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, August 9, 2015: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 1 Kings 19:4-8  +  Ps. 34  +  Ephesians 4:25–5:2  +  John 6:35,41-51

parker-crowdI was on retreat this past week at Techny Towers, up in Northbrook, at an event held by The Center for Courage and Renewal titled “Habits of the Heart for Healthy Congregations: Risking the Call to Belong.”  I’ve been to Courage and Renewal retreats before, which are based on the work of Parker Palmer, who also happened to be there with us for part of the event.  On Tuesday night I got to be part of a panel discussion on “the changing shape of belonging” during which I was asked to share to what, or whom, I am committed. Here’s what I said:

“At the risk of being trite, when it comes to belonging to a community of faith my first commitment is to Jesus. I offer this in, I hope, as non-chauvinist a way as possible. I don’t mean to suggest that Jesus is the only name by which we encounter the divine, but it is the name I have been given to rely on for health and healing. I also don’t mean to say that I am committed to Jesus because of the cultural inheritance he represents or because I get something out of the relationship — though both are true as well. What I do mean is that as I have lived in community with Jesus, I have grown in my capacity to see the people Jesus saw, like the widow with her mite; to touch the people that Jesus touched, like the leper living at the edge of community longing to go home; to love the people that Jesus loved, like the young man of privilege who wanted to be part of God’s movement without giving up what he already had.  In other words, I am committed to Jesus because I belong in his company, along with people who are very much like me, and people who are very much unlike me.”

When I got done talking I felt pretty good about myself.  I’d managed to say what I wanted to say, and to do it while sitting directly next to someone I kind of idolize.  I’d given my testimony about who Jesus is to me, and why I am committed to living my life in his company.  I claimed my place at Jesus’ side as one who belongs to him.

But Jesus does not belong to me.

At least, that’s what I hear loud and clear in this story from the gospel of John.  After feeding the five thousand and calming the storm, Jesus begins to teach the crowds that follow him with words that challenge them.  Words that challenge them — not because they don’t understand, but because they think they understand too well.  After referencing the story of the Exodus and God’s provision of manna in the wilderness, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.”  And because he says this, the Jews begin to complain about him.

Now, can we just stop for a minute and get real about who the Jews in this story were?  They were his people, his countrymen.  They were his neighbors.  They even say, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?”  As the crowd struggles to makes sense of and accept what Jesus is saying, the stumbling block isn’t their Jewishness (as two thousand years of Christian anti-Judaism have too often implied), but the fact that they thought they already knew everything they needed to know about him!  The stumbling block isn’t their religious background or their ethnic background, it’s their shared background. Who is this guy, that he compares himself to the bread that gave life to our ancestors in the wilderness?  We’ve known this guy since we were kids, since he was a kid.  He belongs to us!

It’s easy to feel that way about Jesus, especially if you love him.  The crowds must have loved him, he’d just met their most basic need in the most extraordinary way, taking what little they had and transforming it into enough to send them to sleep stuffed with leftovers to spare.  I love him, because he sees me giving my all, as little as that may be; because he touched me even when I was aching at the margins of society; because he loves me, even when I am more attached to my comfort and my wealth than I am to his revolution.  You love him in ways you already know how to share, and ways that are still searching for words.  You love him because he is your inheritance, because he is your hope, because he is your teacher, because he is your struggle, because he is your shepherd, because he is your savior, because he is your Lord, because he is your God.

Because you belong to him, though he does not belong to you.

Interfaith Worker Justice's Founding Director, Kim Bobo

Interfaith Worker Justice’s Founding Director, Kim Bobo

I was down at the seminary last night for the opening convocation of this year’s LVC orientation.  All of the new volunteers, who will be placed in settings across the country, are gathered this week in Chicago for training and community building. All of the speakers were fantastic but one snippet from Kim Bobo, the founding director of Interfaith Worker Justice, stuck out at me. Speaking to a crowd made up mostly of recent college graduates she said,

“I would far rather work with someone who will do something than someone who knows something. The problem with college is that it spends four years training you that the most important thing is knowing the right answer. Then you get sent out into the world and you feel like the most important contribution you can make to an organization is to have the answers. I’m running the copier, making coffee, and taking out the trash, and my interns want to do something that ‘matters.’”

For too long, too much of Christianity has been about trying to prove we know something. Over the course of two thousand years we have divided the body of Christ again and again with dispute after violent dispute over what “matters,” our ideas about what we must believe about God in order to belong to God.  It’s not hard to see where it comes from, we get it in this morning’s passage as well,

“No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” (John 6:44-47)

Ironically, whenever we get too self-satisfied with our answers about what it means to belong to God, we take our role in the story being played out between Jesus and the Jews, those who thought they knew him best, his friends and neighbors. In our insistence on right beliefs we hear echoes of their insistence that they also knew how God would save them, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness…” (6:30-31) Time and time again we confuse our belonging to God with God belonging to us.

And each branch of the Christian family tree has their own particular way of doing this, none of us are exempt.  Lutherans are extraordinarily proud of our theology. We stand behind Martin Luther’s recovery of the apostle Paul’s assurance that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Rom. 3:28) So, we get nervous whenever anyone talks about doing anything, because we worry that someone will get the wrong idea and understand us to be saying that we have to do something to merit God’s favor.  That our belonging depends on our doing instead of what God has already done. The problem is, there are things that need doing — not in order that you might finally one day be worthy of belonging to God, but because you already belong to God.

You already belong to God, and so does everyone else, despite all that the world does to deform our sense of self so that some of us are taught to believe that the world exists for our benefit and others are taught to believe that the world is permanently set against us.  Most of us, in fact, experience the world to be a place of both privilege and pain, which creates in us a sense of anxious confusion as we try to maximize our privilege and minimize our pain.

The world operates on the logic of what Martin Luther might have called “works righteousness,” except that instead of offering us the old trade — our righteous works for the promise of heaven — it has shrunk the horizon of belonging down to earth and demanded our righteous works — in the form of obedience to a political and economic pyramid scheme that benefits a few by oppressing a great many — in return for the promise of acceptability here and now.  It has lied to us and told us that the only way we can know if our lives have any worth or meaning is if they look like the lives led by happy, comfortable, well-fed, able-bodied, White, middle-class, heterosexual, Christian, married, home-owning families. Except, guess what, I’ve checked 9 out of 10 boxes on that list — and they have nothing to do with what gives my life meaning or purpose or value!  If anything, being able to check those boxes leaves me constantly aware of a nagging complicity with a system that was organized before I was born and without my consent to create separation and mistrust between me and and so many other groups of people who are like and unlike me. God’s own people, who are my sisters and brothers.

What gives my life purpose and value is that I belong to God, whose answer to my anxious confusion is not to maximize my privilege and minimize my pain as so much prosperity-promising religion suggests, but to do the exact opposite.  In Jesus, God has shown us a way of loving that gives up privilege and stands with those in pain. In Jesus I see a way of godly living that Paul commends in his letter to the Ephesians,

“So then, putting away all falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another … Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph. 4:25;5:1-2)

The world is filled with people giving it their all, aching at the margins, clinging to their privilege — people like you and me, and people so very different from us — and if we are going to be part of God’s healing and redemptive purpose we will have to give up so many illusions about God and about ourselves.  We will have to dismantle the machinery of capitalism, which treats people like objects and objects like people. We will have to deconstruct myths of White superiority, which pretend that White people’s successes and People of Color’s sufferings are both deserved and disconnected. We will have to disavow nationalism, which teaches us to accept the bondage and humiliation of other people as long as it happens away from our view. We will have to confess that our ideas about God are so much smaller than God’s own self, and be ready to release not only those elements of our Christian heritage that seem peripheral, but even those which may feel essential, in order to participate in the expansive welcome God has in store for all of us.

I don’t think that’s actually so different from what Jesus said to his friends, his neighbors, his people, the Jews — who are also our friends, and our neighbors, and our people as well, along with every other person on the face of the earth, Muslims and Bahá’í, Hindus and Jains, Buddhists and Atheists, Indigenous and Colonizers, Asian and Latino, Black and White, and all the rest of God’s richly diverse creation — I will be who I will be, I will become what I am becoming. I am not confined to your memory, I am laboring alongside and within you to give you a future with life. I will support you.  I will sustain you.  I will feed you.  I will be your bread, and you will be my people.  You belong to me.  All of you.



Sermon: Sunday, August 2, 2015: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Exodus 16:2-4,9-15  +  Psalm 78:23-29  +  Ephesians 4:1-16  +  John 6:24-35

How might we describe those who woke up the day after the feeding of the five thousand?  Those who’d had the experience of being provided for completely, who’d gone from a fear of scarcity to astonishment at an abundance that filled them entirely with leftovers to spare. Can we imagine how well they slept that night, the kind of sleep that follows a day of feasting? Can we guess at how their bodies felt as they woke up that morning, not to the pangs of hunger that were their daily reality, but to bellies still filled by their last meal?  I imagine children who were used to going to bed hungry slept through the night.  I suspect parents got a better night’s sleep as well, and families woke up with a sense of energy and hope that can’t be taken for granted. I hear people humming fragments of the songs they’d shared around the campfires the night before. I see children from different households playing together in the lake as mothers and fathers recounted the powerful words and deeds of Jesus, who … wait, where was Jesus?

Do you think they expected Jesus to stay put? Even if they suspected it was unlikely, how could they have helped but to hope that yesterday’s miracle would become a daily occurrence?  In fact, hadn’t they suggested, hadn’t they insisted on making Jesus their new king before he withdrew from them? (John 6:15) Perhaps they hoped that, like King David, Jesus would propose to build a house for the Lord where their sacrifices could be exchanged for God’s providence (2 Sam. 7:2).  Do you remember how God responded to David’s proposal?  “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” (2 Sam. 7:5-6)  So Jesus has moved on as well, and even those who have experienced first hand the satiating miracle of God’s amazing grace have to keep moving, keep looking for him.

harwood-perkinsThis really runs counter to everything we know about efficiency and productivity.  Many mornings on my way to work I stop to pick up a cup of coffee.  There’s a ritual to the whole transaction: first I pull into the parking lot and pray for a space to park my car, then I wait patiently in line pretending to consider my many options (though I already know I’m going to order an iced coffee with room for cream), finally the barista greets me with a smile and a look of recognition asking me what I’d like. What I’d like is always available, and it’s always delivered as efficiently as possible, so that I can get back in my car and on with my life.

The same pattern is repeated again and again throughout my day. The shelves of the grocery store are stocked with food, the wireless network automatically brings me my emails, the water flows from my taps at work and at home. It is the function of the marketplace to bring us our wants and our needs, regardless of whether or not we can tell the difference, on demand. In exchange for this exacting regularity, we trade hours of our lives represented by dollars paid for services rendered. Except we don’t all get the same exchange rate for our lives, leading some to believe that their lives are worth more than others. This leads to additional forms of violence of every sort as the market colludes with the state to make sure that the wants of a very few are privileged over the needs of so very many.

Yet even knowing all this, it’s still so alluring, the promise of life on demand.

When they find Jesus on the other side of the lake, in Capernaum, he confronts their desire directly. “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (6:26-27)

Just like God’s reply to King David, Jesus’ reply to the crowd points them back to the foundational story of the people of Israel, the story of the exodus from slavery. If we remember that story, then we recall that the manna from heaven came with an expiration date. God provided enough food for the people each day as they journeyed from slavery to freedom, but if they tried to store it up it would become foul and perish. It was a lesson in trust. The people could put their faith in an economy of hoarding, which was precisely what they’d just been delivered from, an economy of slavery, or they could practice reliance on a God who is trustworthy and who has already provided more than enough for each day.

The difficulty with that second option, the choice to practice faith in the God of abundance is that this God is not a commodity. This God is not stocked on the shelves, or carried steadily on the network, or flowing from the tap on demand. This God is not waiting to fill your order on the way to work, or each Sunday morning if and when you decide to come to worship. This God is a subject, not an object. This God is a relationship, not a transaction.  This God is free, not captive.

And thank God this is the case! Because, really, has “on demand” life been working that well for us?  Has the on demand economy really produced the kind of prosperity we can trust?  Has the system of hoarding which assigns surplus value to some lives and deficit value to other lives really left us feeling safe in one another’s company?  Has the collusion of the market with the state produced a trustworthy society?  Are our neighbors really getting fed?  Are our children really getting educated?  Are our elders really being cared for?  Are our families really being supported?  Are our communities really being protected and served?  Are our cities really being rebuilt?  Are our nations really seeking peace?  Is this system really working for us?

Or have we settled for routine and regularity over relationships and the hard work of faith in a God who has already provided more than enough, who has already given us example after example, sign after sign, miracle after miracle, as proof that God’s love is abundant, unconditional, and unmerited. It is free, like the manna that appeared each morning in the wilderness, but it is also on the move because it comes from the God of the tent and the tabernacle, the God who is always ahead of us making all things new.

Like the crowd that woke up that morning after the miracle, it is time for us to break camp. It is time for us to come to grips with our silent hope that God would allow us to stay put and pay lip service to the God of freedom while paying dues to the idol of life on demand. It is time for us to unmask our deadly reliance on systems of wealth that create hierarchies of worth, that create the need for hashtags like #blacklivesmatter because they set up walls between people based on race and class and nationality and then police those walls with deadly force.

It is time for us to break camp and start looking for Jesus, who is not a commodity to be picked up on the way to brunch, but the visible face given to us by the God whose deep longing for relationship took on flesh and bone and blood. To look for Jesus, who meets us where we are but refuses to be tied down to our notions of comfort.  To look for Jesus, which means to read the stories for ourselves, to ask the questions for ourselves, to pray the prayers of our own hearts, to sing the freedom songs of our own liberation, to chew on, to feast on, the God who is irreducible to a set of beliefs, who can only be believed in by being loved.

It is time for us to break camp and start looking for Jesus.  We, who have been fed well in this place and in many places like this, are now called to get in the boat and cross the lake.  We are heading into the wilderness, not just our congregation, but our whole society.  Don’t you feel it?  The illusory promise of life on demand has failed us, as it always does, and now is the moment of our liberation.  We are disencamping from the economy of scarcity, from the politics of fear, from the policies of segregation, from the spirituality of hoarding. We must if we are going to live. We must if we are going to be free. We must if there is to be any future at all. We must leave what we have known, the idol of security, for the promise of real prosperity.

I believe this is “the work of God,” that Jesus speaks of: the commitment to practice a faith that follows instead of the faith that stays put.  Our present circumstances as a congregation, ultimately, are not that important.  Racism will not end, nor will economic exploitation, when we disencamp from this place.  But this moment is an opportunity for each of us to examine what fears tie us down, what hopes have the power to propel us forward. This is our chance to practice together what we hope to see more of throughout the world — a willingness to leave behind the securities of the known-but-broken for the sake of a living, daring faith in the God of the future who provides for us day by day more than we even know we need. This is what it means for us to pray, “give us this day our daily bread” — not to be given the bread we expect or think we’ve earned, but the bread that is sufficient for this day with trust that there will be bread for us all tomorrow as well.