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 about Listening and What It Means to Be a Disciple

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augustana pulpit.cropped

photo credit: Alex Witt

 

 

 

This is the first sermon preached at my internship site. Click here and here to learn more about the congregation I will be serving for the next year in the city of Omaha, Nebraska.


Augustana Lutheran Church
17 July 2016 + Lectionary 16C
Luke 10.38-42



It’s been a hard couple of weeks. I’ve found that one of the ways I cope with tragedies is by showing up to vigils and protests to stand and to grieve and to be angry in solidarity with the community. Last Friday, I was able to join demonstrators at the corner of 120th and Center in what was an overwhelmingly peaceful protest in response to the shootings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas. Many of those gathered carried signs:

“Black lives matter.”

“No justice, no peace.”

“Racism kills.”

And one particularly poignant sign held by a young Black woman: “I am Sandra Bland.”

That rally Friday night reminded me of another. It was November 24, 2014, and I was in Chicago. It was the night that St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch would announce that the grand jury had decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson earlier that year. What I remember most about that night is all of the waiting for those of us gathered in vigil outside of police headquarters — and then the silent, and nervous, listening as we huddled around a radio to hear McCulloch’s announcement.

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outside Chicago police headquarters, November 24, 2014


Listening has indeed been on my mind since I began reading the gospel text for this week. Mary, Luke tells us, “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” But Martha, left by herself to coordinate her sudden out-of-town guests, is understandably upset and tries to get Jesus to tell her sister to help. But Jesus instead commends Mary for listening.

Is Jesus suggesting that Martha’s acts of hospitality toward him are unwelcome? Is he being a bad guest? To read it that way, and understandably so, we might come to the conclusion that Jesus is placing a higher value on one sister’s expression of love over the other.

But, in a blog post this week, Karoline Lewis warns us against falling into the trap of comparing these two sisters and assigning value to their actions. Instead, she suggests that this is a text about discipleship and about who gets to be called a disciple of Jesus.

Consider last week: The Samaritan, a foreigner despised by the Jews for his ethnic identity, is the one who shows us what it means to love our neighbor. And now: Mary, a woman, takes the place of a male disciple, transgressing social boundaries to show us what it means be devoted to God’s Word. Representatives of two marginalized groups that Jesus lifts up as the model for discipleship — a discipleship that means being attentive to God’s Word and to the needs of others. Being and doing.

But again, it’s not about choosing Mary over Martha. The kind of hospitality that Martha shows is indeed important: that much Luke makes clear. But it is a matter of from where her actions flow:

Martha does what she does because it’s what society has told and conditioned her to do. It serves to maintain the status quo — in this case, trying to keep Martha distracted from claiming her place as a disciple by virtue of her gender.

But Mary chooses to disregard those social boundaries. She recognizes that loving God and being attentive to God’s Word take precedence, and Jesus commends her for this — essentially putting his seal of approval on an act of “civil disobedience.”

And then Luke helps us connect the dots: Together, the parable of the good Samaritan and the story about Martha and Mary highlight what it means to be a disciple — to “hear the Word of God and do it.” Devotion and service. Both are important, but one will naturally flow from the other.


Jesus’s commendation highlights the first of these: listening. Because it is what is being listened to that is important. And that, namely, is God’s Word — the good news, as Paul reminds us, that “through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to God’s self all things” (Colossians 1.20). That, dear people, is the bedrock of our faith, and it is only that we are freed from sin that we are also freed for the service of our neighbor. Doing flows from being.

Luther puts in this way in a letter to the pope in 1520:

“This is a truly Christian life. Here faith is truly active through love, that is, it finds expression in works of the freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a [person] willingly serves another without hope of reward… Although the Christian is thus free from all works, [we] ought in this liberty to empty [ourselves], take upon [ourselves] the form of a servant, be made in the likeness of [humankind], be found in human form, and to serve, help, and in every way deal with [our] neighbor as we see that God through Christ has dealt and still deals with [us].” [1]

Faith active in love is the gentle corrective Jesus offers to Martha, and to us, in his commendation of Mary’s devotion. Faith active in love is what it looks like when we combine Mary’s devotion and Martha’s service. Faith active in love is another way of saying that we are a public church — a church beyond the four walls of a sanctuary, immersed in service to our community.

wordsacramentBut we are also still, above all, church, rooted in Word and Sacrament. Emily Heath, a UCC pastor in New Hampshire, writes this:

“I am sometimes worried that we in the progressive church put the cart before the horse when it comes to social justice. It’s not that I believe we are advocating for the wrong things; it’s that I believe we sometimes advocate for the wrong reasons, acting first and then wedging theological meaning in later.” [2]

What we need to reclaim, says Heath, is discipleship. Indeed, she even goes so far as to call it “the next big thing” she envisions for the church.

It’s when we lose sight of “the church’s one foundation,” as the hymn puts it, that we become just another public advocacy group. Because when the church is reduced to a public advocacy group, then the church has nothing to say:

when an unarmed Black man is shot to death by police;

or even when an armed Black man is shot for trying to tell police he had a legal concealed weapon on his person when he’s just trying to reach for his ID;

or when a truck plows through a crowd in France and kills dozens, including at least ten children, celebrating a national holiday.

But the church does have something to say. The church has a message worth listening t0 — and worth proclaiming.

The church proclaims Christ crucified for the sake of the world.

The church gathers to confess its sin and trust in the promise of God’s forgiveness.

The church listens to the Word that promises a God who has been, is, and ever shall be with her peoples to wipe away every tear from their eyes.

The church attends to the mysteries at table and font.

And certainly not least of all, the church, so filled with these things, is sent into the world to strive for justice and peace.

In other words, the bedrock of our faith — the gospel of Jesus Christ — comes first. And upon that foundation, like a garden of fertile soil, spring forth the fruits of peace and justice. Doing flows from being.

The disciples of the church of Christ — you and me — hear the Word of God and do it. It starts with hearing, really listening, for when we listen to the gospel, we hear a message of God’s extravagant grace for us and for the whole world.


[1] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), 74-75.

[2] https://emilycheath.com/2014/09/16/the-next-big-thing-for-the-progressive-church-putting-the-horse-before-the-cart/