What do you say?

Here is my sermon from Sunday, September 16, 2018. It is the first of three weeks that we’re going to be hearing Jesus predict his death and resurrection. Every time he does so, the disciples (in this case Peter) don’t really understand what this means. This first time that Jesus predicts his death, it’s preceded by him asking the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”, a question we would do well to answer as well. So, who do you say that Jesus is?

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

A few years ago, I was at an event called “First Call Theological Education,” which those who were required to attend affectionately termed “Baby Pastor School,” for those in their first three years of ministry. Anyway, at this weeklong program, today’s Gospel text was assigned for one of our worship services.

I was sitting with two of my friends, and their three-year-old, Eve. Pastor Jenn Ollikainen, whom many of you know from women’s retreats, was preaching. She had memorized this passage from Mark, and was really enthusiastically telling the story. After she said Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”, she gave a big dramatic pause.

And in the silence of that moment, little Eve responded so convincingly, “I say Cookie Monster.” Poor Pastor Jenn never quite got the room back after that. I couldn’t tell you what she preached about, but I’ll never forget Eve’s four words.

Eve’s parents were embarrassed, although they didn’t need to be. She was clearly paying more attention than anyone gave her credit for. And, although we laughed, she had done something really special. She had heard the words of the Bible story directed towards her. She had heard Jesus’ question to the disciples, and answered it, assumed it was a question directed toward herself. We could all learn a thing or two from Eve.

So…who do you say that Jesus is? Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say a prophet. Much like Eve, the people around Jesus were using the influences from their culture to answer the question. We sometimes do it too. We sometimes form our expectations of Jesus, we sometimes answer that question “who is Jesus,” based on the culture around us.

What types of things, what types of people, does our culture idolize? Superheroes. Money. Fame. Success. And it’s all too easy to lay those characteristics on God. Who is God? A superhero. Powerful. Strong. Able to do anything. To fix anything. A savior.

Who do you say that Jesus is? Peter had the right answer, when he boldly proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ. He’s absolutely right in his answer, but absolutely wrong in his understanding of what that means.

Peter’s understanding of the Messiah was influenced by his own culture, too. At the point in history that this takes place, the Jewish people have been waiting and watching for a Messiah for a long time. Since the Babylonians came and destroyed the Temple and scattered the people. They’ve lived through Greek occupation. And now the Romans. The people were waiting for a Messiah, another King David, who could lead them to overthrow their oppressors. To help them be prosperous and powerful.

And so when Jesus tells his disciples what it means that he is the Messiah, this hoped-for one, that it means he must suffer at the hands of their oppressors. That he must die, and not just die but that he must be killed, be executed. That’s too much for Peter.

Jesus isn’t here to make him powerful or prosperous. Jesus isn’t here to fix his problems. In fact, it’s starting to sound very much like the opposite is true. And Peter’s not really onboard with that. He tells Jesus, “Hey, you really need to cool it on this suffering and dying stuff, ok? No one wants to hear that. Why don’t you tell the people what they want to hear?”

He’s right, though. It’s not what we want to hear. Wouldn’t we rather have a God who is here to fix our problems? When we get the diagnosis that we feared, or when a loved one relapses. When we see hurricanes and wildfires destroying whole towns. When we see immigrant children still separated from their parents. Don’t we, too, want a God who fixes everything? I sure do.

Wouldn’t we rather have a Jesus who doesn’t talk about suffering and dying? Wouldn’t we rather have a Jesus that doesn’t challenge us? Or call on us to pick up our own crosses and deny ourselves?

And what does it mean to take up our cross, anyway? This passage has often been misused to tell people to stay in bad situations. In abusive situations. That it was simply their cross to bear. That’s not what this means and we are not meant to condone suffering or abuse. Taking up our cross means that we’re going to follow in the way of Jesus, and that way has consequences. Taking up our cross means putting Jesus’ goals and priorities ahead of our own. It means being willing to lose our lives by spending them for others—using our time, resources, and energy so that others might experience God’s love made known in Jesus Christ.

Is that what we want. Or would we rather want a Jesus who blends in nicely with our current political and economic and social norms, instead of calling them into question? Would we rather want a Jesus who is gentle and meek and mild, instead of challenging and disruptive? Would we rather have a Jesus who promises us good things if we follow him, instead of the radical call to give up our very selves, and the promise that the first will be last?

Yes, if I’m being honest, I think we often would rather have the easier Jesus. The one who’s here to make us feel good about ourselves, to take away our problems, and to offer blessings beyond belief if we believe in him. I want the God that cures cancer, that stops hurricanes, that keeps children from dying of hunger. I want the God that promises me good things, not a cross. Not self-sacrifice. I think that’s the God we all want sometimes.

It’s the God that Peter wanted. It’s the God that the crowds expected Jesus to be. But it is not the God that we find in Jesus the Messiah. But while we may not get the God we want, in Jesus we discover the God that we need. The God who doesn’t overwhelm us with power, but who meets us in our brokenness. In our pain. In our questions and doubts.

The God who may not fix these problems, but the God who says, “you will never go through this without me. I am here with you and I will never leave you.” The God who is invested in us, whether we’re experiencing blessing right now or whether we’re in the midst of suffering. The God we get is the one who meets us in our brokenness and death, who experiences our pain and hurts, in order to heal, to restore, and to redeem us.

Who do you say that Jesus is? We can call Jesus so many things: friend, teacher, companion, shepherd, Messiah. Any of these are right. I say that Jesus is who we need, when our lives aren’t easy. Jesus is who we need to be with us in times of uncertainty and times of joy, moments of doubt and moments of peace. I say that Jesus might not answer all my questions or fears, but Jesus is who I want with me on the road. Who do you say that Jesus is?

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Wash your hands…

Below is my sermon from September 2, 2018, focusing on selected verses from Mark 7. We’re back in Mark finally after five weeks of reading from the Bread of Life discourse. There’s a lot going on this reading from Mark, some historical and societal issues playing out that help it make sense. I try in my sermon to cover some of this background, without it devolving into a lecture.

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

Friends of ours have a cute sign in their bathroom that says, “Wash your hands and say your prayers, because Jesus and germs are everywhere.” In our reading though, it seems that Jesus isn’t too interested in hand-washing, or indeed in cleanliness at all.

The Pharisees are upset because they have caught Jesus’ disciples eating without washing their hands. The author of Mark tells us that the Pharisees not only wash their hands before eating, they also wash their food and their plates and pots and cups. To us, this sounds like basic hygiene. Of course the Pharisees should be concerned that the disciples aren’t washing their hands. It’s gross. And so, when Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites, you have to wonder why he reacts so strongly.

So, let’s take a look at what Jesus is and isn’t saying here. First of all, he’s not saying don’t wash your hands. Especially for all the kids out there, Jesus isn’t saying that washing your hands is bad. He’s not even opposed to the tradition of the Pharisees and elders to wash before eating.

Though it is just that, a tradition. Nowhere in the law will you find it said that you must wash your hands before eating. You will find that priests are supposed to wash their hands before entering the temple or before offering a sacrifice. The Pharisees were a group that took the calling of Israel to be a priestly kingdom and holy nation very seriously. They interpreted the laws concerning priests in the temple to apply to all God’s people and all aspects of life. So, they believed that all Jews should wash their hands before meals as a way of making mealtime sacred, bringing every aspect of life under the canopy of God’s law.

This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing. The Pharisees were not bad people—they were the religious leaders of their community. And they wanted all people, not just the priests in Jerusalem, to worship God in their daily life. This is a very good thing.

But what Jesus takes issue with is just how these efforts to live faithfully are being used. Something that is meant to draw them closer to God is in fact being used to alienate others who do not do exactly what they do. Something that is meant as a sign of faithfulness is being used to create hierarchies and distinctions.

This is not a problem that is unique to the Pharisees. Sometimes these passages get read in a very anti-Jewish way, that the Pharisees were following this rules-centric religion and Jesus came to free us from all of that. That’s not what’s going on at all. Jesus has some criticisms for the Pharisees that’s true. But it’s not because of what their religion is, but because of how they’re using it. Which is a problem that happens in all religions, not just Judaism.

It’s what the author of James is railing against in his letter, which was sent to Christian churches in the first century. “Be doers of the word,” he writes, “and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” In other words, don’t pretend to be faithful on the outside, without actually taking that faith to heart.

When Jesus talks to the Pharisees, when he criticizes the Pharisees, he’s talking to us. To you and me. The Pharisees are the church-goers of the first century. The people who take their faith seriously and are trying to do the right thing. These confrontations with Jesus show just how easy it is for people trying to be faithful to fall into hypocrisy. To start idolizing their traditions instead of God. To start serving their own interests and social standing instead of serving their neighbors.

And it happens to us, too. I’ve been at churches before where if you didn’t wear “church clothes” you felt unwelcome. You felt judged as somehow not as worthy as all those who dressed more nicely than you. Churches draw lines of distinction between each other, too. If you don’t worship the way we do, you don’t belong in our church. If you don’t interpret the Bible the way we do, you’re not as forward thinking. If you wear full vestments you’re “too catholic,” but if you wear jeans and a polo to lead worship you’re too hipster. We use human traditions to create and further divisions between us.

And it’s not just churches. We have codes as a society—usually unwritten—that we use to categorize people. As kids are returning to school this week, especially if it’s a new school, the middle school or high school for the first time, they are going to be navigating so many unwritten codes. What clothes to wear, who to talk to, wear to sit. Whether it will help or hurt their social standing if they answer questions in class.

As adults, our ways of doing this become more subtle, but that doesn’t make them any less damaging. We build our reputations, our identities around these codes that only scratch the surface: a nice house, in the right neighborhood. A spotless house that doesn’t look like anyone lives there. The right car. Clothes that always look put together. Manicures that are never chipped. A degree from the right university.

Much like the Pharisees handwashing, these things aren’t bad in and of themselves. They become harmful when we use them to distinguish between who’s in and who’s out. Between who knows the right things to say and do and who doesn’t. That’s what Jesus has a problem with. When we draw unnecessary distinctions based on superficial things.

There was an Orkin commercial a few years ago for exterminating services that I remember. The Orkin man pulled up to a perfect house with a pristine lawn. He was greeted by the home’s owner and a squirt of hand sanitizer. Everything in this house was white and sparkling. “We don’t need an exterminator,” the woman said, “my house is perfectly clean and we don’t have bugs.” The Orkin man simply pulled back a piece of the wall and there, just beneath the surface of this beautiful house, this clean house, were thousands of bugs.

No matter what the outside looks like, it’s the inside that truly shows what’s there. As Jesus said, there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. Not eating the right foods, or having the right clothes, or living the right way isn’t going to separate you from God. The evil intentions that come from our hearts separate us from God. And then we use these differences we create to separate ourselves from one another.

No matter how polished the outside is, no matter how good we are at following the rules, it is what is within us that shows who we truly are. And sometimes for all of us, as Jesus points out, those are evil intentions. Things that hurt other people. Things that judge other people. Things that hurt and judge ourselves.

But it is also from within that good comes. It is from within that love, which God has instilled in each of our hearts, can spring forth to be shared. To be talked about. To be lived. It is from within that we find the “true religion” that James talked about: caring for one another. Loving God and our neighbors. Being humble. Always taking care of the most vulnerable among us. These are also things that come from within, that come from our hearts.

Inside each of us is a mixed bag. I think we know that to be true just from experience. When you peel back the layers, you do not find only good things, only good intentions. We often make mistakes that hurt ourselves and others. But neither do we find within us only evil and hurtful things. The Holy Spirit of God dwells within each of us, guiding and directing us, giving us the capacity for love and for care. As James writes: “Every generous act, every perfect gift, is from above.”

May we be vessels of God’s love, of God’s generosity, of God’s grace, worshipping God in word and in deed. May we let it be God’s vision that springs forth from our hearts, and may we always find God in the hearts of our neighbors. Amen.

 

Choose This Day

Well, we made it through the summer of bread! Five straight weeks in John 6. I must say this last week hardly qualifies, because it is mostly the reaction to Jesus’ teaching about bread, instead of more teaching. My sermon focuses on the disciples’ choosing to stay with Jesus when given a chance to leave and on Joshua’s command to “choose this day whom you will serve.”

Lutherans can get very skittish around “choice” language. We believe that God chooses us, not the other way around. It is only through the Holy Spirit that we are able to know and to love God. And yet, in our daily lives, we are faced with myriad choices. Do we make choices to serve God’s ways? Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. Let me know what you think.

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

“Choose this day whom you will serve,” demands Joshua, as the people are rededicating themselves to the covenant. “Choose which gods you will follow, but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”, the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God who led them out of Egypt. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” I think I have that verse on a wall hanging in my house somewhere.

Choice is all over in our readings this morning. Jesus, abandoned by all but his closest disciples, offers them a choice, too. Do you want to leave, do you want to go with not just the crowds but other disciples for whom this teaching has been too difficult? “Lord, to whom shall we go?” asks Peter. “You have the words of eternal life.” For Peter and the twelve, it’s not a question of choosing. They made their choice already, when they chose to follow Jesus.

From our position in history, it’s easy for us to look down on those who made the other choice, those who walk away. These aren’t the casual observers, these aren’t the crowds who don’t really know or understand who Jesus is. These are disciples the Gospel tells us. Maybe not as close as the twelve, but these are people who have been dedicated to following and learning from Jesus. And when the going gets tough, when it becomes clear that following Jesus will demand things of them, they leave.

It’s easy for us to choose God when the choice doesn’t require much of us. We romanticize these verses, particularly Joshua’s, in cute art: on bookmarks, on greeting cards, on prints for our walls. But Joshua lays out a stark choice for the people: You are going to be serving someone, is it going to be the God of heaven and earth, or is it going to be the gods, small g, of the culture all around you?

I am reminded of the story of a pastor and his entire congregation who was forced to make that choice. Andre Trocme served in the small village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in south central France. He was a Protestant pastor sent to this remote village in 1938 because his pacifist stance made him an outsider in his own church.

When France fell to the Nazis, Trocme and his church turned their town into what he called “a city of refuge.” They took in Jews, at first French Jews fleeing deportation, and then others who were escaping from Nazi territory. They hid them in plain sight in their homes, in their church, and in their town, until they could be safely smuggled to Switzerland. By the end of the war, Trocme himself had been investigated and arrested, and the town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon had sheltered and assisted more than 5,000 Jews, guiding them towards safety.

“Put on the whole armor of God,” the apostle writes in Ephesians, “so that you will be able to withstand” the evil forces at work in the world. Our choices are often not as fraught with life and death as Andre Trocme’s were. In some ways that makes them more difficult, not less. When the forces of evil are not easily identifiable, when we are not faced with such a clear moral imperative, the choices are muddier.

But the choices are still there. Are we not also tempted to abandon the God of Israel and to serve the gods of our culture? To abandon the callings and convictions of our faith and instead take the path of least resistance? The gods not of the Amorites or of the people of Egypt, but those gods we make out of wealth and success. Those altars of nationalism and militarism that we make sacrifices on. The gods of individualism and consumerism. These are the gods that test our choices.

They regularly test mine. Choose this day whom you will serve: the things you see being glorified and valued all around you, or God, who calls on us to value different things: community, peace, compassion, and service. These aren’t always easy choices, and sometimes we don’t know whether we’re making the right one or not.  When I heard of the death of Senator John McCain last night, my first thought was how well he embodied someone faced with these struggles. A man of integrity, he often made choices that didn’t serve him, politically or personally, but served a higher purpose.

I sometimes think that the people in our readings had it so much easier than we do today. That their choices were clear cut. But it’s not true. These have never been easy choices. Even with Jesus standing right in front of them, the disciples say, “This is a difficult teaching, who can accept it?”

Jesus has just made clear that to follow him means to consume his body, to embrace his death and resurrection. To follow him means to emulate his way of living and dying for others. This is a difficult teaching. This remains a difficult teaching. It changes us, pushes us past our comfort zones. It asks things of us that we might not be willing to give. It tests our loyalties.

“Choose whom you will serve,” demands Joshua. “The Lord,” answer the people, “we will serve the Lord.” “Do you want to leave, too?” Jesus asks his closest followers. “Where else would we go,” responds Peter, “you have the words of eternal life.”

It’s very inspiring, it leaves us hoping that we might be like these brave and steadfast souls who chose God and served God. What the readings don’t cover is what happens after, though. The people may have vowed to serve the Lord, but they quickly stray. They lose sight of the covenant that would help them to live in peace and justice with each other. They instead begin serving the gods of wealth and power. Peter may have said there is no one for him but Jesus, but he too will abandon Christ. Will deny that he ever knew him. The twelve will follow the way of the other disciples, leaving Jesus when it becomes too difficult.

When we have to choose between God and other temptations, we will always fail eventually. We will always choose wrong: maybe not at first, maybe not even intentionally, but at some point we will slip up. We will serve the gods of culture instead of the God of love.

But even though the people of Joshua and John slipped up, even though we slip up in our choices, the God who chose the people of Israel, the God who chose the disciples, the God who chooses us never does. When our choices waiver and falter, God remains steadfast. God continues to choose us, continues to seek us in love in the hopes that we might return once again.

When Joshua said, “Choose this day whom you will serve,” it is clearly meant to be a choice once and for all. But I’d like to take that scripture and read it a little bit differently: choose this day whom you will serve. Each day is a chance to serve God. God does not hold the past against us, God offers us new beginnings every day.

Choose this day whom you will serve. It’s not an easy choice. It’s filled with gray areas and ambiguities, with difficult teachings and hard lessons. And we will fail sometimes. But a new day always comes. Choose this day whom you will serve. May we seek to serve the God who always chooses us. Amen.

Ew, Yuck!

Week four of bread. Reading through John 6 this summer has been an opportunity for me to brush up on my sacramental theology. Like the congregants mentioned in my opening story for this sermon, it can be easy to hear (say) the words and go through the motions by rote. This extended time in Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse has been a great chance to rediscover and reexamine just what a momentous thing it is we do when we gather each week.

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

The author of a book I have been reading on the sacraments shared a story about what happened when one member of his congregation paid close attention to what was actually being said during communion. Martin Copenhaver was presiding at the table, which had been set with crisp white linen. Laid out in front of him were silver chalices and plates, a crystal flagon of wine.

The congregation was silent, waiting for the pastor to proceed. Using what he called a “solemn, dignified tone” he repeated the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, the words of institution. Except, this time, when he said the familiar words, “this is my body, broken for you; this is my blood, shed for you,” a small girl suddenly said in a loud voice, “Ew, yuck!”

He continues the story to say that the congregation looked horrified, as if someone had just splattered blood all over their clean altar—which, in effect, is just what that little girl had done with her exclamation.

When we hear the words week after week, we can stop truly hearing them. We can hear them, but not hear how crazy and ridiculous they sound. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in them.” Ew, yuck. You can see why Jesus’ first hearers understandably had some questions.

“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” They ask. The cannibalistic problems aside, for Jesus’ fellow Jews, the idea of drinking blood, any blood, was repugnant. It was part of the covenant that God made with the people, even before that, part of the covenant God made with Noah, that you were not to eat blood. Meat should be cooked long enough for the blood to be gone.

But his listeners stick around. Jesus has said some pretty weird things already, and they usually turn out to mean something else. Surely, he doesn’t actually mean his flesh and blood. This is some type of metaphor.

But when they ask him to explain, Jesus doubles down. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” This is no metaphor. Jesus literally means that he intends to give us his body and blood.

What do we make of this? It’s been problematic from the get-go. Early on, the Roman Empire frequently used the charge of cannibalism as a reason for persecuting the church. Christians had to defend the language they used to talk about the eucharist.

How we make sense of this body and blood stuff has been a reason for massive splits in the church, too. On the one side you have those who affirm the Real Presence: Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Episcopalians. Even though we agree that this is Jesus’ body and blood, we still argue over how exactly that happens. On the other side are those who take this metaphorically: Reformed, Presbyterians, Baptists.

In recent years, our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has worked incredibly hard to overcome these differences and has created what we call “full communion agreements,” theological documents that say even though we use different terminology, we can respect each other’s practices and share communion together. We have full communion agreements with six other national church bodies.

That’s all to say that I could talk for quite a while about the theology of eating Jesus’ flesh and blood: why do we believe it, how does it happen. But I’m not sure any of that gets to the point of what Jesus is trying to say. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”

Well, we do that. In communion each week we receive the body and blood of Christ. The important question isn’t why or how, but what does this mean? What does it mean that we abide in Christ and Christ abides in us?

To say that someone is your flesh and blood implies not just a closeness, but a familial relation. That they are your own. Made of the same stuff, the same core that you are. The nearest and dearest. To say that we take into ourselves God’s own flesh and blood shows just how important we are to God. It also shows that God intends to lay a claim on our entire being, body and soul. Christ’s truth wants to burrow deep within us, to consume us as we consume him, to flow through our veins, to nourish every nook and cranny of our being.

Jesus promises that he will abide in us. You’ve heard the phrase, “You are what you eat.” We define ourselves by what we put in our bodies: I’m a vegetarian, I’m vegan, I’m gluten-free. Not, I eat vegetarian, or I eat gluten-free, but I am these things. In this case, it is true. Jesus gives us the food that will define who we are.

We eat the body of Christ and in so doing become the body of Christ in the world. We eat this body, broken and given for us, and we find in our own brokenness healing and gifts for others. At the table of God where Jesus himself is the meal, we eat in a way that changes us.

This bread, a free gift to us, is also costly. Jesus promises to abide in us as we eat, and that abiding presence does not leave us the same. We are changed by this meal, by consuming the body of Christ. We become the body of the Christ broken and poured out for the sake of the world.

As the body of Christ we are called to be Christ for the world. To offer to others what God has given to us in Jesus: love, compassion, healing, feeding, listening. As the body of Christ we are called to do as Christ did: cross boundaries and borders of race and ethnicity, identify with those on the margins of society, and acknowledge the blessing that God has provided for all people.

We eat Christ’s body and blood so that Christ may abide in us and so that we might embody Christ in our lives. In this meal, God enters in to the very core of our being, and we can no more take God out of our lives than we can reach in and take out what we had for lunch yesterday.

“Ew, yuck!” the little girl said. “Ew, yuck!” the crowds listening to Jesus said. “Ew, yuck!” those who persecuted the early church said. “Ew, yuck!” we might say too, if we listen to the words. But beyond the carnal language, beyond the yuckiness of the surface, is the great gift and promise: God wants nothing more deeply than to abide in us, and we in God. And in that abiding, may we experience the body of Christ, and may we become the body of Christ. Amen.

 

Finding the Holy in the Ordinary

Below is my sermon for August 12, 2018. This marks the halfway point of our five weeks of readings from John 6! Jesus is once again discussing what it means that he is the bread of life. This sermon is heavy on theology, which isn’t something I do too often, so I hope I’ll be excused. But it seemed like a good time to take a look, not just at bread, but at what we believe about sacraments in general.

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

When I was receiving my first communion instruction, which we did in fifth grade at my church, one of the elements of the program, and one that I’ve started here at St. Paul’s, was that the first communion class would bake the bread that would be used.

I honestly can’t remember why, but my year we were doing this at my house instead of at the church. So, all the fifth graders from Advent Lutheran Church and our pastor were gathered in my too-small-for-this kitchen, reading a recipe and measuring ingredients. It was chaotic. Our pastor was terrified of my black lab, who was energetic but would only want to lick you to death. And while the girl measuring the oil held the bottle over the dry ingredients, that energetic dog jumped up, knocked the girl sideways and managed to dump an extra cup or so of oil into the recipe. We baked it anyway. “The bread was very…interesting,” the congregants told us afterwards.

I was much more successful at my second attempt at baking communion bread, in seminary. Someone had to bake the bread every week, and one day I came back to my dorm to find the breadmaking kit outside my door, with a note from the sacristan—a senior in charge of the chapel. “We need four loaves of bread for tomorrow. Follow the instructions and have it at the chapel by 11:00.” I made that bread begrudgingly. I wondered that they couldn’t find anyone else, and so resorted to this sneak attack. The sacristan confirmed for me the next day that she couldn’t find anyone else, and she was tired of begging people to help in chapel. It’s a wonder they couldn’t taste either of our frustrations and resentment baked into the bread.

Here at St. Paul’s we’ve begun baking bread with our first communion class, too. Except this time, I’m the pastor, surrounded by second graders. No dogs allowed, thankfully. But I can’t always watch everything that’s happening at once. And when that bread manages to take the form of loaves—mostly round—and not fall apart in the oven, I always consider it a miracle.

This is where the bread comes from, for our sacred meal. From fifth graders who are jumpy around jumpy dogs. From frustrated and tired seminarians. From second graders eager to help even if they can’t always remember how many tablespoons of honey they’ve used already.

When I hold the bread aloft at the altar after blessing and breaking it, sometimes I say: the gifts of God. Holy things for holy people. Holy things. And yet scandalously ordinary. When Jesus proclaims himself to be the bread sent from heaven, the people are scandalized.

Jesus? Claiming to be from heaven? We know him, they think. He’s an ordinary person, like us. We know his parents, his siblings. We’ve watched him grow up. He’s just like us. And he claims to be sent from heaven? The truly scandalous thing is, they’re right. Jesus is ordinary. He came into the world the same way we all did: born of Mary. He was a boy, he learned and grew. He’s just as poor, just as insignificant, just as ordinary as the rest of them.

Jesus is ordinary. And Jesus is God’s living bread from heaven. Jesus is an ordinary person and at the same time he is so much more: he is the living presence of God.

We have been living with this doctrine for 2,000 years, and we forget just how scandalous it is to say. It is why the Judeans, Jesus’ neighbors and those who have been following him, are incredulous. To claim that someone so ordinary could be sent from heaven is a bold thing to do.

And it’s a boldness that still shocks people. Sometimes people will ask me where we get our baptismal water from. The answer always surprises the asker: from the tap back there in the sacristy. It’s not special water. And our communion bread, when it’s not being made by our second-graders, comes from Linda Burns’ kitchen. The hosts we use on most Sundays are packaged in a big plastic tub. And the wine is from the liquor store.

And yet these ordinary things are holy. We use them in the sacraments of the church. The word sacrament literally means “to make holy.” This ordinary water, bread, and wine are made holy by God to do holy work. In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther asks the question, “how can water do such great things” such as forgive sins, redeem from death, and give eternal life? He answers: “Clearly the water does not do it, but the word of God, which is with and alongside the water, and faith, which trusts this word of God. For without the word of God the water is plain water and not a baptism, but with the word of God it is a baptism, a grace-filled water of life.”

God is able to use the ordinary stuff of life to do holy and miraculous things. Bread, wine, and water: staple foods, necessities for life, nothing fancy. And yet they form our most holy acts as a church together because they contain for us God’s living bread from heaven.

Rachel Held Evans, a Christian author and blogger, wrote about how the sacraments train us to see the holy in the world. That if we can appreciate the holy in these ordinary things, we will learn to appreciate the holy in other things, too. She writes:

“This is the purpose of the sacraments, of the church—to help us see, to point to the bread and wine, the orchids and the food pantries, the post-funeral potlucks and the post communion dance parties, and say: pay attention, this stuff matters; these things are holy.”

As a church we believe that the sacraments are where we experience this presence of God most clearly. This is where God has promised to be present for us, and so we can trust that God is here in baptism and communion, in the water and the bread and wine, giving life and forgiveness and new beginnings. We find God’s promise to take hold of us and make us God’s own, to remain with us and to never let us go.

While we believe that the sacraments are the clearest places to see this, we do not believe that the sacraments are the only places where we experience the presence of God. Pastor and theologian David Lose wrote about his experience in his blog recently, saying, “I’ve wondered whether, after praying with someone in the hospital, if they were disappointed when I gave God thanks for the machines and instruments to which they or their loved one is attached, for the pharmaceutical companies which make the drugs and for the trucks which deliver them, for the people who keep the hospital clean as well as for the nurses and doctors who attend them. I wonder if they would rather have me simply pray for healing, or for a miracle, or for something more dramatic.”

And yet, he goes on to say, it is dramatic, surprising, and encouraging that God would work through such ordinary things like technology, like imperfect human beings, doctors and nurses with short tempers and poor bed-side manners. Flawed pastors, jaded teachers, worn-out administrators, exhausted parents.

This is the promise we find in the sacraments. For just as surely as God uses ordinary bread and wine to bring us God’s saving word, so too does God use ordinary you and me to accomplish God’s will and work in this world. The sacraments are ordinary things for ordinary people. Holy things for holy people. May they help us to see the God who is present for us everywhere. Amen.

Food that Endures

Welcome to week two of the summer of bread! The readings assigned to be used in church are on a three-year cycle, called the Revised Common Lectionary. Which means every three years, an entire five weeks is dedicated to John 6, Jesus’ sign of feeding the 5,000 and the ensuing explanation. So we have readings about bread for the entire month of August.

It can get a bit tedious to preach on, and I may jump around to the lessons from the Hebrew Bible and Epistles as the summer goes on, but I think that this type of in depth reading of a passage is good for us. Our readings often jump around the Bible, and sticking with a confusing, esoteric passage is good for us sometimes. (Talk to me again in four weeks.) Anyway, here’s the sermon–is this something you’ve found true in your life? Food that perishes vs. food that endures?

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

Some of my favorite scenes from the Bible have to be the Israelites wandering around in the desert. It’s high comedy reminiscent of the Marx Brothers. And it’s okay to laugh at it. One of the most beautiful things about the Bible, and about the Hebrew Scriptures in particular, is how willing it is to poke fun at itself, how honest it is about life. A lot of memoirs, stories, histories of this time period deify and glorify their heroes. Not the Hebrew people. When writing down their history, they are honest about the fact that they weren’t perfect. That they grumbled and murmured against Moses and Aaron and against God.

Our story this morning from Exodus starts out with some of the whiniest words you will read in Scripture: “if only we had died in the land of Egypt, where we ate our fill; but you Moses have brought us into this wilderness to kill us all with hunger.” Couple of things here: God is the one who led them out of Egypt, not Moses—and life wasn’t very good in Egypt, the people have a selective memory where that’s concerned. And they never actually ask God for food! This God who they’ve seen send all these plagues and part the Red Sea, no one thought that maybe God could help them out, they just go right to complaining.

But God hears their complaints; God did not rescue them from Egypt only to have them die of starvation, and so God sends meat in the evening and bread in the morning. And manna, this bread from heaven, falls upon the camp each morning, so confusing the Israelites that they ask each other, “What is it?” And that is what manna literally means in Hebrew, “What is it?”

It reminds me of being served an unfamiliar food as a child, asking my parents, “What is it?” Pretty sure already that I would not like it. Moses’ response is classic parent: “This is the bread that God has given you to eat. Be thankful that you have it, now eat it and stop complaining.”

And it is quite beautifully the definition of daily bread. God sends the manna new each morning, and the people are to collect just enough for that day. If they collect too much, which will happen later in the story, it turns to rot. Enough is given to meet the needs of the day—hoarding is not necessary.

I wonder if this is what the crowds who are following Jesus (or chasing Jesus depending on your perspective)—is this what they are expecting, anticipating. They mention the manna in the wilderness as a sign from God, and they want Jesus to give them another sign. Having just participated in the feeding of the 5,000, are they looking for a similar sign? Do they want more bread?

It’s unclear what the crowd is expecting to happen. Are they simply hungry? I think it’s more than that. They’ve just seen a miracle and are drawn to Jesus. But Jesus tells them that they have misunderstood this miracle, this sign. They don’t get it.

They are seeking to fill themselves with temporary, earthly things. In fact, after the feeding of the 5,000, they tried to seize Jesus and make him into an earthly king. They are clamoring for physical bread, for physical power from Jesus. And Jesus tells them that physical things are not going to satisfy their need. Not in the long run. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

What are the things we seek, the things we chase after, that will never be able to satisfy our need? What, for us, is the “food that perishes”? Money. Power. Activities. Status. Popularity. We think if we just manage to get a little bit more, then we’ll finally be happy. If we just manage to get the house up-to-date and looking like an HGTV special, then we’ll be happy. If we just find that perfect hobby, we won’t be so restless. If we manage to get to our target weight, we’ll stop feeling so bad about ourselves.

But if you, like me, have ever chased some of these foods, you know that the happiness they bring is fleeting. J.D. Rockefeller, at the time the richest person in the world, was asked, “How much money is enough?” His answer: “Just a little bit more.” These earthly things that we seek after are never enough to satisfy our need. We will always want just a little bit more. We will always be looking for something else.

And this is not what Jesus came to offer. He’s really clear on this point: God did not send Jesus to offer fleeting satisfaction or temporary fulfillment. He comes instead to give something lasting: food that endures for eternal life. No bread that he produces, but bread that he is. God’s living bread from heaven, Jesus is God’s manna incarnate.

It puts the earthly pleasures we clamor for to shame, because unlike them, being in relationship with God can satisfy our yearnings. Experiencing God’s love, knowing that we are valued for who we are, that we are worthy of respect and love, these things provide fulfillment that “just a little bit more” of money or popularity or perfection never can. This is what Jesus has come to earth to offer: relationship, purpose, love. The food that endures for eternal life.

“We want that…How do we get it?” asks the crowds. Jesus says simply: “believe in the one whom God has sent.” You can’t earn a relationship with God. You can’t earn God’s love. Love and acceptance and relationships are things that can never be earned or coerced. They can only be given as a gift from one person to another. We simply have to trust, to believe, that God provides them for us. It’s manna, bread from heaven. It’s a gift.

When we don’t trust that it will be provided is where we go wrong. That’s when we try to hoard and stockpile it for ourselves. That turns to rot. Manna comes daily. Enough for all. There’s no need to hoard it. God’s love doesn’t need to be hoarded, either. God’s grace is new every day. God’s love springs up like dew on the grass and God’s care settles around in the evening.

It is there for the taking, says Jesus, just as it was in the wilderness to the Israelites. The bread of heaven, come from God to give life to the world. Pure gift, always enough. So come to the table. Partake of the bread of heaven and be filled with God’s life, with God’s love, and with God’s grace. Amen.

Enough

Do you ever feel like you don’t have to meet the situation you’re dealing with? Enough time, enough resources, enough energy? That’s how I felt in the story that opens this week’s sermon. You can take heart with me, then, in the fact that the disciples had been there before us! In the feeding of the 5,000, Andrew and Peter (and probably the other disciples) felt like they didn’t have the ability to meet the needs of the crowd. But, when someone offers what they do have, even though it isn’t enough, God makes enough out of it.

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

I was on internship in Easton, Pennsylvania in October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit. It wasn’t as bad in the Lehigh Valley as it was in New Jersey and elsewhere, but it was pretty bad. That night, alone in my apartment attached the church, the only person on the whole block, I waited as branches were torn from trees and slate tiles flew off the roof.

As we surveyed the damage the next morning, the worst that had happened was a few shingles missing from the church, and one massive tree limb down across the parking lot entrance. A few feet to the left and it would have hit the sanctuary. As we began clean-up, we realized we were among the lucky ones. In downtown Easton, just a block from the main circle, our power lines were underground. Almost everyone not in that lucky four-block radius lost power. So did the surrounding counties. No one could give an estimate of when it would come back on.

People began to arrive. At first it was just a few. A couple from the church, looking to charge their phones. An elderly man, looking for a working power outlet, so he could use his nebulizer. A family that had no power and lived in a basement apartment that had flooded. Then some more came. They told us they had heard on the radio that St. John’s had power and was open. The mayor, who was friends with the pastor, had called earlier in the day to check on the church. We didn’t realize that he was going to share this information with the radio stations.

It was dinner time, and people kept showing up, because they’d heard on the radio that the church was warm and open. Pastor Sue and I didn’t have time to run anything by church council. We couldn’t plan out our response with a helpful committee of volunteers. The people were hungry and had nothing to eat.

We ended up raiding my pantry and fridge, since it was right next door. Like a good Italian, I had plenty of pasta and sauce. So that first night, twenty hungry people ate spaghetti and sauce.

Our makeshift shelter stayed open for a week. From seven a.m. to eight p.m. we were open. We served breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and lots and lots of coffee. Our twenty people grew to forty, then sixty. No one’s power was back on yet.

Church members got word of what was happening and came to help, bringing what they had in their fridges. The local newspaper ran a story, and the next day, two women from the Lutheran church in Nazareth showed up with cases of water, and enough cream of broccoli soup and tater tots to make a dozen casseroles.

By the time the power was restored, and the schools opened again, we had fed sixty people hot meals for six days. When that first man arrived, we had no idea what we were getting into. As the crowd gathered the first night, and it got closer and closer to dinner time, my first instinct was to tell the people they needed to leave. We couldn’t do this, we weren’t prepared, we didn’t even have any food at the church. But we did do it. Four boxes of mismatched pasta became an overflowing pantry of generosity and kindness.

It’s all too easy in these situations to look at what we don’t have. It’s what I did. It was the reaction of the disciples when faced with a crowd of hungry people, too. Philip says that it’s impossible, they could never afford to feed all these people. Andrew finds some food that a young boy has brought, but he doesn’t think it will ever be enough. We’d better send these people home, Jesus, we can’t possibly be expected for feed thousands of people. We didn’t sign up for this.

We’re going to be faced with situations where we feel that way. Where we feel like what we have to offer is not enough, or not good enough, or not important enough to make a difference. It might not be on as large a scale as feeding thousands of people, but those situations will come up.

When we consider the fact that 41 million people struggle with hunger and food insecurity in the United States—just in the United States, that’s not even the world, a six-bed garden behind a church doesn’t seem like a drop in the bucket.

When we think about the level of pollution in our oceans and waterways, bringing your own cup to Starbucks doesn’t seem like it really matters. When we think about advocating for justice, it seems that there is always a new injustice that requires a response. Facing immense need, it’s easy to view what we have to offer, whether it’s money or actions, as not good enough.

It’s easy to view what we have that way, but it’s not the only way to view it. Instead, we can look at what we have to offer and not see what it’s lacking, but see it as a gift and blessing from a God who is able to do great things. I wonder what was going through the mind of the boy with the fish and the loaves. He must have known that this meagre offering was not enough to feed the whole crowd. And yet he offered it anyway.

What we bring to Jesus’ table might seem like it’s not nearly enough to meet the needs around us. The money we bring, the time we’re able to give, the actions we take on behalf of others. It can get discouraging to consider our small offerings compared to the immensity of need. But it is not ultimately the adequacy of our supplies or our skills that makes a difference. What makes the difference is the power of Jesus Christ working in small things, little things, overlooked things, to make a miraculous difference in this world.

In the letter to Ephesians we heard that the power of God at work in us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. It doesn’t have to start with much. And it’s not up to us to perform miracles. What we have, what sometimes seemingly little we can offer—God is the one who can make miracles out of it. In the hand of Jesus little can turn into much.

I saw it happen. Despite my fear that we wouldn’t have enough, enough was provided. More than enough. Do not be discouraged. What you have to offer is enough. What you have to give is enough. You are enough.

The young boy didn’t know what was going to happen to his bread and fish, but he knew he had something to offer and so offer it he did. We don’t always know how God is going to use us, how God is going to use our gifts, but we’ll never know if we keep them to ourselves. Do not worry that it’s not enough. Do not worry that it’s too small to make a difference. See instead the blessing that God has given you: your abilities, your resources, your very self. Gifts from God to meant to be shared. And when they are, miracles can happen. Amen.

Compassion

The Gospel lesson for this past Sunday was a couple small chunks of text which skipped over some big events: the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus calming the storm (we’ll be reading those this week). It felt a little disjointed, like having bookends with no books in the middle. So I decided to latch onto one detail: Jesus having compassion for the crowds. If you want to read the Gospel from Mark and Epistle from Ephesians, the sermon will make more sense.

(Also, some of my inspiration for this sermon came from a West Wing episode where presidential candidate Matt Santos gives a speech to a church after a police shooting and talks about compassion. You can watch a clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFbomB2nZTY)

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

Have you ever heard the term “compassion fatigue”? It’s something that was first observed among nurses and caregivers at veterans’ long-term care facilities following World War II. Their jobs asked them to give of themselves, of their compassion, daily, and after long stretches of time, they would get rundown. They would feel as though they didn’t have anything left to give.

It’s sometimes called care-giver syndrome. It’s often associated with helping professions: nurses, psychiatrists, therapists, counselors, EMTs, pastors. But it doesn’t only affect those people. Those who are the primary caregiver for a parent or partner. For a child who needs a lot of attention and help. They know this fatigue, too. Sometimes, it’s simply called burnout. It’s when our stores of compassion and care are simply running on empty.

I wonder if this is what’s at stake in our Gospel reading. There is a massive amount of need. People, crowds are coming out of the villages to find and follow Jesus. They’re even running ahead of him in some cases, bringing out their sick and needy, laying them in the streets, so that Jesus might heal them. The need is open, raw. The need is so immense that it says the disciples “had no leisure, even to eat.” Jesus tries to get them to go apart, away, that they might have a chance to refresh and restore themselves, but it doesn’t work. The crowds, and the need, find them.

But instead of sending them away, instead of retreating even further, it says that Jesus had compassion for them. He had compassion. I’m using that word compassion a lot, it’s worth taking some to talk about it. It comes into the English from Latin, and literally means “passion with.” Feeling compassion for someone means you’re feeling what they’re feeling. You’re sharing their pain and hurt.

But it’s more than that. The Hebrew word for compassion, racham, comes from the Hebrew word for womb. The Greek word, the word actually used to describe what Jesus is feeling is splagchnizomai. That’s a word for you. We translate it compassion, but it’s more than that. It literally means to having a yearning in your gut. Compassion isn’t something we do with our heads, with our thoughts. Compassion is a feeling that takes over our physical body. You know the feeling.

Here is Jesus, hounded by thirsty crowds. He looks upon them as sheep without a shepherd, sheep with no one tending to them, no sense of orientation or protection. Had he ever felt this way himself? Probably. So Jesus had compassion on them. He understood them. He felt care, empathy, and love for them at the very core, the womb of his being.

Compassion is not an emotion you can have from a distance. Pity, condolence, sympathy—all these things you can offer from a nice safe, removed point. But compassion is that visceral pull in your stomach that forces you to engage with someone, to be drawn in to another’s situation. Compassion is not a feeling so much as it is an action—being drawn into another person.

We need more compassion in the world today maybe than we’ve needed before. And it often feels as though we have less than we used to. We have less compassion nowadays for each other. We’re quicker to judge than to empathize. We’re quicker to condemn than to love. We’re quicker to assume than to draw near and learn.

I know I’ve felt that in myself—I’ve felt that my stores of compassion are not as great as they used to be. And I know I’ve seen it reflected in the world around me. Our compassion struggles to extend beyond those who are like us, beyond those we already understand. It struggles to extend to those of different races and economic backgrounds, to those from different countries, to those with different educational opportunities. It seems our compassion struggles most of all to extend to those with different political affiliations than ours. Maybe it’s compassion fatigue. Maybe we’re feeling depleted, I don’t know. But compassion seems to be in short supply lately.

In the letter Helene read, written to the Ephesians, the Apostle is urging compassion. There are divisions in this community—divisions along lines of class, of ethnic background, of religious background. The author urges them to remember that Christ came not to deepen divisions, but for the work of reconciliation. “For [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us…that he might create in himself one new humanity in the place of two…and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross.”

I’m not suggesting brushing issues and division under the rug for the appearance of peace and unity—all that creates is a false peace. But when we consider the things that divide us, we need to try to start from a place of compassion. We need to start by seeing those different from us as fellow members of the household of God, not as someone wholly other to ourselves.

A Rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun. “Could it be,” asked one of the students, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the Rabbi.

Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” answered the Rabbi. “Then what is it?” the pupils demanded. “It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”

Compassion. Jesus came to teach us compassion. Not just for our families and our friends and our neighbors. That’s all just practice. Jesus calls us to have compassion for our enemies. To have compassion for the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the alien, the poor, the sick, those unlike us.

But God does not just teach us compassion, or expect compassion from us, God showers us with compassion daily. God felt the pull of compassion so strongly for humanity, right in God’s womb, that God gave birth to Jesus—compassion incarnate. God with us, in the midst of our need.

God doesn’t get compassion fatigue. When we cry out, like those crowds, that we too are in need of healing, are in need of reconciliation, are in need of hope and guidance, the depths of God’s compassion are never exhausted. God sees our needs. God sees your need, whatever it is on this day. And with compassion, God is drawn in to you and to me. And God draws us in, to be reconciled together in the household of God. Amen, and thanks be to God.

A Tale of Two Kingdoms

There are days when proclaiming “Praise to you, O Christ” after the reading of the Gospel just doesn’t feel right. Yesterday was one of those days. Go ahead and read the Gospel story, the beheading of John the Baptist, and see if you don’t agree with me! There’s a lot going on here, and none of it really feels like good news. There are options when a text like this is assigned for a Sunday. You can preach on the lesson from the Hebrew Bible, or from the epistles. You could change the text altogether (no one may ever even know!). You can have a hymn sing, instead.

All of those thoughts went through my mind last week, as I tried to avoid dealing with this bloody, depressing text. But, in the end, I decided to go for it, because sometimes (often) the real world is bloody and depressing, too. Our scripture doesn’t shy away from the realities of the world and neither should we. But that doesn’t mean those realities get to define and control our lives. God’s reality gets to do that. Let me know what you think!

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

A high-powered lobbyist was quoted in the Washington Post as saying: “There’s only two engines that drive Washington: one is greed and the other is fear.” This quote was offered a few years ago, but it could have been said yesterday. Or fifty years ago. Or 1,000 years ago. “There’s only two engines that drive Washington, that drive Rome, that drive Herod’s court: one is greed and the other is fear.”

Today’s Gospel story, the beheading of John the Baptizer, is full of greed and fear. It’s full of powerful people and power-seeking people. It’s full of intrigue and scandal and ultimately death. It feels out of place in the Bible, at least out of place in the gospels, with its blood and gore and sexual insinuations. But honestly, it doesn’t feel that out of place in our world. It’s a story that’s been repeated over and over again.

King Herod Antipas, one of the three sons of Herod the Great, is ruling in Galilee. He’s not a popular king, and he holds onto his power in ruthless ways. He has married his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. The main problem at this point is that Philip is actually still alive.

And John the Baptist, preaching repentance and a return to the ways of God, gets wind of this, and has the guts to tell King Herod: it is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife. Herodias wants this man dead—he is a threat not just to her position as queen but really to her life—, and in a compromise, he is arrested and kept in King Herod’s prison.

Herod doesn’t want to kill John, apparently, because he knows that John is a righteous and holy man. I love what Mark says about Herod’s interactions with John: he was greatly perplexed when listening to the prophet, and yet he liked to listen to him. John’s preaching calls into question the very foundations of Herod’s power—and yet the king is strangely drawn to this preaching, intrigued.

But Herodias has her opening at the king’s birthday feast. She sends her daughter, confusingly also called Herodias in Mark’s story, often called Salome, in to dance for the king. We know from the Greek words used that this is a young girl, probably twelve or thirteen. And her dancing so pleases her stepfather that he says he will grant her whatever she wants—up to half of his kingdom.

This was the same promise given to Queen Esther, who used it to save her people. Salome goes back to her mother, who we know has something less noble in mind. The head of John the Baptist. The girl embellishes a bit and demands it on a platter.

Herod is described as being torn. He does not want to kill John, but feels compelled by his promise. He cannot suffer the loss of honor and reputation that would follow backing out of a public promise. And so John, without trial, without justice, is killed.

This is a story that we know almost too well. A story of a righteous person being trampled by a powerful person. A story of justice being crushed beneath greed. A story of people backed into corners, trying to protect themselves, and in doing so killing others.

This is a story that’s been repeated over and over again. We’ll see it repeated in Mark’s gospel in just a few short chapters with Jesus, standing before another ruler who feels he has no option but to kill a righteous man in the name of preserving power. We’ll see the Apostle Paul die for telling the Roman Empire that it was not in fact God. Thomas More is beheaded by Henry VIII for holding to his convictions in the face the king’s self-interest. Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Nazis for daring to speak against genocide. Martin Luther King, Jr. shot because he dared to call on our nation to repent and return to the ways of God.

As if real life weren’t enough, we see this story again and again in our fiction, in our movies and TV shows. Game of Thrones, the Sopranos, House of Cards, Mad Men. The anti-hero, ruled not by morals or righteousness, but by greed and fear. It’s a compelling story.

I think that we’re so drawn to this story because we recognize the truth in it. This is no fairy-tale. We see in Herod’s story, in all of these stories, an honest truth of our world. Power is dangerous. Power corrupts. Often those in power don’t listen to what they know to be right in order to preserve their own positions. Herod didn’t. Pilate didn’t. The priest in our reading from Amos didn’t. He didn’t listen to the word of God because it would mean losing his own power and authority. Often the vulnerable are exploited. We know this story. We know this narrative because we were born to this world that says power is good and vulnerability is bad. We were born to this world that says greed is good and selflessness is weak. We were born to this world that says it’s all about looking out for yourself, no matter the cost.

But—and this is a very important but—this is not the only narrative available to us. We get into this whole story about the beheading of John, because Jesus’ disciples are going throughout the countryside teaching and preaching and healing. Jesus is amassing followers because of his message of inclusion and mercy and redemption for all people. Herod gets wind of all this and he is afraid that John has been raised from the dead.

John hasn’t been raised, of course, but what lives on is his words. What lives on is his hope. What lives on is the redemption and grace that he offered. All of the prophets killed through the ages are alive in Jesus, who God does raise from the dead.

God offers us a different narrative. A narrative where power is found in relationships. Where power is found in being vulnerable and broken. Where power is used not for self, but for others. This might not be the narrative to which we were born, but it is the narrative to which we are reborn. It is God’s story of redemption and hope and mercy for all people and that is the story that we are a part of. It is the story of John and Jesus, and Amos and all the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, and Bonhoeffer and Romero and King. It is a story that will always be contending with Herod’s story. A story that will always be told it’s not realistic enough, that it needs to realize that’s not how the world works.

But it is our story. A story of grace instead of vengeance, mercy instead of grudges. Generosity instead of greed. Vulnerability instead of pride. Hope instead of fear. This is the story to which we were each called, the story in which we were reborn at our baptisms.

Herod may have killed John the Baptist, but he could not kill the good news of God’s story that John brought. God’s story, God’s hope and love, will always rise from the ashes of those who try to put it out. There’s only two engines that drive Washington, the lobbyist said, fear and greed. That may be so, I don’t know for sure, but I do know that God’s kingdom is driven by very different things: redemption, forgiveness, mercy, grace, and love. Amen.

What’s on your packing list?

Maybe I just have travel on the mind, but the packing list seemed like a great metaphor to jump into this week’s Gospel lesson. So–read the sermon and let me know in the comments–is there anything you wish wasn’t on your packing list? Anything you’d love to put in your bag to be a better disciple?

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

A couple of times I’ve been asked by someone new to Christianity or curious about our faith how to read the Bible. They’ve never read any part of Scripture before and pick up a Bible and, as you do with a book, start reading at the beginning. Genesis and Exodus go ok, because they’re mostly stories, but somewhere around the middle of Leviticus, these people usually give up.

When these people come to me and say, “I’m still interested in this, but how do I read this book?” my answer is always to start with the Gospels. In particular to start with the Gospel of Mark. Mark doesn’t even come first in the New Testament, so that might seem counterintuitive. But it’s the shortest Gospel, you could read it start to finish in probably half an hour.

In part because it’s the shortest, most people tend to think that Mark was the first Gospel written. It seems frantic, hurried, almost in its pacing. You can imagine its author racing to get it finished, needing to get this story down on paper so that it might be shared. Matthew, Luke, and John take more time, gather more stories, include more details.

There is no drawn-out Sermon on the Mount in Mark like there is in Matthew, where Jesus teaches and preaches for three whole chapters. There is no nativity, no account of Jesus’ birth like there is in Luke, and Mark’s Holy Week narrative lasts only three chapters, compared to John’s eight. The author of Mark is not messing around with any information you don’t absolutely need.

So what does Mark decide is worth including in his Gospel? A packing list. Jesus, after just being rejected in his home town, is sending the disciples out in pairs to do ministry. And he literally offers a packing list: “bring this, don’t bring that.” It reminds me a lot of the list we were given before the Youth Gathering last week. It too was very specific. Do bring close-toed shoes, a sturdy backpack, a water bottle, and sunscreen.

Do not bring valuable jewelry, alcohol, or firearms. Don’t bring more technology than you need. Don’t bring flip flops. And there are a few things you learn by experience every adult leader should have on their packing list: a portable charger, a power strip so you can charge six phones at once, and a headlamp.

Both what we were told to bring and what were asked not to bring was designed to help us get the most out of our experience in Houston. We needed our phones to keep track of each other, but we didn’t need any extra technology to distract us from our community. We didn’t need much money, but most assuredly did need good walking shoes. Communal games, like a deck of cards were great, but individual games didn’t help.

Jesus’ list is much the same. It’s meant to help the disciples be as effective as they can be. His list, in short: “Don’t bring much of anything.” Don’t pack an extra shirt, don’t carry any money, don’t bring any food with you. It will hold you back if you do. Travel light, because you don’t know when you might have to move on quickly. Discipleship requires that you leave behind the things that would tie you down and hold you back.

It begs the question, as 21st century disciples, what should our packing list look like? What things do we need to leave behind, what things are holding us back from doing ministry in today’s world? There’s a literal way to look at this: we might have actual things that are holding us back. A city congregation I know recently sold their building. It was huge, bigger than St. Paul’s, and the congregation was dwindling. Most of their money had to go to maintaining a rapidly declining building, instead of reaching out to their neighbors. By letting go of that building, renting space somewhere else instead, they freed themselves to do ministry.

There might be physical things in your life that are holding you back. I’ve certainly heard the stories of many people who downsized their homes and felt only relief and freedom. But we all carry around other baggage—as individuals and a congregation—that can hold us back. Baggage that Jesus would look at and say: don’t take that with you, leave it behind. We hold onto things that can keep us from fulfilling our call as disciples.

What expectations aren’t we willing to give up, even though they’re keeping us from joy? What people do we hold ourselves back from, because they don’t fit our preconceived understanding of who they should be?

Honestly, I think the biggest thing that we’re carrying around that keeps us from being effective disciples, from being the people God hopes us to be, is fear. Fear of change. Fear of what that change might mean. Fear of loss. Fear of failure.

Some of these fears aren’t entirely unfounded. Jesus himself failed in Nazareth to convince the people of his hometown. He even prepares the disciples for failure, warning them that they won’t be well received sometimes, but to simply shake the dust off their feet and keep going.

What does your packing list look like? Are you carrying around things you don’t need to, that only burden you? Are we doing that collectively, as a congregation? Are there things we need to let go of? To take out of our bags so we are able to move more freely? Our unfair expectations of ourselves and others. Our worry that we’re not good enough. Our desire to be perfect. Our anxieties over change and the future.

What might be possible if we took those things off our packing list? We will not always be successful. After all, Jesus wasn’t, so we shouldn’t expect too much from ourselves. The disciples weren’t always successful in their mission and outreach either.

But the biggest reason to unburden ourselves of these things—the worry and anxiety and fear—is not an attempt to be successful. The biggest reason is because they’re things that God does not want for us. “Do not be afraid,” is the oft-repeated greeting of the angels in scripture. Do not be afraid.

It’s easier said than done, but what if this week we tried to take just one or maybe two things off our packing list? What new opportunities might suddenly seem doable? What chances might we be willing to take? What people might we be willing to meet that we hadn’t before?

I’ll close with the post-communion blessing that each person received individually at the Gathering in Houston. “Child of God—Be Brave—You are saved by grace through faith—Go and tell the world that this changes everything.” Amen.