A Sermon about Awkward Holiday Dinners, Miracles, and Giving Thanks

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Preached at St. Luke’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Omaha, NE, for a multi-congregational community Thanksgiving Eve service


St. Luke’s Lutheran Church
23 November 2016 + Day of Thanksgiving (Eve)
John 6.25-35



A quote from a recent New York Times article sums it up this way: “The election is over, but the repercussions in people’s lives may be just beginning as families across the United States contemplate uncomfortable holidays.” Some have canceled their plans to see family entirely, while others continue to exchange pointed jabs on social media and in text messages. [1]

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Holiday dinners with family have long conjured up images of discord and conflict between relatives over political or religious differences. And while these family gatherings have often brought a touch of comic relief in Saturday Night Live sketches, for many the anxiety and stress that they bring are very, very real — with some even preferring “Friendsgiving” dinners, not because they can’t physically get to family but because they don’t want to or don’t feel welcome at the table.

It all seems like a far cry from Norman Rockwell images of Thanksgiving dinner, with everyone gathered around the table, each sharing in turn those things for which they are thankful. But the truth is that Americans have become increasingly divided. We prefer to remain in our silos, surrounded by like-minded people, even digitally “unfriending” those with whom we disagree. And really, who can blame us?!

So what does our gospel text have to say about Thanksgiving? Not a damn thing, or so it seems.

Bizarre questions posed to Jesus, and even more bizarre answers in return, leave us scratching our heads. I think we need a little context.

The entire sixth chapter of John centers on one simple but profound statement: “I am the bread of life.” It’s the first of several “I am” statements uttered by Jesus in John’s gospel, and while we might be tempted to read some overly deep spiritual meaning into it, Jesus is indeed talking about actual bread. Well, sort of.

The chapter begins with the only miracle story found in all four gospels: the feeding of the five thousand. It’s a familiar story: Lots of people, not a whole lot of food. But somehow, they make it work so that everyone is fed, and with leftovers. It’s a miracle!

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No wonder the crowds look for Jesus the next day and corner him with their questions: How did you do it? Can you do it again? What do we need to do to make that happen?

Actually, on second thought, maybe this is a lot like Thanksgiving: Everyone’s stuffed, there’s way too much food, and now begins the awkward chit-chat.

And like Thanksgiving dinner conversation, each side here seems to be having two different conversations at once.

Yes, there was real hunger. Yes, it was real bread. But there’s also so much more going on—and the people just don’t seem to get it.

Between the feeding miracle and the subsequent dialogue, there’s another miracle story. It’s nighttime, the disciples are at sea, and suddenly the wind picks up. Understandably, the disciples are afraid—and then they see Jesus, coming towards them, walking on the water.

Unlike Matthew’s and Mark’s versions of the same story, the storm in John is never calmed when Jesus shows up. Because that’s not the miracle. The miracle is in what Jesus says. Literally: “I am; do not be afraid.”

I am. Words that automatically connect Jesus to the divine name of God and that provide a glimpse of Jesus’s own divine nature. Words that get repeated only a few verses later, with a slight twist: “I am the bread of life.” Bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

Suddenly we’re not talking about real bread anymore, but something much more profound. And yet these words are a continuation of the miracle stories, and they’re grounded in very real aspects of human experience: the need for food and the need for safety.

When the crowds are hungry, Jesus feeds them. When the disciples are afraid, Jesus comes to them, in the flesh. These miracles are “moments of glory for the sake of grace,” as one commentator puts it. [2] That Jesus comes to us in the ordinary experiences of life is deeply sacramental, a union of both a profound truth and an outward sign.

Yes, it is and always will be ordinary bread, but it is also rich in metaphorical meaning. The bread from heaven is intentionally evocative of the manna the ancient Israelites received from God in the desert, and like that manna, it also underscores God’s faithfulness to provide. It’s ordinary bread, but it’s so much more.

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Ordinary bread—staple food—becomes the means of conveying divine presence. Unlike the other gospels, nowhere in John do we get a picture of the upper room where Jesus hosts the first Eucharist with his disciples. We instead get Eucharist right here. Jesus feeds the crowds himself with bread and fish, and then he claims that he is that bread: Jesus offering his very self, his very presence, in the ordinary stuff of life.

It’s all a little bit overwhelming, and more books and essays than even a seminary student like me can ever read have been written on the meaning of the Eucharist (a word, by the way, whose Greek root appropriately means “to give thanks”). When theologian John Calvin was once asked to explain it, he replied, “I’d rather experience it than understand it.”

So after all that, maybe the point is that we don’t have to “get it.” That Jesus is the bread of life is a truth that is so radical and especially timely for our divisive times and anxious holiday meals:

In the meal we celebrate every Sunday, we receive Jesus’s very presence in ordinary bread. In John’s gospel, that bread is given by Jesus himself, mediated by no one, not even the church, making the radical claim that all are included in the offer, regardless of beliefs or identity.

That is much to give thanks for, which is maybe exactly what we should do. Instead of trying to wrap our heads around it, maybe it’s enough to just accept the miracle and dwell in the mystery.

Thanks be to God.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/16/us/political-divide-splits-relationships-and-thanksgiving-too.html

[2] Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995).

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A Reflection-Sermon for Christ the King

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As mentioned in my previous post, this year my internship congregation did a special liturgy for Christ the King Sunday, in which we traced the liturgical year, season by season, in a pattern of reading-reflection-hymn. What follows is my short reflection on the gospel pericope for Christ the King, Luke 23.33-43. I am also including my reflections on Advent, Epiphany, Lent, and Ordinary Time. Full liturgy is available upon request (vicarjosh (at) gmail (dot) com).


Augustana Lutheran Church
20 November 2016 + Christ the King
Luke 23.33-43

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image courtesy of River Needham’s blog

There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

It’s puzzling, at first glance, that we read a gospel lesson on Christ the King Sunday that has our so-called “king” hanging on a cross, dying. It’s certainly not the image of a king I would choose to use if I were trying to make some grand claim about Jesus.

But I think that’s exactly the point: Luke’s gospel is full of subversions and reversals. This is another one: Christ the King is so unlike any earthly monarch we can imagine. Recall way back at the beginning of our journey through the church year this morning to my reflection on Epiphany. The psalm on that day speaks of a king who will judge with righteousness and justice, defend the cause of the poor, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

Our gospel text today adds another element to Christ’s kingly qualities: solidarity with those who suffer. As Karoline Lewis writes, salvation for the second criminal here means:

…that there was someone who saw his suffering, who was willing to stand in that suffering with him, who spoke up against his suffering in the form of empire, evil, and totalitarianism. That someone was Jesus. The criminal died knowing that someone was with him in his suffering. [1]

Every Sunday we proclaim Christ crucified, but especially so on Christ the King. That proclamation calls us into a brave new way of being church. To quote from Lewis again, it means, among other things, that we are compelled “to look to the left and the right and notice who is getting hanged on a tree and say stop.” [2]

I’m sorry to say that there are too many people being hanged on trees in our world today. In the first century, crucifixion was a tool used to silence those voices that the Roman Empire didn’t want to hear or deemed as threats. Today, on November 20th, many people around the world will gather for the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance to name and remember those beloved children of God who have been murdered as a result of transphobia.

It is the church’s responsibility to call out these and other acts of evil: Transphobia. Racism. Homophobia. Sexism. Islamophobia. Xenophobia. We have a starting point in Luke’s story of the crucifixion — a story that underscores the wideness of God’s abundant love and mercy for all whom God has created, a love that is so deep that it manifests itself in a God who suffers right alongside the most vulnerable and whispers to them, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=4754
[2] Ibid.


ADVENT

The season of Advent is a powerful counter-cultural pushback against the hurried rush to Christmas. While all around us we have seen Santas and candy canes and holiday greenery for weeks, the church defiantly declares “not yet!”.

Advent isn’t about any of these things, or even the birth of Jesus, “but about the church’s continual prayer that God will come to us, bringing life to a dying world.” [3] In fact, it’s not until the Fourth (and final) Sunday of Advent each year that we hear a gospel text about the birth of Jesus. Prior to that, we’re introduced to John the Baptist, whose cry on Jordan’s bank “calls us into hope and urges us into justice.” [4]

Everything about Advent urges us to wait, to slow down, to return to ourselves and to God. On our wreath, we light one candle at a time. In our prayers of the day, we pray for Christ to “stir up” divine power and come, even as we pray for God to “stir up” our hearts in renewal towards the divine will for justice. Even the blue of the pastor’s vestments and the paraments in our sanctuary is not unlike the deep blue of night just before the coming of the dawn.

So in Advent: We wait. We watch. We pray. We look expectantly for the coming of Emmanuel, God-with-us.

[3] Gail Ramshaw and Mons Teig, Keeping Time: The Church’s Years (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 73.
[4] Ibid., 74.


EPIPHANY

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… gold, frankincense, and myrrh?! If Advent is the pushback against Christmas coming too soon, then the peculiar feast day of Epiphany protests how quickly we rush to move on after December 25th. Indeed, Epiphany marks the conclusion of the twelve days of Christmas, and the gospel read on this day still proclaims the coming of Christ into the world, as we retell the familiar story of the magi visiting a newborn king.

The psalm appointed for Epiphany also tells us exactly the kind of king we can expect in Jesus. This king, in stark contrast to earthly monarchs, will judge with righteousness and justice, defend the cause of the poor, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. Following the example of such a king, we too are called to recommit ourselves to the work of justice.


LENT

“What are you giving up for Lent this year?” It’s a question many of us who grew up in the church have probably asked and answered ad nauseam over the years. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Lent has nothing to do with giving up our favorite things, like ice cream or coffee. If that were the case, I’d be a very cranky vicar.

In fact, the giving up of material pleasures appears to be more an aberration in the history of Christian liturgical practices, a “blip” in the grand scheme of things. As early as the fourth century, Lent was observed as a forty-day period of preparation for new converts to Christianity who wished to be baptized at Easter. Only in the medieval era, when adult baptisms declined, did the focus move to fasting as an act of penance to make up for one’s personal sinfulness.

Fortunately, in recent years, the earlier, ancient practice of the church has resurfaced. Easter is again a popular time for baptisms, with Lent as its counterpart both in preparation for baptism but also an annual renewal of baptism for all Christians. Still, classic expressions of Lenten discipline—giving alms to the poor, praying, and fasting—are common and even encouraged. But the goal here is to stress that these things “are not necessary for gaining God’s approval… [but] are behaviors that we choose to adopt to remind ourselves of the renewal of life that baptism calls forth.” [5]

Keeping a holy Lent therefore suggests that our fasting be a hunger for justice, our alms a making of peace, and our prayer the song of grateful hearts.

[5] Ibid., 85.


ORDINARY TIME

Ordinary Time is anything but ordinary. Liturgical scholars are quick to remind us that the naming of these “green Sundays” after Epiphany and after Pentecost as “ordinary” refers not to their quality but simply to the fact that they are ordered, or numbered. No matter what we call these Sundays, though, it’s important to remember that every Sunday, regardless of season, proclaims Christ. In other words, every Sunday is a little Easter.

The green of these “ordinary” days, many of which fall during the spring and summer months, also calls us to delight in the beauty of God’s creation. Hear now these words from John O’Donohue:

Nearer to the earth’s heart,
Deeper within its silence:
Animals know this world
In a way we never will.

We who are ever
Distanced and distracted
By the parade of bright
Windows thought opens:
Their seamless presence
Is not fractured thus.

Stranded between time
Gone and time emerging,
We manage seldom
To be where we are:
Whereas they are always
Looking out from
The here and now.

May we learn to return
And rest in the beauty
Of animal being,
Learn to lean low,
Leave our locked minds,
And with freed senses
Feel the earth
Breathing with us.

May we enter
Into lightness of spirit,
And slip frequently into
The feel of the wild.

Let the clear silence
Of our animal being
Cleanse our hearts
Of corrosive words.

May we learn to walk
Upon the earth
With all their confidence
And clear-eyed stillness
So that our minds
Might be baptized
In the name of the wind
And light and the rain. [6]

[6] John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 73-74.

Eucharistic Prayer for Christ the King

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This year, my internship congregation is doing a special liturgy for Christ the King Sunday. In the “Word” portion of the traditional four-fold ordo, we are tracing the liturgical year from Advent to its culmination in Christ the King, the church’s “New Year’s Eve” if you will, in a pattern of reading-reflection-hymn.

The following Eucharistic Prayer is intended to reflect these shifting seasons, liturgically and ecologically, with scriptural imagery of light and darkness, warmth and cold. The language of the prayer also draws on the RCL readings appointed for Christ the King in Year C (Jer. 23.1-6; Ps. 46; Col. 1.11-20; Lk. 23.33-43).

I have written this Eucharistic Prayer especially for Augustana Lutheran Church, Omaha, NE, but I want to make it available as a resource for others. If you do use this prayer, please use it as printed here and with attribution to the author.


Blessed are you, O God, for your light
that is with us in every generation,
through every season,
among all peoples,
in every time and place.

O God, you are light.
Your Spirit hovered over the murky abyss at creation.
At your word there was light—
sun, moon, and stars to separate the day from the night,
and to mark the shifting seasons.
Blessed be God forever.
Blessed be God forever.

O God, you are fire.
By a flaming pillar, you led your people Israel through the wilderness.
In a fiery furnace, you stayed with your faithful ones in Babylon.
In the upper room, you poured out your Spirit on the apostles in tongues of fire.
Glory to God forever.
Glory to God forever.

O God, you are light.
In Jesus your Christ, the Word became flesh
and dwelt among us,
bringing the life that is the light of all people,
the light that shines in the darkness.
Blessed be God forever.
Blessed be God forever.

In the night in which he was betrayed…

Remembering his ministry among the outcasts,
his healings among the unclean,
and his death among the wretched,
so too we remember the brightness of his resurrection,
as we boldly proclaim the mystery of our faith:
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Send now your Spirit in this place:
Bless this meal of grape and grain,
that it may be given for our nourishment.
Bless too this assembly gathered here,
that so filled with good things at this table
we might become the body of Christ.

As nights grow longer and days become colder:
Warm our hearts with the fire of your gospel,
and send us out as light to a weary world,
as we look to your coming among us
in Christ, the firstborn of all creation.

And so with all your saints in Paradise,
the church on earth, and the whole of creation,
we praise you, O God, our light,
our refuge, and our strength.
To you be given all honor and glory,
blessed and holy Trinity,
now and forever.
Amen.

Lament, Holy Anger, and Pastoral Encouragement: A Statement on Election Night 2016

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Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love… There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear… We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

– 1 John 4.7-8, 18-21

Disclaimer: I cannot be “pastoral” about this. The gospel is political, not partisan, but last night those two categories became indistinguishable. So 501(c)(3)s be damned. (That said, the views expressed here are solely my own and not representative of any communities or organizations which I serve or of which I am a part.)

Last night, we had our choice of two major party candidates. One of them represents hatred to his core.

Hatred of immigrants and refugees.
Hatred of Muslims.
Hatred of women.
Hatred of LGBTQ+ persons.
Hatred of persons of color.
Hatred of those who are poor.

Last night, this country chose that man to be our next president.

I am afraid – for myself as a gay man and for all those whom I love that fall into the above categories. I am afraid, but I know I am not alone. My Facebook newsfeed has been a collective stream of lament since late last night.

I am not here to tell you how to feel, let alone offer these words to “make it all better.” But I am here to remind you of this: Last night may have changed the dynamics of power in Washington, but it has not changed the gospel. It has not, cannot, will not change God’s love for us in Christ.

The prayer of the day from Evangelical Lutheran Worship for this coming Sunday says this:

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without you nothing is strong, nothing is holy. Embrace us with your mercy, that with you as our ruler and guide, we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

These are powerful words that remind us of the gospel truth: You are holy. You are beloved. And in baptism you are named and claimed as God’s own child, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.

In baptism, we are also given a holy commission:

Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God,
the powers of this world that rebel against God,
and the ways of sin that draw you from God?
I renounce them.

Evangelical Lutheran Worship Baptismal Liturgy

After we lament, we get to work. We organize, and we stand up to our new government. We declare boldly:

Immigrant and refugee lives matter.
Muslim lives matter.
Women’s lives matter.
LGBTQ+ lives matter.
Black lives matter.
99% lives matter.

For those of us who are Christian, our baptismal covenant requires nothing less. But it’s a message that all of us, regardless of creed or lack thereof, can proclaim. Love will always, inevitably, trump hate.

For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.

– Habukkuk 2.3 (Lectionary 27C, First Reading)

Finally, to paraphrase the welcome statement of my home congregation: Whoever you are, whomever you love, whatever you believe, wherever you’re from: you are loved. And I am here if you need to talk.

Peace be yours,
Josh