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


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.


Endorsement Essay


‘Tis the season…for endorsement essay writing! (Okay, so it’s not as festive as Christmas, but I tried.) Today, a couple of fellow seminary students asked for some advice in writing their essays, and so I offer my own endorsement essay as an example. I offer this to my colleagues who follow me in the ELCA candidacy process because it was so incredibly helpful for me to see the sample essay of another colleague ahead of me last year. But I also offer my essay as a (small but vulnerable) sliver into my own call to and understanding of ministry. And so without further ado, the essay. Enjoy!

I. Call to Ministry

I doubt any of us who were baptized as infants can remember that day, but I am certain we have witnessed enough of them to know the great joy that accompanies it. The first Sunday I worshipped at my current congregation we had five baptisms, and five times we sang, “You belong to Christ; in him you have been baptized! Alleluia, alleluia!” As our liturgy proclaims the newly baptized to be “marked with the cross of Christ forever,” we boldly declare whose we are and to whom we belong and that sin, death, and the forces of evil do not have the final word. The best part is that baptism is a gift by which God reveals God’s new reality for God’s people. Baptism is also a beginning that “inaugurates a life of discipleship.”[1] It gives us our identity as children of God and grounds our vocation in that identity, to love and serve all people. Being claimed by God’s grace, we, like Jesus, are immediately driven out into our wildernesses and are compelled to proclaim God’s message of reconciliation by word and deed (Mark 1.9-15).

The life of justice-seeking discipleship that flows from baptism is also intertwined with call, and my own experience reflects this. For as far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a pastor, but it is not until recently that the Spirit’s call has become louder. In 2011 when I graduated from college with a pre-seminary concentration, I had just begun the process of coming out as gay. While that is a difficult matter by itself, it also meant that I could no longer in good conscience pursue a life of ministry in the denomination of which I was then a part. In my search for a more welcoming church home, I visited Urban Village, a still-young church plant in Chicago. In my first conversation with the pastor, I told my story and was fully welcomed, affirmed, and invited into the community of Urban Village. He recognized my gifts and passion for ministry, and for the following two years I felt more involved in the life of the church than in twenty years of growing up within her walls. From marching alongside reconciling churches in Chicago’s Pride Parade to distributing “ashes to go” on Ash Wednesday to engaging with newcomers and serving them communion, I was doing in those moments what I have since come to know as the model of “public church” that my seminary is committed to—witnessing openly to God’s love in acts of reconciliation and works of service and justice. I knew that is what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing, and I simply cannot imagine doing anything else.

I have found myself called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament because I desire to be a public leader in the church, specifically in the context of the local parish. That is where I feel most at home. The world is a broken and terrifying place, in need of the message of God’s love more than ever, and I believe that it is by preaching the Gospel that liberates and by sharing the Meal that unites that we are refreshed and empowered to go forth and stir up people from complacency from the world as it is in order to begin to recreate the world as God intends. I believe that my experiences of the joys and challenges of church planting with Urban Village and Holy Trinity, participating in the radical hospitality of service with campus ministry, and engaging in social justice with community organizations have given me a strong foundation to stand on as I grow as a public leader and help to shape the church and the congregations I hope to serve. Most exciting about my call is what I have said many times before: More than anything, I want to in some small way be for others what that pastor at Urban Village was for me—that is, an instrument of affirmation and reconciliation.

I think the most challenging part about this call is also the most beautiful. One weekend when I was at a small group leaders’ retreat at Urban Village, we were given some time for quiet contemplation. I have never been great at sitting still in silence, and so in need of something to do, I opened a pew Bible to Exodus and started reading Moses’s call story. He says to God, “Who am I that I should go?” Exactly, I thought. In the midst of hearing and experiencing all sorts of external affirmations that I should go to seminary, still I doubted that I really had what it takes to pull off being a pastor, especially compared to all the seminarians, interns, and other leaders who surrounded me at Urban Village and who (I thought) were so much better at it than me. But God’s answer: “I will be with you.” As surely as God was speaking to Moses, God was speaking to me. In that moment of internal affirmation of call, I knew that despite all my perceived shortcomings, God had something in mind for me. Much later, during my summer spent doing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, I was reminded again of the uniqueness of my gifts. In dialogue with my fellow interns and supervisor, CPE upended my self-expectations and allowed me to be authentically me. Through preaching and pastoral care, I gained more confidence in my own pastoral identity and authority and even calling myself “chaplain.” As one CPE colleague said, “I don’t have to be [this expectation of me]. I can just be me.”

I am also reminded of the great cloud of witnesses God has given me, as God gave Moses his brother Aaron. I am reminded of that reality looking at a Polaroid from my baptism day, surrounded by my parents, sponsors, and pastor, and I am still reminded of it when I look around at my fellow seminarians in class and in chapel or the people sitting next to me at church every week. Thanks be to God that none of us does ministry alone! My understanding of the priesthood of all believers means that the work of reconciliation and justice to which each of us is called is a communal effort. Some, like me, have been called to preach and preside, but God gives gifts to all “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4.12). Indeed, as I was reminded this summer, we all have different but equally valuable gifts to bring, and we also have the privilege to bear one another’s burdens and the gift of being invited into their stories. We don’t have to fix, but we do get to listen—to wonder, to follow, to hold.

II. Faithfulness to the Church’s Confession

I have been Lutheran all my life. I was baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran church and educated in Lutheran schools from preschool through college. To this day I could still answer, “What does this mean?” And yet, during all that time, I could not tell you what made me different from other Christians. It was not until being separated from the church of my upbringing that I began to experience Christianity in all its diversity, and my experience in seminary so far has taught me what it means to be distinctly Lutheran.

For me, the heart of the Lutheran confessional witness begins with my saint-and-sinner identity. I am at once a good creation of God but also corrupt by sin and utterly unable to save myself, yet I also believe that I am saved by grace through faith apart from works for Christ’s sake. Lutheranism is a movement that takes sin seriously but grace even more seriously. That is to say, we are realistic about the human condition revealed to us by God’s Law, and when we brought to despair on account of it, the immediate proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is made all the more joyous, liberating us from sin and rescuing us from despair. The Confessions emphasize that we are declared righteous before God because of Christ’s righteousness, and this grace is wholly a gift, not dependent on anything I say or do (thank God!). Even my faith in this grace is not my doing, as Luther writes, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith.”[2]

This doctrine of justification also informs my pastoral care. Because of its honesty about the human condition, it also creates space for lament. And lament is not hopeless ranting but faith in God despite all evidence to the contrary. Amy, one of patients this summer, taught me this in the course of an hour visit where she related loss upon loss in her life. For perhaps the only time in her life, she had space to process openly and freely, and I had the privilege of standing with her in Good Friday and holding Easter for her when she could not.

Speaking of Good Friday and Easter, paradox is also one of the treasures of Lutheranism that I cherish. As in my pastoral care, it also influences my preaching. As Barth famously quipped, a minister ought to preach with a newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. To preach Law is to tell the truth about the human condition and everything that is wrong with the world, and to preach Gospel is tell the truth about God’s grace and proclaim that God’s relationship with all of creation is wholly restored. The two must be simultaneously affirmed because one without the other is meaningless. The Gospel is all about restoring broken relationships. As God in Christ has reconciled the world to God’s self, God has also given us this ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5.18-19).

Therefore, when I am asked to serve in accordance with the Scriptures, the Creeds, and the Confessions of the ELCA, I am really being asked to be faithful to the Gospel and to let its message of liberation and reconciliation permeate all that I am and do. My role as a “diligent and faithful” rostered minister in this church will be grounded in Word and Sacrament, as the confessors write, “[The church] is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.”[3] In addition to our confessional and scriptural emphases, Lutherans are also a sacramental people. Our proclamation of the Gospel and administration of the Sacraments highlight the importance we ascribe to the means of grace. While God is certainly not limited to revealing God’s grace in Word and Sacrament alone, God has indeed promised that such grace is found in bread and wine and water. The ordained minister is, in a phrase, the means of the means of grace.

Grounded in Word and Sacrament, the mission of the church always needs to extend outward. As our vocations are grounded in baptism, the font in our worship spaces reminds us that the Sunday assembly is only the starting point and that how we live our Monday-through-Saturday lives matters. Put differently, the church does not exist for its own sake but for the sake of the world. Empowered by the Gospel and fed by Christ’s body and blood, active engagement in the work of justice and peace begins in the local congregation.

Our faith compels us to follow the example of Jesus, who regularly associated with “tax collectors and sinners” and healed many who were considered “unclean” and the marginalized whom we would prefer to ignore. To say our attention is directed to the fringes is to focus on meeting people where they are and as they are. I am reminded of Stephen’s final words before his death: “The Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands” (Acts 7.48). He reminds us that God is not present only in our houses of worship but is in fact found among “the least of these.” For me this summer, the least of these were found in dark hospital rooms, like Mr. Lacey, one of my patients who was recovering from a stroke. He had severely limited mobility and spoke with considerable difficulty, and we shared maybe ten minutes of conversation in the course of a two-hour visit. When the nurse came in to move him from his wheelchair to his bed, I told him I would leave to let him rest unless he wanted me to stay. He did, and he said to me, “It’s good that you’re here… I feel better having your blessing.” And so I stayed until he fell asleep. In those quiet moments, I began to feel his loneliness, but I realized that, while I got to leave at 4:30, that feeling was his every day. If I weren’t there, he truly would have been alone, but I was there when no one else was and to remind him that he wasn’t alone.

I could tell endless stories about my clinical experience as a chaplain this summer, but for me, it keeps going back to the doctrine of justification, which implies not only that we are freed from our sin but freed for good works to the glory of God and for the benefit of our neighbor. As redeemed creatures, we have a faith active in love ethic, as Luther writes:

Although the Christian is thus free from all works, he ought in this liberty to empty himself, take upon himself the form of a servant, be made in the likeness of men, be found in human form, and to serve, help, and in every way deal with his neighbor as he sees that God through Christ has dealt and still deals with him. This he should do freely.[4]

Faith active in love for the sake of the world enables us to be theologians of the cross and call a thing what it is—and so we acknowledge systemic evil and injustice. But our response is always one of love because the church is not in the business of condemnation. If we are going to err, then we ought to err on the side of inclusivity. Our task is to proclaim the Gospel message of liberation and participate in the ministry of reconciliation. God’s grace is for everyone, and it is not our place to decide who gets it. Amy’s story, Mr. Lacey’s story, and stories like theirs put flesh on the bones of my intellectual framework and inspire me in this odd and wondrous calling.

The Lutheran confessional heritage has given me a framework and way of seeing the world that makes sense to me. The heritage in which I stand has given me many gifts, not least of which is our fondness for paradox. I believe in the continual cycle of death and resurrection that ultimately ends with resurrection, and above all, I believe when all else fails I can dwell in the mystery, knowing God’s grace is sufficient.

III. Faithful Living

When I reflect on my first year of seminary and my journey of discernment so far, many joys and challenges come to mind. Personally, after three years of not being in school full-time, it was a challenge to become re-acclimated to the demands of an academic environment. The semester before I started as an M.Div. I took one class as a “special student,” which not only made the transition back to school easier but also introduced me to the seminary community. Prior to starting seminary, I had also been working nearly full-time; fortunately, my job was flexible enough for me to reduce my hours, first to three and then to two days a week to allow for adequate time to devote to my coursework.

My vocational and spiritual development since starting seminary go hand-in-hand. Last semester, daily chapel was a priority for me since my work schedule in the fall did not permit this. It was wonderful to have those worship opportunities, to be immersed in the rhythm of the church year, and to be surrounded by colleagues who daily reminded me of our common identity as beloved children of God. This year, I also have the privilege to serve as sacristan on chapel staff and look forward to being a more intimate part of communal worship life.

Being entranced during my first year at seminary was also a big milestone, and as a gay man, I am thrilled that I now have the support of Proclaim, the professional network of LGBTQ seminarians and rostered leaders in the Lutheran church. I trust it will be a tremendous resource for me throughout candidacy, internship, first call, and beyond.

This year I have also come to grow significantly in my passion for justice issues. I wrote in my entrance essay that I did not see the role of pastor as that of community organizer, yet I have come to appreciate that their functions are more similar that I had previously realized. At the core, both are about building relationships with people around shared interests for the sake of the local and global communities. Last fall, shortly after the Ferguson grand jury decision, I had the opportunity to join LSTC and other Hyde Park seminarians in a “walk-out” to protest the injustice of the verdict and to make a public witness of our church’s commitment to confronting racism and advocating for racial justice.[5] That was a powerful day for me. I also had the opportunity to contribute an article to our seminary’s blog about the experience as it relates to our new curriculum’s emphasis on being and doing public church.[6] Moreover, while I still feel deeply called to Word and Sacrament, my CPE colleagues recognized my gifts for chaplaincy too, and to be sure, the tools of chaplaincy are not unlike those of pastoral care in the parish.

I have already mentioned that daily chapel at LSTC contributes greatly to my spiritual nourishment, but I am also fortunate to have a local home congregation. The Holy Trinity community has been fully supportive of my call and my studies, and I am happy that I will be able to continue to worship there on Saturday nights for another year before I go on internship. While I certainly have no shortage of opportunities to nourish my faith, this year I have begun to focus more on practicing self-care. In January I joined the University of Chicago gym and have made a concerted effort to exercise regularly, and I have also been more mindful of my eating habits. Overall, I have found that balancing responsibilities and recreation contributes positively to my whole wellbeing, but it will also require deliberate attention to keep it in practice. I am also in the process of seeking a therapist and spiritual director to continue the self-learning of CPE and to follow the recommendation of my entrance panel.

As an example in faithful service and holy living, I will also be expected to make a commitment to lead a life worthy of the Gospel of Christ. Such a standard is intimidating, to say the least, especially since my first reaction is that no one is “worthy” of the Gospel. That phrase from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (1.27), however, conveys an idea much richer in meaning than it seems. The verb Paul uses in this passage has a basic meaning rooted in exercising one’s rights and duties as a political citizen. Paul’s meaning, therefore, carries the connotation of living a life that reflects one’s “citizenship” in the Christian church, with an emphasis on the communal nature of that church. In other words, leading a life worthy of the Gospel has less to do with securing individual salvation but everything to do with living together in response it.

The pastor, like everyone else, is first and foremost a baptized Christian and part of the priesthood of all believers. (S)he is not set apart as one having “moral or spiritual perfection” but rather as “one sent by the church to lead the community of faith through the ministry of word and sacrament.”[7] Therefore, as the appointed leader of a congregation, my words and actions will not only reflect on my local community but also my synod and the whole church. My responsibility is to all of these entities, and it is ultimately to the Gospel.

My responsibility as a public minister “whose life and conduct are above reproach” includes both faithful service and holy living. Faithful service means regularly participating in the means of grace and making them available to others, always being available as a pastoral caregiver, and being grounded and encouraging others in spiritual practices. It also means cherishing and respecting the mutual accountability of my ministerial colleagues and learning from each other. Lifelong learning and study of Scripture, theology, and the arts of ministry are also vital to be the best possible leader I can be. Similarly, holy living means integrity and trustworthiness, particularly in relationships, and it means consistency in all aspects of one’s life.

All things considered, living a life above reproach ultimately has to do with fostering the witness of the Gospel and my ability to carry out public ministry. The expression of that Gospel is nothing less than compassion and acts of radical hospitality, care of creation, and striving for peace and justice in all the earth.

[1] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), 20.

[2] Martin Luther, “The Small Catechism,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 355.

[3] Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., “The Augsburg Confession,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 42.

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

[5] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity, and Culture,” September 1993.

[6] http://bit.ly/1NRcyTL

[7] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “Vision and Expectations: Ordained Ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” April 2010, 7.

What’s the Catch? A Sermon About Costly Grace, Discipleship, and (of course) Threading Needles with Camels


Grace Lutheran Church
11 October 2015 + Pentecost 20B
Mark 10.17-31

What’s the catch? It’s the question we ask when things just seem too good to be true. After four years of college and almost two years of seminary, I know that the surest way to attract poor students to your event is to offer free food. I’ve certainly taken advantage of my share of those opportunities—but always wondering: So what do I have to sit through, or sign up for, or commit to? What’s the catch?

It’s a question that I imagine was also on the mind of the man we meet in our gospel text today. Surely he had caught wind of Jesus’s rapidly spreading ministry—the healings, the exorcisms, the miracles, the resuscitations. And we know he’s intentionally seeking Jesus out. When he sees Jesus with the crowds and the children, he goes out of his way, distracted from his journey. There’s a sense of urgency and sincerity to his inquiry: he runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s a fair question, and he’s genuinely curious. What do I have to do to get in on this? Is it too good to be true? What’s the catch?

In response, Jesus is direct. Like a good Jew, he recites to him Torah, God’s law, and specifically the Ten Commandments. Do these things. That’s the catch. And like a good Jew, the man responds, “I have kept all these since my youth.” Check, check, and check! And then Jesus pauses and looks at him, lovingly, before continuing, as if to say, “You really don’t get it, do you? Let me try again.”

See, Jesus didn’t recite back all of the commandments, or even a random assortment. You might recall from the days of confirmation class that there are two “tables,” or subsets, of the Ten Commandments: the first table deals with our relationship to God, and the second deals with our relationship to other people. It’s this second set that Jesus highlights. You might also recall the famous passage a couple chapters later in Mark’s gospel where Jesus is asked which commandment is the first of all and he responds: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your mind, and with all your strength… [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12.30-31). Jesus effectively summarizes the two tables of the commandments, which is to say that in today’s passage, he effectively tells the rich man, “Love your neighbor.”

Jesus doesn’t discount this man’s keeping of the commandments, but he does tell him he is missing something. What Jesus is getting at is the difference between what we might call following “the letter of the law” versus “the spirit of the law.” In other words, the point is not following the commandments for their own sake but for the sake of communal justice. It’s not enough, for instance, to refrain from outright stealing from our neighbor, but, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor… then come, follow me.” Jesus makes looking out for our neighbor a prerequisite to discipleship, as if to say, “There’s your catch.” Love your neighbor. Take care of them. Then you’ll know what it means to follow me. But the man is shocked at this and goes away grieving.

image unashamedly stolen from Paul Eldred’s blog, whose excellent sermon on the same text you should also read

Then, following the pattern from last week’s reading, the conversation moves from the public sphere to the private circle of the disciples, where Jesus elaborates: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” But the disciples don’t get it either, so he says it again and even adds an intentionally absurd comparison, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” And still they don’t get it.

Echoing back to the rich man’s question, the disciples ask, “Then who can be saved?” What’s the catch? And pausing and looking at them in the same way, Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” What? Another catch?

Perhaps it’s understandable then when Peter, exasperated, declares, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” What more do you want, Jesus? And then Jesus finally lets in on what his movement is all about: “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” This message that Jesus is proclaiming is going to turn things upside-down and inside-out. It’s getting back to the heart of God’s law that is concerned about justice, and it insists on removing those things, like wealth and greed, that get in the way.

So how do we inherit eternal life? What’s the catch? As good Lutherans, we know that there is no catch. Grace alone, right? Well, yes and no. And before you run to Pr. Kevin and accuse the seminary intern of heresy, let me be perfectly clear: We are indeed saved by grace through faith for Christ’s sake apart from works. (Did I get that right?) It’s what our Lutheran faith is all about, and for good measure, lest we forget, it’s even posted on a sign on one of our bulletin boards here. But it’s also much more than that.

Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, famously wrote about the “cost of discipleship.” With a fierce commitment to peace and social justice, Bonhoeffer offered a prophetic critique of the church of his day which had been sold out and corrupted by the Nazi regime, often openly endorsing Hitler’s politics to preserve itself. It ignored state-sanctioned tyranny and the violence being done against the Jews and other minorities at the expense of the gospel they were supposed to be preaching.

For the church of Bonhoeffer’s day, “grace alone” had turned into an excuse to ignore social sin, resulting in a failure to resist injustice. In other words, “grace alone” had turned into “cheap grace,” as Bonhoeffer writes:

Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before… Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship. [1]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945

Cheap grace is a misunderstanding, Bonhoeffer claims, of what Luther had in mind when he said we are saved by grace alone. Cheap grace ignores the fact that Luther’s discovery of grace thrust him from the cloister to the world. For Luther, being saved by grace was only half of the point, and its necessary corollary was rooted in the obligation of discipleship. Put plainly: Grace is indeed a welcome word of good news to the sinner, but grace doesn’t just let us sit back in idleness as before, as though nothing has changed. Because of grace and the inbreaking of God’s new reality, everything has changed. The sick are healed, the dead are raised, the poor are lifted up, the outcast are welcomed in, the first are last, the last are first, the humanly impossible is divinely possible.

Costly grace, far from a “one-and-done” occurrence, is a living reality. Costly grace calls us to follow Jesus, like the rich man and the disciples. Costly grace beckons a life of discipleship, which Bonhoeffer knew all too well. Costly grace drove him from the confines of his comfortable career in academia to the confines of a concentration camp. Bonhoeffer risked his own life for being bold enough to speak out against the gross injustice and corruption he saw going on, and it ultimately cost him his life. Cheap grace lets us acquiesce in the face of injustice; costly grace demands that we call it out.

The life of discipleship to which Jesus invites the rich man and to which he calls each of us is not about following rules for the sake of following rules but for the sake of our neighbor. Like Bonhoeffer knew, discipleship means questioning the status quo when it contradicts God’s will for justice. It means standing in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. It means removing all those obstacles that get in the way. It even means practicing civil disobedience—or is it divine obedience?—when our state’s budget crisis threatens our most vulnerable populations, as our own local Lutheran bishop and countless other people of faith have done in a series of demonstrations this past summer.

faith leaders, with a camel, at a “Moral Monday” rally this summer in protest of the Illinois state budget cuts (photo credit: Tom Gaulke)

So what’s the catch? How do we enter the kingdom of God? Again, let me be perfectly clear: we are saved by grace through faith because of what God in Christ has freely done for us. But because of Christ’s redeeming work, we are freed to love and serve our neighbor. It’s not that we’re earning grace, but rather that we’re living in response to it. The kingdom of God is all about justice, and it’s a work in progress to which each of us is called to participate.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Cost of Discipleship,” in A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 308.

A Sermon About Rest for the Weary, with #KellyOnMyMind


Sermon for ML 403 Preaching Lab
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
6 October 2015
Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30 (Pentecost 5A)

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

You know the words. And you could probably sing them better than me. But I’d be hard-pressed to think of a time when these words were sang as poignantly as when Georgia death row inmate Kelly Gissendaner sang them early last Wednesday morning, just moments before the pentobarbital took over her body and she breathed her last.

That night, in the hours leading up to her death, I was glued to my Twitter feed—waiting, watching, praying, and hoping against hope. When the Supreme Court rejected her last request for a stay of execution, I was sad, angry, and bitter.

And with #KellyOnMyMind, I read with fresh eyes this gospel text. And I couldn’t help but resonate with Jesus: “To what will I compare this generation?” Of course, the generation that Jesus was referring to had just rejected John the Baptist and was now actively rejecting him. They had rejected his message of the coming of the royal reign of God that was especially for tax collectors and sinners and outsiders. On Wednesday morning, that generation didn’t seem all that far removed from those who rejected Kelly, a death row inmate-turned-minister of the gospel, an outsider among outsiders.

In our text Jesus is frustrated, and I felt that frustration. I once heard the death penalty described as “evil cloaked in respectability and law.” We call it “justice,” but we’re fooling no one. It’s the taking of life for life, rooted in an unquenchable desire for retribution. It rejects any possibility for reconciliation and restoration.

Kelly (center) with theologian Jurgen Moltmann, at her 2011 graduation from the Candler School of Theology’s Certificate in Theological Studies program

Reconciliation. Restoration. Sound familiar? Words that could just as easily describe Jesus’s ministry. Jesus’s rejected ministry, that is.

No wonder Jesus was pissed off. The gap in this pericope includes some not-so-nice words against the villages that rejected him. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! And you, Capernaum, you will be brought down to Hades!”

They just don’t get it—these wise and intelligent ones. But notice who does: infants. Ones without religious status, ones who shouldn’t know but somehow do, ones that get trampled on, ones whom the wise and intelligent resent. Ones like Kelly Gissendaner.

But then there’s that beautiful paragraph at the end: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” What are we to make of that after everything we just heard?

A few years ago, I went through bout of depression. I had just graduated college with what had been plans to go to seminary, but I had also just come out. The denomination of which I was then a part doesn’t exactly support queer clergy, so those plans were shattered. I struggled with a loss of community and a lack of clarity about what I wanted to do with my life.

It was also around that time that an Episcopalian friend introduced me to compline. This simple prayer service for the close of the day involves reciting these last verses from Matthew’s gospel. For me, compline has become a practice of laying down the burdens of the day and a powerful reminder of rest. It doesn’t solve all my problems, but it reminds me of God’s love and God’s ability to hold all my stuff when I cannot.

We’ve all had our share of seemingly hopeless situations. Last Tuesday night, Kelly could’ve easily despaired or harbored resentment against her executioners, but in her final statement, she said, “Let my kids know I went out singing ‘Amazing Grace.’” Kelly sang “Amazing Grace” because she knew that the power of the state to take her life was no match for the power and the love of the God who had redeemed her life.

There’s plenty to despair about in the world around us, my friends. There’s plenty to despair about when the state of Georgia takes the life of a woman who embodied the very definition of rehabilitation. There’s plenty to despair about when a news article from last Tuesday bears the headline, “The U.S. has six executions scheduled over the next nine days.” There’s plenty to despair about when yet another mass shooting leaves nine innocent people and their killer dead at a community college in Oregon.

There’s plenty to despair about, and frankly I’m sick of it. But Jesus offers something different.

Come to me, all you that are weary of state-sanctioned killings.
Come to me, all you that are burdened with loss and uncertainty.
Come to me, all you that are weary of mass shootings.
Come to me, all you that are wretched, lost, and blind.

Come to me, and I will give you rest.
Come to me, and I will show you amazing grace.

Come to me, Jesus says to each of us, and I will give you rest. Jesus doesn’t necessarily promise to make everything better, but he does promise respite in the thick of it. And that promise is ultimately found in the hope of the resurrection. And we can rest easy knowing that all has been conquered for us. Thanks be to God.