Food, Grace, Abundance: A Sermon for Bread of Life Sunday #1

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Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
29 July 2018 + Lectionary 17B (Pentecost 10)
John 6.1-21


Last week, I preached a sermon about rest. In the midst of so much busyness and hurry and important but exhausting work, Jesus bids his disciples to come away and rest… And in the midst of our own lives — all the important but exhausting work we do — we hear echoes of our shepherd Jesus bidding us to come away and rest. Rest. Take care of your spirits and your bodies. The work of the gospel, proclaiming good news to the poor and the oppressed, is important — but so are we, bodies made in God’s own image, bodies God calls very good, bodies that need care.

And so in that sermon just seven days ago, I encouraged us to take time for ourselves, to rest, to recharge, to replenish our bodies. And yet, I must confess: Not five minutes after the final “Go in peace,” I was already out the door, off to work: driving to my office, taking a Lyft to the airport to pick up a rental truck, driving back to the office, loading up boxes upon boxes, and finalizing last-minute details for a conference the following day — work that kept me in the office for three hours on a Sunday afternoon, awake until nearly 1 AM that night, and nonstop on-the-go throughout the majority of the next day. In the midst of work, I took no time for myself, no time to notice the needs of my own body and spirit, no time to rest. Quite literally, I didn’t do a very good job of practicing what I preached.

Then on Tuesday morning, something happened. As I sat in the chapel on our retreat campus for day two of the conference I had been so hurriedly planning, our morning devotion leader invited us to ponder a relationship in our own life that had somehow shaped or transformed us. My mind went immediately to the church home I had found after college — a place that welcomed and embraced me for who I was, exactly as I was, no strings attached. The community that enveloped me in those two years helped me imagine a new way of being church together that was bold in our proclamation of the gospel, radically inclusive in our welcome of all people, and relevant in our Monday-through-Saturday lives. That community is, in many ways, the reason I am standing here today as a child of God called to be a pastor among God’s people.

Tuesday morning devotions invited me into a moment to pause, to reflect, to rest. Our devotion leader also invited us to recognize these relationships as experiences of abundant grace. Together we sang a short call-and-response refrain that became something of a theme for our time together this past week:

All who are thirsty, come to the waters.
All who are hungry, come here and eat.
All who are thirsty, come to the waters.
There’s enough for all.

Today’s gospel reading takes us on a detour from our year of Mark into the beginning of five weeks of John — reflecting on what it means that Jesus comes to us as the Bread of Life, or, to use a favorite word of John’s, abiding in these enigmatic texts for an extended time. But today, before we even get to Jesus’s declaration “I am the bread of life” (that comes later), we have a miracle of abundance. The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle story common to all four gospels, and I suspect that should tell us something about how significant this story is.

Before we try to figure out what this miracle means, I think what happened is just as important on its own: five thousand hungry people were fed — not in some spiritual sense — but with bread and fish, satisfying physical hunger. Karoline Lewis, a scholar on the gospel of John and a favorite theologian of mine, suggests that being literally fed, as Jesus does for the crowd, is a hallmark of the presence of God. She says, “Where people are fed, literally, is where you can expect to experience grace — see it, taste it, smell it, feel it.”

At the conference this past week, our time together was punctuated by meals — breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks each day. Every day we ate together, and every day we talked with each other over meals — forming relationships and strengthening community by sharing food. Then on the last night of the conference, we gathered for a banquet, one final celebratory meal together, where we heard the stories of ELCA missionaries who have completed their service in countries around the globe. It was a sacred time to experience stories of what God is up to in the world through the missionaries of our church, a time to experience the abundance of God’s grace in our lives, and a time to eat a meal together.

The intertwining of God’s people, around food, experiencing grace in abundance.

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ELCA Summer Missionary Conference Banquet, Thursday, July 26, 2018 (photo credit: Josh Evans)

The first time I came here to preach, way back in May, which feels like ages ago, the fellowship hall was filled with USPS boxes overflowing with food collected for your food pantry, which I would later learn is one of the largest food pantries in your neighborhood, feeding your hungry neighbors in need. Every week that I’ve been with you since then, you have gathered as a community after the liturgy to share coffee and treats and catch up on one another’s lives. And every Sunday you meet, you gather around this table, to eat and drink and experience God’s grace given for you, shed for you.

Food and grace in abundance are the hallmark of God’s presence and living together in the community of the church.

The poet Mary Oliver, in one of my favorite poems, writes:

Why worry about the loaves and fishes?
If you say the right words, the wine expands.
If you say them with love
and the felt ferocity of that love
and the felt necessity of that love,
the fish explode into many.
Imagine him, speaking,
and don’t worry about what is reality,
or what is plain, or what is mysterious.
If you were there, it was all those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.
Eat, drink, be happy.
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word
spoken with love.

For now, this first of five Bread of Life Sundays, we rest, we abide, in the miracle — the abundance of loaves and fishes and grace. We don’t need to understand it, to analyze it, to spiritualize it. It is enough to experience it. Food and grace and abundance — taste and see that God is good.

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A Sermonette About Immigration Justice and God’s Abundance

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Every first Friday of the month, people of faith gather in prayer and song in front of the immigration detention center in Broadview, IL, to minister to our sisters and brothers who are being deported that day and to advocate for a more compassionate immigration policy in this country. This month I was invited to share the Christian reflection.


Christian Reflection for Interfaith Prayer Vigil
Broadview Detention Center
4 September 2015 + Mark 6.30-44


Is there going to be enough?

That’s the message I hear echoed in our reading today. The disciples are tired, and they’re hungry. And after a long day of being surrounded by swarms of people, they just want to eat some fish and some bread in peace by themselves.

Is there going to be enough?

That’s the question that always ran through my mind when I gathered with my campus ministry to serve a hot meal to our sisters and brothers in Chicago who were experiencing homelessness. We do this every month and we can plan all we want, but in the end, we never know how many people are going to show up. It’s not difficult then for me to imagine the disciples’ position.

Is there going to be enough?

In my seminary this week, several of us gathered for a community conversation on diversity. Near the end, we had a panel of representatives from several different communities, and one question asked of them was to name the greatest sin facing our world today. What struck me is that all of them, in some form or another, kept saying fear of scarcity and the subsequent hoarding of resources and inequality. That fear separates the haves and the have nots, the privileged and the oppressed, those who are citizens and those who are struggling to become citizens. As one panelist suggested, I think the majority of the world’s “isms” and phobias would begin to fade away if we learned to fear less and trust God more.

But I also want to acknowledge, at least for myself, that it’s hard to trust. This summer I had the opportunity to preach on the passage of Mark’s gospel that immediately precedes the feeding of the five thousand. It tells the story of the death of John the Baptist. At that time, Herod threw a banquet for his birthday, and at that banquet, his stepdaughter danced to entertain the party guests. In return, Herod promised to give her whatever she asked for. So she went to her mother to confer. Now her mother had a tiny grudge against John the Baptist because he had called out Herod, her husband, for marrying her, who happened to be his brother’s wife. So she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, and Herod reluctantly complied.

I tell that story to highlight the fact that there are two back-to-back banquets in Mark’s gospel. There’s Herod’s banquet that ends in death, and then there’s Jesus’s banquet that ends in life-sustaining goodness and abundant leftovers. I don’t think that juxtaposition is just a coincidence.

I think it’s a reminder that human power so often struggles to maintain itself at the cost of human life. I think Herod, who was in a position of power, was afraid of losing his authority and the respect of the people. And as a Jew himself, I think he was afraid because John called him out for his marriage that stood in violation of Torah. And so out of fear, Herod had John silenced.

But we know God’s way is vastly different from Herod’s way. Where Herod’s way is oppressive and exclusive and ends with death, God’s way is always concerned for the outcast, the outsider, the oppressed, the immigrant. God’s way is disarming and unexpected. It comes to us in the form of a baby born in a dirty barn stall, it comes to us in the form of a peasant carpenter-turned-rabbi, it comes to us in the form of crucified Savior, and it comes to us finally in the form of a resurrected Christ. God’s way ends in life.

And in the second banquet, God’s way also says there is enough. And it stands in stark contrast to Herod’s fear of losing power and control and to our fear of scarcity and the subsequent hoarding of resources. When we, like the disciples, want to send the crowds away to go get their own food because, gosh darn it, we worked hard for what we have and so should everyone else, we hear Jesus’s simple instructions, “You give them something to eat.” It’s incumbent on us to love our neighbors, all of them, as ourselves, and to care for and protect those who are the most vulnerable. That’s why we’re here today, and it’s why you keep showing up here every Friday.

Theologian Paul Tillich has referred to sin as separation. What we’re doing here today is protesting the separation of families and loved ones who are simply trying to take their place at the banquet table and fully realize their inherent, God-given sacred worth and dignity. When we turn back our sisters and brothers who come to this country seeking a better life, we are separating ourselves from our fellow human beings. If separation is sin, then this practice of deportation is sinful.

Back to campus ministry: One week we decided to host a meal in the middle of the month, made possible by a very generous donation. We had a beautiful spread of fried chicken and all the usual suspects on the side. But it deviated from our schedule, and no one knew about it. We had two people show up. There was obviously more than enough, and so we took the food to the streets and hand delivered it.

“Christ of Maryknoll” by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

That’s the other great part of the gospel. Just as it readily welcomes all, it also actively pursues all, as the psalmist writes: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23.6). And so we openly welcome all, and we actively seek all, and we pray for our sisters and brothers being sent away this day and everyday around the country. We know that God’s justice says that all eat and are filled and that all are welcome at the table because we know that there is enough. I pray for the day that we let go of fear and recognize that unfailing abundance.

Amen.