Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Bread: Food of Resurrection

Sermon 8-16-15

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

Goodness, Jesus. Enough with the bread already. We get it, ok? Jesus…. Bread. Jesus, bread. Jesus-bread. Bread seems like it should be pretty easy to understand… right?

But have you ever actually made bread? Do you understand the art and the science that goes into this food that has been part of our diets for thousands of years? Have you ever thought about where bread comes from?

After church today I can hop in my car and drive down to Shop Rite, and there I can buy any kind of bread imaginable – super white bread, whole-wheat bread, honey wheat bread, 9 grain bread, pita bread, rye bread, sourdough bread, Italian bread, French bread, poppy seed bread, you name it, they probably have it. I can walk in, make my selection, go home, and enjoy it. In no other time in the history of the world has this been possible, and there are still many places around the world and in our own country that this is not the case.

If you or your child recently took first communion classes at this church, you might remember a little of how that bread was made. There was some flour sifting, some mixing, some milk and honey and yeast being added, some shaping. You saw the ingredients come together. You felt the flour on your hands as you kneaded the dough. You smelled the honey. You heard laughter as we all tried to keep the mess to a minimum. You may even have snuck a taste when the rest of us weren’t looking. And then in the oven it goes, and out pops some of the most delicious bread ever.

But I for one don’t know how bread “works.” I’ve never thought about how it is that power from a crushed plant, plus water, plus a fungus could be so delicious. Bread is amazing, if you really think about it. It is actually alive, then dies, then lives, then dies again, so that WE can live. (This TED talk is where I learned all the following about bread)

The plant we call wheat grows tall and strong, creating seeds, which over the course of thousands of years, has learned to graciously release them to us. Seeds, if you remember from your sixth grade science course, are potential life. Some of these seeds we do indeed save and plant in the next growing season. But some goes into making our bread.

The wheat was alive, and the seed is potential life, but then… we crush it. Obliterate it. Take away any possibility for sprouting and growing. A seed is not dead, but flour is.

BUT THEN we combine the flour with water and yeast… and it becomes alive again. As the yeast grows, it actually burps and sweats, making the bread rise up and taste good. Kinda gross, but oh so delicious. This bread becomes a living thing.

And then, we put in in the oven. The heat makes the dough solid, and the crust crispy, and the ingredients bond, but it also kills the yeast. So what comes out of the oven is no longer alive in any way. No seeds, no yeast. Just… bread.

But then… we eat it. We gather around a table, we laugh, we cry, and we eat bread. I mean, what Italian meal would be complete without it?

So the bread comes alive once again, in us. It was alive, then dead, then alive, then dead, then once again alive. Bread truly is a food of resurrection.

The men and women who were listening to Jesus that day could not have told you about all the reasons that bread is bread. They just knew. They knew it, deep down in their bodies. The women knew with their sweat and their aching arms and a day’s work what it means to go from crushed seed to steaming bread to feed their families. The men knew with their sweat and their aching arms what it means to eat what their women have transformed - from the seed they harvest to the bread they eat. They knew in their bodies that bread is more than just bread, and eating is more than just eating.

A woman named Sara Miles knew this too. She might be the last person that we would expect to see in church: a staunch atheist and skeptic, world traveling war correspondent, lesbian, and single mom. But one day she walked into St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco, California, and received Holy Communion for the very first time.

And it changed her life. She describes that moment when she at the bread and drank the wine, as Jesus happened to her. From that moment on, Jesus had lodged into her, like a crumb, refusing to be shaken off. She went home that day shocked and confused at what happened. But she did know one thing, knew it deep in her body: she wanted that bread again. And again. And again.

If you recall, all those weeks ago when we first started the “bread of life” part of the summer, the first part of the story Jesus feeds people. He takes five loaves and two fish and feed over five thousand people. That’s about the entire population of Hightstown. Jesus fed all these people ACTUAL BREAD before he started he even began saying “I am the bread of Life.”

We are what we eat. When we eat bread, we eat death and resurrection and our bodies continue to life. And when we eat Jesus, we are eating Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we continue to live in Jesus.

This kept Sara Miles coming back, week after week, to receive the body and blood of Jesus. She later joined St. Gregory’s, got baptized, and became an active member on the congregation, eventually helping to serve communion herself. Then she started a hugely successful food pantry, which grew to hundreds of people, which became very controversial within the congregation. But along the way, she realized something.

As she was in yet another meeting about “church growth” along with one of her priests. As they talked afterward, she said to him, “The point of church isn’t to get people to come to church… [it’s] to feed them, so they can go out and, you know, be Jesus.” (p. 267)

We are what we eat. When we eat bread, we grow healthy and strong, ready for the day. When we eat Jesus, we are also strengthened for the journey of following Jesus and actually becoming more like him. And so sometimes we are able to be Jesus for one another.

I experienced Jesus just recently, during the ELCA Youth gathering. Actually I saw him show up quite a bit, but this particular time was when the entire New Jersey Synod gathered in one big room. Our time together closed with worship, and a couple of youth from one of the Mercer county churches we went with helped to serve communion. As this particular young man placed the bread in my hand, he said “the blood of Christ shed for you.” And these words were more beautiful and meaningful to me than if he had gotten the words “correct.” They were beautiful and true because they were spoken in the name of the one who gives all of us life through his body and blood.

This life we receive keeps us coming back for more, week after week. The rest of the week can often try to defeat us and deplete us. This is not an easy road, to follow in Jesus’ footsteps when the rest of the world around us would rather follow something or someone else.

In the end, it’s not about how well we think we understand what Jesus is saying – that’s where Jesus’ critics got into trouble and missed the whole point. It takes a lifetime to wrestle with and literally CHEW ON all that Jesus is and teaches. It’s not really about the “right” words or the “right” thoughts or the “right” people. In the end, it all comes down to the promise that Jesus is the living bread and that by eating it we will be forever with him. That God is with us in a way that we can see and touch and smell and taste in Jesus. And through us, other people are able to see and hear and touch Jesus. AMEN.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

"There is nothing here"... Except everything.

Sermon from 8-9-15

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Cross Roads

I love camp. I love everything about camp: The singing, the campfires, being out in nature, making new friends, having new experiences. At the Lutheran camp in Wisconsin that I worked at, and at Cross Roads Camp up in Califon, there are also the worship songs, the skits about Jesus, and reading God’s word out in nature. I actually went up to Cross Roads on Thursday to see camp in all its camp glory, and it was AWESOME. Kids of all different ages, sizes, colors, and athletic ability were playing games and running around having fun, singing songs, and basically being the Kingdom of God right here on earth.
Pine Lake Camp Staff '06

But camp life isn’t always fun and games. Being on the camp staff was fun, but it also came with responsibilities. One of these less than fun aspects was instilling in campers the importance of the “Buddy Board.” In addition to lifeguards, the Buddy Board is how Pine Lake Camp in Wisconsin kept swimming campers safe. Every camper got a number, and when they swam in Pine Lake, their number and their buddy’s number were put together on the board. They didn’t have to be attached at the hip for the entire swimming time, but when the lifeguard called for a “Buddy Check,” you found your buddy and waited patiently until everyone was accounted for.

During staff training, we would do drills for in the event of a buddy having gone missing. And we all hoped and prayed that we would never hear the “lost camper” alarm sound across camp. I can still feel the rush of dread during those times – fortunately they were FEW - that it was not a drill. And also fortunately, during those summers, it was always a camper who had wandered away from the beach and NEGLECTED to “check out” of the Buddy Board.

There were always those weeks where the “lost camper” alarm went off more than once, or when campers were otherwise challenging, or when counselors were causing drama, or when lice broke out, or when your campout got rained out, or the whole camp lost power in a thunderstorm. There are always those weeks you want to throw up your hands and give up. Very much like in life - Real life sets in, life reminds you how difficult it is, and “these weeks” become months or even years. It makes us want to throw in the towel, and pack it in, run away and crawl into a hole to make it stop.

Like Elijah. Here was a prophet who couldn’t catch a break. He is doing amazing work in Israel in the name of the Lord – miraculously providing food for the widow at Zarephath then reviving her son, then confronting the priests of a false god in a dramatic showdown, and even ending a long drought. But through everything, the people in power constantly chased him and wanted to kill him. And.  He. Just. Can’t take it anymore. He was dried up, burned out, emotionally drained, sick with dread, burdened with the fear he carried. So he pretty much crawls into a hole and tells God he wants to die. He even falls asleep out of his sheer exhaustion.

We’ve all been there too, right? We’ve come to the end of our rope, dried up, burned out, emotionally drained, sick with dread, terribly burdened with the fear we are carrying. When was the last time you wanted to get away from it all, to tell God and everyone else to leave you alone because You. Were. Just. Done. Was it … six months ago? Last week? Yesterday? Five minutes ago?

Elijah, like us, was a guy who just couldn’t catch a break. Because instead of granting his request, God sent a messenger with food to sustain him and words to encourage him. There, under the tree of Elijah’s despair, is water and warm cakes freshly baked on hot stones. Hmmm that sounds so good right now, doesn’t it? And here we also have the first ever mention of something like an energy bar, because these cakes sustained Elijah for 40 days and 40 nights, so that he could hear the next message that God had in store for him.
By artist He Qi

Elijah was a recipient of God’s buddy system. Just when it looked like Elijah was on his own, left high and dry by the Almighty; just when it looked like it was time to sound the “Lost God” alarm, God came through. And I’m guessing that every single one of you have your own “under the broom tree” experience too: Where everything looked bleak and dark, but somehow, someone came through for you, or help showed up for you in an expected way. A word of encouragement to get you through. Food that comes out of nowhere just when you needed it.

God tells and shows us, over and over again, that you will never be left on the Buddy Board without a buddy.

This is what Jesus is trying to get across to his listeners as we overhear his conversation in our latest installment of the “Summer of Bread” Sundays. God does not stop at sending messengers with delicious hot cakes. For us, God pulls out all the stops. God stops at nothing to make sure that no one is abandoned, that no one is left behind, that no one who seeks God is cast away and left hungry. God goes the distance, by sending down God’s own son, so that each one of us can be Jesus’ “plus one” at heavenly feast.

As Psalm 34 says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Hmm those words might sound a little familiar. Every Sunday, all across the country and the world, pastors stand before their communities of faith and welcome all to the Lord’s table in the name of Christ to share a taste of the feast to come. And many of them, including myself, choose to say these very words from this very psalm. It is not just the bit of bread and the sip of wine that you taste when you come forward for communion every Sunday. It is the very goodness of God you are receiving, over and over again, keeping us going while we are still under the broom tree with Elijah.

But like with Elijah, being the recipient of this great gift of sustaining life from God comes with a charge. Elijah’s journey continued, as does ours. We eat, and then we rise.
The theme for our week in Detroit with thirty thousand other Lutheran youth was “Rise Up.” The “theme song,” written by none other than the Lutheran hip hop artist Dave Sherer A.K.A. AGAPE – I bet you didn’t know we had a Lutheran Hip Hop artist, did you? – the lyrics go, “We will rise up like the sun, led by the Risen One.” We will certainly rise because Jesus is risen. But this also means that we are to imitate Christ in other ways as well. As the letter to the Ephesians encourages this congregation and US, to imitate God, we are all reminded that “… we are all members of one another.”

We are all part of the buddy system. We’re all together on the Buddy Board. And sometimes we have fallen down on the job. We have lost a few along the way. There are people all around us that have collapsed underneath their own broom trees. There are some right here in our own county who have fallen behind or have been lost.

Right now our country is in the middle of some very difficult conversation about race and racism. Many, myself included, have to keep being reminded of our own tendency to believe the messages of the world that tell us that certain types of people SHOULD be left behind, abandoned, forgotten, or go hungry, because they inherently deserve it. I have to be reminded, rather, to imitate Christ, to “not make room for the devil” as Ephesians put it, and to remember that – the risen Christ has raised me up, fed me and sustained me, and I am called to do the same. I have to be reminded that when I raise someone up, WE. ALL. RISE. UP…. TOGETHER. Like we are one big loaf of bread.

BUT. There are definitely days I don’t do this. And that can put me right back under the broom tree, burned out, overwhelmed, despairing. But that is also right where God is, if you remember, insisting that we eat something for the journey ahead. So come, taste and see the grace eternal. Taste and see that God is good. Amen.