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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)

5th Sunday After Epiphany

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world (Mtt. 5:13a & 14a). Jesus used two memorable metaphors of grace in his Sermon on the Mount. Yet, I don’t thing modern people really know what he meant.  Sure, maybe you’ve experienced what athletes call “hitting the wall,” so you know how awful it feels for your body to run out of sodium. Here in Chicago we all know how good it feels to finally come into some sunlight. But in a time when salt and light are both cheap and abundant, much of Jesus’ meaning gets lost in translation

Reading a two-thousand-year-old book requires us to take a step back in time. We must ask what the plain meaning of Jesus’ words would have been to those who first heard them. How does it add to our understanding of Jesus’ message to think back to a world in which salt and light were precious and rare?

In the movie Castaway, the character played by Tom Hanks is sitting in a private jet clicking a butane lighter on and off, on and off, over and over. He is flying home after years alone on a deserted island where he survived a mid-ocean plane crash only after many miserable attempts and with great effort by learning to make fire. Firelight was the only light humans could make in Jesus’ day right up to the recent past of the industrial age. Light came primarily from the sun, moon, and stars.  But, Jesus said, you and I are light too.

Mark Kurlansky writes in his book, Salt: A World History, “from the beginning of civilization until about one hundred years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.”   It was used in ancient times to ward off evil spirits, to disinfect wounds, stimulate thirst, treat skin diseases, and seal religious covenants. Roman soldiers got paid in salt—hence our English word, salary.” Around ten thousand years ago, dogs were first domesticated using salt; people would leave salt outside their homes to entice the animals.  And of course, in all the centuries before refrigeration, salt was essential for food preservation. (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, Salty, 02/02/20)

Salt and light are precious. Modern people miss out hearing much of Jesus’ message in world where salt and light are cheap and plentiful. Imagine what Jesus’s first followers would have heard when he called them salt and light. “Remember who they were. Remember what sorts of people Jesus addressed in his famous Sermon on the Mount.  The poor, the mournful, the meek, the persecuted. The hungry, the sick, the crippled, the frightened.  The outcast, the misfit, the disreputable, the demon-possessed. “You,” he told them all. “You are the salt of the earth.”” You are the light of the world. (Debie Thomas)

Our reading from the prophet Isaiah helps sketch out Jesus’ meaning a little further. You are salty when you share your bread with the hungry. You are light when you bring the homeless poor into your house. You are the salt to make life savory when you see the naked and cover them. Your light shines in the world when you do not hide yourself from your own kin. “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly, your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.” (Isaiah 58:6-8a) You are salt and light.

This month our nation remembers the story of Black history that began in America in August of 1619 when 20 slaves disembarked from a ship in Jamestown, Virginia, and the captain traded them for provisions of food.  By 1860, the United States census identified four million slaves.

Now 400 yeas later, we acknowledge that neither the Civil War, nor the Emancipation Proclamation, nor the Thirteenth Amendment, nor the Civil rights movement fully abolished what Abraham Lincoln called the “monstrous injustice” of slavery.

Many slaves freed after the Civil War lived into the 1940s. Their stories are preserved in a work called, “Unchained Memories,” about the daily horrors of slave life from those who lived to tell of it — included relentless work, horrendous housing and diet, the denial of education, sexual violence, and even religious violence. They tell how their “slave masters” hoped to use the Christian gospel to keep slaves passive.

It is one of the most counter-intuitive facts of our history that blacks adopted the religion of their white oppressors, a religion used as a weapon in their oppression. It was because the slaves, like the first disciples before them, weak and downtrodden as they were, heard and saw something they weren’t supposed to see. They heard Jesus say that they were salt and light. Their lives had dignity and meaning beyond their economic worth. They were precious. They were siblings in Christ regardless where they came from or who their family was.

Kim Phuc Phan Thi (Kim phoo fan tea) is 58 and living outside Toronto, Canada. She is a well-known author and activist of children who have experienced trauma, but that’s not why she’s famous. There was a time when everyone in America, regardless of age, would recognize her photo. It’s an iconic image hard to forget. A young girl, naked, runs screaming toward the camera in agony after a napalm attack incinerated her village, her clothes, and then her skin. That girl is Kim Phuc. She was 9 years old in 1972 when South Vietnamese planes dropped napalm near her village.

Third degree burns covered 50 percent of her body. Doctors didn’t expect her to live. After 14-months in the hospital and 17 surgical procedures, including skin transplantations, she was able to return home. Yet because her skin doesn’t have any pores she cannot sweat. It makes her feel tired. She has headaches. She lives with pain every day. “It filled me up with hatred, bitterness and anger,” she said. (Kim Phuc’s Brief But Spectacular Take on pain and forgiveness, PBS Newshour)

Ten years after her ordeal, she wanted to take her own life, because she said, “I thought after I die no more suffer no more pain.” It was Christmas that year when somehow, she stumbled on a copy of the New Testament in the library in Saigon and read it and became a Christian. She says that, “Since I have faith, my enemies list became my prayer list.” She realized that praying for her enemies meant to love them. She said, “Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you? (Kim Phúc, NPR in 2008) Kim Phuc’s

We are salt and light. “Jesus’ words are about who we are and what we do.  How we do it and the effectour lives may have upon the wider world.  The salt and light in you can never be stolen from you, beaten out of you, or spoiled even by your own misdeeds.  You are imbued with the distinctive capacity to elicit goodness, and growth leads to personal and global transformation.  Salt and light, Jesus said.  This is the source of your dignity.  This is the source of your power.” (Debie Thomas)

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are a benediction upon the whole world. There is no border, no boundary, no line separating nations, no longitude, nor latitude that divides all living things from the blessings bestowed by God. As in highest heaven so it is also on earth. We are siblings in Christ—children of salt and light.

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.