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 Sermon about Rest

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Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
22 July 2018 + Lectionary 16B (Pentecost 9)
Mark 6.30-34, 53-56


What gives you rest?

Maybe it’s listening to your favorite radio station or podcast on your way home from work. Or coming home to a home-cooked meal (or having a pizza delivered!) and unwinding after a stressful or busy day. Or going for a run or long walk to take a deep breath of fresh air and gather your thoughts.

What gives you rest?

Whatever it is, we know: Rest is important.

Rest for our bodies is important.
Rest for our spirits is important.
Rest is important.

Jesus recognizes that.

So much has happened these past few weeks in Mark’s gospel. It’s been a turbulent, restless time for the disciples and for Jesus. Jesus’s teaching and healing have become wildly popular. People have been tracking him down and closing in on him from every side — physically. On his way to one place to visit a young girl near the point of death, we heard the story of a woman who approaches Jesus from behind, seemingly out of nowhere, to touch the fringe of his clothes in a desperate attempt to be healed.

From other stories these past few weeks, we also know that not all attention is good attention, either. Jesus’s family has already tried to restrain him, his religious community has accused him of being possessed by a demon, and he was even outright rejected in his hometown. All the while, Jesus commissions his disciples and gives them the authority to teach and heal and cast out demons — but he is also clear that they, too, will be rejected.

And then, last week, in a dramatic unfolding of events, Mark reports the gruesome and sudden death of John the Baptist, whose own message and ministry served as the forerunner to Jesus. Is Jesus next? Are we next? we might imagine the disciples asking.

These have been turbulent, restless times.

Now the apostles are gathered around Jesus, and they tell him all that they have been doing and teaching. Caught up in the excitement and commotion and busyness of everything, I imagine a cacophony of voices around Jesus, each one telling stories to everyone else. And in the midst of that, all of sudden, quiet: Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.

These are welcome words of rest in the midst of turbulent, restless times.

Rest is important, and Jesus recognizes that. For himself and for his friends.

Their work is important, to be sure — healing and proclaiming liberation and casting out the demons of injustice — but they’re no good to anybody, least of all themselves, if they get burned out and neglect to take care of themselves, physically and spiritually.

These past several weeks, I’ve been working at the ELCA Churchwide offices, coordinating a number of summer events. Just this past week, I emerged from the thick of one of orientation event, even as I was busy preparing for the next conference this coming week. With so many details to remember, materials to prepare, and emails to write, it wasn’t difficult to lose myself in a whirlwind of busyness — forgetting to tend to my own needs to rest and recharge, to eat, to have a cup of coffee, to have a conversation about not work with a colleague or a friend, to attend the Churchwide midweek chapel service, to breathe.

I suspect more than a few of you can relate. There is always so much, too much, to do. Never-ending emails and reports for work. An endless cycle of cleaning and housework when we know full well it’s just going to need to be done all over again soon enough. The anxiety of congregational life and programming, obsessing over every last detail before the events and programs we plan ever actually happen (maybe those of you who planned and helped with VBS this past week can relate?).

It’s in these moments we hear Jesus’s welcome words of promise: Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.

Get up from your desk and take a walk. The work will still be there when you get back.

Sit down on the couch and have a glass of water. The dusting and dishes can wait a few more minutes.

Take a deep breath and dwell in God’s presence around this table, at this meal, today, right here, right now, in this moment.

Rest is important. Rest for our bodies. Rest for our spirits.

Taking time for rest does not mean that we are ignoring the work that needs to be done, and taking time to care for our bodies and our spirits does not mean that we have failed. Just the opposite: It means we are ensuring the care of ourselves, our very bodies that God has made and called very good, to make sure that we can keep doing the work of the gospel.

Rest for our spirits is important. The great civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who himself never seemed to stop either, knew this when he included a stipulation for his co-workers in the cause of nonviolent resistance to “meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.”

Rest for our bodies is important. Jesus knew this too when he pulled his disciples aside at a time when they had had no time even to eat a meal.

Rest is important.

Take time for rest. You can start today, even here, at this table. Take, eat, drink, rest.

A(nother!) Sermon about Wealth and Chasm-Crossing

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Augustana Lutheran Church
25 September 2016 + Lectionary 26C
Luke 16.19-31; 1 Timothy 6.6-19



One of my favorite scenes in the film adaptation of the popular rock musical Rent opens on an impoverished-looking apartment complex in Manhattan’s East Village, where we are introduced to two roommates, Mark and Roger, and their former roommate and friend-turned-landlord, Benny, whose upward marriage and new career in real estate brings the chasm between rich and poor to a head. Benny informs them that he plans to evict the homeless population from a nearby “tent city” to put in a state-of-the-art cyber arts studio.Rent

Plans that their performance artist friend Maureen intends to protest, which brings us to Benny’s point for this meeting: Convince Maureen to cancel her protest, and Mark and Roger can continue living rent-free in their apartment, which they can’t afford otherwise.

Friends betrayed. Relationships broken. Livelihoods and homes threatened. A great chasm has been fixed…

Words we hear, too, from Abraham in this parable from Luke. Words, I imagine, many of us have come to interpret as the “great chasm” between “heaven” and “hell.” Frightful imagery, indeed —  but intended not exactly to scare us into getting our act together with the threat or promise of where will wind up when we die.

I suspect the great chasm Abraham refers to has much more to do with life here and now.

If you feel like we’ve been hearing a lot about money and wealth this past year as we’ve been listening to Luke’s gospel: you’re right. Luke indeed spends a great deal of time on the topic:

In the Magnificat, Mary sings of the powerful being brought down from their thrones and the rich being sent away empty.

And in the so-called Sermon on the Plain, Jesus blesses the poor in one breath and pronounces woe on the rich in another.

The outlook for anyone with wealth, it seems, is pretty bleak.

lu16-rch-mn-in-hll-1-173In today’s parable, it seems even worse: Both the rich man, who goes unnamed, and Lazarus, the destitute beggar at his gate, die. Lazarus is taken to rest in “the bosom of Abraham,” while the rich man is tormented in Hades, the place of the dead. It’s certainly a great reversal from their time on earth, where the rich man feasted sumptuously and where Lazarus’s only company was a pack of dogs.

And it’s a bleak outlook for what looks to be a repentant rich man, as he pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers who are still living so that they can repent before it’s too late, lest they too wind up in torment in Hades.

But I have to wonder: Is the rich man really repentant? And is it really repentance if his brothers only change their ways to avoid punishment in the afterlife?

Muslim saint and Sufi mystic Rabi’a writes in one of her well-known poems:

O my Lord, / if I worship you / from fear of hell, burn me in hell. / If I worship you / from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates. / But if I worship you / for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face. [1]

Rabi’a turns the notion of a reward-and-punishment system on its head. Heaven is not a place where “good” people go, nor is hell reserved for “bad” people. Whether or not such places even exist is not the point! (That’s another sermon…)

A great chasm has been fixed… implies that there are two polar opposites on either side of that chasm, but it has nothing to do with the afterlife. This parable comes on the heels of last week’s message about the dangers of serving both God and wealth and is addressed to the Pharisees who are subsequently called “lovers of money.”

The first-century world, even more than ours today, had a tremendous wealth gap between the haves and the have-nots. And that kind of chasm acts as an insulated barrier—keeping the destitute beggar Lazarus just outside the gate of the rich man, who probably never even interacted with him. It creates a kind of ignorance of what it’s like on the other side of that chasm.

But again, I have to pause and wonder: Is this really about the rich man’s wealth? After all, there are people with great wealth who do wonderful things. Just this week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan announced their plans to donate $3 billion to help combat and even eradicate disease. [2]

So is this really a passage that claims wealth is inherently bad? Or is it more of a indictment of wealth that so insulates, that creates such a chasm, that it blinds those on whom it has a such a tight grip from seeing the suffering of the world around them?

Now, it’s easy for me, as a seminary student straddled with loan debt, and not a whole lot of disposable income, to simply ignore this passage: I’m not wealthy. It doesn’t apply to me. If anything, I should take the place of Lazarus in this parable. Right?

But when I start to think again about the kinds of chasms that exist in our world today, the tables quickly turn—and there I am, right alongside the rich man absorbed by all our stuff.

A professor of mine has put it this way, reflecting on one particular urban context:

When I walk the ‘Magnificent Mile’ in Chicago, with elegant shops on one side and gorgeous flowering boxes stitched down a street crowded with gas-guzzling SUVs on the other, I ‘walk the mile’ with scores of bedraggled and ill-looking people holding out their paper cups close to the doorways where vast amounts of money will be dropped daily (including some of my own bills, which I do not place in all the outstretched, empty cups). I am worried about how inured [how calloused] I seem to be becoming to the pain I see all around me; how adept at barely seeing even the things that are stealing life in sips; numbed by the consumerism…and unable to take action to close the distance between myself and others who are close enough to trip over. [3]

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It’s not hard to translate that into our context in this city, where we have very real, literal chasms designed to separate “us” and “them.” Think Dodge Street. Or 72nd, or I-680.

A great chasm has been fixed… and it seems impossible to cross. But our text this morning is a wake-up call to see and be opened to our neighbors who suffer injustice.

Chasm-crossing seems impossible until we remember the one who crossed the chasm for us. Christ, who entered into our world, suffered, died, and rose again, all for our sake, and for the sake of saying this is not the way it has to be!

We, who have been freed by the things that trap us and bring ruin and destruction, are so freed to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.

God, who gives life to all things, and who so richly provides, invites us to take hold of the life that really is life. Here, at this table, every Sunday. Take, eat, live. And be emboldened to go out and cross the great chasm.


[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/55267

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/22/technology/mark-zuckerberg-priscilla-chan-3-billion-pledge-fight-disease.html?_r=0

[3] Kadi Billman, “Practicing Pastoral Care as a Theologian of the Cross”

A Good Ol’ Fashioned Sermon about the Radical Nature of God’s Grace (on the 15th anniversary of 9/11)

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Augustana Lutheran Church
11 September 2016 + Lectionary 24C
Exodus 32.7-14



Liturgical whiplash. It’s the result of a hearing a bizarre pairing of seemingly disparate jonathanedwards04lectionary texts. On the one hand, there’s the angry vengeful God ready to smite the Israelites in Exodus—and yet, it’s precisely that kind of rash judgment toward “sinners” that Jesus calls out in his twin parables in Luke.

At first glance, God’s angry tirade against the Israelites reads rather harshly. God even opens by distancing Godself from them: “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt…” God says to Moses. As if to say: Not my circus, not my monkeys. And God’s decision: consume them and bring their existence as a people to an end.

It seems rather excessive, and even out of character, for the God who heard the groaning of the Israelite slaves in Egypt and liberated them from their oppressors.

The medieval French rabbi Rashi offers some help here. His commentary on these few verses proposes that God’s insistence to be “let alone” is actually a subtle hint to Moses to do just the opposite—suggesting that if Moses intercedes on behalf of the Israelites, God will not destroy them. [1]

And Moses does just that. He starts by  boldly turning God’s words right back on God: “your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt.” But that’s only the beginning of Moses’s reminder to God of God’s relationship with God’s people.

Remember Abraham… Remember your covenant promise. Remember how Abraham, too, once pleaded with you to save a whole city from destruction.

Remember Isaac… the long-awaited son you promised to Sarah.

Remember Israel… Remember how Jacob wrestled with you and became Israel, the one who strives with God.

Remember Israel… The children of Jacob, who multiplied and grew exceedingly strong in the land of Egypt, who were enslaved and oppressed, and whose cries God heard.

But wait — Surely God doesn’t need reminders of the history of God’s people and their long relationship, right? I suspect Moses’s plea is less a reminder for God—and more a reminder for Israel and for us.

In keeping with Rashi’s observation, another commentator claims that the whole conversation between God and Moses is a divine setup. Just as Abraham’s bargaining with God to save Sodom allowed him “to measure and remeasure the height, depth, and width of the divine bias toward mercy,” so too does Moses’s plea remind us of that same mercy. [2]

In other words, we might ask: Did God ever really plan to destroy Israel?

The incident of the golden calf could easily have been told in one sentence: Israel screwed up, but God forgave them anyway. But that doesn’t make for a very compelling or interesting story. Instead, we read a fiery exchange between God and Moses. It calls out the gravity of Israel’s sin, but in the process, it also makes God’s grace and readiness to forgive all the more profound.

It’s a reminder of God’s covenant faithfulness for a people lost in the wilderness and, centuries later, for a people exiled from their homeland. It’s a reminder for anyone who finds themselves separated from God, or when it feels like the divine is nowhere to be found. Perhaps in the midst of national or global tragedies, or on the anniversary of one like today.

IMG_8688.PNGEven so, the end of a divine tirade is an unusual place to find grace. But grace is nothing if not “unexpected and mysterious,” as the hymn begins.

Southern Gothic writer and devout Catholic Flannery O’Connor acutely understood the nature of grace. The characters in her stories are often grotesque, deeply flawed, and unlikable human beings, and her stories typically leave me scratching my head and needing to re-read them to glean whatever could be O’Connor’s point in telling such deeply disturbing tales.

Her point, though, offers keen insights into the nature of grace. “There is a moment of grace in most of the stories,” she says of her work. But elsewhere she qualifies, “This notion that grace is healing omits the fact that before it heals, it cuts.” [3]

That’s why in O’Connor’s stories, profound moments of grace are often embedded in deeply disturbing moments of suffering—the latter moments shock us so that grace moments are made all the more surprising.

So it is with the Israelites. These are a people who have been on the brink of hopelessness over and over again. Under oppression and slavery in Egypt. At the bank of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army rapidly closing in on them. At the base of Sinai after Moses, their leader, has by all accounts disappeared.

No wonder they demanded that Aaron make them the golden calf. It’s out of their fear that they erected something to remind them of a godlike presence. It wasn’t so much an idol as an image of the God they hoped against hope hadn’t abandoned them.

And so the story of a seemingly vengeful God that opens the door to a reminder of God’s long history of covenant faithfulness, of liberation from bondage, of grace upon grace.

A grace that overflows, even and especially in the messiness of life. A grace that welcomes tax collectors and sinners. A grace that intentionally seeks us out, time and time again. A grace that always precedes and stands at the ready to embrace us.


[1] http://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.32?lang=en&p2=Rashi_on_Exodus.32.12&lang2=en

[2] Marilyn McCord Adams, “Exodus 32:7-14: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Year C Additional Essays (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 3.

[3] Quoted by Tod Worner, “The Mean Grace of Flannery O’Connor,” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/acatholicthinker/2013/10/the-mean-grace-of-flannery-oconnor/.

A Sermon for Those Who Have Been Told to Take the Lowest Place

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Augustana Lutheran Church
28 August 2016 + Lectionary 22C
Luke 14.1, 7-14



Wash your hands.
Pray before you eat.
Don’t chew with your mouth open.
Keep your elbows off the table.

All phrases that I imagine each of us has heard as children that teach us table manners.

And the fancier the meal, these table manners only seem to get more strict and more elaborate. Imagine Downton Abbey.

Or closer to home: when the good china comes out at Christmas or Thanksgiving, or maybe going out for a nice dinner at the best steakhouse in town.

And yet all these settings would probably pale in comparison to a candlelight supper, hosted by one Hyacinth Bucket. That’s B-U-C-K-E-T, bouquet.

If you get that reference, you have instantly 2073727127_a383fce445_zbecome of my new favorite people who knows and appreciates the television masterpiece that is Keeping Up Appearances.

The show follows the anything-but-ordinary life of Hyacinth Bucket, whose relentless and often exaggerated attempts at climbing the social ladder provide much of the show’s humor. In nearly every episode, Hyacinth goes to great lengths to steer clear of her much more “lower-class” sister Daisy and her husband, while constantly reminding everyone of her much wealthier sister Violet—all part of her ceaseless social climbing.


Jesus encounters a great deal of social climbing in today’s gospel. At the house of a prominent religious leader, all the guests clamor for the places of honor.

The instruction Jesus offers to the guests in his parable seems straightforward enough: Don’t scramble for the place of honor. If someone more important comes along, you might get bumped down lower. So instead, do just the opposite. It’s better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower. It’s advice straight out of the wisdom sayings we encounter in our reading from Proverbs.

But even more radical is what Jesus says in the follow-up to the parable where he turns his attention to the hosts. Don’t invite the usual suspects, but invite those who are poor, crippled, lame, blind—those who cannot invite you back, those who are explicitly excluded by first-century Palestinian “table manners.”

These are the ones who have had no choice but to take the “lowest place”—or no place at all—because that’s where the system has told them they belong. But they’re precisely the ones that Jesus would have at the table.


The church, too, is guilty of its own restrictive and exclusive “table manners.”

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Clare Byarugaba (photo credit: Timothy Meinch / Christian Century)

Clare Byarugaba is an activist who lives in Uganda. She also happens to be a lesbian.

 

She talks about growing up in the Anglican church in her hometown of Kabale, in southwestern Uganda. Her father played the organ, and she sang in the choir. Clare fondly remembers a happy childhood experience in the church: “I never really questioned my faith or the Bible,” she says. “I was in a certain place with God, and it was good.”

Even after she first noticed her same-sex attraction, and started bringing her girlfriends to church with her, she had reconciled her sexuality and her faith. Certain of her identity, she laughingly remarked, “God will deal with it.”

The church of her adulthood, however, holds a different opinion. Clare recounts one Sunday in 2009 when her pastor urged the congregation to sign a petition backing antigay legislation that would make provision for the death penalty in certain cases of same-sex activity. That day, she decided it would be the last time she went to church, reflecting later, “It was so, so painful… The people who were supposed to bring you closer to God were calling for your death.” [1]

Unfortunately, homophobia in the church is a phenomenon not restricted to Uganda and one we know all too well in our North American context. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals told they don’t belong simply because of who they are and whom they love. Or at best, welcomed, but with an asterisk to take the “lowest place.” Be celibate. Don’t get married. You can’t raise children. Don’t be too flamboyant.

There is no shortage of persons in our world who have been told they belong in the “lowest place.” LGBTQ+ persons are just one example.

A video produced by Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago highlights another. It’s called “Get Home Safely: 10 Rules of Survival,” and it features black youth offering advice to their peers on how to survive getting stopped by police. [2] Advice, I must admit, I never had to consider growing up white. Be polite. Don’t argue. Keep your hands visible. Don’t run. Don’t resist. In other words, take the “lowest place” because to attempt to do anything more is to risk your life.


When Clare Byarugaba decided to return to the very church that only a few years earlier had deeply hurt her, she walked in during an opening praise medley that included a song paraphrasing Isaiah 61:

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”

Words that should sound familiar because they are the very words spoken by Jesus that launch and define his public ministry earlier in Luke’s gospel. Words that give Clare hope for the future of her beloved church.

Words that declare that God is always and especially concerned for the outsider and the oppressed.

I am grateful to come from a seminary that embraces the idea of public church, because public church, too, is, at its best, rooted in these words.

The church declares that in baptism we are claimed as God’s own and marked with the cross of Christ forever. The church declares one’s worth is not dependent on where society tells you you belong—but that you are worthy because you are a beloved and redeemed child of God.

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And the public church proclaims that message of sacred worth to the world and fights like hell against systems that deny it to queer lives, to black lives, to refugee and immigrant lives.

Jesus’s insistence that poor and crippled and lame and blind lives matter enough to have a place at the table is much more than a lesson in simple table manners. It’s a radical re-envisioning of a world marked by God’s reign of justice.


[1] http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-08/unshakable-uganda

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqJ-psD9vJw

A Sermon about Keeping the Sabbath (and Why It’s So Hard)

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This Sunday, I had the opportunity to worship with the people of God at First Lutheran Church, a neighboring ELCA congregation not far from Augustana. You can read more about the ministry FLC is up to in Omaha on their website.


First Lutheran Church, Omaha, NE
21 August 2016 + Lectionary 21C
Luke 13.10-17



Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—
I keep it, staying at Home—

So begins the poem by Emily Dickinson. Exchanging a choir for the song of birds, a vaulted ceiling for the covering of trees, and even the preacher in favor of God herself. For Dickinson, sacred space is more out there than in here.

I suppose it’s probably a good thing I didn’t take Dickinson’s advice this morning—or else this would be a very quiet ten minutes… not to mention that I’d probably be going into the wrong line of work.

calmBut I must confess, even as a seminary student who deeply loves all things liturgical, some of my most sacred Sabbath experiences happen outside the four walls of a sanctuary. Living in Chicago for the past eight years, I have come to relish any sliver of urban nature I can find. Walks along Lake Michigan are my favorite, where in the mugginess of summer heat I can actually dip my feet in the cool water, or just sit along the shore and gaze out over the seemingly endless waters.

These sacred moments spent in the midst of urban beauty more often than not organically lead me to prayer and reflection on the day.

But then, I have thoughts.

Thoughts about my to-do list: There’s laundry to do, a sermon to finish, groceries to buy, meetings to attend, bills to pay.

Left alone to our thoughts, distractions creep in. It’s inevitable. And quite frankly, it makes any notion of Sabbath downtime hard to come by.

Barbara Brown Taylor traces a brief history of Sabbath-keeping in her book An Altar in the World. Growing up, Taylor recalls that the Sabbath was a day of could not: you could not wear blue jeans, you could not play ball, you could not ride bikes, you could not go to the movies. In other words, she quips, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it boring.” [1]sabbath-sunday

But even for the most devout Sabbath-keeper, changing times brought changing attitudes toward Sunday mornings. By the 1960s, the majority of homes had TVs, and many of them would be tuned to Sunday football. More and more, shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues began to open their doors on Sundays. Suddenly, there was a newfound liberation as Americans could fill their Sabbath day with a multitude of activities.

Of course, liberation for some meant just the opposite for others. Lower-wage earners would have to choose between keeping the Sabbath or keeping their jobs to meet the demand of added business hours.

Meanwhile, for churches, all of this has meant ever-decreasing attendance, no matter the reason for a churchgoers’s absence. To be sure, Sunday worship is certainly not the only way to keep the Sabbath, but the constant swirl of activities to choose from, to-do items to check off, and smartphone notifications to respond to seems have left precious little time to just be.


To counteract this “war on Sabbath,” Taylor suggests the spiritual practice of “saying no.” She explains that those who practice Sabbath, those who say no, are more able to resist our cultural emphasis on productivity, consumerism, and consumption. Saying no insists that you are worth more than what you do or how much you produce. Saying no allows you to just be, and rest, and recharge. (And no, I don’t just mean your smartphone or tablet.)

In our gospel text this morning, I suspect Jesus is practicing what it means to say no. To heal or not to heal on the Sabbath? That is the question.

The law, it would seem, is clear: no work on the Sabbath. But hear again what Jesus says: “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie your ox or your donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?”

Your ox or your donkey. I don’t think Jesus’s word choice is coincidental. Those words appear among a litany of persons and animals in Deuteronomy’s version of the Sabbath commandment, underscoring that the Sabbath is for everyone. And it goes on to remind the Israelites of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, rooting Sabbath rest in liberation.

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To heal or not to heal? then becomes something more like To allow a restrictive religious law to continue to oppress this woman and prevent her too from enjoying Sabbath rest, or to say no to all of that?

As one biblical scholar explains: When Jesus chooses to heal the bent-over woman, “his touch represents fellowship for those whose ailments may have denied them human contact; Jesus’s touch is their initial welcome back into community.” [2]

Jesus’s healing touch is indeed a liberative act. It frees the woman who has been healed so that she might praise God.

Our text reminds us that the Sabbath is about being made free. Free to be and to rest and to delight in God’s beauty. Free from distractions, and free to say no.


The Sabbath, as one blogger writes, is a gift of freedom, and it is a gift as old as creation itself. The first Sabbath, described in Genesis, is the capstone of creation, a gift from God so that we might be able to embrace all that has been created. [3]

Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to experience Sabbath rest when I’m wading in the waters of Lake Michigan in Chicago or walking down the tree-lined streets of my neighborhood here in Omaha. Because there is an intimate link between Sabbath and creation.

Creation reminds us of God’s good gifts to us and our interconnectedness with all things and all peoples. And the freedom of the Sabbath calls us to reconnect with God, with ourselves, and with the whole of creation.

When the woman who was once bent over for eighteen long years was suddenly able to stand up straight, her perspective quite literally changed. One pastor calls this text “a story of expansion, revelation, [and] vision widened by grace.” [4] Indeed, the healed woman sees more than just sunshine and fluffy clouds, but also a world in need.

Sabbath is a gift but also an invitation:

An invitation to a new way of life that says no to the things that make us bent over.

An invitation to the kind of justice-seeking Sabbath-keeping that Isaiah envisions, where the hungry are filled and the needs of the afflicted are satisfied.

An invitation to the freedom to be and to rest in God’s grace.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 127.

[2] Rodney S. Sadler, Jr., “Luke 13:10-17: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 385.

[3] https://journeytopenuel.com/2016/08/14/proper-16c-the-sabbath-is-calling/

[4] http://christiancentury.org/article/2016-07/august-21-21st-sunday-ordinary-time

Overwhelmed: A Sermon for Lectionary 18C / Pentecost 11C

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Augustana Lutheran Church
31 July 2016 + Lectionary 18C
Luke 12.13-21 [22-34]



elections_ahead_sky_0It’s all a little bit overwhelming, isn’t it? This election season, that is. We’ve certainly witnessed a mix of exciting and interesting moments.

One moment in particular caught my attention this past Tuesday as delegates at the Democratic National Convention cast their votes, state by state, for their party’s nominee for president. Jerry Emmett, a 102-year-old delegate from Arizona, herself older than women’s suffrage, proudly announced her state’s votes for the first woman candidate, nominated by a major political party, for President of the United States. It was overwhelming to watch.

Now, in case you can’t tell, I’m a bit of a political junkie, and it’s easy for me to become overwhelmed in all the excitement—and anxiety—of an election year.

But even if you don’t share my particular fascination with politics, surely you know what it’s like to be overwhelmed. For better or worse, being alive means having no shortage of things which overwhelm us.

For many of us, it’s technology. It’s hard to imagine any ordinary moment of life without our devices. Sherry Turkle identifies what she calls the “I share therefore I am” principle—the idea that we have come to define ourselves by our digital presence and social media output.

And so, when we don’t have connection, she says, we don’t feel like ourselves, and so, to compensate, we connect more and more—but as we do, we in fact become more isolated, replacing digital connection for the real thing. [1]

I have a hunch the rich man in the parable from today’s gospel reading knows something about being overwhelmed to the point of isolation.

The parable begins: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” Good news, right? For this man, not so much. Instead of viewing his surplus as a blessing, he is immediately overwhelmed and frames it as a problem to be solved. “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” His solution? Build a bigger barn, and store the crops for himself.

It would seem the rich man in this ancient parable is latching on to a rather timeless phenomenon that finds its expression par excellence in our contemporary culture. Theologian Rob Saler puts it this way:

We are programmed to be “not only consumers, but anxious consumers. Even as we are urged to spend and spend, we are simultaneously bombarded with injunctions to save and build up wealth for retirement [and] future catastrophes… We measure the health of the economy by its ‘growth’ even as we are warned that only those who have sufficient reserves will be able to navigate the future successfully.” [2]

No wonder we’re overwhelmed. Hoarding up stockpiles like the rich man is made to seem like a lucrative opportunity. It means safeguarding ourselves for the future. It means not having to rely on anyone but ourselves.

But of course it can also mean isolating ourselves. For Saler, it’s as though we’re actually able to “purchase distance” from each other and the world around us, a sort of “padding” against any potential threats.

And so the parable ends: The rich man, having stockpiled his possessions, will die, alone. There is no one to answer to God’s question about who will inherit all his stuff.

Still feeling overwhelmed?

Beyond the confines of the lectionary, Jesus immediately continues, “Therefore I tell you…” As if to say, This is the point. Pay attention! “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear… Consider the ravens… Consider the lilies…” It’s a passage many of us have heard before and could probably quote, or at least paraphrase, from memory.

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Remember too that all this talk about the rich man and his barn, and about ravens and lilies, started with a simple request from someone in the crowd: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Did Jesus miss that entirely… or is he making a much more profound point? Hold that thought.

Physicist and theologian Paul Wallace recounts one particularly memorable moment in his introductory astronomy course. He began his standard opening lecture: “Under a dark and transparent atmosphere, with an unobstructed horizon and healthy vision, one can see at most about 3,000 stars.” He goes on: “And if we were to remove our home planet from under our feet we would see 3,000 more.” [3]

It was this last point that caused one of his students to react first with a look of horror before grinning and explaining, “It’s just that you said that there are stars under my feet, and I had never really thought of it like that before.”

In that moment, Wallace’s student suddenly became aware of his relatively small place within the vastness of the cosmos. Maybe you’ve had one of those moments too, looking up at the stars in the night sky, or standing in awe of some other natural wonder.

Moments like these reorient our perspective and move us from being overwhelmed by the things that distract and isolate us to being overwhelmed by creation—the very creation that Jesus points to: “Consider the ravens… Consider the lilies…”

As if to say: Look! It’s not just about you. There’s a whole world, a whole universe, out there, and it’s all connected.

Jesus points to a small sliver of the vastness of the cosmos and offers an alternative vision: It’s a vision that reminds us of our radical dependence on God’s grace and God’s certain word of forgiveness. It’s vision that reminds us that we are dependent creatures.  But it’s also a vision that reminds us we are interdependent.

The splendor of creation, the vastness of the cosmos, the radical grace of God. It’s overwhelming.

Rather than isolation, being overwhelmed by these things, to borrow from Saler again, “frees us up to be creatures who joyfully embrace our dependence upon each other and our environment.” It’s an alternative to the ways we get wrapped up in ourselves and our own worries and concerns.

“Do not worry,” Jesus says, and concludes: “Instead, strive for God’s kingdom.”

It reminds me of a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., I have hanging above my desk in my office: “An individual has not started living until they can rise above the narrow confines of individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

King liked to call the kingdom of God “the Beloved Community.” I like that because it reminds us of the communal nature of that kingdom.

Jesus’s alternative vision to strive for God’s kingdom has to do with building up the Beloved Community.

It’s the community prophetically imagined by Mary where the lowly are lifted up and the hungry are filled with good things. It’s a community whose members are “rich toward God,” which starts by being rich toward our neighbor, as the Good Samaritan reminds us.

It’s a community we are welcomed into at our baptism and which continues to be strengthened every week when we gather at this Table. When we take into our hands simple bread and wine, we wield powerful reminders that the Beloved Community proclaims resurrected life in spite of death and abundance in the midst of scarcity.

It’s an overwhelming mystery that proclaims there is enough to go around in God’s kingdom. We don’t have to hoard it, but we  do get to share it freely.


[1] https://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together

[2] http://www.lutheransrestoringcreation.org/the-eleventh-sunday-after-pentecost-in-year-c

[3] Paul Wallace, Stars Beneath Us: Finding God in the Evolving Cosmos (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), vii.