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Posts from the ‘Good News’ Category

Be the Already

Advent 1C-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

And so, our story begins. This first Sunday in Advent our gospel comes from St. Luke as will be our custom throughout the coming year.  Notice, the Church begins its new year when the days are still getting darker.  Advent is not a season for the faint of heart. In place of swaddling clothes, twinkly stars, and fleecy lambs — each year we begin the story of God looking fiercely and honestly at the world as it really is, here and now.  Gorgeous, fragile, and falling apart.

“People with faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:26).  In prophetic language that sounds distressingly contemporary, Jesus describes a world reeling in pain. “When you see these things,” Jesus says, don’t turn away.  Don’t hide.  Why?  Because it’s only when we embrace reality — when we acknowledge and welcome the “here” of human suffering — that we experience the nearness of God.

In Advent, endings and beginnings run together. Ancient truths and dreams of the future teach a single startling truth: our creator and redeemer are one and the same. Our living God, the Ancient of Days, is our Alpha and Omega, our beginning and our end.  Today, and in this season, the past and future join hands to guide us in navigating the difficulties of this present moment and lead us into the loving embrace and the ongoing work of God that is already, always, and at all times everywhere.

This present moment is all we ever actually own in life. Yet it can be really hard to focus solely on the here and now. American novelist Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.”  That’s precisely what Jesus does in his prophetic wake-up call in our gospel today.  He shouts, he draws startling figures, and he uses every rhetorical device at his disposal to snap his listeners to attention.  “Be on guard,” he warns his disciples.  “Be alert.”  “Stand up and raise your heads.”  Look.

It is hard for people today, reading this gospel today, not to think the end-times Jesus is talking about is only about the future—possibly even the distant future—when Christ returns to the world again in glory from on high.  We forget the most important part of this message: the apocalypse is also now. Lutheran theologians are fond of saying the kingdom of God is already and not yet. Christ our king is already here. The victory is won but the struggle with the power of fear and death continues. Somehow we focus on the ‘not-yet,’ and  neglect the ‘already.’ The hopeful message of Advent is watch, wait, look, be part of the already!

Lauren Wright Pittman is an artist and Presbyterian pastor who created the beautiful image we have in our worship folders today entitled, “Raise Your Head.” She writes, “Jesus says to respond to these apocalyptic signs with staggering hope and confidence. When it feels like the very foundations of the heavens are crumbling, we are to stand up. When the roaring sea and the waves confuse us, when the sun, moon, and stars come tumbling out of the sky, we are to raise our heads. When the news cycle feels like an endless fire hose, people pour into the streets in protest, families are separated, and fires blaze through neighborhoods, we are to stand up and confidently usher in and claim the redemption that God promises.”

Be the already.  Focus on what’s not yet makes us into passive spectators, leads us down blind alleys and into fruitless speculation.  “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).  Instead, the meaning of the cross and of the resurrection is that you can be part of God’s already.

Advent calls for brutal honesty, even when honesty leads us straight to lamentation. In Advent, we are invited to describe life “on earth as it is,” and not as we mistakenly assume our religion requires us to render it.  We are invited to shout forth our pain and bewilderment.  To name the seeming absence of God.  Advent is an invitation to yearn.  That is, to name the “here” of our desires without shame or reservation.  Advent is the season when longing makes sense.  Advent is an invitation to imagine.  In Advent, we are called to hope creatively.   To hope against the grain.  Or as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, we’re called to trust that “darkness does not come from a different place than light; it is not presided over by a different God.”

“Advent is an antidote to illusion.  It cuts to the chase.  It insists on the truth.  It lays us bare.  Advent invites us to dwell richly in the here, precisely because here is where God dwells when the oceans heave, the ground shakes, and our hearts are gripped by fear.  “When you see these things,” Jesus says, hope fiercely and live truthfully.  Deep in the gathering dark, something tender continues to grow.  Yearn for it, wait for it, notice it, imagine it.  Something beautiful — something for the world’s saving — waits to be born.” (Debie Thomas, “When You See These Things,” Journey with Jesus, 11/25/18)

Former President George H. Bush died Friday.  He was 94.  A reporter for the New York Times, Peter Baker gave this accounting of his final hours. “George Bush had been fading in the last few days. He had not gotten out of bed, he had stopped eating and he was mostly sleeping. For a man who had defied death multiple times over the years, it seemed that the moment might finally be arriving.

His longtime friend and former secretary of state, James A. Baker III, arrived at his Houston home on Friday morning to check on him.

Mr. Bush suddenly grew alert, his eyes wide open.

“Where are we going, Bake?” he asked.

“We’re going to heaven,” Mr. Baker answered.

“That’s where I want to go,” Mr. Bush said.

Barely 13 hours later, Mr. Bush was dead. The former president died in his home in a gated community in Houston, surrounded by several friends, members of his family, doctors and a minister. As the end neared on Friday night, his son George W. Bush, the former president, who was at his home in Dallas, was put on the speaker phone to say goodbye. He told him that he had been a “wonderful dad” and that he loved him. “I love you, too,” Mr. Bush told his son. Those were his last words.” (Peter Baker, “George Bush’s Final Days,” NYT, 12/01/18)

I never voted for him, but from the perspective Advent provides, his kinder, gentler style of leadership looks like something essential we must reclaim for ourselves going forward. For mortals, our beginning and ending inevitably come together. See! They lead us to the same place. “The bridegroom comes! Awake.  Rise, prepare the feast to share; go meet the bridegroom who draws near.” (ELW #436)  Together, let us be the Already.

Truth Unveiled

Proper 28B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Do you see these walls, these windows, that great red granite cross?  Jesus said, “not one stone will be left here upon another” (Mark 13:2b).

On this penultimate Sunday of the church year, our gospel lens on God’s grace widens out to take a cosmic perspective. It reminds me of an exhibit at the Adler Planetarium.  We move in an imaginary rocket from earth to planets, to nearby stars, and finally to other galaxies.  The last three Sundays of the church year are sometimes called kingdomtide.  Our focus shifts from a single point in history to the whole story of God and creation. Here alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, are held together.  Here is the sweep of human history, the rise, and fall of nations, the wreck and ruin of civilizations, and the shadowy echoes of human endeavor long since forgotten by everyone but God.

From here, just beneath the gates of heaven, the world looks small. From here, the question naturally arises, “What’s it all for?”  Why this desperate striving to store up treasures for ourselves that do not last?

Some of you may remember I once rode a rented a horse named Chocolate along the edges of the Egyptian desert near Cairo to Sakkara, ancient Egypt’s first pyramid.  Sakkara is part of the great necropolis of Memphis, the capital of the Old Kingdom. It continues to be studied by swarms of Egyptologists. Even more memorable to me was the ruin of a small unmarked out-of-the-way place I happened upon on my way back from the pyramid.  It looked like it was once a place of worship.  Apparently, it was of no interest even to the Egyptologists—or at least—not when I was there in the fall of 1984.

I steered my horse through the front door, down the center aisle, across the spot where I imagined the altar would be, and out a hole in the back wall. What sacrilege I must have committed that day to those who built that place. I wonder, will there be a day, do you think, someone ages and ages from now will wander through whatever remains of Immanuel?

What comes of all our striving?  What echo of our lives will persist in those days, when the very stones with which our church is assembled have turned to sand?

This passage from Mark’s Gospel is often described by scholars as a mini-apocalypse. It may leave us feeling rather bleak and sad. The author’s intention is quite different. Ancient people loved reading apocalyptic literature as much as people today love science fiction or romantic comedies because it inspired hope. The word ‘apocalypse’ means ‘unveiling.’ A Christian apocalypse draws back the veil to reveal the sure and loving hand of God at work in the world. We are meant to see what is truly eternal and what is passing.  We glimpse the truth that will set us free. But of course, sometimes truth, no matter how liberating, can be quite painful and disorienting.

In Jesus’ day, the temple in Jerusalem was one of the most impressive sights in the world.  Torn down twice since King Solomon built it, the second rebuilding was undertaken by Herod before Jesus’ birth. It was not finished until after his crucifixion.

That is to say, when Jesus and the four disciples sat opposite the temple across the Kidron valley upon the Mount of Olives, looking down upon the temple, they were looking at a brand-new building. It was clad with so much gold, looking at it directly could literally be blinding.

What they see is an architectural marvel.  It’s the biggest, boldest, and most unshakeable symbol of God’s presence they can imagine.  Those massive stones hold religious memory. They bolstered a colonized people’s identity. They offered the faithful a potent symbol of spiritual glory, pride, and worthiness.  In short, what takes their breath away as they gaze at the temple is the religious certainty and permanence those glittering stones display to the world.

That’s what the disciples see.  But what does Jesus see?  He sees ruins.  Rubble.  Destruction.  Fragility, not permanence.  Loss, not glory.  Change, not eternity.  “Not one stone will be left here upon another,” Jesus tells the stunned disciple. “All will be thrown down.”

In her collection of sermons, God in Pain, Episcopal pastor and author Barbara Brown Taylor argues that disillusionment is essential to the Christian life.  “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion — about ourselves, about the world, about God — and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.”

Part of our pain today is that so much ugliness we thought was a thing of the past has revealed itself to be very much with us. Pulling back the veil we see sexual violence, gender discrimination, racism, hatred, and mass extinction. Author and social activist Adrienne Maree Brown offered words of hope in speaking about racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016: “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered.  We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”

God’s word does not wither.  God’s will shall not be in vain.  Every life is precious.  When truth is shaken, and nations make war, and imposters preach alluring gospels of fear, resentment, and hatred—don’t give in to terror.  Don’t despair. Avoid hasty, knee-jerk judgments.  Be perceptive, not pious.  Imaginative, not immature.  Make peace, choose hope, cultivate patience, and incarnate love as the world reels and changes. Let the Spirit of God that passes all understanding lead and guide you. All that is not pure will be burned away. Let’s dare to see what Jesus sees. What is great and what is small in the kingdom of God are not the same as what is counted as great and small in the world.

Pastor Debie Thomas writes, “In this troubling context, it’s easy to despair.  Or to grow numb.  Or to let exhaustion win.  But it’s precisely now, now when the world around us feels the most apocalyptic, that we have to respond with resilient, healing love.  It’s precisely now when systemic evil and age-old brokenness threaten to bring us to ruin that we have to “hold each other tight” and allow the veil to part, the walls to fall.  What’s happening, Jesus promises at the end of this week’s Gospel reading, is not death, but birth.  Something is struggling to be born.  Yes, the birth pangs hurt.  They hurt so appallingly much.  But God is our midwife, and what God births will never lead to desolation.  Yes, we are called to bear witness in the ruins, but rest assured: these birth pangs will end in joy.” (Debie Thomas, Not One Stone, Journey with Jesus, 11-11-18)

Isaiah’s Great Discovery

Proper 24B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“…We accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted….[yet] Upon him was the punishment that made us whole.” “By his bruises, we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5).

This is no prosperity gospel. The prophet Isaiah offers hard-won wisdom, born of exile and slavery in Nineveh and Babylon. The people of Israel used to measure their righteousness before God in the value and number of their possessions.  But five hundred years before Christ they began to sing a new song—like the servant song we read today.  They began to see that righteous suffering could become part of God’s ongoing work by contributing to the healing and well-being of the nations that enslaved them.

I know. It sounds like crazy talk.  Yet, the prophet Isaiah claims to have glimpsed a path that leads us past our own pain.  First, we must dispel a common myth about suffering. In his classic book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “The conventional explanation, that God sends us the burden because [God] knows that we are strong enough to handle it, has it all wrong. Fate, not God, sends us the problem. When we try to deal with it, we find out that we are not strong. We are weak; we get tired, we get angry, overwhelmed. . . . But when we reach the limits of our own strength and courage, something unexpected happens. We find reinforcement coming from a source outside of ourselves. And in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God is on our side, we manage to go on. . . .”  (Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Avon Books: 1983), 129, 131.)

Isaiah’s discovery is not talking about carrying on in an abusive relationship.  It’s not about keeping deadly painful secrets out of loyalty to those we love.  It’s not about suffering out of fear and intimidation. Instead, it’s about the pain we endure for the sake of grace, truth, hope, and justice.

Knowing and naming brokenness is essential in the journey toward wholeness. As the 12thcentury German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, and Christian mystic, Hildegard of Bingen [1098–1179] once said, we need two wings with which to fly. One is the “knowledge of good,” and the other is the “knowledge of evil.” If we lack one or the other, we will be like an eagle with only one wing. We will fall to the ground instead of rising to the heights of vision. . . . (Hildegard of Bingen, Letter to Wibert of Gembloux. See Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs, ed. Matthew Fox (Bear & Company: 1987), 350.)

The great discovery our ancestors in faith pass down to us, the insight born of suffering, slavery, and oppression, is that we discover people around us, and God beside us, and strength within us to help us survive the accidents, tragedies, and traumas of life.  Taste and see the Lord is good.  Eventually, this hypothesis is tested in every human life.

Many people rightly question how God can be good or just in the presence of so much evil and suffering in the world—about which God appears to do nothing. Statisticians reassure us, the number of people living in poverty is going down in the world. But advances in communications, radio, television, and now the internet, has also brought more awareness of the suffering endured by people around the globe than ever before.

In answer to this, we proclaim in Jesus. Jesus reveals that God is suffering love. If we are created in God’s image, and if there is so much suffering in the world, then God must also be suffering. How else can we understand the revelation of the cross? Why else would the Christian logo be a naked, bleeding, suffering divine-human being? Jesus reveals God doesn’t just watch human suffering from a safe distance up in heaven; God is somehow at the center of human suffering, with us and for us. The triune God—creator, redeemer, and sanctifier—includes our suffering in the co-redemption of the world, as “all creation groans in one great act of giving birth” (Romans 8:22).

Jesus picked up and amplifies Isaiah’s great discovery in our gospel today. By now the disciples have heard Jesus say not once but twice, “whoever wishes to be first among you must be last and servant of all” (Mark 10:31). They’ve heard Jesus say three times that in Jerusalem he will be condemned, mocked, rejected, spit upon, flogged and executed.

But something about this idea doesn’t compute.  We hear but do not listen.  We look but do not see.  In some type of fever-dream, we imagine our faith, church and religion will put us on a path to greatness.  James and John envisioned themselves seated in glory beside Jesus, one at his right and one at his left, elevated above the rest of the disciples, as they drove the Roman armies out, ruled all of Israel, perhaps even the whole world.

But God does not glory in greatness. God shows no partiality between us; makes no distinction between those inside and those outside. God does not call us owners, but stewards of our lives. Our ancestors in faith offer this surprising message. God calls us out of places of security, privilege, and comfort to meet the suffering and pain within ourselves, and in people around us. Strangely, wonderfully, unbelievably, in this, we discover we are not alone.  We are not victims, but in sharing our weaknesses we are made stronger. In shared foolishness we find wisdom. In sharing our lives, we find true shelter.  We become a living sanctuary of hope and grace. This is not only Immanuel’s tagline but also a lifeline.

Opening ourselves to pain and suffering mirrors God’s work of grace upon entering the world to live among us.  In this way, we open ourselves to hard-won truths beyond regular knowing. We tap into the wisdom of God operating deeply in with and under all things.

In recognition of the St. Luke, the physician, we take extra time in our service today for prayers and anointing for healing.  During the prayers of the people, along with thanksgiving and supplication, members our church stationed throughout the sanctuary, will offer personal prayers of healing for you. May God somehow transform our pain into compassion and wisdom so that rather than transmit or project our suffering onto others we may instead become wounded healers working with Christ to reconcile the world.

Isaiah saw that healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain, with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust and the undeserved—all of which eventually come into every lifetime. Likewise, Jesus now calls and leads into wholeness by way of his life-giving cross.

Through the Eye of a Needle

Proper 23B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). Despite this, or maybe because of it, today we baptize little Salma and little Antonio so God may do for them what we who love them cannot.

We baptize them to receive new life by drowning.  We baptize them to become children of a new humanity, to be born from above, to live like fish out of water, and to pass through the eye of the needle. We baptize in faith and hope that what is impossible for mortals is indeed possible for God.

Spiritual writer Anne Lamott writes about baptism, “Christianity is about water for God’s sake,” she remarks. It’s about immersion, about falling into something elemental and wet. Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry; looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain and rivers and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time, it’s also holy and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving into all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched.” In baptism, we are delivered from the shallow birdbath of culture and the daily news and immersed in the waters of life that go way over our heads.

These past five Saturdays I had the privilege of learning with Christians brothers and sisters taking part in Diakonia (the two-year adult study of scripture and theology in the Metro Chicago Synod). We examined the five phrases in the single sentence that is the covenant we affirm in baptism. “Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism: to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?” To which we respond, “I do, and I ask God to help and guide me.” (ELW, p. 1164)

It’s going back a few years now, but I’m remembering a scene in the Broadway musical, A Chorus Line. In that grueling audition, one of the dancers, named Michael, tells a story about what drives him to perform. His big sister got all the dance lessons, while he had to insist and to prove and convince everyone “I can do that. I can do that. I can do that!”  It was the beginning of a professional career in dance.

In baptism, our career in Christ begins by admitting exactly the opposite. The key that unlocks and swings open the great gate turns as we switch from I can to I can’t. The day Martin Luther died his wife and children prepared his body for burial. They found a small handwritten note in his pocket. It read: “We are all beggars.”  We stand in need of grace to draw us into the life we were created to live. We move through the eye of the needle to and through the way of the cross, into the abundant and forever life we share in Christ starting today and into eternity. We can’t do this, but God can.

This might be the great question in every life. How do we get there from here? I imagine a man sitting on a bench in the park across the street watching his children play. He finished college in four years.  Got married at 24.  He realizes his biggest accomplishment in life is that he is reliable, responsible and respectable.  He neither gives nor causes offense.  You can take him anywhere without worry.  He is a good neighbor, a good husband, a good father, even an occasional church-goer. But he wonders, is this all there is to my life?

Imagine a woman who decides to come to church with a friend. She is a citizen of the world.  She is careful to turn off lights before leaving a room.  She buys local and eats organic.  She enjoys a warm circle of creative, left-of-center friends.  She wants to contribute to the creation of an alternative culture.  She hopes that she is making the world a better place, but she wonders with all the hatred and division how is it possible?

Each of them is like the young man in our gospel today.  He is bothered by life’s ultimate questions. He is restless and unsatisfied.  He kept the faith his whole life. He has amassed a fortune.  Yet despite his righteous reputation and accumulated riches, he comes before Jesus as a needy man.

Notice, he waited until the last moment.  As Jesus is about to leave, he ran up, knelt before him and asked the big question. It is the honest, sincere question of a man dedicated to conforming his life to God’s will and doing what is best. “Good Teacher”, he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)

The man in across the street wonders what he should do to make his life more fulfilling. The woman in church just for fun with her friend wonders if what she does really matters.  The wealthy sincere young man wonders what he can do to eliminate the nagging feeling there is something that he is missing.

Our gospel says Jesus looked at the young man intently and loved him.  This is the only person in the gospel of Mark Jesus is said to love. Yet Jesus’ answer is both wonderful and terrifying.  What can you do, Jesus asks?  What can you do to make your life better?  Nothing.  But see, God brings everything you are, but nothing you possess, through the eye of the needle.

The text says the man “was shocked and went away grieving.”  I imagine it was sticker shock. The abundant life in Christ proved unaffordable.  He considered his wealth an entitlement — a symbol not only of his worldly accomplishments but also of God’s favor.  How terrible to be told that his best credential was a liability and a burden.  How grievous to realize that God’s kingdom was not custom designed for his ease — that he might not like it, or agree with its priorities, or find common cause with its inhabitants.  How shocking to encounter a God who is so scandalously honest — a God who strips us of our entitlements and freely hands us reasons to walk away. (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus)

The key that unlocks the great gate is “I can’t” rather than “I can.” Through the eye of the needle, although we lose all our possessions, we receive gifts of the spirit. By gifts such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, we become reconciled to God and to one another (Galatians 5:22). These gifts sustain our community here at Immanuel.  These gifts nourish love in our families and kindle warmth between neighbors.  These gifts have the power to repair the breach in our democracy and restore dignity to our civic life. Through the eye of a needle, in the waters of baptism, from lament into glory, from death into life, “I can’t” becomes “we can.”   For little Salma and Antonio, for the man across the street, and the woman visiting the church with her friend, for you and for me, this is what God has done that we could not. Praise be to God.

No One is a Nobody

Proper 22B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

No one is a nobody. With striking and welcome unity all the readings for worship today align to focus our attention on the essential indelible value of all people, including animals, by affirming God’s creative purpose in creation. We are fashioned in God’s image. We are made for embrace.  We are invited into a love story that yields the delicious fruit of justice and righteousness.  Even now, God opens our hardened hearts to grace-filled compassion, that is without guile or calculation, that is love for all people, beginning with those accounted by others as unimportant.  No one is a nobody.

You observant listeners will notice I am skipping over the long history of the ways Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Mark has been so tragically used in the church that goes against this original liberating message.

I can remember a time in the 1970’s when parents of my childhood friend got a divorce. The church they belonged to was at the center of their lives. Yet when my friend’s mom announced her intention to remarry, church elders pronounced judgment upon her, not their blessings.  Rather than share in her joy, they labeled her an adulteress (no doubt citing authority from today’s gospel) and drove her out of the church.

Thanks be to God things have changed in the church. Curiously, as the institutional strength, authority, and status of the mainline church has declined, the gospel message of welcome, hospitality, and compassion of God in Jesus Christ has increased.

We find our way back to Jesus’s original message, as we always do, by listening for the plain meaning of the text.  Not in what we hear but in learning what the people of Jesus day noticed upon first hearing it.  In those days the Pharisees allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, cast his wife out of the house and into abject poverty.  In those days Children had no status or power.  Children and divorced (and widowed) women were non-persons. They were nobodies.  Yet “…it is to such as these,” Jesus said, “that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14).

No one is a nobody.  When Jesus heard the disciples were literally ‘shoving away’ nobodies from getting close he became angry.  The two stories in our gospel are linked together to demonstrate a new reality: Women and children are accepted and valued, not dismissed as inferior to adult men. (#Metoo.  #Lovethechildren.) Sadly, we are still learning this lesson.

Once again Jesus was teaching the disciples to give up ordinary calculations of greatness to unlock the great gate that opens into the kingdom of God.  Like the disciples, we continue to allow God’s grace to soften the hardness of our hearts, to open us to understanding no one is a nobody so that God’s love might finally flow through us, among us, and back to us through full participation in the rule of God.

The gospel calls us to press against the hardness in our hearts we bear toward the suffering of those whom society calls a nobody, #Blacklivesmatter.  Are you listening to this?  We ignore the gospel at our own peril. The serious damage done to erode the public trust so essential for the Chicago police to be effective in their core mission to protect and to serve  cannot be repaired until the hardness in our hearts of systemic racism directed toward people of color is softened and opened by grace, because God insists—no one in my creation is a nobody.

Friday afternoon the city held its breath.  When it was announced the jury in the Jason Van Dyke trial had reached a decision, about 90 minutes before it was read out, businesses closed, schools went on lockdown, people were advised to go home and “stay indoors.” Rather than justice, people were expecting a riot.  But then something unexpected happened. The system that labeled Laquan McDonald a nobody, that dismissed his murder as unimportant, that was bracing against the violent backlash, broke down. Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and sixteen counts of aggravated assault –one for each bullet he fired into 17-year old Laquan McDonald’s body in 2014.

For thirteen months the system worked to prevent people from seeing the police dash cam video. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel withheld it until after his re-election campaign when a court finally ordered its release.  Officer Van Dyke was not arrested and charged until after the video’s release contradicted the official story and made the city and his fellow officers appear complicit in helping to cover it up.

The evidence against Van Dyke was overwhelming, but that was no reason to assume he would be convicted. According to the Chicago Tribune, a Chicago police officer hasn’t been convicted of murder in “half a century.” New York Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo was never charged in the death of Eric Garner, despite video of him choking Garner to death. Cleveland Police Officer Timothy Loehmann was never charged for killing 12-year old Tamir Rice, despite the video showing him firing only moments after pulling up to the scene. Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted in the shooting of Philando Castile as he reached for his identification, despite video showing the aftermath of the confrontation. These are all examples of the system working, because this is what the system is actually designed to do: provide impunity to police, no matter what harm they cause. (Adam Serwer, “Something Went Wrong in Chicago,” The Atlantic Magazine, 10/05/18,)

But God has another system. No one is a nobody. The human dignity of any one cannot be denied without damaging our own claim to being human.  This truth will reveal itself because we are fashioned in God’s image.  We are made for embrace.  Thanks be to God things are changing in our society.  Healing will come to Chicago when we finally acknowledge our own complicity, whether as people of privilege, as citizens, or members of this church we love, in the sin of systemic racism. We are called to do God’s work with our hands. We are called to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace as we lean our shoulders against the hardness in our hearts and our eyes opened to the particularly brutal reputation of the Chicago police, which has paid out more than $500 million in abuse settlements over the past decade, and which has a long legacy of illegal detention, corruption, discrimination and even torture.  Because no one is a nobody it is time once again to let the cleansing waters of justice roll down and for righteousness to flow like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24). It is time for us again, like the disciples of old, to let God’s grace to carry us to a better brighter future.

Through the Back Door

Proper 21B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). Jesus declares he is officially non-partisan. It doesn’t matter what the score is or what team you play for. Winning at all costs is less important than the welfare of the people on both sides. Whenever we draw an artificial line and declare we don’t care who is on the other side we all suffer.  Jesus stands for both sides and for all people.

It was so refreshing to see the flicker of bi-partisanship return to our nation’s capital this week.  Just as one team was ready to score a historic win for their side, they paused for the sake of limiting the damage their victory could do to inflame the divisions tearing at the fabric of our country.

No matter how certain you are about being right, none of us has the whole story. That’s the truth. That’s the way God made us. Once we deny it, it’s surprising how quickly we find ourselves in hell. It’s better to lose a hand or an eye than to lose ourselves and those we love to yet another war between tribes, clans, parties, factions, and religions.  Jesus showed us the way. Jesus gives us an alternative—the way of the cross.

Have you heard the old joke? Saints Peter and Paul are talking at the Pearly Gates. Paul asked Peter how things are going. “Well,” says Peter, “not good. I carefully interview everyone. I double-check for their name in the Book of Life.  I turn away everyone not worthy to enter into heaven, but then I turn around and see those very people wandering around on the inside!  What’s going on?”  “Oh. That’s Jesus” replied Paul.  “Those people you turn away – he keeps letting them in through the back door.”

Martin Luther championed the slogan, sola gratia, by grace alone we are saved. Grace is the key that unlocks the Pearly Gates.  Grace is the undeserved answer to our longing, the lucky break we need to make something of ourselves. Grace is the knife to slice away the tangled mess we’ve made of our lives, and for cutting through the gruesome and hyperbolic sayings in our reading today to reveal the good news of the gospel.

Among some Christians, these verses have a long and cruel history of literal interpretation and application.  We are all witnesses of the tragic power of people to insult, to maim, and even commit murder in the name of being right. Closer to home, who among us doesn’t know someone deeply hurt by the church, or by someone claiming religious authority?  Religion without grace is a terrible, mean thing that has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus.

Catholic theologian and Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr God intends for us to be punished by our sins; whereas Western religions tend to teach that you are punished for your sins.”  It is not for us to mete out judgment or to administer punishments.  Instead, if we would call ourselves Christians, we are called to dispense mercy and forgiveness, just as we ourselves have received mercy and forgiveness by grace through faith. Goodness is its own reward and evil is its own punishment.

Even so, none of us gets through this life unscathed.  We have lost hands and legs. We are the blind and the lame.  We have striven and have failed. We have searched and found no way out, no way past the persistent reality of evil and sin, no way to unlock the Pearly Gates but through grace.  We stand in need.  We are all beggars.  Whatever sacrifice is required of our time, treasure, talents, ego, or lifestyle to get past the stumbling blocks that keep mercy, forgiveness, generosity, and joy—the fruits of grace—from growing in our lives is worth it.

So, it is with thankful joyous hearts we remember that our Lord said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Matthew 7:7)

This grace makes us salty. Salt of the Spirit protects the community from spoiling and from infection.  The apostle John ran to Jesus saying, “We saw this unknown, un-credentialed healer doing spectacular things and using your name even though he is not one of us.”  The disciples wanted Jesus to prevent someone from doing what they have just failed to do (a few chapters before).

“Envy and jealousy are near-sighted sins. They limit our vision and focus our attention on ourselves and our status” (Culpepper, p. 323).  The salt of the Holy Spirit plucks out of us those things that spoil good community.

It was Martin Luther who reminded us to look for the Christian gospel anywhere and everywhere at work in the world, in anyone or anything. Luther said, ‘whatever preaches Christ is the pure and salty gospel, even if Judas Iscariot said it.  Conversely, whatever doesn’t preach Christ is not the gospel, even if Saints Peter or Paul said it.’  It is the salty heart of faith that recognizes the truth about our brothers and sisters in Christ –even when we disagree, even when they play for the opposing team, even though we belong to different tribes.

We pray the salty wisdom of today’s gospel will be poured out upon our city when the verdict in the Jason Van Dyke trial is handed down in the coming days. We pray for the men and women on the jury who carry the enormous weight for us of making a just decision. We remember all of us were hustled in through the back door into the circle of abundant grace because Jesus was willing to break the rules for us. Wisdom begins in the knowledge we all stand in need of grace.

God can use whatever flavor you bring to season the world.  With the salt of grace, God prepares a banquet from the meager stuff of our lives. Bring me who you are.  Bring me your weaknesses.  I will strengthen them. Bring me your doubts.  I will quiet them.  Bring me your shortcomings and your limitations. I will fill your life with abundance.

Like salt, we have been poured out of the salt-shaker and into the world.  Let us embrace the things that make us different not so that we stand apart, but so that we might better stand together.  Let us follow Christ Jesus on the way of the cross.  Let us be salty so that the whole world may know of God’s grace.

What God Cares About

Proper 17B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus words sounded flip and scandalous to religious people in his time. But the underlying question is alive today.  What does God care about? I mean really?  Being about what God cares about could be the central the objective of any religion.  It’s disheartening that Christians share the same bible yet have such different answers.

In college, I was on a Christian outreach team.  At the invitation of congregations throughout the mid-west, we drove out to spend a weekend with high school youth and often also led worship. We wrote our own skits. One, in particular, inspired by today’s gospel, always went over well we thought. My job was to do the sound effects.  With each word, I cracked my belt really loud. Out of the hearts of men comes fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and folly” (Mark 7:22).  With each one, it appeared as though Jesus was being whipped.

These things defile us and are what God cares about. Yet I also wonder if in our youthful enthusiasm to be dramatic whether we somehow implied that following Christ was all about being nice. As if you can be a good Christian simply by being polite. As if walking the way of Jesus’ cross was about inter-personal morality rather than justice.  Using this gospel to justify it, we Christians fall right into the same trap the Pharisees found themselves in mostly because it makes religions so much easier.  I don’t have to worry about how my food is produced as long as I’m nice.  I don’t have to think about where my clothes are made and who makes them as long as I treat others respectfully.  I don’t have to change my lifestyle and I can buy all the stuff I want at Walmart just as long as I never use foul language.  But really, is that all God cares about?

I read an Op-ed piece in the paper this week entitled, “Can the Catholic church be redeemed?”  Stories of child sexual abuse are sickening.  We in the Lutheran might feel a little too satisfied that we don’t have that problem.  Yet the loss of trust in the Church as a place of wisdom and guidance is so widespread as to include us all.  As Christendom in North America emerges from decades happily embracing the brand of mainline religion, cozied up to political authorities and proudly carrying the banner of American patriotism and civil religion are we surprised now to see so many people around us have come to judge that what church people care about and what God cares about are not the same?  Integrity.  Our walk matches our talk.  It’s one of our ten core values.  It is gospel medicine, like this gospel today, calling the whole Church, to focus on what God cares about.  Can we, can this congregation, be part of that answer? Can we identify ways we’re already doing that? I believe we can.

We are not afraid to learn something from the world outside the church. We know the arena for living our faith is the world. (Another one of our core values.)  When we go outside, we are not surprised to find God already at work there. We are not afraid to follow the Holy Spirit.  We do not retreat into moralism and forsake social justice. We will not circle the wagons of traditionalism as if somehow God is to be found in the past and not in the present, or that God cares more about preserving past glories than in working to ensure all life continues to survive and flourish in the future.  We can do this because this is what God cares about.  We can do this because God gives us the inspiration and the will to do them.  We’ve got our work cut out for us.

We read today from the Letter of James, religion that is pure and undefiled before God, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:27).  Jesus was critical of that way of being religious that wants to judge, and ‘lord it over’ others. Instead, Jesus taught that what really matters to God is to have compassion and to forgive one another.

As Scholar Marcus Borg wrote, Jesus deliberately substituted the Hebrew standard from Leviticus “be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2) with the call to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).  Catholic journalist and author Gary Wills writes, therefore, “No outcasts were cast out far enough in Jesus’ world to make him shun them—not Roman collaborators, not lepers, not prostitutes, not the crazed, not the possessed. Are there people now who could possibly be outside his encompassing love?”  Of course, the answer is no. (Gary Wills, What Jesus Meant)

God is more concerned with how human beings treat one another, and what they say to one another than with religious rules about what we eat or drink, or whether we wash our hands. God is more interested that we live by the gospel than with how well we pray or how often we read the bible. Jesus challenged religious people of his time and of today to remember what truly matters is our neighbor’s well-being.  This is the living edge of our religious traditions, not our own sense of purity or defilement.

I say God doesn’t care how often you read the bible, but God does care that you live the gospel.  We can’t live this gospel without Jesus.  That’s another trap Christians can fall into sometimes called easy grace.  As if the gospel is simply about being a good person.  That’s only half of it.  We can’t be the person we are created to be without God’s help and inspiration to walk the way of Jesus’ cross.  We must keep returning to the center—to the table and the font—in order to return again into who truly we are and to what we are called to be. Now, that’s what God cares about.

When people of faith confuse devotion to God with focus on narrow-minded rules for righteousness or lock-step allegiance to some particular aspect of our religious tradition, they begin a dangerous transition from being hospitable and compassionate to being cold and judgmental.  History alone should be enough to teach us always to be humble.  To listen and talk things out with one another, and always to listen more than we talk. To know what matters about being Christian we must keep our eyes focused on Jesus and not each other.

Simply stated, the cure for sin, and for bad religion is Jesus. Biblical commands never take precedence over what is compassionate and caring. Jesus has proclaimed God’s forgiveness.  Who you are and what you might have done is not as important as who you are becoming. Through water and Word, bread and wine, we are on the way, dying to the little things, opening to the bigger things.  By grace, God enters our lives through Christ Jesus and makes us new from the inside out—and that’s all that really matters.

Come Away with Me

Proper 11B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

‘Come rest awhile’ (Mark 6:31). Jesus’ invitation has special resonance for me this week, as my family and I prepare to head out to Northern Illinois and then to see my mom in Colorado.  The wisdom and importance of Sabbath-keeping is a message that runs throughout scripture.

The disciples have just returned from their first tour of ministry — they are officially now apprentice apostles. They are exhilarated and exhausted, filled with stories — thrilling accounts of healings, exorcisms, and effective evangelism. Perhaps there are darker stories in of failure and rejection to share as well.  Hard stories they needed to process privately with their Teacher.

Meanwhile, as we read about last Sunday, Jesus has just lost John the Baptist, his beloved cousin, and prophet, the one who baptized him and spent a lifetime in the wilderness preparing his way.  Worse, Jesus has lost him to murder, a terrifying reminder that God’s beloved are not immune to violent, senseless deaths.  Maybe Jesus’ own end feels closer.  In any case, he’s heartbroken.

Whatever the case, Jesus senses the disciples need a break.  They’re tired, overstimulated, underfed, and in significant need of solitude. ‘Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile,’ Jesus said to his disciples as crowds push in around them at the edge of the Sea of Galilee. ‘Come away with me,’ is how another translation puts it.” There is both tenderness and longing in those words.  (Debie Thomas)

Here, we find a Jesus who recognizes, honors and tends to his own tiredness.  We encounter a teacher who notices his disciples’ exhaustion and responds with tenderness.  I appreciate passages like this if nothing else than for the simple fact they are not shy of telling us that Jesus was a real human being.

Passages like Luke 5:16: “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”  Or Mark 11:12: “The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.”  Or Matthew 8:24: “Jesus was sleeping.”  Or Mark 7:24: “He didn’t want anyone to know which house he was staying in.” These “minor” verses offer essential glimpses of Jesus’ human life — the life we can most relate to—his need to withdraw, his desire for solitary prayer, his physical hunger, his sleepiness, his inclination to hide.

“These glimpses take nothing away from Jesus’ divinity; they enhance it, making it richer and all the more mysterious.”  They are a reminder that the doctrine of the Incarnation is truly Christianity’s best gift to the world.  “God — the God of the whole universe — hungers, sleeps, eats, rests, withdraws, and grieves.  In all of these mundane but crucial ways, our God is like us.” (Debie Thomas, “Come Away with Me,” Journey with Jesus, 7/12/15)

So why should we deny ourselves sleep, food, exercise, and retreats?  Biologists are in the news again underscoring the importance of eight hours of sleep and the improved attention and decision making that follow a short break during work hours. There is a harshness we have toward our mortal ourselves that God does not abide. We must help one another to be kind to ourselves and attended to our limits and needs.

Come away with me, Jesus invites us. The first part of Sabbath keeping is the graceful invitation to take a break.  The second part is also essential and not to be neglected—we need time with Jesus. We need the rhythm of gathering around Word and Sacrament. We need time to love and praise God.  We need time to be re-joined in the Spirit. We need God’s help to separate noisy thoughts from the signal call of grace. We need God’s living Word to be that compass that always points north.  Otherwise, soon we are like sheep gone astray.  I believe when we are rooted in grace it is easier to experience joy; it is more likely to notice the things for which I am thankful and to feel gratitude.  These are surely gifts of the Spirit of which there are many.  Yet another gift of Sabbath keeping highlighted by our gospel today is the gift of compassion.

We see Jesus is also like us in that sometimes, his best-laid plans go awry. According to St. Mark, Jesus’ retreat-by-boat idea fails.  The crowds anticipate his plan and follow on foot.

Does Jesus turn the boat around and sail away?  No.  As Mark puts it, “Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat and had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.  So, he began to teach them many things.” (Mark 6:34)

Afterward, Jesus second attempt at vacation is also interrupted. According to Mark 6:53-56, the crowds anticipate Jesus’ plan, and word spreads.  As soon as the boat lands at Gennesaret, the crowds go wild, pushing and jostling to get close to Jesus.  They carry their sick to him on mats.  In every village and city, Jesus approaches, swarms of people needing healing line the marketplaces.  They press against him.  They plead.  They beg to touch the fringe of his robe and receive healing.

“Jesus’ response?  Once again, his response is compassion.  “All who touched him were healed.”  On the one hand, Jesus was unapologetic about his need for rest and solitude.  He saw no shame in retreating when he and his disciples needed a break. On the other hand, he never allowed his weariness to overwhelm his compassion. Err on the side of compassion.  Jesus did.” (Debie Thomas)  Joy, generosity, but most of all, compassion are the fruits of Sabbath-keeping and the gifts of baptism. These are the happy ingredients we need for putting together a well-lived life. I’ll tell you a secret. They all come from God.

I leave you today with a poem from Jan Richardson, entitled “Blessing of Rest.”

Blessing of Rest

Curl this blessing
beneath your head
for a pillow.
Wrap it about yourself
for a blanket.
Lay it across your eyes
and for this moment
cease thinking about
what comes next,
what you will do
when you rise.

Let this blessing
gather itself to you
like the stillness
that descends
between your heartbeats,
the silence that comes
so briefly
but with a constancy
on which
your life depends.

Settle yourself
into the quiet
this blessing brings,
the hand it lays
upon your brow,
the whispered word
it breathes into
your ear
telling you
all shall be well
all shall be well
and you can rest
now.

Jan Richardson, Painted Prayerbook.

Unlikely Heroes

Proper 9B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

He was a lifelong Republican and an ordained Presbyterian minister. He graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He never had a church, but millions of young congregants watched him on tv from the late 1960s until the turn of the century. Fred Rogers show was an expression of the type of mainline Protestantism that was once the dominating morality in American life.

Mr. Rogers is preaching to America again.  Fred Rogers, who died in 2003, is the subject of two major movies, one starring Tom Hanks coming out next year, and the other is a documentary playing now, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”  For decades, his message was essentially one of grace: You are special just the way you are. God’s grace means you are loved just as you are; and at the same time, God’s grace means you are called and equipped to become more than you ever dreamed you could be.

On a trip to California in 1998, Mr. Rogers met a 14-year-old boy whose cerebral palsy left him sometimes unable to walk or talk. Mr. Rogers asked the boy to pray for him. The boy was stunned. He had been the object of many prayers, but nobody had asked him to pray for them. He promised he would try.

Afterward, a reporter named Tom Junod from Esquire Magazine complimented Rogers on finding a clever way to boost the boy’s self-esteem, but Rogers didn’t look at the situation that way at all: “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”

And here is the gospel radicalism that infused that show: that the child is closer to God than the adult; that the sick are closer than the healthy; that the poor are closer than the rich and the marginalized closer than the celebrated. “In the gospel of Fred Rogers, children are our superiors in the way they trust each person they in the way they trust each person they meet, the way they lack guile, the way a child can admit simple vulnerability.” (By David Brooks, “Fred Rogers and the Loveliness of the Little Good,” NYT, July 5, 2018)

Famously, on May 1, 1969, Fred Rogers went before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications to argue against a proposed funding cut to Public Broadcasting System (PBS). Sen. John O. Pastore, the subcommittee chairman, had never heard of Mr. Rogers or seen any of his shows, but after only six minutes of testimony (including one song, recited from memory, about anger management), the politician went from being a dismissive foe to a lifelong fan. Morgan Neville, who directed the documentary in theaters now said, “Many people would call Fred a wimp, but what you realize in that moment is that Fred was the most iron-willed person out there… It’s Mister Rogers goes to Washington. It’s the perfect example of somebody speaking truth to power and winning.”

Fred Rogers was an unlikely hero just like every other hero in the bible.  King David was the least regal of Jesse’s sons. The Apostle Paul wasn’t a good public speaker.  His own townspeople dismissed Jesus as a simple carpenter, the son of Mary—implying Joseph was dead or had fled the scene, or perhaps that they knew about Jesus’ questionable parentage.  (Mark 6:3)

Each of us is born into a place and story that identifies who we are and sets boundaries on who we can become.  But rather than identify with any of these stories, our bible heroes instead live out the story of who they are—who each of us is—in God.

St. Paul writes that in Christ “power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9) While the world jockeys for control, the church is called to reach out in service.  While others work furiously to become invulnerable, the church is called to open its hand and heart to the least among us. While everyone else strives to be strong, the church prays for that power perfected in weakness, for power rooted in compassion and love. Only this kind of power can inspire trust and kindle faith.  Only this kind of power builds up, draws people together, and makes room for the work of our hands for ourselves and each other.

Jesus, remember your place.  You’re no Rabbi.  You’re no Messiah! Barbara Brown Taylor calls our gospel and un-miracle story.  The sad and astonishing thing about this story is that the townspeople’s resentment diminished Jesus’s ability to work on their behalf.  “He could do no deed of power there,” Mark writes grimly. In some mysterious and disturbing way, the people’s small-mindedness, their lack of trust, and their inability to embrace Jesus life and mission kept them in spiritual poverty.  We too must guard against becoming too certain in what we think we know to let ourselves be drawn by the Spirit into what we don’t. We too must continually cultivate the curiosity, openness, and vulnerability of a child.

First Jesus was rejected by those he loved and grew up with. Then he sent out the disciples to risk rejection for the sake of those God loves too. Jesus sent the disciples out even though they’re amateurs. Peter has not yet said, “You are the Messiah.” They have not yet experienced the Lord’s supper, or the crucifixion, or witnessed the resurrection. They have not yet been anointed by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus called the twelve and sent them out two by two to preach and heal and call others to repentance. They didn’t really know what they were doing, but Jesus sent them anyway, to learn by doing and by failing. And so, it is with life, we are all amateur human beings. We bumble along generation by generation and sometimes stumble into our humanity. Not by being safe. But by trying to emulate the one who gave his life in compassion. (Debie Thomas)

Holiness is often confused with personal power. A holy person is construed as one who is disciplined. He or she is a person with a rigorous code of conduct. Holiness is believed to be the expression of religious fervor, the measurement of oneself and others by a demanding litany of religious criteria. The problem with this way of seeing holiness is that it misses the very heart of what holiness is all about in the first place. (Daniel Clendenin, Journey with Jesus)

Don’t think you need a lot of special equipment or training in holiness to accomplish this task.  You are the equipment.  You and the Spirit within you to open your heart and fill you with the curiosity and compassion of a child.

With ordinary words and a gentle welcoming spirit, Mr. Rogers proclaimed the gospel. He taught us the last shall be first. We hear so much today that winners are better than losers, the successful are better than the weak. Somehow morality got reversed by an achievement-oriented success culture. But now there’s someone new in the neighborhood, someone who knows you and welcomes you like an old friend.  Someone who loves you just as you are and calls you to become more than you ever thought it possible to become. “In Christ is our calling, in Christ may we grow.” (ELW # 575) In Christ is our home, our family, and nation. Like, little children, we pray that it may be so.  Amen.

The Whole Story

Proper 8B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

Fifteen-year-olds Melanie and Xanath are members of the ECT youth group in Houston this week at the ELCA Global Youth Gathering. On Friday they became leaders, among 300 other young people. Youth gathered at an iconic statue in front of the Medical Center that dramatically depicts a mother about to receive her newborn child into her arms for the first time from an OBGYN nurse. Melanie and Xanath spoke in protest of Federal immigration policies that have separated more than two thousand children from their parents. They gave interviews for Telemundo and the Houston Chronicle.

Xanath, who is normally very quiet, at least around me, said, “It really disappoints me and makes me upset that this happens to other families and, while I’m not in their position, it hurts to see them suffering…Whether we know them or not, the fact that they’re still human beings means that we shouldn’t dehumanize them.”

Today’s gospel is a story wrapped in a story.  It features people like Xanath talked about who are desperate to be seen, heard and recognized as human beings. Jesus and the disciples have just returned from across the border. They’re back from the other side of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus was healing and proclaiming the gospel among foreigners. Immediately, almost before they can get out of the boat, there’s a crowd. They’re curious. They’re excited. They have something important for Jesus to do.

A man named Jairus is a leader in the synagogue, a well-respected lay-person, a father, and patriarch of the entire community. Jairus falls down before Jesus and begs him to help his little daughter, “who is at the point of death” (Mark 5:23).  Meanwhile, somewhere in this crowd, unknown to everyone, is a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. She is nameless, homeless, childless, and alone. Mark, the briefest of gospels has a lot to say about her.  She suffered under the care of many doctors.  She used up all her money to be cured.  Yet, she only got worse.

The unnamed women lingered in the background waiting for an opportunity, while Jairus spoke to Jesus directly. The woman talks only to herself.  Jairus’ request is met with enthusiasm and a sense of urgency. The woman knew she was forbidden to touch any man, least of all Jesus. She knew just touching her fingertips on his cloak would defile him and anyone else in the crowd.  She decided to enter the crowd to reach out and touch Jesus, anyway.

A struggle ensues. The unnamed woman gets in the way. The whole procession to Jairus’ house grinds to a halt.  She prevents Jesus from helping Jairus’ daughter before it’s too late. To everyone, it looks like a wasted opportunity to do something important, but not to Jesus. Jesus was #MeToo 2,000 years before MeToo.

While the disciples and the crowd were counting noses, sizing up the pecking order, doing a cost-benefit analysis, sorting people into categories of more and less worthy, more and less human, Jesus was focused on the person and place with the greatest human need.

Perhaps we should step back for a moment to understand there were three forms of uncleanness in Jesus’ time thought to be serious enough to require that a person is quarantined: 1) those with leprosy, 2) those with any kind of bodily discharges, and 3) the dead.  In other words, once Jairus’ little girl died, both she and the unnamed woman were joined with the tribe of the damned, the grotesque, and the sub-human. They were untouchables, not worth bothering about.

In the story of Jairus’s daughter, Jesus demands that we not pronounce death where he sees life.  In the bleeding woman’s story, he demands that legalism give way to compassion every single time.  In each story, Jesus restores a lost child of God to community and intimacy. In each story, Jesus takes hold of what is “impure” (the menstruating woman, the dead girl’s body) in order to practice mercy.  In each story, a previously hopeless daughter “goes in peace” because Jesus finds value where no one else will. The love of Christ humanizes those we have dehumanized.

Notice, Jesus didn’t just heal her, but he listened to her. ‘The woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before Jesus, and told him the whole truth’ (Mark 5:33). She told him her whole story – the shame and the blame, the pain and the fear, the loneliness and the isolation, the good and the bad. This is how we reverse the effects of dehumanization. This is how we overcome the labels, the racism, the stereotypes, and the bias that allows people to so quickly dismiss others as inferior or less-than-human.  It requires the patience, compassion, and honesty that is ours in Christ Jesus to listen to someone’s whole story so they may become known.

As we prepare for another Independence Day, it strikes me that perhaps we have seldom had the patience or the stomach to listen to the whole story of our nation’s history. This land we celebrate, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; this land of opportunity, of immigrants, of diversity, has also been a land that celebrated the genocide of native peoples, supported slavery, and continues to condone systematic violence against people of color.  Sadly, the church too has played a role in this. Most Christians have been ready to go right along with it.

We are engaged in a struggle for the soul of the nation and the sanctity of our church today. Who are we?  What type of nation shall we be?  We can let our gospel be our guide. Jesus can help us recover, reclaim and believe again in the common humanity we share with all God’s children.

Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, put it this way “if it doesn’t look like love, if it doesn’t look like Jesus of Nazareth, it cannot be claimed to be Christian.”  If it doesn’t look like love, it isn’t Christian.  Period.

What then looks like love today?  What looks like Jesus of Nazareth?  “The one whose heart melts at the cry of a desperate father.  The one who visits the sick child and takes her limp hand in his.  The one who risks defilement to touch the bloody and the broken.  The one who insists on the whole truth, however falteringly told.  The one who listens for as long as it takes.  The one who brings life to dead places.  The one who restores hope.  The one who turns mourning into dancing.  The one who renames the outcast, “Daughter,” and bids her go in peace.”   (When Daughters Go in Peace, Journey with Jesus, Debie Thomas, 6/24/18.)

We have become one in Christ. Jesus has brought down the walls and led us across the borders that separate us. Like Xanath and Melanie, Jesus will help us find our voice. Jesus shows us the way forward. This grace changes everything.

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