Category: Preaching

What do we do with Cranky Jesus?

This gospel story (Mark 7:24-37) feels like we have a solid encounter with “cranky Jesus.”Cranky Jesus shows up other places — in the 11th chapter of Mark, Jesus curses a fig tree so that it withers and dies, because it doesn’t have any figs when he’s hungry and tired. Even though it isn’t the season for figs. And then he drives sellers out of the temple, knocking over chairs and tables and being generally angry

But THIS gospel story. Yes, Jesus is tired and trying to escape to a far away place so he can rest. But a woman whose daughter is ill — possessed by a spirit, comes to Jesus begging for his help. And it seems pretty clear that because she is a Gentile, not Jewish, Jesus refers to her as a dog — unclean scavengers. A clear rejection and insult. And don’t lose sight of the power dynamic at play — this is not an interaction between equals — Jesus is a famous teacher, and male in a society where being male means pretty much having all the power. Nothing in this story would make us believe that the woman who comes to Jesus has any wealth or privilege** – she is a mother ready to do whatever it takes to help her ailing daughter.

So what is up with Jesus? It is very tempting to try to let Jesus off the hook. I mean, come on, he’s been casting out demons all over the country. He recently fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. And after that amazing meal, he gets into a fight with the Pharisees over his disciples not washing their hands before they eat. Jesus is tired. He’s a little burned out and needs a break. Maybe he’s also in need of some healing. Working in the hospital, I’ve seen this. I’ve been there. And, you know, Jesus is a good person. He’s not really a racist. He didn’t mean that.

Nope. That does not excuse those words. Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

This story challenges us. It challenges our image of Jesus as flawless. But my friends, I don’t believe Jesus needed to be flawless. We believe Jesus is both human and divine. And both of the categories make Jesus capable of growth. Think about what we know of God, and the number of times God does a new thing, shifts in perspective.

–In Genesis, after the flood, when God declares that God will never again destroy the earth with a flood.

–When Abraham barters with God, convincing God that for the sake of just ten people, it would be worth saving the town of Sodom.

–According to the prophet Isaiah (43:19), God says Behold, I am doing a new thing.

–In the book of Revelation, God makes a new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem — (21:5) See, I am making all things new.

We talk about God never changing — what does not change is God’s mercy. God’s deep, abiding, saving love for us all. This is constant. This we trust completely.

And Jesus we know as both human and divine.

–Who grows in wisdom (Luke 2:52). Who is able to be moved.

–One who weeps at the death of Lazarus.

–Who has compassion for a weeping widow whose only son has died (Luke 7:13).

–Who like a mother hen longs to “gather her brood under her wings.” (Luke 13:34).

I believe one of the most powerful things about this story for us to hear is the witness of this unnamed Syro-Phoenician woman. This Gentile mother, who reminds me of so many parents I have known at the hospital, who would rather be the one suffering than their child, who will do literally whatever it takes to save their beloved children. Who know a very deep suffering. I have sat with this woman, wept with this woman, hoped with this woman. And there are times that I have seen this woman judged, shamed, put down, ignored. This experience, where the great healer rejects and puts down this pleading mother — it happens in our world, when the people with power, with the ability to help, instead reject and cause harm.

But THIS mother. She knows that Jesus is the one that can help her, and she has nothing to lose. You know, it wasn’t until I began working at the hospital as a chaplain that it really hit me just how many times Jesus literally heals. What a huge part of Jesus’ ministry that was. There’s a lot of talk about casting out demons in the gospels, and we don’t really know exactly what that meant, but think about the demons we know. Mental illness. Addiction. Cancer. Chronic pain. Trauma. Violence. Suffering. So many demons.

This woman knows that Jesus is the one that can help. Some parents I’ve known would have walked on eggshells around Jesus, not daring to say anything that might offend him. Other parents I’ve known would have erupted. Days of exhaustion, fear and suffering with your child, followed by this insult sometimes lead to anger, violence, verbal and physical.

But THIS woman … she remains calm. She does not back down, because she knows that Jesus is the one with the power to help her daughter. And even though Jesus has just suggested she is no better than a dog, she responds with this — “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

This dog is all about eating crumbs under the table…

Pastor LaDonna Sanders Nkosi says that “If it is true that Jesus came first for the children of Israel and then after that for the rest, the woman demonstrates that perseverance and protest can bring about a new paradigm. Syrophoenician or not, this woman’s daughter is healed, delivered, and set free.”

This woman had nothing lose. The survival of her daughter was at stake, and so she spoke boldly, humbly, telling the truth. And through her words, she changes things. She brings healing.

And immediately Jesus’ ears are opened. He speaks plainly and her daughter is healed.

I was reading a reflection on this story by Professor Elizabeth Johnson, who teaches at the Lutheran Institute of Theology in Cameroon. She notes that her students are particularly bothered by this text, in part because in Matthew’s telling of this story, Jesus says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and in their community, they have heard Muslims use this story to tell people that Christian faith is not really for Africans.

Rev. Dr. Johnson reminds them that it’s easy to take one verse out of context, but that when you read to the end of the story, Jesus praises the woman’s faith, her daughter is healed, and in the end we are ALL included in the gift of salvation, no matter what our nationality, ethnicity or social status.

But then she says this.

“…then I realize that it’s easy for me to say that, coming from a place of privilege as a white American. I sense that my students are not convinced that it is enough to have crumbs from the table. Materially speaking, that is pretty much all that they have ever had. They don’t want to be told that they should be satisfied with spiritual crumbs as well.

“For those of us who are used to having a place at the table, perhaps we need to be reminded that none of us has any right or privilege whatsoever to claim with God. We all come as beggars to the table, and it is solely by God’s grace that we are fed. Perhaps we also need to be reminded that God’s table is immeasurably larger than we can imagine.”

“(And) for those who identify more easily with the Syrophoenician woman begging for crumbs, it must be said that Jesus does not leave any of us in a state of beggarliness. He seats us at the table and claims us as God’s beloved children — children from every tribe and language and nation. Even crumbs from the table would be enough for our healing and salvation. But Jesus has given more than enough. He sets an abundant, life-giving feast for all.”

Jesus has given beyond what we need. Like this Gentile woman, we know that Jesus is the one that can heal us, save us, give us abundant life. Like this Gentile woman, we have nothing to lose.

But we forget that.

We get attached to things that don’t save us. Maybe we are attached to our work, how that names and identifies us. Or attached to the things that make us comfortable — maybe more clothes or belongings or food than we possibly need. We get attached to the comfort in the way we worship, the way we do things here, familiar hymns, words, people. We expect people to join us in the way we do things.

My friends, those are not the things that actually give us life or save us. We must look to Jesus for that. It is Jesus’ life — his teaching, healing, boundary crossing for the sake of the good news — his life, his death and his resurrection, that save us, that include us in a promise of everlasting abundant life.

And as people who follow Jesus, that gives us a clear path to follow. In Isaiah we are reminded that this path with God opens the eyes of the blind, unstops the ears of the deaf, that the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy, waters break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.

James warns us about dishonoring the poor. He reminds us that we shall love our neighbor as ourself, that we must show mercy, and that if our neighbor lacks food or clothing, but all we do is say “peace be with you and good luck,” not helping with our neighbor’s bodily needs, this is not true faith.

What are the barriers that keep us from doing justice, from walking with and caring for the poor and vulnerable people who are our neighbors, in our midst? What keeps us from truly making all people welcome? Where do our ears need to be opened and our tongues released?

Because friends, there’s one more story here.

After healing the daughter of this bold, truth-telling Gentile woman, Jesus continues in Gentile territory, in the region of Decapolis. A man who is deaf with a speech impediment is brought to him. Jesus takes the man away from the crowds, puts his fingers in the man’s ears, spits and touches the man’s tongue, and says “Ephphatha, Be opened.”

And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”

Just as Jesus’ ears were opened, just as this man who was deaf had his ears opened, just as their tongues were released and they spoke plainly, may it be so with us. May we follow Jesus in a path of truth telling. Of welcome. Of willingness to be transformed and healed. May our ears be opened, our tongues be released and may we speak plainly, words of justice and mercy.

Ephphatha. Be opened. Let it be so. Amen.

I preached this sermon at Lutheran Church of Hope, Anchorage, Alaska, on Sept. 9, 2018 (Proper 18b, for you lectionary nerds).

Notes: **Nothing in the commentaries I read suggested the Syro-Phoenician had any wealth, power or privilege. However, since I wrote this sermon, I’ve read two amazing sermons that suggest that being from Tyre, the Syro-Phoenician woman may actually have been wealthy … I commend these sermons by Rev. Asher O’Callaghan and Vicar Matta Ghaly, CSJC.


For God So Loved the World

Preached at First American Baptist Church of Anchorage, May 27, 2018

This is the first time this Lutheran pastor has preached at a Baptist church — thank you so much for your warm welcome. What a gift to see the ways the Spirit is at work in your midst!

Preachers all over the world are talking today about the reading we just heard, John 3:1-17 (the assigned text from the Revised Common Lectionary) — talking about Nicodemus, about how God so loved the world, and, in many churches, we observe today as Trinity Sunday, so we celebrate the mystery of the Trinity — One God, in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Now I’m ordained in the Lutheran church, ELCA, and as I sat with this text, I got a little nervous. What was I taking on, talking about one of the most famous verses in the world, John 3:16 — For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

But let’s talk about that — I think we have often heard this verse as instruction. Believe in Jesus, and have eternal life. And if you don’t, well, you know where you’re going. It is our human nature to look for the rules to guide us

And the Pharisees had that kind of view of religion as well — for good reason. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, God was clear that the Israelites were to be set apart. There were clear laws they were to follow — this wasn’t a religion of evangelism, but how to live faithfully as God’s chosen people

And now, Jesus comes along, and he does something completely different. He reaches out to ALL kinds of people — unclean people, people who broke the law, people who were outside God’s chosen people — and Jesus makes them chosen.

In our gospel reading today, the Pharisee leader Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, and he and Jesus have a conversation that is clearly unsettling to Nicodemus. Because the teaching Jesus brings isn’t a self-improvement program. It’s not “how to be a better Pharisee.” It’s about becoming a new person. Born of water and spirit. Complete transformation.

In Jesus, and through the Holy Spirit, God is doing something new. And that new thing is about life and love.

I had a preaching professor who told us that if our sermons are only all about what we should do, we’ve failed. More important — and this is a big deal for Lutherans — is who GOD is and what GOD does. In the end, it’s not actually up to us.

And in this text, (and actually all through John), God is about life and love. As I was looking through the Gospel of John, I was struck how often the words love and life came up. So I went to my concordance (1) — in the Gospel of John, the word love shows up 30 times, and that’s not counting the 20 times the word “loved” appears. Compare that to 26 appearances in Matthew, Mark, and Luke combined. For God so loved the world. Love one another. If you love me, you will keep my word (and we remember that in John, Jesus IS the Word).

And the word life — 45 appearances in John’s gospel, compared to 17 in Matthew, 10 in Mark, 17 in Luke — 44 combined. In him was life. I am the bread of life. So that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. I am the resurrection and the life

So, this tells some really important characteristics about God — God is all about love for the world, and the life of the world. And, that God is inherently about relationship. To me, this is one of the most significant things about how we understand the Trinity — God is inherently relational — creating life, the Spirit who is actively and powerfully at work in our lives, redeeming and rescuing life, saving life. God exists for relationship

And I find it interesting that relationship, and connection, are clearly an inherent part of who WE are, made in God’s image. More and more research shows that our ability to be in relationship with others contributes very positively to our life, and the life of the world

Dr. Emma Seppala tells us that strong social connection:

– leads to a 50% increased chance of longevity

– strengthens your immune system (research by Steve Cole shows that genes impacted by loneliness also code for immune function and inflammation)

– helps you recover from disease faster

– may even lengthen your life!

People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. In other words, social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being.

And friends, this matters, because Jesus is very clear that we are a people called to love. And that sounds great, but loving, truly loving, is hard. It can mean laying down our lives for others. This Memorial Day Weekend we especially honor those who have laid down their lives in service and in love for our country. We give thanks to our veterans.

Loving is so lifegiving, but it also breaks our hearts. I learn so much about love in my work as a hospital chaplain.

Recently I had a conversation with a nurse at the hospital where I work. I wanted to check on him, because twice in the last few months he’s had patients threaten him and threaten his co-workers. I wanted to see how he was doing, and what he told me was that while it’s not fun to have patients yell at you and threaten you, the thing that’s really hard for him is the kids. When a child comes into the hospital, and you do everything you can, but the child doesn’t survive — we can all imagine how painful that is.

So many of us go into healthcare because we care, because we love — we want to help others, to bring healing, to comfort. And what we find is that while at times that is very rewarding, it can also break our hearts

At the hospital, I witness the love that is evident when family and friends spend hours or days or weeks at a bedside. When we walk with someone who has gotten terrible news, or is nearing the end of their life. Love can inspire us and bring so much joy, but it also can break us open in the way nothing else can

And that’s the thing about love — God knows both the joy and the heartbreak of love. God loves THE WORLD. THE WORLD. USA, Japan, Sudan, Somalia, the Philippines, Syria, Mexico… the “kosmos.

It makes my heart ache to look at all the hatred and violence and division in the world today. School shootings. War and violence. Illness. Unexpected death. Families, young people driven to leave their homes and countries because of the violence that threatens them. It seems to be very hard to get along, when we find so much to separate us.

Republicans and Democrats. Liberals and Conservative. Gay and straight. Old and young. Black and white. Lutheran and Baptist?

But God calls us beyond that. Remember? God calls us to be transformed, new people, to move beyond what divides us — Paul reminds us in Galations 3:28 that in Christ — made new through water and Spirit — that there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or free.

For God so loved THE WORLD that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

We are are all connected. God loves us all. And that’s a pretty big challenge, to live into that understanding. The naturalist John Muir tells us that “when (you) tug at a single thing in nature, (you) find it attached to the rest of the world.”

And poet philosopher Mark Nepo reminds us that light is found in the broken bottle as well as the diamond.

God so loves the world. Broken bottle and diamond. Outsider and insider. And that is where in the end we find our greatest hope. Because God is at work in us, with so much love that God came into being in the world in Jesus, living human with us, teaching a new way, healing the sick, loving. And, in his death and resurrection, he shows us that death does not have the final word. Love and life will always be stronger than death.

I’d like to close with the words of Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry (who gained the public eye when he preached at the Royal Wedding last weekend) — He spoke this week at the Festival of Homilectics, and a friend of mine recalls these words he spoke at a candlelight vigil in Washington DC

“Love your neighbor…Love the neighbor you like and love the neighbor you don’t like. Love the neighbor you agree with and the neighbor you don’t agree with. Love your Democrat neighbor, your Republican neighbor. Your black neighbor, and your white neighbor, your Anglo neighbor, your Latino, your LGBTQ neighbor. Love your neighbor. That’s why we’re here.”

For God so loved the world. Thanks be to God.

(1) Kohlenberger, John R III. The NRSV Concordance, Unabridged. Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids, MI, 1991. Pp. 774, 828-829.

Fishing Lessons and Refugees

Four walls and a cross, a font and a table might be important, but they aren’t much if we aren’t bringing God’s good news to where people are, to where it is desperately needed. And I think especially right now, we need to remember the many ways Jesus went to the people. He went to the people who were suffering. People who were sick in need of healing. People who were outcast, who were untouchable. He provided food for the hungry. Good news for the poor. Setting the oppressed free. If we are to take seriously what it means to be Christian, to follow Christ, we need to take these words very seriously.

Compassion, blessing and sustaining the world

This is the sermon I preached  with great joy at the ordination of one of my dearest friends, Diana Hultgren, a Unitarian Universalist chaplain, on Sunday, Jan. 25, 2016, in Lexington, Kentucky. May it also touch your heart, as Diana has touched mine.

I’m so grateful to be here in Lexington, (the heck with Storm Jonas!) and to bring greetings from your friends and colleagues in Alaska. Also, thank you for getting me out of experiencing a 7.1 earthquake in Alaska this morning. Happily, by all reports, people seem to have weathered the quake just fine. In particular, I am delighted to bring you greetings from Providence Alaska Medical Center, where we are so grateful to have shared in your formation, your gifts, and particularly your friendship.

Diana, a week ago I asked you about particular themes or readings for your service today – I am a Lutheran preacher, after all, and we preach from texts! You said “Oh, community” and “justice.” You’re right, I probably didn’t need to ask. And everything about this celebration says both those things: community and justice. But, and rightly so, there’s another overriding message – love. And that love, truly is (and must be) the basis both for our community and our justice-seeking.

 Martin Luther King Jr reminds us that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

I heard this story from Pastor Robyn Hartwig, when she preached at my ordination service in August of 2000. She heard this story from Fr. Dale Fushek, when he coordinated Mother Teresa’s visit to the United States in 1989. She filled a stadium with two days notice. On the first day of her visit, she raised $33,000 for her ministries.

Fr. Dale was looking forward to celebrating mass for Mother Teresa and her traveling companions –together, Mother Teresa was staying with her sisters in a small house. On the day of the service, there were about 24 police officers outside the house, screening and admitting the approved people to the house – those who were traveling with her were allowed in, some special visitors from the diocese. And finally, when about 2 dozen people had gathered, Fr. Dale began the mass. Everyone was seated … except Mother Teresa. When he got to the first reading, he noticed that Mother Teresa was not only standing, but beginning to pace a bit. By the second reading she was pacing back and forth across the room, and he began to wonder if he’d become the priest known for presiding when Mother Teresa finally lost it! Soon she was rearranging people in the room, and finally she went to the doors to the room, threw them open, and waved everyone in. She waved nearly 400 people into that small house. People were leaning in through the windows, crowded in the bathrooms, on each others’ shoulders. But once the people were gathered together, all welcome, Mother Teresa finally sat down.

So long as anybody was excluded, Mother Teresa could not sit down.

So long as anyone did not experience the fullness of God’s love, healing, grace, Mother Teresa would not sit down.

And Diana, this is also true from what I know of you. As long as someone is lacking justice. As long as someone is lonely or in need of compassion or healing, you too will not sit down.

 Another story:

Compassion: The Legend of the Lamed-Vov

(by Rachel Naomi Remen, in  “My Grandfather’s Blessings, pp 8-9)

Rachel’s grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi and scholar of the Kabbalah, the mystical Jewish teachings of Judaism, once told her a very old story that dates from the time of the prophet Isaiah. In the legend of the Lamed-Vov, God tells us that He will allow the world to continue as long as at any given time there is a minimum of 36 good people in the human race. People who are capable of responding to the suffering that is part of the human condition. These 36 are called the Lamed-Vov. If at any time, there are fewer than 36 such people alive, the world will come to an end.

“Do you know who these people are, Grandpa?” Rachel asked, certain that he would say “Yes.” But he shook his head. “No, Rachel,” he told her. “Only God knows who the Lamed-Vovniks are. Even the Lamed Vovniks themselves do not know for sure the role they have in the continuation of the world, and no one else knows it either. They respond to suffering, not in order to save the world but simply because the suffering of others touches them and matters to them.”

It turned out that the Lamed-Vovniks could be tailors or college professors, millionaires or paupers, powerful leaders or powerless victims. These things were not important. What mattered was only their capacity to feel the collective suffering of the human race and to respond to the suffering around them. “And because no one knows who they are, Rachel, anyone you meet might be one of the 36 for whom God preserves the world,” her Grandfather said. “It is important to treat everyone as if this might be so.”

Rachel sat and thought about this story for a long time. She’d heard lots of stories with happily-ever-after endings. But her grandpa’s story made no such promises. God asked something of people in return for the gift of life, and He was asking it still.

Suddenly, Rachel realized that she had no idea what “it” was. If so much depended on it, it must be something very hard, something that required a great sacrifice. What if the Lamed-Vovniks could not do it? What then? “How do the Lamed-Vovniks respond to the suffering, Grandpa?” Rachel asked, suddenly anxious. “What do they have to do?” Rachel’s grandfather smiled at her very tenderly.

“Ah, Rachel,” he told her,” They do not need to do anything. They respond to all suffering with compassion. Without compassion, the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world.”

Diana, your compassion blesses and sustains the world. Just as your passion for justice and commitment to community bless and sustain the world.

But I hope that you will also hear this from this story: Rachel’s grandfather emphasized that we must treat ALL people as though they might be one of the 36 Lamed-Vovniks. When I think about how I’d want to treat a Lamed-Vovnik, I’d want to make sure that she is welcomed. Encouraged. Nourished. Responding to suffering with compassion may be far more about “being” than it is about “doing,” but after nearly 12 years of chaplaincy, I’m pretty sure there’s still nothing easy about that task.

 And you may already know this about Diana, but let me tell you a couple of stories. When she was in Alaska, she would housesit for me when I traveled, taking care of my three kitties, enjoying my house despite all the clutter, and, probably most important, getting to use my car. I’m still not sure where all she went those times I was away, but I’m pretty sure my car saw parts of Alaska that I’ve never been.

And when Diana lived in Colorado, I came to visit her for a week. We started in Denver, drove up through Rocky Mountain National Park, to Steamboat Springs, west to UTAH to Dinosaur National Monument, back down to I-70 past Vail and back to Denver. We had lots of great plans to hike, but mostly we drove. I saw a LOT of Colorado. Diana likes to fit it all in. And rest is not her strength.

And there are SO MANY GOOD THINGS to DO. This might be why Diana and I share a mutual longing for days in a blanket fort. We’ve planned – kitties, snacks, coloring, rest. And, frankly, with what I know about each of us, we could use more blanket fort time.

I have absolute confidence, Diana, that you will never fail in your justice-seeking, your offering compassion and love for the poor and vulnerable. But my hope for you, and what I suspect will be your greatest challenge, is to treat yourself as though you are one of the 36 Lamed-Vovniks. Take the time to welcome yourself home. To be nourished. To be a beloved part of community, with others who share in your burdens and joys. To rest. It is not about the doing, but about the compassionate response to suffering.

Helen Keller reminds us that the world is full of suffering, but it is also full of the overcoming of it.

Today we recognize your God-given gifts and calling, and celebrate your vocation as chaplain to the poor and vulnerable. Your compassion sustains the world. You contribute to the overcoming of suffering. But remember that you are not alone. You too are worthy of compassion, of rest.

The Lutheran in me feels compelled to remind you that the heart of my theology is that it is not, in the end, about what we do, so much as it is about what God does. The God of justice and compassion also calls us to rest, and most of all, calls us to life – abundant life.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. (attributed to the Talmud)
Pastor Brian talked at the beginning of this service about having a foot in both the world as it is and the world as it ought to be, and loving them both.

You may have heard Emma Goldman’s famous quote, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” But as I did some research this week, I learned that in fact that’s actually a paraphrase. In fact, I think I like the original better. Emma Goldman, apparently was once admonished for dancing at a party in New York, and was told “that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway.” She was furious, and said “I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy … If it meant that, I did not want it.”

 Dance on, my friend. Dance for justice. Dance for community. Dance for love. Dance for compassion. Dance for the Lamed Vovniks. Dance until everyone is included. Dance with reckless abandon. And remember that we are all one body – we all dance together.

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.