Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
[Jesus] “had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36) This is the third of three sermons exploring Martin Luther’s theology of Christian vocation in recognition of the approaching 500th anniversary of the Reformation. How does Jesus our Good Shepherd call us to be good citizens?
The question has special resonance here in Chicago where we are experiencing the perfect storm of political dysfunction in our City, our State, and Federal governments all at the same time. The question only deepens as we lift our eyes beyond our borders and consider the plight of people around the world ravaged by poverty, war, and natural disasters. Since we were little children we learned to pledge allegiance to the flag but to what extent has our baptism made us citizens of the world? Or put another way, does citizenship in the kingdom of God take precedence over loyalty to country?
Of course, the short answer is yes. Luther wrote, “God is the kind of Lord who does nothing but exalt those of low degree and put down the mighty from their thrones, in short, break what is whole and make whole what is broken.” (LW 21:288-300) We are called to speak truth to power, to be a voice for the voiceless, to strive for the greater good, to put the human in our humanity, to protect and defend the life of all creatures, and to do all this as far as the light of our shared faith and conscience will guide us, trusting in God’s forgiveness and mercy when we fail. Love of the other and our neighbor became our calling starting with baptism. We live out our calling whether at home, at work, or in the world cleaving to the grace that embraces us just as we are regardless of what we do and at the same time calls us to be than we have ever been. Like Jesus, we become who God created us to be when we are moved by compassion for the harassed and helpless.
As many of you know, this was a frenzied week in the Johnson household. We went two for two high school graduations and all the events that go with it. This week it was Sam’s turn to graduate. The ceremony was at the Auditorium Theater in downtown Chicago. He dropped off his books, paid his fees, picked up his cap and gown, and eight commencement tickets on Wednesday afternoon. In a few hours all the tickets were gone —lost! He left them on CTA redline train. It looked like two grandmas, a grandpa, mom and dad, step-mom and step-dad were all going to have to find something else to do Thursday night because we weren’t going to get in to be seated at the graduation.
But as grace (not luck) would have it, the tickets were found by a CTA conductor who saw they were graduation tickets for Jones College Prep High School, went online to the Jones website, somehow recognized one of the senior students, contacted them through Facebook—who then contacted another friend who knows Sam, who then went to the station and picked up the tickets. That conductor was moved by compassion and that made all the difference for our family.
What would a compassionate budget for our state, our nation, or our city look like and who would pay for it? As U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky frequently points out, the United States has never been more wealthy at any point in its history than it is today. We can afford to be more compassionate for the harassed and helpless and maybe that is how our nation, our state and our city will find its true calling again and help restore our civic life to health.
Greed is one of the seven deadly sins squeezing the life out of our neighborhoods and communities. Evening parking in the lot across from Sam’s school is usually $8. I suspect you won’t be surprised that for graduation the rates go up. You want to guess how much? We paid more than 300% the usual rate or $25.
Many people know Martin Luther protested about the abuse of Pope Leo using fear of God to extract money from the poor throughout Germany and the rest of Europe to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Lessor known are his complaints about the newly forming business community. Luther writes, “The merchants have a common rule which is their chief maxim: ‘I may sell my goods as [costly] as I can.’ They think this is their right. Thus occasion is given for avarice, and every widow and door to hell is opened.” (The Forgotten Luther: Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation, Edited by Carter Lindberg and Paul Wee, p. 34)
Luther famously taught the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of the world are separated by God with Christ ruling in the one, and civil authorities ruling in the other. But this does not mean God intends for people of faith to be passive in the political realm or to respond to the needs of the harassed and helpless only with our charity. We are called to battle injustice with clarity about our values, the dignity God affords every human life, and the call of grace to be people of compassion just as Jesus was and is.
And here we must go beyond what Luther taught if we are to be consistent with his vision of our Christian vocation as citizens operating by grace out in the world. We must become more aware of the original sin of the United States of America and how we have all either benefited or have been diminished, and often a combination of the two. I’m speaking here about the deep and pernicious sin of racism. As Bishop Miller said at last week’s Synod Assembly, racism is the text, the subtext, and the context of any meaningful conversation about justice. We must be going about the difficult and honest work of raising our awareness and rooting out racism within the powers, principalities, institutions, political parties and economic systems in which we live, beginning with our congregation and our church. (The 2 1/2 anti-racism training sponsored by our Synod is the envy of our church across the nation. If the Spirit is moving you in any way toward this opportunity you should know the Immanuel Council is resolved to pick up the fee. All it will cost you is your time.)
As Jesus said “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” (Matthew 9:37) You are called and equipped. You are filled with the Spirit and are able. With your hands, your words, your listening, your actions God is ready to fill you with an animating compassion so none of us have to live like sheep without a shepherd, but all shall dwell in peace and in dignity in the house of the lord—because we are a living sanctuary of hope and grace!