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To whom can we go? Sermon on John 6:56-69 Pentecost 13B

August 23, 2015 
[Jesus said,] “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”  

He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”  

But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?
Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?
It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
But among you there are some who do not believe
.”
For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.
And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.  So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” – John 6:56-69

Lord, to whom can we go?

Just a few hours after our friend Brad took his last breath on Thursday, another friend’s son also breathed his last following a courageous battle with cancer. Atticus was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma when he was 13 months old. He didn’t make it to his second birthday. As I think about Brad and Atticus, the question Peter asks takes on a different meaning than it had for me a week ago.

 “Lord, to whom can we go?
You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to know and believe that you are the Holy One of God.” 

What does this mean for us? How do we come to know and believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God? What is this eternal life that Jesus has been talking about for the past five weeks, as we worked our way through the sixth chapter of John’s gospel? Where else could we find such life?

The passage we just read had to borrow a few verses from last week’s reading, or we would not even know that Jesus is still talking about bread. Specifically, he is talking about himself as the Bread of Life. His own body and blood are food for the world, just as the loaves and fishes were food for the people who are listening to him in today’s reading.

Once again, we hear the offensive language from last week about gnawing on the flesh and blood of Jesus being what gets us to abide in him, and him in us, giving us life through his life source. And this life is not like the life of those who ate manna from heaven as they wandered in the wilderness with Moses. This is life in Christ, a life that starts immediately and never ends. It is life in the eternal now.

Somehow, the scene has shifted as Jesus has been saying these offensive words. The conversation that began back in verse 25, when those who had chased him around the lake finally meet up with him on the beach, has moved into the synagogue of Capernaum. Now Jesus is in a position of authority as he speaks to his followers, and what he has to say is not something they want to hear.

The disciples grumble about the difficulty of this teaching – but it isn’t clear what they find difficult. The word for grumbling, or murmuring or complaining, happens only four times in John, and three of them have been in chapter six. Back in verse 41, the Judeans grumbled among themselves about Jesus’ claim that he came from heaven, and in verse 43 Jesus tells them to stop it. Later on, in chapter 7, the Pharisees will hear that the people are murmuring among themselves that maybe Jesus is the Christ after all, and they will send temple guards to arrest him. But here in verse 61, it’s the disciples who are doing the grumbling. These are the ones who have been following Jesus faithfully up to this point. These are the ones who claim to believe he is from God. But do they really?

Jesus asks if his followers are “scandalized” or offended by his talk about flesh and blood, and then he offers something even more scandalous: the claim that he not only comes from heaven, but that he will also return there. This gets us to the heart of the matter: Jesus offers spirit and life, life that is eternally grounded in a heavenly home. Near the end of John’s gospel, he will tell his closest friends, “In my father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I tell you that I go to prepare a place for you? .., And if I go and prepare a place for you I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (Jn 14:2-3)

Throughout this chapter, we have had little reminders of the Exodus story of Israel. Jesus feeds people in the wilderness with bread and fish, and Moses led Israel through the wilderness as they lived off the manna and quail God sent them. In both stories, the same people who get fed are the ones who complain and grumble.

The issue isn’t really the grumbling, though. It’s the lack of trust in God that the grumbling represents. Jesus says, “among you there are some who do not believe” (v.64). The Greek word pisteuo occurs more than 80 times in John. That’s more than in all of Paul’s letters together (Douglas R. A. Hare, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, 385.). Pisteuo usually gets translated as “believe,” and we might think this means intellectual belief. But its more common meaning is to trust or rely upon someone. The problem is not a cognitive one, but an issue of trust. Pisteuo never occurs in the form of a noun. It is always a verb in John. Faith is not something you have but something you do. Believing is an action, not a thing. Not believing is nothing short of betrayal.

Karoline Lewis writes that betrayal, in John’s gospel, is disbelieving. “The real betrayal is anything and everything that makes you think you aren’t someone Jesus could love.” We betray Jesus when we think that real, abundant life in the eternal now could never be ours. Maybe it’s easy to imagine that God loves the world, but when it comes down to you, personally, you think you aren’t really worthy of God’s love. You can’t imagine how God could love someone like you, and you aren’t sure you want to trust in a relationship that might just be a figment of your own imagination.

“Because at the end of the day, life, real life, life lived, abundant life, is hard to fathom, hard to accept, hard to imagine that it could be yours.” You’re unable to accept that abundant life could be true, you’re reluctant to imagine, to dream, to picture that when God says God loves the world that he actually means you. Maybe that kind of life is for someone else, but not for you. Yet, Jesus says, “That’s not the way it is.” At least, that’s not the way it has to be.

You see, there comes a moment when you must decide. You have to choose between trusting Jesus and betraying him. You have to decide to go all in, or get out. Many of the disciples who had been following Jesus up to this point in the story “turned back and no longer went about with him.” They decided they couldn’t handle being a true disciple of Jesus. They couldn’t trust him to be who he said he was, to give what he promised.

So, many of them left. When the picture of discipleship Jesus painted got too graphic for their tastes, they turned away. When his words upset the comfortable and familiar way they thought things ought to be, they gave up. It was too hard. Not too hard to understand, but too hard for them to accept. They weren’t ready to become “scandalized” by the gospel Jesus was offering them. They couldn’t commit to the cost of discipleship if it meant identifying with scandal in the eyes of the world.

So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”

This is the first time in John’s gospel that he names the closest followers of Jesus as “the Twelve.” These are the ones who have been called out, the ones he invited personally into his ministry. They are the ones who started following him before they knew what they were getting into. As the others leave, Jesus turns to his best friends and gives them an out. If they think the road is going to be too rough, now is the time to bail. Now is the moment when they must choose. Jesus looks around the group as he waits for their decision. He already knows that one of them, Judas, will eventually betray him. He makes eye contact with each of these men, but none of them speak. Except for Peter. And he speaks for all twelve.

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” 

Why do some turn away from Jesus and others trust him? Some can’t accept the scandal of the gospel, but those who accept it know there is no other way. For some, eating bread that can go stale is the only thing they’ve ever known, and they can’t imagine eating real bread, living bread. Some simply cannot trust God to love them. Some won’t commit to a life that is all consuming, even though it is continually fed by the Holy Spirit. And some just want to avoid being identified with the scandal of the gospel, a scandal that could embarrass or humiliate them in the eyes of the world.

But why settle for bread that is not bread? Bread that will grow stale, and will not satisfy? Why settle for life that is not rich and full of meaning? Why fear humiliation, when Christ himself suffered the ultimate humiliation of death on a cross for our sakes?

Peter knew that he had found the source of all meaning in life. He knew that Jesus was the Holy One of God. He knew that no where else would he ever find the words of eternal life. He had come to believe and know that there was no where else to go, no one else who could take the place of Jesus in his life. He realized that he had no hope, except in giving himself completely to Jesus.

Is this teaching too difficult for you to accept? Does it offend you to hear that Jesus demands all of your trust, all of your obedience, all of your life? Do you also wish to go away? Or will you follow, as part of the community of faithful people in this time and place who stand with Peter and say, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

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Chew on This – Sermon on John 6:51-58 for Pentecost 12B

August 16, 2015

One afternoon, more than 30 years ago, I picked up my son from his day care center. It was a good preschool, and we all really liked my son’s teacher, Miss R. As I pulled up to the entrance, I saw my son visiting with his teacher, and it was obvious they were both enjoying the conversation. I signed him out, thanked Miss R., and we headed to the car.

As I buckled him into his seat, I asked, “What were you talking about?”
“Oh, I was just chewing the fat on Miss R.,” he said.

Apparently, he had just learned a new idiom. Almost. It would take a few more repetitions before he could use “chewing the fat” appropriately, and apply it to his everyday life with confidence. In today’s reading, John gives us the chance to learn a gospel truth by repeating something we’ve already heard, so we can apply it to our everyday lives with confidence.

51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:51-58)

Here we are in week four of this sixth chapter of John’s gospel, and it’s a hard slog, isn’t it? Wading through John’s repetitions, I see my 10th grade English teacher, Miss Kidd, waving her red pencil and shaking her head, saying, “Redundant, redundant, redundant!”

Just how much more do we really need to hear this? How many more times must Jesus say, “I am the true bread from heaven” and “feed on me”? Apparently, John thinks we need to hear it again, and again. Only this time, the message is getting more intense, more graphic, and more alarming. In fact, Jesus is getting downright disgusting.

Our reaction might be very much like that of the little girl who suddenly found herself paying close attention to the Communion liturgy one Sunday. As the pastor recited the words of institution, “Take, eat, this is my body broken for you; take and drink, this is my blood, poured out for your sins,” the little girl interrupted the somber moment with a very loud, “Ew, yuck!”

And then there’s the more personal question about this reading: “So what? What does all this repetition about bread and flesh and blood have to do with my life in the here and now? How do these words, full of symbolic meaning 2000 years ago, matter in my present situation?

The Judeans who are listening to Jesus are becoming more agitated, too. Last week, we heard them grumbling among themselves. This week, the grumbling has turned into an argument. Not only has Jesus claimed to be sent from God, now he insists that anyone who believes he is God’s Son must eat his flesh and drink his blood. The Judeans are repulsed by this idea. Beyond the images of cannibalism, consuming blood of any animal violates Jewish dietary laws. What Jesus is telling his listeners to do is not only disgusting, it’s illegal, immoral, and unethical. It’s just plain wrong.

And it gets worse.

English translations don’t always make it clear, but Jesus starts using more grotesque language partway through his answer to the arguing Judeans. “In verses 49-51, Jesus had spoken about “eating” the bread from heaven, using a very common word (esthio). In verse 53, however, Jesus switches to a less common word, trogo, a … word that has a connotation closer to “munch” or “gnaw.” It is a graphic word of noisy eating, the sort of eating an animal does. The [noisiness] of the eating, however, is not the important point; this is eating that is urgent, even desperate. It is eating as though life depends on it, because it does.” (Brian Peterson)

This is where Jesus gets to the heart of his message. Unless we take him into ourselves urgently, desperately, gobbling him up and gulping his life blood, we are dead. “Unless you do this,” he says, “you have no life in you.” It really is a life or death matter to claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ. In Hebrew tradition, it is the blood that carries the life force of any living being. Unless we take Christ’s life force into ourselves, we die.

John’s gospel doesn’t give us The Lord’s Supper. There is a final meal with his disciples, but it isn’t a Passover meal, and Jesus does not speak the words in John’s gospel that we hear in the other gospel stories. He does not say, “Take, eat, this is my body broken for you. Take this cup and drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood poured out for the remission of sins. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you remember my death until I come again.”

Instead, John gives us these words about Christ’s flesh and blood in the context of chapter six, long before the Passion story. This is a passage that begins and ends with life-giving bread. In John’s gospel, the words we say at Communion are less about remembering Christ’s death, and more about taking his life into ourselves.

Jesus says he is the living bread — catch that? The key word here is living, not dying. … this same [word] will be used to describe the Father later in this passage, “just as the living Father sent me” (6:57). What difference does this make? Jesus as the bread of life is connected to the living Jesus, not the dying Jesus. Rather than offering himself on the night he was betrayed, he offers his flesh to eat in the middle of his ministry.” (Karoline Lewis)

It’s all about life, and according to John, eternal life means abundant life (10:10). Throughout this passage, Jesus’ concern is less about getting us to understand and more about getting us to eat. Jesus isn’t making explanation so much as he is making a promise. (Craig Satterlee)

This life isn’t something you can postpone until the future. It’s your promise in the present. This life is the promise of unity with God, abiding in God as God abides in you. This isn’t a memory of what Jesus did in the past, or a dream of what he will do at the end of time, but life lived fully in this moment, receiving “grace upon grace” (1:16).

This is what it means to eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood in the here and now. As we consume him, taking his life force into ourselves, this is what Christ promises us: full life in the present, and to be raised on the last day (v 54), to abide in Jesus and have Jesus abide in us (v 56), to live because of Jesus (v 57) and to live forever (v 58).

Next week, we will conclude this march through John 6 with Peter’s recognition of who Jesus really is. All the conversation since Jesus fed the 5000 four weeks ago has been about bread – explaining, defining, and naming it. But Jesus hasn’t really been talking about bread at all. He’s been talking about his own identity.

Ginger Barfield writes: The point missed in the feeding sign was who Jesus was. The sign was to point to Jesus. Instead they got full of food and went back to how things were before. They went back to the literal level and missed the depth and riches that were right in front of them. …
But another miracle was in that first text. Embedded there was the short story of the disciples’ simple recognition of Jesus in the dark once they heard his voice. That voice was enough to take away their fears. No grand miracle. Just a simple recognition of who Jesus was. …
Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Son of God, sent from above, to feed the world for all time. Jesus is he who sustains the world in a way that makes living possible. Jesus is the one who speaks and we know he is here.”

As we chew on this awareness of who Jesus really is, we must also hear the demand he makes on all who believe. There can be no half measures, no lip service. It’s all or nothing. Life, or death. We must gulp him down and become part of him as he is part of us, or we die. Theologian Walter Brueggemann calls this the “hard, deep call to obedience.” Jesus wants all of us, just as he wants to give us all of himself. It’s a full commitment to life in Christ, and Christ in every aspect of our lives. Nothing less will do. Let us pray.

(Prayer: Brueggemann’s “A Hard, Deep Call to Obedience”)

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Real Bread – Sermon on John 6:35, 41-51 Pentecost 11B

August 9, 2015 
“You are what you eat.” Where did this saying come from? As near as we can tell, the idea probably started in the nineteenth century in France or Germany. The actual phrase didn’t emerge in English until some time later. An ad for a meat market in 1923 stated: “Ninety per cent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat.” 

I’m not sure where the meat market got its statistics, but this does seem to be the first time the phrase “you are what you eat” made it into print. The simple idea that we need to eat wholesome food in order to stay healthy suddenly had its own catch phrase. 

In the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus has been teaching the crowds and his disciples about bread. A few weeks ago, we heard how he fed 5000 people with a few small loaves of barley bread. Last week, he described himself as “the Bread of Life.” Today’s reading repeats the last verse we heard a week ago, and then takes us further into the story, as we hear Jesus explain what he means by this radical claim. 

Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ – John 6:35, 41-51 

This passage might raise more questions than it answers:

How is Jesus the bread from heaven? What does that mean, exactly?

What does it mean to ingest the bread of heaven into ourselves?

Why would we want to?

How does eating this bread give us eternal life?

How do we live into eternity in the here and now?

If “you are what you eat,” does feeding on Christ turn us into what C. S. Lewis called “little Christs?”

And maybe the biggest question of all for us: If I claim to be a follower of Jesus, and I’m doing everything I think a follower of Jesus is supposed to do, why do I still have this gnawing hunger inside me? Why am I not satisfied with the Bread of Life in my life?

Let’s take a closer look at what Jesus says.

First, Jesus makes one of his great “I am” statements. “I am the Bread of Life,” Jesus says, and the Judeans take exception to his claim to be “from heaven.” It might seem at first that they are misinterpreting the claim Jesus makes, until we realize they are responding to a verse we skipped over in today’s reading. In verse 38 Jesus says, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”

The Judeans aren’t complaining so much about the Bread of Life identity; they are more upset that Jesus clearly says he comes from heaven, when they all know he comes from Nazareth. They know his parents and his grandparents. They have his family relationships all figured out. So they grumble, exactly the way the Israelites grumbled when Moses led them through the wilderness and they craved the food they’d left behind in Egypt.

Jesus argues with their grumbling by explaining that it isn’t his earthly family connections that matter. It’s his relationship to the Father, who draws believers to himself through the Son. Only the Son knows the Father, but he will invite anyone who believes into that Father-Son relationship for eternity.

Jesus repeats that he is the Bread of Life, and compares that to manna, which the Judeans’ ancestors ate in the wilderness and died. The true bread from heaven, providing eternal life to those who eat it, is Christ’s own flesh. John Wesley points out that, while the language reminds us of what happens in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is really referring to the cross on which he will die for the sins of the world.

So maybe all those questions we thought were important a minute ago can be boiled down into this:

1. Is Jesus who he says he is?

2. If I’m still hungry, could it be that I haven’t been eating real bread?

Methodist Bishop Will Willimon, who currently teaches at Duke Divinity School writes, “Our hungers are so deep. We are dying of thirst. We are bundles of seemingly insatiable need, rushing here and there in a vain attempt to assuage our emptiness. Our culture is a vast supermarket of desire. … Can it be that many of our desires are, in the eternal scheme of things, pointless? Might it be true that [Christ] is the bread we need, even though he is rarely the bread we seek?” (William H. Willimon, Feasting on the Word: Year B, volume 3, 337.)

Why do we still hunger? How are we not satisfied? Could it be that we have not really ingested this living bread, but only tasted it? Could it be that we have not completely internalized Christ’s sacrifice for us, and made it the very center of our selves? Have we held back from committing ourselves completely to Jesus? Has our love for him been superficial, limited to showing up on Sundays, or helping with a project, but not really devoting ourselves to a life of following Jesus?

A superficial faith is not enough to experience the abundant life that Jesus promises to us. Going through the motions of eating won’t fill you up. Jesus tells us that if we want the hunger in us to be satisfied, we have to believe he is who he says he is, God with us. We have to start living like we believe it. Our lives must have Jesus at the core.

How do we get Jesus into our core? John’s gospel opens with the familiar lines, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Spending significant time in the Word is one way we begin to become what we eat. Devouring the Bible, ingesting the Word, makes us into different people.

Over the past couple of weeks, the Friday Five has made available a link to a Bible reading survey. This short questionnaire asks a few simple questions about your own personal Bible reading habits. The goal is to get an honest picture of our whole congregation’s current status. Some of you don’t have access to the Friday Five, or maybe you don’t spend much time on the internet, so there’s a Bible reading survey in your bulletin today, and I’d like you to take it out right now and take a moment to answer those questions as honestly as you can. No sugar coating or giving yourself the benefit of the doubt. The ushers will collect them in a few minutes. If you need a pencil or pen, raise your hand and the ushers will bring one to you. (Pause for survey completion) When you’ve answered the questions, hold up your paper so the ushers can collect them. Thank you.

In a few weeks, we will begin to follow The Story as a way to engage our whole congregation in reading God’s Word the way you would read a best-seller. As we look at the over-arching story of God’s action in and among his creation, we will also see the under-story, the way in which humans have responded to God’s story throughout history. And we will examine how our individual stories fit into God’s great story.

We’ve ordered books for every age group, so that whole families can read The Story together, so we can all partake of the same feast. We think it’s important that children, youth, and adults each have a version of The Story appropriate to them, to encourage regular Bible reading. Over the next few months, I hope that your own Bible reading habits might develop into something that, like any really good habit, you just can’t live without.

But Jesus asks more of us than committing to a Bible-reading plan. Jesus asks us to go all in, to make him the very center of our lives. Not an aside, not someone we think about once or twice a week, and then go on about our usual business as if he didn’t exist. Jesus asks for our usual business to be rooted and grounded in him.

You are what you eat. If you get by on snacking a few worship songs on Sunday and nibbling a little Bible study on Wednesday nights, you’ll have barely consumed enough to keep your faith alive. But Jesus invites you to feast, to thrive, to grow in love of God and neighbor, to be transformed and transforming. to become a disciple who makes disciples – not by any effort of your own, but by the grace he pours out on you when you give him your all.

Over the next year and a half or so, our church will participate in the Minnesota Conference process for church growth and vitality called Healthy Church Initiative. Being good Methodists, it won’t be long before we start calling it by its initials: HCI. This is an intensive process, requiring that we take a good hard look at ourselves, and open our church up to some close scrutiny by outsiders. We will examine our strengths, our weaknesses, and how those strengths and weaknesses affect our dreams for the future.

We have been invited into Healthy Church Initiative by Bishop Ough, even though our congregation is slightly smaller than the recommended size for this process. The bishop thinks we have the capacity to benefit from the work that it will make us do. And it will be hard work. As we go through the process, we may discover that, as a congregation, we must change the way we do many things, in order to experience the kind of spiritual growth that satisfies our deepest hungers and invites others to join in the feast.

This is a chance to go deeper, to become more like Christ, to ingest him fully, to begin living abundant, eternal life right now.

You are what you eat. You become what you consume. Take, eat, this is Christ’s body given for you, that you might become Christ to someone else who hungers for God. Jesus is the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever. Christ gives his own life for the life of the world. He asks us to be like him, and do the same thing, giving all that we are to him. Amen.

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Modern Math – Sermon on John 6:1-21 Pentecost 9B

July 26, 2015

I remember when my third grade teacher, Miss Williamson, introduced us to what she called “modern math.” We spent hours counting in base two and base 12. We had no idea why. I’m not sure Miss Williamson did, either. Looking back, I can see how all that base two counting might have prepared me for the computer age and binary numbers, but at the time, it was little more than a novelty – I was always amazed at how quickly the numbers multiplied: one, ten, eleven, a hundred, a hundred and one, a hundred and ten, a hundred and eleven, a thousand…

When we were in Israel, we visited the site that is traditionally believed to be the spot where Jesus fed a crowd of at least 5000 people. It was interesting to hear this miracle called “the multiplication of loaves and fishes” instead of “the feeding of the 5000.” I had always imagined that the miracle was important because Jesus had fed a crowd of poor, hungry people. Somewhere I learned that barley loaves were the bread of the very poor, so I thought this was just one more example of Jesus reaching out to “the least of these” in a tangible way.

2015-01-10 hillside of the beatitudes copyBut visiting the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes gave me a different perspective.  Continue reading

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Sheep Without A Shepherd – Sermon on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 Pentecost 8B

July 19, 2015

We stopped outside of Caspian for gas as we headed home from a few blissful days on a lake in Michigan’s Upper Penninsula. As we pulled out of the station, the transmission slipped. And kept slipping. “Let’s get to Eagle River,” Bruce said. “Maybe we can find a mechanic to look at it.” The clerk at the auto parts store told us where to find the car dealership, and as we pulled into the service department, I Googled “transmission repair Eagle River.” Just in case. Sure enough, no one could look at the car before afternoon. So we headed out to Eagle Transmission on the edge of town, figuring we could always come back if we needed to.

The mechanic at Eagle Transmission took us for a ride, with his computer plugged into our car. “Well, it’s one of two things. It could just be the solenoid, which means 4-6 hours and about $850. Or the clutch plates are already shot, and we’re talking a total rebuild. I’m booked up into next week. You can try taking the back roads home. Stay off the interstate, because you can’t go more than 35 miles a hour, or it will try to shift into third gear and you’ll tear up those clutch plates for sure. Good luck.” Continue reading

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Vacating

Vacation” comes from the word “vacate” – to leave a place that was previously occupied. Changing location is the essence of vacating.
If we go back even further into this word’s history, we find that the old Latin root “vacare” means “to become unoccupied.” Vacation at its best includes unoccupied space and unoccupied time. Here’s to vacating a little space and time, that God might enter in.  

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Home and Away – Sermon on Mark 6:1-13 (Pentecost 6B)

July 5, 2015 
There was a lot of activity on my Facebook page Thursday night, when the second place Minnesota Twins beat the first place Kansas City Royals 2-0 in Kansas City. The Royals had home field advantage, but they couldn’t get a single run on the scoreboard. They made up for it on Friday night, scoring three runs to the Twins two. The Twins won again on Saturday, but when you look at the overall statistics, the Royals do a lot better at home than away, and the Twins are right behind them in the standings. That home field advantage should have helped the Royals on Thursday – but it didn’t.

As Jesus traveled from Capernaum up into the hill country above the Sea of Galilee, he was heading home. He had just made a significant impact down at the lakeshore, healing a woman who snuck up behind him in a crowd, and bringing a dead girl to life. On the road, he was batting a thousand. Now it was time to head back home, time to taste some of mom’s home cooking. It was time to see how the Kingdom of God might be received in more familiar territory.

1 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.

2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!

3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.

6 And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching.

7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.

8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts;

9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.

11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”

12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.

13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
(Mark 6:1-13)

Mark gives us two stories in this reading, and it might seem at first that they are not related to each other. First we have the story of Jesus returning to Nazareth and meeting with some resistance. Jesus should have had a home field advantage, but he didn’t. Things start out well, but as soon as he starts teaching in the synagogue, people are amazed, and they seem to think this hometown boy has gotten a bit too big for his britches.

There is even a hint of scandal as the people of Nazareth question his authority. They ask, “Isn’t this Mary’s son?” instead of, “Isn’t this Mary and Joseph’s boy?” While we might see this as a true representation of the virgin birth, in that time and place it was just short of an insult to skip over naming the father as head of the household. It hints at the possibility that Jesus was an illegitimate child, bringing shame to his whole community.

Shame and honor formed the foundation of social interaction in Nazareth. It was a zero sum game: if someone gained honor in the community, that meant someone else had to lose. Keeping the balance between shame and honor was important.

And here was Jesus, claiming the honor of a prophet for himself! This would upset the whole hierarchy of social standing. It would mean that someone – probably the synagogue leaders – would have to lose honor. This young upstart needed to be put in his place, and reminded that they knew who he was before he got famous – just a common builder, nothing more.

Jesus has been busy amazing people in Capernaum, across the Sea of Galilee, and even in the middle of the lake itself, but now it’s his turn to be amazed. And what has Jesus shaking his head? It’s the lack of faith he sees among his hometown friends and family. In fact, this lack of faith brings us to one of the more problematic verses in this passage: Jesus, the Son of God, is rendered powerless. Mark writes, “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” (v. 5)

Biblical scholars have wrestled with this sentence, and theologians have argued about it. Matthew’s version cleans things up a bit for us. Matthew says Jesus “did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith” (Matt 13:58), making it sound more like Jesus chose not to work any wonders.

But the question may not be about whether Jesus chose to do miracles or was prevented from doing them. Maybe the question is, how does our lack of faith affect the way God works? Do we really keep God out of the miracle business, simply because we lack faith? Before we get too caught up in arguments about God’s omnipotence and grace that is not dependent on anything we do, let’s look at what does happen in Nazareth. Jesus does heal a few. There are at least some who seek him out in faith, just as Jairus did on behalf of his dying daughter, just as the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years did.

And I think this might be the key – Jesus responds when we fall at his feet and ask for his mercy. He can’t answer our prayers unless we pray them. He can only transform our lives to the extent that we allow him to. Jesus’ ability to do great things in Nazareth was only limited by the fact that nobody bothered to ask – except for a few, and they were healed.

David Lose writes, “What if … Mark is simply inviting us to contemplate the possibility that we actually have something to do, that we have an important role to play in the manifestation of the kingdom. To say it another way: this isn’t about salvation, it’s about the role each one of us is invited to play in sensing, experiencing, and making known God’s will and work in the world.”

How might we be encouraging God to work in our lives? How might we be preventing him from doing the work he wants to perform in us?

As we prepare to approach this Table, let’s take a moment to let God’s Spirit direct our thoughts to the ways we might be resisting God. As we do this, I invite you to let your hands rest in your lap in an open posture, releasing to God the things that keep you from experiencing his power –

some hurt or regret you can’t let go,

some grudge you hold onto,

some addiction that has come to define your identity,

some anger that continues to burn in you,

some problem that you just don’t quite want to trust God to solve.

Or maybe there is something you need to receive from God into your open hands –

some commitment God is calling you toward that you don’t want to acknowledge,

some ministry opportunity you are afraid to accept,

some challenge to grow that you think is too difficult for you.

This isn’t only about accepting God’s grace to save us and inviting Jesus into our hearts. It’s about our willingness to be true disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. It’s about trusting God enough to ask him to change us, and mean it.

The disciples who followed Jesus to Nazareth didn’t abandon him when the town rejected his message. They were watching closely to see what he would do. As Jesus kept on with his ministry of preaching good news and healing the sick, casting out unclean spirits and giving hope to the poor, the disciples were learning what it means to be a true follower of Christ. And that brings us to the second part of the story.

Sometimes rejection and persecution is the springboard for further ministry. My favorite example of this comes from the book of Acts. In Acts 1:8, Jesus commissions his disciples as he prepares to ascend into heaven. He says, “ But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus ascends, Pentecost happens, and the church grows to the point they have to choose some deacons to oversee the needs of the community, so the apostles – notice they are no longer just disciples, they have been sent as apostles – devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. One of those deacons is Stephen, who preaches a great sermon when he is brought before the Sanhedrin, and when he points out that they are responsible for killing the Son of God, they get angry enough to stone him to death.

This brings us to Acts 8:1. “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” Did you catch that? Jesus told them back in 1:8 that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Eight chapters later, persecution sends them from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria. It’s only a few more chapters before the ends of the earth come into the story. Sometimes, rejection is the springboard for ministry.

In today’s passage from Mark, Jesus gives some very specific directions to his disciples. He tells them what to take, and what not to take with them on their journey. It’s clear that Jesus wants his followers to go out in his name, completely depending on God to provide for their needs through the hospitality of others. Jesus knows that they will probably face rejection in at least some of the towns they visit.

They saw the way he left Nazareth and went into the nearby villages to keep preaching and healing. Now he tells them to shake the dust off their feet as they leave any place that does not receive them or their message. If you can’t win at home, maybe it’s time for an away game, but even there, chances are good you are going to be challenged and face rejection.

So they go – and their ministry is fruitful. No doubt they ran into some opposition from time to time. We know from the rest of the story that Jesus would face growing resistance from those who felt threatened by his message. But that didn’t stop him from seeing it through, from dying on the cross for you and for me, from rising on the third day to defeat death and sin once and for all.

Sometimes rejection is the springboard for ministry. Sometimes I wonder if we fear rejection so much that it prevents us from experiencing God’s power at work in our lives. When we shrink back from stepping out on faith, we shortchange ourselves, and Christ can do no deed of power in us. We become what John Wesley would call an “almost Christian,” living out the form of a godly life without experiencing its power.

Following Jesus means putting it all on the line. We may find that some don’t want to hear our message of hope. That doesn’t mean we should stop sharing it. Some may ridicule us or walk away. There are others who will respond to the good news that God loves them. When we put our full faith in Christ, living into the assurance that he will act, he can change our brokenness into fruitfulness. Amen.