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Proper 20B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37). Today, we are blessed by 18 youth who are going to the ELCA national gathering next summer.  We give thanks that tutoring resumes tomorrow night for fully vaccinated youth and volunteers. With your support playgroup children and caregivers have found a welcome and built community in the park across the street. Because of your generosity we continue to provide Covid Assistance grants of $50 per person per household for food and other necessities to neighborhood families laid off or unemployed due to the pandemic. We will send 17 quilts to Lutheran World Relief where they will provide warmth and shelter to refugees who would otherwise have neither.  (Four of them decorate the pews this morning.) This is God’s work that is being done with your hands and it is fitting that we should celebrate all of it today and dedicate it to the glory of God.

While the world wages war, the gospel of Christ calls us to wage wisdom.  Wisdom requires a different set of armaments than those wielded by nations. The letter of James calls us, to outfit ourselves with ‘purity, peace, gentleness, a yielding spirit, mercy, impartiality and integrity’ (James 3:17). These are not the kind of weapons that can be purchased. Instead, these are the fruits God brings into being from faithful hearts and minds and has placed in our hands.

Jesus asked the disciples. “What were you talking about on the way?” Again, we see that evocative phrase which is a common theme in Mark’s gospel. The ‘way,’ was what our religion was called before followers of Christ were known as Christians.  Each of us is ‘on the way’ because in this life we never reach the end of growth in our faith. Here at Immanuel, we chose this name for a process of spiritual growth and renewal. On the Way will resume this year in Advent.  You are invited to join us in our pilgrimage.

On the way through Galilee, Jesus told the disciples a second time about the cross.  He told them the Son of Man must be betrayed into human hands, killed and after three days, rise again (Mark 9:31).  Yet again, Jesus’ language about suffering and death does not compute for the disciples.

Who could blame them? Everywhere, they looked statues and pillars proclaimed the Roman motto “Roma Eturna,” Rome always wins.  Resistance to the military power of Rome meant ruin, subjugation, exile into slavery and death.  The mortar that binds cities and nations into Empire is fear of the threat of violence.  In the disciple’s way of thinking, the coming of the Son of Man would operate by the same logic of war that had built and perpetuated the Roman Empire.  As yet they did not understand how the in-breaking of God’s kingdom fit together loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, and suffering for the sake of the gospel.

Jesus was showing them a more excellent way.  He taught them that we must wage wisdom if we are ever to be free from the endless cycle of violence. He instructed them by saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners community in Washington D.C., tells a story about waging wisdom rather than violence. Years ago, Wallis was mugged right outside his home by four children.  They rushed him, slashed his face, and yelled “Keep him down!  Get his wallet!”

Despite their attempts, he popped up quickly, and seeing no weapons, squared off to face his attackers.  He was shocked when he realized they were just kids –three were no more than fifteen and another couldn’t have been more than thirteen. The one who had jumped him moved into a boxing stance and the little one did a few ineffectual karate kicks.

Wallis began to scold them and to tell them “…to just stop it” …to stop terrorizing people, to stop such violent behavior in their neighborhood …and finally, (he said something that embarrassed him later), he shouted at them, “I’m a pastor!”

The teenagers turned and ran. “Get back here!” Wallis shouted—before he realized that probably wasn’t the smartest thing to say.  But that’s when something surprising happened. The littlest kid, who couldn’t have been more than four feet six, turned and looked back as he ran away.  The young karate kicker said, “Pastor, ask God for a blessing for me.”

Wallis wrote: “He and his friends had just assaulted me.  The little one had tried so hard to be one of the tuff guys.  Yet he knew he needed a blessing.  The young boy knew he was in trouble.  I think they all did.”

Can we overpower tough guys with the power of compassion?  Can victimizers and victims be freed from bondage to anger and conflict?  Can joy arise from hurt and hopelessness?  Slaves sing songs of freedom. Old men and women dream dreams.  Little children see visions.  The lion lies down with the lamb when we wage wisdom, not war.

But “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind” the letter of James says (James 3:16).  On the way through Galilee Jesus stopped to give the disciples an object lesson about waging wisdom. He gave them a children’s sermon –using a real child. Jesus taught them to welcome little children. Not because the child is innocent, or perfect, or pure, or cute, or curious, or naturally religious. Jesus taught them to welcome the child because, in those days, children counted least and last of all.

Warsan Shire is a British writer, poet, editor, and teacher, who was born to Somali parents in Kenya.  Her poem, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon,” could be a lesson for us with the same object –it opens our hearts to the kind of compassion Jesus is talking about that is a key to waging wisdom.

 

What They Did Yesterday Afternoon

they set my aunts house on fire

i cried the way women on tv do

folding at the middle

like a five pound note.

i called the boy who use to love me

tried to ‘okay’ my voice

i said hello

he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?

 

i’ve been praying,

and these are what my prayers look like;

dear god

i come from two countries

one is thirsty

the other is on fire

both need water.

 

later that night

i held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?

 

it answered

everywhere

everywhere

everywhere.

Look for those in your midst who have no standing, no wealth, no voice, no value –and there you will find me Jesus said.  These are the brothers and sister to whom you now belong through your baptism into Christ.  Together with them we follow Jesus now in waging wisdom born of grace that is for healing the grief-stricken world.

Christmas 2B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Every sermon I’ve written since 2005 is on the computer through which I’m speaking to you now. Yet there was no sermon for the second Sunday of Christmas—until now. Last year, on New Year’s Eve, I was embarrassing my kids on the dance floor at the YMCA of the Rockies. I couldn’t have imagined all the changes this year would bring, including the undoing of holiday traditions for my family.

My sister forwarded a list circulating on the internet of twelve things to ponder for the New Year. Number one flatly states, “The dumbest thing I ever bought was a 2020 planner.” Number five, “This morning I saw a neighbor talking to her cat. It was obvious she thought her cat understood her. I came home & told my dog. We laughed a lot.” I could relate to that one.

Perhaps it is always true. None of us can predict the future, but it feels more-true now. In the wake of an unpredictable year, on this, the 10th Day of Christmas, just when we thought we couldn’t be surprised any more by surprises, our scriptures bring us Sophia, the power of God in the form of Woman-Wisdom who, scriptures say dwells in all creation.

You may not have heard of Sophia. Yet she sings out from the appointed readings for today. At the opening of John’s gospel Jesus is identified with the Woman-Wisdom of Sophia. Sophia means “wisdom” in Greek. According to Catholic theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson, “Jesus is Sophia incarnate.” It is a transgender moment in God’s story. The Wisdom of God took on flesh and became the Word of God. Jesus the Word is Wisdom the woman. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

You may not have heard of Sophia. Yet the Wisdom of Solomon retells the story of the Exodus as Sophia’s doing. She is the one who delivered God’s people from a nation of oppressors (10:15). She sheltered them with a cloud and guided them with a pillar of fire. The exodus from slavery was the work of Sophia, who led the people through the sea and into freedom. In Ephesians 1, Jesus incarnates Sophia’s liberation in the church: Christ is our “redemption,” our deliverance in his/her sharing with us of “wisdom” (verses 7-8). Christ is the Sophia of God, calling us into her work of liberation.

The book of Sirach, which is one of the optional readings appointed for today, instructs us that Woman-Wisdom is like the mist, covering the earth with God’s presence. She lives in the clouds, the pillars of the sky. She rides the waves of the sea. She has a tent in Jerusalem, where she lives with God’s people.
Woman-Wisdom featured prominently in the writings of the ancient desert mothers and fathers of the fourth century. They lived in a time of even greater uncertainty and upheaval than our own. They fled the corruption of church and society to seek Christ in the solitude of the Egyptian desert. They cared less about Christian doctrine and more about living the mystery of the Christian life. (A Coptic monastery from that period North of Cairo, Egypt is one of the memorable and beautiful places I’ve ever visited. (photo)

You might consider choosing from among their wisdom “sayings,” as you think about New Year resolutions this week. I find them interesting and amusing: “Never stop starting over,” (Arsenios, 5th century). “Live intentionally, not aimlessly,” (St. Mark the Ascetic, 5th century). “Pray simply, not stupidly,” Abba Macarius. “Stay put,” Mother Syncletica (4th century). “Acknowledge my brokenness,” (St. Maximos the Confessor, 7th century). “Be ruthlessly realistic,” (St. Makarios of Egypt, 5th century). “Read the obituaries,” “At the moment of our death we will all know for certain what is the outcome of our life” (St. Gregory of Sinai, 13th century). (“My New Year’s Resolutions” (From the Fourth Century) Daniel Clendenin, Journey with Jesus, 12/27/20)

Poet Kathleen Norris found a natural affinity with the desert wisdom of the fourth-century monastics: Like them, Norris “made a counter-cultural choice to live in what the rest of the world considers a barren waste;” her “idea of what makes a place beautiful had to change.”

Norris left New York City for the house built by her grandparents in an isolated town on the border between North and South Dakota. After years of estrangement from Christianity, it was on the Great Plains that Norris returned to that tradition, making a spiritual home there. Dakota is, Norris writes, “my spiritual geography, the place where I’ve wrestled my story out of the circumstances of landscape and inheritance…writing about Dakota has been my means of understanding that inheritance and reclaiming what is holy in it.” The great gift of Sophia is the discovery that the place we are standing now is holy ground.

Years ago, a book by Paulo Coelho called “The Alchemist,” made the top-seller lists. In it a recurring dream troubles Santiago, a young shepherd living in Spain. He has the dream every time he sleeps under a sycamore tree that grows out of the ruins of a church. In the dream, a child tells him to seek treasure at the foot of the Egyptian pyramids. We follow Santiago through a lifetime of adventure, stops and starts, diversions, and mysterious coincidences, until finally he arrives at a certain Coptic monastery in Northern Egypt, and finally at the foot of the Pyramids. There, he doesn’t find any treasure, instead, he is beaten up by thieves who try to rob him. They let Santiago go after they realize he doesn’t have anything of value. To prove to him what a fool he is one of the thieves tells Santiago about his own worthless of dreams of treasure buried in an abandoned church in Spain where a sycamore tree grows—the very same church where Santiago’s journey began. He returns to Spain to find a chest of jewels and gold buried under the tree and returns with it to build a home in a place called Al-Fayoum, where he reunites with Fatima, whom he loved and who awaits him.

As we embark together on a new year, Sophia reminds us the fullness of the presence of God dwells with us and walks with us starting in the all-too-familiar, loneliness, and uncertainty of our pandemic lives. Like Santiago, we find the treasure of God’s wisdom buried here in the place that we are, hidden within the current moment. Yet, perhaps, it is not in the possession of wisdom but in its pursuit that we find the adventure of our lives, acquire new skills, discover hidden talents, meet new people, and finally find ourselves at home. The Woman-Wisdom of God is revealed as we commit ourselves to the pursuit of God’s dream living our faith. All things are united in Christ, things in heaven and things on Earth” (Ephesians 1:10). Heaven and earth are united here in our frail bodies to be the body of Christ for the world. In all that is to come, and in whatever is to be. God with us – comes to be born again in us and through us, and Sophia joyfully claps her hands.