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Sermon: Sticks and Stones. September 12, 2021

This sermon was preached at Grace Lutheran Church on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost. You can view the service and the bulletin, too. The image is Christ Carrying the Cross, El Greco, 1590-1595 (public domain).

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. It was all anyone could talk about, although it was hard to find the words at first. Like most of you, I remember where I was 20 years ago when four commercial flights were highjacked and transformed into weapons of hate. A classmate knocked on my dorm room door sometime between 7:46 and 8:03 Central, in between the first tower and the second being hit. I remember the time because I was still sleeping for the first but was awake to see the second happen in real time. I remember huddling with others around tv screens throughout the day; gathering in the seminary chapel to weep and pray and lament; talking with friends in quiet tones about what it all meant. My classmates and I were in our last year of seminary, filled with theological knowledge and insight, ready to go into parish ministry to preach the Word. But even though the attacks were all we could talk about, words failed us. Suddenly, the future seemed less secure. Would there be more attacks? In what sort of world were we now living? We found ourselves in a time of national disaster and calamity, and the future was a fearful place. What words could we speak in the face of such senseless suffering and loss, such rampant pain and death?
  2. It was all anyone could talk about, but no one seemed to have quite the right words to describe who he was or what was taking place. As he walked with his disciples on the way to Caesarea Philippi, he walked through a region that had been caught up in his story. It’s hard to ignore a sudden spate of healings and exorcisms, after all. The authorities were even getting a bit worried. Who was he? John the Baptist? Elijah? Jesus turns and asks the disciples what they think. Peter answers: You are the Messiah. The Messiah; God’s anointed. The One chosen and sent to redeem Israel from their ongoing national disaster. Peter says the right words in this moment but has no idea what they mean. So, Jesus tells him: The Son of Man, like the Suffering Servant of Isaiah’s prophecy, must suffer. He will be rejected. Killed. And after three days, raised. But Peter has stopped listening by this point, and likely doesn’t hear the final note about resurrection. Peter gets stuck on suffering and death. Why would Jesus go toward suffering and death? What kind of Messiah is he? This makes no sense. Peter’s future clouds with fear, and Peter takes it upon himself to rebuke his teacher.
  3. But Jesus rebukes Peter, and the words sting: “Get behind me, Satan.” Why the stern rejoinder? Well, simply put, words matter, and this is never truer than when it comes to Jesus, the Word of God. In an epistle written several decades later, James takes up the power of the tongue, this little rudder that can run a ship aground; this small flame that can burn down a forest. Children’s rhymes about sticks and stones notwithstanding, we know the negative power of words, especially spoken in gossip or slander, insult or hate. Sticks and stones are usually picked up because we have become inflamed by words, our own or someone else’s. Verbal violence begets physical violence. Our tongues, however, as James reminds us, were given to us that we would bless and praise God, not damage one another. In speaking of God, truth matters. And the truth of the matter is that Jesus has come not simply to save Israel but the whole creation, and that he does so not by fleeing from suffering and death, but by taking up his cross in the midst of their awful power. Peter may have had the best of intentions, but it is devilish to stand in Jesus’ way, for it is the way of salvation. It is the way of the cross, for only through the death of the Son of Man can life be restored in this broken world.
  4. The way of the cross for Jesus becomes the way of discipleship for us. If we would follow, we are called to take up our cross and fall in behind him. Note, first, that we are called to take up our cross, not Jesus’. It is for him, and him alone, to suffer for sin and die to save and redeem. That work is now finished, as proclaimed by Christ himself with his dying breath. In his death and resurrection, we have been gifted with new life and the promise of the Father’s future glory with the angels. But in this world, in this life, we bear the cross, that same sign in which our baptism was sealed. One never quite knows, perhaps, how the call to cruciform living will manifest itself in our lives. Surely, James’s call to us to do the good work of clothing and feeding the needy, to eschew evil speech and use our words instead to praise and bless, helps us understand the task in front of us. But discipleship begins and ends simply with following Jesus. By getting out of his way and getting out of the business of trying to tell God what to do. By fixing our eyes on Christ and seeing where he leads us.
  5. You recall, perhaps, the story of Father Mychal Judge, the Franciscan friar and New York Fire Department chaplain. His ministry blessed those at the margins: the hungry and homeless; those suffering addiction or living with AIDS; the sick and the grieving. On a Tuesday morning 20 years ago, Father Judge learned of the horrific attack on the World Trade Center and rushed to Ground Zero. He took up a position in the emergency command center in the North Tower, offering assistance and prayer for the injured and his fellow first responders. When the South Tower collapsed, debris went flying through the North Tower lobby, killing Father Judge. He was one of 343 firefighters who died that day, faithful servants whose cruciform vocation took them directly into suffering and death in the hope that others would be saved. While he lived, Father Judge prayed this prayer daily: “Lord, take me where you want me to go; Let me meet who you want me to meet; Tell me what you want me to say; And keep me out of your way.” This is a prayer of cross-bearing discipleship; keep me out of your way, Lord, that you may lead and that I may follow. Father Judge was the first certified fatality of that horrible day, and so bears the designation of Victim 0001. At his funeral, Father Michael Duffy’s homily included these words: “We will bury Mychal Judge’s body, but not his spirit. We will bury his mind, but not his dreams. We will bury his voice, but not his message. We will bury his hands, but not his good works. We will bury his heart, but not his love. Never his love.” Indeed. When we follow the One whose path leads to death and resurrection, we can enter into the suffering of others without fear for the future, for the future belongs to the God who raised Jesus from the dead.
  6. What, then, shall we say? In this world where sin and suffering so often seem to have their way, let us keep our eyes on Jesus. In him, we are already forgiven. In him, we already live in the promise of eternal life. In him, though we lose everything, we receive all we need for this world and the next. In Christ, let us find our voice, speaking comfort and hope to those who grieve, and peace and goodwill to those who continue to believe that violence is the solution. Jesus gave himself up to violence and death, but God raised him from the dead, vindicating the way of a peace that surpasses, the way of a love that bears and believes, hopes and endures all things. Live in this love, church, and work for this peace. Let us follow. Let us take up the cross as our rudder, getting out of Jesus’ way as he leads how and where we need to go, knowing we have nothing to fear. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Sermon: Who Let the Dogs In? September 5, 2021

I preached this sermon at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL, on the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Feel free to view the service and the bulletin. The image is Jesus and the Woman of Canaan, by Michael Angelo Immenraet, 1673-1678 (public domain).

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. My old preaching professor, David Lose, once wrote that “the more challenging or difficult a passage, the more likely it is to lead to a great sermon.” Well, I make no promises, but if he’s right, you’re about to hear a home run, because today’s gospel reading is about as tough as they come. Why? Because we’re presented with a view of Jesus that is difficult to see, that challenges our preconceptions. Having just called out the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders, so caught up on what can make you unclean from without that they forget to look within, he journeys now into Gentile territory. To the lands where uncleanliness was the norm. He meets a woman who, with the audacity born of a mother’s desperation, dares to approach him. She bows and begs before Jesus, imploring him to cast out the demon in possession of her daughter. And what does Jesus say? “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Whatever else might be going on here, it’s his final word that trips us up. Did he just call this woman’s daughter a dog? It’s tempting to try to put a shine on his words; perhaps he’s joking, or perhaps in the ancient Near East calling someone a dog was cute or endearing. Perhaps you’ve read or been told such things before, but these are solutions that hold as much water as a sieve. Calling someone a dog was an insult and, in this particular moment, one that seems driven by racial and religious difference. Why, Jesus is asking, would I give a dog like you anything when my people, the chosen children of God, are hungry and in need?
  2. Jesus, this sinless but very human Jesus, is caught here by the same forces that confront us. On the borders, where people of difference interact with one another, they do so with threats and insults. When confronted with humans that are different, we tend to dehumanize, which is exactly what Jesus’ words seek to do. You are not person; you’re a dog. It is uncomfortable to hear these words, picture this interaction. Our Jesus, perfect Jesus, would never do such a thing. And yet here we are? What are we to do with such a Jesus?
  3. I’ve had a lot of conversations lately in which people have expressed a feeling of being closed in. The hope of the summer, when we talked about “coming out of COVID,” has given way to a feeling of “here we go again.” ICUs are filling up as travel restrictions are handed down. As climate change continues to rear its ugly head, we watch as the west burns and the east is inundated with water. And the withdrawal from Afghanistan has heightened a humanitarian crisis in which humans become refugees; at least, those lucky enough to get out. We are in closed-in times. These difficulties do not tend to bring out the best in people. Blame is cast and names are called, and people become ever more deeply entrenched in their own positions, however misguided or just plain wrong. We, whoever we are, are the good, the righteous, the holy. Those people? Nothing more than dogs.
  4. If we let go of our need to gloss over or apologize for Jesus’ words, we see just how good the good news of our God is. We do not see a Jesus who is entirely immune from this world’s problems, but we do see an amazing thing. In Jesus, we see the possibility of change. Debie Thomas writes, “The ‘Good News’ is not that we serve a shiny, inaccessible deity who floats five feet above the ground. It is that Jesus shows us – in real time, in the flesh – what it means to grow as a child of God. He embodies what it looks like to stretch into a deeper, truer, and fuller comprehension of God’s love.” And why does he do this? He is motivated by the faith of this foreigner, this woman, this person who had no standing before Jesus so bows before him instead: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Her words, her comprehension of just how abundant the Kingdom God is, seem to remind Jesus of his mission, the fulfillment of the promise made long before to Abraham and Sarah – that from them would come blessing not only for their many descendants, but for people of every nation.
  5. Moving on to the region of the Decapolis, Jesus is encountered by another person in need, another Gentile, this man who was deaf and had trouble speaking. Jesus no longer seeks to hold a foreigner at a distance. The scene is intimate, tactile. Jesus sticks is fingers in the man’s ears, spit on the ground, touches the man’s tongue. And then he looks up to heaven and sighs. If Mark had drawn a thought bubble in the margins of his manuscript, I can imagine Jesus thinking as he sighs, “I hear you, Father. Thanks for the reminder of the mission. Let’s do this.” Then, in Aramaic: Ephphatha. Be opened. Not only do the ears and mouth of this man open up, but we are given a sign of wide-open eschatological hope. Isaiah’s prophecy springs to life, with sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf and those who could not speak now bursting into songs of praise. This is what the future will look like, and this is what Jesus enacts in the present for these two Gentiles.
  6. Jesus came first for the people of the promise, yes, but not only for them. The woman in today’s passage caught that vision and knew that at the feast of the Lord even the crumbs are more than enough, more than we could ever anticipate or need. Jesus would keep journeying, from Tyre and the Decapolis all the way to Jerusalem, where he would die on the cross, both as victim of and atonement for this world’s sinful refusal to live out God’s expansive vision. His body would be laid to rest in a tomb, bereft of hearing, sight, or speech. Dead. Completely closed in. But God, if God speaks Aramaic, would say in that moment exactly what Jesus said to the man who was deaf: Ephphatha. Be opened! And out of dry, dusty death would suddenly flow streams of living water quenching the thirst of the ground and giving life to all creation. Out of death, resurrection. Today, we come to Jesus’ table. We find placed in our hands a little bread; we drink a little wine from a little cup. Crumbs, really, but crumbs that hold the fullness of the body and blood of Christ, this Jesus who gave his life to forgive our sins and fulfill God’s promises for people of every nation. Even you and me. We may be little more than stray dogs. But there are seats at the table for us next to the lost sheep, all gathered at the Lamb’s high feast, beggars no more. These crumbs of grace are enough.
  7. And if we live in the hope of the day when dogs and sheep eat together, when lions and lambs lie down together, what does that mean for our living now? Perhaps simply this. That if Jesus could admit a mistake, change his mind, chart a new direction, so, by his grace, can we. We can loosen the grip on our prejudices and undig our heels. We can step into the sunlight of a world ever opened up by God’s transformative grace. For we whose ears were once stoppered in sin have had that old wax removed. We whose tongues were tied with slander and insult have learned how much better it is to sing God’s praise. In the power of the risen Christ, we are made new. We who were dead are alive. Ephphatha, my friends. Be opened. Live in the open, with open hands and open hearts, with a faith that lives to work for the sake of others, wherever they come from, whatever they look like, whoever they are, for they are children of the blessing, too. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Sermon: Flesh and Blood. August 22, 2021

This is the sermon I preached on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL. You can watch the worship service and view the bulletin, too. The picture is my family at Wrigley for the Saturday game. I was there on Sunday, too, to see the Royals complete the sweep.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. The divisions between human beings are often so obvious they hardly need to be noted, but that doesn’t stop people. A number of people good-naturedly pointed this out to us yesterday as we were walking to Wrigley Field. “Hey, a house divided!” they’d call out as they saw us coming, me decked out in Royals gear, the boys proudly sporting their Cubs regalia. Erika and Greta, perhaps choosing the better part of valor, declined to represent either team. Unlike the three of us, they were dressed as normal human beings. At any rate, the game was more fun for me, with the Royals beating whoever those guys are in the Cubs uniforms these days. We were a house divided, at least for a few hours, and it was fun to banter about this division with some of the people around us.
  2. Many divisions are not so benign, of course. With the onset of another COVID surge, the ever-present political differences among us are cast in even starker relief, with decisions that could be life-and-death being made as the new school year begins. And life-and-death divisions are all the news out of Afghanistan as people, both Afghan and otherwise, flee what will surely not be the inclusive reign the Taliban wants the world to believe is their intent. I could go on, but there’s no need. We humans excel at dividing into groups, declaring who’s in and who’s out, and it’s a good day when the worst that comes of it is a baseball game. We have a bad habit of doing far worse.
  3. Today, Jesus’ lengthy discourse on the Bread of Life concludes, and it does so with division. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” Jesus proclaims. While he ties such eating and drinking to eternal life, his teaching nevertheless turns off a great many of those who had so far been his disciples. It’s not hard to understand an initial sense of revulsion. Is Jesus teaching cannibalism? He wants us to eat him, to drink his blood? This would have been even more difficult for his original audience. His own people, the Jews, did not eat food with blood in still in it. That’s what pagans did. But even pagans would balk at drinking blood. No doubt for this reason many Protestants have long believed that Jesus only sort of means what he’s saying, both here and in the Words of Institution. It’s just bread and wine, people, they assure us. Yes, Jesus’ teaching is offensive, divisive. But he also knows that he’s just getting started. “What will you think,” he asks, “when you see the Son of Man – crucified and raised, dead but now alive – ascend back into heaven?”
  4. Yes, it is difficult to understand Jesus, even more challenging to believe in him. The root cause, however, is not the content of his teaching but our need for it. Our need for Jesus offends us.. Those who eat and drink Jesus will live. Those who don’t, won’t. Jesus is declaring that apart from him, the Word of Life, there is no life. We do not have life on our own. We are not in control of our own destiny. And nothing attacks the old Adam or Eve more than this, the simple fact that we are not in charge; that we are not autonomous; that we are not free. There is nothing more seductive than the echoing voice of the serpent: Ye shall be as gods. We yearn for control, not a reminder that we are needy, empty. The preacher Amy Howe writes, “We like to think we are in control of our lives, our destiny.” She goes on, with words I can relate to: “When things are spinning out of control in my world – deadlines looming, neighbors needing, a chronically ill child – I stop and clean my house. I do not have control over the other, but I can bring order to the chaos of my kitchen!” Preach, preacher! Never is the Lyle home cleaner than when other elements of our lives are out of control, when other, more complex, tasks beckon. But control is an illusion, and freedom is not loudly insisting that we can do whatever we want. Freedom begins when we realize our utter, total dependance. And that is what this whole Bread of Life thing has been about the whole time. In the words of the inimitable Frederick Buechner, “We don’t live by bread alone, but we also don’t live long without it. To eat is to acknowledge our dependence – both on food and on each other. It also reminds us of other kinds of emptiness that not even the blue-plate special can touch.”
  5. We are dependent, needy, empty, even if we spend so much time pretending otherwise. Life has a way of sneaking up on us from time to time and reminding us just how needy we are, through a challenge at work, an unexpected diagnosis, a long-felt grief. Where shall we turn? Jesus has no self-help on the menu today. There’s nothing for us to do. He is the Bread of Life, but no one is coming to Jesus unless it is granted by his Father. Eight chapters later, on the night before his death, Jesus will tell these same disciples that no one can come to the Father except through Jesus. We can’t come to Jesus except through the Father; we can’t come to the Father except through Jesus. What are we to do? Where are we to go? We are trapped, but Jesus makes a way. Jesus, as we’ll hear in that later moment, is the way. Seeing our hunger, and our inability to do anything meaningful about it, Jesus simply feeds us. As he is Life, Jesus feeds us with himself. With his flesh, offered freely on Calvary’s cross; with his blood, poured out for the salvation of the world.
  6. Our divisions so often become matters of life and death. But Jesus names our unity, which begins in our need, our sinful brokenness, our dependance – things we all share. To feed the world, he gives himself. To create unity, he reverses our direction and undoes what we have done. With Jesus, it’s a matter of death and life. In his death, our death meets its end. In his rising, we live. In Jesus, we declare our dependence and find both joy and freedom therein. Freedom that does not mean we can do whatever we want, but that finds joy in putting both God and neighbor before ourselves. Christ divides us from our division, creating unity on the other side of death in the abundant feast of resurrection. Here, there is room enough for all of us, for each of us is only here by Jesus’ invitation. There is room enough for new members, who join us today and make better our fellowship. There is room enough for refugees, including the family of five we welcome this week. Where once there was room for no one, now there is room enough for all, for Jesus welcomes us in. Jesus dies to let us in, and the table of God’s abundance is set now for a feast.
  7. What are we to do? We could not come to Christ or to the Father, but the Father has sent Christ to us. We could not feed ourselves, but Christ is given as the Bread of Life that is more than enough. We could not do anything, but there was nothing we needed to do. Put on whatever footwear seems appropriate and go, preach the gospel of peace. With Jesus’ authorization, give ‘em Jesus. Set aside all other false hopes, all illusions of control and the myth of self-centered freedom. Join with Joshua and his whole household, serving the Lord alone. Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. Come, friends. Come, eat of his flesh; come, drink of his blood. These gifts are truly given and truly shed for you. Come, feast, and live. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Sermon: Full Sails. August 15, 2021

This is the sermon I preached on the Feast of Mary, Mother of Our Lord (August 15, 2021) at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL. You can watch the worship service here and see the bulletin here. Image: We’re on a boat!

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. It shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but it does. I have a high school classmate who loves Christmas. So much so that his favorite thing to watch is, apparently, the Best of Andy Williams Christmas. This is something he does not only at Christmas, or near Christmas, but all the year through. I know this because he posts on social media while watching Andy belt out all the Christmas hits. I’m always surprised to learn that my friend is watching the Best of Andy Williams Christmas in the middle of the summer. There may be a best time to watch this show, but that best time is not this It’s out of order, incongruent. Then again, maybe my friend is on to something. Here we are this morning, in the middle of August, listening to Mary sing a carol older than any of Andy’s. Her Magnificat catches us by surprise this morning, interrupting what would otherwise be five weeks in a row spent in John 6, listening to and learning from Jesus, the Bread of Life. Today happens to be the Feast of Mary, Mother of Our Lord, or, as some of our fellow Christians refer to the day, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. To be sure, we sing the Magnificat throughout the year at Evening Prayer, but it nevertheless evokes Christmas. And what is that doing in the middle of August?
  2. Perhaps Mary’s song is just what we need in this season. Surely the words of Isaiah ring true today: “the shame of God’s people was double, and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot.” In our sin and suffering, we are as broken as God’s people were long ago. Driving home from vacation on Friday – and yes, we’re home for good now – it seemed as if the world’s problems, already immense, had been magnified. The recent United Nations report on climate change reveals that we are running out of time to take steps to mitigate catastrophic climate change, change for which humans are unequivocally responsible, according to the report. Meanwhile, Afghanistan spirals out of control this week as the Taliban made gains in anticipation of our departure from the war-torn region. We were returning to a home, and a community, devastated by violence. Our community mourns the death of Chicago police office Ella French, shot during a routine traffic stop, killed while simply doing her job of protecting people. Our community mourns the death of fifteen-year-old Melissa Rendon, assaulted, abused, and abandoned to death. Where is our hope when creation itself groans under the weight of our sin, when the lives of young women are taken far too soon?
  3. Our hope is sung this morning upon the lips of another young woman, a daughter of the people of God to whom Isaiah spoke long before. While Isaiah’s words today begin with shame and dishonor, the prophet quickly pivots to promise: “they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs.” Finally, in the fullness of time, God fulfills this vow. God comes to Mary, young and lowly, little to be noticed by the powers of the day. So has God always entered the world. Her lowliness is not worthlessness; she is just the person for this holy calling, just the woman to become the Mother of God. Filled with the Spirit, the very Word of Life taking on flesh within her Womb, she sings. The divine fecundity cannot be contained. She sings, giving praise and glory to the mighty God who has come down to her level to level the playing field, casting down mountains and filling in valleys. God has done, will do, great things. God will show mercy, but also strength; power enough to cast down the powerful. God will show abundance; fullness enough to feed the hungry, so full that there is no room left for human pride or hoarded riches. God has done, is doing, will do these things for us, even in the face of our ongoing sin that spawns cultures of violence and destruction. Mary knows such evil and suffering, but God knows Mary. Known, chosen by God, Mary sings. She magnifies her God, the Lord of heaven and earth who is also her baby boy. As Amy Lindeman Allen writes, the “importance of Mary comes not in what she has done.” No, Mary teaches us instead that our true purpose as those who bear Christ in this world is to point to what God is doing through her son, Jesus.
  4. Earlier this week, while still on vacation in Door County, we went to visit friends who took our family out on their sailboat. Not knowing a tack from a jibe, I left the sailing to those who knew what they were doing and sat on the deck with my sons. We watched as the sails, expertly handled, sprang to life, filling with wind that was already present, moving, now pulling us forward as spray crashed over the bow. The sail, of course, didn’t create the wind. The wind was moving, blowing howsoever it chose. On its own, the sail was lifeless. But unfurled in the breeze, it blossomed with purpose. The sail, you could say, was a magnifier, making visible the work of the wind. This, I think, is what Mary does. It is God who is at work, Mary who magnifies. The Lord who chooses, Mary who says yes. The Christ who grows within her, Mary who gives good care. Following the horrific death of her son, which she watched with a mother’s breaking heart, Mary is among those who wait for the wind, the outpoured, onrushing Spirit, that would fill her sails again, charting a new course for creation. Mary’s vocation as the Mother of Our Lord is unique, but she is our teacher nonetheless. For we, too, have been filled by Christ who lives in us. We, too, daily stick our finger into the air, seeking to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit that our lives would be given purpose, meaning, direction. We, too, know that we could never choose God on own. But when called, chosen, we, like Mary, say yes. We, like Mary, magnify. We unfurl our souls to catch the Spirit.
  5. We do so as those who know that the salvation birthed into this world is one that works through death. We join Mary’s song as those who stand at the foot of the cross, reminded of this world’s sin and convicted of our own. We do so as those who stare clear-eyed into the suffering around us, who know that we are past the point of being able to help or save ourselves. But we do not despair. We do not give in. We die with Christ and, wonder of wonders, we are reborn as children and heirs of God and agents of grace. You never know where or when the wind will blow. But it will, for our God is the God who keeps promises, often in the most surprising ways, as Mary could certainly attest. The pastor and author Walt Wangerin writes, “This is what grace does. It comes as a surprise; it lingers in the rare atmosphere of love, since love itself is breathed by it and love by it is made manifest. This expression of love is ‘ecstasy’ in the Greek meaning of the word: to ‘stand outside’ the ordinary.” Pastor Wangerin died last week, having spent a lifetime reminding us that even rags become radiant in the hands of the Christ. We give thanks for the ways he added to the church’s song in his writing and teaching.
  6. Mary’s song continues today throughout the church, this vessel called to catch the wind of the Spirit and magnify God’s work in the world. It is true that the problems of this world and in our souls compound upon themselves, magnifying suffering and despair. But we, church, we know the song. It is the song of God’s victory over death in the midst of death, the song of the triumph of life and love, the song sung first over the waters of creation and then given voice by this teenage mother who believed what any sensible person would have dismissed as nonsense. It is the song that was seemingly silenced on Calvary’s cross, but Mary’s boy is the Word of Life, and he would not stay silent long. In him you live, witnesses to the truth and magnifiers of the good news that this world so desperately needs. The lowly will be lifted, the hungry will be filled, the dead will be raised, and peace will burst forth forever. God will do this. As the spirit catches you, fills you, today: Sing. For Christ is born of Mary. Perhaps it’s surprising to be reminded of this in the middle of the summer, but God is nothing if not surprising. Just ask Mary. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Sermon: Picking Up the Pieces. July 25, 2021

This is the sermon I preached on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 25, 2021, at Grace Lutheran Church and School in River Forest, IL. It was good to be back in the pulpit! You can view the worship service here and check out the bulletin, too. The image is Feeding the Multitude, Daniel of Uranc (Armenian manuscript, 1433, public domain). I would have shared a picture of my loaf of bread, but I ate it all.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. The crowd was out in full force yesterday morning, and we were part of it. The boys and I rode our bikes up to Lake Street, pilgrims to the parking lot. We dutifully took our place at the back of the line, knowing that our journey would soon reach its end. A woman approached me, wonderstruck: “What’s the deal with these donuts? That’s all I’ve heard anyone talk about this morning!” I did my best to do them justice, especially the powdered, but in the end, I shrugged: “You just have to try them for yourself.” To the best of my knowledge, she did. But as we sat there eating our donuts and listening to bluegrass, the satisfaction was fleeting. I mean, yeah, a good donut is good, but it’s not going to carry you through the day. At that moment I remembered that the refrigerator we were biking home to was almost barren, bereft of groceries. We’ve been gone so much lately that we hardly have any food at home. I hadn’t planned for lunch! So, I struck out across the parking lot on a new quest. Knowing we had some sandwich fixings, I decided to get some bread. I approached, appropriately enough, a stand run by the Bread Man, and bought two loaves. Later, at home, I was rewarded with the best pepperoni, cheddar, and horseradish mustard sandwich I’ve had in a while, thanks to the Bread Man’s handcrafted seven-grain. It was enough to make me consider hopping back on my bike; I wanted to find this woman and tell her, “You thought that donut was good? Sure, it was! But have you tried the bread? That will fill you up; that will last. That was good!”
  2. We set out on our journey with one goal in mind but found a different sort of fulfillment altogether. A similar thing could be said for the crowds that followed Jesus across the Sea of Galilee that day. They’d seen the signs, witnessed his healings, and they went hoping for more. But they forgot to pack lunch. So it is that they find themselves far from hearth, home, and grocery store with the lunch hour approaching. They had set out searching for something, but they find something else entirely. They go hoping to see another sign but find themselves nothing but empty. The disciples are wise enough to know there’s nothing to be done; not by them, anyway. Better to send the people home quick as can be. But Jesus looks into their emptiness, into their hunger, knowing already what he will do. With the contents of one boy’s lunchbox, Jesus transforms scarcity into abundance, feeding the multitude with plenty to spare. While John doesn’t mention how the bread tasted, our minds wander back to the wedding at Cana, where Jesus didn’t simply turn water into wine, but into the best wine. I imagine these thousands finding themselves not simply fed, but at a feast, finally pushing the food away because they just couldn’t eat anymore. In Jesus’ presence, hunger and emptiness are opportunities to show forth who he is. Not simply one who can make bread, but One who is The Bread of Life itself, so plentiful that his disciples, who couldn’t figure out what to do a few minutes ago, are left to pick up the pieces, twelve baskets in all. Whatever the people set out to find that morning, they discovered something else: the prophet long awaited, now come into this world’s void to bring fulness. The very I AM who calmed the world’s watery chaos at creation and now walks across the water, casting out fear.
  3. Who among us has not felt the hunger of the crowd, the helplessness of the disciples? To be sure, if you are worshipping here this morning, in person or via livestream, it’s unlikely you are one of the 690 million people in the world who will go to bed hungry tonight. That number, by the way, will likely increase to 840 million by 2030, a projection that is almost certainly now an undercount, as chronic hunger has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. But if you, like me, can buy a loaf of artisanal bread when you realize lunch is looming, you are nevertheless afflicted by other hungers. For meaning, for identity, for purpose. For health, wholeness, community. We, we who have so much, who are so rarely hungry, have stomachs that are empty in other ways. We try to fill them with so much that does not satisfy; with the omnipresent quest for more that is insatiable, because there is no amount of stuff we can have – money or status or privilege or whatever – that cannot be added to. There is always more to have, so we convince ourselves we never have enough. And we do so knowing full well that our siblings throughout the world, God’s handiwork every bit as much as you or me, are actually hungry. In our rare moments of clarity, when we recognize this dire imbalance and iniquity, we feel helpless. Philip speaks for all of us when he answers Jesus’ question. The problem is too big, the hungry are too many. There is nothing we can do. How do we even begin to pick up the pieces of all that is broken in and around us?
  4. It is exactly here, in the realization that there is nothing we can do, that hope finds us. The thousands did not eat that day because Philip and Andrew figured out how to feed them. They ate because Jesus was there, because Jesus decided to feed them. Neither feeding nor saving the world is up to us, thank God. Jesus comes to feed, to save. Our task is simpler if we would hear and heed the call. What are we to do? While Jesus is the sole driver of the action today, there are roles for us. First, we look to the boy, this child who offered what he had. He knew it wouldn’t be enough, but so what? In Jesus’ hands, his lunchbox held an abundance. If you have something, however small, give. Share. It will be enough. Second, we look to the boy, and remember not to overlook those like him. Andrew is a disciple, an adult, who dismisses the child’s gift out of hand. But Jesus doesn’t. Jesus receives what the child has to offer and does the rest. Don’t dismiss the gifts of others simply because these others don’t measure up in your eyes. Who knows what Jesus will do? Third, take up the task left to the disciples. Jesus breaks and blesses; Jesus distributes and feeds. What do the disciples do? They pick up the pieces. Their call is not to perform the miracle; their job is to gather up what’s left, following in Jesus’ wake so that nothing may be lost, so that the blessing might extend ever more broadly. Remembering this call, we can stop trying to baptize Jesus for our purposes and know in faith that we have been baptized into his mission.
  5. Jesus initiates here the new Passover that will be brought to fulfillment in his death and resurrection. More than a thousand years before Jesus fed the crowds by the sea, the Lord told the people to prepare a meal of lamb and bread, just enough for that night’s journey out of Egypt. As they wandered in the wilderness, God gave them manna each day. Just enough. Make no mistake; when it comes from the Lord just enough is exactly that: enough. But the Passover which Christ inaugurates is not one that’s just enough. It is abundant. Plentiful. Overflowing. It is all these things and more because it is Christ himself, both host and meal. As much as this feast by the sea is more than the crowd anticipated, so is it less that what the sign signifies. When Christ is broken open upon the cross, when the empty void of this world’s sin and hunger and death sought to swallow him whole, the I AM has one more surprise in store. In his dying, Jesus fills the creation he once called into being. He meets us here again today, in wafer and wine, too small to make a difference to our hunger, it seems. Yet we will never be so full as we are when we meet Christ in the Eucharist, a foretaste of the feast to come. Filled, we are freed. Free to follow in Jesus’ wake, picking up pieces of grace and mercy that nothing would be lost. Free to feed those whose hunger has run too deep for too long. Free, like young Hudson today, to be the like young boy on Galilee’s shores, offering our meagre gifts to Christ, that they might by his power become exactly what the world needs. In this new Passover, we are fed by the Paschal Lamb who offers himself for us, who meets our needs not with just enough, but with the full abundance that is simply Jesus. Whatever you were looking for this morning, you have been found by the Bread Man, the One who is always more than enough.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.