Posts

Proper 9A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

12 score and 2 years ago our ancestors brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. “All men,” of course, referred narrowly only to people of that same gender, who were white, who had lived on American soil for at least two years, and could prove they were of good moral character. We have expanded the circle of inclusion ever since, striving for that, ever elusive, more perfect union.
Abraham Lincoln said it at Gettysburg, ‘It is for us the living to be dedicated to the unfinished work our American ancestors in each generation have so nobly advanced.’ “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, 11/19/63)

We all have a stake in this freedom franchise. Whether our ancestors immigrated here in the 19th century like mine or were brought and bought here in bondage against their will, or, whether they walked here during the last ice age, we all have a role in this American experiment in democracy. This strange, COVID-afflicted, safe-distanced anniversary of our nation’s independence, when the meaning of what it is to be American is debated in our national politics, it’s worth remembering this. It is necessary to reassert this so that a new birth of freedom may also be born in our own time.

As luck would have the proper use of our God-given freedom is a question addressed in our readings appointed for today. It is, perhaps, the central question of the great bible narratives of creation, Exodus, Christ and the cross. I would like to think the American dream of human equality is rooted in the witness of scripture and the persistent council of grace in human consciousness that all people are children of God.

Human beings living under every permutation of governance ever devised or bumbled into have asked themselves what am I to do with the miracle of my life?
Chapters 5-8 of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome from which today’s second lesson was taken is a majestic statement of some of Paul’s greatest themes: The love of God embodied in Jesus’ death; the hope, even during suffering, enjoyed by God’s people; Christian freedom from sin, the law and death itself; and the life-giving leading of the Spirit. Countless Christians, in times of great struggle found strength and joy in Paul’s closing words: “Neither height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39) (N.T. Wright, Commentary on Romans)

Many today are misled in believing that, if you are lucky or strong or bold or beautiful and powerful enough, freedom is about living without any obligations, any commitments, any requirements whatsoever. By contrast, Paul invited the Christians in Rome and each of us, to consider the choice we face is not between obedience or freedom, but rather a decision about what we will be freely obedient and dedicated to.

So, it makes perfect sense. That’s why Jesus’ answer to the problem of the proper use of our freedom is this—an animal yoke. What? Yes. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

In fact, what Jesus seems to have in mind in a double yoke like this one. (that I hope you can see now.) Stick your head in this, join with me, Jesus says, and you can’t go far wrong.

It seems counterintuitive to find rest and greater freedom in taking upon us a yoke—even the yoke of Jesus. For most of us, I’d wager, a yoke connotes bondage and servitude, a diminishment of freedom and choice. Indeed, Jesus was relentless in his criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees for making the yoke of religion too heavy. They made religion into something used merely to weigh people down with the artificial demands of righteousness.

Jesus’ yoke is different from the one religious Zealots want to lay on you. Instead, here is wisdom written deep within creation: being kind is not a chore, but a natural and gracious response to the God-given dignity in every other. In this yoke we find our own humanity. In this yoke we find purpose for our freedom. In this yoke we find the inalienable human right of all people to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Human dignity increases as we join ourselves to God’s purpose. In this way we find greater freedom and power. But Jesus’ invitation doesn’t sidestep the fact that a yoke is still a yoke. Faith requires a commitment. Faith assumes there is a load to pull, and that it must be pulled.

People are confused about the purpose of their freedom today. We have an adolescent view of happiness. The yoke of Jesus is humility and concern for the despised. The yoke of Jesus is not a yoke of servitude, or of bondage but of connection, partnership, and sharing our burdens with one another and with Christ who labors alongside us. There will be a new birth of freedom among us in our time when we realize in Christ, we are yoked to those suffering now. We are yoked, so none of can be free when one of us can’t breathe.

We remember the dying words of George Floyd and Eric Garner. “I can’t breathe.” Their deaths sparked national outrage but there were many others you didn’t hear about. Over the past decade, The New York Times found, at least 70 people have died in law enforcement custody after saying the same words — “I can’t breathe.”
The dead ranged in age from 19 to 65. The majority of them had been stopped or held over nonviolent infractions, 911 calls about suspicious behavior, or concerns about their mental health. More than half were black. (I Can’t Breath, NYT, Mike Baker, Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Manny Fernandez and Michael LaForgia, June 29, 2020)

As we face these challenging times, we need wisdom, wisdom born of grace. We need individual wisdom—yes—but perhaps even more, we need our public institutions to have greater wisdom. It is time once again for a new birth of freedom. Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth but have a new beginning. Jesus’ yoke is easy. Take on the yoke of Jesus. Let him show us the way. Yoked to Christ, we can’t go far wrong. Our life’s journey is made easier when we have a companion along the way with whom we can share our worries who is stronger than we are. Let Jesus lift the crushing burdens impossible for us to lift. See, even our griefs and sorrows are transformed into something like love and understanding when we share our burdens with one another in Christ. See greater meaning and purpose for our lives is at hand. Let freedom ring.

Can we be thankful?

Proper 8A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Put ourselves in Abraham’s sandals. God said, “Abraham!” And Abraham said, “Here I am.” God said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, the one I promised you, the one you waited nearly your whole life for, the son whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’(Genesis 22:1)

What do you think would happen if any one of us were to walk a child three days into the wilderness, place them on a pile of wood, and raise a knife intending to kill them? Right. Yet here it is in Genesis 22. In fact, this shocking story about Abraham is so central to scripture it is one of twelve readings appointed for the Easter Vigil every year. You know we read only seven. Yet, I don’t remember the last time we chose this one—if ever.

As children we learned to call this the testing of Abraham—and to shift attention away from the traumatizing violence and betrayal of Isaac. I wonder, did Isaac ever trust his father the same way again? Why would he carry on in the faith? Perhaps in confirmation we learned this story of Abraham and Isaac foreshadows God’s willing sacrifice of his only Son Jesus on the cross. Yet is the God we worship really capable of ordering a hit on both Isaac and Jesus? Or was it the religious leaders whose authority he questioned who wanted him dead? Wasn’t the demand to crucify him rooted in the human rejection of grace common to us all? Isn’t is we, not God, who deny Christ Jesus again and again? But then, if God didn’t demand that Jesus’ die, who told Abraham to head to Moriah with wood and a knife? (Hold that thought a minute.)

Perhaps what we have here is simply conclusive evidence we’ve changed. In the four thousand years since this story was first told we’ve grown up. We instinctively value the life of every child. We preserve, protect, and celebrate all lives equally. Human sacrifice is a thing of the past. Right? Well…except of course, for some people, born in remote parts of the world who provide cheap labor for our factories, or others whom we regard with suspicion. I wonder what George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin would say? And on this Pride Weekend, I wonder what trans men and women would have to say about how our economy, our political system, and our society continue to value the lives of the rich and powerful over those of the poor and marginalized?

Last month former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie urged the U.S. to push ahead reopening the economy despite the pandemic because “there are going to be deaths no matter what.” He compared it to the loss of lives during the two World Wars. We sacrificed those lives “knowing that many of them would not come home alive…We decided to make that sacrifice because what we were standing up for was the American way of life,” he said. “In the very same way now, we have to stand up for the American way of life.” (Chris Christy, CNN interview with Dana Bash, 5/04/20)

Later that same week, Whoopi Goldberg asked Christie when he appeared on “The View,” to name which of his own family members should die. “So, I’m asking, since you’re suggesting that I sacrifice, who are you sacrificing? Who are you going to give up in your family?”

We no longer sacrifice children and marginalized people for the sake of religious ritual, but we seem perfectly comfortable doing so for the economy, for wall street, or so we don’t have to wear a mask. The Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign remarks, “People in power are too comfortable with other people’s deaths.”
To hear the gospel in today’s Old Testament story we must first climb down from our high horse and acknowledge that human sacrifice remains an ugly part of our world too. We must stop ignoring this story in our bible. We must push past the false theology and pious window dressing that’s been erected over the years to shield us from facing into it. Like every passage in scripture, the answer begins with the question, what was the plain meaning of this story? What did it mean to those who first heard? We are so fortunate to live in a time when archeologists, philologists, and historians can help us better answer this question.

One of these scholars writes, “What we must try to see in the story of Abraham’s non-sacrifice of Isaac is that Abraham’s faith consisted, not of almost doing what he didn’t do, but of not doing what he almost did, and not doing it in fidelity to the God in whose name his contemporaries thought it should be done” (Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads,1996, p. 140). It is immensely helpful to know that child sacrifice was actually common in Abraham’s time and place. Our horror at thinking about ritually killing a child was no shock at all in Abraham’s world. In the text, Abraham hears the Lord, Elohim, call him to Moriah, but the voice of God, Yahweh, tells him to stop and provides the stag caught in the bush.

Abraham passed the test of faith not by listening to the voice of the false gods of sacred violence at the story’s opening, but by listening to the voice of Yahweh, “the LORD,” at the story’s close. Abraham heard the voice of the true God telling him to stop, don’t kill. And now almost two thousand years after the voice of our risen Savior forgiving us for our numerous slaughters, and our neglect of the innate dignity of all human lives are we ready to pass the test, too? Are we ready to stop the killing? What could happen in our world if four billion Christians, Jews, and Muslims who claim Abraham as their father could finally recognize what this test of faith is really all about?” (Paul J. Nuechterlein, Prince of Peace Lutheran, Portage, MI, June 26, 2011)

Abraham learned what Christ Jesus proclaims. For Abraham the unveiling of sacred violence meant the unveiling of our false gods and an end to the glorification of all violence among people. In Jesus and Christ together, the God is made known who is both deeply personal and cosmically universal, who has counted even all the hairs on your head. Whose greatest reward is reserved not for the keynote speaker, the celebrity prophet, or the charismatic star at the microphone but goes to the person who serves. It goes to the one who hears the doorbell and opens the door. It goes to the one who hangs up the coats, washes the feet, pours the cool drinks, and sets and clears the table. “The small gesture and the invisible kindness are what please God, who sees everything we do in secret… Why? Because it is in the offering of such simple, essential gifts that Jesus’s kingdom announces itself. Jesus came to bring abundant life, and that life begins with the most elemental of gestures. “Even a cup of cold water?” Yes, even that.” (Debi Thomas, Welcome the Prophet, Journey with Jesus,6/21/20) And for the truth made real in our lives and in our society that Black Lives Matter, Trans Lives Matter because every life is precious to God.

Proper 6A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36) The Greek word for “compassion,” splagchnizomai, has the connotation of having one’s entrails being stirred up. In other words, Jesus had a visceral response upon seeing the crowds and immediately, sent disciples in mission. Visceral compassion generates urgent action.
Splagchnizomai, or visceral compassion, is what has provoked so many in witnessing the murder of George Floyd. It is not yet three weeks and already there have been demonstrations in at least 1,600 places so far, large and small, across all 50 states—and more around the world. Why now, we ask? Why this time and not all the times before? What finally sparked this splagchnizomai? Why did the churn in our belly—our sadness, our empathy, our quiet tears finally set us in motion, move us into the streets, and compel us to demand change? I don’t know. But at least now we know what to call it—splagchnizomai—a Christ-like visceral compassion combined with an urgency to act.

We’ve all heard stories of people in the grips of this visceral compassion who perform heroic deeds and exhibit strength they could not believe they possessed. One of those people has a birthday coming up this week. Next Saturday, June 13th, Patrisse Cullors will be 37.
Ms. Cullors is a multi-media performance artist with undergraduate degrees in philosophy and religion from the University of California, Los Angeles. She is an activist. She is a freedom fighter. She is Black and Queer. Patrisse Cullors is one of three woman who started Black Lives Matter, back in 2013, out of their frustration following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Today Black Lives Matter is an international human rights movement which campaigns against violence and systemic racism towards black people.

From the very beginning Black Lives Matter recognized the need to include the leadership of women and queer and trans people. “To maximize our movement muscle, and to be intentional about not replicating harmful practices that excluded so many in past movements for liberation,” they said, “we made a commitment to placing those at the margins closer to the center” (Black Lives Matter.com, “Herstory”). Yes! We might call this splagchnizomai—a Christ-like visceral compassion and urgency to act for those most in need.

Ms. Cullors was raised with three other siblings by her great-grandmother, Jenny, while her mother worked three jobs to get food on the table. Grandma Jenny was Choctaw, Blackfoot, and African American. She grew up in Oklahoma. Great-Grandma Jenny’s father was a medicine man. Cullors remembers she told lots of stories about the KKK, lots of stories of her father defending their family against the KKK, and about her eventual move to Los Angeles. Ms. Cullors reflects, “I believe if I didn’t have my great grandmother, who deeply believed in me and my siblings, I would not actually be who I am today.” (“The Spiritual Work of Black Lives Matter,” On Being with Krista Tippet, Public Radio, 2/18/16)

Cullors asks, “What is the impact of not being valued? “How do you measure the loss of what a human being does not receive?” Through Black Lives Matter, Cullors says, “You see the light that comes inside of people to other communities that are like, ‘I’m going to stand on the side of black lives.’ You see people literally transforming. And that’s a different type of work. And for me, that is a spiritual work. It’s a healing work. And human to human, if you take a moment to be with somebody, to understand the pains they’re going through, you get to transform yourself.” (On Being)

Jesus’ mission and that of his followers is to bring healing, peace, wholeness—all the elements of true Shalom. Fueled with visceral compassion Jesus sent the disciples to those who were lost and hurting. He sent them to be shepherds to people who were like sheep without a shepherd. He sent them knowing full well that they, themselves, were but simple sheep. He sent them, not as conquering heroes, but “like sheep into the midst of wolves.” He instructed them to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Their objective was not to dominate but to serve. For the sake of compassion, they wielded nothing but compassion.

This is what discipleship looks like. It means dealing with wolves by addressing them in their sheepilness. It means transforming wolves through forgiveness. Discipleship looks like knowing that you are dealing with dangerous people, who are more than likely to be deeply provoked by your innocence and because of that to seek to lynch you.
Today, we are witnessing the results of centuries of unresolved racial violence in our collective body. We cannot address the pain of this without unleashing the wolves within and among us. Discipleship “means deciding, as grateful followers of a brown man who died at the hands of brutal law enforcement two thousand years ago, that we will not tolerate the demon of racism in our midst for one more generation.” (Debie Thomas, I Am Sending You, Journey with Jesus, 6/7/20)

Jesus, our Great Shepherd, creates in us a shepherd’s heart. He calls us to what we were created for. “Jesus knows the cure for our brokenness, our malaise, our boredom, our angst. He knows that when we go out into the world in his name, healing what is diseased, resurrecting what is dead, and casting out what is evil, we participate in the transformation of our own souls. What we’re hearing in these days is the very heart of God within us, deep calling to deep, the Spirit of crying out on behalf of a world desperate for justice and mercy.” (Thomas) It’s a call to action that we call splagchnizomai.

Pentecost Sunday
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Violent wind, tongues of fire, and rivers of living water—these things inspire both fascination and dread. Yet each is a reflection of God’s presence and power in scripture. With the sound of a rushing wind, the wild and mysterious Spirit of God seeks a home in us. Or, put another way, with tongues of burning fire the powerful unpredictable Spirit beacons us to return home in God. Like the prodigal son, or the lost sheep, you are treasure bought with a price.

The arrival of Pentecost startled the first disciples and stirred them to action. Pentecost rang like an alarm clock. Pentecost call us now to awaken to what Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth century Christian mystic said most simply but most radically, that we are not only made by God, we are made of God (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, 1998, p. 129).

In a language spoken by elemental powers Pentecost calls us back into relationship with the sacredness of the earth. Wind, fire, and water counsel that the earth’s well-being is essential to our own well-being. Everything and every creature are inseparable and inter-connected.

Water must flow or become stagnant. Air must move or become stale. Fire must feed or fade. All three are fluid and dynamic. Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So, it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

We need the Spirit and power of Pentecost. After all, it’s been an especially terrible week for our country. So, let me begin with a story. One of the earliest fond memories I have of my dad is running beside him in an open field behind our home in Upstate New York. We were trying, and failing, to fly a kite. There was plenty of wind, but after every launch the kite spun and plunged to the ground. It refused to take to the air even with a running start. It just crashed and dragged along behind us.

Defeated, we went home for dinner. That was when I learned another lesson about cockle-burrs. They stuck all over my socks—but I digress. We tried again the next day, only this time, my dad had an idea. We found a ribbon and made a tail. Sure enough, the kite took to the air. It climbed higher and higher until it reached the end of our string.

We can take a lesson about the power of Pentecost to renew and restore us from that kite. God’s grace occurs naturally, like the wind. It’s available anywhere and everywhere. And like wind, grace beacons us come and soar. First, every kite needs a string. Without an anchor we tumble and blow aimlessly like loose sheets of paper without direction. Grace buoys us up on wings like an eagle through the cord of faith in Christ who is our connection to God. Second, every kite must have a proper tail. Without the shared wisdom of our community, the church, our tradition, and each other, we lack the necessary counterweight to keep us pointed up not down. There are other kites, other communities, other religions, but the great discovery of our faith is that Christ Jesus has revealed the face and character of the awesome God who gives life to us all.

This great discovery gave hope to restore the strength of the first disciples. They did not have to create it. They could not create it. They learned from Jesus they could ride it. As the Psalmist sings, “How manifold are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so, you renew the face of the earth.” (Psalm 104: 24, 30)

Did I mention it’s been a terrible week? 40 million people are unemployed. 100,000 Americans died from the coronavirus—more than in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and Iraq combined. And once again we have seen the unsavory reality of systematic racism captured and played back to us from the clear eye of cell phone videos. These are selfies of the American soul. We cannot deny that systemic racial animus courses through our society channeling hatred and violence in every corner of our nation, even were we might not have expected it. George Floyd didn’t expect it in Minneapolis. That’s why he moved there from Houston. He hoped for a better life for him and his family. We have reached a crisis of unemployment, pandemic, and systemic racism. All three overlap to disproportionally impact the lives of Black families and people of color.

On Monday—Memorial Day—the same day George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by policeman another cell phone video was taken in New York City’s Central Park. A Black man, Christian Cooper confronted a white woman for allowing her dog to run unleashed despite a City ordinance requiring it. She was wrong, yet immediately and almost instinctively, she knew the tables could be turned if she threatened to call the police. She knew it was her prerogative as a white person to police non-white people, not the other way around. ‘I will tell them a Black man is threatening my life,’ she said—and then she actually did it. She was willing to send him to jail rather than put a leash on her dog. Her plan back-fired. That’s the only thing about this story that is surprising. Sure, we need accountability and training for police. The proposed Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (or GAPA) ordinance is supported by Alderman Osterman and Mayor Lightfoot does just that. But if we are honest, the problem runs deeper than that. The crisis compounding the pandemic, driving unemployment, and sparking violence throughout our nation today is the systemic racism hiding in us all.

We need the power of Pentecost to stir us to action. Pentecost rings like an alarm clock. The God of grace beacons us take flight from the narrow individual perspectives that lock us in our fear to see that we are all children of God. We are all George Floyd. Let the power of Pentecost fill our hearts with the fire and passion for justice. Let the Spirit fill our eyes with tears of compassion. “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7: 37-38).

The message of Pentecost is that faithfulness begets fruitfulness. The Greek word for church is ecclesia –it means literally “the called out.” We are called out and set apart from the world to be sent out for the sake of the world. Jesus, our Lord, is in the world and all things were made through him. The Divine calls from deep within come home. Join hands. Open your heart. Together with all my creatures and all creation take flight, rise on the winds of grace and let the fires of my justice burn.