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Posts from the ‘Bread of Life’ Category

Turning Point

Lent 2B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

According to the often-quoted wisdom of Yogi Berra, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  Today, the disciples reach a fork in the road in their journey with Jesus.  We’re at the midpoint of Mark’s gospel.  It’s the pivot point upon which Jesus takes a decisive turn to the cross.

The disciples walked with Jesus throughout Galilee.  They witnessed his ministry of preaching and healing (6:7-13, 30).  They watched his fame and favor grow so that Jesus could no longer visit cities and towns without attracting a crushing crowd.  He called, they followed, but now their novitiate is over. Jesus reveals his way of serving God will not be to become the kind of warrior-king David was whom they had all hoped for. Jesus will rule not from a throne, but from the cross.  He calls us to wield the power of love rather than the sword. The disciples (and Peter) do not yet understand that suffering born of love lies at the heart of Jesus’ mission.

Jesus has seen where obedience to the loving God will take him.  The road leads to Jerusalem.  The path of faithful service will lead directly into the grinding jaws of the Roman Empire, and the gnashing teeth of powerful, corrupt religious leaders.  The disciples, however, are shocked and confused.  They didn’t see this choice coming—now, they don’t know which way to turn.

We must pause a moment to make one thing clear.  Our Bible does not say that God takes any delight in human suffering.  Jesus’ healing miracles, his compassion for the crowds, and his miraculous feeding of the hungry multitudes are enough to show us that.  God is good.  Jesus came that we might experience life fully and share in this abundance widely.  Yet our life in Christ is no antidote to suffering and grief.  In fact, to embrace the call of Christ is to walk along with him on our own Via Dolorosa (which means the way of suffering), that was Jesus’ path in his final day in Jerusalem to the cross.  We do this, not out of morbid duty but in a spirit of generosity and joy because as children of God the slings and arrows of this world can no longer reach us.

Yet the disciples have no clue that Jesus aims to heal the world by subjecting himself to human savagery in order to expose its ugly face and break its hold and power.  Upon hearing this plan, Peter rejected Jesus’ words.  He took him aside and rebuked him as though he were casting a demon out.  Perhaps Peter was beginning to wonder, as Mark’s gospel tells us members of Jesus’ own family did, whether Jesus was not going a little bit crazy.

But Jesus would have none of it.  He turned to the crowds who followed him and said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

These are puzzling words, to say the least.  We lose by saving.  We save by losing –but how could this be?  The disciples have witnessed Jesus’ power.  Jesus controls the cosmic forces –even the wind and the water obey him.  How could Jesus permit his enemies to succeed, who wish to destroy him just as they had already destroyed John the Baptist?  St. Paul is right to insist the gospel of the cross makes a mockery of all our human conceptions of success (1 Cor. 1:18-25). In a pain-killer culture like ours, it’s tough to imagine anything good can come from agony –let alone to understand how suffering might actually be a path to healing and redemption.

We all know that this world can be a dangerous place. We all know only too well the reality of human savagery means that life for many born to this world should come with the same written warning as that seen posted at the entrance of an African game reserve: “Advance and be bitten.”

Logic dictates that evil must be met with force –right?  ‘Human kingdoms advance by force and violence and with falling bombs and flying bullets, but God’s kingdom advances by stories, riddles, and tales that are easily ignored and easily misunderstood.’ (Brian McClaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, p. 49).

This Lent, we are learning together about the call and power of forgiveness. How can we turn from vengeance to reconciliation? How can our anger and suffering be channeled into wisdom and healing rather than fear and violence?  How can we break the endless cycle of violence? How can we pivot from following the ways of the world to walk in the demanding, life-giving way of the cross instead?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said forgiveness begins with telling our story and in naming the hurt. “There is no way of living with other people without, at some point, being hurt… The response to hurt is universal.  Each of us will experience sadness, pain, anger, or shame. What so often happens is we step unaware into the revenge cycle… If we cannot admit our own woundedness, we cannot see the other as a wounded person who harmed us out of ignorance. We must reject our common humanity.”  (Desmond Tutu, The Book of Forgiving, pp. 49-51)  By telling our stories and naming our hurt we are able to face our suffering. When we face into and accept our pain we start to recognize that we don’t have to stay stuck in our story.  In the way of the cross, Jesus has shown us how to metabolize our hurts and suffering to strengthen the bonds connection and community among us.

Look, even now, the world is being remade—not by force, but by the grace that is poured out like fast-running water through a relationship with God and one another as we gather here in Jesus’ name. The difference between Jesus and the disciples—the answer that ends our befuddlement at Jesus’ words about the call to save our lives by losing them—is that Jesus dwells in the undying kingdom of God, while we (and the disciples) believe we still live in the dog-eat-dog world where might makes right, rather right making might.  Forgiveness is a key to unlocking the door that opens into the kingdom of God here in our midst.

Life in God’s kingdom opens us to a way of living that is radically different from the way people lived in Jesus’ day and in our own time.  In our gospel today Jesus announces that this world is under attack.  The land is subject to an invasion.  “We are under a gentle, compassionate assault by a kingdom of peace and healing and forgiveness and life” (McClaren, p. 60).  God’s kingdom comes, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven –not through simple formulas, or lists of information, and not through angry threats or ultimatums, but like a treasure hidden in a field, like a seed hidden in soil, like yeast hidden in dough, beginning with the bravery to become vulnerable, the courage to face into our hurts and tell our story, the acceptance of the path of forgiveness, the way of the cross.

The kingdom of God spreads from person to person, to person like a virus, like a flame, like water moving downhill.  Jesus’ scandalous message of the kingdom of God reveals the weakness of the apparently powerful and the power of the apparently weak (McClaren, p. 68). German quantum theorist and Nobel prize winner Max Planck once said, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”  The cross of Christ certainly changes how we look at life. Love is an abstraction and impossible without one another.  By way of the cross, Jesus has shown us what we are. We are already one.  Knowing this, we need never walk alone but courage comes with the sound of Christ’s steps by our side.” (ELW #808)

A Different Kind of King

Christ the King A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

 

“Tell us, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?” (Matthew 25:38). It can be frustrating. Why must God be such an open secret?  Every proof for God ending in a leap of faith?

We may wish it to be otherwise but certainty is exactly what scripture does not offer us. Instead, the bible ushers us into an entirely different way of knowing: an intimate relationship, a dark journey, a path where we are always On The Way to discover for ourselves that grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness are absolutely necessary and sufficient for survival in an uncertain world. Yes, we really are saved by faith alone. Jesus is a different kind of king.

The hiddenness of God is an ancient idea. It runs deep through Luther’s writing too, including famous Christmas sermon which is both humorous and shocking in its frankness. Imagine waking up to these words on Christmas morning: “There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: if only I had been there [at Christ’s birth].  How quick I would have been to help the baby! I would have washed his linen.  How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!  Yes, you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at the time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. Childish and silly thoughts are these!  Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor.  You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.”

Scripture admonishes, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels.” (Hebrews 13:2) Faith is measured by loving service and acceptance of the weak, the lost, the grieving, the meek, the persecuted, the tearful and distraught—starting with the brokenness in yourself and moving out to encircle the whole world. Jesus is a different kind of king.

The hiddenness of God is a result of radical, pervasive incarnation. Franciscan author and theologian Richard Rohr writes, “The presence of God is infinite, everywhere, always, and forever. You cannot not be in the presence of God. There’s no other place to be. It is we who are not present to Presence. We’ll make any excuse to be somewhere else than right here. Right here, right now never seems enough. It actually is, but it is we who are not aware enough yet.”

Because God is the water we swim in, it takes something more than our physical senses to detect this presence. Jesus praises God for “hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them only to the little ones” (Matthew 11:25). Well, what is it that the learned and the clever often cannot see?  The presence of God always hidden in, with, and under each moment is found and observed using the more sensitive and finely tuned faculties of the human heart rather than the senses alone. Jesus is a different kind of king.

When the Spirit within you connects with God’s Spirit given from outside you, you are finally home. Now you know that your deepest you is reflected in the image and likeness of God, and Christ is living his life in you and through you and with you.  Only God’s grace has the power to turn the inward spiral of the self out toward others. This dwelling in grace is what Jesus called the kingdom of God. Here we find unity not in conformity but in our differences. Jesus is a different kind of king.

We come to know God by loving God, and in knowing God we come to love our neighbors as ourselves. For some time now people of faith have been confused about this. The Good News is not about being correct but about being connected.  Beyond personal morality, the gospel calls for mercy and forgiveness. Beyond acts of charity and kindness, the gospel calls for justice. There is great urgency in re-learning this lesson. Like the prophet Micah before him, today’s gospel (Matthew 25:14-30) admonishes us to Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

Later today, I am talking about the social and economic teachings of Martin Luther as part of our on-going reformation series at the Forum.  From his earliest days in Wittenberg when he saw the adverse effects of the emerging market economy on the common people and was overwhelmed by the sheer number of beggars on the streets, Luther committed a great deal of theological energy and passion to the issue of persistent poverty.

With words that sound as if they could be written today Luther wrote, “The poor are defrauded every day, and new burdens and higher prices are imposed. They all misuse the market in their own arbitrary, defiant, arrogant way as if it were their right and privilege to sell their goods as high as they please without criticism” (from the Large Catechism). According to Luther, “God does not care even if you never build a church if you only love and serve your neighbor.” “If you want to love and serve me [God says,] do it through your neighbor. He needs your help, I don’t.”

The hidden God is encountered by faith not reason. Likewise, Luther acknowledged, there is no single, biblically-mandated economic model, no direct line from the biblical witness to any specific economic institution, political party or system. Instead, the gift of reason, God-given creativity, and freedom find their proper place in striving answer how best to live out what St. Paul called “faith active in love.” Faith active in love is something we do together by reasoning, listening, and learning how best to support the common good.

Jesus is a different kind of king. We are saved by grace and not by merit. But according to Luther, “Faith is followed by works as a body is followed by its shadow.”  God’s love for us moves us toward works that embody love toward the neighbor. We do these works despite knowing we are a mixture of sheep and goats, weeds and wheat and we always will be. As Martin Luther put it, we are simul justus et peccator. We are simultaneously saint and sinner.

So, as we set out to do God’s work we do so with humility, boldly calling upon God’s mercy when we get it wrong. To accept that we can be goats doesn’t mean we say, “It’s okay to be ignorant and evil.” It means we have some real wisdom about ourselves. You can see your weeds and acknowledge when you are not compassionate or caring. You have to name the goat as a goat. I’m not perfect; you’re not perfect; the church is not perfect; America is not perfect. Together let us strive for a more perfect union –as the preamble to the U.S. Constitution says so brilliantly.

It takes uncommon humility to carry both the dark and the light side of things. The only true perfection available to humans is the honest acceptance of our imperfection. Only God in us can love imperfect and broken things. By ourselves, we largely fail. By faith in grace alone, we are saved.

“Though some would make their greatness felt and lord it over all, [Christ] said the first must be last and the last and service be our call.  O Christ, in workplace, church, and home, let none to power cling; for still, through us, you come to serve, a different kind of king.” (ELW #431)

What a Loser. Huge!

Passion Sunday C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

What a loser. Huge! While the parade of Jesus followers shout hosanna, the powerful people in Jerusalem shake their heads.

As Jesus marched from the Mount of Olives and entered the city from the east, that same day another procession clogged the streets, drew large crowds and entered the gates of Jerusalem from the west. From the road that leads toward Rome, Pontius Pilate rode into Jerusalem followed by brigades of well-armed soldiers in brightly colored uniforms and Centurions mounted on horseback reminding everyone who was really in control leading up to the celebration of the Passover.

The way of the world understands greed, status, ruthlessness, economic or military might. The way embodied by Jesus is animated by service, compassion, non-violence, solidarity with the most vulnerable and trust in God. Christ was not the strong, powerful, military Messiah the people had prayed centuries for. This was Jesus’ great revelation, and it is still a surprise and a scandal that we have not fully comprehended. (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation: Vulnerability–Even in God! 3/17/16)

But we should have seen this coming. Throughout scriptures God consistently chooses the weak to confound the strong (1 Corinthians 1:17-31). We see this in the barren wives of the patriarchs, the boy David forgotten in the fields, the rejected prophets, and now Jesus on the cross. Jesus forever redefined what success and winning mean, and it is not what any of us wanted or expected. On the cross, God’s power is revealed as vulnerability itself.

This is Christ’s revolutionary understanding of wisdom and it is still offensive and even disgusting to many in the world and sadly, often even among those in the church. Only vulnerability allows change, growth, and transformation to happen. Only with open arms, open minds, open hands, and open hearts can we be healed and become healers ourselves. Who would have imagined this?

It takes all of us a long time to move from power to weakness, from glib certitude to vulnerability, from meritocracy to the ocean of grace. As we read in Philippians and throughout Paul’s letters, he consistently idealizes not power but powerlessness, not strength but weakness, not success but the cross. It’s as if he’s saying, “I glory when I fail and suffer because now I get to be like Jesus–the naked loser–who turned any notion of God on its head.” Now the losers can win, which is a good thing, because that’s just about everybody.

Jesus entered the city determined that the “no” of the people will be answered by God’s “yes”. God used the cross to say decisively for all time, ‘Go ahead. Do your very worst. There’s nothing you can do to stop my love.’ The cross and empty tomb show us the way to our best life and our truest selves leads through and beyond the cross. In baptism we have died to the life run by the Pilates and Herods of this world. Yes! Look, we are being born again, members of a new humanity, children of the living God.

What is it?

Proper 13B-15

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Last Sunday Jesus invited them to ‘come and eat.’ So naturally, the very next question becomes what is it? We’ve all been there. Could there be anything more universal than the dinner table and the interchange of excitement and apprehension between cooks and those they cook for?

Try it you’ll like it. It’s good for you. Isn’t that what our parents said? Sometimes it worked. Other times we flat out refused.

The Israelites asked Moses. What is it? They had been through so much together. God set them free from their lives as slaves. But how quickly they began to long for what they had back in Egypt. Pangs of hunger conjured memories of meat and bread. Wasn’t it better than wandering in the wilderness on some endless camping trip? So they grumbled. They complained.

Scripture says God heard the Israelite’s complaining and rained down bread from heaven. Manna. Scholars believe manna was the sweet substance secreted by insects on the leaves of the tamarisk shrub. It drops to the ground and becomes firm. Gathered early each morning, it can indeed be a tasty treat.

When the people saw the food God had provided, they asked what is it? The root of the word manna is man huwhat is this? Despite their obvious skepticism this manna was a hit. The people liked it. But with this strange food came a new spiritual challenge. Manna was perishable. It only lasts a day before it spoils. Try to gather more than you need for the day, it would rot. Give us our daily bread, we pray. But we want more. How easy it is to try to stockpile and hoard the gifts of God, the gifts of life.

It takes us a while to learn what’s best, what food satisfies and what leaves us empty. We confuse needs and wants. Our economy is market-driven. Give the people what they want! Whatever people will buy is good. But any cook knows that isn’t true. Anyone who has gotten sick eating too much cake and ice cream knows what we want isn’t the best gauge for what we need. We have more and more, but our hearts still go hungry.

We have 21 candidates for president (and counting) gorging themselves with record amounts of money from newly created Super-PACs. But democracy is undermined when according to news reports, “Fewer than four hundred families are responsible for almost half the money raised in the 2016 presidential campaign, a concentration of political donors that is unprecedented in the modern era.” (Small Pool of Rich Donors Dominates Election Giving, Nicholas Confessore, Sarah Cohen and Karen Yourish, The New York Times, 8/1/15)

Empty calories, foolish consumption, shallow politics, hungry hearts. Jesus fed the five thousand beside the sea, afterwards the clamoring crowd followed him. They wanted more of that miraculous wonder bread. But they missed the point. Jesus told them, Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life. It wasn’t Moses who gave you the true bread from heaven, but my Father. I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:27; 32; 35)  For a month of Sundays, literally, this will be our message at worship. Jesus implores us to see that our spiritual hunger for the bread of heaven is satisfied only as we join with God in providing bread for the world.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus roamed the gentle hills of Galilee. He went among the cities of ancient Israel. He saw people were hungry—just like us. The people attempted to fill the God-shaped longing within them with whatever they could find—wealth, power, fame, alcohol, drugs, uncommitted sex—but nothing worked. Jurgenn Moltmann (via St. Augustine) wrote, ‘the God-shaped space in ourselves can only be properly filled by God. When we try to fill that God-space with something else we become ill.

Grace is to human life what yeast is to a good, fragrant loaf of bread. Yeast, a tiny one-celled organism that grows and metabolizes its own food with great speed –work the dough—slightly fermenting it and releasing gases so that the bread begins to rise. Jesus, the bread of life, is released and energized in each of us through the work of the divine yeast of the Holy Spirit at Eucharist.

For a month of Sundays (through August 23rd) our worship takes us into the kitchen with Jesus learning how to prepare and to eat food that builds our body. Each week, we share in the Eucharistic meal of bread and wine as a source of nourishment, sustenance and transformation.

What is it we’re eating? It is a diet rich in forgiveness and tender-heartedness, to quote Ephesians. It is a diet rich in gratitude, filling our lives and this community with thanksgiving for the blessings of life. It is a diet rich in stewardship, calling us to use well what God has given us. It is a diet rich in sharing, inviting us to share our bread with the hungry; our love, our resources, our hope with those in need. It is a diet rich in struggle for justice and peace as we become united in one body with the marginalized, the oppressed, the profiled, the unjustly prosecuted and persecuted, the demeaned and dehumanized, with both the victims and the perpetrators of violence. In solidarity and humility we feed one another this bread of life that makes us all stronger, wiser, less anxious and more balanced within ourselves.

The Sri Lankan evangelist and hymn writer D.T. Niles wrote, “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread”. What is God trying to say to us today through this gospel, if only we had ears to listen? Where are we to find the true Bread of Life? We must help one another find Jesus.

“I am the bread of Life”, Jesus said. Let my life become yours. Do like I do. Feast on my gospel. Let God’s holy Word re-fashion and transform you deep within. As a baker kneads dough, so my words, my life shall re-work you. Give me what you are able. Give me your trust and your faith, and I will multiply it. See, I return your life to you with your heart filled to overflowing. Jesus satiates and satisfies us with the good things of God we crave body and soul.

We come together each Sunday for bread that gives us energy for the tasks ahead and hope for whatever is to come. We feast on Christ, our living bread, our daily bread. Christ lives among us, in us, through us, and for us. Come, eat and live!

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