Sermon: Sunday, August 16, 2015: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Proverbs 9:1-6  +  Psalm 34:9-14  +  Ephesians 5:15-20  +  John 6:51-58

I  had some pretty great meals this past week.

20120515-sausage-city-lula-cafes-breakfast-sausage-4On Monday I got to sit down for lunch with a young adult friend who recently graduated from college in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. After a year of Skyping with each other every few weeks he is now in the process of relocating to Chicago and we had the luxury of a two hour meal, face to face. It was fascinating to me how different it felt to talk to him with a plate of food in front of me than it had looking at the screen of my laptop. Before there was a pressure for one of us to be talking at all times, since we were nothing more than two-dimensional faces staring at each other. Now there were thoughtful pauses as we chewed on our meals, considering what the other had said.

post_display_cropped_open-uri20121120-20751-5ohfjfOn Friday morning I had breakfast with one of my dearest friends who also got married this summer. It was the first time we’d been alone since our weddings, so there was lots of reflecting back on the highlights and the surprises of our respective ceremonies. We struggled with what to order from a menu filled with too many good choices, and in the end decided to share a sweet and savory split: an order of cinnamon roll french toast and a plate of tofu scramble with feta and pesto and summer vegetables. We moved from talk of weddings to more general talk of work and home, talk about our friends and colleagues, as we reached across the table to dip a bite of our bread in the puddles of molten cream on each other’s plates. At one point, as I looked at my friend, I was struck by how many times we’d done this. How many meals we’d shared, how many challenges we’d tackled, how much life we’d lived together. As I tried to share with her all the memories pooling up in my mind, I got choked up. She was the only person I’d known when I moved to Chicago almost a decade ago, and now we were practically family. There weren’t really words for it, so we just kept eating our sweet and savory split as I wiped the tears from my eyes.

sausage_and_peppers_779_fThere were other extraordinary meals. The sandwiches and cream sodas that accompanied the slow work of listening and reconciliation in a relationship that had been stretched and stressed. The coffee I drank while listening to a colleague describe her hopes and fears for the global ministry of our church and her passion for the young adults she works with. The salsiccia and roasted peppers I consumed as Kerry and I got the report from a friend just back from a gospel music conference that had been profoundly healing. The last minute Friday night backyard dinner with friends collapsing around a table pulled up from the basement and draped with a cloth before being weighted with offerings from each of our kitchens and stories from each of our lives that were more than we could ever fully consume. All in one week.

pavlovdog1Relationships go better with food. Maybe it’s like Pavlov and his dog, that experiment with the food and the bell, where the dog was trained to associate the sound of the bell with the imminent arrival of food. Maybe it’s as simple as that, that we all have to eat, and so we end up eating together, and over time we come to associate food with togetherness. This seems to be the case with Jesus as he continues his post-prandial conversation with the crowd he’s already fed with loaves and fishes. The English translation we’ve grown up on is actually a little thin. The Greek is much meatier. What Jesus really says is something like, “Those who chew on my flesh and drink my blood have the life that lasts and I will stand them up on the last day.” The words John’s gospel uses aren’t ethereal or ephemeral, they’re visceral and embodied. They’re the stuff of incarnation. They echo back to the very first words of this gospel, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…” (John 1:14)

John’s gospel is the last and the latest of the four canonical gospels to be written, so there’s lots of scholarly conversation about how much it reflects the worship practices of the early church. It’s certainly hard to read these passages in worship and not think of the Lord’s Supper that’s still yet to come, but I want to avoid making that leap too soon. picXJM4ubOnce we start talking about Holy Communion it’s so easy to reduce it to a set of beliefs about Holy Communion. We’ve got two thousand years of disputes over beliefs about the sacrament, which is really not the same thing as the sacrament itself.

Jesus has a similar struggle with the crowd. He has already fed them, he has already saved them from their hunger, and they want to argue with him about their religious identity and beliefs: “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness.” (6:31) As the conversation deepens, Jesus responds to their certainties about the past with a fierce urgency in the present that points to a new future. Look at how often he repeats the words “eat” and “live” or “life” or “living” over and over in just these seven short verses: “living bread,” “whoever eats,” “live forever,” “life of the world,” “eat the flesh,” “eternal life,” “the living Father,” “I live,” “whoever eats me will live,” and “the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Food Fighters jul6The gospel of John at this point bears less resemblance to any of the celebrity chefs glutting our televisions with their highly specialized and technical approaches to food, and more of a resemblance to my mother at any dinner party she has ever thrown, “Eat! Eat! Can I get you some more of anything? Are you sure you won’t have a second helping? Or a third, or a fourth?” There’s always more food, and there’s nothing you could do to make her happier than to eat it.

Jesus also wants to get away from the highly specialized, technical approaches to religious identity and life together. He’s less interested in what your ancestors ate in the wilderness than in what will sustain you right here and right now. He wants you to eat, eat! Feast on the God who is not content to remain a Word, but insists on flesh.  Dine on the one who promises to be powerfully, truly present whenever the meal is shared because God dwells in our own flesh and makes our own lives sacred so that all our eating and all our gathering is holy communion.

Years ago, after a horrible break up, one of the most painful things I had to get used to was eating alone. I read all the advice about taking yourself out on dates, and I treated myself to some pretty terrific meals, but what I was longing for wasn’t amazing food but abundant life.

a Freshman Eating AloneThere are lots of ways we end up eating alone. Sometimes it begins as a relief, the kids have finally moved out and there’s a little peace and quiet. Other times it results from an unconscious neglect — we fill our days with too much work and grab food on the go, forgoing the opportunity to create holy communion with our friends or families to get just a little more work done. And, of course, some of us are only too aware of our solitude, having lived on after loved ones died, or became ill, or moved away.

The world is starving for the kind of love that will move beyond its ideas about love in order to actually embody it. The kind of love that will relinquish its prejudices about people in poverty in order to actually eat with them.  The kind of love that will surrender its judgment about its neighbors in order to invite them over for dinner. The kind of love brave enough to trade certainties for possibilities. The name we have been given for that kind of love is God, the face we have been given for that kind of love is Jesus, and the story we have been given to tell is that words are not enough, only flesh will do.

So bring your flesh to this table, your sacred bodies, your scared bodies and your scarred bodies. Bring your heartache and your loneliness, bring your joy and your thanksgiving, bring your passion and your craving, bring your memories of all those you’ve loved and miss, bring your hopes for those who’ve just been born, bring your whole self — not just your idea of yourself but your body, your flesh to meet the God who abides in flesh and bread and wine and you, who longs for you to eat, eat! And live.



Sermon: Sunday, January 4, 2015: Epiphany of the Lord (transferred)

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6  +  Psalm 72:1-7,10-14  +  Ephesians 3:1-12  +  Matthew 2:1-12

A few years ago on one of his trips to Chicago to hang out with me and Kerry, we took my dad to the Adler Planetarium. I hadn’t been to a planetarium since childhood, and didn’t know entirely what to expect aside from a memory of a darkened auditorium and an old-fashioned globe casting pin-prick maps of constellations in the sky against the inside of a half-dome. What we found instead was a state-of-the-art museum dedicated to educating the public about humanity’s explorations into space and time.

_DSC5778One exhibit in particular has stuck in my mind. It was a 3D film about the birth of the universe, the so-called big bang, and the rapid expansion that has followed ever since. Using images taken from deep in space by the Hubble telescope, the film gave me a glimmer of understanding of the size and scope of the known universe. It showed a small section of the night sky as we see it here in Chicago and zoomed in reveal a region of spacetime containing hundreds of thousands of galaxies and millions of stars all racing away from the center of the universe as it continues to expand at an unimaginable rate. As the film returned to the familiar first-person perspective of a person standing on the shore of Lake Michigan staring up into the night sky I felt myself awed and unsettled. The universe is vast and unknowable, and we are smaller than specks of dust on a tiny planet circling a single sun in a galaxy that is but one among billions.

The night sky we look at is virtually the same as the sky our ancestors looked at two thousand years ago, but our perspective is radically different. They lived with a cosmology that imagined the world to be flat, with waters held back beyond the sky by a dome high in heavens and resting upon other waters deep below and around the earth. They thought the stars were finite and fixed, and that they narrated the exploits of humanity’s course throughout the ages. Essentially, their world was much smaller than ours. The answers they proposed solved problems whose very premises no longer make sense to us, who now implicitly trust in a universe defined by laws of gravity and relativity articulated over the last few centuries and built into every facet of our lives from satellite-assisted global navigation systems to precision time-keeping. Our ancestors would barely recognize us as members of the same species, and when we consider what that means we find them and their stories equally as foreign.

We, then, are like the wise men from the East described in Matthew’s gospel who arrive at the scene of Jesus’ birth using foreign technology and alien religious practices to make their way to the vast and limitless God who takes on particularity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, born at a moment in history, in space and time. We have to slow ourselves down a bit to hear it, since the story has become so familiar after two thousand years, but to its first audience the story of foreigners following a star in the heavens was not a story about following traditions, but breaking them. To us, the wise men and their star are figures carved in alabaster in the crèche making their way toward the manger year after year, printed on calendars and surrounded by legends. To the first-century Jews who were Matthew’s audience, they were foreigners who did not know Israel’s stories, Israel’s prophets, Israel’s God. When they arrive, they do not do as Mary does in Luke’s gospel, they do not quote Israel’s scripture to interpret Israel’s present. Instead they rely on a foreign and foreclosed source of knowledge: the stars. Moses taught,

When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. No one shall be found among you who … practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur … (Deut. 18:9-10)

And the prophet Isaiah dismissed the power of wisdom found outside Israel’s traditions, saying,

You are wearied with your many consultations; let those who study the heavens stand up and save you, those who gaze at the stars, and at each new moon predict what shall befall you. See, they are like stubble, the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame. No coal for warming themselves is this, no fire to sit before! (Isa. 47:13-14)

So it comes as a surprise when Matthew, whose gospel is so thoroughly oriented toward Jewish tradition and who presents Jesus as a new kind of Moses, introduces these three wise foreigners who make their way toward this incarnation of God by means of their own native wisdom and traditions.

For centuries the church has told this story as one of triumph, to say that from his very birth people of every nation flocked to Jesus as the definitive incarnation of God in human history. Indeed, there is a theme established by this story in Matthew that will be developed throughout that gospel where those closest to Jesus fail to recognize who he is as those outside the community, and even demons, immediately recognize him as the Son of God.  From there it was only a small leap for the church to begin to imagine itself as the Holy Family, as Mary and Joseph receiving the gifts and recognition of outsiders from around the known world who were coming to faith in God through Christ Jesus. In this mode, we often heard this story preached and taught as one about evangelism, that God welcomes into God’s house people from every nation, bringing every kind of gift.

I think we’re living in a different era however. As the church struggles with the birthing pangs that are delivering it into a new station in society, ushering it into a world where it is established not at the center of mass culture but on its margins, this story takes on a new significance for all of us as we see ourselves in the role of the wise people from different and distant lands, feeling our way forward with sources of knowledge and revelation previously discounted, even disrespected, but now seen to be powerfully accurate in guiding us toward God’s manifestation in this day and age.

We experience this as people who trust and rely on the insights of science to teach us about the nature of the observable world and our history within it. We generally take for granted what previous generations found blasphemous: that the earth is much, much older than the stories passed down by our various religious traditions; that humanity emerged as a species through a process of evolution that connects us to all other life on the planet; that the earth is not the center of the universe and does not exist for the sake of humanity alone. In this, we are like wise people from the east, feeling our way toward God even as we lean on and learn from sources of wisdom and knowledge that challenge and sometimes contradict received traditions.

We experience this as people who go to work each day with people of different religious identities, and who claim no religious identity at all; as people who are related by blood, adoption, marriage and affection to people from around the world and people who live in and among us with different ethnic and cultural traditions. We have worked alongside, dined with, listened to, learned from, and loved people whose vision of God is not only different, but often irreconcilable with our own. Yet we continue to navigate toward a shared future by sharing our stories and listening to each other’s, knowing that truth is not only found in our history and experience, but outside it as well.

It is in light of this rich diversity and unexpected openness that I hear Paul’s words to the Ephesians,

This grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Eph. 3:8b-10)

What I hear today with fresh ears is Paul’s hope and vision that the church would participate in revealing the rich variety, the rich diversity, of the wisdom of God. Note that he does not say that he was tasked with bringing the boundless riches of Christ to the Gentiles, but that he was charged with bringing the news of the boundless riches of Christ, as if to say that he is sharing news of what already is true — that the wisdom of God in its rich variety is found among all peoples and nations.

What a different church we might be if we imagined ourselves not as the star’s destination, but as the wise travelers feeling our way forward together, guided by light coming to us from the far reaches of space and time and governed by laws that have governed us all even before we could name them or know them. A church on the lookout for God’s wisdom shining throughout creation, among our neighbors, our enemies, even ourselves. A church on the margins speaking to the rulers and authorities about what can be learned when we stop hungering to live at the center.

That church, that society of diversity, that rich variety is coming into view in our lifetimes. It is a revelation, an epiphany, a manifestation of God among us challenging our most basic ideas about membership, citizenship, identity and belonging. It is a place we are finding together, which will demand all our gifts and talents, and which will take us down roads none of us have ever walked before.

Thanks be to God!



Sermon: Thursday, December 25, 2014: Nativity of Our Lord — Christmas Day

Texts: Isaiah 52:7-10  +  Psalm 98  +  Hebrews 1:1-4  +  John 1:1-14

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from god swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Gen. 1:1-5)

Those of you who have worshipped at St. Luke’s on Christmas morning may remember me sharing that I not-so-secretly prefer Christmas morning to Christmas Eve. There are plenty of reasons this is so, and I won’t inflict them all on you unless you ask, but the one I will share is that Christmas morning tells the story of God’s incarnation as a poem instead of a narrative. Christmas Eve is all about Joseph and Mary, angels and shepherds keeping watch in their fields by night. Christmas morning is,

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)

For the last few years it’s been my habit to share a bit of poetry on Christmas morning, in honor of the gospel of John’s deep love of metaphor and imagery. This year what struck me again is how my inclination to use poetry to interpret scripture is learned from John’s own gospel. Unlike the three gospels that precede it, John’s gospel doesn’t begin with a narrative about the historical figure of Jesus, but instead begins with a poetic reimagining of the story of creation — the first five verses of John echoing the first five verses of Genesis.

The symmetry is beautiful, from the repetition of the phrase “In the beginning” to the parallel themes of light and darkness and their separation. John’s gospel has gifted us with a prologue to the Jesus story to follow that makes extraordinary claims: that Jesus is the visible incarnation of the invisible God whose creative power brought into existence everything that is; that the teacher, whose words give meaning and order to our lives, is also the pre-existing Word who gives meaning and order to the cosmos.

This symbolic link between Jesus and Genesis has had a profound impact on Christian theology over the centuries. In the second century Irenaeus of Lyons, who was born in a part of what is now Turkey and who became the bishop of a part of what is now called France, explained the meaning and consequence of Jesus’ death and resurrection as such,

“[Christ] was in these last days, according to the time appointed by the Father, united to His own workmanship, inasmuch as He became a man liable to suffering … He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam — namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God — that we might recover in Christ Jesus.” For Irenaeus, the divine Word becomes human flesh in order that our humanity might become divine; or, in his own words, “[he] became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”

That is a noble sentiment, though so often difficult to imagine as being within the realm of possibility. Our lives are hard, some so much more than others, and if all we had to account for was our daily struggle it would still be difficult to understand our lives as divine. But there is more to account for. There is our hard-heartedness. There is our pettiness of spirit. There is our persistent sense of entitlement. There is our refusal to forgive. There is our hatred of those who challenge us. There is our greed that starves our neighbor. In short, there is our sin. How can we, who know ourselves too well, imagine our own lives as holy?

The point of the creation story, as I understand it, was for ancient Israel to assert that the world and everything in it are the product of a good and loving God, who called creation into being with an act of speech and not an act of war, as the creation myths of Israel’s neighbors suggested. By planting Jesus in the middle of that myth as the essence of that very world-making Word, John’s gospel reminds us that God is not at war with us. God’s heart is not like our heart. It is not petty or entitled, it is quick to forgive and filled with love. Hard as it may be to imagine that we are holy, that we are wrapped up in God’s divine life just as God is wrapped up in our human frailty, we can trust that it is true because it is God’s nature to make it true.

Which is another way to say that it is a gift to us, that it is pure grace, that we are being made new this Christmas along with the whole creation by the God who is always making all things new. Whatever stories you tell yourself about the kind of person you are, whatever immutable personal flaws or character defects you think define you, the poetry of Christmas morning says you are wrong. You are not all that you hide away in the dark. You are creations of the Word called into being by love. You shine with the light of God, which can never be extinguished in you or in this world.

Of all the gifts given and received this Christmas morning, let us give thanks for the gift of life and of the new life that is always being born in us by God’s grace, which will not be overcome.