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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Stephen, Deacon and Martyr

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On this second day of Christmas, I offer the following reflection on St. Stephen’s Day, originally written for Fling Wide the Doors, the 2014-2015 Advent and Christmastide devotional by the community of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chicago.ststephenicon

Stephen’s story is recorded in the book of Acts. He was appointed as one of the first deacons of the early church in order to care for those in need. Ultimately, Stephen’s preaching caught the attention of the religious authorities in Jerusalem, who ordered that he be stoned to death. In many Commonwealth nations, St. Stephen’s Day is called Boxing Day and commemorates the martyr’s ministry among the poor.


The twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task…” And they chose Stephen. – Acts 6.2-3, 5 (NRSV)

Nearly every Sunday for the past year, I have joined South Loop Campus Ministry to prepare sack lunches and hand-deliver them to our sisters and brothers living on the streets. What started rather by accident—when SLCM advertised “Free Food for College Students” and more than just the target audience showed up—has since turned into our most popular ministry.

See, this thing called Christianity is really all about food and feeding people. From its inception, the early church recognized the need to feed and care for people, and in Acts we are told they commissioned seven people to this task as deacons (literally, “servers”)—including Stephen, whose martyrdom we commemorate today.

Of course, our liturgical life also centers on food, in a special kind of meal entrusted to the pastor. But the ministry of diakonia, or table-serving, is entrusted to all of us—”the priesthood of all believers.” In the Eucharist we are refreshed and strengthened with holy food to love and serve and even feed our neighbor in return. So the Christian life is all about food and feeding.

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SLCM students and leaders “Takin’ It to the Streets” on Lower Wacker (photo credit: Ben Adams, also for photo above)

One particular Sunday with SLCM, while were serving food on Lower Wacker, a brother asked us to pray for him. We joined hands around our shopping cart full of sack lunches and prayed, and it occurred to me in that moment that our cart is essentially our altar on wheels, around which we gather in community each week to give thanks and make and bless holy food for hungry people. Such is what diakonia means: the Christian life is all about food and feeding.

Before his martyrdom, Stephen concludes his speech with the indictment, “The Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (Acts 7.48). To be sure, he’s not claiming that God is not present in our places of worship but declaring instead that God is not limited to those places alone. God is just as present on Lower Wacker as God is at Addison and Magnolia or at Grace Place.

So this St Stephen’s Day I invite you to be mindful of where you encounter the sacred amid the quotidian, particularly among “the least of these.” Holy Trinity certainly has no shortage of opportunities to engage in this ministry of feeding.

Finally, I offer this quote, adapted from Gordon Lathrop, as a prayer, or perhaps a mantra, to carry with you today: “Christianity is a meal. Its members are table-servers. Let beggars come. Amen.”