Category: Word

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.

The Bible in 90 Days…

A couple of my friends committed this week to reading the entire Bible in 90 days, and I decided to join them.

I’ll be honest … I’ve never been very great at sticking with Bible reading plans, but I do like the idea of getting through the whole expanse of the Bible in three months.

We’ll see how it goes … I’m also trying to meditate daily, do exercises daily to heal from a hip injury, and get back to my guitar. So it’s a pretty sure thing that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. But at the moment, I’m enjoying the challenge.

I just finished Day 5, which means I’ve read all of Genesis and 15 chapters of Exodus … it’s hard to dwell deeply much on all that happens (and there are a lot of incredible stories in these first 65 chapters!!!).

But several things struck me.

— So many blessings given. I wonder what it would be like if we were more intentional about offering blessing? (One of my favorite compliments given me by a friend was that I seem like someone that would just naturally offer a blessing in the course of a hike, bike ride, etc.)

— Women don’t play a large role, but it makes it more noticeable when they DO — Zipporah saving Moses’ life. The Hebrew midwives Shiprah and Puah saving Hebrew baby boys. Hagar, long one of my favorite Biblical women. Tamar’s craftiness in finding a way to eventually bear her twins, Perez and Zerah.

— The reminder that “Israel” means “One who strives with God,” the new name given to Jacob after he spends the night wrestling with an angel (God), and also the name given the Hebrew people.

— There is a LOT of marrying going on between close relatives — cousins, aunt-nephew, half-siblings… nothing like those Biblical family values! Also, for a culture that really lifts up eldest sons, God sure seems to favor younger brothers — Abel, Jacob, Moses…

— The steady thread of being a foreigner: Abraham saying “I am a stranger and an alien residing among you” (Gen. 24:4), Moses “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land” (as he names his son “Gershon”) (Ex. 2:24), “There shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you” (Ex. 12:49).

— The resilience shown in Joseph’s story — despite being sold into slavery by his brothers, apart from his family in a strange land for more than a decade (including years in prison), he says afterward to his brothers, “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life … God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” (Gen. 45:5, 7)

What do you think? Wanna join us? What are you noticing?

On Anger and the Pitfalls of Being Nice

I do “nice” really well.

I have friends who are pretty sure there’s not a mean bone in my body.

And once I dated a woman who told me she just wanted to see me finally get angry. I’m pretty sure she could tell that I bottle up my anger. But then, when I did finally dare show my anger, just a little, we ended up breaking up just days later.

So much for positive reinforcement.

I’m a hospital chaplain. I can witness anger and grief and despair and rage, and generally stay pretty calm and grounded. But I don’t have a clue what to do with my own anger … often I can’t even quite identify it, and usually it comes out in tears.

Sometimes it also comes out in cursing. Usually to myself, and to God.

And for the last couple days I’ve been thinking a lot about anger and language and expression, and how I manage the tension between not wanting to offend, wanting to keep spaces of discourse open so that as many voices can hear and be heard as possible, and yet also recognizing that sometimes the offensive language IS the language to express deep frustration, anger, despair, grief.

Far too often those of us who prefer to stay comfortable have shut down the voices of those who have needed to speak a very real, very important message of grief, injustice, righteous anger. And when I shut down that anger, it’s a way of distancing my self and “othering” someone else, keeping myself apart — insulated — from their pain and anger in a way that also can dishonor their pain.

The Lutheran Church tends to do a pretty spectacular job of this kind of nice that avoids all conflict. Even my (Catholic) hospital system has a culture of “Providence nice.” Jesus, however, didn’t operate that way.

As I write this, the second day of the season of Advent is coming to a close. This is my favorite season of the church year, the four weeks preceding Christmas, a time of preparation, of waiting, of sitting in the darkness watching for signs of hope. This is a season of trying to comprehend the insanity of God loving the world so much as to show up in our midst as a fragile infant, born to a poor, young, unmarried mom, and leaping into all the messiness and brokenness of people and politics and relationships.

This Advent, I’m following a devotion series on the theme #FuckThisShit.

You’ll find Day 2, by Alisha Gordon, here.

Rev. Tuhina Rasche, one of the pastors who conceptualized this series of devotions, says this:

There is a deep need to express one’s self on a visceral level. After a tremendous experience such as the death of a loved one, an act of betrayal, an experience of righteous anger, or a sense that something is not right with the world, there are many people who yearn for a way to communicate something they feel deep within their souls. Communicating such a deep emotion cannot be accompanied by flowery and polite language; if anything, the language that accompanies such emotions communicates a rawness and a sense of being both literally and figuratively torn open. There is a desire for God to rend the heavens, to have things torn open to enter into the world. Like the heavens being torn open in Mark’s Gospel at Jesus’ baptism. Or like Christ’s flesh being torn at the crucifixion… and bearing those scars in the resurrection, giving validity to our hopes, yearnings, and anguish.

We are not using #FuckThisShit to be edgy or radical. We are not using this to be “cool.” We are using these words because they are troubling. They are unsettling. They are being used to move us from places of complacency. If anything, we are using these words to reflect the brokenness of the humanity in which we live. We are using these words to reflect a deep sense of heartbreak and yearning to be in restored relationship with one another, and to be in restored relationship with God. We are using these words to call out for Christ to come again …

To be very clear, this choice of language is not a response to the inconsequential — a scratched car, not getting concert tickets, finding sausage on your vegetarian pizza. It is a response to waking up again this morning to news of an active shooter on the Ohio State campus. To the long litany of names of African American men and women who have been killed in what should be routine traffic stops. To the reality that we have a president-elect who has said vile, offensive things to and about women, Muslims, immigrants … and if I were a Muslim immigrant woman (and I work with many of them), whether I would actually say it or not, I would want to say #FuckThisShit.

I will be forever grateful to feminist Christian ethicist Beverly Wildung Harrison  for all I learned from her essay, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love.” She writes,

“Anger is not the opposite of love. It is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or to the world around us. Anger is a mode of connectedness to others and it is always a vivid form of caring.” She goes on to write, “Where anger rises, there the energy to act is present.”

Yes, anger can be destructive and lead to harm. But it also can push us to work for change and justice and a more loving world where all are welcome.

And as I work as a hospital chaplain, and look around at the state of the world, I am increasingly convinced that one of the most important growing edges for us is to increase our ability to tolerate discomfort.

The more comfortable we are, the more we need to get used to discomfort, learn how we respond to it, learn how to stay grounded and loving even when we’re in the midst of chaos, pain, uncertainty.

Not long ago I sat in the family room of our Emergency Department, with a woman who had just learned her husband had died. When she found out I was a chaplain, she immediately said “I don’t want to talk religion.” We didn’t. What she did do, over the following hours, was grieve, curse, and tell stories about a man who “If he loved you, you knew it,” and who used “fuck” as both noun and verb, “as fuck” as his most common adjective, and so on. And that was time was absolutely sacred ground.

There’s no question that this series of Advent devotions won’t be for everyone. That’s fine. But as I watch it spread over Facebook and notice the responses, I’m noticing it reaching a lot of people. Many of whom are not, and will not be the churched.

The woman in the ER wanted nothing to do with religion or church. But I’d also bet she lives with an assumption that “Church” wants nothing to do with her.

And that is where my fears lie for the church … not that we’ll become a place where “fuck” and “shit” have a regular place in our litanies or preaching, but that we’ll (continue to) be a place where those who are hungry for some hope or some love in the midst of violence, poverty, abuse, despair will never feel they can bring their whole selves. A place where those who bring their whole selves, in vulnerability, rawness, brokenness, will be told they need to change to keep us comfortable, rather than be welcomed, and chance that we all may be transformed.

It is my hope that there will be more places where we can be honest about our anger, regardless of the language, and truly be heard. That change may come, along with balm for the wounded places we carry.

I expect to be uncomfortable this Advent season. Hell, I’ve been uncomfortable all year for a variety of reasons. I hope that discomfort will also push my creativity, my prayers, my writing, and whoever it is that God is currently calling forth from me. I’m grateful for this opportunity to engage the discomfort.

Meanwhile, I’m still pondering how I’ll write about and talk about this on Facebook. I’d rather have you read it than turn away because of the language. And, the language matters. For the record, there’s also a profanity-free version of the prompts titled #RendTheHeavens.

“Oh, that the Christmas miracle of God-in-a-manger wouldn’t be

just a one-time magic trick.

Because god we could use a Christmas miracle these days

because by now the ice and the snow and the darkness are

already old friends but we haven’t even

reached the darkest day yet.

And I’m scared. And I am bleeding. And I am tired.

Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down…”

You can read the rest of Micah Martin’s Advent Psalm of Lament (inspiration for the devotion series) here.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing. Might tag it #FuckThisShit. Might tag it #RendTheHeavens. Maybe #FTS/#RTH. But however I tag it, may my writing be honest and vulnerable and Spirit-led.

May we be blessed with discomfort in these darkest days, and also be surprised by hope, by connection, by the unexpected.

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.