Am I Up for It? Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Mark 8:27-38

Who is Jesus? What do you say?

Let’s begin with who Jesus is not.

Jesus is not White. Jesus is not Nordic. Jesus is not Aryan. Jesus is not American. Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat or a Libertarian or a Socialist. Jesus is not a capitalist or a communist. Jesus is not an entrepreneur. Jesus is not rich. Jesus is not an individualist.

Jesus is not Protestant or Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. Hell, Jesus isn’t even Christian!

Jesus is not a spiritual star athlete. Jesus is not a warrior. Jesus is not a body-builder. Jesus is not John Wayne or Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump.

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Jesus is not a Gnostic mystic. Jesus is not a Cynic philosopher. Jesus is not a self-help guru. Jesus is not my lover or best friend. Jesus is not Santa Claus with brown hair on a diet.

Jesus is not a mirror in which I can admire my favorite things about myself.

But that is precisely what we expect from Jesus in twenty-first century America. It may be as ubiquitous as Warner Sallman’s painting of Jesus that still hangs in most White American Protestant church halls in this country. It may be as blatant as the stained-glass images of Jesus in White Christian worship spaces that uniformly cast Jesus’ skin tone as White.

Our image of Jesus (and by “our” I mean White American Christians generally) can also be as dangerous as the iconography that filled the imagination of Dylann Roof.

Robert P. Jones, the author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity puts out a regular newsletter continuing his conversation on this topic. Recently he wrote an article called “Saving our Churches from Dylann Roof’s White Jesus.”[i] Roof is the White Lutheran Christian man “who murdered nine African Americans during the closing prayer of a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015…”

Let’s take some time to say aloud the names of those nine Black Christian sisters and brothers before we move on:

  • Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
  • Depayne Middleton-Doctor
  • Cynthia Hurd
  • Susie Jackson
  • Ethel Lance
  • Rev. Clementa Pinckney
  • Tywanza Sanders
  • Rev. Daniel Simmons
  • Myra Thompson

Roof was convicted in the murders of those nine and sentenced to death for his crimes. He appealed that conviction and sentence. That appeal was recently rejected by the 4th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals. Jones highlights information from Roof’s own journal that is filled with “Christian” imagery, including “a full-page drawing of a resurrected white Jesus emerging from the tomb.”

We might think that Roof’s spiritual formation at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, ELCA, in Columbia, South Carolina, was deficient and deformed. Jones notes that Roof’s assumed imagination of Jesus as white is not exceptional. Instead, Jones gives a brief inventory of just a few stained-glass windows in established churches that feature an exclusively White Jesus.

“These images perform unacknowledged, but powerful theological work,” Jones writes. “For the skeptics, just a few experiments would likely reveal how strongly many Christians remain invested in the whiteness of Jesus, which is rooted in underlying beliefs about white supremacy.”

Jones then offers a few of those thought experiments to give us a chance to test our own underlying beliefs about white supremacy in our churches and in our White Christian selves. They are worth quoting and then wrestling with for a while. Jones assumes a relatively “evangelical” theological framework in these experiments, but I think many White Christians will register the same discomfort.

  • How would your church react to a move to remove all images of Jesus, including stained-glass windows and paintings, that depict Jesus as someone of European descent and replace those images with more accurate depictions of a Jesus of middle-Eastern descent?
  • How would a non-white Jesus impact the ways White Christians think of a personal savior and the theology of salvation? How comfortable would we be with letting a brown-skinned Jesus “come into our hearts”?
  • How would we react to an illuminated baby Jesus in the nativity scene in front of the church that was Brown instead of White?

Let’s take some time, White friends, to sit with the discomfort of those questions before we move on.

In my pastoral experience, moving to change the images of Jesus in our White facilities would be more than enough to get a pastor fired. Admitting a brown-skinned or Black Jesus into our White hearts would push many White imaginations beyond capacity. And messing with the baby Jesus in that decrepit old cradle/manger? I would have the moving truck loaded and my life insurance up to date.

This may all seem like fairy tales or speculation except for Jones’ final wondering. “What difference would it have made for Dylann Roof, if the Christian formation he received at the white Lutheran church of his childhood had taken place under the compassionate gaze of a brown-skinned Jesus?”

Who is Jesus? What do you say? If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus. That’s worth repeating, if I do say so myself. If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus.

That is precisely the place we go in the gospel reading from Mark. Jesus challenges all disciples with the question: “Who do you say that I am?” The first Jesus-followers have several false starts. Then Peter gets the right answer. “You are the Messiah!” Go to the head of the class, Peter! We take back all those things we said about your stupidity.

Jesus then orders his followers to shut up about this! Peter has just uncovered the biggest and best news in history. He’s outed Jesus in front of the other disciples. And now, they’re supposed to keep it to themselves? I can’t even keep the Christmas presents in the guest room secret from the grandkids. How in the world were those first followers supposed to sit on this bombshell?

Jesus told them to shut up because they didn’t know what they were talking about. Messiah! Messiah! Messiah! Jesus must have wanted to give Peter the “Princess Bride” treatment. “You keep using that word,” Jesus seems to say, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Jesus begins to explain what “Messiah” means. He will continue that explanation in our texts for the next few weeks. The short version is shocking: “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again…” (Mark 8:31, NRSV). There was no holding back now. This was the straight poop.

Peter gets it right away. He gets what this means. If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus.

Who is Jesus? Jesus is, as Mark tells right off the bat, the reign of God come near and beginning here and now.

This turns the upside-down world right side up. This requires a complete reversal of our assumptions. Dying is the path to life. Serving is the way to lead. Power, position, property, and privilege are useless. Sin, death, and the Devil are not the last words. Losing is winning. Giving is receiving. Enemies are loved. Captives are freed.

The schemes, structures, and systems that depend on an upside-down world will not go quietly. There’s going to be Hell to pay before the end. Even we may be closest to Jesus will do anything we can to avoid Jesus’ conclusion. Let’s take Jesus aside, tell him to shut up, set him straight while there’s still time. Because we know how this could end.

Taking Jesus aside, telling to shut up, setting him straight – that’s what produces a Jesus who is White a Jesus who is Nordic, a Jesus who is Aryan, American, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or Socialist; a Jesus who is a capitalist, a communist, an entrepreneur, rich, or individualist, a Jesus who is Protestant or Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox; a Jesus who is Christian.

Taking Jesus aside, telling him to shut up, setting him straight – that’s what we want to do because the alternative is life under the shadow of a cross. Is that what we really want? Well…

 If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus.

“Essentially,” Brent Diggers writes, “Mark is saying that the Son of God will not dial down his ministry to spare his own life, or even to ease his suffering. His commitment to the healing of humanity literally knows no limits,” Diggers concludes. “And neither—Easter tells us—does God’s life-giving power.”

When Jesus proclaims, embodies, and enacts the life-giving reign of God, the forces of sin, death, and evil respond with violence. While that response is not logically or mechanically necessary in the way that a trap closes when the mouse takes the cheese, such violence is the normal and expected response of those forces.

What is “necessary” from the Divine perspective is the mission of forgiveness, live, and salvation, whatever the cost. What is necessary from the anti-Divine perspective is a violent response to maintain the power, position, and privilege of those who benefit from that system.

Disciples begin to live in the power of the New Life here and now. As accomplices of the cross we demonstrate that sin, death, and evil are defeated.

If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus. Every day I wonder if I can be that person…


[i] https://robertpjones.substack.com/p/saving-our-churches-from-dylann-roofs

The Sighing Jerk — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 7:24-37

Our text provokes far more questions than it provides answers. The NRSV calls this section “The Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith.” It could just as easily be called, perhaps, “That Time When Jesus was a Xenophobic Jerk.”

Or it could be called “The Desperately Persistent and Patient Gentile Mother.” Or maybe we should call it “Not as Smart as You Thought You Were, Eh, Jesus?” Or maybe…well, you get the picture.

What, precisely, is the story here?

In this encounter we can see that both Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman are each a bundle of intersecting identities. In this context, Jesus is a Galilean Jew in Gentile territory. He is a man interacting with a woman in a patriarchal culture. He is a religious teacher and healer in a place where someone needs what he has to offer. He is a poor man in a part of the world that extracts wealth from his people in order to live in luxury. Jesus is each of those identities and all of those identities.

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The woman – unnamed, of course – is a Syrophoenician Gentile native relatively close to her home turf. She is a woman interacting on her own with a man in a patriarchal culture. She is a mother desperately seeking healing for her demon-possessed daughter who believes that Jesus has what her daughter needs. She is, perhaps, a wealthy woman who lives, at least in part, off the extractive economy that keeps the Galilee and Galileans poor and hungry. The woman is each of those identities and all of those identities.

The woman is perhaps well off and accustomed to being in charge, so her reply to Jesus is based in confidence rather than humility. But she is also in desperate need of what Jesus has to offer, and he’s not a mere peddler of faith-healing wares. So, when it comes to power in this situation, it’s hard to tell which foot the shoe is on at any given moment in the interchange.

All that being said, some of us still have to ask, “Why is Jesus being such a…jerk?”

What if our reading of this text is the problem rather than the solution? David King outlines six varieties of solutions to the problem of Jesus’ response to the Syrophoenician woman:

  1. Jesus is on vacation.
  2. Jesus is playing.
  3. Jesus has a more important mission.
  4. Jesus is bested in debate.
  5. Jesus is racist.
  6. Jesus is sexist.

The first three responses are variations of the theme I would call “Defending Jesus.” The last three responses are variations of the theme I would call “Teaching the Teacher.”

Mitzi Smith reads this text through a Womanist theological lens. She experiences the Syro-Phoenician woman as “sassy.” Smith writes that “sass” as a term is “usually applied to the behavior of persons considered inferior or subordinate, by race, gender, position, class, or age to the person toward the talk, back talk, gesture, and/or attitude is addressed” (page 97).

Obviously, Smith is on to something here. Through this lens, Smith sees the Syrophoenician woman as being considered inferior or subordinate due to race, gender, position, class, or age, as compared to the person being “sassed.” She defines “sass” as “when the oppressed name, define, call out, and sometimes refuse to submit to oppressive systems and behaviors” (page 97).

Smith argues that this Greek, Syro-Phoenician woman with a demon-possessed daughter “bears a triple stigma because of her race, gender, and status as a mother” of such a child. She “experiences racism, sexism, and classism as interlocking forms of oppression. All three forms of oppression are highlighted in the narrative,” Smith contends, “and they impact how Jesus responds to the woman” (page 101).

She argues that Jesus responds to the woman “in a way that betrayed his Jewish male bias.” More than that, he seems to communicate that Jewish lives matter more, at least for now, than do Gentile lives. That’s a potent rhetorical connection that I had not seen previously in this text. Now that Smith has pointed it out, I cannot “un-see” it.

All of these responses, however, assume that Jesus is in the position of social and cultural dominance in the conversation. I think we’d be well served by re-examining that assumption as we read the text. I found the 2010 article by Poling Sun to be very instructive in this regard.

“If the powerful one in this story, however, is not Jesus but the woman,” Sun argues, “or more accurately, not the woman as woman, but the Syro-Phoenician woman who symbolizes and in fact represents the powerful and real colonialism, the story and message would be entirely different” (page 385).

What if Jesus is not just taking a small sabbatical? What if, instead, he is hiding out from the agents of Herod Antipas and the Jerusalem elites until things calm down a bit? If that is the case, then the Syrophoenician woman has blown his cover. When she came in the door and put him at risk, does Jesus think, “Just another Gentile rich bitch coming to take what belongs to us Jews”?

That puts a different spin on his words in the text.

What if we come to this reading seeing Jesus as oppressed rather than powerful? How does that affect our experience of his initial words, and of his actual response?

More than that, what if we begin to see following Jesus as a path away from power? We read the text from a triumphalist perspective where Jesus has all the power (and therefore so do we). But, if Sun is right, that is not the situation It certainly wasn’t the situation for the Markan church. Jesus is one of the colonized, not one of the colonizers. If Jesus is suspicious, defensive, and reluctant, that makes sense. He is testing her sincerity, not her “faith.”

Can we mainline Christian types in America serve and witness from a non-dominant place? We are so addicted to triumphalism in the Western, White church that I’m not sure we can adjust. Can we submit to the leadership and wisdom of our Black, Brown, and Indigenous siblings in Christ to learn real humility in order to be healed? I’m not sure, but I hope so.

This is a significant way into the text and especially into Jesus’ harsh words to the Syrophoenician woman. But I think the story unveils a confrontation of power and power – the cultural, political, economic, and social hegemony represented by the Syrophoenician woman and the world-altering power of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

I think it points as well to vulnerability meeting vulnerability – the desperate desire of the mother for her daughter’s healing and Jesus’ awareness that the shadow of the cross extends even into the territory of Tyre and Sidon.

I don’t think that Jesus repents and is converted in the way that the “Teaching the Teacher” scenarios would have it. Sun’s analysis cuts through that conundrum. But I do think Jesus changes his mind about the woman who comes to him in her time of need. He commends her for her “word” of humble, self-effacing wisdom. She relinquishes her power. She “dies to self” in order to save her daughter. In a very real sense, she came not to be served but to serve.

Matt Skinner points to the woman’s response to Jesus’ words as the crowning description of her repentance and, dare we say it, faith. Skinner argues that Jesus does have a change of heart toward the woman because of the nature of her argument as a theological proposal. Even though Jesus is focused on his mission to Israel, there are still crumbs enough for her daughter to be healed, she pleads. Jesus agrees.

The incarnational dimensions of this story, however, go much deeper with a close reading of the story. Both Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman are complicated. Each is an intersection of both complementary and competing identities. Each is a bundle of contradictions looking for a self to serve as the center. That’s human existence. It’s not clean. It’s not very organized or consistent.

But it’s real.

Both Jesus and the woman experience changes of mind and heart in the story. That’s not troubling to me either. If there are echoes of the Jonah story in the background of this text (and I think there are), then the idea that both the hegemonic power and the Divine power experience repentance and reconciliation is old news.

We may find that news uncomfortable and inconvenient (just ask Jonah), but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Diversity is not a necessary inconvenience to be tolerated. Rather, it is the very glory of God and a gift to be celebrated. Will we bother to get into conversations where we are not the ones in power but rather the desperate supplicants hoping for a hearing? Will we “be opened”?

Be completely opened! And be set free from the previous constraints of the old ways of hearing, speaking, and seeing! Is this prayer really for the disciples? And for us? We have discussed this before, but it’s worth re-visiting here. Most congregations make the claim that “All are welcome.” The real work happens when that claim is converted into a question: “Are all welcome?”

The pragmatic answer in all congregations, in one way or another, is “no.” We generally are not open to persons from a range of socioeconomic situations. We generally are not open to persons from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. We generally are not open to persons from a diversity of gender and sexual orientations. We generally are not open to persons with divergent political views.

Being thoroughly opened is hard work. No wonder Jesus sighed.

Purity Problems — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 7:1-23; 14 Pentecost B 2021

Jesus hits a home run with his feeding miracle, and how do the opponents respond? They launch into a critique of the handwashing etiquette of the disciples. His opponents immediately call his authority into question by pointing to the “bad manners” of his followers.

“Purity in matters of food was as important as anything in postexilic Israelite practice,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “though what is under discussion here is the Pharisaic expression of Israelite custom rather than the Law of Moses. Here Jesus rejects the former in favor of the latter” (page 221).

The primary practices Jesus advocates in this text do not focus on external purity. Instead, the first practice is to honor the full intent of God’s commandments rather than blurring that intent through the vagaries of case law. Exceptions and equivocations can multiply to the point that the heart of the commandment no longer matters. When self-interest drives that process, there is no limit to the possible abuses than can ensue.

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The second practice is to focus on relational holiness rather than physical purity. Jesus focuses on the filial relationship to parents. He then expands that to an examination of the human heart, the source of “evil intentions.” Many of these evil intentions result in the breaking of community, the exclusion of the stranger, and the exploitation of the vulnerable. Defilement has more to do with maintaining community integrity than it does with maintaining bodily purity.

Purity rules are always about people in the end. The story we tell may be about land or food or clothing. But those material things always represent the difference we construct between people: the insiders and the outsiders, the honorable and the dishonorable, the natives and the foreigners, the good and the bad. We humans love hierarchies, and we will fixate on almost any feature of existence in order to establish a pecking order with us at the top and someone else at the bottom.

I lived in Denver, Colorado, for a few years in the early 1980’s. That was the time of the “Native” bumper stickers. Colorado was a popular place for pilgrims seeking their version of John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.” They (we, for a while) came from all over the country and all over the world to enjoy the skiing and the columbine, the low humidity and high meadows. It was difficult to find someone who was actually born in Colorado and still lived there.

The few folks who made up the aristocracy of birth began a movement expressed on green bumper stickers decorated with a background of mountain peaks and displaying the title “NATIVE.” This designation placed them above the rest of us mere mortals who had the misfortune to be born somewhere else and to feel the need emigrate to God’s country.

There were several edges to this label. “Natives” were, according to some, inherently better than the interlopers and better-suited to their home state. The non-natives were invaders who brought with them all sorts of foreign ideas, customs, and priorities. They (we) were dilettantes who came for the skiing and left when the snow turned to mud. The natives were the only ones really deserving of the best real estate and were deeply resentful of all the outside money that drove up the prices and reduced the inventory.

Non-natives were, somehow, “impure.” Only later did most of us find out that the original idea for the “NATIVE” campaign originated with a transplant named Eric Glade. After a few years the campaign petered out, but the message stuck with me.

It takes very little for us humans to whip up a caste system, out of whole cloth if we need to do so. “The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality,” Isabel Wilkerson observes. “It is about power—which groups have it, and which do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is,” she concludes, “about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded these and who is not.”

It is one thing to have a system that maps out the relationships in life in such a way as to provide a framework of meaning and purpose. But human beings, over time, find it nearly impossible, I think, to resist the temptation to use that system to establish a caste system which affords advantages to the in-group that sponsors the system.

It was one thing to point out that there were still a few “Native” Coloradans hanging around in the sea of newcomers. That was just a fact. And those “natives” could indeed offer some insights into life along and among the great Rocky Mountains. If the “Native” label were regarded as a gift, an asset, something to be offered up for the good of all, it might have been a salutary thing. But it was claimed as a resentful privilege and a mark of preferred purity.

It wasn’t long before a few people noted the astonishing and immoral presumption in the label as well. The real “natives” of the land weren’t white people who happened to have been born within the boundaries of Colorado. The real natives were the people whose people had been on that land long before Colorado was even a consideration. The real natives were the people whose people had been on that land when the ancestors of the pretenders were still expelling the Romans from northern Europe.

Every human hierarchy is constructed on a false foundation. Jesus understands this, names it, and challenges the presumptions of the purity system in Israel at the time. It’s not the covenant itself that he challenges. It is the way the purity system is now used to underwrite systems and structures of power, to serve self-interest rather than God, and to sustain the divisions constructed to uphold the system in the first place.

Purity rules are always about people in the end. No, that’s not quite right. Purity rules are always about power in the end. In Jesus’ earthly ministry, the purity system was based on rules that had meant something quite different in Bronze Age Israel and in Iron Age Judea. Now that system was being used to police the poor, to control women, and to prop up the priestly aristocracy in Jerusalem. Regardless of their intentions, the Pharisees participated in that caste system, and Jesus challenged that participation.

Jesus emphasizes how God approaches us – through our hearts. He argues that purity rules, at least in the “Traditions of the Elders,” had become the tail wagging the dog of right relationships. These rules had become a tool of the religious/political/economic elite to control the people.

In what ways do we church “insiders” use “traditions of the elders” to control access to our Christian congregations? We may say that “all are welcome here” but are “all” really welcome here? In most congregations, the honest answer is “no.” We exclude people through a variety of conscious and unconscious norms designed for the comfort of the insiders and the repulsion of those who might want to get in.

I don’t think it’s trivial that Jesus takes on the hand-washing practice and expands it into a major theological and ethical issue. If, in fact, the practice originates with the Roman colonizers and is a way into assimilation with the imperial power and status structure, then this is a big deal. Jesus takes his audience and his disciples out of that system and back to their core identity as the people of God formed by Scripture and not by human traditions.

God’s people cannot live inside a domination system, cannot accommodate to imperial powers, without experiencing a defaced and deformed imagination. This is the song that binds together the witness of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The Hebrews resist Egyptian imperial power and are released in the Exodus. Israel and Judah embrace forms of empire and are destroyed by empires. Jesus proclaims an alternate reign, God’s kin(g)dom and is executed by agents of the Roman system.

Our own “imperial” system that deforms the Christian imagination has now been outed for what it is – White Christian Nationalism. The evidence of a deformed and defaced imagination is almost too much to catalogue. There is the conjunction of “Christian” and Confederate flags. There is the excruciating whiteness of large parts of the Church on this continent. There is the complicit racism of those of us who wish we could get it “right” without paying a price.

Perhaps the good news here is in the accurate diagnosis Jesus offers. There are no crimes such as “driving while Black,” or “shopping while Black,” or “walking in the park and bird-watching while Black.” Those are made-up things – the Traditions of our Elders that we need to abandon. Knowing this can help us to repent and make repairs, the first steps toward real growth.

Next week, we get some insight into just how difficult and necessary this conversation is for people who follow Jesus. Stay tuned.

“The Flight of a Bumble Bee” — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read John 6:59-71

“Then Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘You aren’t also leaving, are you?’” Following him was challenging, to say the least. Accepting the truth of his identity was much harder. Folks who had come for the free lunch headed for the exits when the Jesus path got steep.

As the fair-weather disciples melt back into the faceless crowds, Jesus looks at his core group and wonders if we’re up for the challenge. “You aren’t leaving also, are you?”

These days (August of 2021 in the United States), the question is a bit different. “You are coming back, aren’t you?” Churchgoers have been away from public worship and other activities for over a year and a half. Now some of us are beginning to return – however halting that return might be. But many of us are not.

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A few months ago, as many as three out of four previous worshipers indicated that they would return to public worship as Covid-tide came to an end. At this point, the actual ratio is more like one in four. Church and denominational leaders wonder frantically, “You are coming back, aren’t you?”

The trend of decreasing worship attendance is not news. The percentage of the American population engaged in regular worship attendance has dropped from around seventy percent at the turn of this century to under fifty percent according to a recent Gallup poll.

“The decline in church membership is primarily a function of the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference,” writes Jeffrey Jones for the Gallup organization. Even those who express a religious preference are now less likely than twenty years ago to be part of an organized religious institution.

One in five Americans is now a “None,” one who has no connection or allegiance to a religious organization. The Nones are now the largest religious preference group in the United States, according to the pollsters.

Some of the increase in this group is tied to generational change. Younger people are less likely to be part of a religious body than older folks. However, the percentage of older folks with no religious preference has increased more rapidly than the growth of that population cohort overall.

It’s not that some religious groups are growing while others are declining. That was an historical blip in the 1990s that has not held true long-term. Nor is this is a White, middle-class event, although religious involvement among “demographic subgroups” has not declined quite as much as it has among White people.

As a result, thousands of Christian congregations close each year. In large part those closing congregations are in the “middle” in terms of size and available resources.

These trends pre-date the Covid-19 pandemic, but the outbreak and associated measures have accelerated at least some of these trends. Digital worship, study, and meetings mitigated that effect. But one side effect of becoming “podrishioners” is that this has become the preferred means of participation for a number of folks – me included.

“You are coming back, aren’t you?” Well, I’m not sure yet. Here’s an image that makes sense to me.

We have a variety of blooming plants in our backyard, both flowers and vegetables. This year the native bees have worked overtime to facilitate good pollination as they fed on numerous nectar sources. I see them in the giant blossoms on the zucchini and pumpkin vines. They bounce from flower to flower among the cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and watermelons.

The bees are busy with the coleus and cone flowers, the penstemon and sneeze weed, the hyssop and black-eyed susans and goldenrod. They move to the butterfly bushes, zinnias, and daffodils. From one blossom to another they flit, getting what they need from each – making a commitment to no particular plant or bed or species.

That’s how I feel about worship attendance at this point. I take in anywhere from two to five online services a Sunday. Some are ELCA, some are not. I can be certain to find the Eucharist as part of at least one of those services each week. I get the standard lectionary in some places, the narrative lectionary in others, a summer series in a third, a month-long focus in a fourth, and whatever the Spirit might dictate in a fifth.

I’m unusual, certainly, both in taking in so many services and in my attention to the study of the lectionary texts. Those who follow my blog know this. I feel closer to Jesus, more fed by the Word of God, and more deeply immersed in the texts themselves than at any time since I was a seminarian.

I like it a lot. I’m not joining the ranks of the Nones. I’m not leaving Jesus.

“So, you are coming back, right?” I never left Jesus. In-person worship and all that other stuff – I’m not so sure. And that’s the problem.

If there’s anything that’s clear about the Bread of Life Discourse, it’s that “flesh” is indispensable. The Incarnation is not a metaphor, nor is it an option. I cannot have an authentic relationship with Jesus and be estranged from his Body.

“Jesus as the Bread of Life cannot be understood as merely metaphor,” Karoline Lewis writes, “but rather as a literal revelation of who Jesus is and what abundant life entails…This promise,” Lewis continues, “hinges on John’s central theological claim of the incarnation. If the incarnation is only euphemistic imagination, then it defies its own logic,” she argues, “To stake an entire theology and Christology on God becoming human requires,” she concludes, “that at every turn the incarnation is completely present” (page 84).

This is one of the dangers of my current Bumble Bee spirituality. It’s a boutique experience where I can pick and choose what I want – like any right-thinking, individualist, neo-liberal, late-capitalist consumer. All the while I can imagine that I’m exercising some sort of freedom simply because I’m “choosing.”

In a trivial sense, the bumble bee is also choosing. But that choosing looks a lot like random bouncing from one blossom to another. I may be able to eat, but am I really being fed?

“When they heard [his words], therefore, many of his disciples said, ‘This word is hard; who shall be able to hear it?’ But, Jesus, because he knew in himself that his disciples were grumbling concerning this, said to them, ‘This scandalizes you, doesn’t it?’” (John 6:60-61, my translation).

Yes, this Incarnational Imperative is hard. I find myself growing rigid in my resistance to it. This imperative trips me up over and over. I begin to get comfortable with my bouncy buzzing from blossom to blossom. Then Jesus reminds me that random snacking will not lead me to the Authentic Bread of Life.

That authentic nourishment happens in community, or not at all. Let me clarify. That’s not a requirement, a quid pro quo. It’s not that I pay for my meal by showing up for worship. This is not a “sermon, then soup” sort of system. It’s not a requirement. It’s simply a description of Reality.

“So, you are coming back, right?” Yes, at some point and in some fashion, I am. Well, sort of. There is no coming “back.” I am certain that the only congregations that will survive in the long run are those that go forward.

I won’t be returning to congregations, for example, that have found hybrid (in-person and digital) worship a necessary evil, to be abandoned as soon as practical. We church folks have discovered things about meeting people in their living rooms and bathrobes that we should not soon forget.

I won’t be going back to congregations that are primarily social societies and potluck parties. If the writer of John makes anything clear, it’s that intimacy matters in the Body of Christ. But that sort of intimacy is not mere familiarity, length of tenure, and association. We church folks need to remember that the Incarnation is about authentic relationships of vulnerability, challenge, self-giving, and hope.

I won’t be going back to congregations that depend on white supremacy and privilege to sustain themselves. If talking about Black Lives Matter and the dangers of American exceptionalism creates problems in a congregation, such a place won’t benefit from my presence. If full equality for people of all identities is not a given in a congregation, then I’ll just be more trouble than I’m worth.

I won’t be going back to a congregation that leaves me the same as when I came in. My presumptions and prejudices, my blind spots and bullheadedness, my racism and sexism and classism, my anxiety and arrogance need a community brave enough and strong enough to call me to new living every day.

This encounter with the God who changes everything creates a “crisis,” to use the language of John – a moment of decision, of judgment. “Given the setting of the feeding of the five thousand and the provision of food and water by God for the Israelites in the wilderness,” Lewis writes, “critical is how God’s people respond to God’s desire for relationship. For the Fourth Gospel, encountering God in the Word made flesh, Jesus, is a crisis moment” (page 102).

The problems we face in the White American churches are much worse than we are being led to believe. Technical fixes won’t do the job. Reorganization won’t do the job. Reshuffling the deck chairs on the denominational Titanic won’t do the job. And the people who point out that nothing less than white repentance and reparation must precede reconciliation and renewal end up on the outside looking in.

So, the end of the Bread of Life Discourse is a tract for our time. Just when we thought we might get out of this Discourse with a happy ending, things go from bad to worse. Peter speaks, he thinks, for the Twelve: “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69, my translation).

“So, you are coming back, right?” Yes, I am. It’s hard. But where else could I go?

“Isn’t that Special!” — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read John 6:51-58

It’s the same conversation every time we debate frequency of Holy Communion in our congregations. Pastor, when we have communion every week, it’s not “special” anymore. It’s just a thing we do every time we gather. I don’t want to give up that “special” part.

This perspective makes the Eucharist all about what I experience as a consumer. That’s not surprising, Consuming as a one-way transaction defines how we contemporary people view life, and how we regard other people.

I am both fascinated by and disgusted with the response on the part of many people to the withdrawal of gymnast Simone Biles from Olympic events for reasons of personal health. The outcry on the part of some has been, to my mind, inhuman.

Photo by Anastasiya Gepp on Pexels.com

Biles has been described and treated as a commodity to be consumed by a voracious and insatiable pack of sports fans. The sense of entitlement espoused by these folks is astonishing. They communicate a sense of ownership over Biles’ body that sounds like equal parts plantation mentality and meat market.

In their howling disappointment, many have verbally chewed Biles up and spit her out in their disgusted disappointment. This is another installment of the ownership narrative that goes back through Colin Kaepernick to Tommy Smith and John Carlos in 1968. When we regard something or someone as bought and paid for, we expect to get our money’s worth.

There is no mutuality here – only avarice. It shall not be so among us Christians, at least if we’re paying attention to the text in front of us.

“In the body of Christ, your pain is my pain, and my stuff is available able to be communicated to you in your need,” William Cavanaugh asserts, echoing Thomas Aquinas. “In the consumption of the Eucharist, we cease to be merely ‘the other’ to each other. In the Eucharist,” he declares, “Christ is gift, giver, and recipient; we are simultaneously fed and become food for others” (Kindle Locations 622-624).

Our text, therefore, is not an invitation to engage in Reformation debates about the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. That would be a distraction. His presence in the meal means that our mutual life is about real life, not about some academic theological debate.

A conversation about Simone Biles as a human being rather than as a commercial commodity is more faithful to this text than the Reformation debate would be.

Remember, the whole dialogue and discourse are anchored in the real hunger and real feeding of a multitude. When we loosen that anchor, as we too often do, then we start drifting toward abstract irrelevancy. If our textual reflections do not lead us to the real needs of real people, then we’re off course.

“If we are identified with Christ, who identifies himself with the suffering of all,” Cavanaugh writes, “then what is called for is more than just charity. The very distinction between what is mine and what is yours breaks down in the body of Christ,” he declares (Kindle Locations 620-621).

This is the crux of our text. How do we live as those who now abide in the One who abides in us?

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is portrayed as the true Passover Lamb, who was sacrificed for the life of the world. In the Hebrew scriptures, people who made the sacrifice to God would typically eat the meat of the sacrifice (except often for some of the internal stuff that was reserved for God).

This was a chance to dine with God, to participate in a meal with God, to partake of the very life of God and to be taken up into God’s life. Sacrifice was about reconciliation and renewal far more that it was about regret and repentance. The language of participation makes much more sense in John 6 than does any sense of “payment.”

The Son of Man will give to the hungry the food that endures for eternal life (6:27). The one who eats “this bread” will live forever. This bread is Jesus’ flesh which is given for the purpose that the cosmos will have life (6:51). The punch line is in 6:56 – “The one who munches on my flesh and drinks my blood continues to remain in me and I in that one” (my translation).

Eating and drinking the flesh and blood of Jesus, the Messiah, produces a mutual indwelling, a participation in the life of God which comes to us in and through the Son of Man come down from heaven.

Luther notes that in the Lord’s Supper, we receive the benefits of forgiveness, life, and salvation. My experience and that of many western Christians has been focused solely on the first of those three benefits over the years. The Bread of Life Discourse moves us to focus more on the second and third benefits – life and salvation.

We are called and invited to be filled with the Abundant Life of Christ and to participate in salvation in the here and now.

Yes, it is a very good thing to be freed from the powers of sin, death, and the Devil, through the weekly working of the Eucharist. It is an even better thing to be filled with the very life of Christ for the sake of the world.

As Jesus notes, his flesh is real food, and his blood is real drink. Filled with him, we are equipped and empowered to be the Body of Christ for the life of the world. We can be recipients of, participants in, and partners in the Body of Christ for the sake of the salvation of the cosmos.

As Cavanaugh notes in his book, we are not only consumers of this meal. We are “being consumed.”

Hylen and O’Day argue that the Gospel of John moves the eucharistic reflection away from “the night in which he was betrayed” in order to integrate Eucharistic piety fully into the life of Jesus, into the daily life of the Christian assembly, and into the moment-by-moment life of the individual Jesus follower.

“The discourse in John 6 is the place where institution of the Eucharist is lodged,” they suggest, “because for John, all of Jesus’ life ‘institutes’ the sacrament of the Eucharist, not one particular event at the end of Jesus’ life” (Kindle Location 1671).

Participation in the Eucharist, therefore, does not happen in order to make a few days special. Rather, the Eucharist is the sign that every day is special in the Reign of God. The disjunction between the Sacrament and “normal” life does not exist for Jesus followers.

This fits, of course, with the Johannine emphasis on the Incarnation as the “event” of salvation. The Good News is that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It is the life, death, resurrection, and ascension – all together and of one piece – that makes up the Good News that the Messiah, the Son of God is Jesus. What the Word brings is abundant life in the here and now. Thus, the verbs in the Gospel according to John tend to be in the present tense rather than past or future.

“By moving the theological presentation of the Eucharist into the story of the life of Jesus,” O’Day and Hylen write, “John suggests that participation in the flesh and blood, bread and wine, belongs to all the days of Christian life, not just ‘special’” days, because it embodies the possibilities of new life with Christ. The Eucharist is a meal of celebration,” they conclude, “of sharing in the abundant presence of God in the world” (Kindle Location 1679, my emphasis).

What made it “special” was not the infrequency of the sharing. Instead, what made it special was the content of the meal – the living presence of the Lord Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. The product of that presence was partnership in the Gospel and a life lived consonant with that partnership.

So, it is in the Gospel of John. We dare not lose sight, this far into the Bread of Life Discourse, of the fact that we began with real human hunger and real human eating and drinking.

If participation in the Sacrament does not result in real feeding of those in need, something is wrong. If participation in the Sacrament does not produce a hungering and thirsting for righteousness, something is wrong. If participation in the Sacrament does not yield a passion for being One Body of Christ in the world, something is wrong.

Perhaps Jesus’ listeners begin to notice and think through the kinds of demands that would be placed upon them if they accept what they are seeing and hearing. We will spend the next section of the Discourse on the resistance to and rejection of what Jesus is saying. Even some of the disciples will fall away, leaving only a remnant of the faithful.

What makes the Sacrament “not special” is not frequent observance but rather the unwillingness to allow the Sacrament to shape us for lives of authentic discipleship. This is likely going to be too hard for many consumer-oriented Christians to stomach (sorry, I just can’t help myself). Will we run from the Table or toward it?

Our answer is what makes the Eucharist “special” in our lives…or not.

Beyond the Gift Shop — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read John 6:35-50

A few years ago, we visited the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley. I remembered the times we went there when my sons were small. Each time we had the same challenge.

There’s a gift shop just beyond the ticket counter. Our sons typically wanted to go directly to that gift shop. It was filled with toys and games, with stuffed animals and coloring books. Never mind that acres of lions and tigers, baboons and bears, snakes and sloths, lay just around the corner.

They wanted the gift shop. They were happy to settle for fluffy stuffed penguins and squirt guns shaped like flamingoes. They were children. Who could blame them?

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

We, however, are not children. Yet, we settle for so little in our life with God. This brings us to Jesus’ question in today’s gospel reading. Why, he asks the crowd. Why would you settle for so little? Why would you sprint around the lake for a crust of bread when the Bread of Life is standing right in front of you?

Are you willing to look beyond the gift shop?

That is my main thought for today. Are you settling for too little in your walk with Jesus? What are the ways we settle for the gift shop when an adventure awaits us?

Are you willing to look beyond the gift shop?

John six begins with the Feeding of the Five Thousand. The crowds pursue Jesus from one shore of the Galilean lake to the other. They long for healing and wholeness, for bread and blessings, and most of all—for Good News. The disciples are afraid they will drown in this sea of human wants and needs. “Send them home!” the fearful disciples demand.

Jesus has other plans. With five fish and two loaves he feeds the churning crowds. The leftovers fill twelve baskets—one for each tribe of ancient Israel.  The disciples are still blind to the meaning. The crowds, however, began to comprehend. “This,” they tell each other, “is indeed the prophet who is come into the world!

The next day, they are back for more. You can imagine that the word has gotten out: Free bread—all you can eat! That’s when Jesus asks the deeper question. Are you willing to look beyond the gift shop?

Beyond the gift shop is the Good News! But what is that good news? Jesus tells the crowd, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’”

Here is the Good News. Jesus fills us with purpose, with peace and with power.We can be part of God’s life-giving mission for the whole world. This is the life “worthy of the calling to which we have been called.” Jesus calls you and me into the greatest purpose possible for human beings.

We can know the peace that comes from depending on God in life and in death. This peace of mind and spirit comes from the Holy Spirit. When we trust Jesus to provide what we need, anxiety dries up and blows away.

We can have the power that comes from the Holy Spirit living in us and through us. That power is expressed in our spiritual gifts. Those gifts are for the good of the body of Christ and for the life of the world. Christians exist in part because the world needs your spiritual gifts for mission and service here.

Are you willing to look beyond the gift shop?

Where do we settle for too little? In the church we often settle for nostalgia when Jesus offers new life. That is precisely the response of the Hebrew former slaves in our first reading. “If only we had stayed in Egypt…” It is a wonderful thing to celebrate, for example, congregational anniversaries. But that is to be a springboard for the future, not a pining for the past.

The grumbling takes on a theological cast in the Gospel of John with the complaining of “the Jews,” representatives of the Jerusalem orthodoxy of the time. Let’s be careful not to slip into some unthinking Antisemitism at this point.

“John’s narrative is written by a Jew, about Jesus the Jew, who is believed to be fulfilling Israel’s divine vocation and global mission as a light to the nations and a blessing to the world,” Paul Anderson argues. “Thus, in no way can the thoroughly Semitic Gospel of John, the most Jewish of the Gospels, be considered anti-Semitic. If anything,” he continues, “John represents a radical view of the Jewish vocation, in that it sees Jesus as the embodiment of typological Israel as a means of blessing the nations” (pages 12-13).

The complaining is not about the amount of bread but rather the supposed identity of the Baker. Unlike the Synoptics, in John the complainers observe that Jesus is the son of Joseph. Of course, we know (wink, wink) that Jesus is the Son of God. The son of Joseph would come from earth. Only the Son of God can come from heaven.

Jesus takes on directly this line of grumbling. “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Do not keep on grumbling with one another. No one is able to come to me unless the Father who sent would draw that one, and I will resurrect that one on the last day” (John 6:43-44, my translation).

The Holy Spirit never goes backward. That is an important spiritual rule of thumb, so it is worth repeating. The Holy Spirit never goes backward. We can and should identify the high moments in the history of a ministry. We do that to celebrate God’s goodness and grace. But we cannot go back. Our purpose as the church is always to build forward, not to turn back. The Holy Spirit calls us out of nostalgia and into adventure, out of the past and into the future.

Are you willing to look beyond the gift shop?

On a personal level, this is the Spirit’s treatment for our “if-only” disease. We can spend personal time and energy ruminating over our regrets and resentments. Or we can respond to the Spirit’s call to move forward. Forward is where the life is!

How does this work out in a congregation? It is clear that our gospel reading has echoes of Holy Communion. I hope you see that Jesus feeds us so that we can feed others. The Lord’s Supper leads to a concern for the hungry around us. Or it is a dead end.

I am so grateful for all the hunger and food ministries rooted in ELCA congregations across this country. Members support food pantries with donations and cash and volunteer hours. They give generously and frequently to many relief and support agencies locally to many such organizations beyond their community. They support ELCA World Hunger efforts and Lutheran World Relief. I am honored to be associated with such efforts.

We hope that members experience Jesus’ welcome at our communion table. The Lord’s Supper leads us to welcome others to the table. Or it is a dead end.

Hospitality is often identified as one of the best gifts of many congregations—especially when it is connected with food. While we will look in more detail at the Eucharist in John’s gospel next week, certainly this week we can look at who is welcome, or not, at the table.

I have experienced and observed an evolution in my thinking and the thinking of other ELCA Lutherans in this regard. We still officially expect the Lord’s Supper to be available only to the baptized. But that is certainly not the practice in many congregations.

The debate is often whether the “Table” (the Eucharist) can lead to the “Font,” (Baptism) rather than insisting that only the “Font” can lead to the “Table.” In my experience, the more a congregation is involved in reaching out beyond the walls of the congregation, the more flexible the congregation must become in this ordering.

When I was involved in weekly ministry with offenders and ex-offenders, I knew that many of the regular communicants had not been baptized. If I had insisted on the “proper” order of things, any number of those folks would not have returned – either to the Table or to Sunday worship.

For the sake of caring in Christ, we exercised (as that congregation still does) a liberal flexibility in this regard. Anyone who comes to Jesus will never be driven away – if we are faithful to what we see and hear in John 6.

The good news is that such a welcome and openness begins with and is applied to – me! I come with all my selfish agendas, intentional misunderstandings, and perverse prejudices. And I still hold out my hands to be filled, expecting a welcome and a feeding. Too often, I simply take that welcome for granted rather than experiencing it as the astonishing reality it is.

Jesus tells the clamoring crowd, “The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They respond with hope, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Will that be your prayer as well?

Are you willing to look beyond the gift shop? Let’s pray…

Leftovers, Naturally — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read John 6:22-34

Twelve baskets of leftovers. I wonder what they did with all the extra food. Actually, I don’t wonder. I’m sure they distributed it to any and all who had need. These were poor people. They couldn’t afford to waste a crumb.

That’s not the contemporary case. The USDA Economic Research Service estimates that in 2010, we Americans wasted 31 percent of our food supply. That came out to 133 billion (with a B) pounds and $161 billion (again with a B) worth of food.[i]

One third of our food supply that year went to landfills rather than into the mouths of hungry people. All the inputs of land, water, labor, and energy that produced that food were wasted. All the investments involved in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing, and disposing of that food were wasted.

That food didn’t even get the chance to become leftovers.

Photo by Emmet on Pexels.com

Some of that food spoiled, often due to improper storage, poor planning, and transportation delays. Some of that food was damaged by animals, insects, mold, or bacteria. Much of the waste comes from over-ordering and then culling the less-than-perfect specimens. That waste happens in warehouses, restaurants and grocery stores, and in our homes.

Only rich people can afford to waste food. When we do, we do that at the expense of the poor.

The day after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the crowd tracked Jesus down and asked for more. They weren’t stupid or greedy. They were poor.

When you’re poor, you never know when your next meal will show up. If you find some food, you get what you can and store it for the lean times. These folks, like all impoverished people, were experts at foraging, food preservation, stretching a little to make a lot.

They knew a good thing when they saw it. And they wanted more. Who could blame them?

Jesus didn’t blame them. But he did understand them. “Don’t settle for more bread,” he tells them. “Look for that which gives Life – Life that will last, life that will be…enough.”

“Fine,” they say. “What do we have to do to get our hands on this ‘enough’ thingy?” That’s when Jesus gets a bit weird on them. “If you want the Life that’s Enough, put your trust in me. God has sent me to you and to the world because in God’s economy, Enough is normal.”

Poor people rarely have enough. They learn to be suspicious of big talk like that. “We’ve heard this one before,” they say to Jesus. “Folks in the olden days ate manna and quail in the wilderness. God gave them enough for each day – no more, no less. Is that what you’re talking about, Jesus? Do we need to get our umbrellas out to protect our heads from falling food?”

We contemporary folks might think this is just stupid talk. But the same dialogue shows up in modern movies. In the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs franchise, we can have fun while we wonder about the meaning of “Enough.”

In the first installment, the script wrestles with our efforts to have controllable abundance. It turns out that humans aren’t smart enough, or good enough, to manage such power well. In the sequel, the question is one of ownership. Human attempts to own and control food resources make monsters of the food (and the humans).

We’re still asking ourselves, “What do we have to do to get our hands on this ‘enough’ thingy?”

The answer to the “enough” question isn’t “more.” The answer isn’t more stuff. The answer isn’t more control. The answer isn’t more power. The answer isn’t more “us.” Jesus says, “The answer is me.”

I don’t think Jesus is doing the “squirrel strategy” here in John 6. I’m sure most of you know about the squirrel joke regarding children’s sermons. But for those who don’t, here’s a quick replay.

A pastor uses squirrels in a children’s message for an object lesson on industry and preparation. “This thing lives in trees and eats nuts. It’s gray and has a long bushy tail. And it jumps from branch to branch and chatters and flips its tail when it’s excited. Who can tell me what it is?” One little boy tentatively raised his hand. “Well,” said the boy, “it sounds like a squirrel, but I know the answer must be Jesus. It always is.”

That’s not Jesus’ strategy here. The Bread of Life dialogue and discourse is anchored to the twin signs that begin the chapter – the Feeding in the Wilderness and the Walking on Water. These signs point to him. He has provided reasons for the crowd to trust him. The gifts identify him as the Giver.

But Jesus doesn’t invite trust because he can do magic tricks. That’s not the point. Maybe you’ve noticed that the Gospel of John doesn’t use the world “miracles.” The things Jesus does in that gospel account – water into wine, multiplying loaves and fish, walking on water, healing the lame and the blind, raising the dead – these aren’t “unnatural” events.

Let me say that again. The things Jesus does in John aren’t unnatural events. They are signs – examples – of the world God intended from the beginning. Enough wine, water, bread, health, hope, love, peace, community – these aren’t unnatural realities. “Enough” is how God created the cosmos from the get-go.

Jesus comes because God wants to put things right. The signs in John’s gospel point to the way the world is supposed to be.

The purpose of John’s account is to put us in a place where we might come to and continue to trust that the Messiah, the Son of God is Jesus. In experiencing and embracing that trust, we might then continue to have life in his name.

As we come to the Eucharist, for example, could we be wondering – is Jesus really here with us now? How cool would that be! Am I ready to meet Jesus here and now in the bread and wine? He says he’s ready to meet me once again.

Am I willing to be changed by the bread of God’s word and the word of bread which is the sacrament – changed in ways I cannot anticipate or control? Am I willing once again to be transported from the “unnatural” world of sin, death, and evil to the “natural” (God-created and God-given) world of Abundant Life?

“This is the heart of the faith,” David Lose writes, “the faith we are privileged to proclaim: that the Eternal Word who was with God and is God from the beginning and participated in the creation of the heavens and the earth is the same Lord who cares so desperately for us that he gave his life for ours on the cross and gives himself still in the bread and wine.”[ii]

What’s “unnatural” is “not enough.” When there’s not enough, that’s a sign that there’s something very wrong with the system. That’s why I started with those thoughts about leftovers and food waste. When we waste one-third of our food supplies in America while thirty-five million people are hungry every day, there’s something very wrong with the system.

That’s unnatural. That’s a sign that some people have too much, and others have too little. That means that our economy is unnatural.

“The economy as it is currently structured,” William Cavanaugh writes, “would grind to a halt if we ever looked at our stuff and simply declared, ‘It is enough. I am happy with what I have.’”[iii]

But there is no danger of that happening, Cavanaugh observes. Our consumer culture forms us not only to desire more, to never believe we have enough. In addition, that culture forms us to experience that dissatisfaction as a positive good, a kind of emotional stimulant that gets us up and going. That’s really, really unnatural.

Christian formation leads us to see created things as pointers toward the goodness of God. “In the Christian tradition, detachment from material goods means using them as a means to a greater end, and the greater end is greater attachment to God and to our fellow human beings,” Cavanaugh argues. “In consumerism, detachment means standing back from all people, times, and places, and appropriating our choices for private use.”[iv]

The crowd gives the right response for the wrong reasons. “Lord, always give us this bread!” (John 6:34, my translation). They clearly don’t know what they’re asking. They keep talking about bread, but they don’t get past the dough. In the words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Perhaps this is as close as the writer of John’s gospel gets to the petition in the Lord’s Prayer – “give us this day our daily bread.” Lord, give us this bread always! It’s the right request. It’s the proper prayer. But when we pray it, do we know what we’re asking? The bread that fed the crowd was only possible because the Bread of Life was in their midst. So it is for us.

Lord, feed us with your life all the time and at all times. That’s the punchline for this passage. As the gospel writer enacted the story for the audience, verse 34 would end with a pregnant pause. Perhaps the listeners responded with cheers. Perhaps they shouted out, “Yes, Lord! Us too!”

Do you want to shout that as well? Yes, Lord, Us too! Give us this bread always! I hope so. But let’s be careful what we ask for. Next time, we’ll hear more about the Bread of Life that consumes us. Yes, that’s what I said – the Bread of Life that consumes us.

It’s something to chew on for a week…


[i] https://www.usda.gov/foodwaste/faqs

[ii] Lose, David. http://www.davidlose.net/2015/07/pentecost-10-b-the-surprise-of-our-lives/

[iii] William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, Kindle Locations 524-525.

[iv] Ibid., Kindle Locations 581-583.

Sourdough Spirituality — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read John 6:1-21

Five weeks of the Bread of Life – here we go again! “There are perhaps few texts that strike trepidation and exasperation in the hearts of preachers,” Karoline Lewis writes, “more than the five consecutive Sundays in the season of Pentecost, Year B. How much can you preach on Jesus as the Bread of Life?” (Page 83).

No matter what we say about the spiritual and theological depth and complexity of John 6, the story begins with a large crowd of hungry people and real bread.

Like so many other people during Covid-tide, we got into the production and consumption of sourdough bread, biscuits, and muffins. My spouse set aside a jar, put in the appropriate ingredients, and waited for the yeasty magic to happen. We must have a good sourdough environment because the process took off almost immediately. The starter was so active that it seemed like another family member. We named it “Elsie” in honor of Brenda’s bread-making grandmother.

Photo by Marta Dzedyshko on Pexels.com

We all discovered two things. Sourdough is a committed personal relationship – not merely a mechanical transaction. The starter requires care and feeding. It can get sick and even die. We’ve had to begin again a few times for reasons that remain mysterious.

Yet, when the relationship is right, a second reality becomes apparent. Sourdough gives more than it takes. The terminology is fascinating to me. We use the “discard,” the excess from the growing process in order to make our lovely bread, biscuits, and muffins. In fact, our food comes from the leftovers, the excess, the leavings of the process.

If that creates reverberations with the story in John 6, then we’re thinking along the same lines.

In his 1997 article, David Fredrickson challenges the notion that the Feeding of the Five Thousand leads to a metaphorical feeding in John’s understanding. Fredrickson argues that the report in verses 12-13 “is an anticipation of the true bread, Jesus, who is not diminished as he is consumed” (page 41).

This is a point that is worth some reflection. Regular food decreases as it is eaten. While the laws of matter and energy conservation are not violated, the actual food doesn’t, in our regular experience, increase as we eat. Fredrickson argues that this increase is a sign of Jesus’ divinity. “Jesus can give his flesh to be eaten and yet continue to exist,” Fredrickson concludes, “because he is God” (page 41).

The problem was scarcity – not enough. It seems there was not enough bread to feed the large crowds. There was not enough money to buy more bread. There was not enough of the small boy’s lunch to even make a start at the banquet. There was not enough vision on the part of the disciples to see what Jesus might do (have they forgotten the water into wine?). In the face of such massive need, what is the use of our meager resources?

“Lack of food was a dominant concern in Jesus’ day,” Bryce Johnson writes. “Sufficient grain was raised in Jesus’ day, but people did not have access to enough grain or bread,” he continues. “Rome took 25 percent of the crop because there were more important mouths to feed elsewhere in the empire,” he notes. In an era of increasing wealth disparity and food insecurity, this stress about scarcity in John 6 is a place where we must begin our reflections.

“Jesus’s earthly ministry explicitly recognizes the potentially corrupting power of our desire to control the bread supply,” Judge and Taliaferro argue. “In calling himself the ‘bread of life,’ Jesus deliberately confronts this desire to control access to and supply of the source of human sustenance, and in doing so, he sets himself up as a target of the secular authorities whose power is in part derived from their ability to control the bread supply” (page 371).

For most of us white, affluent, North Americans, however, scarcity may not be the issue facing us. In his article entitled “Enough is Enough,” William Cavanaugh helps us see that the issue for most of us in a consumerist society is not about having too little but rather about knowing when we have enough.

“Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else. It is not buying,” he argues, “but shopping that captures the spirit of consumerism. Buying is certainly an important part of consumerism, but buying brings a temporary halt to the restlessness that typifies it. It is this restlessness,” he proposes, “the moving on to shopping for something else no matter what one has just purchased—that sets the spiritual tone for consumerism.”

The contemporary issue with stuff, Cavanaugh argues, is not that we neoliberal, individualist, consumers think we have too little. The contemporary issue with stuff is that we worship the “churn,” the turnover of stuff from what we have to what we want. He names it “the satisfying nature of dissatisfaction.” We are less in bondage to things themselves than we are to the stimulus of disordered desire.

“What has happened in consumer society is that dissatisfaction and satisfaction have ceased to be opposites,” Cavanaugh contends. “Pleasure resides not in having but in wanting. Insofar as an item obtained brings a temporary halt to desire, it becomes undesirable. This is why shopping, not buying, captures the spirit of consumerism, and why shopaholism is being treated as an addiction. Consumerism,” Cavanaugh concludes, “is a restless spirit, constantly in search of something new.”

All that being said, even though the mechanism is different in a consumer economy, Cavanaugh asserts that the issue remains scarcity. It is, however, not a scarcity of stuff in the consumer economy. Rather, it is a scarcity of new stuff, different stuff. “Consumerism is typified by detachment, not attachment, for desire must be kept on the move. Consumerism is also typified by scarcity,” Cavanaugh argues, “not abundance, for as long as desire is endless, there will never be enough stuff to go around.”

The solution to this contemporary consumerist condition is, as it was in the beginning, properly ordered desire. “True abundance is never realized by the competition of insatiable desires for scarce goods,” Cavanaugh suggests. “It is realized by emptying the small self into the larger reality,” he continues, “of God’s superabundant life.” That framework will be expanded in the balance of the Discourse.

Every Christian congregation should be engaged in a physical feeding ministry of some sort. Many, many congregations are engaged in precisely such ministries. If, however, that feeding ministry is separated from and in the absence of advocacy for the hungry and critique of the systems that make people hungry, then those feeding ministries are deficient and one-dimensional.

If physical feeding and political advocacy are cut off from a community of eucharistic piety, then the deficiency remains. Our text grounds our local serving and our systemic advocacy in the mission of God to a hungry cosmos.

All of life is intended to be communion with God. That is the “natural” state of things, the way God created the cosmos to be. Abundance, therefore, is the default condition of Creation according to God’s intention, not the exception to a hard and hungry rule. Schmemann puts it this way (apologies for the non-inclusive language):

“All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation…” (Kindle Location 135).

In a cosmos in bondage to sin, death, and evil, scarcity is the order of the day, not abundance. But we should be clear that this is not how the Creator intends things. The feeding miracles in the gospels are not exceptional one-offs or mere magic tricks. Instead, these feeding miracles are signs of the way in which the Creator intends for us to live. They are not the exceptions. They are the rule – God’s rule.

Jesus restores abundance to its proper place. There’s lots of green grass. There’s plenty of room for seating. He can get the food distributed all by himself, thank you very much. The people could eat as much as they wanted. The fragments fill twelve backets, the leftovers of all who had eaten their fill. This is what Creation is supposed to look like – filled to overflowing with the loving presence and power of God, offered to people without price or limit.

“The world is a fallen world,” Schmemann argues, “because it has fallen away from the awareness that God is all in all. The accumulation of this disregard for God is the original sin that blights the world” (Kindle Location 168). This argument can allow us to connect our text with the ongoing discussion in Ephesians on the role of Creation in expressing Divine love, grace, and mercy for a tragically disordered and de-centered cosmos.

“When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value,” Schmemann continues, “because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the “sacrament” of God’s presence” (Kindle Location 178). The commodification of everything and everyone as the basis of neoliberal late-stage capitalism is perhaps the parade example of human desire disordered almost beyond repair.

Abundance is the default, not scarcity. We are created hungry – but hungry first and foremost for relationship with God. We reach out for other objects to satisfy that desire, but those other things have no life in themselves. “[T]he ‘original’ sin is not primarily that man has ‘disobeyed’ God,” Schmemann argues, “the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God” (Kindle Location 194).

Jesus comes to restore the cosmos to the path of Abundant Life.

References and Resources

Cavanaugh, William T. “The Body of Christ: The Eucharist and Politics.” Word and World, Volume 22, Number 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 170-177. http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/22-2_Body_of_Christ/22-2_Cavanaugh.pdf.

Cavanaugh, William T. “When Enough is Enough.” https://biblestudy.definingterms.com/Readings/Cavanaugh_When_Enough_Is_Enough.pdf.

Fredrickson, David E., “Eucharistic Symbolism in the Gospel of John” (1997). Faculty Publications. 85. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/85

Johnson, Bryce. “The Bread of Life.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 382-388.

Judge, Rebecca, and Taliaferro, Charles. “Companionable Bread.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 367-372).

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Molina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.

What Jesus is Not — Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines

7 Pentecost B 2021; read Mark 6:14-29.

Today’s gospel reading should come with a content warning. We have graphic and explicit violence. We have visual depictions of torture and decapitation. We have misogynistic stereotypes and bias. We have, according to some interpreters, strong sexual content, including the sexualization of a minor. We have the use of a minor in the commission of homicide. We have alcohol consumption and abuse. And those are the warnings you might expect.

More than that, we witness a performance of toxic masculinity. We have rampant abuse of political power. We have a detailed description of elitist privilege. We have manipulation, court intrigue, deception, and stupidity. Public perception of power and position is a higher value than the preservation of a human life. People simply are pawns in one another’s prestige games.

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We witness the cynical operations of the domination system that kept Galileans under the Imperial Roman thumb. We see leaders who are craven, crass, crude, criminal, and cruel.

In short, we observe business as usual in the world of power, privilege, position, and property.

We conclude the reading by declaring that “this is the Gospel of the Lord.” We respond, perhaps with some confusion if we’re actually present and listening, “Thanks be to God?”

Why in the world does the writer of Mark’s gospel include this text in the “Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”? And why in the world do we read this text in our public worship?

Herod is everything Jesus is not. That’s the point the writer of Mark’s gospel wants to make here. And that’s the point of our reflection together today. Herod is everything Jesus is not.

“Where’s the good news in Mark 6:14-29?” C. Clifton Black asks in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “There may be none. The drive shafts of corrupted politics torque this birthday party. Everywhere greed and fear whisper: in Herod’s ear, among Galilee’s high and mighty, behind the curtain between mother and daughter, in a dungeon prison. When repentance is preached to this world’s princes,” Black concludes, “do not expect them to relinquish their power, however conflicted some may be.”

Because this is the main point, the current message is Part One of a two-part reflection. I know it’s summer in the Church in the northern hemisphere. Thinking that people will be in worship two Sundays in a row and paying enough attention to connect two Sunday’s worth of reflection is asking a lot in some quarters. But that’s the deal in Mark’s gospel.

I don’t write it, as they say, I only report it (well, you know what I mean).

The “Herod” in this account is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great. The use of the dynastic name, “Herod,” can cause confusion among readers of the text. We are not talking about the terrible tyrant of Matthew’s infancy stories who tries to manipulate the Magi and who orders the Slaughter of the Innocents. No, the “Herod” in Mark’s account is Herod Antipas.

Antipas was the man who wanted to be king but never got the chance. Certainly, one of the reasons the writer of Mark’s gospel uses the title of “king” for Antipas is to do some historical nose-tweaking of Antipas and his successors. Of course, as readers of the gospel account, we also know who the real King of the Jews is, and we shall see how that plays out in the later chapters of the gospel of Mark.

Herod is everything Jesus is not.

In our reading, we see what a weak pretender to the throne looks like in comparison with Jesus, the real King. This comparison foreshadows a similar contrast between Jesus and Pilate in the passion account in the Gospel of Mark. We also see the depths of human cruelty expressed in the careless privilege of the elites and the real risks involved when one is perceived as a threat to that privilege.

Mark chapter 6 contains “The Tale of Two Tables.” In this week’s reading, we witness the bloody birthday banquet in the palace of Antipas. Next week we get the Feeding of the Five Thousand in the wilderness. Well, we don’t really get the whole feeding story next week, but we will need to refer to it.

In any event, these seem to be companion texts, designed for edifying comparison and contrast. Herod dines. John dies. End of story. Jesus dies. We dine. Beginning of story. I don’t think the writer of Mark’s gospel missed this theological opportunity.

The table where cruelty is the point is offset and opposed by the table where service is the center. John the Baptizer is served up as a sacrifice to the casual cruelty of the powerful, the privileged, and the positioned. The bloody platter is a meal where death triumphs once again. Jesus prepares us to come to the table where he serves us with himself that we might have life in abundance.

Herod is everything Jesus is not.

The writer of Mark’s gospel is challenging disciples – then and now – to discern under which table we are putting our feet, the banquet table of Herod Antipas or the table of abundant life where Jesus is both the host and the meal.

It should be clear from the text of Mark’s gospel that this will inevitably be a political choice. It will be a choice between kings – the pretender and the Messiah. That choice faced the first listeners to Mark’s gospel, and it faces us as well.

We white, western, Enlightenment Christians have often resisted the notion that politics should find a natural place in our pulpits. In fact, that resistance to politics in the pulpit is, I fear, a sign of our allegiance to the domination system which guarantees our privilege, power, and position. That resistance is not a sign of our piety or deep spirituality. That resistance to politics in the pulpit is a mark of Herod’s table, not Jesus’ table.

“How might Jesus’ words inform a theology of political witness of the church?” Esau McCauley asks in Reading While Black. “Jesus shows that those Christians who have called out injustice are following in the footsteps of Jesus” (page 57).

Politics in the pulpit is not an irritant or an option. Indeed, it is required. When we affirm our baptismal covenants in the Rite of Confirmation, we promise to “…live among God’s faithful people; hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper; proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; serve all people following the example of Jesus; and strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”

Unfortunately, many ELCA Lutherans get to about the halfway point of these vows and decide that half a loaf is better than none. Too often we white Christians are pretty much everything that Jesus is not.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this text for us today is that some of us seem to celebrate Herod’s style of “leadership” as the image of a “real leader.” Herod is craven, crass, crude, criminal, and cruel. He wants to rule everyone but cannot even govern himself.

That sounds to me like a description of numerous public leaders in the United States today – many of whom are celebrated by certain sectors of the Christian tribe.

John names what everyone knows – that Antipas has broken the law and violated cultural and religious norms. More than that, he, and his household, assert that this arrangement is normal and good. Nothing to see here, they say. Move along and tend your business. Everything is fine.

But John declares that everything is not fine. No amount of power, position, and privilege can change the facts of the case. John is, therefore, faced with a choice. Be quiet or be killed. By the time we get to our narrative, that choice no longer exists for John. The question is not if he will die but only when and how.

Herod is everything Jesus is not.

When Truth confronts Power, the response is violent rage. We can see that in the character of Herodias in our text. We can see that as well in the characters of the Jerusalem elites who make sure that Jesus is silenced after he calls out the charade going on in Jerusalem and in the Temple. Such Truth-speakers have, on average, relatively short life spans – especially in authoritarian regimes.

I want to connect this to current conversations about anti-racism, critical race theory, history, and the like. We can, I think, leave the details of critical race theory aside. The real issue is that CRT speaks the Truth about Power. It simply asks, “What really happened? How did things get this way?” It is, like many academic disciplines, an attempt to get a glimpse of the “man behind the curtain.”

Therefore, we should not be surprised when the response is white rage, verging on homicidal insanity. Certain commentators have mused that perhaps critical race theorists should be erased from the conversation somehow. And certain of those commentators are not all that choosy about how the erasure happens. Short of that, state legislatures are erasing the conversation itself from school curricula in order to sustain the overarching mythologies of white supremacy and white innocence in those curricula.

Herod is everything Jesus is not.

Perhaps this is part of why John’s execution is in Mark’s account in such exquisite detail. We can kill in order to sustain self-serving superstition, or we can die in opposition to it. There’s a topic for discipleship discernment, eh?

What we learn is that Jesus is the compassionate shepherd – not the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Stay tuned for more next week.

Ordinary People — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 6:1-13

The Holy Spirit uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things. That’s the main thought for today, so I’ll say it again. The Holy Spirit uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

Our oldest son, Stephan, is blessed with a beautiful singing voice. He majored in vocal music performance at Wartburg College, sang the lead there in Fiddler on the Roof, and sang professionally with the Minnesota Opera. Stephan always sang, but he didn’t get really serious about it until his senior year in high school.

The musical that year was Les Miserables. Stephan tried out and landed the lead role of Jean Valjean. We were immeasurably proud of his accomplishment. On opening night we sat in the audience waiting for the curtain to rise. Some folks in front of us were discussing the cast. “Who is this Hennigs fellow?” one asked. “He’s never been in anything here before. Nobody knows him. Where did he come from?”

Photo by Valeriia Miller on Pexels.com

Stephan’s mother couldn’t restrain herself. “He came from us,” she said shortly. “Beyond that, what does it matter?” Fortunately, the orchestra launched into the overture, and we were spared any further unpleasantness.

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” The folks at Nazareth had an interesting complaint. “But he’s so ordinary!” they moaned. We know this kid! His family is standing here. We changed his dirty diapers! We caught him shooting spitballs in synagogue school. How can this be anyone important in the kingdom of God?

Due to this attitude, Jesus was unable to do much of anything in Nazareth. Jesus takes no prisoners. Jesus will not kick your doors in. Jesus will not do violence to you or to anyone else. Violence is one of Satan’s tools. Instead, Jesus will suffer violence from those who expect a miraculous rescue.

The Holy Spirit uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

It’s an old story, but’s it’s a good one for today. A terrible storm hit. Local officials ordered everyone in the town to evacuate immediately. A faithful Christian man heard the warning and decided to stay. He said, “I will trust God to send a divine miracle to save me.”

Neighbors offered him a ride out of town. The man declined. “I have faith that God will save me.” A man in a canoe paddled by and offered him a spot. The man again said, “No thanks, God will save me.” The floodwaters poured into his living room, and the man retreated to the second floor. A police motorboat came by and they urged him to leave. But the man refused, “Use your time to save someone else! I have faith that God will save me!”

The flood waters rose higher and higher. The man climbed to his rooftop. A helicopter spotted him and dropped a rope ladder. But the man STILL refused, folding his arms tightly to his body. “No thank you! God will save me!”

Shortly after, the floodwaters swept the man away and he drowned. Then the man stood before God and asked, “I put all of my faith in You. Why didn’t You come and save me?” God said, “I sent you a car, a canoe, a boat, and a helicopter. What more were you looking for?”

The Holy Spirit uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

There was nothing more ordinary in first-century Palestine than Roman crosses. During outbreaks of Jewish unrest, hundreds of them might line the roads of Jerusalem. There is nothing more ordinary than dying. Special effects and virtual reality are for the movies. God works through the most ordinary ways.

But the result is the most extraordinary thing in the universe! Death is defeated. Evil is undone. Satan is dethroned. And all of it through Mary’s little boy who is also God in the flesh.

More than that, God pours out Jesus’ life on the Church. There was nothing special about those disciples. They had neither credentials nor degrees. They had neither status nor power. They had no particular gifts or abilities. They didn’t, that is, until the Holy Spirit chose them to change the world.

The Holy Spirit uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

That process started right away. “They went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” Don’t skip past that. They went out, and it worked!

It didn’t work because they came fully equipped for mission and service. In fact, Jesus tells them to strip down to the bare minimum necessary for survival. How can that be?

Paul describes this in our second reading. Paul had some sort of disability. Perhaps he stuttered. Perhaps he was partially blind. Perhaps he had frontal-lobe epilepsy. Scholars have speculated on each of these possibilities. But what really matters is the result. He prayed for this roadblock to be removed. He got a shocking answer.

 “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” When we are baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have all the equipment we need. We can leave behind all the baggage of perfection and power and prettiness. God’s grace is sufficient for us. Anything else just gets in the way.

The Holy Spirit uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

What does that mean for Emanuel Lutheran Church? If churches don’t dump some of their baggage, the Holy Spirit will do it for us. That’s why constructive change is coming first from small and struggling churches. Adversity leads us to consider alternative strategies. So we should expect the Holy Spirit to make our lives difficult!

Look at the results. A year ago, we had fourteen young people in our Vacation Bible School. It was a great time, but it couldn’t really be sustained. So we tried something else. We partnered with our friends at Our Savior’s. VBS with thirty-five is a completely different world. It was awesome. And the fringe benefits go far beyond VBS. That joint worship service was inspiring! And our young people have built powerful bridges to their sisters and brothers as they journey to Detroit together.

So the message is plain. We may be the most ordinary congregation on the planet. And that is the best news we can get. After all, the Holy Spirit uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things. And extraordinary is a word to describe our mission and service here and now.

Let’s pray…

Pastor Lowell R. Hennigs