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Proper 9B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

He went to his hometown, and they took offense at him (Mark 6:3b). Now, Nazareth was a small, isolated village with no more than 120 to 150 inhabitants. Most were probably relatives. These were the people who raised him, taught him to love and fear God, and kept him safe through childhood. No doubt, they heard the stories about the miraculous things he did. That sort of news travels fast. Jesus was a local hero, yet he could do no deed of power there in Nazareth (Mark 6:5).

Sometimes this is called the great “un-miracle” story. (Barbara Brown Taylor) The people of Nazareth shut themselves off from receiving the blessings of God. In a sermon titled, “Sapping God’s Strength,” the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor points out that the only reason to identify someone by his mother in Jesus’s day was to question his legitimacy. It was to underscore the fact that no one knows for sure who his father is. Referring to Jesus as “the son of Mary” was an attempt to weaponize his birth story to humiliate him into silence. No had taught them yet to sing and to love, as we do, the popular Christmas carol, “Silent night, holy night…round yon virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild…” (Silent Night, ELW #281).

In fact, these same villagers were the people who convinced Jesus’s mother, brothers, and sisters that he was crazy. Remember, his own family attempted to take him into custody on his last visit to Nazareth (Mark 3:31). John’s gospel reports his brothers didn’t believe in him. Luke tells us Jesus’ boyhood friends once tried to toss him over a cliff (Luke 4:30).

We know how the religious elite will accuse Jesus of blasphemy and convince the Roman Imperial authorities, specifically, Pontius Pilate, to execute him. We know that Jesus will draw resistance from the powerful, corrupt, and connected. But it’s sort of a surprise, isn’t it, to uncover such strong opposition from the very people we expect knew him best. Jesus was rejected by the people of his own hometown.

“Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house,” Jesus said (Mark 6:4). Perhaps, we’ve all experienced something like this. It can be hard to shake off an old role or take on a new one whether in our families or in our workplaces. There can be outright rejection and cruelty toward insiders who attempt to break cherished norms and expectations. We, who sing Silent Night from memory, would surely have been more open to Jesus had we been there, more loving, and more aware that he is worthy of worship and praise –right?

I wonder. I wonder if this could be the biting point of this gospel story. After all, the people who claim to know Jesus best, who claim to be Christian, are not always the best source for understanding his gospel. Instead of the good news, Christians have often tragically somehow made his gospel into just more bad news of Empire, scapegoating, racism, war, sexism, and destruction of the planet.

The uncomfortable fact is the gospel must offend us or we would not be called to renewal. Transformation can never be an entirely happy experience. “Prophets tend to be misunderstood by the people of their own time and place precisely because a prophet is always calling people to see beyond that time and place. They expand our vision by calling us out of complacency with injustice, reorienting us to the liberating will of God” (Pearl Maria Barros, Santa Clara University, CA). Maybe, if the Jesus we worship never offends us, then it’s not really Jesus we’re worshipping.

We urgently need this bracing tonic of the gospel of Jesus today. This July 4th we are called to expand our understanding, to open our eyes, to widen the circle and not take offense at our siblings who wish to tell us, finally, of the suffering they have endured. Yes. The whole story of our great nation includes some uncomfortable truths. Can we listen without becoming unhelpfully defensive, or feeling personally attacked as the people of Nazareth did? (By the way, this is the very same work we must learn to do in our families in order to heal from our own ugly history of abuse and addiction.)

Jesus said, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:6). Do we have the courage? Can we develop the maturity? Do we have enough faith in Jesus to look the truth about ourselves in the face and not parcel out blame, or begin to hurl insults, or to personalize and polarize, or demonize, or to paint those with whom we disagree with evil intent—as if there is anyone who is good but God? I wonder, in the years ahead, how the telling and re-telling of the American story widen and shift through the rhythm of our seasons as Juneteenth becomes just as ingrained in the American consciousness as July 4th?

I can still picture myself standing beside my desk, hand over my heart, looking up at the flag mounted above the chalk board next to the clock in my kindergarten classroom in Ithaca, NY. Each day began by reciting the pledge of allegiance. ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” I had no idea then about how the Pledge had come about after the Civil War, nor that it wasn’t officially adopted until 1942, nor that the words, “under God,” were not added until 1954. Nor did I know that in this land of the free, the Thirteen, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments, which outlaw slavery, grant citizenship, and guarantee the right to vote to all, respectively, each barely passed, and are bitterly contested to this very day.

The flag stands for many things for each of us. Yet, from its beginning in 1777, the stars and stripes, by its very design, was intended as a statement of human solidarity and unity. The flag is E Pluribus Unum — from many, one, reflecting the Latin motto on the Great Seal of the United States. In these polarized times “If the pluribus overwhelms the unum, then what do we have left?” (John R. Vile, Middle Tennessee State University, “A Fourth of July Symbol of Unity That May No Longer Unite” NYT, 7/3/21) I can salute the flag because it is an echo of our gospel today that all people, all people, all people, are loved by God and created equal.

Jesus was rejected by those he loved and grew up with. Then Jesus called the twelve and sent them out two by two to preach and heal and call others renew their hearts and minds. They didn’t really know what they were doing, but Jesus sent them anyway, to learn by doing and by failing. They traveled light, because you don’t need a lot of extra equipment to be the church. You are the equipment.

There aren’t many examples where the pre-Easter disciples show us how to be faithful. But here, the disciples show us how to be the church—the church that is our home but is not a place; the church on the move; the church that widens the circle, the church that exists to be good news in Jesus’ name to hungry people searching for it.

Easter 7A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“For the whole earth is the tomb of famous men [mortals]; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men [all people].” With these words the historian Thucydides honored those who fought and died in the Peloponnesian Wars 2,400 years ago.

Today, this Memorial Day weekend marks the end of school and the beginning of summer. Count me among the guilty who too often forget what this holiday is really about. We trace the first Memorial Day to Arlington National Cemetery three years after the Civil War. Major General John A. Logan declared May 30th as a day to honor the dead. He said, “Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

Perhaps we are accustomed to honorific slogans for those who died in war. Yet these words of Thucydides and Major General Logan are remarkable because they acknowledge the heroism of those who fought on both sides—Spartans and Athenians, Union and Confederate soldiers. For them the terrors of war became a strange witness of the kinship that unites soldiers of every nation who declare from the grave that they are one—one race, one tribe, one people, one family of God. In fact, today, Civil War soldiers from the north and south are laid side by side in Arlington National Cemetery.

The war dead speak to us of the unity for which Jesus prayed. I wonder, could any of their deaths have been prevented if our ancestors had held Jesus closer to their hearts? What future tragedies might be averted if we were to do so now?

In the last moments before his arrest, Jesus looked up to heaven and poured out his heart’s deepest desires to God. Jesus prayed that we would love one another across our differences. He prayed we would be willing to preserve and cherish our God-ordained oneness. He told us we don’t have to make this unity happen–it already just is. We just have to get out of the way, stop denying, judging, and dividing for that unity to be revealed. Jesus prayed that we might awaken to the unity we already have, entrust ourselves to it, live into it—so humanity can avoid tragedies like war.

Jesus still prays for us now. Jesus prays we be one with God and each other because that is precisely how the world will finally see, taste, touch, hear, and find Jesus now. The bible offers many metaphors for faithful union with God. Our name being just one of them, Immanuel, God is with us. St. Paul famously said we have become living parts of one body. The gospel of John said each of us are like branches grafted into and growing from a single true vine. Another biblical image is less familiar but powerfully intimate in which the unity between humanity and God is as close and mutually interdependent as the unborn infant child is to its mother.

The singular form of the Hebrew word for compassion, meaning ‘womb,’ is often used of God in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. (Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 48). To say God is compassionate is to say that God is womblike. Like a womb, God is the one who gives birth to us and all things. As a mother loves her children and feels for them, so God loves and feels for all creation. As we soon will sing Christ has sung for us, “Do not be afraid, I am with you. I have called you each by name. Come and follow me. I will bring you home. I love you and you are mine” (ELW # 581).

Jesus’ prayer issued in a new heaven and a new earth which, even after two thousand years, we have barely begun to comprehend. Perhaps the coronavirus pandemic presents humankind with an opportunity to pause, step back from routines, step closer to the God of true Oneness, and gain perspective on the false gods that preside over Us-vs-Them.

Somehow, despite Jesus’ prayer, we managed to manipulate his message into one that eternally divides humanity into two— believers and unbelievers, the saved and the damned, those who go to heaven and those who go to hell. We have separated God from creation, cut off the baptized from the natural world. We’ve sliced the world into sacred and secular, body and soul, matter and consciousness, human and dead.

Instead of seeing in the Crucified Christ a gracious God who is launching a renewal of creation, we fashioned an idol for ourselves of a wrathful God who sacrifices his Son only to satisfy himself and save a few believing souls for heaven—miraculously, somehow this always includes us, our family, and our friends while excluding everyone else. Yet, while only the few remain Godly while others are ungodly, if some of God’s creatures are merely stuff to be used and not revered, then it should not surprise anyone that we are doomed to repeat endless wars and that the earth continue to die by our own hand.

The setting for Jesus’ prayer was the upper room on Maundy Thursday, and the mood in that room as Jesus spoke to God was heavy and poignant. “He has just said goodbye to his disciples, and every word, deed, and gesture he has offered them is weighted with grief. He has washed their feet, fed them bread and wine, promised them the Holy Spirit, and commanded them to love one another. He has spoken to them with both tenderness and urgency, as if time is running out. Because it is” (Debie Thomas, That They May Be One, Journey with Jesus, 5/17/20).

Yet, just like Memorial Day, many of us lose track of what Jesus’ prayer is actually about. Jesus prayed that heaven be brought down to earth, as the Lord’s other Prayer proclaims, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. The great 14th century English saint, mystic, and abbes, Julian of Norwich said of God: “I am the one who makes you to love; I am the one who makes you to long; I am the one, the endless fulfilling of all true desires.” Strain for this glory for even if it eludes our grasp the mere pursuit fills our hearts and illumines our lives. We live the good life by living as Jesus lived—the life for which he prayed. Life eternal and abundant, the life of the Father to the Son, the life of the Spirit of our ascended Savior, life in God, now and forever. Amen.