Category Archives: sermon

How to Listen to a Sermon

I don’t often post my weekly sermons to this blog. My sermons are written for and preached to a very specific congregation in a very specific context, not to mention that sermons are primarily for hearing and not for reading.

I’m going to break that rule this week. While the above caveats are also true of this sermon, I think it also raises an important issue for the larger church. How do we listen to preaching? It’s a particularly important question for this hyper-partisan, hyper-critical moment in time. What I’m suggesting is that just as Christians read the bible differently than other literature, we listen to preaching differently than other spoken discourse. And if you don’t want to read the whole sermon, here’s the short answer. We listen to preaching with a posture of humility, expecting to hear a word from God.

Oh, and by the way, the sermon is based on Sunday’s lesson, Jeremiah 28:5-9. It’s a bit obscure and hard to understand without the larger context, which I explain in the opening part of the sermon. 5 Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord; 6 and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. 7 But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. 8 The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. 9 As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”

This morning I want to talk about how to listen to a sermon, or maybe more accurately, how not to listen to a sermon.

But first, I want to tell a story, the story that our first lesson is a part of. It’s a critical time in the political history of God’s chosen people, the nation Judah, about 600 years before Christ. There have been a series of pretty awful kings of Judah; now Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, is becoming more and more powerful. In 594, the armies of Babylon swept into Judah and deposed King Jehoiachin and carried him off to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar replaced him with a 21-year-old, the son of a former king; he would be a puppet of Nebuchadnezzar. Things looked pretty precarious for this tiny nation. Jeremiah consistently preached the message to Judah that their hard times were a consequence of their unfaithfulness to God. The prophet Jeremiah was fond of using object lessons to accompany his preaching. So, he got a big wooden yoke and placed it on his shoulders and said to the king, the priests, and the other rulers, this yoke symbolizes how for the next 3 generations, you all – God’s people – will be under the yoke of the Babylonians. Certainly not the kind of news that any of the ruling class wanted to hear. So, in comes Hananiah, a rival prophet with a very different message. Hananiah told them, “Don’t worry. Within a few months, Nebuchadnezzar will be gone; his power is waning, and we’ll have nothing to worry about.” Now that was more like it. That’s what the people wanted to hear.

Of course, we know how the story turned out. We know that Jeremiah was precisely right. Within a decade, the Babylonian army would return and crush Judah, destroying the Temple, burning the city, and carrying the living inhabitants off to 3 generations of exile in Babylon. But at the time, no one knew who was right. Turns out the uncomfortable, challenging word of Jeremiah was the true word from the Lord, even though the people desperately wanted to believe the easier, comforting word from Hananiah.

Which brings me to wanting to talk to you about how to listen to a sermon. Most of us, and I would include me in that group, would rather hear a message of comfort and ease than a message of dire warning and challenge. When the world is falling in around us, we come to church to hear a word of comfort. The bible definitely offers that, and preaching definitely offers that. But not always. We all know there’s another side to the biblical message. If you read the bible in its totality you know that there’s also rebuke and challenge. There’s an awful lot in the bible that is uncomfortable, that demands a change in our lives, in our community, in the world. The bible recognizes that sin and evil and death are always trying to drag us away from God’s ways to our own selfish ways and the ways of the world.

Someone once told me, “Your job in preaching is to bring us comfort and strength.” I said, “Yes, and to challenge you.” And they replied, “yes, but more comfort.” You see the dilemma.

We believe that in both the bible and preaching, God speaks. Let’s consider the bible for a moment. We know that we don’t read the bible in the same way that we read other literature. We read the bible, not critically, but humbly, submitting ourselves to its authority, expecting as we read it, that we will hear a word from God. That’s how we listen to preaching. We don’t listen to a sermon the same way we listen to a speech or a news report. We listen to preaching expecting a word from God. We listen humbly, submitting ourselves to the authority of the Word. Not the authority of the preacher, but the authority of the spoken Word.

That’s hard to remember in such a hyper-partisan and hyper-critical moment in time. For many of us, our opinions about the way the world is ordered are set in stone and our kneejerk reaction to everything we hear is, “I agree,” or “I disagree.” But when we listen to preaching, our first response isn’t about whether we agree or disagree.

There are two important sets of questions that we should ask. The first set is:

  • What is God trying to say to me here?
  • Where is the good news of what God has done for me in Jesus?
  • What is God inviting me to be?
  • What is God empowering me to do?

The second question comes into play especially if we hear something that makes us uncomfortable. It’s important to sit in that place of discomfort, to linger there for a while.

  • Is there something in my life that needs to change?
  • Why does it make me uncomfortable?
  • Is there some long held belief that God is challenging?
  • Is this somehow related to my ego and to the idols that I set up in my life, those things that become hyper-important to me?
  • Is there something I’m trying to protect, something that maybe I cherish too much?

We don’t like to change and we don’t like to be changed. Yet our faith is based on the premise that God is always at work transforming us from the kingdom of the Enslaver to the reign of God. That means God is changing us.

I want to be clear. I’m not suggesting that everything I say is infallible. I am as capable of mistakes as anyone. I preach under the authority of the community and I’m accountable to the community for what I preach – this congregation, my bishop, my denomination. Instead, I’m suggesting that questions about agree or disagree are not the first questions we should be asking, and if we’re listening for a word from God, maybe we never even get around to those kinds of questions.

I want to talk about one more thing, and I realize it may be uncomfortable for some of us. One of the most common comments I receive about my preaching is that it is sometimes political. My gentle response is that if I’m going to be faithful to the gospel and my ordination vows, then my preaching has to be political. Did you hear our lesson for today? Jeremiah and his opponent are preaching in the middle of a geo-political crisis. They are speaking into the situation in which God’s people were living. They preach about where God is in that crisis and about seeing the situation as God sees it. Do you why preaching has to be political? Or maybe a better word is social? Because God cares about human communities. God cares about how we relate to each other, how we form ourselves socially, how we care for each other, and especially for the most vulnerable. Preaching calls us to consider the values of the kingdom of God and to call out our leaders and our policies that are in opposition to the values of the kingdom, regardless of who or what party is in power. The gospel is social because sin is social, systemic, and cultural. The gospel is personal because we as individuals are caught up in these social sins and must be saved out of them. This is what’s possible in Christ. This is what God does in us and through us.

Knowing God’s will and what the word is from God in real time can be tricky. Yet we believe that God is speaking. God has spoken primarily through God’s son, who in his death and resurrection has given us life with God. We live confidently from that promise; and we live humbly and expectantly, knowing that God is at work in us transforming us, and through us transforming the world. Listen. I listen. You listen. We listen together. God is speaking. Dear God, give us ears so we can hear.

A Moment of Crisis

This sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on August 26, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost and is based on the lessons for the day, Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18, Ephesians 6:10-20, and John 6:56-69.

This morning’s lessons provoke us to a moment of crisis. I don’t mean the kind of crisis where your car breaks down in the middle the night in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. I’m talking about a the kind of crisis that’s a fork in the road. A momentous decision is required. You can’t stay on the fence anymore; you have to decide to go this way or that way; there’s no turning back.

You can think of those kinds of crises in your life. Here’s one of mine. I was a freshman in college, having declared my music major. It was my intention to be a professional trumpet player. But I discovered that while I loved playing the trumpet, I did not enjoy practicing. It was a moment of crisis. I had no idea what else I would do. But I knew I would not be a musician. So, at the end of the first semester I dropped all my music classes and enrolled in other things with no idea where I was headed.

in the first lesson, Joshua, the great leader of the Israelites is gathering the people for a solemn assembly. They had come to a crisis in their communal faith life. Which god they would serve? You see, in the religion of the ancient near east, each tribe had it’s collection of local gods. There were the gods of the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Egyptians, and every other tribe that inhabited the land. Joshua was inviting the people to leave behind the tribal gods for a God that was above other gods, the God who had rescued their ancestors from slavery, had entered into a covenant with them, and who had promised to accompany them wherever they went. “Choose this day, whom you will serve,” Joshua challenged the Israelites. A moment of crisis. A moment of decision. A fork in the road. One of those “no turning back” moments.

Because that phrase has entered our popular and sentimental lexicon, it might be hard to imagine that this was indeed a crisis this was for the people of Israel. See, they had become used to having it both ways: to worship Yahweh, but also to hang out with the local gods, the ancestral gods, the tribal gods, the ones who brought them some level of comfort and security. Yahweh was the God of Israel, the one in the translation we read this morning was called The Lord; Yahweh is the personal name of God given to the Israelites, and here Joshua is calling them back to exclusive worship of this covenant God. So, the challenge, the moment of crisis that Joshua laid before the people, would have touched them deeply. A decisive moment indeed.

But Joshua was also inviting the people into a different way of living and and different way of believing. Yahweh was different from the worship of the ancestral gods. Yahweh is the God who travels with God’s people. Yahweh is not tied to any land, to any place, to any tribe, or to any sanctuary. This God makes a different promise to the people. This God promises to accompany the people wherever they go. This God will be with them not only in their prosperity, but also in their suffering and trials. This God promises security and abundance, though it may not be in the ways that the people hoped for or expected. This God promises to be present through all that life brings.

Similarly, Jesus provokes a moment of crisis in today’s gospel lesson. For weeks now, we’re been hearing this bread sermon of Jesus. For weeks, we’ve been hearing his mysterious and puzzling words about eating his body and drinking his blood that we might have life. In today’s lesson, he does not back off from that offensive language. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. . .the one who eats this bread will live forever.”  And now, not surprisingly, some have had enough. Some are offended. Some are questioning it. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” And at the end of the reading, John reports that many of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.

I suspect we can identify with them. Jesus does have some hard things to say. He does not always meet our expectations. The life we are called to is a different life than the world around us urges. Jesus does not offer a glossy magazine picture of a perfect easy life. There is something in Jesus’ offer of life that scandalizes even those who would follow him. His words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood ignore all proper decorum and they link us in the most physical, fleshly was to Jesus’ own body, his own flesh-and-blood life. Christ in our mouths, on our lips, absorbed into our own bodies, coursing through our veins. It’s the kind of language that led the ancient Romans and contemporary atheists to accuse Christians of cannibalism. Such talk might be considered a mere breach of etiquette were it not for the fact that Jesus follows up by pointing to something even more scandalous — his own death and resurrection. Jesus’ reference to the Son of Man “ascending” is code for the cross. And the cross is more than mere symbol. It is the scandalous center of our faith, that God became flesh and was lifted up on the cross so that we might know life with God. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we can now have life.

And let’s be clear. When Jesus and John talk about life, they are not talking about the progression of days. They aren’t talking about the biological processes that mark the difference between being alive and being dead. They are talking about Life with a capital L, life as God intended it, rich life, abundant life, life with sparkle and vibrancy, life in whole and full and rich relationship with God that overflows into life with each other that is whole and full and rich. Jesus is talking about our best life, our fullest life.

If there is any truth to Jesus’ words, then any talk of this rich and full life has to be connected somehow to Christ’s crucified life — his self-giving, his compassion, his love poured out for the world. This is the mystery of the gospel that Paul talks about in the second lesson. And this is the beginning of any Christian vision of what it means to have life. You see, Jesus will go on to say that the ones who really want to have life must lose their lives for the sake of their relationship with God, must lose their life in service to their neighbor. And in doing so they will find life, real life.

A moment of crisis. Whom will you serve? Will you also go away?

This morning we get to answer with Peter, to put his words in our mouths. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” This is yet another moment when we recognize that all our own tribal gods of comfort and security have nothing really to offer. Surely there were places that Peter and his friends could have turned. There were business prospects, family commitments, the comforts of home, and the search for social status that called for their attention.  There is always another dollar to be earned, another purchase to be made, another relationship to explore, another position to pursue, another enemy to withstand, another grief to mourn, and another country to explore.

But Peter knew, even if incompletely, what he had found. In following Jesus, he came to recognize that Jesus was the Holy One of God who alone possessed the words of eternal life.

Our moment of crisis ends up being not a crisis at all, not a fork in the road, but a gracious invitation to life. Empowered by the Spirit, we choose the One who has first chosen us and who yet again offers us his risen life.

When I take communion to those who can’t come to church, the rite ends with a beautiful prayer. Almighty God, you provide the true bread from heaven, your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Grant that we who have received the sacrament of his body and blood may abide in him and he in us, that we may be filled with the power of his endless life, now and forever. Amen. 

Food Matters

This sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on August 19, 2018, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost and is based on the lesson for the day,  Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 34:9-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58.

Have I told you that I love to cook? It’s not just a matter of getting dinner on the table, but the care for fresh ingredients, the proper cooking method, and the combinations of flavors. My two sons share in my love of cooking and when we’re together, we have frequent conversations about the wonder of how a few simple ingredients and a few seasonings can be combined to make flavors and textures that  are simply marvelous. For instance, they were here this past week, and here’s what Tim made:  sauté some onion and garlic; when they get soft throw in a whole bunch of fresh cherry tomatoes. The tomatoes carmelize and the skins pop, so you have this fresh sweet juice. Put your pasta in the pot and a few cups of water and simmer until the pasta is al dente. Voila!  The pasta absorbs not only the water, but the heavenly juice of the tomatoes. Man, my mouth is watering.

Food matters. Three years ago, I visited Greenfield Village In Detroit. It’s a reproduction of an historic 19th century small town. I was once again reminded how much taller we are than our ancestors. Over and over, I walked through reconstructed historical homes where I had to duck my head. Historians estimate that our great-grandparents were, on average, four inches shorter than we are — primarily due to nutritional differences.

Food matters. Thirty years ago when I was a youth pastor, I never asked about food allergies. Now, we always ask about that, knowing that missing something could have catastrophic consequences.  Many of you have discovered that you are gluten intolerant or lactose intolerant or acid intolerant or peanut protein intolerant. So we plan our diets to avoid those kinds of things.

Food matters.

Jesus does not beat around the bush in saying that he is our most important food — he is the bread of life itself. Lest we misunderstand what this bread is, he continues, “The bread that I give for the world is my flesh.” In fact, the text startles us in its candid emphasis on eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking Jesus’ blood, referring to such eating eleven different times in eight short verses. The text is perhaps more graphic than we would prefer. A little too much information.

A long time ago, Martin Luther got into a debate with another scholar named Ulrich Zwingli about holy communion. Luther was defending the real presence of Christ in the sacrament and he wrote these words, “This is my body; this is my blood.” And he underlined the word “is.”  “This is my body; this is my blood.” Luther didn’t claim to know how Jesus was present in the bread and wine, but he would not budge in the belief that Jesus is really and truly present in the meal.

See, Luther gets at the heart of what’s at stake in this discussion. If we see the meal as a gift because it calls us to remember that Jesus gave up his body and blood for us on the cross, then it can also follow that our experience of grace in the meal is dependent on the vividness of our memories and the power of our emotions. Luther’s underlining of the word “is” takes the burden off our feeble memories and emotions and recognizes the bread as pure gift, whether we recognize it or not, whether we feel it or not. In my own times of doubt or questions on my own journey of faith, it’s vital for me to trust that the gift of the meal is not dependent on my thoughts or feelings. Jesus is present. Jesus does visit me with grace and forgiveness, strengthening my faith and nourishing me for life. It’s pure, objective gift that comes from outside of me and does not depend on me to be effective. Food matters.

In the reading from Proverbs, Wisdom invites us to “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. . .and walk in the way of insight.”  Here food matters because of its power to shape the way we walk — the way we live. If Jesus is our true bread, then his real presence in our lives courses through our veins, our muscles, our minds and our wills. It affects how we live. Jesus affirms again and again that his flesh gives life. In John’s gospel, eternal life begins now, in a living relationship with Jesus. In fact, I think this is a good a summary of what the Christian faith is — it’s a living relationship with Jesus that joins us to his body and changes the way we live in the world.

The people that were addressed in the letter to the Ephesians encountered temptations that could entice them from walking in God’s ways. “Be careful how you live. . .because the days are evil.” Temptations are real and strong and plentiful. We can get drunk on wine, or high on opiods. We can get drunk on our own exalted self-importance or the accumulation of things. Technology provides entertainment forms that can keep us occupied 24/7, blurring our vision and our ability to see the neighbors God calls us to love and serve. Food matters. As an antidote to that way of living, we take in Jesus whose body and blood in the eucharist lead us to eucharistic living. Eucharist is the Greek word for giving thanks. Paul urges a life that is bathed in a spirit of deep gratitude for God’s constant and rich goodness. Eucharistic people begin their prayers not with please, but thank you.

Food matters. We are called to be filled with the Spirit — to satisfy our hungers with the bread of life. As we are hosted by Wisdom with a capital W, the Lord Jesus himself, we may need to give up something of our previous knowledge or understanding in order to be shaped by God’s wisdom. At the table of God where Jesus himself is the meal, we eat in a way that changes us. The bread, while a free gift, is also costly. Jesus promises to abide in us as we eat, and that abiding presence will not leave us the same. The loving will of God is to be in relationship with us, ever forming and reforming us. In those changes, like the rising of bread, the reign of God is tasted.

As we become God’s people around the holy table, we are drawn into the holy mystery and we become food for others. Here in this congregation, this ministry, we are called to be a banquet hall where week in and week out we welcome all to God’s lavish feast, where we offer the gifts of food and drink that bring us to Jesus. Eating our fill in this banquet hall, we leave strengthened to walk in God’s ways, resisting the temptation of worldly food and finding strength and vision to share God’s love and justice for the neighbor.

Hymnwriter Susan Briehl expresses the paradox beautifully: In our living and our dying, we become what we receive: Christ’s own body, blessed and broken, cup o’er flowing, life outpoured, given as a living token of your world, redeemed, restored. The poet W. H. Auden puts it this way:  The slogan of hell: eat, or be eaten. The slogan of heaven: eat, and be eaten.


This sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on August 12, the 12th Sunday after Pentecost and is based on the lessons for the day, 1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34:1-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51.

I remember a conversation several years ago with a pastoral colleague. She and her husband deeply longed for children and yet remained childless. With each step along the road, with each new doctor visit and each new referral to an increasingly narrowly focused specialist, they became more and more discouraged; yet the longing was still there. Longing. I used to be pastor to the retired managing editor of Ebony magazine, one of the foremost magazines for the African American community. He was raised by sharecropper grandparents south of Memphis. We got together occasionally for conversation. He spoke with deep passion and grace about the longing of his community to break free from the systemic racism that has for too long bound our African American brothers and sisters. Longing.  One of the realities of living in Door County is that for many of us, family lives elsewhere. I long for face to face contact with my sons, their wives, and our new granddaughter. Longing.

To be human is to experience longing, yearning. Our lives are not perfect and our world is not perfect. We long for the perfecting of what remains imperfect. If I were to ask you to take a moment and write down three things that you yearn for, I doubt it would take you very long. What would you write down? Maybe more time with your children or grandchildren. Maybe a little less frenzy to your schedule. That trip to Australia that you’ve always wanted to take. To be released from the crush of household debt. To be free of the tensions in your marriage or with a parent or child or sibling. To be human is to experience longing.

In the first lesson, Elijah longs for deliverance. He has just won a contest with a group of false prophets over who could call down fire from heaven on their respective altars. Not only did Elijah win the contest hands down, but in the aftermath of his victory, all the prophets of Baal were slain. Now Queen Jezebel has been disgraced and she’s not taking it well. She places a bounty on Elijah’s life, intent on his assassination. In fear, Elijah heads off into the wilderness, seeking deliverance and safety. I imagine him exhausted, anxious, discouraged. At the end of his ability to cope, he sits down under the shade of a juniper tree. So much does he long for deliverance and safety that he asks God to take his life.

God does not answer that prayer. Yet God provides. Miraculously, a loaf of stone baked bread and a jug of water appear, not once, but twice. Elijah is told  to get up from his sleep — sleep that he is using to escape his predicament — and he is told eat. God was not promising to deliver him from his predicament, but he was promising strength for the journey. So, Elijah ate and drank, and was nourished and strengthened for the journey to meet God on Mount Horeb.

We hear that story in the context of yet another reading from the bread chapter of John 6. All through this chapter, hunger and thirst have become a metaphor for the existential human condition of longing. In the early part of the story, Jesus provided literal bread for a crowd of physically hungry people. Now as his sermon goes on, he offers himself as the living bread and living water that come in order to satisfy our deepest longings.

If it sounds a little too good to be true, then join the club. In today’s episode, Jesus gets a little pushback. “How can this be?” the religious leaders ask. “Isn’t this the son of the carpenter from Nazareth? He cannot be serious when he says that he is the one that comes down from heaven.”

So Jesus tries to clarify just what he’s getting at. What he’s getting at is that we often seek to satisfy our longings with things that will never ultimately satisfy. “Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died.” Those Israelites received momentary satisfaction that did nothing for the deepest longings. Before long, they were complaining again, forgetting the gracious presence and deliverance of God, and that God was actually in the process of leading them on a journey to the land of promise.

That’s the same game we play over and over. We long for relationship and we turn to social media or the vicarious relationships of television or cinema. We long for affirmation so we seek success. We long for security, so we put our faith in the stock market and economic growth. We long for novelty so we never stop shopping. We long to have our lives mean something so we fill them with never-ending activity.

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. “I am that which will give life.”

Here we are. Here, with our longings. Here, perhaps without even knowing fully why we’re here or what we need. At God’s gracious invitation, we have gathered here again from the places of our deep longing. We come because we know God is here and God has what we need, even if we don’t fully know what that is.

Once again, in this place, that old person that seeks to satisfy longings in all the wrong places is drowned in the waters of baptismal remembrance, in the act of confession and the words of forgiveness. A new person rises from that saving fountain of grace to new life and to living bread and living water, to what will sustain us for the journey. We come again to Jesus. Coming to Jesus is the simplest description of the way humans come to life.

And the way Jesus describes it, it’s maybe not even that we come to Jesus but that God in Jesus comes to us. “No one can come to me,” Jesus says, “unless the Father draws him.” That’s precisely what is happening here this morning. In the declaration of grace your sins were forgiven. In the proclamation of the Word, God draws you into God’s love. In the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine, Jesus comes to you to strengthen you for whatever lies ahead of you in the coming week, strengthening you that you might live in faith and trust in God’s goodness and answer your calling to love God and love your neighbor.

In the second lesson you heard a long list of New Testament proverbs about what it means to live as a Christian. Sometimes that seems exhausting.To live in the way of God is not a particularly easy or comfortable life. Yet we don’t go out there to live for God on our own strength. We go out, having eaten the living bread and drunk the wine of salvation. Our hunger and thirst are satisfied here and then we go out with God’s promise always to go with us. We come to realize that even the calling to live in love as Christ loved us is a gift of grace animated in us by the gift of the Spirit. I think that’s at the heart of our longing — to live life as God intends, and to do that is actually possible; that’s the gift of Jesus.

Several years ago when I was traveling in Europe with my son Chris, we were traveling light and cheap. Every morning we looked for a bakery so that we could have a bit of bread to keep with us so that even if we couldn’t find a restaurant later in the day that matched our budget, we’d always have something to eat. Those impromptu meals of bread and a bit of cheese, maybe a shared bottle of wine, often eaten outdoors in a park — those meals sustained us and those times are vivid reminders of all the good things about that trip.

Here we have come to rest under our own juniper trees and we receive bread from heaven. For whatever lies ahead of us, today, tomorrow, this week, this month, Jesus sustains us for the journey. Jesus is the living bread.

Taste and see, the goodness of the Lord,

Taste and see, taste and see.

Getting It

This sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on Sunday, August 5. It was based on the gospel lesson for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost,  John 6:24-35

The great Methodist preacher and pastoral theologian, Will Willimon wrote, “The gospel of John is a veritable symphony of incomprehensibility.” Perhaps a shocking statement for someone — never mind a bishop of the church — to say about a part of Holy Scriptures.  What Willimon was getting at however, is not that it’s impossible to understand the gospel of John — though I think there are parts that continue to be difficult — but that everywhere we turn, we find people who just don’t get it.

Take this morning’s story, for instance. We’re coming right on the heels of the miracle that we reflected on last week, when Jesus turned a poor boy’s traveling lunch into a meal for thousands. The crowds were so impressed that they wanted to make Jesus king. At which time, Jesus, having a different idea about his ministry, escapes the crowds and heads to the other side of the lake. The crowds get up the next morning and see that Jesus isn’t there anymore so they go across the lake looking for him. Finding him where they did not expect to find him, they ask right off, “When did you come over here?” It becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that they are seeking Jesus, not for that thing that is at the heart of his work, but because they got a free lunch yesterday and hope for the same thing today. They didn’t get it.

Jesus immediately challenges them. “What are you seeking?” That’s quite a question, isn’t it? What are you seeking? The same question he asks Andrew and Peter in the opening chapter of the Gospel. What are you seeking?  Then follows a sometimes confusing and puzzling back and forth that will last virtually this whole chapter, a conversation that sometimes almost seems like Jesus is speaking in riddles. Bottom line, the people didn’t get it. The crowds are after Jesus to fill their stomachs, not to find that which would fulfill their lives. The great 4th century Greek preacher, John Chrysostom wrote, “it is not the miracle of the loaves that has struck you with wonder, but the being filled.”

Jesus challenges them again. “You aren’t following me because of the signs, but because you ate your fill.” In response to his challenges, they fire off a rapid succession pushback. “What works must we perform?” falling back on their religion. “What sign will you do for us?” asking for verification despite the miracle they witnessed the day before. “Our fathers ate manna in the wilderness,” they say, standing on their own tradition, suggesting not so subtly that Jesus ought to do an update of the wilderness provision.

They just didn’t get it. Which I think is what Bishop Willimon was getting at in his comment about John’s symphony of incomprehensibility. Throughout the gospel — and certainly throughout this long discourse on bread — Jesus is revealing something about himself and about God. He is trying to show people what God is like and that he is here as God among them to bring a word of grace and truth. And they didn’t get it. Remember the first chapter of John. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend it.” Or “he came to his own and his own did not receive him.” And it’s not just the crowds; even those closest to him — his own disciples — did not get it. This is John’s persistent theme, that the truth of Jesus’ person and his work goes right past people as they pursue their own vision of what God is like and their own ideas about how to satisfy their deepest longings.

And I’m guessing that the words apply to us as well.

We have longings about important things that are at the heart of human existence. We long to matter, to be loved, to know we are worthwhile, to know that our brief time on this planet matters. The problem is that we, too, seek to satisfy those yearnings with pretty, shiny things that we ultimately discover are empty. We know that life doesn’t consist of things, yet its hard to resist the cultural norm of success, that the accumulation of material things and economic abundance is the sign of a successful life. Or that a life full of volunteering is the measure of being a good person. Or that children and grandchildren and a loving meaningful family means that our life has been worthwhile. It’s not that those things don’t bring satisfaction. They do. But they don’t satisfy the yearning that is at the heart of our lives. For centuries theologians have been following the sentiments of Blaise Pascal, suggesting that there is in each of us a God-shaped hole, and only God can fill that longing. 

In the church, too, we often miss what’s at the heart of our life together. We invite people into the church so that we can get new members, more money in the offering plate, and more people to help out with fellowship hour on Sunday morning. We want youth and families in the pews on Sunday morning so that the future of the church is assured. We are often more interested in clever marketing than the simple gift of what we have to offer.

What we have to offer is Jesus. What we have to offer is faith in the Son of God who gave his life so that we might have life with God. He is the One lifted up so that all who believe in him might have eternal life. The crowds wanted a sign. We already have a sign. The sign is in the shape of a cross, the sign of a divine life given so that we might have divine life. The sign is the sign of the cross on our foreheads and on our hearts, the sign that we have named and claimed by God himself. The sign is the Word of life proclaimed yet again in this Sunday assembly, the bread and wine, the people of God here gathered around God’s gifts.

God is here doing God’s work. What is that work, you ask? It is the work of calling us to faith in the Crucified One. Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the One whom he sent.” Isn’t that odd? That while we are called to a life of service, first comes the simple gift of faith, of believing and trusting that God is who God says he is and does what God says God will do. Luther was fond of reminding his hearers that the thing which brings God the most delight is our simple trust in God, our faith. Faith is more than clarity about facts and belief in a set of propositions. Faith is an encounter with a person, with the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He invites us not only to think about him, but to feed on him, ingest him. Without him, we starve to death. You see, the truth here is not something we “get.” It’s something we are given. We get this life in the Son of God not as an achievement, but as a gift.

So, we come to the eucharistic table bringing nothing but our open hands. For millenia, this has been posture of receiving the bread; not to grab, but to receive. The emptiness of our open hands is a sign that we have nothing to offer that would be in any way a transaction; and sometimes our empty hands are even a sign of our empty hearts. There in our empty hands is placed a piece of bread. And there in our hands is the One who said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger.” There in our open hands, we receive just what we need, even if we don’t know exactly what that is.

So, let’s eat.


There Is Enough

This sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on Sunday, July 29. It was based on the lessons for the day, 2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145:10-18; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21.

How much is enough?  I heard someone say once that enough is just a little more than what I have. Which is apparently why people who have a perfectly comfortable lifestyle continue to buy lottery tickets, dreaming about what they would do with a whole lot more than what they have. Ask a guitar play how many guitars are enough. Usually it’s one more than they have. How big a boat is enough — just a little bigger than the one you have.

Enough is a tricky thing to think about in a culture that is more about scarcity than enough. Conversations in Washington always give us the impression that we have to cut something in because there isn’t enough money for some this or that. Over the years I’ve talked to many people who have comfortable retirement savings who live their lives in fear that their money will run out before the end of their lives. And of course, I have also known many people who really did not have enough to live on. We are conditioned to think of enough as a zero sum game that is more about scarcity of resources than abundance of resources. If we want to do A, then we can’t do B or C because there isn’t enough to go around. Or if we want to do B, then A will have to be cut and C can’t be done at all.

The narrative of scarcity flies in the face of what we hear in our readings this morning. In the first reading, the prophet Elisha encounters a hungry crowd in the midst of a famine. Someone has some loaves of barley bread, but clearly it’s not enough for everyone. Elisha tells him to distribute the bread anyway, and miraculously, there’s enough to go around. Elisha trusts God; God provides enough and even more to satisfy the need.

In the gospel lesson, the crowds are following Jesus. He has been healing their sick and teaching them. People have discovered that this itinerant rabbi has much to offer. So, Jesus goes up the side of a mountain and sits down with his disciples. But they aren’t alone for very long. The crowds follow him, and Jesus takes the responsibility to make sure the crowds have something to eat. Jesus asks Philip a test question. “Hey, Phil. Help me out here. The crowds are hungry. Where can we get them some lunch?” The first thing Philip does is the calculations. A lot of people. Six months paychecks would not be enough to even get everyone a sandwich and chips. Andrew also recognizes the magnitude of the situation; he doesn’t so much do the calculations as look around to see what’s available. A poor boy has his traveling lunch: a few small loaves of bread and some dried fish. The equivalent of a granola bar and a piece of beef jerky. What’s available is almost a joke in the face of so much need. Andrew asks, “What good is the boy’s picnic lunch in the face of so much need?” I hardly think that Andrew’s question is a serious one. He’s not asking it in the hope that it will do any good, but rather as an indication of how little they have. Of how scarce the resources are.

You know the rest of the story. In the hands of Jesus, scarcity becomes abundance. The poor boy’s lunch becomes provision for thousands.

May I remind you that this is but one story in a large collection of biblical stories that remind us of how things work in God’s kingdom. In the very first story in the bible, creation was filled with abundant provision for people and for all the creatures. When God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, God provided  manna — bread — for their journey, and everyone had enough. When Isaiah proclaimed what the coming kingdom would be like, he wrote that the Lord would make a feast for all people, a feast of rich food and aged wines, so much wine that the wine would be dripping from the sides of the mountains.

These stories challenge us. They offer a different reality, one that is often hidden behind the narratives of scarcity and zero sum accounting.  What shall we do with this story of a miraculous feeding? What shall we do with this story in a day when church membership is declining and the cost of keeping the church doors open just keeps going up and up and up? What shall we do with this story in a congregation where our offerings are not keeping up with our expenses and we are looking at roof and siding repairs that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars? What shall we do with this story, dear church, in a community where we know that children go to bed hungry, where families don’t have adequate housing, where too many are living on the edge?

One temptation would be just to shrug our shoulders and say, “Well that’s just the way it is.” And then go merrily on our way, certain that there is never enough to go around.

But this story addresses precisely that temptation. When we say the need is overwhelming and our resources are too meager, Jesus says, “Tell the people to sit down.” Because he’s about to act.

Jesus acts. Jesus acts, not just in the miracle, but in his entire ministry, life, death, and resurrection. Jesus acts and address the hunger that is at the very heart of human life. The gospel writer John here wants to tell us something more important than the miraculous provision for a crowd. His purpose is not to suggest that we believers will be provided for miraculously by a wondrous king. Rather, the point is that Jesus himself is all we need for life.

Did you notice the little chronological clue that John gives us? There’s this little throwaway sentence that almost seems not to have anything to do with anything else in the story. Verse 4:  “Now, the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.” The Passover is the feast which celebrates the great deliverance. It was the yearly commemoration of the exodus from Egypt, the beginning of the journey from slavery to freedom. God made it possible to share a new life together with God in their midst. By setting the event near the Passover, when the messiah was expected to appear, John uses the story to proclaim that Jesus is the One. He is the One who has come to bring us from slavey to sin and death to freedom and life with God. He has given himself in death so that we might have life.

Because of that, there is enough. There is enough for all. Our cries of “never enough” are never the final answer. Scarcity is a mindset that refuses to acknowledge how God works. In God’s economy, we are simply called to take what we have and offer it to God, and to the world; and to offer not only what we have, but who we are, our very lives. In the hands of Jesus, what we have and who we are will be multiplied and there will be more than enough for everyone. When we feel inadequate, we recall that it is not up to us to solve the world’s problems; God has already given us what we need. Our task is to open our eyes to see what we have been given and then to open our hearts to share with those in need. The answer to the narrative of scarcity is to consider God’s abundant providence. Remember Andrew’s question? “What good is what we have for so many?” It’s the wrong question. The question is, “What have we already been given?” “What do we have?” And then offer it to God believing that God will bless it. Ministry is not just about scrambling to stretch our meager resources, but to offer what we have so that in God’s hands what we have becomes a revelation of God’s amazing grace.

In 1946, a young woman named Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu came face to face with the masses of suffering and dying people in Calcutta. Ever heard of her? You probably know her better as Mother Teresa. She experienced a call to serve those suffering the most.  Her knowledge, her wealth, her wisdom were meager in the face of such human need. Armed only with a call, she began the Missionaries of Charity, a small order of 13 members. In the decades to come, the order would grow to thousands of members giving care in scores of orphanages and charity centers in places of dire human need. Love multiplies meager resources and makes a way forward.

And now, very shortly, the One who fed thousands will feed us with his body and blood. He offers himself again for our life. And there is enough for all.

On Being a Prophetic Church

This sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on Sunday, July 22. It was based on the lessons for the day, Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Last week, I preached about two faithful prophets who spoke a word of truth to power and, as a result placed their lives in danger. I talked about how its hard to be that kind of Christian. Apparently, that sermon sparked quite a bit of conversation. So, I decided to use the theme and a few quotes from that sermon as the basis for our Theology on Tap conversation on Wednesday evening. I opened the conversation with this question, “What does it mean to be a prophetic church and what does that look like? When we had our time for questions at the end, someone asked, “Pastor, what is a prophetic church?” In that moment, I realized that I had mad an unfair assumption. I had been using insider language and needed to be very clear and simple. So, after talking about what it means to be a prophetic church, someone said, “Pastor, I think you have the topic for your next sermon. You need to tell us us what it means to be a prophetic church.”

This morning, our lessons gives us exactly the chance to consider that very question. What does it mean to be a prophetic church?

Jeremiah proclaims a word of judgment to the leaders of the ancient nation of Israel. Throughout Jeremiah’s lifetime, much of the ancient Middle East was in a constant state of warfare. The tiny nations of Israel and Judah often got caught in the machinations of the larger world superpowers. But they were not entirely victims. Jeremiah proclaimed that the nasty plight of Israel and Judah was God’s punishment for their unfaithfulness. In today’s reading, Jeremiah likens the rulers to shepherds who were supposed to care for ALL people as a good shepherd cares for ALL his sheep — to nourish them and to protect them. Here the judgment is placed on rulers who have misused their power and failed shepherd their people. Because the shepherds have failed to visit their flock with vigilance and care, thus ensuring their welfare, God will now visit these shepherds in judgment.

This is one piece of what it means to be a prophetic church. A prophetic church speaks the truth about what it sees going on in the world. A prophetic church stands up for and commits itself to the enactment of God’s vision for the world. God intends a world where all God’s creatures flourish, a world characterized by peace and justice and righteousness.

To speak the truth and stand up for what’s right is not where the prophetic church begins, however. The great Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann suggests that the first task of the prophetic church is to lament. That is, to grieve over the shattered vision of what God intends for the world. To lament the structures that were created good but have been coopted for evil. To get a stomach ache over the fact that so many people are not allowed to flourish and to live as God intends. In the gospel lesson, Mark tells us that Jesus had compassion on the crowds because they were stumbling through life as though they were sheep without a shepherd. The Greek word there, the one we translate “had compassion for,” literally means to have a stomach ache over. Jesus had a stomach ache over the plight of the people.

I spent two days this past week at a statewide conference on affordable housing. What I learned is that the challenges we face in Door County in providing decent affordable housing for our working people are not unique to our community. It’s nationwide crisis. I learned how many of the poor are spending over 50% of their income on housing that is often in horrible condition. Matthew Desmond’s powerful book, Evicted, tells the story of what it’s like to be poor and try to find a decent place to live. A prophetic church is heartbroken when it sees economic and social structures that chain the poor in cycles of need that they have little chance of escaping.

A prophetic church is realistic. Jeremiah rightly understood that the king was never going to be able to be that leader that the people so desperately needed. So, he placed his hope in a king that God would provide, a new David, one who would come without the flaws of the first David, one who would fully and perfectly care for his people and protect them from evil. Jeremiah’s hope is a reminder that our salvation and the salvation the world needs will never be realized by any earthly ruler. A prophetic church is starkly realistic about what we can expect from any ruler or any government or institution. We don’t look for more than is possible; we are realists; we understand that salvation is from God. The prophetic church looks to God and to the leader whom God would raise up. That leader is Christ, the One who came as the Good Shepherd. He’s the One Jeremiah was pointing to. He is the One who knows his sheep, the one who looked at the people who were like sheep without a shepherd, and in order to care for them and protect them, gave his life for them. See, if Jesus is Messiah — and we believe that he is — then God’s care, God’s shepherding does not come as we might expect.  It does not come through pursuing war and violence and force — even if the war and violence and force are waged by the good guys. God’s provision and God’s purposes will not be realized as armies and powerful nations defeat their worldly enemies in battle. It comes through God’s offering God’s self in vulnerability and weakness. The great 20th century rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “To the prophet. . .God does not reveal himself in abstract absoluteness, but in a personal, intimate relation to the world. He does not simply command and expect obedience; he is also moved and affected by what happens in the world. God is concerned about the world and shares its fate. Indeed, this is the essence of God’s moral nature: his willingness to be involved in the history of humanity.” We have seen this very miracle of divine love, that God is so wiling to be involved in the history of humanity that God has sent God’s son, “born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” The miracle of divine love comes to us and to the world through the Messiah’s crucifixion and resurrection. As the followers of the crucified one die to themselves and rise to new life, they in turn share that self-giving love with the world.

Here’s where we come to the final piece of what it means to be a prophetic church. A prophetic church is involved in the world, becomes the agents of God’s intentions and purposes for the world. The church, individual children of God who have died to themselves in their baptism, and have risen to new life in Christ, collectively become the agents for what God intends in the world. Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians that in Christ Jesus, we who were once far off from God have been brought near by the blood of Christ. So, we become agents of reconciliation, repairers of the breach, bringing all things into their fullness in Christ Jesus. We become the ones who spread the compassion of Jesus in the dark corners of the world. Compassion is different than pity. When we pity people, we can keep them at arm’s length, never getting our hands dirty and our hearts broken. That’s not what Jesus did. They laid their sick at his feet and his touch healed them. Jesus’ compassion is not distant and it is not condescending; Jesus compassion identifies with the hurting, the burdened, the broken and gets down in the midst of them.  Now he calls us to come out of our places of comfort and distance and identify with, and show solidarity with, the hurting, the burdened, and the broken.

Mark offers two descriptions of those who gathered around Jesus, each as true today as it was  then. In all the comings and goings of our lives, our community and our nation, we are like sheep without a shepherd. Yet in all of it, our Shepherd is present and the crowds around us recognize God in Christ in us, with us, and among us. So, don’t be surprised, dear church, when they rush about and start to bring the sick and the needy to touch Jesus. And we, dear prophetic church, will be there as Christ touches them and heals them through us.

For That Time When the World’s a Hot Mess

I usually don’t post my sermons on this blog, but we had this thing happen in northern Door County on Saturday. Snow. Quite a bit of it. And by Sunday morning, not too many people had dug themselves out, so we had a pretty small attendance in church on Sunday. So, this is mostly for the benefit of Shepherd of the Bay folks who may have missed the Sunday service. Here it is: a sermon based on the first lesson for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Isaiah 40:21-3. And remember, this approximates, but does not duplicate what was preached. Sermons are for hearing, not so much for reading. 

It’s a hot mess out there. Every week we’re subjected to more drama in Washington, and it’s having consequences. I don’t that to be a partisan statement or a criticism of any one person or a particular party’s politics. It seems to me, there’s enough dysfunction to go around. Some days its exhausting, and some days its simply overwhelming. It’s a hot mess out there.

In the middle of a hot mess, it’s good for us to hear these words from Isaiah. We listen in on words from the prophet Isaiah who is speaking to the Israelites who are in exile. When we listen in, it has been a generation already since they were conquered by the Babylonians and had been forcibly moved from Jerusalem to Babylon. In this section of the book of Isiaiah, the prophet proclaims over and over again that the Judeans who have been living so far from home for so long are about to be released and allowed to return home. But this isn’t just the prophet whistling his pipe dreams. There is strong theological foundation for his proclamation. The prophet’s confidence is in the power and the gracious will of God.

First, a little set-up. I want to take you back to the first part of the chapter, the part we didn’t read this morning.  You would find the words that we read back in December as we were awaiting the birth of Jesus, “Comfort, comfort, my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her exile is over.” That’s a pretty good clue that the prophet intends these words we hear this morning as words of comfort and strength.

The part we did read this morning is a section dominated by rhetorical questions. You know rhetorical questions, right? The kind my mother used to ask when she was irritated with me.. “Jimmy, do you think that trash is to take itself out?” “Jimmy, do you think that bed is going to make itself?” “Jimmy, do you think someone else is going to do your homework for you?” Rhetorical questions make assertions by assuming answers and they lay foundations for the responses that follow. When someone asks a rhetorical question, they’re not really asking a question; they’re making a statement. You’re supposed to know the answer to the question.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” What the exiled Israelites should have known but have apparently forgotten is that the one who sits above the circle of the earth — namely, Yahweh, the God of Israel, their God, the God of the covenant — is also the one who brings down princes and rulers. In other words Yahweh, the God of Israel, their God, the God of the covenant, is ruler over history. God is the one who is in charge, even when it looks like the world is a hot mess. And believe me, when the Judeans were in Babylon under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar, they were not feeling like Yahweh was in control. Their world was a hot mess.

There’s more. “To whom will you compare me? Who is my equal?” And of course, the answer is that there is no equal. And if you want some evidence, the look around you, the prophet says. Look at the heavens, the stars, and sun and moon. Look at the extraordinary moonrise last Wednesday evening, the convergence of the blue moon and the supermoon. Look at the extraordinary diversity and beauty of the flora and fauna of Door County. Look at the intersection of land and water where we live. And know that the one who has created it all knows the name of each star, of each plant, of each animal. Don’t you think the one who knows each star cares more deeply and lovingly for each of you? (That’s a rhetorical question and you’re supposed to know the answer!)

The third section of today’s reading begins with an actual question — not a rhetorical question, but an actual question that communicates Israel’s sense that they have been abandoned by God. The have believed that God is absent from their lives and from the hot mess in the world. Again, it seems to me that the notion that God was absent from their lives was a perfectly logical for the exiled people of God. So, the people ask, is God unaware of what’s going on? Why is God ignoring the cause of the righteous? Why does it seem like evil is winning and there are so few voices for justice and righteousness anymore? 

Here’s where the voice of God sounds most powerful and most gracious as the prophet repeats the rhetorical questions from the very beginning of our reading. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” And in what follows, the assertions move from the cosmic to the personal. Listen, dear people of God. The assertions move from the cosmic to the personal. God, our God, is the everlasting God, the creator of the whole earth who never tires and whose understanding is beyond human comprehension. That same one gives power to the faint, to those who are weary and fearful. God gives strength to the powerless, to the ones who look at the hot mess and think there’s nothing that can be done and that there’s no hope. Listen:  “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” 

What images of comfort and strength and hope! Think of the image of an eagle soaring, gliding effortlessly on the breezes. The promise of walking back home from Babylon to Jerusalem and never growing tired. Of moving on and on and on through whatever the journey brings, full of confidence and strength and hope. That’s the image of the journey of faith for those who wait for the Lord. To wait for the Lord is to have confidence, faith, trust. To wait for the Lord is to commit yourself to God in hopeful expectation. To wait for the Lord is to know that despite what you see going on around you, the God who has redeemed you, the God who went to the cross to give you life, the God who has called you his own in the waters of baptism, the God who every week calls you to this table to receive strength and nourishment for the journey, that God, our God is in charge. To wait for the Lord is to acknowledge that we don’t see what’s going on in the mind of God, nor are we fully aware of God’s plan for the princes and rulers and nations of this world. To wait for the Lord is to confess again that we walk by faith and not by sight. The one who calls you to freedom is the God who created all things, who calls out the stars, whose strength knows no limits, and who gives that strength to the faint and the powerless, to us. God gives those who wait for God the power to fly. 

I guess that’s why this weekly gathering is so important to me. It’s easy to get bogged down in whatever is going on around us. Over the past few weeks, I’ve learned about the burdens that many of you are facing, that go beyond the hot mess of our national life. So, we come. We hear the Word and we sing; we pray. We remind each other that God is faithful and that God is in charge. We remember our baptism, our new life that springs from Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we come to the table for this taste of manna, bread for the journey, nourishment for whatever we face. Have you not known? the prophet asks. Have you not heard? Of course we have.