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Real Bread, Real Jesus, Real Life: A Sermon on John 6:51-58 Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
August 20, 2015, 11:26 am
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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

There are certain seasons I dread in our house. It’s not the weather, it’s what’s on TV. We just entered football season, which means I got a frantic text from my husband at 5:50, right before he had a church meeting, pleading me to drop everything and make sure the DVR was set for the Packers’ preseason game. And then when he came home… instead of my shows, there was football on the tv.

The next season will be “The Walking Dead.” It’s a zombie show. With the half-dead munching on people. Pretty gross. Kinda weird.

That revulsion is what the Jews are expressing in the Gospel. Because what Jesus is talking about sounds pretty gross.

After feeding 5000 hungry people with five loaves and two fish, Jesus has told the people not to spend their lives working for food that fills for a meal, but bread that gives life. Then Jesus calls himself the bread of life. And then, he gets pretty graphic. Jesus talks about drinking blood and eating flesh as the means through which people will live forever.

If we were to do a Late Night Show Style Pedestrian Question, and read this quote, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” I’d bet more people would place it in a monster genre than identify it as Jesus’ words from the Bible.

In the Gospel, the characters called, “the Jews” represent the opposition to the early Christian movement. Just as happens today, those outside the early church, skeptical and suspicious of this new religious group, mischaracterized their beliefs. With language like this, Jesus made it easy. What could be more revolting than eating a person as your central ritual? Think of the rhetoric that is spread regarding Muslims today, and you can imagine how rumors spread about Christians, building hatred.

So why does Jesus use such graphic language? In English, we even miss some of the graphic nature – eat is a gentler word than the Greek which implies crunching and chewing.

What so easily lends itself to misinterpretation and revulsion is what is most radical about Jesus’ words- and most radical about our faith. Our God became human. Our God suffered and died- for real. Not in some distant sense, as a floating spirit looking down on a useless body dying on the cross. Jesus suffered and died, experienced humiliation and pain, in a very real way- the only way any of us would have experienced the cross.

The only difference we might argue for is that Jesus had a choice. Our God could have been like any other god who stays in glory and splendor, the object of all worship and devotion. Our God could have chosen power over us. But our God chose to come among us, and to stay among us, even into suffering and death. Jesus chooses identification with us- with creation.

In dying as one of us, he makes death an experience that is no longer a separation from God- God is there- the life-giving one is in death. The dying of Jesus’ flesh, the outpouring of Jesus’ blood, is all part of Jesus’ work to bring life to the world. To sanitize this event, or to so spiritualize it as to remove it from a real body, with real pain, and real blood, would be to blot out what is radically life-embracing and life-giving.

Jesus’ real life and real death is all for us. But that’s not going to make much of a real difference in our lives if it’s distant or forgotten. Jesus creates a meal for us to participate in his gift of life. This meal, in which we receive the Bread of Life, is Holy Communion. Ordinary bread and wine carry Jesus’ promise and Jesus’ presence into us. In this way, we participate in Jesus’ sacrifice: death and life, for us. We take Jesus’ sacrifice into ourselves. Just as God breathed the Spirit of life into us at creation, God serves God’s own life force to us at communion.

Jesus’ giving of his flesh and blood doesn’t become meaningful until we participate in it. The promise of being given life and forgiveness through Jesus is ephemeral, just words, until it becomes tangible in real bread and real wine. Luther’s Large Catechism explains that we claim this gift by hearing the promises and trusting in them: “for they are not spoken or proclaimed to stone and wood, but to those who hear them.” (ln 33). Jesus makes his promises true: Jesus has created forgiveness and life for us, and he comes among us and within us at communion. These gifts are not dependent on us, but their effect in our lives has a relationship with our desire to receive them.

We participate in communion because Jesus tells us to do it, Jesus comes to us in it, and we are there given the strength we need to live another day. Luther writes, “What is the Sacrament of the Altar?… it is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in and under the bread and wine which we Christians are commanded by the Word of Christ to eat and to drink.” (ln 8). Communion renews us and keeps us going. Baptism begins our journey with God, as we are united with Jesus for life. Communion is the energy bar that feeds us the life we need to make it through each day. A promise might be disbelieved: how can I really be someone Jesus forgives, how do I know I really receive life from Jesus? But bread and wine, held, smelled, and tasted, are so real that we might just believe that the promise that is carried in them is real also.

God, not us, makes communion what it is: the body and blood of Christ. Neither our own holiness, nor our own sin will destroy Jesus’ promise. Jesus gives himself to us, and invites us to receive the life he offers. The Sacrament is a necessary part of the life of faith.

Some might think their faith is strong enough, that they do not need to participate in communion. To them Luther writes, “If you wish such liberty (to be free from the sacrament), you may just as well have the liberty to be no Christians, and neither have to believe nor pray; for the one is just as much the command of Christ as the other” (ln 49). We cannot do faith on our own, without a regular infusion of God’s grace. There are many today who think they don’t need anyone else- even God- to live a life of faith. To them, Luther has a harsh judgement, declaring that “such people as deprive themselves of, and withdraw from, the Sacrament so long a time are not to be considered Christians” (ln 42).

Others may be led to fear that prevents them from receiving communion. Certainly there are churches around us who encourage such a deep examination before taking a place at the table that it prevents participation. They do so because they do not want a sinner receiving such holiness unaware of his or her need for repentance and forgiveness. But there are none among us who can say they have led a perfectly sinless life or are completely prepared in faith. Quoting St. Hilary, Luther writes, “he ought not stay away from the Sacrament, lest he may deprive himself of life. (ln 51)” God invites sinners and doubters to the table, because we are the most hungry. With bread and wine, promise and presence, Jesus feeds our faith. In his sacrifice and death, Jesus opens the gift of life to all. “Our Sacrament does not depend upon our worthiness (ln 61).”

In Communion, we take real bread and wine and Jesus comes by his promise, so that we are fed real hope, real forgiveness, real life. This is real communion, a becoming one with Jesus, the life-gifting God, and with all who share this life-giving meal.

The Spirit turns our confused revulsion into eager attraction. Talk of blood and bodies might make stomachs turn, but we are all searching for something more real than words. That is what Jesus provides. Not empty pious words, meme worthy, but easily liked and forgotten. Jesus gives himself, fully and truly, to bring life to you and the whole creation. That life is something we long for. That kind of sacrifice, with our regular remembrance of it at communion, has the power to give us life now and always.


Setting my Place at the Table: A sermon on John 6:35, 41-51 Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
August 20, 2015, 11:25 am
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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

This week, we continue to explore the Gospel of John, which centers around Jesus’ sign and proclamation: “I am the bread of life.” As we opened chapter six, we discovered Jesus is not just another prophet. As we got deeper in, we found that he fills not only our immediate hunger, but our central need for life. The bread that was shared on the hillside is a sign that points to Jesus, the Bread of Life, who nourishes us not only for a meal, but into eternity.

We spend so much time in this chapter because people don’t get it. They don’t get Jesus. There’s so much here that we can get lost, too. What Jesus says is not always what we think we’re going to hear.

The crowd who ate their fill of the loaves didn’t understand what the sign was about. The Jews who complain about Jesus don’t understand who he is. The early church wasn’t quite sure what life they were supposed to be living in to. And we can wonder how we come to Jesus.

The sign of the multiplied loaves points to who Jesus is. But some among the crowd think they know perfectly well who Jesus is. They know his mother and his father. Maybe some are thinking- not too long ago I was helping your mother change your diapers and now you’ve gotten too big for your britches- calling yourself the Bread of Life coming down from heaven.

The one who lives in the heavenly realm is God- the one God- and who is this Jesus we knew with skinned knees and snotty nose to call himself God?

As readers, we can find some sympathy for their confusion. It takes work to see someone in a new way. Some of you who have grown up in this community might know what that’s like. You might try to lead in the congregation and feel pushback from your Sunday School teacher. You might want to change, grow out of old habits, but people keep assuming you are who you once were.

The complainers’ expectations about who Jesus is gets in the way of their ability to accept that he gives life. They may have experienced a miraculous meal, but they’re not ready to believe there might be a fuller course ahead.

Jesus’ response to the crowd’s objection is simply to say that their ability to see him for who he is all up to the Father. Faith in him will come as a gift from God, not as a result of more impressive shows.

Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” Today, we don’t stumble over knowing Jesus in his childhood. We can wonder what it takes to have faith and how we are “saved.”

When it comes to knowing how we get to God, we find our expectations about achieving get in the way of celebrating Jesus as the source of life.

Coming to faith is the work of God. It’s not up to us. Luther writes, in the Small Catechism, for us to confess “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church.”

God works within us to create faith. Faith itself is God’s gift. It’s God’s work within individuals and among communities, to establish a life-giving relationship that is wholly dependent on God’s own action.

The idea that God gifts can terrify us. That faith, eternal life, and God’s love are all beyond our control and beyond our ability to achieve – we just don’t get it. It doesn’t make sense. Our reaction can be anger and questioning.

In my early days of my call in North Dakota, I was invited to the neighboring church’s Bible study. It was informal, just the women, meeting and talking. They were beginning the book of Ephesians, with its wonderful verses about God’s adopting us as children before the foundation of the world. It speaks of us being included in the great plan of salvation that Jesus has accomplished. It declares that our place among God’s beloved is secured by God’s grace- a freely given gift of love that has claimed us through Jesus.

I was so excited by these verses of love- and began talking about how beautiful it is that we are so loved- even before we do anything- even before we are born. God so loves us that we were made to be God’s blessed children forever- and we are secured in that place by Jesus’ death and life for us.

I was so excited that I wasn’t paying enough attention to the faces of those around me. Instead of nodding heads and smiles of grace-filled joy- eyes were starting to squint, eyebrows were raising- and finally someone shouted out- “you’re scaring me!”

What?! God completely loves you- no matter what- and has shown the depth of that love by entering creation and dying for you- and that scares you?

It took me a long time to understand what would scare someone about that grace. It’s the question of agency- who is in control of my future, whose action matters.

The people of North Dakota, salt of the earth farmers, are used to hard work. Hard work leads to a good harvest, a smartly run business. Nothing good will be earned by those who are lazy. Investment leads to success.

That we have the ability to create a desired outcome by our will and hard work is a narrative of our culture of control. Control is a central part of who we are. We believe we have a certain amount of control over our future, and center our lives around that belief. To leave our future- even our eternal future- all up to God is a huge act of faith. Wouldn’t we feel better if we could just do something that would make us sure we got in?

As we enter the back-to-school season, and parents send their children off to college, many wonder if students might get more out of their education if they had to pay for it themselves. Might there be more of an investment if it really cost them? Does getting something for free spoil a person?

Salvation comes freely. My hope is that the giftedness of life that Jesus gives you is the central part of what forms your faith life. It can be hard to let go of wanting control, needing to earn. I like to be in control- I want to be sure things happen- and if I give up control, even to Jesus, that means I have to trust him to get the work done.

Jesus’ gift, eternal life, begins right now. It’s the quality of life that grows out of a relationship with the life-giving God. The life-gifting God. That faith and life are all gift, all work that Jesus alone has done, is what makes eternal life a reality today. Eternal life begins today as a quality of life that is created by living in the certainty of God’s grace. It is the freedom to accept your own doubts, your own failures, your own sin, knowing that God holds you through them all. It is the freedom of letting go of all the rules and supposed tos that you, your friends, society, and even the church has forced on to you, trusting that Jesus’ faithfulness is enough. It is the freedom to serve and love others without expecting anything about them to change or to receive anything in return, because you’ve experienced that same grace from God. Eternal life begins today as a life of faith- a connection with the source of life- and looks forward to the promise of resurrection, new life with Jesus.

The Jews looked at Jesus, asking, who are you to give us life? When we try to work our own salvation, we do much the same. Who are you, Jesus, to gift me life?

Jesus is not just another prophet. He is God. But he’s not just another god. Remember back to John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him… what has come into being in him was life… And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” This Word is the Bread of Life, the source and creator of life who chose to enter into the life he created, and even to die, so that in giving up his life he would bring all creation into life forever. Jesus brings us to God. The way to life is through the Creator, who comes in Jesus to bring us life through his own death.

Maybe all this will always be a little confusing. We see plenty of examples in scripture of faithful people not quite understanding what God is doing. When it comes to faith, life, and salvation, you don’t have to get everything. Jesus has gotten you.

Steadfast Love: A Sermon in the Covenant Series for Lent 4: 2 Samuel 7, Psalm 107, John 3
March 16, 2015, 11:20 am
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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

Does anyone use the psalms frequently in their prayer lives? It might be a more common practice among those who pray the hours, using these texts over and over again throughout life to shape your prayer. Maybe some of you have memorized a psalm or two? Perhaps Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd…”

The Psalms were written as songs for worship, words that would be sung on everyone’s lips and form their picture of who God is and what God has done, is doing, and will do for them. If you were a person who prayed these songs regularly, you’d find that they become a part of your heart’s song. When something big happened in your life, you’d find a ready response from God in this prayer language.

As we continue to explore covenant this Lent, one line from our psalm expresses what we’re discovering: “God’s mercy endures forever.” (Psalm 107:1b ELW). Or, put another way, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” (NRSV).

The whole point of using these six weeks of Lent to explore covenant is to discover how God starts and keeps covenant. God makes promises to specific groups of people. These promises form a relationship between promise giver and promise receiver, and they give an identity to the people so that they become God’s people. We’re spending these weeks trying to figure out if God’s steadfast love really does last forever, and how that steadfastness is expressed to us.

In the covenant to Noah and all creation, God promises to remember creation, and never again destroy it. In the covenant to Abraham, God promises to make a nation out of Abraham’s descendants, giving them a land and a new relationship as God’s people. In the Sinai Covenant, given to Moses and the Israelites freed from slavery in Egypt, God affirms the promise to be their God, giving them God’s vision of a freed, life-affirming society through the law.

Today we read from Second Samuel the Davidic Covenant. God promises David, in verse 16, “your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” God says that King David’s descendants will continue to be the kings and their kingdom will always be.

I’ve been using the word promise a lot as I describe God’s work in these covenants. I’m not sure if promise quite captures it. Remember, God’s speech has declarative power- what God says, is. Genesis 1 is God creating through speech. So when God speaks these covenants, it’s not a weak promise of “I’ll do my best to do this or that for you… if I can… if you’re really good.” What God promises, is.

As we’ve looked through the covenants, we’ve discovered that the person receiving God’s promises doesn’t always get to see them fully in place. Abraham had to trust God’s promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars and would be a great nation. He waited a long time before he experienced the beginning of God’s work on the promise through the birth of Isaac.

The Davidic Covenant is so specific- one family- one kingship- forever- that its failure becomes glaringly obvious. There’s a big problem with God’s following through on this promise. The problem for the people of God in the generations after King David is that the kingdom is conquered. There is no unending line of kings ruling God’s people in peace, in their land. Rather, the people of God are conquered, some are taken into exile, later to return. Even then, they are still a conquered nation, without an independent king of their own. They remain under the authority of one or another foreign nation even through the time of Jesus and the early Christian church.

Imagine how it would be, if you were one of God’s people, living in exile, or living back in Jerusalem but with Roman forces in your streets. What would it mean to you to remember this covenant with David and also sing the psalm, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” Would that prayer catch in your throat as you wondered what it means for God to be steadfast and faithful in God’s promises?

It’s one thing to wake up to a beautiful sunrise and have your heart sing, “God’s love endures forever.”

It’s a similar feeling when you hear from a good friend and your spirit is raised, “God’s love endures forever.”

Even at the close of a funeral of a beloved elder, after acknowledging all the ways God provided for and through her, setting her in the eternal embrace of God, “God’s love endures forever.”

But when everything is falling apart- from the news on TV to your job to the kids to the house and the bills and your heath, and maybe even the church— “God’s love endures forever?”

If this was a refrain to your life, some days it might be comforting, others joyous, and at others might be the cause for anger- where is God’s power and love for me right now, in the midst of my life?

What does it mean for God’s promises to be steadfast when it sure looks like God’s long forgotten that promise?

We have a unique vantage point in the Bible. We get to hear the stories of people who ask the hard questions of faith. Over the course of scripture, God remembers, God is faithful.

God’s fulfills the Davidic Covenant in Jesus. Jesus is the king in David’s line, but his kingdom is different than expected. Jesus is not the victorious king, returning from war or convening councils in great rooms. Jesus is the king who suffers with and dies for his people.

God’s faithfulness looks like Jesus: God enfleshed, God in the midst of our real junk, mocked as king, crowned with thorns, clothed in a royally colored rag, reigning from above the crowd, his throne a cross.

The encouraging witness of the exiles, of the conquered, is the sustained hope that keeps “God’s steadfast love endures forever” on their lips, even when God’s answer to this promise is so far away.

Maybe you’re in a place in which it’s easy to rejoice in God’s faithfulness. But if you’re not- if you’re having a difficult time seeing God’s faithfulness for you- you’re not alone. Other faithful people have been there and are there today. Jesus knows what it is to be left questioning God’s faithfulness, to find yourself deep in shame, grief, and abandonment. Jesus experienced all despair so that he could be with you in compassionate, steadfast love.

We gather together in this place because we need to know that God’s love and faithfulness is for us. God’s steadfast love is for us, individually and corporately.  It is for you- for those who gather alongside you at this church- and as John reminds us- for the whole world. Today you are not left to wonder if God has made real the promise of relationship, forgiveness, and life for you.

Be assured. Come and touch and taste and smell the elements that carry God’s promise and Jesus’ presence to you. In water, God washes the baptized and claims you in relationship for life forever.

In bread and wine, Jesus gives himself to you. God’s mercy and love are yours forever.

Jesus’ crowning on the cross is the antithesis of all we might image as God’s blessed king. Yet it is through the cross that Jesus opens the kingdom to all nations and breaks the power of all other rulers to oppress us. Jesus is raised from the dead so that we might glimpse the way in which God will fulfill all promises. God’s faithfulness gives us reason to hope for the future.

A Real Loaf: A Sermon on John 6
August 25, 2012, 8:28 pm
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Good bread. This is my favorite. The best of what bread can be. 


Uncovered, the smell wafts up to fill my nose and make my mouth water. Held, it feels substantial. The crust crackles as it is broken. Inside is soft and tender. A rich, buttery flavor that melts in my mouth, with a chew and a crunch that forces me to take time to process the experience. 


There’s a time and a place for other breads. Soft wheat sandwich bread for peanut butter and jelly. Grandma’s potato rolls for Christmas dinner. Tortillas and lefse and pitas for ethnic cuisine. 


But for the experience of plain bread, this loaf is my favorite. 


The Bible talks about things as real as this loaf of bread. We continue to read in chapter six of the Gospel of John this morning. Jesus had performed miracles of healing, and a crowd followed him up a mountain to continue hearing his teaching and see more miracles. Jesus didn’t disappoint them. Seeing the hungry crowd, he used a boy’s gift of five loaves of bread and two fish, and transformed this meager gift into abundance. Jesus fed 5000 men, women and children. Once everyone was satisfied, twelve baskets of leftovers were collected. 


During the night, Jesus travels with his disciples to Capernaum. The next day, the crowd finds him, hoping to receive more bread and witness more miracles. Jesus doesn’t do much more than speak, but that’s enough to get a reaction from the crowd. Jesus declares, “I am the bread of life.” By saying this, Jesus identifies himself with the one God, whose name is “I am.” Jesus continues to identify himself as the bread from heaven. 


Then Jesus’ teachings turns too graphic for his audience. Jesus declares, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6:51). When the listening Jews begin to dispute this, Jesus responds, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (6:53-56). 


Maybe some think Jesus is sick, confused, or disturbed. Why would anyone insist that followers must eat the teacher? The connections Jesus makes as he identifies himself as the messianic Son of Man, and between his body and blood and life-giving food and drink offend those listening. This teaching is so difficult that many of Jesus’ disciples, not just a curious crowd, but those who were seriously following Jesus, turn away from him. They cannot handle the language of flesh and blood, or Jesus’ insistence that he is the Son of Man, come to earth from heaven, or Jesus’ declaration that some of his followers do not believe, and will not, because the Father has not allowed it. Something Jesus has said is too much. 


It’s surprising to hear the shift of John’s language as he describes those following and listening to Jesus throughout this chapter. At first, it’s a “large crowd” following “because they saw the signs that (Jesus) was doing for the sick” (6:2). As they eat and even the next day when they search for Jesus, hoping for more bread, the continue to be “the crowd.” Once Jesus starts proclaiming “I am the bread that came down from heaven” (6:41) and “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6:51), then they become “the Jews” (6:41, 52). It’s the last descriptor that is most powerful. By verse 60, they are “his disciples.” It is “his disciples” who declare, “this teaching is difficult” (6:60) and who “were complaining about it” (6:61). 


From the crowd of 5000, those willing to accept Jesus are very few. By the end of the chapter, only the twelve are left. 


Jesus fed the thousands with real bread. Bread they could hold and smell and taste. Jesus invites them- and us- to take into our hands true bread, more real than any other loaf. Jesus feeds you his flesh. His is a real body, broken, to sustain and give life to real people, you and me. 


There’s a table in our midst today. We’ve gathered around it. Twice a month we gather around a table, but today, things look different. Of course, things are a little different with us outside. But I’m hoping that this table looks a little more normal than churchy. We’ve gathered around an ordinary table, set with my every day dishes. Instead of our shiny brass chalice, my glass milk cups. Instead of an altar rail, two chairs. 


Is it too normal for you? Not special enough? Not holy? Maybe blasphemous or difficult or offensive? 


I think what was so difficult for the crowd and the Jews and the disciples to accept was Jesus’ juxtaposition of the ordinary and the holy. What was most sacred Jesus revealed in the most commonplace of things. When Jesus claims he has come from heaven, the people protest that they know his mother and father. When Jesus connects bread and the flesh of the Son of Man and his body, even his disciples reject him. 


I’m surprised more people today don’t reject Jesus and Christian teachings for the same reason. Our central confession claims, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried” (Apostles’ Creed, ELW 105). We also confess, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ… of one Being with the Father, through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary and became truly human” (Nicene Creed, ELW 104). 


We believe that God became a human person just like each of us. We believe Jesus was birthed into this world in a gush of very real human experience. We believe that Jesus bled and hurt and died. That Jesus was laid in a tomb with the expectation that his body would decay and decompose just like any other body. We believe that because Jesus is truly God united with real humanity, Jesus was raised to new life and it is through his real flesh that we are given eternal life and resurrection. 


We live in a much more sanitized culture than the crowd of John 6 did. For the most part, we don’t touch blood, we don’t see birth, we don’t see our food alive and we don’t kill it, we don’t even wash poopy diapers. The sick and the dying occupy spaces apart from the healthy. 


Yet every other week, we gather for a meal and eat and drink in response to the promise: the body of Christ, the blood of Christ, given for you. This was too scandalous for many of Jesus’ followers. I don’t want you to be pushed away by this offense, even as I want us to reclaim some of what is so scandalous. The promise is made greater when we truly recognize its extraordinary nature. 


Jesus- God- comes into what is ordinary. Jesus- God- experiences the dirtiness of human life that we try to avoid or scrub away. Jesus- God- is in real flesh, with real blood so that our real fleshly selves can live fully today and forever. 


By Jesus’ promise, Jesus is here among us. As Jesus is proclaimed, Jesus is here, in real bread, fresh bread, good bread: bread you can break open and smell. Jesus is here, in wine, strong and heady, fragrant and sweet. 


We eat from this table, remembering that what Jesus does here is not removed from real food and real drink. Jesus is so deeply here in these elements that wine and bread are transformed, the familiar act of eating together is changed, and those who partake in this meal are never the same again. 


Jesus comes into your ordinary, everyday, dirty and messy lives. Jesus is with you, sustaining you through your hectic schedule, holding you through the heartaches and headaches, and revealing to you God’s great love for you in what are sometimes the shortest glimpses of grace. The Jesus who compares his flesh to simple bread is not distant from you, not offended by your real imperfections. Jesus enters you as real-ly and truly as a good, chewy, crunchy, mouthful of bread. Eat, and be filled. 

Breaking Assumptions, Loving Beyond: A sermon on Acts 10:44–48
May 13, 2012, 6:11 am
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Our daughter, Laila, is almost 11 months old. Every once in a while, I scroll through photos of her, on our computer. I watch as she transforms from screaming freshly born baby on the weighing scale with arms and legs extended, to her first smiles, easy to come as she woke in the morning, to being able to sit and pick up objects, to her first tastes of food, and now with her growing independence as she scoots across the floor. I wonder how much we’ve already shaped her life, by what we’ve exposed her to, by what we’ve encouraged her to do or not do. Will she be a musician but not an artist, since she sings with her daddy, but we’ve yet to give her a crayon? Will she feel safe in the wide openness of the Dakota plains, but claustrophobic in the woods of my homeland? Will she call snacktime lunch and roll her eyes when her daddy tries to call dinner lunch? Will she fear people of different skin tones and cultures, because her community is fairly homogeneous and white?


We all are shaped by our communities, taught to expect one thing and not another, taught to welcome one person and not another. We are formed by our experiences, learning what to avoid and what to touch. The voices of those we listen to on TV or radio shape our own thoughts. Teachers guide us towards the correct answer. 


Every day, we pick up messages and signals that form us into who we are: people with expectations about how the world works, what and who is valued, and how we are to interact with others. We combine all of this, without conscious effort, into our worldview, which directs how we act and react in our daily lives. The thing is, we don’t often question all these things which have formed our assumptions. It’s become who we are, and often supported by those around us. 


The people whose stories are recorded in the Bible were much like us in this respect: they were imbued with their culture. The book of Acts tells of Jesus’ disciples as they encounter the Holy Spirit and witness the spread of the good news of God’s love shown through Jesus. 


Today, we hear the closing scene of a story in which Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, was pushed beyond his comfort and expectations. Peter, like Jesus and all the other disciples, was a Jew. He saw himself as part of a small group of people who believed in the one true God, lived a Godly life, and followed God’s commands. People who were not part of this group were to be avoided, because they had a polluting influence on those who were called to be pure before God. 


One day, while Peter was praying, he had a vision in which God called him to eat meats that God had commanded should not be eaten. Peter is faithful to what the Bible says and to God’s commandments, so he declares that he will not eat. But, God is doing a new thing, and declaring what was once unclean, clean. God calls Peter to eat. This is Peter’s preparation for the work God is doing among the people of the world, work God wants Peter to be a part of. 



There is a non-Jewish man, named Cornelius, who has been seeking to know and serve God. God answers his prayers by sending Peter to him. Peter enters the home of this Gentile, a person he had always thought God would want him to avoid. Peter proclaims the good news about Jesus to Cornelius and all his family. 


Peter had probably never expected God to send him to an outsider, to teach about God’s work through Jesus. Even Jesus’ unexpected welcoming of outsiders hadn’t prepared him to do this work himself. But it’s what happens next that really surprises him. 


Suddenly, while Peter’s trying to teach, there is evidence that the Holy Spirit is already at work among these outsiders. Cornelius and his household begin speaking in tongues and praising God, common practices for those who were filled with God the Holy Spirit. 


Now, Peter hasn’t come to Cornelius’ home alone. He’s accompanied by those the text names as “circumcised believers.” That adjective underscores the division between them and the “Gentiles:” Cornelius and his household. Circumcision was a sign between God and God’s people, and a commandment of God that all men were to follow. It was a practice that repulsed the Gentiles. The question of whether every man who chose to follow Jesus would also have to follow God’s command to be circumcised caused great division and debate in the early church. 


In this scene from Acts, expectations are being shattered and worldviews shaken! God has shown Godself to be active among people who have not followed correct practice, have not followed God’s law, and do not belong to the right group. Not only Peter, but all the circumcised believers with him, are forced to realize that God might work in ways they have not been prepared to accept. Peter, perhaps better prepared than the others from his “eat this forbidden food” vision from God, quickly responds with rejoicing, gets on board with God in this act of welcoming outsiders, and calls for water to baptize these Gentiles who have already received the gift of the Holy Spirit. 


On this day when we at Trinity celebrate young ones receiving communion for the first time and Wyatt being confirmed, I hear a caution from Acts. We have tried to teach these young people some basic Christian teachings, so that they would know what is true, and how God works in our world. We have done this in good faith, wanting to prepare them to receive the sacraments rightly, and live Godly lives. Yet I fear that we can be too zealous to pass on the faith, too eager to form our children, and hold too tightly onto the power of determining correct practice, so that we do not prepare them and ourselves for the beautiful and overwhelming grace of God. God gifts life and love in places and ways and to people we would not expect, beyond the boundaries we have drawn. 




Peter, and the other circumcised believers, thought they understood how God acts in our world. They were surprised with the beautiful reality that God breaks out of the boxes we place around God. God works where we do not expect. God acts outside of our control. God’s love is always wider, forgiveness always more abundant, and life more powerful than we imagine. Peter and the other circumcised believers were pushed out of their comfort zone and met God working where they had been sure God would never be.


We have soaked up prejudices that need to be wiped away. Throughout our lives, we may find that much of what we think we know needs to be edited and adjusted to match the reality in which we live. God may need to break open our expectations, and confront us with our cultural assumptions. God is often at work in ways we cannot see because we cannot accept that God might be giving life, love, and forgiveness to those outside our communities. 


<<  Graduates, you are about to enter a new phase in your life. You are about to leave the education system you have known. Some of you will be leaving the community you have known. What comes next will be different. You may meet people, learn things, and have experiences that uncover the assumptions you have about the world. It can be scary to leave what you have always known. It can be scary to think that what you’ve always thought was true about the world might not be. God walks with you through this new adventure. In all your sifting and sorting of experiences and education, God is with you, to give you strength to test assumptions.>>


Of all that we tell ourselves about our identity and our place in the world, there is one thing that will always be true. God loves you. You have worth in God’s eyes. It’s not easy to see proof of this beautiful truth. In fact, the world around us, and even the communities closest to us, can often bear messages of our lack of worth, our brokenness, our imperfection. That is why we need Christian community, and why we need to be in church, where we receive the sacraments. 


This community is called to be a place where the promise of God’s loving and life-giving presence is declared so often that it becomes our central mark. The one message about ourselves and our world that will always be true is God’s love. This love has been freely given, proved by Jesus, in his willingness to suffer, in his death and resurrection. This one truth, and our intention to be formed by it, is the reason we gather around the sacraments of baptism and communion. There we hear, taste, smell, and feel God’s promises. There we receive life, love, and forgiveness from the very hand of God. This community is shaped by these central gifts of God. 


My prayer for my daughter, and for each of you, is that you continue to grow into your identity as a beloved child of God. Through baptism, you are set free from the world’s judgements and welcomed into God’s community on the merit of Jesus’ righteousness. You are loved by a God who loves with reckless abandon, loving beyond expectation and past all boundaries. 

From Mountaintop to Kitchen Table: Experiences of Faith- Sermon on Mark 9:2-9
February 18, 2012, 9:40 pm
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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ. 

We’ve gathered once again in this place. Maybe it’s something you do every week, maybe not so often. But, you’re here today. What is it that has brought you here this morning? What is it you are hoping to experience? Who do you hope to meet? 


Can you put your finger on an answer to those questions? I think we might be surprised by the variety of answers we’d hear if we each shared. 


If we were a techsavvy church, I might ask you to poll or tweet about your answers, but instead I’m just going to say what I hope we’d learn: that we have come this morning with different individual hopes and needs, searching for God to be active in addressing us. If we were to ask these questions every week, I would hope that we might learn that each Sunday, there are new things we long for from God. One week it might be forgiveness, another a sense of purpose, another insight into a question we’ve been wrestling with, another the joy of community. Some days we might find what we are looking for, and others we might come away from this hour more confused or hurt or lonely, when something has gotten in the way of the experience we expected. Many long for a connection with some great power, some benevolent being who watches over us, who has a purpose for us. Maybe that is some of why you are here today.


Perhaps there are too often times that we have expectations of our worship or experience with God, expectations that are not met and so end up breaking down our faith and our connection with a faith community. One such expectation might be to have a powerful emotional encounter with God. We might call this extraordinary feeling a mountaintop experience. It seems that there are many in our culture today who are looking for some sort of mountaintop experience. 


People don’t always find a mountaintop experience, and if they do, it doesn’t always last. Some people cease to be a part of a worshipping community because worship doesn’t seem to be doing anything for them. It’s not filling their spiritual needs, or the emotional experience they identify as their spiritual need. Especially here in the Lutheran Church, using a rich and historic liturgy, some people dismiss worship as dry repetition of meaningless words and long for something flashier. They long for something more like the extraordinary mountaintop than the common kitchen. 


Three of Jesus’ disciples experienced the mountaintop. We hear Mark’s account this morning. We call their mountaintop experience “The Transfiguration” because at the center of their experience is a vision of Jesus, as he has never been shown to them before. They may have longed for this extraordinary experience, but they find it so outside their expectations that they fumble in confusion. Our narrator helps us to understand this event and its meaning for disciples then and now by placing it within the context of Jesus’ teaching and actions. The mountaintop makes no sense on its own. 




Our lectionary this morning begins with the narrator setting the scene, “six days later.” It ends with Jesus’ order to keep silent about this event until “the Son of Man rose from the dead.” What is recorded between those two phrases is an event that is meant to be understood within the context of what has come before and what is yet to come. 


This event is the Transfiguration, an image change, a revelation of Jesus. It takes place in a liminal space, up on the mountain top, where the distance between the divine and human realms is most easily traversed. Jesus travels with his closest disciples: Peter, and James, and John. When they arrive at the pinnacle, the disciples see that Jesus is changed. His clothes are sparkling white, and his very presence is different. The disciples see him as more than the simply clad fellow traveller, more than their honored teacher. He appears shining as one who has stood before the face of God. 


Then, they are joined with the greatest Hebrew prophets: Moses and Elijah. It was believed that these two would be present at God’s beginning of a new kingdom. Peter speaks, trying to make sense of the situation, and Moses and Elijah are gone. The disciples hear a voice, the voice of God, declaring of Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” (7) After that, the clouds clear and the vision fades. Jesus looks as he always has. Together, teacher and disciples descend the mountain. 


This is a curious event. It reveals something about who Jesus is, but the text forces us to remember that this event cannot be the only, or even the most important word on Jesus’ identity, it must be read within the wider story. 


We must look back, six days earlier. Then, it is Jesus who asks his disciples who people say he is, and to name who they say he is. Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah is the correct, but silenced answer. Jesus teaches about this Son of Man, who will undergo suffering, rejection, and death, before he is raised from the dead. Then, in front of the crowd, Jesus declares that those who seek to follow him will have a similar fate, in bearing a cross themselves. 


The story that is yet to come includes Jesus suffering, being rejected, and dying. It includes his miraculous rising from the dead. Jesus commanded James and Peter and John to remain silent about this mountaintop experience until after all this had occurred. 


This mountaintop transfiguration is not the whole story of Jesus. He is not only the Messiah, the Son of God, whose power and divinity are such that they are the source of Israel’s restoration and healing. Jesus is also the one who will bear the cross. Jesus on the cross is the source of the restoration and healing of all creation. 






The revelation at the transfiguration is only one picture, one side, of God’s revelation in Jesus. The glory that became apparent on the mountaintop gave way to the glory hidden in the cross. Both narrator and Jesus underscore the importance of this point. The intense revelation of the transfiguration and the powerful image of messiah find depth, grounding, and meaning in the Jesus who dies on the cross, a vision of the absence of all power and divinity. God is revealed in the Jesus who shines with glory, and the Jesus who is marred with shame. 


We are about to enter the Lenten season. We will remember but put aside this vision of the Transfiguration, the revelation of Jesus’ glory, as we remember but put aside our triumphant alleluias. As we follow Jesus’ journey to the cross, we remember that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God. This revealed identity is held in tension with Jesus’ path of suffering. Jesus is the one to whom glory belongs, but he is also the one who gives up that glory for you. Jesus spends his ministry among the sick and sinner, welcoming the outcast. Jesus gives his life to bring to God all who have been pushed away. Jesus’ faithfulness, in giving up the rights of his divine sonship, is what has won you the right to be welcomed as a son or daughter of God, forgiven, loved, and given life. 


In both our church year and our faith lives, we celebrate mountaintop experiences. They can give strength and inspirtation. But they are not the only valid experiences of God. We neither live on the mountaintop, nor do we find all meaning there. The moments of powerful extraordinary revelation are only one part of God’s work among us to make Godself known.


In our worship, in the sacrament of Holy Communion, mountaintop and kitchen, extraordinary and ordinary coexist. In simple bread and common wine, Jesus Christ, God incarnate, is present for us. These most basic of kitchen products hold the most holy, most essential gift for our salvation. Today, Jesus is revealed in bread and wine, broken and shared among us all. Instead of requiring us to travel to the mountain to meet him, Jesus comes to us in the most daily of acts: sharing a simple meal. In bread and wine, there is his life, given for us, given for you. 


In our lives, we may have mountaintop experiences of God, when we feel certain in our faith, when we feel God has especially spoken to us, when worship feels powerful. We may have cross experiences, when it feels like God has abandoned us and handed us over to those who would destroy us. We may also have very ordinary days, in which it doesn’t seem we experience anything much at all. 


Whether we recognize it or not, in our daily lives, our weekly worship, our worn routine and rote, God is there, and at work. Jesus comes to you, wherever you are, to gift you with life. God is active, in coming to you, seeking to address you as you are, in your own needs, your own hopes, your own experiences. God doesn’t always come to us as we have expected, but God comes as God has promised: in bread and wine, in scripture, in prayer; with welcome and forgiveness and life for all.