Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Friday, August 24, 2012

Bread Sermon II

Sermon 8-12-12
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

We are knee-deep in the “summer of bread,” when we find ourselves yet again in chapter 6 of the Gospel of John. You are not hearing things or experiencing déjà vu, and I am not reusing my sermons while Pastor Egan is gone. Every three years we are guided through five weeks exploring Jesus’ “I am the bread of life” speeches. As a brand-new pastor, this doesn’t seem so daunting, but ask me again in three years when I have to “bake something fresh.”

Did you know that the variety of food we experience at the grocery store is an anomaly as far as human history goes? What we think of as fancy and expensive artesian bread used to be it. You or your mom, sister, or wife would get up early in the morning and bake the bread for the day, probably from wheat that your family had harvested yourself or purchased directly the farmer, and then ground into flour with your own tools. “Whole grain” bread was more accident than luxury. The fancy bread that we see now, like on the front cover of your bulletin, used to be the cheap everyday stuff - what we might consider plain white Wonder bread today. When Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” our twenty-first century minds we should be picturing the basic white bread that our moms used to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for us when we were kids.  Nothing fancy. Nothing terribly special. Just the old familiar stand-by you could find in any store on the street, something you eat without really thinking about it.

But what if your ordinary peanut-butter and jelly sandwich suddenly showed up on the menu of that fine Italian restaurant down the street, listed between the calamari and the escargot?

Looking at Jesus, you would not see anything special: a thirty-something Jewish peasant bachelor with coarse carpenter hands and a kind face, along with twelve of his friends who were weather-worn and a little rough looking. When Jesus is talking the crowd here, the same crowd from last week, he is near the town of Capernaum, close to where he grew up. People in the crowd knew Jesus’ background and upbringing - they knew his parents and what they did for a living, back when sons normally took over the family business. “What a social-climbing upstart,” critics must have thought of this preacher man who should have stuck to carpentry. Just who does he think he is?

By now in John’s Gospel, Jesus had performed a number of signs, not least among them was turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana and the feeding five thousand people from three weeks ago. And some people still did not want to listen to what Jesus had to say. Many still refused to believe that Jesus was the one sent by God. I don’t know about you, but after all that, I would be pretty frustrated at their lack of faith.

This is a common theme, found in nearly every superhero movie in the last few years: the hero is chosen for some great task, does some good at the outset, but experiences some setbacks. Superman experienced Kryptonite. Thor was banished to Earth. Batman took the blame for someone else’s crime. But you know this happens to us “regular folks” too. We begin a new job or tackle a new project – we are excited and full of energy. But then we experience setback after setback, and pretty soon, our resolve weakens and our energy dwindles. We get discouraged and want to give up. Like Elijah, we want to sit under the nearest broom tree and declare: “I can’t do it any better than the next person. I give up.”

In Elijah’s case, he was discouraged enough to want to die. Elijah was a great prophet in the Old Testament, God’s only follower left in once-God-fearing land, which had fallen under the influence of an idol-worshipping queen. Even though Elijah had just scored a huge victory in a showdown against queen’s pagan prophets, he still had to flee for his life or face her wrath. See, sometimes the stories in the Bible are as good as or better than movies.
But even the great Elijah wanted to give up. He had done his very best and it still wasn’t enough. God’s great prophet did his own version of wanting to “crawl into a hole and die”: he took a nap under a tree in the middle of the desert.

But then came a tap, tap, tap on his shoulder. “Wake up, Elijah,” said a heavenly messenger, “I made you some lunch.” And later: “Wake up, Elijah. Eat this, or you won’t make it to your next destination.”

God can use the ordinary to do great things. God can use ordinary bread and water to revive the flagging spirits of a depressed prophet and give him enough strength for a forty-day journey. God can make bread rain from the blue sky we all know and use one loaf to feed too many people. And God decided to reveal himself to us twenty centuries ago in a second-class citizen from the sticks– in a man who gave himself away so that all people could have life, and have it abundantly.

But bread by itself can’t do it all. Those people who ate the manna in the wilderness, they eventually died. Those five thousand people whom Jesus fed, they all died too. Ordinary bread can only fill us up for a time, and then we will be hungry again, just the same now as it was back then. And eventually our bodies will betray us in one way or another too. This is the ordinary, regular, normal way of things, and there seems to be no escaping it.

But you see, we don’t have to live in the realm of the ordinary any longer. Because YOU yourself are not ordinary. Jesus’ body was broken FOR YOU and Jesus’ blood was poured out FOR YOU and Jesus rose from the grave FOR YOU – so that you could live as God’s beloved children. And what is the first thing a child often wants to be when they grow up? Just like their parents.

Paul writes to his congregation in Ephesus – imitate God by imitating Jesus. Be a copy-cat. Be a mirror so that people can see Jesus in your reflection as you copy him by giving yourself away.

 There is a new summer program happening right now with the Lutheran churches in the city of Trenton. Ten young adults ranging in age from 18 to 25 have agreed to take on a tough job – to minister to and serve that community. Some weeks they helped with VBS, other times they painted or cleaned. But these young people are tackling the fear of Trenton head-on and finding that Jesus is popping up all over the place. When they came here to St. Paul last week to take a tour and see what we do to help our community, they had the opportunity to be served. During the hot morning they had been moving bricks at another church, and probably were looking forward to being inside for the afternoon. I took them down to see RISE in Hightstown, to their ordinary-looking second story office where they run their many programs for the area.

Leslie the director rolled out the red carpet for us. As we sat on chairs and on the floor in her air-conditioned office, she gave us cold water, Girl Scout cookies, and those fancy little Ferrero Rocher chocolates. She offered us the very best they had, and it gave us the energy to walk over to see one of their programs, the Greater Goods Thrift Store down the street. As these kids were giving themselves away for the summer, possibly turning down more lucrative summer jobs, they are able to see how others give themselves away for the community of Hightstown. And this is just one example of “imitators of Jesus” in our midst, who are doing ordinary things and creating extraordinary results.

Even on the verge of being betrayed and murdered, Jesus shared a meal with his friends. He forever made holy a plain meal of bread and wine, a meal that we that we share with one another every single Sunday. It is a time and place to come to be revived, in order to continue our journey of life renewed and refreshed. Every week that we eat and drink, we get a taste of the very goodness of God. God uses bread and wine and you. So come to the table, or your journey will be too much for you. Come to the table to be made new. AMEN.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Sermon from August 5

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Some people just never change. It may have been months, or even years since you’ve last seen the person, and sure, they may have put on a little weight or they have a few more grey hairs than you remember, but for the most part they look exactly the same as the last time you saw them. For me, it was just fascinating to see at my friends’ wedding two weeks ago – who had changed and who hadn’t, to see who had gotten married and started a family, and who hadn’t yet.

Some people just never change. And this seems equally true of groups of people as it is for individuals. Our texts for today seem to be telling us that the people of God are stuck in a rut that has spanned across centuries. In our reading from Exodus, the Israelites have finally gotten their freedom from oppression in Egypt, being led dramatically out of captivity by the parting of the Red Sea and a rousing defeat of their enemies. In response, God’s people are always feeling grateful and happy, right? Wrong! These people, whom God had rescued, came to Moses and Aaron, complaining: “Oh woe is us! It would have been better if we would have died in Egypt! In fact, if we were still in Egypt, at least our bellies would be full and we could eat whatever we wanted!” I guess they conveniently forget about the whole “being the slaves of the Pharaoh” part. And the cause of their short-term memory lost? They are in the middle of a desert, hungry with no food. I supposed they DO have a good reason for their complaint. But they forgot one thing. They forgot that God will provide.  

Some people just never change. For, thousands of years later after Moses and the Exodus, God’s people are at is again! Last week we heard how Jesus had fed thousands of people with five loaves of bread and two fish, which had been generously donated from a little boy’s lunch. The people are so thrilled by this “bread vending machine,” if you will, that they mob him and try to make him their king. And why not? Isn’t having a leader with the ability to feed his people at will a GOOD thing? Who would not want that kind of person as their leader?

But as you may recall, Jesus didn’t agree with their plans and escaped for the moment, did a little water-walking, and got out of Dodge. So this week we heard what happened when the crowd caught up with Jesus. And we heard how they badgered Jesus with a game of twenty questions that ended with a ridiculous-sounding request. This may actually sound familiar, if you have ever tried to have an argument with a young child. “I’m hungry, Mommy. I want candy.” “Look Mommy – here’s some candy for me right here. Can’t I have some?” “But why do we have to pay for it? I want it right NOW!!!” “No I don’t want Mac’n’Cheese for supper. I want candy every day!” Sound kind of familiar?

My younger sister often babysits for an adorable little girl named Sophie. For a while, her routine was to point at everything and ask “was ‘at?” The first five or dozen times, it’s cute. After about forty, you want to get the kid a dictionary or something. It’s kind of funny that this is also the question that the Israelites in the wilderness asked about the bread that came to them from heaven: “What’s that?” Moses had to spell it out for them: “Its bread that God gave us. You get to eat it.”

But Sophie, like God’s people of old, seems to have grown out of this phase. Now, she asks, “Why?” God’s people seem to have gotten past the complaining phase in the desert, but this next phase with Jesus doesn’t seem like much of an improvement. Instead, they pester Jesus with trivial questions they should already know the answer to. “Jesus, how did you get here so fast?” “Jesus, what do we need to be doing the work of God?” and my personal favorite: “Jesus, what great thing are you going to do to prove to us that you are the real deal?”

I really want to say to them: are you kidding me? Didn’t you just see Jesus feed five thousand people? Didn’t you and your friends and your friend’s cousins with their friends all eat and were full to bursting from FIVE loaves of bread and TWO fish?  I just don’t get it. If that is not sign enough that Jesus has been sent from God to do God’s work here among us, then I don’t know what is.

And when Jesus sets the record straight, that it wasn’t the power of mighty Moses who rained bread from heaven for their ancestors in the wilderness, it was God the Almighty one, the crowd misses the point entirely.

“Wow, Jesus. Your kind of bread sounds great. Now where can I sign up for my never-ending supply?” They just didn’t get it, even then. They didn’t get that they already had this Bread of Life, right in front of them. So this time Jesus spells it out in even plainer language. He says, “I AM the bread that comes from God. Come to me, and have the kind of life that fills you no matter what.”

For us now, it’s so easy to look at this crowd and scoff at how thick they seem. But we have no cause to feel superior, just because we have the advantage of hindsight. We are not all that much different from them. We too work for the food that doesn’t last, for success or admiration or material things, instead of the food that endures for eternal life. We miss where God is at work in our lives and instead are blown about, bouncing to and fro from one new fad to the next. Again and again we fall for the same old tricks and temptations.
Sometimes people never seem to change. But God never changes either. And that’s a good thing.

Before the exodus from Egypt, God heard the cries of his people under the heavy yolk of slavery. God rescued them from the land of their oppressors and promised them a land of their own. And when the people complained bitterly of their hunger and showed their lack of trust, God still gave them a daily supply of bread rained down from heaven. And thousands of years later, even though the crowds ran after Jesus to keep their own stomachs full, Jesus gave them their fill of bread, answered all of their questions, and revealed his identity as the true Bread of Life that comes from God. Though the people later rejected Jesus and had him executed like a criminal, Jesus gave all of himself.

And two thousand years after that, in a world where everything changes in the blink of an eye, Jesus is still popping up to support us and come to our aid. These encounters may not be as flashy as bread coming down from the sky or the sudden multiplication of Happy Meals, but they do happen. In our own weekly celebration at the communion table, Jesus comes to us in ordinary things such as bread and wine.

God’s love for us has always been and will always be the same: limitless and unwavering. We know this because he sent his own son into the world to change everything. The priorities of the world have been turned upside down: the hungry are filled and the weak are lifted up. Sin no longer divides us and death can no longer make us afraid. God gives us our fill of bread and that bread is a man from Galilee who died on a cross. A tomb becomes empty. Despair becomes hope. Death becomes life. And all of the broken pieces of our lives become one beautiful whole again. Amen. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Awake awake, for summer is flying...

August 9th? Who gave summer permission to nearly be mid-August already. Sure, this summer had its slow bits, but for the most part I've been bouncing from on thing to the next: VBS, our 5th anniversary, LiT, Julie and Brett's Wedding, seeing family in WI, vacation, swimming in the ocean, and now going solo while my colleague is on vacation and also picking up a vice pastor gig. And next week Beau's mom is coming to visit  for a week and Beau's sister and family are coming up from VA for a day.... and before we know it, September and Rally Day will be here!!!

It's good to be busy, thought, because if we weren't I think we'd go crazy right about now. For the last 8 or so years of our lives, we've had to move or think about moving right around this time of year: whether it was wrapping up camp and moving back to college for three years, moving to seminary, moving to internship, moving back to seminary, and moving out here. All pretty much done around mid to late August. Right about now I am used to seeing a box mountain grow in our living room, much to our cats' delight. Well, kitties, no such luck this year. We're staying put.

It's not really surprising then that Beau has gotten the "re-arranging bug." Just this week we completely rearranged the "cat closet," and when I got home form council last night, I found that our study was in the throws of transformation. Our living and bed rooms have already gone through three or four permutations, so they are (fairly) safe. But I too have been in a rearranging mood, and have finally cleaned of the last of the Squirrel Onslaught of '12. We were gone for two days - TWO DAYS! - to come back to utter decimation. My ittly bitty growing green peppers - gone. My nearly ripe cherry tomatoes - gone. My second tomato plant - destroyed. And the African violet (not the original one Beau got me in college, the cats got that one) which we had brought from MN - utterly obliterated, gone without a trace. Well, not quite, as while I was cleaning up the dirt I found one small green leafling which I am trying to get to root. We'll just have to see if I too to raise the dead. :)  Here are some pictures of what I have left.

Well, one of the good things about summer almost being over is that the end of this ridiculous weather is in sight. Never in my life would I ever have imagined that I would ever find 88 degrees to be a "nice day." I think that is is why my peas died and my green beans are limping along. It's just too hot for some of them, at least on our balcony. Next year I might concentrate on tomatoes and cherry tomatoes and green peppers, since they seem to be doing the best overall. And we learned our lesson - no birdfeeder during the summer. That's what attracted the little buggers in the first place. Sorry kitties, you'll have to figure out another way to entertain yourselves until fall. :)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Sermon from July 15th

So this sermon is going to look a little weird toward the end - I got out of the pulpit (I know, GASP!) and wrote the verbs on a big white board. 

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Have you ever had one of those great days where it seemed like EVERYTHING in your life was going great? I hope that you’ve had at least one of those in your life. You put on a pair of pants, reach into the pocket and pull out a ten dollar bill. Then you find your missing i-phone. You get into your car and you realize that your spouse must have filled up the tank yesterday. Your very favorite song comes on the radio. You pull into your place of work with a busy day ahead or into the parking lot at Shoprite with a big list of groceries, and look at that! The very best spot is open and waiting for you. And later on you remember – yes! Today is yoga day at St. Paul!! How could this day get any better?

I know you’ve all had the opposite kind of day, too. Probably more than you’ve had the first kind of day, unfortunately. So I don’t really need to describe it for you. I think that King Herod must have been having one of those days. Last week we heard about how Jesus’ disciples went out preaching and healing people, and word of this got to the authorities, the people “in charge,” the head honchos, including Herod. And the first thing that he thinks is “Uh, oh. This is bad news. That prophet I murdered, John the Baptist, is back. I’m in big trouble.”

For if the God that had John the Baptist’s back was powerful enough to raise him from the dead, then this type of God is a force to be reckoned with. All the “powers that be” who try to squelch God’s plans ARE in serious trouble. Be afraid, Herod. Be very afraid. But we all, as children of God, have nothing to fear. For, as Paul began his letter to the Christians in Ephesus, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” And Paul here is just getting started.

Just reading that one small passage makes me feel out of breath. All of these sentences are long, and when read all together, as you heard a moment ago, that sense of breathlessness is just compounded. It seems like he put his pen down beginning at verse three and didn’t pick it up again until the end of verse 14. The words just kept flowing, and Paul couldn’t put them on paper fast enough. Now get this: this chunk of Ephesians that we heard today is originally one… long… RUN-ON SENTENCE. No periods. No commas or semi-colons. No stopping or even pausing for a chance to catch your breath.

It’s like Paul here is on a sugar rush or a caffeine high. Only his frenzied writing doesn’t come from either. Paul’s rush, his buzz, his high, came from God and the grace that has been so lavishly bestowed upon us through his son Jesus.

Have you ever come home from a great trip or event and gushed about it to your friends for an hour straight, only to watch as their eyes glaze over? I’m sure you’ve also been on the receiving end, as your friend divulges every juicy detail of a concert you had to miss or if your child has ever excitedly described every detail of their day at kindergarten. After coming home from a youth service trip with my internship church, I heard that one of the youth talked to her parents about her trip for four hours straight in between getting home and collapsing exhausted into her bed. She was so excited about what she had experienced on that trip that she wanted her parents to know every detail. 

The desire to share the power of her trip was so strong, it overcame her exhaustion for a time and the words flowed from her in a steady gush as her parents listened in amazement at all that happened. She, in turn, had experienced firsthand the overflowing grace of God in the people she met, in the work she did, and in the songs and scripture she sang and read. God just kept pouring it on her all week, and she couldn’t help letting it pour out of her and onto those around her. I hope that our youth going to the ELCA youth gathering this week in New Orleans will have the same “problem.”

It’s like the great day that you had. It was so much easier on those days to generously tip the waitress, hold the door for the man in a wheelchair, or to be patient with the crying baby and frazzled parent in the store. When you are full, it is so much easier to fill others too. But the truth is, we already have that “full” feeling, that out-pouring of grace every day, even on the days when things DO go wrong. Because our peace-of-mind does not depend on what happens to us or how our day goes. We depend upon a God who gives us every spiritual blessing, a God who chose us to be his own children, showering us with love because of how much he loves us, providing for us an inheritance that the world cannot take away, giving us a special place in God’s grand plan for the universe, making good on his promises…. See how easy it is to get carried away with this?

But maybe you are having one of “those” days. And you’re thinking, “Really? All that applies to ME? You’ve got to be kidding. There’s no way. If God really knew me, really knew all the stuff I’ve done or the thoughts that I think, there is no way in a million years that God would so freely give me anything.” I know we’ve all thought that at one time or another in our lives. We’re gonna take a minute and go back to school together. We are going to talk about verbs. To refresh your memory, a verb is an action word, when one person or thing is doing something, usually to or with another person or thing. The person or thing that is doing the action is called the Subject. There are two entities who are the subject in our Ephesians passage – “God” and “us.” But we’ll get to that in a moment. For now, dig out a pen, pencil, or crayon, and take a moment to circle or just notice all the verbs that you see in this passage…. (write them as they are called out. Then circle God verbs in blue, our verbs in red) 

God’s verbs – blessed, chose, destined, bestowed, lavished, made known, to gather, accomplishes…

Our verbs – have, obtained, heard, believed, were marked…

God is the subject here most of the time. We are on the receiving end of nearly all the verbs.

As you can see from our board, it’s not about the things that we are doing or not doing. It’s all about that things that God is doing, to us and for us.

In the good days and even in the bad days, we can rejoice in this God who loves us so much to give us so much. You have been blessed, chosen, given a destiny, bestowed and lavished upon, loved, and given a divine inheritance. Isn’t that reason enough to celebrate every single day? Amen.