Lord, to Whom Shall We Go?

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Joshua 24:1-25
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

Well, we’ve finally made it.

This is our fifth and last week in the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John, the chapter in which Jesus explains what he means when he says that he is the bread of life.

On the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he fed five thousand men and more women and children with five loaves and two fish, one of the most famous miracles in the Bible. The crowd was hungry, and Jesus provided them food. The people are naturally impressed, and the following morning, they attempt to “guess” where Jesus will be next and meet him near Capernaum, on the other side of the sea. They are looking for Jesus—they are looking to be fed, to have their hunger filled.

They are hungry, and looking to be filled, and Jesus tells that there is bread that will fill them, and not just to fill their bellies. For just as God provided bread for the Israelites when they were starving in the desert, so too will God provide them with bread from heaven, bread to fill their spirits and souls. The Judeans ask, “Sir, give us this bread always,” and Jesus responds, “I am the bread of life.”

For the past five weeks now, we’ve heard Jesus explain what he means by that. He stresses over and over again how, like manna in the desert, he has come down from heaven to fill the hunger of the people, a hunger for life that they can’t fill themselves no matter how hard they try—he, Jesus of Nazareth, is the source of life and sustenance. He argues with them when they dispute that someone they knew, someone as ordinary as a construction worker, could be an agent of God; he insists that God the Father is known through him. He tells them, in the most gruesome ways possible, that, since he is the bread from heaven, people must eat his flesh, gnaw on it, chew on it, and drink his blood, if they want their hunger filled. This is the only way—they have to, they have to eat his body and drink his blood.

I don’t blame the disciples who, after hearing this teaching of Jesus, turned around and walked away. Yes, you heard that right. It wasn’t people in the crowd who heard Jesus’s crazy words and walked away. It was some of his own disciples.

These were people who had followed him, ministered with him, and learned at his feet. These were people who’d given up everything to follow their rabbi, who loved him and, up until that point, would’ve done anything for him. And yet, when they hear these strong words from Jesus, they reach a point where they simply can’t reconcile his teachings with the way they understand life. Jesus has gone too far, and they have to make a choice.

I don’t imagine it was an easy choice. They weren’t changing radio stations or political parties. They were at a crossroads, and in front of them lay two paths: continue to follow Jesus, and change everything they know about life; or leave Jesus behind, trying to find a sensible life of their own, lives that they left behind when they were called by Jesus to follow him. Whatever their reasons, they were trying to do what they thought was best, and I’d hesitate before condemning them for their choice.

Today, this morning, I again ask you to consider where you are in the story. My guess is that, more often than not not, we are closer to the group of disciples who leave than the disciples who stay. Jesus’s teachings are not easy, and they were never meant to be.

The disciples who left balked at Jesus’s words about eating his flesh and blood, words that have since been sterilized and cleansed and made acceptable to us today. But how many of us struggle with Jesus’s words that married couple’s shouldn’t get divorced? How do we react when we are told that, instead of hating them, we are to actually and genuinely love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us, trying, literally, to kill us? How do we handle the reality that we as a church are complicit in the systemic racism in this country, in this church, racism that we are much more comfortable being blind to? How do we respect the Biblical commands to treat the foreigner and alien like a member of the community deserving of respect, hospitality, and justice?

How do we answer the call to at least understand human sexuality and gender identity while honoring the bound conscience of our neighbor? How do we deal with the idolatry of money, the military, power and authority that constantly pulls us away from the worship of God alone? And what would happen if, like in other countries around the world, professing faith in Jesus Christ was a death sentence for us?

No, I don’t blame the disciples who left for doing so because, I’m afraid, we probably have lines that we simply won’t cross, teachings of Christ that we simply won’t accept. For the disciples, that line was Jesus promoting cannibalism. For each of us, I’m sure the line is different.

On the other hand, I’m not really sure what to do with the disciples who stayed. The natural inclination is to separate the disciples into these two neat categories: the ones who left didn’t have enough faith, and the ones who stayed, did. Done, nice and simple. But I don’t think so.

Among those who stayed are the Twelve, the most important disciples. In that group alone you have Judas Iscariot, who betrays Jesus to the temple authorities, which ultimately leads to Jesus’s death. You have James and John, the “sons of thunder” as they were named, who are so concerned with the power they think Jesus will bring them that they argue over who gets to be the greatest and ask Jesus to rain fire down on a town that offended them. You have Matthew, the tax collector and swindler, and Simon the Zealot, a violent, bloody revolutionary terrorist. And you have Simon Peter, the dunce of the group who never understands anything and denies even knowing Jesus during Jesus’s trial.

Looking at these two groups of disciples, those who left and those who stayed, I cannot in good conscience claim that one had more or less faith than the other, or that one understood better than the other, or that one was willing to go the extra mile when the other wasn’t. Both were looking for the same thing: they were looking for answers to their greatest questions. They were looking for something that said God was still alive and active in the world. They were looking for relief and liberation from oppression. The only difference is where they look. One group looked to Jesus. And the other didn’t. That’s really it.

When faith wavered, when Jesus’s words were too much, his teachings too strange, his ideas too difficult, everyone was shocked and overwhelmed. Neither group of disciples, those who left or those who stayed, really understood what Jesus was talking about. They were in the same boat. The only difference was where they looked after. One decided to stick out their confusion with Jesus, and the other didn’t. And that was the entire point that Jesus was trying to make.

When I look at the disciples in today’s Gospel reading, I see a group of people who, just like us, are looking for something greater. They are looking for God everywhere they can think to look. They are desperate to have their hunger filled. But they are also people who have their doubts, who aren’t sure whether God is truly listening, who aren’t sure whether this life has anything left for them. They are a people who were challenged by the atrocities they saw around them, who were dismayed by the injustices set upon them, and who were distraught at God’s response, or lack thereof.

They were looking for someone to save them. And there he was! Right in front of them, saying, “Here I am!” ‘Here, I AM’. God incarnate, God-With-Us, Jesus the Christ comes to those who are looking for life, who are looking for God.

I am impressed not only that Jesus comes to both the disciples who eventually turn away and those who stay, but I’m also impressed that those who stayed didn’t have it all figured out. They questioned, they doubted, they didn’t get it. Yet their response to Jesus’s question, “Why are you still here?” says it all: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the word of eternal life.” They doubt, they fear, they don’t understand, but Jesus comes to them anyway.

I have heard it said that the church is full of hypocrites and liars. And that’s exactly true. We gather as a community of faith, bringing our tough questions, our doubts, our fears, our anxieties. We are not perfect people by any stretch of the imagination, and we seriously wonder if God didn’t make some cruel mistake in calling us to be disciples. What does the church have to offer that the rest of the broken, messed up world doesn’t?

We know where to look. Or at least, we try to look.

This is why we gather every Sunday. We are looking for Jesus, we are looking for God. When two or three are gathered in his name, Jesus said, there he is. He promised to be with us until the very end of days. God promised to be present in the words and water of Baptism, in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Every time Christians gather, we see Christ in each other.

It doesn’t mean we have it all figured out–by no means. Neither did the disciples who stayed when Jesus presented them with impossible teachings. But we come anyway. Jesus comes anyway.

So bring your doubts. Bring your fears and anxieties. Bring your brokenness, your struggles, your questions, your uncertainties, and yes,  your faith. Jesus comes to, saying, “Here I am. Here, I AM.”

Featured Image: “Communion Service in Prism” by Ian Britton is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Body and Blood

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

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

Those of you who were in church last week probably remember that, sitting in the first three rows on one side, were about 16 members of my family. The first ones arrived on that Wednesday, and they stayed until last Tuesday.

Now, I like to keep the parsonage clean most of the time, so there wasn’t more than a day or two of cleaning to be done in preparation for hosting people—my parents and the dogs stayed with us. But there was a lot of work to be done to prepare for the cook-out we had last Sunday for my family and the congregation. We bought paper products, cups, plastic silverware, 48 hamburgers, 48 hot dogs, bratwursts and buns, 2-liters of pop.

We strapped one of my uncle’s grills to his truck so we would have a second one. We frantically tried to finish cutting the grass with a half-working lawn mower (that has since been restored to full working order). We finally noticed that, sometime between Wednesday and Friday, a tree came down in our back yard. We set up tables and coolers and a truckload of chairs.

And then, we threw an amazing party. My dad and uncles cooked up all the food, and we almost went through all the hamburgers. We lit a campfire, we had dessert, and it wasn’t until about 6:00 p.m. that everyone left, because they were having such a good time. When it was finally over, Debbie, my parents, and I collapsed in the living room—we were exhausted! Being hospitable is hard work.

We are now in the fourth week of study in the sixth chapter of John. Remember, this whole chapter comes right after the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus feeds the people with bread and fishes. Then he leaves, and in their wonder, they follow him, to see if he could do it again. And Jesus instead lays it all out for them.

He talks to them about what he is doing, that it is the same thing that happened to the Israelites in the desert, when God sent “bread from heaven”, manna, so that every day, the people could gather it from the ground and receive sustenance for that day. They were starving, and God provided, literally, for their lives. Jesus claims to be the same thing, “bread from heaven”, sent by God to a people starving for life.

We’ve heard this text before, and we’ve heard Jesus talk about being “bread from heaven” for a few weeks now. We heard how God uses the ordinary and unimportant to do great things. We’ve heard how Jesus is in the business of doing the impossible. And now, Jesus gets to put his money where his mouth is.

Throughout the long speech in John 6, Jesus makes frequent comparisons between himself and Moses, himself and God the Father, and himself and bread. Moses called on God when the Israelites were starving, and God produced literal bread from heaven. Jesus calls on God when the Judeans are starving, sometimes for bread, but also for something more, a deeper hunger. And God provides, sending Jesus Christ, God’s own son, to fill the hunger that food cannot sate: hunger for a life that means something.

And this is where it starts to get weird. These are, perhaps, some of the most uncomfortable verses in the Bible that we’re familiar with, aside from the brutal massacres and genocides of Joshua or frequent rapes.

Having just explained how he is the bread from heaven, how he has come to fill the hunger of the people who crave more than just a taste of the life God provides, Jesus draws the next logical conclusion. Now, for food to have any sort of effect whatsoever, what do you have to do with it? You have to eat it. And so Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you … Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”

This would normally be a great jumping off point for the Lutheran belief about the Eucharist, about how we take Jesus at his word, at his plain-faced word, that the bread and wine are in fact his body and blood, but let’s sit on that for a moment.

“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink from his blood, you have no life in you.”

Does that sound a little barbaric to anyone? It should. We as a society and culture abhor cannibalism, and that’s what Jesus seems to be advocating here. In fact, that’s one of the charges laid against the early church in the Roman Empire, that they were cannibals—they heard Christians talking about consuming the body and blood of their Lord, and their minds went to the logical place—oh my gosh, they’re eating parts of his body. The Judeans are right to scoff and question Jesus when he says such nonsense.

But I don’t want to focus on eucharistic theology today, at least, not right now. Instead, I want to ask a question: what could possibly motivate someone as powerful as God to give up and sacrifice their own body for others?

Earlier, I talked about how much work it was to set up a party on a single day for a bunch of people, especially when I didn’t know how many were coming. It felt like Wisdom, from Proverbs. Wisdom, the divine feminine, builds her own house, carves out the support pillars, cooks a feast, sets the table, makes a ton of preparations; then, she goes out and calls in people, any people to eat at her table. It’s a lot of work and, as I admitted, took a great deal out of me.

But after a few days, even though I’m still not quite fully recovered, life returns back to normal. Debbie and I made a small sacrifice for family and friends, giving of ourselves for others, but it was only temporary, and it was only part of us.

Contrast that with Jesus. Some people will give of themselves to help another. Others will give you the shirt off their back. Jesus gave his back, and his side, and his arms, and legs and hands and feet and head. He gave everything.

What could possibly motivate someone like Jesus Christ to give up everything, to sacrifice everything?

This is who Jesus is. This is who God is. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life”, that which sustains, provides life for those who have none. And when the question came up, “Just how far are you willing to go for these people, this world, this… nothing good before you?”, Jesus’s answer was clear. There was no distance Jesus would not walk. There was no obstacle he would not face. There was no weeping he would not turn to joy, there was no pain he would not alleviate, there was no feat he would not perform, even going to his own death, that would keep him from giving that life. Jesus went all in, put everything on the table and on the line, and said, “This is how far I’m willing to go.”

This is what the eucharist means. This is what we mean when we say that the very real presence of Christ’s body and blood are in, with, and under the bread and wine. This is what we receive when we eat and drink as we were commanded to do. We receive Jesus, everything that he is, everything that he’s done and continues to do, because Jesus held nothing back, not even his own body and blood, his life.

What could possibly motivate him to do that?

Featured Image: “Jesus of East Indian imagining” by TCDavis is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

The (Un)Important

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25–5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

Few things are as bad as thinking that you’re unimportant.

It feels, to many of us as if we are unimportant. As if the work we do doesn’t matter, as if we, as people, don’t matter. A great deal of our public discourse revolves around connecting with those who feel that they don’t matter.

I follow the ELCA Clergy Facebook group, and I’m always amazed at some of the deep questions around this topic that come up. Just recently, a pastor asked a question about a group of 20-something year olds who meet with him. They are all high school graduates working dead-end, minimum-wage jobs. They don’t care about salvation, global missions, big social justice issues, or any of the other “normal” things pastors talk about. The questions was, “How do I minister to them?”

While this pastor was talking about a group of 20-something year olds, it sounds like a lot of people I know. Some of the commenters who responded to his question suggested that in their life situation, these people felt like no one expected anything from them, so why bother trying? Another suggested that these people were working hard to make a living and barely making it–their concerns were more immediate, such as, “Where will my next meal come from?” Either way, they felt alone, like a forgotten people: unimportant.

Does it sound like anyone you know? Does it sound like you?

To me, it sounds like Elijah. We get just a bit of Elijah’s story this morning, so let me fill out the rest.

Elijah has just done something both incredible and incredibly stupid. He has just proven that his God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the true God, and Baal is not. He held a contest between himself and the prophets of Baal to see which group could get their god to answer by burning a sacrifice laid on an altar. The prophets of Baal failed—their god never burned the offering on the altar. Elijah succeeded—he called on God to burn the offering, and a fire came down from heaven and consumed the whole thing. Pretty incredible, right?

And then Elijah goes for the gold—he seizes all the prophets of Baal and has them killed, about 450 of them, all at once. The problem is that Queen Jezebel of Israel worshiped Baal, and those were her prophets. So she sends this message to Elijah: “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow”: or, in more modern terms, “Tomorrow, it’s either you or me.”

That’s a pretty serious threat on Elijah’s life from the one in power. Imagine that you’ve just done something amazing and life-changing, and you receive that message: tomorrow, you’ll be dead. Elijah does the sensible thing and runs. He runs far, far away, retracing the path the ancient Israelites took from the wilderness to the Promised Land. He goes back out in the wilderness, all the way back to Mount Horeb, or Mount Sinai, one of the holiest mountains of God.

There are a few reasons why Elijah is fleeing to Mount Horeb. One is the obvious one, the one I just mentioned—the queen has sworn to kill him by the next day. But there’s another, more personal reason Elijah is fleeing in distress. He says it much earlier in the story.

When he confronts the prophets of Baal, he says this: “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the LORD.” When God questions Elijah when he arrives at Mount Horeb and asks him why he’s there, Elijah replies, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Elijah has reached his lowest point. He looks around him, all the work he’s been trying to do in getting the kingdom of Israel back into a healthy relationship with God, and he sees nothing. Yes, he just proved before the people that God, not Baal, was the true God, but what good does it do if the queen, a ruler of the country, will fight against him at every turn? What good is it if he, as he believes, is the only person left in the entire kingdom that trusts and follows God? “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors”, he says.

It is a feeling we in the church know well, this feeling that, no matter what we do, it’s just not enough. It’s the feeling we get when we plan a youth outing, and get no interest; or a Bible study, and nobody comes. Or a special fund-raising event, and nobody donates.

It’s the feeling we get in the ELCA when we have conversations about racism, as our Presiding Bishop did just last Thursday—and then see the Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study report that we as a denomination are 96% white European descents, most of whom have no intention of ever welcoming someone different into their midst. Or when we as a synod have trouble funding and supporting initiatives of our congregations because people are using their money as a weapon to express their disapproval.

It’s soul-crushing to feel unimportant. It’s the most soul-crushing when we start to believe it and internalize it ourselves. We, like Elijah, believe that “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

What can God possible have to do with us? Look around you. We are a small, struggling congregation in a tiny rural town. There aren’t a lot of opportunities in our town. Most people have no idea where Three Lakes is on a map. Are we really worthy of God’s attention?

This is the same question presented by the crowd in the Gospel story when Jesus tells them that he is from the Father and is the bread from heaven. They look at him, at this man that they’ve known for his whole life, and think, “But he’s just a construction worker’s son. He’s a man who grew up in Nazareth. We know him, his mother, his brothers and sisters. He’s just like us. How could he be anything special? How could he be from God?”

My response to that question is: how could he not be?

How could the son of a construction worker, a country boy from a backwater town, not be from God? How could a tiny town like Bethlehem not be the birthplace of God’s Son? How could the little oppressed Roman province of Judea not be the location of one of the greatest religious revolutions in history? How could a humiliating death on a cross, an instrument of capital punishment, not be the perfect way for God to redeem the entire created universe?

Time and time again, God shows that not only is the ordinary and mundane important, but sometimes, they are the most important ways God is present. Of all the ways God could have chosen to create the universe, God did it with words, sounds we use every day. Of all the ways God could have chosen to fix the relationship between the Divine and the world, God chose the incarnation, coming to us in our own flesh and blood; and not only that, the person of Jesus Christ wasn’t a notable person, as the crowd points out.

Consistently, almost without fail, it’s not the fancy or the popular or the flashy or even the best that get God’s attention. The patriarchs were nowhere near paragons of human achievement. The Israelites were a pretty average group of rotten people. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah were small and insignificant compared to the empires around them.

And then there are the ways in which God comes to us in the sacraments, in the “offensively ordinary,” as one of my favorite preachers puts it: water, words, bread, wine. Remember, Jesus calls himself the bread from heaven, not the cake from heaven, or caviar from heaven, or stuffed-crust pizza from heaven. Bread from heaven. Jesus healed a man’s sight with mud, cured leprosy with a touch, raised people from the dead with just words, he ate with thieves and prostitutes, hung out with the poor and blessed them.

God is constantly taking what we would consider trash and throwaway junk and turning it into something wonderful and remarkable. For God, there is no such thing as unimportant; it is those very things, the unimportant things, that God often finds the most to work with and turn into amazing, important things.

There is no end to the struggles we will face as we fight our own feelings of unimportance. We are just ordinary people living mostly ordinary lives in an ordinary, unremarkable corner of the world.

But it is in the ordinary that God is most present: a man from Nazareth in Galilee, the elements of water, bread, wine, in simple acts of charity and kindness, in imperfect people living out imperfect lives the best they can with what they’ve got.

Thanks be to God that the unimportant are, in God’s eyes, the most important of all.

Featured Image: “Forgotten People” by mendhak is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

An ELCA Pastor's reflections on life and the church

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