St. Teresa of Avila, Shine with the Light of Jesus

SERMON Matthew 5 13 16 St Teresa of Avila

Of the 35 Doctors of the Church, only 4 are women. In the Catholic Church, specific saints who have made significant contributions to Christian theology through their research or writings receive the posthumous title “Doctor of the Church.”  Today, we commemorate the first woman to receive this honorific, St. Teresa of Avila, whose quest to reform the Catholic Church’s monastic system, and whose prolific writing on prayer and the spiritual life contributed greatly to our understanding of how we are called to let our light burn brightly and bring glory to God alone.

Teresa was born in 1515 to a noble family in Avila. After her mother died when she was a teenager, she was sent away to an Augustinian boarding school, where she began to sense a call to monastic ministry. She joined the Carmelite monastery against her father’s wishes and took holy orders when she was 20 years old. As a young nun, Teresa was seriously afflicted by a mystery illness that caused violent stomach cramps, vomiting, heart palpitations, and partial paralysis. Doctors today believe she may have suffered from severe anxiety and experienced panic attacks while trying and failing to achieve perfect contemplation in prayer.

She longed for a life of deep spiritual connection with God, but felt spiritually dry during the first 20 years of her service.

The convent was not what she expected, with a constant flow of wealthy visitors and politicians stopping by asking for spiritual favors. There was so much distraction, so much meaningless talk and gossip, Teresa could not focus on the life of contemplative prayer that she had devoted to God. Her prayer life felt flat, and life in the convent felt like a sham.

In 1554, Teresa began experiencing mystical visions from Christ, and had a vivid awareness of God’s presence within her. After this, she aspired to lead a perfectly spiritual life, desiring to take up the cross and follow Jesus’ own example. However, the lavish monastery was not suited to the simple life she felt called to live.

In our reading today, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but to be thrown on the sidewalk and provide good traction.”  Salt’s purpose is to enhance flavor, to make tastes shine! Jesus says if it’s not serving its true purpose to flavor food, then it’s missing the point of its existence. It has no choice but to serve the far less interesting purpose of being trampled underfoot. That may still be a practical function, but it’s not salt’s intended purpose. The same is true of us as Christ’s church. As the community of believers gathered in this place, our purpose is to share the good news of God’s love with the world. Our purpose is to feed, shelter, and nurture one another and our neighbors.  If that’s not our primary reason for being here, then our existence as the church is bland, uninteresting, unfulfilling, and unfaithful.

Teresa believed that her monastery had lost its original flavor, so she set out to reform the convent system. She faced strong opposition and a series of lawsuits from those who benefitted from and were perfectly happy with the status quo. She even came onto the radar of the Spanish Inquisition, who confiscated and banned the reading of her autobiography. But, through persistence, she successfully opened her first reformed Carmelite Monastery in Avila in 1562 with just 21 nuns committed to live according to the old ways of simplicity and discipline, and she founded 14 more reformed Carmelite monasteries before her death in 1582.  In The Way of Perfection, which she wrote as an introductory guide to prayer for the nuns of her new convent, she writes:

“Strive to walk with love and fear, and I guarantee your safety. Love will quicken your steps; fear will make you look where you are stepping so that you do not fall. If we have these two things, we will not be deceived. Those who really love God love all good, seek all good, help foster all good, and join forces with good people and help and defend them.”

And in Interior Castle, her masterwork on contemplative prayer, Teresa says that every human being is like a castle made of shining crystal. Within the castle of each person are 7 rooms, arranged as concentric circles. God dwells at the center of every person’s castle, and the light of God’s presence should fill the entire castle. But, our crystal is becomes clouded by sin. The goal of each person’s spiritual life is to journey from the outermost room in our castle to the innermost room where God dwells. Here, we achieve the union of our love and our will with the love and will of God. As we achieve this union with God through the practice of prayer, God’s love brightens us, and God’s light shines brightly from the center of our selves out into the world.

Jesus says in our gospel lesson for today, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

You are the light bulb God shines through to illuminate a darkened room. Everywhere you go, every conversation you have, in everything you do, as baptized children of God, your special vocation is to shine with the light of God’s love for the world.

As the church, we experienced this first hand yesterday as we participated in the NAMI walk and represented Luther Memorial – and most importantly, Jesus!- in fighting the stigma of mental illness. As a sponsor for the event, we set up an information table and shared stickers and candy with anyone walking by. We were the only church represented at the walk, which made me so especially glad that we were there to share God’s love and light.

Some tables had items like Tupperware or Tastefully Simple for sale, other tables shared information about mental health and addiction recovery services in York County, others about how to cope after the loss of a loved one to suicide and how to prevent suicide. And in the midst of all of that, was us. The Church. The light of Christ present and available for ALL people, in all circumstances. Our signs shared God’s unconditional love and welcome. And several people shared with us what a blessing our congregation has been to them over years as NAMI has held meetings and trainings in our building. One man said he was so delighted that we represented Jesus at the event, because he has surely experienced God’s healing through the group sessions he’s attended at Luther Memorial. He said that when his wife was diagnosed with Bipolar, he began attending the family meetings, which inspired him to attend NAMI’s free training, so now he leads those groups to help others. He said, “These groups mean so much, they give us so much strength and support. A guy in our group was away on business and came back specifically so that he could attend our monthly session. But, on his way back he got word that his daughter was in such crisis that was admitted to a psychiatric inpatient facility that same day. He came to our NAMI meeting to find the strength and the comfort he needed, to go and support his daughter in the hospital. We can’t thank you enough for being here for us. ”

You are the light of the world. You are the lamp that gives light to the whole house. And that light grows brighter and brighter as we share time with God in regular prayer. As Christians, you represent Jesus wherever you go. Let him shine through you, and let him heal the world through you. Amen.

Preaching the Gospel to All of Creation

SERMON Matthew 11 25 30 Psalm 148 St. Francis

Today we remember the life and legacy of St. Francis of Assisi, who is remembered for his humility, gentleness, and love for all Creation. Francis died on October 4, 1226. He was born to Italian nobility in 1181 and by his teenage years was famously spoiled. He didn’t really want to work as a merchant and carry on the family business, he just wanted to wear nice clothes, eat rich foods, and party with his friends. After an indulgent youth, he went into the military and fell seriously ill, after which his demeanor changed and he began to live more simply and to search for the answer to God’s calling for his life. He made a pilgrimage to Rome and emptied out his wallet, as a sign of giving over to God his formerly extravagant life. When he returned to Assisi, his behavior became more and more extreme as he sought to give to the poor and to live as the poor. His father was enraged by his radical generosity and summoned him before the city square to strip him of his family inheritance. There, Francis famously stripped off all his clothes and gave them over to his father, saying “Up to now I have called you my father on earth; henceforth I desire to say only ‘Our Father who art in Heaven’.” Standing there, naked before the whole town without a penny to his name, Francis took a vow of poverty and began his new life, wandering the hills and valleys around Assisi creating hymns of praise to God, nursing lepers, and communing with nature. Instead of the luxurious garb he wore in his youth, Francis took upon himself the attire of the community’s poorest peasants: a coarse wool tunic with a rope around his waist. He travelled from town to town urging people to live in peace and brotherly love. Eventually, Francis gained quite a following of others who wished to leave their earthly possessions and join him in his ministry of peace and simplicity. Their joy was contagious as they wandered from place to place singing hymns and rejoicing in the simple gifts of God which no money could buy.

Francis’ message of humility was embodied in the way he related to all of God’s creatures. He taught the world about God’s brotherhood and practiced true equality, showing respect and love to every single person he met –whether they were a beggar or the Pope.

His sense of Christian kinship extended beyond humanity to Creation itself. Rather than thinking of himself as a higher being than the animals of the Earth, Francis saw himself as brother to the animals and everything that God created and declared good. He believed that God had created every creature to be family on Earth and to provide mutual care and joy to one another. He famously bought two lambs who were on their way to slaughter and set them free, and those lambs followed him around everywhere he went –even into worship. They were his pets for the rest of their lives. Francis was even known to stop on the side of the road and preach the gospel to the birds. Our scripture says in psalm 148, “Praise the Lord from the earth you sea monsters and all the deeps… wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds… Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.”  And Francis lived out this call for all of creation to praise the Lord and to sing the glory of God. Francis believed that all of God’s creatures had a joyful responsibility to hear the gospel, preach the gospel through their deeds, and to sing praises to God in their own way.

Our world was created as a delight, not for us as human beings, but first and foremost for God’s own enjoyment. Our natural world is a treasure, and as human beings our special vocation is to humbly and gently care for and preserve the treasure of creation. In the gospel lesson appointed for the commemoration of St. Francis, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

The yoke of Jesus is not a heavy burden, but rather a joyful responsibility. The image of the yoked oxen in Jesus’ time was a metaphor for a commitment to live in obedience to the law, the Torah. The yoke of Jesus is not a heavy burden, but is rather a way of discipleship, a lifestyle of gentleness and humility.

Creation is deeply burdened, and we humans through our arrogance, greed, and over consumption, have sinned against this beautiful world God placed within our care.

The weather becomes more extreme and unpredictable with each passing year. Our oceans are filled with miles upon miles of plastic waste, our fish and creatures which eat the fish are filling up with micro-plastics. On land, the polar bear’s natural habitat is rapidly disappearing as the sea ice melts from excessive carbon emissions. The bees which pollinate most of our food are becoming sick and dying off from common garden chemicals.

I know I feel heavily burdened when I stop to think about how damaged our world is. We humans have used and abused her by thinking of ourselves as her conqueror, rather than as her family.  To all of this, Jesus speaks words of hope and healing to us and to our world as he says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

As numerous as the problems of our planet are right now, there are also numerous bright sparks of innovation and renewal. There are many people around the world today who are on a mission to bring healing to Creation, who follow in Jesus’ footsteps of gentleness and humility to care for this world God loves:

To decrease the use of harmful garden chemicals, all across the country individuals have opened up companies allowing you to rent a herd of goats to help clear yards of brush, weeds, and poison ivy! In France and China, there are farmers who use flocks of ducks to clear weeds from their rice paddies instead of traditional herbicides. The ducks enjoy a happy, free-range life as they eat every single weed, but do not touch the rice itself!  In African, twenty countries have been working together on planting a Great Green Wall of trees 8000 km across the Southern Sahara desert since 2007. The Great Green Wall will stretch from Senegal to Djibouti, and combat desertification, drought, and food insecurity, as well as removing 250 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere. Boyan Slat, a Dutch scientist in his early 20s, started the Ocean Cleanup Project, whose technologies use the ocean’s natural current to capture plastics and to send them ashore for recycling. This will eliminate half of the 600,000 square mile Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 5 years’ time.  And in India in 2006, Dr. Vasudevan patented a new technology creating a stronger, more flexible, water repellant paving material from a mixture of molten recycled plastic and bitumen, which to date has paved over 10,000 km of roads in India! Pot holes have become a thing of the past! Imagine how much plastic would be saved from the ocean if PennDot shifted to a similar construction material!

We may not all be scientists, but each and every one of us, learning from Christ’s gentleness and humility, can make a few small changes to our lifestyle to care for this world God loves. Seeing ourselves as interconnected and in mutual relationship with all of God’s Creation is where our human transformation begins. Since God so loves and delights in our world, since God created our world to sing God’s praises and to declare God’s glory, it is our good and holy work of discipleship to care for and restore this world, to approach it with humility, and to treat it with gentleness, to see in each animal and bird and plant the sacred spark of life, which our Lord calls us to treasure and preserve.

Like St. Francis before us, we still preach the gospel to the plants, animals, waterways, and air every time we make choices that provide for their health and well-being. And, as St. Francis understood, creation preaches the gospel of God’s steadfast love right back to us, delighting and inspiring us as it reminds us of God’s own glory. Amen.

Steward Heroes: Paul and the Participatory Partnership of the Churches

Steward Hero Paul and the Church 2nd Corinthians 8

“We’re standing by for your call! Our goal this hour is $10,000, will we make it? It all comes down to you! The sooner we reach our goal, the sooner we can stop talking and turn the music back on, call now! For the love of the music, call now!….. Have someone in your life who loves coffee mugs? Call now, for a donation of $75, this fabulous WXTG coffee mug could be yours! For a gift of $150, we’ll even throw in a pound of coffee!”

I have to be honest, my greatest fear in stewardship ministry is sounding like the radio’s annual pledge drive. I can’t stand the sales pitch, even if it’s pitching something I happen to enjoy. It feels insincere.

As we all know, there are many other non-profit entities in our world, many of them quite noble, who fundraise through annual pledge drives. As Craig mentioned earlier, pledging is a vitally important tool, it helps the church leadership to plan ministry for the next year in a financially faithful way.

But, I’m not up here with a pitch. I’m not here to get you to get me to STOP talking, I’m up here to preach the gospel.  As the Church, our reason for giving is very different from any other secular non-profit in our lives.

All month long we’ve been meditating on stewardship, which is HOW we live out our discipleship of Jesus Christ. There are a lot of ways in which we Christians steward the gifts of God for the care of the world. Stewardship is not synonymous with financial giving, but how we care for and share the money God has given us is a fundamental principle of Christian discipleship.

Jesus taught about money way more often than any of the major moral issues we Christians dwell on today. Why? Because living in right relationship with God and with money is a core spiritual issue for human beings. A lot of times talking about money, especially in church, can make us feel anxious. We either feel guilty because our finances are a mess, or we feel guilty because start to get the sense that Jesus doesn’t love or is angry with those of us with wealth. Take heart. Jesus loves us all with all his heart, regardless of our financial situation. And because Jesus loves us so very much, he wants to make sure that we love God and use money, not the other way around. Money itself is never the problem, but our human devotion to it that gets us into trouble.

God uses money to accomplish amazing things in our world. God uses money to accomplish his mission. And in our reading today from 2nd Corinthians, we recall how God used money to unify the early church, bringing both Jewish and Gentile congregations together as partners in God’s mission.

Our steward hero today is St. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, and the congregations who partnered with him in ministry.

The earliest following of Jesus Christ was based in and around Jerusalem, and comprised entirely of Jewish Christians. This congregation was led by James, the brother of Jesus, and the likely writer of the letter of James which we’re reading in worship all this month. With time, the Holy Spirit grew the early church in amazing ways, sending the apostles out “to the ends of the earth” to share the good news, just as Jesus promised them they would go.  But, “the ends of the earth” came with a whole lot of people who were different –ethnically, culturally, linguistically, financially, and religiously.

As with any major change within the Church, it took the congregations YEARS to come to celebrate the new diversity that came with the mission to Turkey, Greece, and Macedonia. Everyone agreed that letting the Gentiles into the faith was indeed God’s will, everyone agreed that it was the right thing to do to follow God’s will, but still it was a hard pill to swallow. They sent Paul as the missionary to preach and teach and plant congregations in the Gentile territory. And Paul worked tirelessly sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. The universal Church grew and grew, but the problem of prejudice and division between the Jewish and Gentile Christians remained.

Paul knew that God wanted the Church to be the one, unified, body of Jesus Christ. And God laid on Paul’s heart the plan to accomplish this mission. Paul started up a collection for the saints in Jerusalem among the predominantly Gentile congregations in Macedonia, Turkey, and Greece. He dubbed it the “koinonia” or “participatory partnership” collection. Why? Because the Jerusalem Church was struggling to meet the needs of the members of their community. It was in an urban area, and the message of Jesus was especially comforting for the impoverished neighbors, not to mention the frequent famines and natural disasters in Israel. They needed financial help to support the needs of the poor in Jerusalem. And there was no system through which to do this at this time. The Jerusalem church was desperate for financial help. The Gentile churches were desperate for spiritual depth. And Paul was desperate for his precious Gentile congregations to be accepted as full members of the body of Christ. So, partnering together, Paul encouraged all of the congregations that he had planted to set aside special offerings for the saints in Jerusalem. He traveled around to all of the churches to teach the spiritual importance of generous giving for the mission of the church, and he laid out the plan for their opportunity to partner with Christians they’d never met in places they’d never been. They were all a part of God’s mission together, and they would all work to care for the needs of the poor in Jerusalem. Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians 16, “Now concerning the collection for the saints, you should follow the directions I gave to the churches of Galatia. On the first day of every week (Sunday), each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn, so that special collections need not be taken up when I come.” Paul and his companions then traveled around to all of the congregations, collecting their generous gifts, and took them to Church wide headquarters in Jerusalem. And using the financial gifts of the Gentile Christians, and the spiritual gifts of the Jewish Christians, God made of us together the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that we are today.

The legacy of St. Paul and the early Church is one of generosity and partnership. Paul writes in our reading today, “[The churches in Macedonia] voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints… Now as you excel in everything –in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in love- so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.”

Discipleship is a journey, no one becomes a faithful Christian overnight. We’re all saints and sinners, we all have spiritual gifts and spiritual growing edges, and God uses a variety of means to grow our faith throughout the course of our lives. The opportunity to give generously to God’s mission is one of the ways God takes us out of ourselves and puts us in partnership with one another for the sake of sharing the gospel with the world. Giving should never be out of guilt or compulsion (Paul says as much in 2nd Corinthians chapter 9), but out of overflowing gratitude for all of the grace God has first given us. Generosity is a fruit of the spirit, it’s the fruit that God activates within us when we notice God at work in our midst. Generous giving is a core practice of discipleship, for it helps to reinforce our love of God above all else. Giving to God begins the work of untethering us from the emotional allure of money, it reinforces for us that money is a tool for mission, and that God is truly our God.

Amen.

Steward Hero: King Solomon Builds the Temple

SERMON: Steward Hero Solomon 2 Chronicles 2-7

Church building projects are hell! At least, that’s what I’ve heard repeatedly from my colleagues whose congregations are undergoing renovation right now. The dust, the noise, the disruption of having to move everything! The inconvenience of having to worship in a different space or configuration! These major renovations always seem to take longer than expected and cost more than anticipated. The stress on the congregation and the pastor is almost unbearable.

All of this leads us to the big question: Why do we bother? Why go through all the stress? Since the Church is the community of people gathered together around Word and Sacrament, why not just take a wrecking ball to it all and move into the movie theater down the street?

Worship is where our physical space collides with the transcendent reality of God. Worship space matters. God comes to us and speaks the Word of steadfast love to us through all of our senses: Through the visual inspiration of beautiful stained glass, art, and architecture. Through the auditory inspiration of music, prayer, praise, and preaching. Through the olfactory inspiration of the scent of the anointing oil, the flowers, the candles, and the scent of this place itself. Through the taste of bread and wine. And through the touch of the pews beneath us, and the touch of one another’s hands stretched out in peace. Of course, God is ever present and comes to us throughout the week in our homes and cars and places of business. But, God comes to us in a powerful, tangible way when we worship together in one place. This church, this space, this location is holy. For God promises to meet us here every time we gather under this roof.

Our steward hero of the Bible today is King Solomon. In the 4th year of his reign, Solomon began one of the largest and most extravagant church building projects the world has ever seen, fulfilling the promise that his father, David, had made to build a house for God in Jerusalem. He realized almost immediately that he had a resource problem. His kingdom had all the money in the world, but not enough skilled artisans or lumber to build on such a grand scale. So Solomon wrote an appeal to King Hiram of Tyre for help. He began his letter by naming the purpose of the project, he said, “I am now about to build a house for the name of the Lord my God and dedicate it to him for offering fragrant incense before him, and for the regular offering of bread, burnt offerings, and for the celebrating of Sabbaths, new moons, and appointed festivals of the Lord our God.”

Solomon’s Temple was to be THE worship space for the people of Israel, set in the heart of the new seat of political power, Jerusalem. The Temple was to be a house in which God’s holy name could dwell, as well as a place for the people to offer their sacrifices and worship to God.

Solomon began this project with reverence and humility. He said, “The house that I’m about to build will be great, for our God is greater than other gods. But who is able to build him a house, since heaven, even highest heaven, cannot contain him? Who am I to build a house for him, except as a place to make offerings before him?” Solomon then went on to make the lofty request for artisans skilled in gold, silver, bronze, and iron, and in purple, crimson, and blue fabrics, and those trained in engraving, as well as those skilled in cutting timber from Lebanon, not to mention all of the lumber needed for construction!

King Hiram of Tyre was impressed with Solomon’s plan and approved of his request. He sent the famous bronze artisan Huram Abi to be the head project manager, in addition to all of the other skilled labor and lumber Solomon requested.

Construction took 7 years. And Solomon himself set to work decorating the interior with lavish detail. The veils were made of costly crimson, blue, and purple fabric. All of the items used for worship –the altar, the credence table, the lampstands, the incense tongs, the snuffers, the basins, the ladles, the firepans- were all made of the purest gold! In the holy of holies stood two giant cherubim covered in gold, and even the doors of the massive Temple were made of solid gold! And there were so many items made of intricately carved bronze that no one could measure how much bronze was used in construction.

When the construction and decoration of the Lord’s House was complete, there was a festival to consecrate it for God’s purpose. Solomon and all of the elders of the 12 tribes of Israel, and all of the priests carried the Ark of the Covenant into the new Temple, and the priests placed the Ark beneath the sheltering wings of the golden cherubim in the holy of holies. When the priests came out of the inner sanctuary, the choir –arrayed in brand new linen choir robes- took center stage, and they were joined by 120 priestly trumpeters! The melody of voice and trumpet soared throughout the Temple in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, singing “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” And as the music filled the Temple, so too did the glory of the Lord. A cloud surrounded everyone who was there, signifying God’s physical presence in worship!

Then Solomon stood up and preached a sermon to those who were gathered, reminding them of the fulfillment of God’s promises to his father, David. Then Solomon, the King, humbled himself before the Lord in the presence of his people. He kneeled down before them, and lifted his hands up to heaven and prayed, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you, in heaven or on earth, keeping covenant in steadfast love with your servants who walk before you with all their heart… Regard your servant’s prayer and his plea. May your eyes be open day and night toward this house, the place where you promised to set your name, and may you hear the prayer of your servant and your people. May you hear from heaven, your dwelling place, hear and forgive….” Then Solomon went on to pray in detail for the wide variety of occasions on which the people may need God’s forgiveness. He concluded his prayer of Temple dedication saying, “Now, O my God, let your eyes be open and your ears attentive to prayer from this place. Now rise up, O Lord God and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. Let your priests, O Lord God, be clothed with salvation, and let your faithful rejoice in your goodness…” When Solomon completed his prayer, the fire of God’s physical presence –the glory of the Lord- came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offerings. And the worship festival continued on for 7 more days!

The Temple was dedicated to the Lord, set apart as the holy place of divine connection. The people pray, praise, and make their offerings of thanksgiving and God forgives, God answers, and God dwells with the people in steadfast love.

The stewardship legacy of Solomon is providing a designated space for God to dwell with God’s people.  Just as the Temple was holy, so too are our places of worship today. This building is set apart by God for God’s purposes. That’s what it means when we call something holy. This building and all that is in it, is God’s. This building, and all who dwell within it throughout the week, are loved and sheltered by God. God uses this building as the set apart space where God deepens our faith, hope, and love as we bring our worship and praise.  God provides support and healing for those who meet here for AA, NAMI, and the Arc throughout the week.

In some congregations, it’s true that the church building has become something of a sacred cow –the object of worship itself, rather than a resource for ministry. But I know that’s not true here. We already know that the Church is us, it’s the people who dwell around Word and Sacrament together. The Church is the assembly of people who gather here for worship, and who are then sent out into the world to share God’s steadfast love. The Church is people, but the building is still important, for it is our headquarters for growing in faith together so that we can go out and encounter God in our homes, cars, and places of business.

Yes, for my colleagues undergoing the stress and expense of renovation right now, it would be easy to take a wrecking ball to it all, we’ve all felt like that at one frustration or another! But God calls us to steward the sacred spaces entrusted to us as one of the ways we care for the people God shelters beneath this roof. This means keeping up with necessary repairs as this property starts to show its age. This means taking regular time to clear out the clutter, and keeping this space beautiful and clean. This means keeping the lights on and the snow plowed, and all of the other nuts and bolts that are not the most exciting parts of our ministry –but are vital in providing the foundational resource of SPACE for ministry to happen.

As we steward well the sacred space entrusted to us, as we honor the legacy of those who have gone before us in this place, so too we honor God-  whose steadfast love was present with Solomon, whose steadfast love was present here in 1950, whose steadfast love is here with each person who crosses our doorway today, and whose steadfast love endures forever. Amen.

Steward Heroes: The Unnamed Sharers

Steward Heroes Week 2: The Unnamed Sharers and Their Response to Jesus

Luke 7: 36-8: 3

This second week of our Stewardship Series we hear the stories of a few of the many unnamed sharers of the Bible, who responded to Jesus’ ministry with thanks and praise. Our foundational belief as Lutheran Christians is that we are saved by God’s grace through faith. Our works do not save us, God saves us because God loves us.  But, our works are not worthless. As people of faith, when we experience God’s grace, we naturally respond by pouring out our love and service to God’s mission, so that others may experience God’s grace for themselves. God acts first, and we respond to God’s love with joy and generosity.

Our gospel passage today tells the story of several women who responded to Jesus’ grace in their lives with generosity and deep love.

In the first story we recall the fact that Jesus had a reputation! Of course, he was known and respected widely as a prophet and a teacher in Luke’s gospel. But, to many of the religious class, to many Pharisees, he was known as a glutton and a drunkard, one who eats with sinners!

And yet, in our story today, Jesus is –for once- eating in the respectable home of Simon the Pharisee.  Jesus has been invited into Simon’s home as an honored guest, for Simon believes that Jesus is a prophet and a holy man of God.

Jesus had just reclined at the table, when in walked a woman with a reputation of her own!

We read in scripture that she is a sinner. Now, the early Church Fathers were quick to paint any penitent woman with a broad brush, and often wrongly assumed women were prostitutes. But, in the case of this particular unnamed woman, who is named in scripture as a sinner and regarded by the pious Pharisees as offensively unclean, it’s likely that she was a prostitute.  Many prostitutes in the ancient world were either sold into this kind of slavery by their impoverished parents, or women turned to this line of work when they had no other family connections, no other ways of feeding themselves or their children. Jesus counted this prostitute, along with all who suffer exploitation around the world, as one of “the poor and the captive” whom he came to proclaim good news and release to.

It’s evident that she has already had an encounter with Jesus before this evening, for she boldly goes where she knows she is not allowed to go. She comes prepared, and she seeks him out to lavish upon him her thanks and praise for all that he has done for her!

Ironically, this woman with the bad reputation, shares the kind of hospitality one should share with an honored guest –where the host of the party, Simon the Pharisee, had already failed.

She brings with her an alabaster jar of costly ointment, and she begins weeping in sorrow for her sin and thanksgiving for Jesus’ love and kindness. She washes his feet with her tears and then dries his feet with her unbound hair, and massages his feet with the ointment. Her presence alone is offensive to the Pharisees, but this intimate display of hospitality is an act of scandal too far! In ancient Palestine, a woman’s hair was regarded as her crown of beauty. Respectable woman kept their hair covered at all times in public, sharing their unbound hair with only members of their immediate family. So what was intended as an act of devotion and hospitality, was perceived by everyone else at the dinner as highly provocative! The Pharisees believed she was soliciting Jesus for her business! Simon was appalled, he thought to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him — that she is a sinner.”

And then Jesus answered his inner dialogue, Jesus said, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven….Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven, therefore she has shown great love! The woman’s extravagant display of love and devotion to Jesus reveal that she already believes that Jesus has forgiven her sins! But Jesus pronounces forgiveness and peace to this woman so that the rest of those gathered around the tables will hear and believe. Jesus gives this woman not only healing and peace, but a new reputation as the forgiven woman!

This lengthy story is immediately followed by 3 short verses that offer a glancing reminder that there were a bunch of unnamed women who followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, who received healing of one kind or another, and in turn followed Jesus and provided whatever was needed for his ministry out of their resources. In other words, this story of the unnamed sinful woman was not a one-off, but Jesus was healing and forgiving and lovingly inspiring generosity and discipleship in person after person after person.

Experiencing Jesus Christ was, and still IS, a life changing encounter! Our lives and hearts are changed forever by the love of God in Christ Jesus! God’s grace transforms us!

We have each been forgiven, we have each experienced Christ’s healing presence, and so we gather together as the Church in worship, just like the unnamed woman with her alabaster jar, to lavish our love and praise upon our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is the stewardship legacy of the unnamed sharers. As Christians, we give not under compulsion, not because our salvation depends on it, but out of our great love, thanksgiving, and praise for all that Jesus Christ has done for us. The unnamed woman received forgiveness and peace, and brought an alabaster jar of costly ointment, and her thanks and praise to Jesus. The unnamed women from Galilee, received healing and new life, and provided for Jesus’ ministry out of their resources, following wherever his mission led them.

So we respond to God’s abundant love by sharing what we have, providing for Jesus’ ministry here and now, and providing items for those in need in our community. Our loving service to the world is a direct outflow and expression of our faith as Christians. In our first reading today, James writes, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”

Here at Luther Memorial, we give joyfully and generously in many ways to share God’s love with the world. We have numerous unnamed sharers in our midst who drop off items for the WELL or for Food for Thought through the week to feed the neighborhood. And we have many throughout the year who share with Good Gifts circle to help feed the world.

Thank you for your participation in this ministry of good news. Thank you for responding to God’s love, and sharing the love you have received with others. Amen.

Steward Heroes of the Bible: Tabitha

SERMON: Acts 9: 32-43 Steward Hero: Tabitha (Dorcas)

Today we begin our annual Stewardship Education Month with the first installment of our sermon series: Steward Heroes of the Bible.

To be a steward is to faithfully care for and share what God has given us as we serve God’s mission. As Christians, there is really little difference between being a Steward and being a Disciple. Stewardship is how we practice our discipleship of Jesus Christ. We use the gifts that God has given us –our talents, our time, our wisdom, our labor, our treasure, our positions, our voices, our relationships, even our very selves, to love and heal the world in Christ’s name.

Today, our Steward Hero is one who would likely not want to be remembered as a hero. She’s a woman who rolled up her sleeves and served those in her care with great diligence and love. She saw the needs that were right in front of her, and she recognized that God had provided her with the skills to fill those needs. Setting her labor and her love to God’s service, today we remember Tabitha (or Dorcas, as she was known by her Greek-speaking neighbors) who took on the special mission of caring for the widows in her community.

So, who were these widows for whom Tabitha cared so diligently, and why was this an expression of her discipleship? Widows were women whose husbands had died, and who –for whatever reason- had not remarried. Women were not allowed to inherit from their husbands, so if they had no family nearby to support them, they had no safety net whatsoever. To be a widow was an incredibly vulnerable status. Throughout the entire biblical narrative- in both Old and New Testaments- God names care for the widows as the orphans as God’s priority, and expresses God’s expectation that God’s people provide physical and emotional support for these most vulnerable members of society. Care of the vulnerable, the poor, the lonely, has been our indisputable mission from God for thousands of years.  And yet, one of the earliest serious conflicts of the Church was over injustice in the system of caring for widows.

From the time of Pentecost, the earliest Church of Jesus Christ was comprised of a diverse community of Jewish Christians. Some were Greek speaking Hellenists from the far corners of the world, and others were Aramaic speakers from in and around Jerusalem. In Acts 6, the Hellenists approached the Apostles with a grievance that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. The Apostles realized that their leadership structure needed to expand in order to best care for the needs of the whole community. The apostles were already stretched to the limit in preaching the Word, and visiting and providing support and encouragement for the new congregations that were emerging. So, they created the vocation of Deacon, they appointed 7 people whose particular role it was to lead the church’s social ministries, so that no widows would miss out on having their basic needs met.

Fast forward to Acts chapter 9, and we see that Peter is making his preaching rounds to the congregations outside of Jerusalem, and he comes to Lydda, where the church is just devastated that the one who led their social ministry, the one who made it her life’s work to care for the widows, became ill and has just died. The scripture says, “She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” Whether Hellenist or Hebrew, Dorcas or Tabitha, loved and supported all of the widows of the Church in Lydda. Whatever they needed, she found a way to provide. She shared of herself, and she shared God’s loving presence with all in need. She even went above and beyond. She didn’t just wait tables at the daily soup kitchen, like the deacons in chapter 6. Tabitha gave the very best to the widows in her care. When she saw her ladies wearing rags, she didn’t canvas the neighborhood for hand-me-downs, but Tabitha herself used her fabric working skills to create beautiful, new tunics for each of them! She gave her very best to the widows in her care, and in so doing Tabitha gave her very best to God!

Tabitha is remembered today as a hero of stewardship, for she used what she had, where she was, to serve God’s mission.

Today, we continue in Tabitha’s good and holy work. Though our culture is different, and the needs of widows are not exactly the same as they were in the first century, Luther Memorial follows in Tabitha’s stewardship footsteps. We roll up our sleeves and share God’s love and providence with our community as we serve through our social ministries that feed the hungry. We steward our talents as those who can knit or crochet meet once a month with Stitches of Love. Not only do they physically create beautiful woolen clothing for those in need, just like Tabitha before them, but the monthly meeting itself is full of joy and laughter that renews the hearts of all the women gathered around the tables. And we steward our relationships by visiting those who are sick or homebound and by sharing our hearts and companionship with them, just as Tabitha shared her heart with the widows in her care. Not everyone on our homebound list is a widow, though many are, but every single one misses all of you so dearly. They miss the music, the community, the fellowship, the worship. In short, they miss feeling actively connected to this community of faith where they invested so much time and energy into serving God’s mission when they were able. The cards you send, the calls you make, and the in person visits you share with these dear brothers and sisters in Christ reminds them that they ARE still important and beloved members of this congregation. These ministries of connection, of sharing our hearts and our service with one another, these are just some of the ways that God works through us today to love and heal the world. Amen.

 

 

Lady Wisdom (Sophia) Invites Us to Her Feast: God’s Word on Learning and Teaching

SERMON Outdoor Worship: Wisdom

1 Kings 2: 10-12, 3: 3-14, Proverbs 9: 1-6, Luke 2: 41-52

Our readings this morning are but a small sample of the over 200 times the Bible mentions Wisdom. This is an important topic for God, God wants us to be wise. But what, exactly, is wisdom?

The Hebrew Bible personifies the virtue of Wisdom, referring to her as Lady Wisdom, or Sophia.  That’s where we get Philosophy from –the love of wisdom, Sophia. She originates from God and reveals herself to us through creation itself. Think about that. Wisdom is found through our experiences of creation. This is where scientific inquiry meets theology! God gives us wisdom through the awareness of our senses, and our experiences of nature.

The reading from Proverbs today says that Lady Wisdom is setting out a rich banquet for us all, begging us to come and eat from her table. God does not deny wisdom to any, but rather offers it freely to all who seek it with open hearts and minds. God is well-pleased by our pursuit of wisdom and knowledge, for God delights in our human capacity for wisdom and intellect. God created our amazing brains, and God expects us to use them!

But, wisdom is not just intellect or book knowledge, wisdom involves discernment. How does the modern proverb go? “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, but wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad!” I love tomatoes, but tomatoes in fruit salad is just wrong. Wisdom involves knowing right from wrong.

In our first reading we heard the story of Solomon, surely the most famous wise person of the Bible! This is a great Bible story for anyone who finds themselves in a new job, at a new school, or with new responsibilities. It tells us that when Solomon first became the king, he had no idea what he was doing! He was terrified and overwhelmed by the burden of responsibility for caring for God’s people. He was not wise yet, but he was humble. He loved and worshipped the Lord. And the Lord came to him in a dream, and offered Solomon a kind of spiritual coronation present. God said, “Ask for whatever you think I should give you.” Whoa. The possibilities are endless! Young Solomon could have asked God for a fancy chariot, a fancy wardrobe, an endless supply of money, eternal youth, or for the death of his enemies…. But while Solomon was not yet wise, he was humble and faithful. So the one thing he asked of God was wisdom. Solomon prayed, “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern your great people?”

And God responded, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind, no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.”

Solomon went on to be one of the greatest kings of Israel. His wisdom was world-renowned. He literally wrote the book on wisdom! Most famously, much of the Book of Proverbs is attributed to Solomon. Proverbs is 31 chapters full of short, pithy sayings that share a nugget of wisdom to be remembered. We still share proverbial sayings today. What modern proverbs can you think of?

 

“If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, if you teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime.”

“There’s no I in TEAM”

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

“Many hands make light work.”

“Pennies make pounds.” –my nan’s favorite

“Haters gonna hate.”

 

One of Solomon’s most famous and most important proverbs was this:  “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.” This isn’t to say that we are afraid of God, but rather that we revere God as God and come humbly to God in search of what we do not know.

Not one of us humans knows all there is to know. We need God. And, we need each other’s gifts and wisdom to live as healthy community. The beginning of wisdom is the humility to know that we don’t know everything, that there is always more to learn and explore and discern. Admitting we don’t know everything is the beginning of opening ourselves up to spiritual growth and wisdom.

Applying ourselves to the pursuit of personal growth and wisdom is one of the most important ways we steward our vocations. Whether you’re a student, teacher, nurse, administrator, business person, banker, scientist, salesperson, chef, parent, grandparent, neighbor, or friend, each and every person here as been blessed by God with a vocation –a calling. And God truly does call us to be the best we can be in whatever work or relationship we are called to, for God wants us to grow and learn and share together in healthy community.

Even Jesus, whom Luke’s gospel says is the Teacher even greater than Solomon, went through this process of humble inquiry, study, and growth.

Jesus is 12 years old in our gospel text for today. This is the only passage we have about what Jesus was like in Middle School. In Jewish tradition, Jesus is right on the verge of adulthood. He is actively preparing for his vocational life, for what he wants to be when he grows up. And, like young Solomon, Jesus seeks out the wisdom of God.

Of course, as pre-teens and teens still do from time to time, Jesus failed to inform his earthly parents of his plans to seek out God’s wisdom. And this was before the days of cell phones, or even pay phones. Poor Mary and Joseph travelled a day’s journey before they realized Jesus wasn’t with their friends and family in the large caravan. They then searched for him for 3 days in the big city of Jerusalem! Mary and Joseph were worried half to death! They’d been scouring the city for days, and they finally found him in the Temple, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” Now Jesus was a straight A student, for the scripture says, “All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”  Jesus had a natural aptitude for his the vocation he would pursue as Rabbi and Teacher. But even Jesus started out sitting at the feet of his teachers, listening and asking questions. And from there, our scripture says “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”

The student grew up and became the Teacher!

Jesus is called Teacher 45 times in the Bible, and he takes his vocation as Teacher seriously! He teaches God’s wisdom with stories and he teaches with object lessons. He teaches with catchy phrases and shocking hyperbole! He shares some proverbs of his own, and he twists old proverbs in new ways! He teaches with questions and with repetition. He teaches God’s wisdom and love by showing people how he lives it, and then by sending his disciples out to practice it for themselves. Jesus only travelled around teaching for 3 years, but the impact of his teachings have lasted for over 2000 years. Jesus is a GREAT teacher, and we are his students. There is not a Christian in this world who knows all they need to know, whose learning days are over. Remember, the beginning of wisdom is humility, it’s learning from Jesus with an open mind and an open heart. We are all disciples, sitting at the feet of our Teacher.

Jesus loves us and our world so very much, he wants us all in his class! Whether you’re a straight A student, the class clown, or the kid who just can’t stop fidgeting, Jesus has room enough and wisdom enough for EVERYONE to sit on the carpet of his classroom and learn from him. Saint or Sinner, Jesus loves us all and has something life-changing to teach us all!

Jesus still teaches us today as we participate in worship, as we attend Bible Study and Faith Formation classes, and as we listen and learn from the stories we share with one another. Lady Wisdom reveals herself through creation, which means through our own human experiences. That’s what “Hindsight is 20/20” means! God speaks to whatever we’ve been through and offers us healing, hope, and new life! As we devote ourselves to learning from Jesus, our Teacher, and living together as a community of his disciples, we grow in faith and learn together God’s wisdom.

“The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.”

Solomon prayed for the wisdom to know what was right, and I’d like to conclude today with a prayer by St. Thomas Merton which models the humble, open heart of a disciple. Please pray with me, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

May the Lord grant us all the wisdom we need to face whatever lies ahead this coming year, and may we each find joy in our vocations. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Mystery to be Experienced, Rather than Explained… Christ raises us up every time we receive him in bread and wine

SERMON Pentecost 12B John 6 41-58

We learned about physical hunger our first week in John 6, then we learned about spiritual hunger last week. This week, finally, we’ll meditate on Holy Communion. Notice, I didn’t say learn…. For the Sacrament of the Altar is a mystery. We know what our faith teaches us, that the bread and wine we receive at Christ’s table are ALSO our Lord’s true body and true blood, but HOW the sacrament works is a mystery. We could receive this gift of heaven regularly for over 100 years and still never come to fully understand it. This is why over the last few decades the church has moved toward communing even young children, because even the youngest in the body of Christ are worthy to receive our Lord’s abiding presence, and even the oldest and most experienced among us don’t yet fully understand or appreciate what God is doing for us in this act of worship. Not a one of us will truly reach an “age of understanding” until we participate in this feast around our Lord’s victory table in heaven.

Through our participation in the Sacrament, we receive Christ’s own life! We receive Christ’s own, physical presence within us. And this is something that cannot be explained, but rather this mystery exists as a gift to be experienced.

So, for today, rather than taking us all back to catechetics, I’m going to share a couple of stories of how I’ve experienced this gift, and I pray that you’ll each take time this week to ponder your own stories of how the Sacrament has blessed and sustained you.

As some of you know, I did not grow up Lutheran. I was Baptized and Confirmed a Methodist when I was in the 6th grade. There was no weekly Communion in that church, but a few times a year trays of bread chunks and grape juice were passed around to everyone in the pews. The purpose in that faith tradition was simply to remember our Lord Jesus and the meal he shared with his disciples. This was not an especially meaningful ritual to me at the time. It always felt like a performance rather than something real and deep.

But, I do remember what I consider my first experience of Holy Communion. I was about 14. My family had transferred from the Methodist Church to the Episcopalian Church. The worship experience was radically different. All of the hymns were unfamiliar to me, but the preacher was excellent. A woman priest! I’d never seen one of those before! And it seemed that they celebrated Holy Communion every Sunday, not just a few times a year! They called it Holy. And they treated it Holy. My first time there, I didn’t know what to do, but I followed the crowd to the altar rail. All were invited to receive Christ at the rail. I didn’t know what that meant. But, I knelt down and followed what everyone else was doing. Rev. Jan placed a chunk of bread within my outstretched hand, and said, “This is the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” And I took that seemingly ordinary piece of bread into my body and I tasted God. And then the altar server came around with the glimmering chalice and said, “This is the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” And that wine on my lips transformed my heart in that very moment the way only something that was truly Christ’s own blood could have. At my very first Holy Communion, I knew why they called it Holy. Because it was. Christ communed with me, in me, in a mysterious way that defies explanation.

And regular participation in Holy Communion, has strengthened and sustained me throughout my life.

Participation in our Lord’s supper has taught me through the years what our Lord himself told his disciples and the crowd gathered around. We ingest Christ as we receive bread and wine. This was a miracle too far for the crowds who sought him out in Capernaum. The concept of eating flesh and drinking blood is one that still freaks us out today, and was especially offensive and repulsive to a kosher, Jewish audience. This shocking assertion was how Jesus drove home his point that he was not just a man, but even greater than manna in the wilderness. Jesus Christ is physically the bread of heaven, we eat him and we live. This passage in John 6 is the closest Jesus ever gets to explaining the mechanics of what happens during the Sacrament that he would leave to his Church. Flesh and blood is how Jesus chose to express what we understand as his real presence….. which is not JUST flesh and blood, but the totality of Christ himself! Christ’s essence is really, truly, physically with us in bread and wine.

Jesus still says to us, “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…. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

Jesus fills us with his own life force as we receive him in Holy Communion. Jesus will not only raise us up on the last day, but will abide with us in the here and now. Jesus’ body and blood is the power of God to raise us up here, today, however we each need to be raised up.

The bread of heaven sustains us. And, it resurrects us.

As I mentioned, Holy Communion has always been a deeply meaningful, sacred experience for me. I participated in the Sacrament weekly through high school.

I don’t often talk about my college years, because college was a very painful time in my life, but the story I’m about to tell of the end of that painful time is but one of numerous examples of how Christ’s presence raises us up from death to life again.

Shortly after I went away to college, I became involved with someone who was actively antagonistic towards my faith. Though my faith had always been central to my life and to my sense of identity, I allowed myself to be drawn away from God through this extremely unhealthy, controlling relationship. During those two years, I felt like I was falling with nothing to catch me. I had no grounding in my life, no firm foundation, no support. I wrongly felt like God wouldn’t want me back. I felt like I didn’t deserve to return to God’s presence. I was afraid to go back to church.

But then, my dad had a massive heart attack. He ended up having quintuple bypass surgery. And while I wouldn’t go to church for myself, I did for my dad. I was so devastated. My life was a mess and my dad had almost died. I woke up early, before I had to go to work that Sunday, went to the early service at a church I’d never been to before, and prayed and prayed and prayed before worship. I prayed, and prayed, and prayed as the music started and as the Word was proclaimed. I prayed and prayed and prayed for my dad’s healing and recovery. While feeling utterly unworthy to come to God in that moment, I prayed. And when it was time, my liturgical mechanical memory kicked in, and I walked forward toward the altar. I received Jesus Christ in my hands and on my lips, and though I felt lower than I’d ever felt before, Christ Jesus lifted me up. My heart was warmed with his peace and with his presence. I knew that I was forgiven, I knew that my dad would be ok. I knew in that moment that Christ Jesus had my whole life in his hands, while I held him, as a chunk of bread, in mine. I left church that day filled with hope and joy, and truly a new lease on life.

That one experience of Holy Communion gave me the strength that I needed to minister to the rest of my family during such a time of crisis, to leave that unhealthy relationship behind me, and to return to following Jesus and his mission for me.

Holy Communion is a life changing experience, and it is freely available to us every Sunday. We don’t have to cross mountains or desserts to receive our Lord’s body and blood, as some do. We don’t have to prove ourselves worthy. We are simply invited forward, to come with a humble and open heart, and to experience Christ’s real presence with us through faith.

Christ raises us up with but a chunk of bread and sip of wine. And this free gift of grace is offered to us every time we gather for worship. Christ abides with us and raises us up from whatever circumstance we find ourselves in, and will continue to raise us up until our very last day, until we gather at last around his table in heaven. Amen.

Our ULTIMATE Mission -To Share the Bread of Life

SERMON Pentecost 11B John 6 24 35

The crowd of 5000 woke up in the morning and realized that Jesus was gone! They had seen his disciples leave for Capernaum by boat, but no one had seen Jesus depart. Where was he? It was breakfast time, and they were hungry again, and no one knew where to find him. So, some of the crowd followed after Jesus’ disciples in search for him. When they arrived in Capernaum, they were shocked to find Jesus! No one had seen him leave! How had he made it there so fast without a boat?!

They began asking Jesus these logistical questions, but Jesus knew their true motives. He said, “You’re looking for me not because you saw the signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”

They ate yesterday, and now they’re all hungry again. And their physical hunger motivated them to seek Jesus out.

Jesus invites them into a deeper understanding of him and of the miraculous feeding sign he performed the day before, saying, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.”

And the crowd responds to Jesus, as perhaps anyone of us would, wanting to know the catch or at the very least the cost of this eternal lifetime supply of food…. “What must we do to perform the works of God?”

Transactions were and still are the way of the world. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. And there’s certainly no such thing as a free lunch in the real world. What’s the catch? What’s the cost? What are the terms and conditions of this food that endures for eternal life? What’s in it for me, and what do I have to do?

Transactions are the way of the world, but they are not the way of God’s kingdom.

Jesus tells them that this food of eternal life is not about a payment or a work that needs to be done. Rather, it’s about receiving God’s grace through faith!

Jesus says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent!”

Believe. This isn’t a matter of head knowledge, or an act of shear will. Belief is an experience of heart. The faith that saves us is a relationship. It’s loving and trusting Jesus.

Simple, right?

But it’s not the way of the world. And the crowd struggles to understand. They say, “What sign are you going to give us then, that we may see it and believe?”

Apparently the feeding of the 5000, that they’d all just experienced the day before, was not a compelling enough sign to inspire their faith. They are still trying to make a transaction out of God’s grace. It just can’t be as simple as loving and trusting Jesus!

They asked him, “Just what do you have to offer us to make us believe in you, so that we can then get our ticket punched to the eternal buffet line?”

Popular modern American Christianity works like this sometimes. Some come to church, asking, “What worship band do you have that will inspire me into believing? What pyrotechnics will be up on the screen behind the pastor to make me believe? How large is the youth program? How large is the women’s group? The men’s group?  What’s the minimum requirement of a faithful life for me to get my ticket punched into heaven? What does your church have to offer me, and what are the terms and conditions?”

This consumer model of church is not who Jesus invites us to be, or what Jesus invites us into.

The kingdom of God is not a transaction to be conducted, but about experiencing God’s grace, which is freely offered to all.

Jesus performs signs first to meet a genuine need that is present, but ultimately to reveal his true identity and to draw those who witnessed the sign into a deep and enduring relationship with him.

The sign is temporary.

But the relationship is meant to endure, grow, and transform us.

The bite of food today perishes, but the bread of life feeds and sustains us forever, through all that life throws at us!

Last week, I preached about the pervasive problem of physical hunger and the church’s response to it, and all week long at VBS we’ve learned about the various ways that ELCA World Hunger is helping to feed people and to lift them out of poverty in a sustainable way.

There are lots of social service organizations out there which offer bread for the hungry. There are many churches, ours included, which strive to meet the immediate needs of the hungry by offering food for those in need.

Why?

Because Jesus told us to feed the hungry and he modeled for us his own care for the marginalized. I said last week that feeding the hungry is PART of God’s mission for the church, but it’s not the whole mission of the church.

As Bishop Eaton has said many times, “the church is NOT a social service organization with sacraments.”

While of course we meet the physical needs that exist within our world, we feed and shelter and nurture the vulnerable, the Church offers something that secular social service agencies do not.

As the Church, our ULTIMATE mission is to connect the hungry (and everyone we meet) with community, and to share with them in relationship with one another and with Jesus Christ, the bread of life, the bread that feeds us and sustains us forever!

Jesus is the one who feeds every kind of hunger, the one who fills not just stomachs but hearts and lives. Jesus is the reason we come together as the church, to worship together, and to share together in our mission to feed the world with Christ’s love, and to invite others to join us in receiving and feeding the world this bread of life.

As I mentioned, this week we came together for Vacation Bible School. As of Monday, no one had pre-registered besides the 3 children who regularly participate in the life of our congregation. Now, I know there are some churches that would cancel with no pre-registrations, some would question, “Is VBS worth having with so few kids?” But we pressed on, trusting that God would do what God would do this week, and that God would use our time together to feed those from our own congregation who participated and helped throughout the week and any neighbors who happened to join us as well!

Monday afternoon, a mom stopped in out of the blue and asked if we had any activities for kids. I shared with her about VBS, and she brought her two daughters that evening. It turns out that Eric knew the two girls from teaching at Jackson Elementary throughout the course of the year. Their family stayed for dinner, breaking bread with us, and then the children and their family stayed for VBS as well, sharing together with us in the gospel story and the fun activities. We thought they would be back, but transportation difficulties kept them away the next two nights. But starting on night 2, Ruth brought her little neighbor to join us, and the kids all made fast friends, and she heard the gospel with us and shared in food and fellowship with us all week long. By Thursday night, we expected to finish out the VBS program with the same 4 kids who had been with us the two nights before. But, to our delight, the family who joined us the first night came back, and brought 5 of their cousins, and their parents. We had a full house for our final night, and we not only filled up tummies as we all shared in supper together, but Jesus, the bread of life, filled up hearts as he drew us all together into deeper relationship with him and with one another! The families all stayed for our Bible Story time, heard the gospel, prayed with us, and experienced Christ’s peace and joy. And the kids had a wonderful time playing and learning and creating art together. By the end of the week, we made a total of 8 new friends, plus their families, and each and every one of them was touched by the gospel and by the love of God’s people. While yes, we shared together in food as we had supper every night, we most importantly shared together in experiencing Jesus, the bread of life, with us, among us, and through one another.

As the children left on Thursday night, they were all so full of joy and love, they excitedly asked when they could come back to be with us. I invited them to worship and Sunday school. And one of the mom’s said, “Yes, this is God’s house, I really need to get back to God’s house. I miss this, I miss church so much.”

Our mission as the Church is not just to feed the hungry with bread, but to believe, receive, and feed our neighbors with the bread of life. Christ Jesus is that which eternally feeds and nourishes us, not only in body, but in heart and spirit. Amen.

 

 

 

The Lord’s Power is Not Limited

SERMON Pentecost 10B John 6 1 21

“Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.” John’s gospel sets important theological and historical context for Jesus’ feeding of the 5000. Passover, the great festival celebrating the freedom of God’s people from slavery, is near. It’s on everyone’s mind as they follow Jesus out into the wilderness, up the mountain. For as faithful a prophet as Moses was, Jesus is revealed through this story as the one who is even greater than the greatest prophet of all time! Indeed, these next few weeks as we abide in John chapter 6, Jesus will be revealed as more than a prophet, but as the bread of life who will raise us up on the last day.

People began following Moses because he called down plagues upon the Egyptians as he petitioned Pharaoh to let God’s people go free.  In John’s gospel, the great crowd is following Jesus from place to place because they’ve seen and heard about how he can heal the great plagues afflicting the people –sickness and blindness and every possible kind of debilitating experience, Jesus showed himself to be the one who healed and made people whole. The great crowd has now followed Jesus and his disciples out into the wilderness, just as the people followed Moses to freedom out into the wilderness.

But, both Jesus and Moses encountered a major logistical challenge with their crowds in the wilderness!

How do can one feed so many, with seemingly so few resources, in such a remote location?!

In Numbers, after God had already fed the people with manna, they began grumbling and longing for meat to eat. They were sick of eating manna all day, every day. They even went so far as to say they wanted to go back to being slaves in Egypt. Moses became deeply distressed from hearing the  moaning from every tent. Moses himself cried to the Lord, “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?!” He genuinely wanted to know where the meat would come from! God promised to provide not only for their basic needs through the manna, but to give them so much meat that they’d stop longing to go back to slavery! God promised to give them meat for a whole month, so much that they’d lose their taste for meat!

But Moses was still skeptical, saying, “The people I am with number 600,000 on foot, and you say, ‘I will give them meat that they may eat for a whole month’! Are there enough flocks and herds to slaughter for them? Are there enough fish in the sea to catch for them?” And the Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord’s power limited?”

In our gospel passage, Jesus asks, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” But Jesus asked this to test his disciples, for he knew what he was going to do! Jesus knew where the bread was coming from!

Ever practical Philip piped up, “What do you mean “where are WE going to buy bread for these people to eat? Sixth month’s wages wouldn’t buy enough even to give a bite to everyone! They should have packed their own lunch before they followed us out here!”

Then Andrew threw out a seemingly crazy suggestion, Um, Jesus, I know it’s not much, but this little boy here did pack a lunch before he came. He has 5 barley loaves and 2 fish. He says you can have everything he brought for himself, but what are they among so many people?”

Is the Lord’s power limited?

At once, Jesus instructed everyone to sit down in the grass. He took the loaves, gave thanks to God for the gifts provided, and then Jesus himself distributes enough food from the 5 barley loaves and 2 fish for all 5000 people to eat their fill. They didn’t just each get a crumb, or a bite, but Jesus himself provides a feast for the crowd! Jesus feeds them with abundance! There is so much food, that they end this miracle feast with more food than they started with!

God’s math does not make sense, but it does show forth God’s amazing grace and amazing abundance! The people gathered on the mountain did not deserve a free lunch, they didn’t even ask Jesus for food, and not all of Jesus’ disciples were in favor of feeding them, but Jesus sees their need and feeds them anyway.

Being in the presence of God means abundance. It means not only that our every need is supplied, but that we have what we need to be our very best, to grow in faith, and to share what we have. Living in the presence of God means that we are fed, and that we feed others.

Part of God’s mission for the church today is to continue to feed people, all people, until there is no one left who knows what hunger is. God continues to supply us with grace upon grace. God continues to teach us that the Lord’s power is absolutely not limited, and that there is indeed abundance to go around.

When we read this story –and others like it- like Moses we can become overwhelmed when we think about the enormous needs that exist within our world. We despair at the tragic reality that 795 million people around the world do not have enough to eat to lead healthy, active lives, and that someone around the world dies of hunger every 10 seconds, most often children. We despair that 48 million Americans live with food insecurity right now, and that 1 in 5 children in central Pennsylvania do not have reliable access to 3 meals each day. We question, “If God provides for our needs, and shares abundantly with us, then why are there still so many hungry people in our world?”

But, as Mikka McCracken from ELCA World Hunger shared with us at our synod assembly in June, we do not have a resource problem in our world, but a distribution problem! For while 48 million Americans are hungry, roughly 50% of the food produced in the US is thrown away each year! That’s 60 million tons of food, worth $160 billion, ends up in landfills rather than in hungry people’s stomachs each year. $160 billion food is wasted each year in America alone, and yet it would cost only $30 billion each year to feed every hungry person in the entire world!

Mikka proclaimed boldly that is IS possible to end world hunger in our lifetime. For there is abundance in our world. There is enough food produced each year for everyone in the world to eat 2800 calories. It is possible to end world hunger in our lifetime. For the Lord’s power is most certainly not limited!! But what we have is a distribution problem, and perhaps a lack of imagination and innovation among God’s people. But God is still speaking and working among God’s people today. There are still the Andrews within the church who trust that Jesus can do amazing things with who we are and what we have, even when what we have doesn’t seem nearly enough.

Jesus still works feeding miracles in our world! We disciples today, whether skeptical, practical, or imaginative, Jesus uses us to trust in God’s abundance and to find ways to connect that abundance with the people who need it so that everyone can experience first hand the blessing of being fed by Jesus through his Church.

Mikka shared with us the incredible story Maria Rose Belding. Not unlike the youth in our gospel story today, she recognized the problem of food waste after working in her church’s food pantry and seeing how many items went out of date and had to be tossed because there were too many of them on the shelves, while there were other items that they needed that they just never got in. She recognized the problem of abundance distribution, so she offered what she had to Jesus to solve the problem. Maria was highly intelligent and great with technology! Using this gift, and trusting in Jesus to solve this problem, at 16 years old she designed the MEANS database, which is a website that operates in 48 states and DC now to connect restaurants, cafes, and other food distributors with excess items to food pantries and soup kitchens that need those items! Their website states: “MEANS was started with the belief it should be easy for those with excess food to share it with those in need. It didn’t take long to find people who agreed. We’re now in 48 states and counting, helping divert food from the trash to local emergency feeding services with the ease and speed of the internet.”

This is the 21st century response to Jesus’ own command to his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over so that nothing may be lost.” There is more than enough to go around.

While the MEANS database alone will not solve the problem of World Hunger in the 21st century, it is a modern miracle. And Jesus works these kinds of miracles all the time. With all of us working together in our own places, in our own ways, with what we already have, with our trust in Jesus, it is possible to end world hunger in our lifetimes.

For the Lord’s power is not limited. Amen.