A Sermon about the Bread of Life and God’s Abundance in the Midst of Scarcity

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A sermon preached for ML 502: Preaching the Gospel of John at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, October 25, 2017

John 6.35, 41-51 (Proper 14B)

If I’m being completely honest, the prospect of going on internship to Omaha, Nebraska, didn’t strike me as particularly exciting. I mean, really? Nebraska? As someone who grew up in the near suburbs of Detroit and had spent the past nine years in the Chicagoland area, never having so much as set foot in Nebraska, I had a lot of images of cornfields and prairies and not a whole lot else. You might say it didn’t exactly strike me as a picturesque image of abundance.

Abundance. It’s at the heart of today’s gospel. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves and start talking about “the bread of life” and “eternity,” concepts that have been hyper-spiritualized and are prone to mis-interpretation, the miracle story that jumpstarts the entire conversation that follows centers on real hunger and real bread. The abundance of the miracle is heightened by its numbers: with only five loaves and two fish, five thousand people eat as much as they want, with leftovers to fill twelve baskets. It’s simple math: that’s more food than we began with! But above all, this is real bread for real people with real hunger.

And yet: There’s something more going on. The next day the crowd chases after Jesus: How did you do that? Can you do it again?! And then a twist: “I am the bread of life.” Suddenly, it seems, we’re not talking about real bread anymore, and yet these words are a continuation of the miracle story, rooted in real, physical hunger.

In the midst of real hunger, Jesus senses something deeper going on, a deeper hunger and yearning. His was a world where abundance was not the norm, a world infused by empire, an empire that saw itself as a “golden age” that would presumably last forever. And yet: Despite Caesar’s agenda of “making Rome great again,” for the vast majority this was a society plagued by food shortages, restricted access to staple foods, malnutrition, and disease. Real bread was hard to come by. Scarcity, not abundance, ruled the day. We might even say that bread, which should be an image of abundance and sustenance, had become just the opposite.

If a society of scarcity, in a system controlled by an oppressive empire, sounds familiar, consider Houston resident Mary Maddox, whose home was flooded with nearly two feet of water after Hurricane Harvey hit her city in August. On her back porch sits a Lady of the Night plant, native to Puerto Rico. Pausing by the plant, Mary holds one of its leaves, says a prayer for those in the island nation still without water or electricity, and expresses her deep frustration in the drastically different disaster response she has benefited from in her own hometown.

The effects of empire are stark: While life slowly returns to normal in Mary’s Houston neighborhood, those in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico have seen fewer resources and federal aid directed their way. Throwing a package of paper towels at a crowd of second-class U.S. citizens doesn’t exactly cut it when the very infrastructure of their homeland has been decimated.

Whether in modern-day Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria or in ancient Rome, empire privileges a select few at the expense of the many. It is in the midst of this scarcity, this devastation, this oppression, that Jesus senses a deep hunger for bread and more than bread, a deep yearning to be filled. Uttering six simple words — “I am the bread of life” — Jesus reclaims the imagery of bread from the clutch of empire to proclaim God’s reign of abundance over Caesar’s reign of scarcity.

Jesus reclaims and identifies himself with the imagery of bread to proclaim abundance in the midst of scarcity. And the thing about abundance is that it threatens scarcity. Abundance threatens scarcity and endangers the very system that has set it up. Abundance threatens to eliminate scarcity and to take away the fearful control it holds on those in its clutches. Abundance in response to real hunger and more than hunger is precisely what Jesus offers.

I am the bread of life… the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. Jesus, the eternal Word of God, offers his very flesh, his body, for the sake of the life of the entire cosmos. Jesus’s flesh, offered in abundance, for all persons, without distinction, threatens empire. And try as empire might to push back and crucify the very one who threatens to undo its system of control, the abundant life that Jesus promises cannot be contained by cross or tomb. Abundant life breaks into the very places that we least expect it to thrive and says, no, this is not the way it has to be. Abundant life that foreshadows crucifixion promises resurrection and God’s decisive victory over empire.

This is the mystery we proclaim every week around the table before the Eucharistic meal: For as often as we eat of this bread and drink from this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

The bread we share is the bread of life, the body of Christ, given freely and abundantly for the sake of the life of the entire cosmos. This is Eucharist is John. It is political, it is defiant, it is hope-giving, it is liberation-seeking. It proclaims life in the midst of death, liberation in the midst of oppression, abundance in the midst of scarcity.


Nearly every week during internship, I stood in the chancel at Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha with a stream of people coming forward to receive a little piece of bread and a sip of wine. The words I would repeat are simple: “The body of Christ, given for you.” These words, evocative of Jesus’s own words in our gospel text, offer the promise of abundant life, but more: that abundant life is lived among the community that makes up the living body of Christ, for the sake of each other and for the sake of the world.

The body of Christ that offers abundant life in the midst of scarcity is the body of Christ that I encountered each week around a table of bread and wine, at our first Sunday potluck meals, in the mutual support of the community in times of grief, and in celebration as we marched in the Heartland Pride Parade. The body of Christ that offers abundant life, freely, to all, without exception, is in our midst, among the people we are called to serve and who in turn minister to us.  This is an abundance that satisfies real hunger and more than hunger. Even in the midst of empire and all the forces that would try to tell us otherwise, the body of Christ, the bread of life, offers us abundance now and continues to do so with each new day.

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A Sermon for the Feast of St. Thomas

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This is the final sermon preached at my internship congregation, as I draw my year (how quickly it’s gone by!) to a close. I am so grateful for the privilege of being invited into so many lives over the past year, in sadness and in joy and everything in between. The people of Augustana will remain in my heart for a lifetime of ministry. Deo gratias!


Augustana Lutheran Church
2 July 2017 + St. Thomas the Apostle
John 14.1-7



Unbelievable. A word which, by definition, implies something too improbable to be believed, something extraordinary, outside the bounds of what we expect to be true.

For nearly the past century, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! franchise, founded by its namesake, American businessman Robert Ripley, has wowed audiences with tales of people and events so bizarre and unusual that leave many scratching their heads in disbelief. Some of their claims have indeed been too dubious and called into question, like the urban legend of Frank Tower, who, they suggest, survived the sinkings of the Titanic, Empress of Ireland, and Lusitania. That claim, as my limited internet research (and a bit of common sense) tells me, has indeed been debunked.

Outside of bizarre events and persons that may or may not fall under the category of #alternativefacts, the unbelievable also permeates the natural world with spectacular and breath-taking vistas — from the Grand Canyon to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts to our own picturesque, pastoral landscapes here in Nebraska, many of which I have been able to see for myself over the past year.

Unbelievable, too, that my time among you this past year as your vicar officially draws to a close this morning. It seems like only yesterday that I was pulling a U-Haul westward down I-80, through the surprisingly hilly landscape of Iowa, across the Missouri River, and into midtown Omaha.

It seems appropriate, then, that this morning we commemorate St. Thomas, one of Jesus’s twelve disciples, who gets rather a bad reputation for his own unbelieving. A picture I stumbled across last year when I preached on “doubting Thomas” shows an image of the apostle that poses the question, “Thomas, do you think Christians will ever appreciate that you were actually a person of great faith?” At the bottom of that image, we read his fictitious reply: “I doubt it.”

It hardly seems fair that this is how we remember Thomas — as a doubter — but I also don’t think it’s very accurate. Indeed, his three direct appearances in John’s gospel suggest a far more dynamic, nuanced picture of this disciple. In chapter 11, after Jesus has learned that Lazarus his friend has died, it is Thomas who boldly insists the disciples join their teacher on his journey to visit the bereaved family, a journey that would also begin Jesus’s path to Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Several chapters later, after Jesus has been raised from the dead, Thomas’s infamous episode of disbelief is not necessarily a sign of complete skepticism or unwillingness to believe. Instead, I suspect his doubts come from a place of deep concern. In the Easter gospel, his disbelief could easily be attributed to his life experience, especially over the past few days: His rabbi had been arrested, tortured, and killed at the hands of a powerful empire, like so many others who dared to question the empire’s authority before him. Execution, period, was the ending to be expected. In other words, nothing about Thomas’s experience would have led him to think any good news could possibly come from this.

Then in today’s gospel, we hear Thomas’s words: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Situated in the context of Jesus’s “farewell discourse” to his disciples, after the raising of Lazarus and of course before his crucifixion and resurrection, Thomas’s deep concern and anguish over the events that were about to unfold are clear. One can imagine the questions on his mind: What’s going to happen to Jesus? What’s going to happen to us?

In contrast to popular perception, in these few verses from John’s gospel Thomas would actually appear to be an exemplar of faith — a faith which includes doubt and questions and anxiety and fear, a faith which is by no means perfect.

Thomas, I suspect, has much to teach us about the life of faith. For starters, faith is far more than pure, unquestioning subscription to a particular belief or doctrine, let alone denominational loyalty. Because, shocker, sometimes the church gets it wrong, like how the church got human sexuality wrong for many years and until only recently made it impossible for someone like me to follow my calling, serve this internship, and stand before you today.

Anne Lamott has famously written, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” To take that one step further, I would assert that as soon as we think we are certain about our beliefs, faith is dead. Instead, questions and doubt along the way are not only expected but welcomed, and likewise, imperfection is guaranteed along our life’s journey. No life of faith is lived in a linear fashion, and any example that suggests otherwise should be held with deep suspicion.

This is why I think Thomas is such a perfect example of a faithful disciple, not in spite of but because of his imperfection.

In our current social and political environment, there has indeed been much to be anxious about. The feelings that Thomas and his fellow disciples would have experienced are our feelings: fear, uncertainty, doubt, worry, lament, questioning. And these things are a natural, even permissible, part of the life of faith.

“You know the way… I am the way,” are the words of promise Jesus offers Thomas. Because the disciples knew Jesus in the flesh, they could know God and experience God’s unfailing presence.

Amid and in spite of doubt and fear, Jesus reassures Thomas that he knows the Father because he has known Jesus. So too, we are also promised Christ’s very presence in tangible signs: in the waters of baptism, in the Word of God proclaimed, in the grape and grain of the eucharist, in this very community whenever and wherever we gather. If you know me through these things, we can hear Jesus saying, you know God and you know God’s presence. These are the places where God promises to meet us in our life of faith, whether in its ups or in its downs, and these are the places in which we can take refuge.

Thanks be to God.


Hymn of the Day: “Faith Full of Doubt”
Dedicated to the people of Augustana

1) Faith full of doubt and full of fear,
faith is far more than believing.
Discord and violence all we hear
give way to worry and grieving,
asking “How long, O Lord, how long?”
pleading for God to right the wrong.
To you we cry, Lord, have mercy!

2) Thomas the twin, true sign of faith,
knew not his own life’s fulfilling.
To Bethany the path he’d trace,
to go with Christ was he willing:
“Let us go too with him to die!”
in faithful loyalty replied.
To you he cried, Lord, have mercy!

3) Among his friends one last repast,
Christ his farewell to them making.
Thomas alone was bold to ask,
e’en as his heárt was breaking:
“How can we know the place you go,
if the way there we do not know?”
Still was his cry, Lord, have mercy!

4) When the apostles saw the Lord,
risen in glorious splendor,
Thomas could not believe their word;
all his experience rendered:
“This is too much, this cannot be!
Impossible unless I see!”
To you he cried, Lord, have mercy!

5) Like Thomas we well understand
journey implies imperfection.
Certainty faith does not demand;
doubt and lament are expected.
When all around is cause to fear,
hope is resigned, hope disappeared:
The cry of faith, Lord, have mercy!

6) Claimed as God’s own in wat’ry bath,
marked on our brows the sign tracing;
ever with Christ to walk the path,
rest in God’s gracious embracing.
Let not your hearts be troubled here!
In bread, wine, water God draws near!
To you we sing, Hallelujah!

Text: Josh Evans, b. 1989
Music: KIRKEN DEN ER ET GAMMELT HUS, Ludvig M. Lindeman, 1812-1887
Text: © 2017 Josh Evans. All rights reserved; used by permission.
Music: Public Domain

A Sermon for Ordinary Time (again!) in Which I Quote Lady Gaga

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Augustana Lutheran Church
18 June 2017 + Lectionary 11A
Matthew 9.35–10.8-23


[Video/audio unavailable due to ornery technology. Also, a generally delayed posting due to an overworked vicar at the end of his tenure.]


Our gospel text this morning comes on the heels of Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount, and as any good preacher will tell you, there are often more than enough ideas and unique angles and interesting illustrations that come up during the sermon writing process than one could or should ever try to pack into a ten-minute message. Now, I’m not sure if that makes Jesus a bad preacher, but the Sermon on the Mount does go on for three whole chapters. (Just sayin’…) And it includes such doozies as:

Blessed are those who mourn.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Do not resist an evildoer.

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

The gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Not exactly the kind of nice little maxims you’d want to cross-stitch on a throw pillow. To quote a recent song from that great theologian Lady Gaga, “You’re giving me a million reasons to let you go…” To put myself in the place of one of Jesus’s newly minted disciples hearing this stuff, Gaga’s words sound like an apt response: Blessed are those who what?! I’m sorry, love who exactly?! Oh, hell no.

Indeed, a million reasons to let it all go, right then and there. But, Gaga’s refrain pleads, “I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away, but baby, I just need to one good one to stay.”

The gospel’s gotta get better, right? I mean, it’s literally the good news. On the heels of his great sermon, Jesus summons the disciples, “Proclaim the good news… cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Alright, it’s daunting, but I can get on board with that. “Take no gold, or silver…” Sounds risky, but sure, let’s go with it. “I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves…” Hold up!

And more: “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” Well, happy Fathers’ Day to you too!

Not exactly the most compelling reason to stay, if you ask me.

Behind these words is the irrefutable fact that the work of discipleship is hard, but it is of utmost importance. At the start of our reading, we get a snapshot summary of Jesus’s ministry of healing and liberation, but it’s in the next verse that we get his key motivation: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless” — or more literally, “oppressed and thrown to the ground.” It’s out of compassion — the willingness to suffer with as the root meaning of that word suggests — for their social situation that propels Jesus’s ministry among them, and it’s out of that same compassion that he recognizes the need in his context is so great that he can’t manage it all on his own and so sends his disciples to do the same.

Out of compassion Jesus cures every disease and every sickness, and out of compassion Jesus gives the same instructions to his disciples. These acts are the hallmarks of the coming of the reign of God — the new way of life rooted in healing and liberation. Which is all well and good, but what does that have to do with our time and place? When was the last time you saw a pastor walk into a hospital room and instantly cure a patient? And last I checked, The Exorcist was just a movie.

Maybe it’s not the acts themselves, then, but what they mean. After all, disease or demonic possession in the ancient world was viewed as a physical manifestation of sin, so healing someone of these ailments would have been viewed as a dramatically subversive act, upsetting the status quo and proclaiming liberation in the midst of oppression.

While these acts of healing and exorcism might be unfamiliar or irrelevant to us, the meaning behind them isn’t. To heal the sick is to advocate for health care justice. To proclaim the good news is to say that immigrants and refugees are welcome in this country and in our city. To cast out demons is to pursue equality for LGBTQ+ persons by exorcising from our society discriminatory laws and in their place championing anti-bullying measures to protect vulnerable youth.

Wherever a message of healing and liberation from oppression is proclaimed, there is the reign of God, subversive in and of itself because it pushes back against the status quo and upends all our expectations, subversive because it is rooted in grace — the unmerited, undeserved, unrelenting love of God in Christ that, so freely offered to us in our need, compels us to share it with a world in need.

If it still sounds like a daunting task, consider the original disciples sent to proclaim this message of healing and liberation. These are persons that are the least likely candidates for such a mission: Matthew is a tax collector, and Judas is named as Jesus’s future betrayer. Beyond the surface of the text, we also know that Simon the Cananaean was a zealot (a violent revolutionary) and that the other Simon, aka Peter, would one day deny ever knowing Jesus. Imperfect as they are, these are those whom Jesus sends, together. Imperfect together, they don’t have to do this work alone.

There is a movement in the gospel from Jesus’s teachings to his mission, from Jesus’s acts of compassion to his disciples’ commission to do likewise. This is a movement that includes us as well, as the church moves out of the times and seasons that trace Jesus’s life and ministry, death and resurrection, from Advent through Easter, now into Ordinary Time.

This is a time for discipleship together. As we remember whose we are and the grace shown to us, we remember for what we are claimed and sent so that that grace might also be shown through us.

A Pentecost Sermon about Diversity in Unity

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Photo by Josh Evans, Stained Glass (South Window) at Augustana Lutheran Church, Omaha, Nebraska, © 2017.


Augustana Lutheran Church
4 June 2017 + Day of Pentecost
Acts 2.1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13



There’s a certain pleasure in watching a cooking show on TV — my personal favorite is The Barefoot Contessa — and then searching out the recipe online, hurriedly jotting down the ingredients, and embarking on a quest to make that dish your own. Except it never quite turns out like it did for Ina Garten, does it? Maybe that’s just me, but then again, no one has ever mistaken me for a chef extraordinaire.

In cooking, one quickly learns the lesson that every ingredient matters. Case in point: When you’re making brownies, eggs are kind of crucial. Not that I would know anything about that from experience…

Every ingredient matters. Similarly, Paul writes to the Corinthians that there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit, many members but one body. For Paul, every unique gift matters to make up the whole. But it seems that the lesson we learn from this and similar texts is to place greater value on the end result — the unity, the oneness, the sameness. And yet quite the opposite is true when you cast even a passing glance at this text, for indeed Paul spends the majority of his time naming these various gifts of the Spirit — wisdom, faith, healing, prophecy, and so forth.

The emphasis here is much more on the diversity of the community. So why then do we so quickly jump over that to arrive at a sort of kumbaya/we’re all the same/let’s all get along conclusion?

We’ve probably heard more Pentecost sermons about Christian unity than we care to remember, and while they’re not inherently wrong in any way, I want to suggest a nuance here — unity not as the opposite of diversity, but unity in the midst of and even harmoniously alongside diversity.

The movement in our Pentecost text from Acts draws us from the cloistered group of disciples into the wider community. They were all together in one room… and then suddenly the Holy Spirit shows up… and before you know it, they’re in the midst of a crowd of Jews from every nation, speaking in the native language of each.

Now let’s be clear: It’s not that the disciples were suddenly speaking some universal language that everyone could miraculously understand. These were all different languages. The litany of nations and nationalities isn’t there for its own sake or for the sake of keeping church readers everywhere on their toes. It’s meant to emphasize, or even exaggerate, the dramatic diversity of people to whom God’s Spirit and message of liberation is being revealed. As Peter declares, quoting the prophet Joel, God will pour out God’s Spirit upon all flesh. But what the text doesn’t say, and what  I fear we all too often read into it, is that God’s Spirit will make everyone the same. Instead, there’s a movement here from unity to diversity, and it’s a diversity that enhances our common humanity.

Still, this diversity doesn’t come about all on its own; it’s the doing of the Holy Spirit. But we don’t seem to talk about the Spirit much, do we? God the Creator? Sure, that’s basically the main divine character in the Old Testament. God the Son? Well, that’s Jesus, of course. But God the Holy Spirit? That’s where we get a little fuzzy…

Martin Luther himself ascribed great significance to this oft-neglected third person of the Trinity. In his Large Catechism, he writes, “Neither you nor I could ever know anything about Christ…unless…offered to us and bestowed on our hearts through the preaching of the gospel by the Holy Spirit” (LC 436.38). This Holy Spirit, for Luther, reveals to us the Word of life and brings us again and again to faith.

Luther also says something else quite remarkable: “Creation is now behind us [God the Father], and redemption has also taken place [God the Son], but the Holy Spirit continues [their] work without ceasing… for [they] have not yet gathered together all of [the] community(LC 439.61-62).

The Holy Spirit continues in their work… The work of the Spirit is ongoing. It is as ancient as creation, when God’s Spirit hovered over the waters before life began, and it is promised and received anew on the Day of Pentecost. For the Spirit has not yet gathered together all of the community…

I suspect the Spirit is at work, too, in places like Storm Lake, Iowa, a town of just over 10,000 residents. A recent New York Times article highlights its growing immigrant workforce. Defying state trends, in which the vast majority of Iowans are non-Hispanic white, nearly the opposite is true in Storm Lake. Local grocery store Valentina’s Meat Market showcases a variety of ethnic foods side-by-side, while in the halls of Storm Lake’s public schools, as many as 18 different languages can be heard. “A lot of different communities are living together,” remarks one resident, and another: “This is who we are now.” There is a vivaciousness, a sense of new life, in Storm Lake amidst its diversity.

Here at Augustana, too, the Spirit consistently urges us to draw the circle wide and wider still, as our choir sang not long ago, to include more and more of God’s whole creation — from North to South Omaha and West Omaha to Midtown to downtown, to immigrants and refugees from halfway across the world and our siblings in Christ at Masama Kati, and even and especially the non-human parts of creation, animals and plants and waters, under great threat amidst a changing global climate.

The Spirit is all-inclusive, far-reaching, and ever gathering her people into one. The Spirit doesn’t magically change all those people into the same carbon copy of the next person. But the Spirit thrives in diversity and uses that diversity to enhance our common life. The Spirit draws us together in new and varied ways of worship, song, and prayer; she engages us ever more fully in unique facets and vantage points of understanding and knowing; and she unites us around one table — our diversity intact, honored, celebrated — as we share of the fruit of the one Tree of Life, whose leaves are for the healing and wholeness of all the nations.

A Sermon about Resistance in the Face of Suffering

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Augustana Lutheran Church
7 May 2017 + Fourth Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 2.19-25



Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Fourth Sunday of Easter brings us to Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s tempting, isn’t it, to dwell in the midst of the idyllic early Christian community described in our reading from Acts, or to linger beside the psalmist’s green pastures and still waters, abiding in the tender care of Jesus our shepherd. So given all that, it’s also tempting to just gloss over that second reading from 1 Peter. I mean, really, who put that in there alongside today’s other readings? On the other hand, at least they spared us an even more disturbing opening line that didn’t make the cut in the final lectionary edits: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you…” the epistle writer goes on. Kind of changes the perspective, doesn’t it?

And yet, I believe, this text, including the address to slaves, begs examining. It begs examining because the history of this country, built on the institution of slavery, makes the very word slave difficult to digest and yet at the same time necessary to confront. It begs examining, too, because so many in our world today still suffer injustice and violence and the last thing they need to hear is someone from a lectern or pulpit telling them to suck it up because the Bible tells them so.

In the first place, let me be clear: The point of this text is not to suggest that suffering for suffering’s sake wins over God’s approval. Nor is it meant to insist that those in physically abusive and potentially life-threatening situations should continue to endure abuse. But, the epistle writer clarifies, if you endure when you do right and suffer for it—or to put it another way, if you are pursuing justice and righteousness and that lands you in hot water to the point of suffering—so be it. The epistle writer’s aim in the larger context of this passage is to outline a “code” for Christian conduct in society, and the far greater emphasis in this passage is the exhortation to do good and to pursue justice. It nearly goes without saying that the history of civil disobedience among people of faith in this pursuit predicts suffering as its probable by-product.

Oftentimes, though, professed Christians have been the worst offenders of upholding the very unjust systems that others so passionately fight against. Slavery in the pre-Civil War era was condoned by Christian slaveholders with passages such as this, and still today, many of our LGBTQ+ siblings are bombarded by so-called “well-meaning” Christians who pluck out choice passages of Scripture to deny their very humanity.

In recent weeks, the newly debuted TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale makes us keenly aware of this point. The series depicts a not-so-far-off future United States, now governed by a strict totalitarian government based on an extreme form of Christian fundamentalism. Here, the class divide is stark, comprised of an elite ruling class and a class of servants and sustained by a select, literal interpretation of Scripture. In one scene this dramatically comes to a head when one of the handmaids is reminded, “Remember your scripture. Blessed are the meek.” And in a short-lived but fierce act of defiance, for which she is then subjected to an attack of physical violence, the handmaid responds, “And blessed are those who suffer for the cause of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Like the handmaid and like the slaves to whom the epistle writer writes, the condition of slavery and oppression is never one that is sought out or chosen, but there are ways to live defiantly even in the midst of injustice while fighting against it.

Another verse outside the bounds of our lectionary reading is key: “As servants of God, live as free people,” verse 16 begins. So, while this is still an address to actual slaves in the first-century world, it also includes a reminder that they are first and foremost servants of God and therefore are free. It does not deny their present suffering nor make excuses for it, but it does offer them hope and encouragement even in the midst of it.

The principle of Christian freedom—that we are not only freed from sin, death, and the power of evil but also freed for service to our neighbors in the world—is a core part of Lutheran theology. Of course, as we know, using that freedom for the pursuit of justice is not easy. In recent months, people of faith have marched in the streets and called and emailed legislators to bear public witness to the faith that compels us to oppose harmful and life-threatening policies around health care, immigration, and so much more.

Nearly 60 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this well when he wrote of the path of nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance is not passive: it does not mean being a doormat in the face of injustice. Nor does it mean that those who resist become the aggressor or oppressor in return. Nonviolent resistance, for King, meant opposing evil itself, not the persons who commit evil acts, and he admitted that it also meant a willingness to suffer and sacrifice.

In that same spirit, the epistle writer offers us Christ as an example of what it means to suffer as a result of opposing evil for the cause of pursuing justice. Lifting up the lowly and reaching out with unconditional love to the marginalized was the whole point of Jesus’s earthly ministry. And it got him killed.

As James Cone has said, “If you are going to worship somebody that was nailed to a tree, you must know that the life of a disciple of that person is not going to be easy.” Following in the path of Jesus, as we who profess to be Christian claim to do, we are told that we don’t suffer in isolation for the cause of justice, but that the crucified Christ who has gone before us still accompanies us today.

Today we hear a word of comfort and hope that the crucified Christ is with us still, in every moment, and in this Easter season, we proclaim the victory of Christ’s resurrection over the forces of evil that newly emboldens us in our baptismal calling to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Early on the First Day of the Week

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+ Preached at our joint ecumenical Easter sunrise vigil with Holy Family Parish (Roman Catholic) in the park +


Augustana Lutheran Church
16 April 2017 + Resurrection of Our Lord
John 20.1-18


Kate Braestrup is a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service. In addition to enforcing the state’s fish and wildlife laws, the game wardens Kate works with also respond to various outdoor accidents, fatalities included.

So when she’s helping train new wardens on how to respond to deaths, she tells them a story from her own life. Kate’s husband Drew, a police officer, died in a car accident while on duty a number of years ago. When the news of his death reached her, she knew that she wanted to see his body, to bathe him, and to dress him — much to the astonishment and horror of the state police department and funeral home director. After a good deal of back-and-forth phone calls, they grant Kate her request — and with her mother, she goes to her husband, bathes his body, and dresses him in his dress uniform. The experience, she says, was “better than fine, better than okay.”

Kate tells that story to new trainees to teach them this: When a family member says they want to see the body of their deceased loved one, you can trust them. You don’t have to pretend to protect them.

Kate also points them to the text we just heard read. “Back in bible times,” she says, “there were no state troopers or funeral directors to get in the way of things.” Mary Magdalene did not have to justify herself to the disciples nor overcome their protective skepticism when she wanted to go to the tomb where Jesus’s body had been laid. Nor, upon discovering the tomb open and the body presumably gone, did she have to justify her distress and her grief.

It’s natural, and more common than not in Kate’s experience as a chaplain, for loved ones to ask to see the body to tend to their loved one. Far from the common perception that the presence of a body makes the pain more acute, it’s just the opposite — which, I think, explains Mary’s weeping and grief intensified. They have taken the body away, and I do not know where they have laid him…

Which then, for me, raises the question: If there is such attachment to the body, the physical body, how did Mary not recognize Jesus when he appeared? After all, she was one of Jesus’s closest friends and disciples, and it hadn’t been that long since he died. Surely she wouldn’t have forgotten what he looks like, right?

Sidebar: To say I’m not very good at gardening is an understatement. In no way would anyone ever describe me as having a “green thumb.” If anything, that thumb is brown, shriveled up, and falling off the vine. Case in point: When, after my grandpa’s funeral one of those hardy green plants that are supposed to be impossible to kill was (foolishly) entrusted to me… well, you know where this is going. So you can imagine my surprise when I decided to re-pot a plant in the kitchen down the hall from my office this year and a little time, some sunlight, and remembering to water it at least a couple times a week later, it’s flourished. Compared to the near-dead plant it was before, it’s been transformed and is barely recognizable. You might even say it’s undergone a resurrection.

Like that plant, it’s as though we’re led to believe there’s something different physically about the resurrected body of Jesus. It would certainly explain why Mary didn’t recognize him. I don’t know what to make of that, nor am I sure there even is a definitive answer, nor am I sure it even matters. But what is certain is this: the resurrection changes things. Things are different, and new. There’s something different about Jesus, but it’s more than physical, with far-reaching implications.

Theologian James Cone describes it this way:

The cross and resurrection of Jesus stand at the center of the New Testament story… [and] mean that we now know that Jesus’ ministry with the poor and the wretched was God effecting the divine will to liberate the oppressed. The Jesus story is the poor person’s story, because God in Christ becomes poor and weak in order that the oppressed might become liberated… God becomes the victim in their place and thus transforms the condition of slavery into the battleground for the struggle of freedom. This is what Christ’s resurrection means. The oppressed are freed for struggle, for battle in the pursuit of humanity.

The resurrection changes things. The resurrection liberates and declares that God is, definitively, for the oppressed, for the marginalized, for those who mourn, for those who are cast down. The resurrection empowers and urges us to be about the work of justice and love. That is the message we proclaim when we declare, against all odds: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

He Loved Them to the End: A Homily for Maundy Thursday

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Augustana Lutheran Church
13 April 2017 + Maundy Thursday
John 13.1-17, 31b-35


Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

Jesus went out with his disciples to a place where there was a garden… Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place… So he brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons… and they arrested Jesus and bound him.

Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus… A woman said to Peter, “You are not  also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”

Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to end.

In our reading from John’s gospel today, we encounter a familiar story read every Maundy Thursday — the word “Maundy,” of course, deriving its meaning from the Latin word mandatum, meaning “commandment,” as in: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” This is perhaps the most famous verse in the entire passage and probably the one on which at least I have heard the most sermons.

But often overlooked, I suspect, is the first verse that opens this reading: He loved them to the end. A simple statement made all the more profound by its position in John’s gospel, ahead of the passion narrative we will read tomorrow on Good Friday, ahead of the Judas’s act of betrayal, ahead of Peter’s denial of Jesus. In spite of all this, says the gospel writer, he loved them to the end.

We get a very specific, tangible example of what that kind of love looks like in the verses that follow. Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.

To be sure, foot washing was a common practice of hospitality in the first-century world, but it was also dirty work — work that would have been relegated to a slave or something that a host’s guests would have had to do themselves. But here, Jesus flips the practice on its head. The master becomes the servant, the teacher taking the form of a slave, emptying himself before those whom his social world would have deemed lesser or inferior.

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche movement, knows something of what it means to serve those whom our culture has deemed inferior. His movement is made up of individual group homes designed for those with mental disabilities who share daily life and spiritual community with non-disabled assistants.

In his first encounter with persons living with disabilities, Vanier recounts being struck by their cry for relationship and to be loved and seen as human beings. He also talks about meeting one woman who was so astonished that he had devoted his life’s work to ministering to persons with disabilities because, in her words, they’re so “frightening.” But isn’t it the case, Vanier reflects, that we see in others what we’re afraid to see in ourselves — that we as humans are all fragile beings, with weaknesses, limitations, even disfigurements, and we all have a need to be loved as we are.

It’s for this very reason that L’Arche focuses on the body, and particularly suffering bodies and bodies that have been deemed useless by the world’s standards. Vanier stresses the importance of touch and attention to the body in welcoming newcomers to a L’Arche community. In sharing about how he himself has been physically touched by those whom he serves, he speaks of a tenderness where touch is important, touch which is not aggressive but welcoming and which teaches something about what it means to be human and to relate and to celebrate life together.

Which brings us back to our scene with Jesus: Touch, of course, is central to the practice of foot washing, and this moment Jesus shares with his disciples is perhaps the most intimate, vulnerable moment of connection they experience in the whole gospel. This is the embodiment of the love with which Jesus loved them to the end.

This, too, is the love to which we are called as a community which follows our servant-teacher. Jesus’s love, the love to which we are urged, is a self-emptying love which is wholly concerned for the other. It’s a love which knows no bounds, and it’s a love in which we are enveloped by a God who comes to us in the flesh, emptying God’s self in Jesus for us and for the life of the world.

It’s a love that often doesn’t often make any sense to us, as Jean Vanier again says: “Jesus was quiet. And he ate with people who are caught up in prostitution, with tax collectors, with lepers… there’s something so simple about Jesus that he is disarming. We don’t quite know what to do with it. Because frequently, we would want a powerful Jesus who will put everything straight, who will cure everybody, who will do everything that we tell him to do. And it’s not like that.”

Indeed, it’s not like that at all. Thanks be to God.