.

‘On a well-swept doorstep, two women meet to share the ancient, womanly experience of being with child. Mary and Elizabeth are two ordinary, pregnant women in the most extraordinary time and circumstances, on the brink of greatness, but first attending to their relationship with each other and with God. Motherhood is daunting for every woman, especially the first time, and these two women found themselves pregnant under most unusual and unexpected terms: one past the age to conceive, and the other unmarried. So, like women in every place and time, they spend time together, keeping each other company, learning and praying and perhaps laughing together, as they faced first-time childbirth and motherhood’ (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds).  

In his book, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey, Henri Nouwen asks what must have gone through Mary’s mind?  “Who could ever understand? Who could ever believe it? Who could ever let it happen? The Angel’s proposed plan was preposterous and dangerous, but Mary said “yes!”  When her kinswoman welcomes her, she bursts into song — a song so subversive, governments twenty centuries later will ban its public recitation. According to scripture, Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, or until John after was born. Then returned home to an uncertain future with Joseph in Nazareth (Luke 1: 56).

John the Baptist proclaimed of Jesus, “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). We must pause a moment to acknowledge the tragic and painful ways the beautiful story of Mary has been weaponized by the church against women. When the history of all the words said of Mary is laid before Jesus, a whole lot of unquenchable fire will be required to burn away the layers of misogyny and theological malpractice heaped upon Mary to obscure, nullify, and outright contradict her story.  How many women throughout history and across cultures have been bludgeoned with the cudgel of religious shame into self-loathing for failing to live up to the impossible standard of being both a virgin and a mother at the same time?

Yet, the self-righteous, the self-interested, the liars, bullies and Christmas marketing people could not steal the gospel from us. For them, Mary’s message contains surprises that will not be quiet. Mary’s spirit rejoices, not because Joseph bought her the perfect Christmas gift— but because “…[God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52b)  Mary’s song is essentially about social justice.

New Testament scholar Scott McKnight points out that in the 1980s, the government of Guatemala banned singing of Mary’s Magnificat for Christmas because, unlike Away in a Manger, this song was considered subversive and politically dangerous. “Authorities worried that it might incite the oppressed people to riot.” (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds)

The Magnificat was excluded from evening prayer in churches run by the British East India Company in colonial India. Years later, on the final day of imperial rule in India, Mahatma Gandhi requested Mary’s song be read everywhere the British flag was being lowered. The junta in Argentina forbade the singing of Mary’s song after the Mothers of the Disappeared displayed its words on placards in the capital plaza. And during the 1980s, the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador prohibited any public recitation of the song.

What made Mary’s song so dangerous?  Mary’s song of joy and faith is anthem of solidarity with the poor. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52a).  Mary and Elizabeth, like people of faith of every generation, expanded the powerful bond of their kinship with one another for belonging in the ever-widening circle of the kin-dom of God.  They shifted their allegiances and loyalties.  They went from living in an “us versus them” world, to a world of love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace for all.  That is why we celebrate Mary (and Elizabeth) today.  They are heroes of faith who show us the way to walk toward transformation and renewal by the way of the cross. 

Mary and Elizabeth afforded one another safety and strength through the gift of sanctuary.  Can we, like them, grow in our stated mission, striving to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace?  This month, our church, at its national Churchwide Assembly, voted to become a sanctuary denomination.  By this, the ELCA has publicly declared that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith. They affirmed that we are called to use our hands and voices in obedience to Jesus’ command to welcome the most vulnerable.  Specifically, the Churchwide Assembly’s resolution challenges us to seek for ways that we may provide concrete resources to respond to the needs of our human family who are suffering now—especially immigrants and asylum seekers.  This national resolution has drawn criticism for being too radical. Yet, in substance, how is it any different than Mary’s song? Mary’s song is a lullaby conjuring dreams of new worlds as we sleep.

This week, August 23-25, our nation commemorates the 400th anniversary of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Most of us learned about the arrival of 102 passengers on the Mayflower in 1620. What you didn’t learn in history class was that a year earlier, August of 1619, 20 enslaved Africans from the Kingdom of Ndongo in Angola landed at Point Comfort (now in Virginia) on the White Lion, a 160-ton English privateer slave ship.  The transatlantic slave trade was the biggest forced migration of people in world history.

The Mother of Exiles, the Statue of Liberty has a broken shackle and chain laying at her feet as she walks forward, to commemorate the national abolition of slavery in 1865.  Could Mary’s song of solidarity be the cure that alludes us? Can we finally stand with the children of those who never knew welcome to our shores, as members of one wonderfully diverse human family? In 1992, Toni Morrison told the Guardian newspaper: “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” When can our allegiances and loyalties shift? When will our national story expand to become part of the universal story—of the ever-widening circle of the kin-dom of God? Listening to Mary’s song will end the fever of racism animating the irrational, tragic, and self-defeating anger against people of color and immigrants today. 

In a world that longs for a gentle peace, a generous sharing of the goods of the earth, a time of quiet joy and healing, Mary points the way to becoming expectant with hope and filled to the brim with joy. See, even now we are being filled with joy and delight in God’s grace so that the song of our lives may give praise to God and our souls magnify God’s grace.