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.

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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.