Month: August 2015

Bread of Life: Gospel according to Jesus, Martin Luther and Brene Brown

This sermon was preached Aug. 9, 2015 at Lutheran Church of Hope in Anchorage, Alaska, based on John 6:35-51.

Walk to Remember 2015

Yesterday I spent my morning at the Walk to Remember, an annual event for people who’ve experienced the loss of a child, to remember, to grieve, to share, and to know they aren’t alone. After being the Children’s Hospital Chaplain at Providence for 11 years, I got to reconnect with families that have been coming every year for nearly a decade, and families I’ve known for just a few months. This event, sponsored by the Children’s Hospital at Providence and Hospice of Anchorage, breaks my heart and fills my heart.   We remembered Charlie. River. Isabelle. Shalom. Avery. Jude. Owen. Skylar. Samuel. Nicholas. And so many more.

And it’s because of experiences like the Walk to Remember  that I love this reading from John, for it’s promises of hope, for a day when no one will be hungry or thirsty, for Jesus’ promise that “I should lose nothing of all that (God) has given me but raise it up on the last day,” that one may “eat of this (bread of life) and not die.”

And I struggle with this reading, because it’s hard to find hope and comfort in a promise that “you will not die” as I walk with grieving parents and grandparents and siblings and friends.

And I’m apparently not alone in struggling with this teaching, because immediately the people who were listening to Jesus pretty much said “Wait a minute. Isn’t this Jesus, Joseph and Mary’s kid? We know them … how can HE say ‘I’ve come down from heaven?’”  And a few verses later, the disciples say “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?”

But first a little context. We come to this teaching after Jesus has just fed 5,000 hungry people miraculously with five loaves of bread and two fish. And for those listening to Jesus, the talk of the “bread come down from heaven” would have echoed back to the Exodus, when Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt into the wilderness. When they were starving, God “rained down bread (manna) from heaven,” and fed them. Always enough.

I appreciate this, because whether we’re talking about literal or figurative bread, literal or figurative life and death, it is clear that God DOES care about our physical needs, about the very literal feeding of the hungry.

This text also echoes for me back to a previous chapter in John’s gospel, when Jesus meets a Samaritan woman, alone at a well. They have an amazing conversation despite the potential walls of her being a single, Samaritan woman who has had five husband, and Jesus being a single Jewish teacher. And in that conversation (John 4), he tells her that “Everyone who drinks of this (well) water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” And she goes on to tell the people of her city, people who likely had previously shunned her, to “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the  Messiah, can he?” He changes her life, and she becomes essentially the first witness to who and what Jesus is.

There’s a lot to love about these teachings. Over and over again, Jesus is clear that whoever comes to him will never be hungry, and whoever believes in him will never be thirsty. Everything that God gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.

The bread that I will give for the life of the world – the whole cosmos – is my flesh. Whoever believes has eternal life.

And yet, for those of us living in the here and now, sometimes those promises of eternal life are not so comforting as we, with our human hearts, grieve the losses of people and things that we lose to which we have become attached. Lives, relationships, places, work.

Frankly, as I sat with this teaching this week, I felt like I had more in common with Elijah, who (1 Kings 19:4-8) went a day’s journey into the wilderness, after having his life threatened by the queen, came and sat under a solitary broom tree, and asked, “O Lord, take away my life.” Elijah didn’t see any hope or comfort, and I wasn’t sure I did either.

But then I had a powerful conversation with a friend dealing with a difficult illness, a scary illness, and we talked a lot about what it’s like to feel vulnerable and helpless, not knowing what the immediate future holds. She said “I wish someone would just say to me ‘It must be really scary being discharged home when you still feel so helpless.’ ‘It must be really scary to know that your life has been turned upside down, that you’re dependent on other people suddenly to take care of you, pack up your things, make sure you’re eating safely, take care of your child.’” My friend knows she’s improving. She knows there’s hope she’ll get better, and that this is temporary. But, as we talked, sometimes we just need some empathy.

I spent a lot of time this week with Martin Luther, and his writing “The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ – Against the Fanatics,” and was struck by his reminder that

“God is the sort of person who likes to do what is foolish and useless in the eyes of the world.” In other words, God is the sort of, well, God, who meets us precisely in those weak, vulnerable, scary moments. Those death and loss times.

To the “fanatics” who argued that it “is not fitting that Christ’s body and blood should be in the bread and wine,” Luther responds “I might say equally well that it is not reasonable that God should descend from heaven and enter into the womb.” Likewise, it makes no sense that Christ “should thus humble himself below all men and allow himself to be suspended upon the cross as a most notorious evil-doer.

Jesus himself knew death, and not just any death, but a humiliating, suffering death. And it strikes me that in asking why we die, when we’ve been promised that we will live forever, that we’re asking the wrong question.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a very reasonable, human question. It’s the same question that a few chapters later in John 11, sisters Mary and Martha both ask Jesus – Lord, if you had been here, my brother (Lazarus) would not have died. It’s a question we’re likely to keep asking, because, how can we NOT ask?

Of course we want to keep asking this question, because death – the death of loved ones, the many losses we experience, our own mortality – death makes us vulnerable and often experience pain.

Social worker and researcher Brené Brown, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, says “…After years of research, I’m convinced that we all numb and take the edge off. The question is, does our __________ (eating, drinking, spending, gambling, saving the world, incessant gossiping, perfectionism, 60-hour work week) get in the way of our authenticity? Does it stop us from being emotionally honest and setting boundaries and feeling like we’re enough? Does it keep us from staying out of judgment and from feeling connected? Are we using _____ to hide or escape from the reality of our lives?” (p. 72)

And I would add, does it separate us from God? Does it separate us from God’s love, God’s grace, God’s transformation in our lives?

She continues  that “Understanding my behaviors and feelings through a vulnerability lens rather than strictly through an addiction lens changed my entire life. It also strengthened my commitment to sobriety, abstinence, health and spirituality. I can definitely say,

‘Hi, my name is Brene, and today I’d like to deal with vulnerability and uncertainty with an apple fritter, a beer and cigarette, and spending 7 hours on Facebook.’ That feels uncomfortably honest.”

Similarly, as Lutherans, we are called to understand our behaviors and feelings through the lens of the cross. Through the lens of that “God …who likes to do what is foolish and useless in the eyes of the world.” And that same God meets us exactly in those intensely vulnerable places.

Brown reminds us that “There is a full spectrum of human emotions, and when we numb the dark, we numb the light. … When we lose our tolerance for discomfort, we lose joy.” (p. 73)

I think we’re asking the wrong question. While we would rather find the magic key to avoid suffering and death, instead, perhaps we need to pay more attention to where God is. Perhaps God calls us to a different question — not why must we die, but how do we see God at work in our lives, lives that despite the interruption of death, are eternal.  We want so much to be in control and to not feel pain, and yet we turn to God trusting that we are in the hands of a great, grace-filled mystery of love.

Luther reminds us that we may trust that “the body of Christ is present in the bread and that his blood is truly present in the wine. This does not mean that he is not present in other places also with his body and blood, for in believing hearts he is completely present with his body and blood. … For that he enters the heart through faith is a much greater miracle than that he is present in the bread.”communion

Luther reminds us that we find God’s presence in the Eucharistic Meal, because the living Word points us there. And that in hearing the gospel, Christ is brought into our hearts, the true Christ. “How that comes about you cannot know, but your heart truly feels his presence, and through the experience of faith you know for a certainty that he is there.”

As I think about the grieving people I walked, literally, with at the Walk to Remember, I think about the stories and messages I heard. People who said “It seems to get a little easier every day.” People who said “It feels like it’s harder every day that passes.” People trusting that they would be reunited with their beloved children one day, and couldn’t wait. Others who find comfort in knowing that through organ donation, their beloved brought life to eight others. Or that through a foundation made in a loved one’s memory, Owen’s Milk Money brings tangible support in breastfeeding  to countless mothers, improving the lives of so many babies and families. And so many people told me how much it helped to realize they were not alone in their grief.

We may find Christ anywhere. And I hope we do. But we are promised to find Christ in the living Word. In the bread and wine we share. In the water with which we are baptized. And as Luther reminds us, “As (Jesus) gives himself for us with his body and blood in order to redeem us from all misery, so we too are to give ourselves with might and main for our neighbor.” May we too be signs of God’s hope, life and love to the neighbor, and indeed, find Christ there as well.

In the meantime, let us find Christ here. As the angel said to Elijah, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”

Come and eat. Taste and see. Thanks be to God.

Called to Dance

Alaska Pride

If you have to walk on thin ice, you may as well dance

Grandma Elve Halvor loved to dance. After high school, in the early 1930s, she moved from the farm to the big city of Seattle and her passion was going out dancing. A child of Swede-Finn immigrants, music and dancing were a way her family transmitted culture, and that’s how she met my grandfather.

Seventy-five years later, that passion for dancing runs in my blood. My introduction to dancing came in the fourth grade when my parents began sending me to the Runeberg folk dancing group. Every Monday night we would meet in the Blossom Gulch Elementary School Gym, where Leola Baumgartner and Olga Hosking steadfastly worked to pass on their love of dancing and the art of the polka and schottische to a group of distracted 11-year-olds. We girls quickly learned to dance the lead parts, as…

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The Bible, Homosexuality and Why I Keep Coming Back

Alaska Pride

Photo by User:Adam Carr, May 2006

I love stories.

It’s the best part of being a chaplain, getting to hear people’s stories every day. And it’s what I love most about the Bible – it’s an amazing collection of stories, poetry, letters, and more. That’s how I was introduced to the Bible as a child … the “Good Samaritan” who rescued a man beaten by robbers when the priests wouldn’t help. Zaccheus, the vertically challenged tax collector, who climbed a tree in order to see Jesus and ended up having dinner with him. Little David defeating the giant Goliath with his slingshot. The servant girl whose advice leads a military officer with leprosy to be healed.

Unfortunately, many of us have experienced the Bible primarily as a weapon. It’s been used to tell us that our loving is sinful, that we ourselves are “an abomination.” And yet, I would bet that many of us really don’t…

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Called to Meet the Unexpected

Alaska Pride

I’ve been meaning to write about change

But the thing is, I hate change. Hate it.

I grew up in a family that was pretty much totally opposed to change … our motto could’ve been, “if it’s not broken, don’t mess with it!” I grew up learning to be prepared for anything (which is why I’m usually the one with the duct tape, the band-aid, the snacks, the extra water, the book, the journal, etc.). And apparently it’s not just in my ancestral genes, but also my religious tradition. When asked how many Lutherans it takes to change a lightbulb, we respond, “CHANGE?!?!?” Lutherans don’t believe in change! (Which is rather ironic, in light of our history, Martin Luther starting the Reformation and all, but that may be a topic for another blog post).

“Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we…

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Piece of my heart

Alaska Pride

With my mom at the Glen Alps Viewpoint

I love my mom. She’s awesome. I remember growing up that there were a group of little old ladies in the church for whom she regularly did acts of kindness. She’d bake several loaves of sweet breads, wrap them up in plastic wrap and ribbon, load my brother and I into the car and we’d drive around town visiting and making deliveries. We’d deliver homemade woven paper heart baskets of flowers on May Day. My mom’s not perfect – who is? But I’ve always known she loved and supported me, and that didn’t change when I came out.

If that was all Mother’s Day meant to me, honoring and celebrating my wonderful mom, and the other great mothers in my life, this holiday wouldn’t be so hard.

Instead, walking into Costco this week seeing men buying flowers, listening to the radio…

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A Runner’s Heart

Alaska Pride

Like most teenage girls, I think, I read all those cheesy romance novels. I wanted (still want) romance, bliss and happily ever after. The embarrassing part is that if I’m honest, my earliest inspiration to be a runner came from a teen romance novel. I don’t remember the title or much of the plot, other than girl fell for boy, boy didn’t know she was alive, girl started running and transformed herself, felt good about herself, they fell in love and lived happily ever after. In particular, I remember the description of her first return to running. It was raining lightly, and she hated running in the rain. But then she talks about finding a rhythm, getting into her zone, and everything falling together , and that is what I wanted. To lace up my running shoes, find my pace and feel like I could run forever, all my troubles…

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