Welcome to the Table

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August 19, 2018

John 6:51-58

Our lives revolve around food. Food is a great way to invite people in and share in relationship with one another. Jesus is no stranger to food and enthusiastically welcomes all to the table where the feast has been prepared and Jesus welcomes us to feast on the bread of life.

The doubt and the questioning continue this week as Jesus explains further what it means to be the bread of life for the world. The promise that he lays out for those listening hedge on the more graphic side this week as he says those that feast on his flesh and blood will have eternal life. Imagine what they must be thinking as they are hearing these words for the first time. Israel is not immune to sacrifice. They know what takes place. However, this Jesus guy is now talking about the life that can be found in his flesh and blood.

We, of course, have reference in the eucharistic imagery and are familiar with these words. They, however, are not. There are no words of institution in John, like there are in the other gospels, yet it is here that Jesus makes the promise of eternal life for those that come to the table and eat of the flesh and drink of the blood.

They are having trouble with what they cannot understand. Yet, Jesus does not tell them that they must understand to take part in the meal that he is giving them. He just invites them to come and eat and enjoy the feast that is set out before them.

I will admit that every time I read this passage I twinge slightly. How am I to eat your flesh and drink your blood, Jesus? YUCK!!! I don’t even eat meat and now Jesus is inviting us in to eat of his flesh. The images that we conjure up in our minds is enough to make us pause. It is like being invited to dinner and you have the whole cooked fish placed on the table in front of you with the eyes still in place. Or the sheep’s head staring up at you with a look of innocence.

If we have not fully embraced this doctrine of the church, it is not surprising that there may be a little hesitancy. The church has been arguing what Jesus means in these words and the institution of Eucharist for nearly two thousand years. As long as Jesus has rose from the tomb. We argue and bicker among denominations over who can and cannot eat of the bread of life. As Lutherans we come to the understanding through Martin Luther’s explanation in the Small Catechism: “It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.”

Unfortunately, because of our disagreements, our various denominations argue over whose understanding is better and if we cannot believe in the same thing as others, then we are shutdown from joining them in the great feast that Jesus has set before us.  In the meantime, Jesus has to be shaking his head at our petty bickering.

In his words in John, or in the words of institution found in the other gospels, Jesus does not include any footnotes of who should be excluded from the table. It is our belief in these very words that reveal to us the grace of God that abundantly overflows the table. There is power in sitting down for a meal together. It is easy to forget that as young families, because we are constantly running children from one place to another. Quite often the meal is eaten from the drive thru in the backseat of the van.

Not only is there power in sitting down and being in relationship and talking with one another, there is power in the food that we consume. Imagine that meal that you sit down and eat with your family on Thanksgiving or any holiday for that matter. It usually is a filling meal that you can feel course through your body and provides nourishment in the form of fulfilling a hunger, but also something more. It becomes a part of you. You take in those relationships that are gathered around the table.

Those meals from around the world that I showed you earlier were just a glimpse of a culture and society. However, in each one of those meals is a relationship that is waiting to happen. A relationship with those gathered around the table and with the food itself.

There is that same type of power in the bread of life that can be found in Jesus Christ. The bread of life comes to us now and in it we find eternal life. Not an eternal life that we must look forward to in the future, but a life that we are already living into now! A life with Jesus that fulfills that promise that he made to his disciples that he will be with us to the end of time. The bread of life courses through our body like a good meal that we have with friends and family. It nourishes us and restores us. This bread of life is given for us. It is a gift. In this gift we receive the grace of God in which our sins are forgiven. In this forgiveness, we truly can begin to understand what it means to be disciples of Christ.

Let us pray. Feeding God, you are the bread of life, and in you our hunger is fed. May we continue to find fulfillment in your promise of eternal life as we live into it today and move towards the full embodiment of the kingdom of God. Amen.

 

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Being Drawn to Jesus

 

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August 12, 2018

John 6:35, 41-51

When I was getting ready to enter fourth grade, I asked my parents if I could play football. I had played baseball for a couple of years and decided that I wanted to try a new sport. It didn’t take me long to realize that I did not like running as a fourth grader. Although, I would come to look forward to it as I got into my late twenties.

I begged my mother to let me not play because I disliked all the running and it seemed that whenever I did something wrong, the coach would make me run around the practice field. I remember the sobbing that took place in the back of the car and my mother’s words that I would finish what I started. I am proud to say that I did finish out the season and that I never put on a football uniform again!

This could also explain my fear of physical education in junior high and high school. I was not very good at team sports and when we would line up to be picked my anxiety would rise because I knew that I would be one of the last ones to be picked. This truly hurts when you are that age and did not do much for my self-confidence. I would focus more on academics and look for other ways to be part of something. This could be why I chose to play tennis in high school because at the most you were only on the court with one other teammate. While we may feel left out, Jesus draws us into himself, to love us and so that we can begin a relationship with God that will direct and guide our life.

This morning, it appears that Jesus is on the outside looking in. The Jewish leaders that have gathered turn hostile in our lesson as we work deeper into the sixth chapter of John. Unlike the other gospels, Jesus has no problem declaring that he is the son of God. He expands that image even more in this chapter by declaring that he is the bread of life. A bread that fills one for all of eternity.

The gathered leaders reject this notion. Jesus is the last one that they would choose to be on their team. His mother is Mary, and his father is Joseph. They know where he came from. It is ludicrous for him to say that he comes from God. However, Jesus does not let this detour him. He continues to say that those who are drawn to him will know God and will learn from God.

Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue is one that not only troubles the leaders gathered but it also speaks counterintuitively to their understanding of the Torah. This is not what they are expecting, and it is not what they are ready for. If Jesus is who he says he is, that means their authority is in question and that they must hand it all over to God. They are threatened by Jesus and do not understand how they will be drawn to him to get to know God. In their minds, they know who God is and for them, God is not in the image of Jesus that is standing in front of them. Things just are not adding up!

It is nice when everything adds up to a concise answer. Isn’t it?

Just ask an engineer or a mathematician. Everything must add up and be precise so that the answer is clear for all to see. For safety’s sake, we would like everything to add up, so planes stay up in the air and cars stay safely on the road. Because of this, we like the answers given to us. When we are confronted with the mysterious words of Jesus in this morning’s lesson, we are left scratching our heads. We too, like the Jewish leaders, are wondering how we are going to be drawn to Jesus. Some of us may get it. More power to you. Some of us catch glimpses of it and yet thirst and hunger for more. Did you know that for most of her life, Mother Theresa was constantly searching for God and felt at a lost? Some of us may just go along without attempting to further our spiritual journey and become complacent where we are.

We reject the things that are right in front of us. We reject those that try to help in times of need. We reject words of acknowledgement. We reject common sense. Now, I am not saying we all do this, but I am sure there are times that we could agree we hedge in that direction. Through our social culture, we have been told that we must be strong and independent. We have been told that it is weak to turn to others for help. Therefore, we crack under the pressure and respond in negative ways to our environments when faced with adversity. We are disturbed and threatened when we are told that we will be drawn in regardless.

In light of my experience in Phys. Ed. during junior high and high school, I would have loved to be drawn in. I would have loved the opportunity to not have to worry about when I would be picked to be on someone’s team.

This is what we find in Jesus! He comes to us willing to break down any barriers that may be in our way to knowing him in a fuller and deeper way. A way that leads us through any troubles and challenges that we may encounter. A way that leads to the foot of the cross and the waters of baptism where we experience a new birth. A birth that is like no other. A birth that washes us clean and sends us out into the world to proclaim the good news!

The notion of this is counter-cultural. The teachings of Jesus do not always coincide with the practices of this world. This is radical! In this radicalness, we experience a love that breaks us free from the chains that hold us back. The chains of our own sinfulness that we are called to repent of daily. This radical love meets us where we are.

Being drawn to Jesus Christ should provide a sense of comfort and fulfill the gospel promise that is given to us through our ancestors. We are drawn to Jesus not once though; we are drawn over and over again as we are reminded of his saving grace that was brought into the world to remind the world of the love that God has for all of creation. It is a love that knows no boundaries and a love that draws all of creation into the loving embrace of a God that knows where we are.

Being drawn to Jesus and learning from God is grace at work. It is a grace that walks with us in our journey to fully being in relationship with the creator whose image we reflect. It is a grace that meets us at the table and offers the body and blood of Christ so that we may encounter Jesus in the most intimate way possible and be filled so that we may share with others.

Let us pray. Drawing God, enable us to put down our guard and welcome your presence into our congregation, our families, and our lives. As you draw us to yourself, may we be open to encounter you in new and meaningful ways that gives us life and hope for things to come. Amen.

Review: Your God is Too Glorious by Chad Bird

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With thanks to Englewood Review of Books for the opportunity to review this title

Does the notion of God being too glorious make you shudder? Surely, it is not possible for God to be too glorious. It is God that has created the world and every breathing plant, animal, and creature that resides on it. It is God in Jesus Christ that gave up his life on the cross so that we may see what the love of God means for us and the life everlasting that flows from it. It is Jesus that is resurrected on the third day to conquer death once and for all. How can this be too glorious?

The gospel of John is all about the glory of Jesus and lifts it up for all too see! As I picked up Chad Bird’s newest book, I questioned exactly what he meant by the title. It seems at first a little off putting. That is, until you read the subtitle, Finding God in the Most Unexpected Places. This begins to shed a little light upon the main title. Using both stories from his personal life, and those of friends and acquaintances, Bird descends into the thesis that we do make God too glorious. Bird’s offering could be compared to Walter Wangerin Jr.’s latest offering, Wounds are Where the Light Enters. While Wangerin has many titles and years of experience to his repertoire, Chad Bird does an excellent job of standing right up there with him.

Bird’s stories are ones that can bring tears and an ache in the heart for everything that has happened to the people in them. Since the time the apostles began spreading the good news across the countryside of Israel and into the Diaspora, God has slowly been lifted to a place where the ordinary person cannot even think about reaching. It was Martin Luther that sensed this in the early sixteenth century and brought God back to the people in a Bible that could be read by the common people. God was not something that was outside of their grasp, only to be born by clergy, but a God that is with them in their daily lives.

As Bird presents throughout his ten easy to read chapters, God is awesome and wonderful. However, we have made God too glorious, where we have chosen to remove God from our daily lives and reserve God only for Sunday mornings. We have thought at times during the last millennia that God is not of this world, but only created the world. Yet, God is of this world and was present with us in Jesus Christ and continues to be present with us through the Holy Spirit and Christ guiding us. It is time that we begin to see God in the people that surround us and events that happen to us during the week.

Yes, God is extraordinary. Yet, this does not keep God from being in the ordinary events and occasions that occur daily. Bird discusses how God is present with us at times on “unseen altars” (pgs. 52-55). These “unseen altars” are present all around us. Perhaps even in the room where you are sitting to read this review. Those altars he says, “Look like a rocking chair where a mother cradles her crying infant to her breast. . .. look like a John Deere driven by a farmer who pulls a plow to ready the earth for seed. His cap is stained with sweat. His callused hands are the résumé he has. . .. look like a taxi, honking and weaving its way through the labyrinth of New York City traffic. They look like an outpost in Afghanistan, where a Marine holds a rifle in his hands and dreams of holding his three-year-old daughter again. . ..” As ordinary as these contexts may seem to us, they are not ordinary for God. In each of these contexts, God is present.

Many times, we find ourselves in situations that appear hopeless and we think we just have to ride them out. Yet, the awesome God that chose to enter this world in a newborn baby, walks with us this very day to guide us through those times that we feel lost or stagnant. It does not look glamorous where God decides to reside in our lives. It truly is the lowest points that God uses to show us that we are made for much greater things. The church is no different. We think we need to make everything glitzy to attract and grow congregations. However, God is present in the ugly and unpleasant. As Bird speaks of the seminars that are always claiming to solve all the church’s problems, he says, “The subtext of every one of them was the same: what you’re doing now is not enough. Not relevant enough. Not revolutionary enough. The time has come to recreate and refine the church’s dull image.  What she desperately needs to do is sexy herself up. What the church desperately needs, however is the ecclesiastical equivalent of a boob job and memberships at God’s Gym. She needs more flat tires” (pg. 131).

These flat tires we encounter along the way, in our personal and communal lives, is where the work of God becomes most evident. Unfortunately, while God is present, we choose not to see God in the times that are great, and everything is running along smoothly. It is in the flat tires that God is visible, and we open our hearts to the glory of the creator and savior of the world. Bird shows the visibility of God in these flat tire situations which then can prepare for those times when we feel as though we are on top of the world.

Resuscitating a Lost Language: A Review of Jonathan Merritt’s Learning to Speak God from Scratch

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The language that we use to speak of God has evolved over time and Jonathan Merritt puts out the call for us to reestablish our foundation. Learning to Speak God from Scratch is a way to examine our beliefs and reach out to generations that did not grow up knowing God in a religious setting.

We must remember that the Bible as we have it today has been passed down through numerous generations with many additions and subtractions and what we find ourselves reading today is the best rendition of the original intent, hopefully, inspired by God. Our Israelite ancestors did not originally share their faith through written word. It was an oral tradition that was passed down from generation to generation which was finally put to animal hide, papyrus, or paper. The writers did the best they could to get their thoughts down. Yet, even from oral to written text, there is a loss of the intention of the original meaning.

This evolution has never ended as we can walk into any book store and find numerous translations of the Bible, with each claiming to be better to reach a certain segment of society. This is the visible reality of our faith today. This boils down to the point that the majority of people do not know how to share their faith so that others can understand. As a pastor, I am no stranger to this and just when I think I have a great sermon, I am reminded by those listening that it either went over their heads or they did not pick up what I was laying down.

Merritt calls us to reexamine those words that we utilize to share our faith and realize that their meanings too have evolved over time. Many times, we make the definitions fit into our way of thinking that makes us comfortable. For example, in our current immigration battles in the United States, we look over what Jesus meant by neighbor. We do not truly welcome in the neighbor as Jesus would have when we refuse to support and welcome refugees and those seeking a better life. Instead, we lock up our neighbors and separate their children from them.

Merritt explores and attempts to build a definition for many others words and ideas as well, including Yes, Creeed, Mystery, Grace, Brokenness, Saint, and Family, just to name a few. These discussions bear some personal stories as well as getting to the root of the biblical foundation of the words. Many of the words have been co-opted to serve our own purposes over time. Or simply, in our more secular society, we have chose to overlook words and disregard their meanings. There is a language barrier that has developed over time. Merritt is attempting to break down this wall.

By learning to speak God from scratch, the hope is that we will be able to reach out with a new profound proclamation. It is not a new message, just a renewed way of saying it. This is a good start on the journey to listening to God in our lives and therefore sharing that story with others.

Learning to Speak God from Scratch is scheduled to be released on August 14. Thanks to the publisher for an uncorrected proof copy to review.

Looking for a Sign

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August 5, 2018

John 6:24-35

A very religious man was once caught in rising floodwaters. He climbed onto the roof of his house and trusted God to rescue him. A neighbor came by in a canoe and said, “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

A short time later the police came by in a boat. “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll take you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

A little time later a rescue services helicopter hovered overhead, let down a rope ladder and said. “The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

All this time the floodwaters continued to rise, until soon they reached above the roof and the religious man drowned. When he arrived at heaven he demanded an audience with God. Ushered in to meet with God, he said, “Lord, why am I here in heaven? I prayed for you to save me, I trusted you to save me from that flood.”

“Yes, you did my child” replied the Lord. “And I sent you a canoe, a boat and a helicopter. But you never got in.”

I am sure that many of you have heard this story or variations of it. It is a reminder to us that Jesus calls us to be observant and look around. What we may find ordinary, is the grace of God working in and among us.

We are not the only ones that are looking. The crowd that has been following Jesus is still hungry!

Imagine how you have felt when you have been part of a group and especially listening or keeping an eye on one person. You only take your eyes away for a minute and realize that they have vanished. Jesus and the disciples are the ones that have disappeared, and the crowd sends out their own search party. They may not quite know what they are looking for, but they know that Jesus has it and they want to be able to experience it.

Once they find Jesus, the conversation turns back around to them and their desire for the physical bread that he had given them to eat earlier. The power of this meal seemed to have fell short as they are still asking for some type of sign or proof that Jesus is the Son of God.  If they could just witness a sign, then they would truly know that God was with them.

 Like the crowd, we too want signs that something is going to happen. If we pray hard enough then God will simply show us a sign of what it is we are supposed to do. Surely, it is through a sign that we will be affirmed of that questionable decision that was made.

Do you let yourself get stuck in the rut of constantly looking for God, and wondering where God is at? This then can extend into our questioning if prayer is even effective and so on and so forth. It is like an avalanche of questions that simply cannot be answered by the material. God is in the mystery, which is hard for us to comprehend.

 When we turn away from God, or simply look past what is being offered to us, we fail to acknowledge the grace of God working in our lives. Jesus is the bread of life. It is a bread that fills us for all our days. It is our daily bread that nurtures us and gives us strength. Jesus as the bread of life reveals to us God’s character and through it we are invited into a relationship with God that moves us to be God’s hands and feet in this world.

Through Jesus, we can live into this relationship with God. Our ancestors, before Jesus was born, could only experience this through covenant or law, and now it is directly accessible through Jesus Christ. God wants us to come together in relationship and realize that we are all united as children of God. Jesus, the bread of life, feeds us and nurtures us so that we can live into the very things that challenge us and be strengthened for those times that we fall to our temptations and sin. It is in the body of Christ that we find redemption and are made new.

Let us pray. Good and gracious God, your power to pull us into relationship can only be resisted for so long. May we stop fighting back and embrace your love and compassion that is unbounded and feeds us abundantly. Amen.