Living Bread in the Pit of Despair

blogpic BreastCancerQuiltA sermon preached on August 12, 2018 for the 12th Sunday of Pentecost on John 6:35, 41-51, 1 Kings 19:4-8, and Ephesians 4:25-5:2 at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

Have you ever felt like you were in the pit of despair? Like things couldn’t get any worse? Like the light at the end of the tunnel is really a train heading right for you?

Elijah, in our first reading is in the wilderness, sitting in this pit of despair. He had been faithful to God when Israel was worshipping pagan gods. King Ahab was persuaded by his wife, Jezebel to abandon the worship of Yahweh and turn to her god, Baal, and her campaign was succeeding. They had destroyed the altar of the Lord and all the other prophets in Israel were in hiding, so Elijah was all alone.

He organized a great showdown of which God, Baal or Yahweh, would send fire onto their sacrifices. Yahweh won, of course, sending fire that consumed an entire bull, all the wood it rested on, and the 12 jars of water Elijah poured over it to make it especially dramatic. There was no doubt who was the true God, almighty God! But Jezebel became so angry that she threatened to kill Elijah, sending him into hiding in the wilderness, where we find him under a solitary broom tree. He was alone and depressed and ready to die. Was there no reward for remaining faithful to God? Elijah was running for his life with no one to help him. He was in the pit of despair, believing that life couldn’t get any worse; the only light he could see at the end of the tunnel was the train of Jezebel heading in to kill him. Elijah felt like a failure—he had given up, losing faith that God was really watching out for him.

That’s the problem with the pit of despair—we can be so lost and so despondent that we blame ourselves for being a failure while believing that God has abandoned us. We may have tried to do everything right—go to church, say our prayers, behave the way our Ephesians passage describes, being kind and tender-hearted, and forgiving. But then something happens out of our control—like a job lay-off, a major illness, the loss of a friend, the death of a family member—and it feels like God is a Jezebel who’s out to get us. It feels like our faith is slipping away.

This was my experience when I was diagnosed with that Jezebel, breast cancer. It’s one thing to say I am a survivor—and believe me, I am so grateful! But it’s harder to admit that while I was in treatment it felt like I was losing my faith.

I have shared that I am a “type A” personality and it seemed my cancer had the same characteristics—it was an overachiever in every way:

• I had a 3 cm tumor that didn’t show up on any mammogram and a rare, second kind of cancer ;it had spread to the lymph nodes, and all of it was invasive;
• I had a double mastectomy within 2 1/2 weeks of being diagnosed;
• I needed more chemo treatments that most other women I met in treatment;
• Eleven days after surgery, I was hospitalized with blood clots in my lungs and a rash all over my body;
• After 6 weeks of radiation I ended up with a severe frozen shoulder that required another surgery.

The most difficult time for me came after my 2nd chemotherapy treatment in January 2008. I had only been at my new call at St. Mark’s in St. Louis for a year. The doctor said that some people receive a chemo treatment on Friday and are back to work on Monday. Well, I don’t know who these bionic people are, but I was not one of them. I was plastered to the bed and had to go on disability for nearly 9 months during treatment. My kids were still young—in 3rd, 5th, and 7th grades, and I couldn’t take care of them.

In the throes of chemo, it was hard to experience my own faith; to feel the presence of God in the hundreds of hours I spent alone in bed. I experienced a dark night of the soul like nothing I have ever known. I realized how easy it is to be positive, to believe, to have hope when you feel good. But when you don’t have the energy to hold the phone to your ear while you're lying down, well that’s another story. I thought surely if the cancer didn’t kill me, the chemo would. I understood in a way I never have before, Elijah’s despondency under the broom tree, as well as Job’s experience, and the Psalms of lament. During that dark night of the soul, I wrote my own psalm of lament. Part of it reads,

Don’t you care, God? Does it mean nothing to you that I have served you, given blood, sweat and tears for your church, for your children? Can you ease the pain, the discomfort, the difficulty just a little bit for me? Can you not see the blood-thinning, weak, aching, lost misery of your servant? The psalmist cries, ‘in Sheol who can give you praise?’ (Psalm 6:5b.) Indeed, in chemo hell, who can give you praise? Not me. For here, you are silent; as quiet as the pillow to which my hairless head is stuck in numbing immobility.

If this was the only thing going on in our life, it might have felt manageable. But our life was a catalog of calamity. In the previous 6 months, Dan’s uncle died, my favorite aunt died, and worst of all, Dan’s mom died of Alzheimer’s only 7 weeks before I was diagnosed. In the middle of my treatment, my father-in-law was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. A week after his diagnosis, we received a $10,000 tax bill due a mistake our accountant made, and that was on top of the $10,000 in medical expenses we paid out of pocket with good insurance!

I was so depleted and overwhelmed, I was afraid I was losing my faith. I found it hard to pray, I couldn't feel God with me like I have at so many other times in my life. Why do I share this with you in such detail? Because if you are in the pit of despair, have ever been in the pit of despair, or might some day find yourself in the pit of despair, I want you to know that I know, so you won’t be too afraid or ashamed to talk with me.

When Elijah gave up on life and on God, an angel came and ministered to him, providing him warm cake and water. Elijah’s provision in the wilderness echoes the manna God provided to the Israelites in the wilderness and foreshadowed Jesus Christ. In our Gospel reading Jesus says, “I am the bread of life…This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread.”

Elijah and Jesus show us that when we are in the pit of despair, God comes to us as living bread! Two servings and Elijah is energized for 40 days! In my pit of despair, Jesus came to me as living bread through the kindness, generosity, tender-heartedness of others—like angels bringing warm cake and water. I couldn’t pray, but I knew other people were, so I relied on their prayers, and eventually mine came back. I couldn’t feel the presence of God, but I could see Jesus in all the people who helped us. Some days it was hard to believe that I would ever feel well again, but others believed it for me, and that was enough to see me through. In fact, God showed up a lot—more than I can recount. God showed up in angels of flesh and blood and love that I could hang onto.

My parents made multiple trips to St. Louis from Texas to care for us, offering living bread. Two friends, who are both pastors and my two sisters took precious vacation time to help us, giving us living bread. Other friends brought lunch and scripture and prayers on numerous occasions—all of them, angels with warm cakes and fresh water. My Bishop came to visit me. I confessed to him I was afraid I had a weak faith, but he wasn’t concerned about that. It was a better day, and in his suit and dress shoes, he walked along the creek in the backyard with me—a gift of living bread. My husband, Dan wrote on a Caringbridge website to keep everyone updated and each night he read everyone’s prayers and words of encouragement—like angels flying in from around the country offering living bread. I received enough greeting cards to wallpaper two bathrooms—more living bread. Both of our congregations, our neighbors, and friends brought us meals—living bread for my family. Parents from our kids’ soccer, basketball, and baseball teams picked them up and dropped them off—living bread. My brother, Doug, sent me a Mother’s Day card—inside was a check for $7,000. I didn’t feel I could accept it, but he said, “I can’t take chemo for you, I can’t do radiation for you, but I can do this, so please let me.” Living bread. Dan—who was in pain himself over his mom's death, his dad's illness, and his fear of losing me—held our family together with the help of all these gifts of living bread. St. Mark’s made a quilt for me with each family making a square, and they wrapped me in love. Other’s made prayer shawls—angels offering comfort and hope.

Elijah’s problem was not that he was alone, but that he THOUGHT he was alone. Once he ate the angelic cakes, God sent him to appoint a new king as well as Elisha who became his disciple. We can have too individualistic an understanding of our faith experience. Together, we mediate, embody, and make known Jesus, the living bread come down from heaven, for each other. We have faith because we are in community—the community believes with us and even for us when we’re in the pit because we are Christ’s living bread together. It turns out that during treatment, I had the strongest faith I’ve ever had, because it was faith not of my own narrow experience, but the Living Bread of Jesus in the faith of others who carried me.

Some of us are in a time of despair—and need to receive the gifts of love and support from others to get through a current crisis. If that’s you, please be honest about your pain, and willing to receive help from the angels around you who can be the living bread of Jesus for you. Let me know what would help you so we can be faith for you. Others of us are in a season of giving, able to be the living bread Jesus uses to bring food, love, hope and comfort to those who are in the pit. If that’s you, please notice and ask what would help those in a crisis.

Because Jesus is the living bread who came down from heaven for our sake, the Jezebels of this world had no power over Elijah, and they have no power over us. The light at the end of the tunnel is always Christ, offering what we need, and using us to feed others the bread of life. Together our Psalms of lament turn into Psalms of joy, like Psalm 34, our opening Psalm of praise, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him and delivers. O taste and see that the Lord is good!”

Look around you, St. Luke’s, taste and see the living bread of Jesus Christ!


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Grammar Saves the Gospel

Grammar Saves the GospelA sermon preached for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost on John 6:24-35 and Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

Have you seen the t-shirt or Facebook poster that says, “Grammar saves lives?” It then shows this example: “Let’s eat Grandma!” (which means that grandma is the entrée). Then it shows the correction: “Let’s eat, (comma) Grandma!” (which means grandma provides the entrée). A comma saves grandma’s life!

For English majors and grammar buffs, you will be excited to know that grammar also saves the Gospel in today’s John text, not just one, but two times. Grammar saves our lives—or at least helps us better understand how Jesus does!

Our Gospel text about Jesus gives us first “predicate nominative” or “predicate noun” in the book of John! Don’t worry if you’re like me, a mere mortal regarding English grammar and wondering, “what the heck is a predicate nominative?” The Daily Grammar website came to my aid. A predicate nominative completes a linking verb and renames the subject. Linking verbs include helping verbs like is, am, are, was, and being; sensing verbs like look, taste, and smell; and also verbs like become, seem, and grow.

In the sentence, “Grandma is a great cook,” “is” constitutes a linking verb that needs a noun to complete it, making “great cook” the predicate nominative—or the noun in the second half of the sentence that re-names the subject. The most intriguing part of our “grammar saves the Gospel” lesson is that in these types of sentences, the verb can be replaced by the word “equals.” Grandma = a great cook. Now we can really go to town on predicate nominative sentences: Dale = a talented musician; St. Luke’s = a welcoming community; Texas = blistering heat.

So where is the predicate nominative in our passage from John? At the very end where Jesus says, “I am the bread of life”—“am” is the linking verb that needs a noun to complete its meaning; “bread of life” is the predicate nominative that renames the subject of “I” or “Jesus.” Predicate nominatives are an important structure John uses to describe Jesus’ identity. “I am the bread of life” is the first of eight predicate nominatives in John which is followed by:

• “I am the living bread that came down from heaven” later in John 6;
• “I am the light of the world” in John 8 and 9;
• “I am the door of the sheep” in John 10;
• “I am the good shepherd” also in John 10;
• “I am the resurrection and the life” in John 11;
• “I am the way, the truth and the life” in John 14;
• And “I am the true vine” in John 15.

In all these statements, Jesus renames himself, conferring and confirming his identity—that is, who he is in God, and who is for us. Now we need the Bible, theology and spirituality to add depth to our grammar. In these “I am” statements, "I am" is not just the sentence structure but the very name of God first used in Exodus, several chapters before our first reading. When God appears to Moses in a burning bush and calls him to go to Egypt to free the Hebrews from slavery at the hands of Pharaoh in Egypt, Moses asks God, “who shall I say is sending me?” God responds from the burning bush, YAHWEH, which translates as, “I am who I am” or “I am that I am!”

God is beingness itself! Jewish rabbis have taught that we have been breathing the beingness of God in and out unconsciously ever since we were born! This gives us a breath prayer. The breath prayer is simply to breathe deeply in on the first syllable of God’s name and out on the second syllable: YAH-WEH, JES-US, SPIR-IT. God is life and breath itself. This is confirmed in other parts of Scripture because in Hebrew and in Greek, the word for Spirit is “breath.”

Fast forward to Exodus 16, our first reading today. The Israelites have freedom, life and breath, but they complain because they have no bread. God is their source of life, but now they need sustenance as well. What good is breath without bread? What good is the Source of life without sustenance to maintain it? God heard their complaining and rained down bread during the night, so that the ground was covered in bread, “manna” once the dew dried! God is not only the Source of life—breath, but also of Sustenance of life—bread. (The Hebrew translation of manna is “what’s that?” They saw the bread on the ground, asking what it was and they were told to eat the “what’s that!”).

Fast forward to the first part of John 6 which we heard last week—Jesus feeds 5,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish. Jesus explains that miracle with the phrase, “I am the bread of life!” First, Jesus is God—Jesus is “I am who I am”—God in human form—manna becomes the first incarnation of Jesus, the bread of life. This same bread of life feeds 5,000 hungry people in another miracle of bread, foreshadowing our own table here—Holy Communion. “I am who I am is the bread of life.”

Let’s bring back the grammar of the predicate nominative: I am = God, God = Jesus, Jesus = bread of life, Jesus = sustenance, Jesus = provision. This is why we have the smell of bread baking today (in the bread machine started an hour before worship); when we breathe in very source of our life and the presence of God, we also breathe in bread—the Sustainer of our life: Let’s do the breath prayer: YAH (breathe in) WEH (breathe out). Breath and Bread, Source and Sustenance.

That’s the importance of all the predicate nominative statements in John—that we would hear in them, not that God feeds his people occasionally with miraculous bread, or once a week with tidbit at Communion—but that Jesus is the Source and Sustainer of all that we need every day!

Jesus = the living bread
Jesus = the light of the world
Jesus = door of the sheep
Jesus = the good shepherd
Jesus = the resurrection and the life
Jesus = the way, the truth and the life
Jesus = the true vine

But that’s not all! God doesn’t just provide food, God IS food—God is life, bread, light, true vine, shepherd, forgiveness, the door, the way, the truth and the life. Everything we eat is Christ, everything we breathe is Christ, every experience of light, love, hope, nourishment, community, forgiveness, nature, and joy is Christ. Christ is the “what’s that,” the manna of all we have.

Which brings us to the second time grammar saves the Gospel in our passage. Verse 31, the crowds in John say that Moses GAVE them (past tense) the bread from heaven to eat. But Jesus says, it was God—"I am who I am”—who provided the manna, and then he changes the verb from past tense to present tense in verse 32, “It is my Father who GIVES you the true bread from heaven,” not "gave" you in the past, the true bread from heaven.

God in Jesus Christ is breath and bread, not once or twice in the past for the Israelites and the crowd of 5,000, but today, now, in the present tense for us. The Israelites in Exodus and the crowds in John want another sign, another miracle, but Jesus says, “you’re missing the point! Your breakfast was the bread of life, your rest was me, your yesterday was me, your dinner tonight is me, your kiss goodnight is me. “I am the bread, I am your sustenance.”

The challenge for us is the same as it was for the Israelites in the wilderness, and the crowds around Jesus—to trust that God will continually take care of our needs and provide for us in the present tense. For us, Jesus has already come to earth, died on the cross and rose again, and given us the gift of salvation and still we wonder, “can I trust God to take of me today?” Does God love me today? Will God listen to my prayers and needs right now?”

Jesus answer is, “Yes, of course! I am the bread of life.Take in breath and bread, life and sustenance." God’s provision may not come in the way we want or when we want it, but Jesus IS the bread, the door, the truth, the vine, the shepherd, and calls us to trust with every breath, that he will provide for us. I would like to close with a story that gives an example of what this kind of daily, present tense trust looks like for us.

Many years ago, I heard a speech from a successful Mary Kay National Sales Director, “Amy,” about when she was a nervous, new consultant. She traveled from her home in Illinois to Dallas for the annual summer convention. Amy hadn’t spent much time away from home, she missed her children and her husband, she was a bit of an introvert, and it was just too much. So she decided to leave the convention and go home early.

Amy changed her flight and got on a plane late that evening. She arrived in St. Louis and got on the shuttle to take her to her car in a remote parking spot. It was late at night, she was exhausted and counting the minutes to get home.

Amy noticed the driver of the shuttle was so cheerful and joyful. The driver was so happy to see her, carried her bag, humming a Gospel song while she worked, and just seemed to be on top of the world. Amy thought, “well I wish I felt that happy.” And as she sat there, she felt this inner urging, this voice of the Spirit of God within, to tip the shuttle bus driver with the $50 bill in her wallet that she hadn’t spent because she came home early.

“That’s crazy, why would I do that?” she thought. But the voice of the Spirit inside became stronger and stronger. “Give this woman the $50 in your wallet.” Tip her with the $50 bill!”

Well, Amy was a woman of faith, and even though she did not understand it, she thought she better obey what felt like the voice of God. She took the $50 bill out of her wallet, and after they arrived at her car and the driver carried out her suitcase, Amy looked at the driver and said, “I’m not sure why, but I feel like God is telling me to give you this” and she handed her the $50 bill.

The woman said, “Praise God, thank you, thank you,” and gave her a big hug. “My electricity was going to be shut-off tomorrow and I had no way to pay the bill, but I knew that God would provide it somehow. Thank you so much” and she hugged her again. Amy was dumbfounded—not only because God used her to help this woman, but because the driver lived with such a joyful confidence in the midst of desperate need. Now, I don’t think that shuttle bus driver would say that she had a “predicate nominative faith in the present tense,” but that’s exactly what she had! She trusted Jesus as her Source and Sustenance, and we can too, because Jesus = both breath and bread.

So, as we come to the Lord’s table today, both sentences about "grandma" in the beginning of the sermon work when we replace “grandma” with “Jesus” who is our breath and bread: “Let’s eat Jesus!” (who is the meal!), and, “Let’s eat, (comma) Jesus!” (who provides the meal!). Let’s eat, St. Luke’s!


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Come Away with Jesus

Come Away with JesusA sermon preached for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56, Jeremiah 23:1-6, Ephesians 2:11-22 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas.

When I started my first church in Detroit, Michigan, I got to know an African American woman in the neighborhood who had been ordained by her congregation not because she went to seminary, but because of her many spiritual gifts for ministry. Rev. Regina wanted to attend a neighborhood congregation, so she became involved at the church I was serving. I marveled at her deep spirituality. She would say things like, “Well I was going to ask Bob about being a reference for my application to seminary, but the Spirit said, ‘ask Alex.’” I thought to myself, “the Spirit talks directly to her?! I don’t think I have that spiritual gift.”

When people, even strangers, would see me in a clergy collar and ask me to pray for them because I “have a direct line to God,” I would pray for them but inside, I was thinking, “well, maybe, but not really—it’s Regina who has the direct line to God, not me.” Ministry for me early on was all about “doing.” I am a perfectionist, Type A, people-pleasing personality and being a pastor was about doing for others—visiting, preaching, leading youth, summer feeding programs, bible studies, worship, teaching, Vacation Bible School. These are all great things, but they do not encompass all that God calls me to as a pastor.

We live this pattern as a congregation and often as a denomination, church is a pattern of things we DO—we attend worship and sing, collect food for the hungry, have fellowship meals, prepare school kits and health kits, make quilts, make sure the building is maintained, cut the grass, write a newsletter, do Bible study, learn, give an offering, and pray for the sick. Our ELCA motto is “God’s work, our hands,” and it’s a great motto because doing these things is important, but again, it does not include all that God calls us to.

Over time, I realized that God really did want to speak to me, I just wasn’t listening. It took many years for my “doing” personality to learn to listen. My mom called me “motormouth” when I was six, and when I got too excited or worked up, she made me sit still on the couch without talking for five minutes. It felt like torture! 

In our Gospel reading from Mark, the disciples are also out “doing” ministry as well. Earlier in Mark chapter six, Jesus sent out the disciples two by two to teach, heal, and forgive others; in our passage today, the disciples have come back to tell Jesus all about what they have done. We at St. Luke’s have also been out doing ministry by asking strangers who check us out at the store and the doctor, or who wait on us in a restaurant, if they have any prayer concerns we can include in our prayers.

To the disciples and to us, Jesus says, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." Jesus spent time in a personal relationship with the disciples and Jesus calls us into the same kind of relationship. Jesus invites us to go out and spend time with him. Unless we intentionally take time to be with Jesus and plan it, we’re not going to get there; I learned I had to choose to take time to listen. Even in the Old Testament passage in Jeremiah, God expresses personal concern for the people. God is concern for the nation is expressed in the language of a personal relationship—my pasture, my people, my flock.

Jesus wants a personal relationship with us. Many of you filled out one of the blue cards as part of your offering, sharing what you experienced in asking to pray for strangers you encountered, and I’m going to read what some of you wrote down. Close your eyes and imagine yourself sitting with Jesus and the disciples as you hear these expeirences: peace; surprised they responded so well; a connection; concern for their safety; felt good sharing God’s love; hope; it was easier than I thought; encouraged. Can’t you imagine Jesus smiling at you and the disciples? How does Jesus feel listening to them and to us? Perhaps pride, love, joy, taking delight in who we are and who we are becoming!

Jesus was teaching the disciples a spiritual practice!! Keep your eyes closed and let the disciples and the others fade away, and now it’s just you and Jesus. We’re going to practice being with Jesus, and I invite you into a meditation of “beholding Jesus beholding you and smiling.” Take a few deep breaths to relax a bit more, and “behold Jesus beholding you and smiling.” We will share the communion of silent meditation for a moment.

This is just practice, so it’s ok if nothing happened! I learned this meditation about 4 ½ years ago when I did the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. I did this meditation, “beholding God, beholding me and smiling" for 5, 10, or 15 minutes every day, and nothing happened. But then on day 57, almost 2 months in, I had a physical sensation of something moving from by head to my chest and gut, from my mind to my heart. It really startled me and with a quick intake of breath, I opened my eyes, looked up and spontaneously said, “you really do love me, don’t you? I had been a pastor for twenty-four years, and this was the first time I had a physical sensation of being loved by God.

This is what it means to move from meditation to contemplation. Meditation is me doing the mental work or focus, and using my imagination, and then at some point, it shifts to God doing the work in me. Remember I started out as "motormouth" and sitting quietly felt like torture, so this will be much easier for you than for me! And your experience will be different—God will communicate with you in the way that you can receive it. I am a person of action and movement, so I needed a physical sensation. But a person of logic or the mind may receive a new thought; people who can’t turn their mind off, may experience a new kind of silence; you may receive a feeling of peace, or release of anxiety; others might get a feeling of expansiveness, like the sky just got bigger; others might get a sense of freedom or the lifting of a burden; an artist might receive a new image; a musician may hear a new sound; an engineer or carpenter may sense things fitting together in way they never have before.

Only by spending time with God—when I stop doing and start listening—that I’ve grown into a deeper relationship with God. It’s all about learning to make myself available to God offering my time and attention. That's why we call them spiritual practices--we always practice and never arrive at perfection! We also want to practice this together—because I can’t wait to hear how Jesus is delighting in you and God is communicating with you! We can grow in our faith just by learning how God is working in each other’s life. Your story of this experience may help someone else hear God in their life in a way that’s very different from mine.

Now when people joke that I have a direct line to God, and I think, “Heck, yeah! I do, but not because I’m a pastor, not because I’m a more spiritual or a better person, it’s only because other spiritual teachers taught me how to be quiet, to imagine, and to listen. The best news is, YOU HAVE A DIRECT LINE TOO! Want to try a new way of praying?!”

Our part is to show up—to make ourselves available for God to move, work, and communicate with us! The truth is there are as many different ways to have a relationship with Jesus as there are people. I invite you to practice this meditation on as many days as you can—you may have 5 minutes, 2 minutes, 3 minutes, 10 minutes. Set a timer on your phone so don’t have to worry about when to stop, being late for work or an appointment. Behold God beholding you and smiling; behold Jesus beholding you and smiling; behold Spirit beholding you and smiling—whatever image of God to which you feel most connected.

I often receive questions about distractions. They are always a part of prayer. You can do three things: 1). If they are minor, let them float by like boat on a river—don’t get into the boat, just let it pass by; 2). You can also acknowledge and notice the distraction without judgement, and then let it go; 3). If something occurs to you that you don’t want to forget, keep paper and a pen nearby, jot it down it and then come back to your meditation. Every choice you make to return your attention back to God is a prayer!

Mark 6:33 gives us a great image for pursuing this kind of relationship with Jesus. “Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.” People were “hurrying there on foot” to spend time with Jesus. What does it feel like to have relationship with Jesus that we hurry to spend time with him in rest, in meditation, being loved and delighted in by him? We go out into the world to do our work, and continue to ask people you meet if they have any concerns you can pray for—and then we hurry back to Jesus to tell him what happened and to be loved and strengthened. You can continue with your devotional readings, and prayers for other people, and then spend time listening in quiet meditation as God takes delight in you!

In my prayer journal from Ignatian exercises, I wrote in the margins early on, “Prayer is a relief—not a task.” This is what our passage from Ephesians is ultimately talking about—what relief and joy come from being connected to Christ. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ…In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” You are a dwelling place for God—and we together, as St. Luke’s, are a holy temple in the Lord! As we each grow in our relationship with God in Jesus Christ, the stronger our temple becomes, the more love and forgiveness we have to share with Richardson and the world! So "come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” with Jesus your Lord.

 Image The Gospel of John movie

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Religion and Politics

Religion and PoliticsA sermon preach for the 7th Sunday After Pentecost on Mark 6:14-29, Amos 7:7-15, and Ephesians 1:3-14 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas.

Our texts from Mark and Amos sound like plotlines from the HBO series, Game of Thrones, the top TV show which recently received 22 Emmy nominations.

King Herod would fit right in with the Lannister clan who rules Westeros, as they all redefine family according to their own passions, and throw extravagant parties where death is on the menu. John the Baptist believed that it was his duty to speak spiritual truth to political power and he admonished King Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. Because of a foolish oath to his daughter and to save his image, Herod behaved as many power-hungry people do: he sacrificed another life for his own gain, beheading the prophet and serving up John’s head on a platter.

Amos could be a prophet from Essos who, like Daenerys Targaryen, sought to free people from oppression, slavery, poverty, abuse, and injustice. Amos also spoke spiritual truth to political power: King Amaziah and Israel had forsaken their covenant with the God who lavished them with liberation from Egypt, the promised land, forgiveness, mercy, and steadfast love. Amos accused them in Chapter of 5 of “selling the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals; trampling on the heads of the poor and denying justice to the oppressed” and held up a plumb line for God’s justice. But King Amaziah didn’t want to hear this prophetic voice so he sent Amos away to southern Judah. It’s like being sent to The Wall in the north in Game of Thrones where winter is coming and there is no protection for the vulnerable.

In real life, no matter the setting or the era, winter is always coming for the poor, the vulnerable, the hungry, the homeless, the immigrant, the imprisoned. If we hold up a plumb line of God’s justice in front of our society, what do we see? 18% of children live in poverty; 34% of the homeless population is under the age of 24; almost 40,000 homeless people are veterans; 16 million American kids struggle with hunger each year; CNN reported on a survey last year that 66% people of color experience prejudice in this country as a “very serious” problem.

Ever since God called Moses from the burning bush to liberate the Hebrew people from slavery at the hands of Pharaoh, a primary role of religion has been to speak truth to power. Our faith calls us out of the dignity and love endowed by our Creator to admonish, remind, and hold accountable, those in power so that our institutions, government, and public life promote the common good, and the well-being of all.

But this make us uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Polite company dictates that we should not talk about religion and politics at all, much less put them together, but Amos and Mark do not give us a pass today. Many Christian traditions through history prefer making religion and spirituality private and personal—a morality-based faith with heaven as the prize, and church as the rule-enforcer, all the while neglecting the direct implications of our faith for a just economic, social and political life.

But an exclusively privatized faith is not consistent with the witness of Scripture, nor the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, and it is certainly not how Jesus embodied God’s presence in the world. Jesus also held up the plumb line of justice against political and religious powers in their treatment of the outcast, the sick, the marginalized, the poor, the widow, the hungry, women, and the children. Through his healing power—Jesus restored and reconnected the marginalized to their social standing in the Temple and the public square. Spiritual and physical healing by Jesus had social, political, and economic implications as they became re-connected with their community.

In fact, the word “religion” comes from the Latin word “ligare,” which means “to join” or “link.” This is often understood to mean the linking of the human and the divine, but it is also about being linked and connected to each other. The Greek word “polis”—which gave us the word “politics”—simply means “city” or “public forum” where people come together. Despite our discomfort with it, the public square is the very place where live out our connections—to God, to each other, and to the common the good. Religion and politics have been bound together since the beginning of human community.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr (to whom I am indebted for many ideas in this sermon!) who established the Center for Action and Contemplation goes so far as to say, “There is no such thing as being non-political. Everything we say or do either affirms or critiques the status quo. To say nothing is to say something: To say nothing is to say that the status quo—even if it is unjust and deceitful—is apparently okay.”

That is not to say that as believers, we will all agree on the best course of action, or one policy solution on any issue. People of good faith have and will always have a diversity of opinions on how best to move forward. It is the illusion that our faith is private and has nothing to do with the public sphere of life that John the Baptist and Amos ask us to dispel today.

To move into the public sphere, we must always return to the core of our faith out of which our social and political action arises. Ephesians gives us one of the most beautiful descriptions in Scripture of what God has done for us:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.

Faith doesn’t get better than this—God always takes the initiative to “religion us”—to re-connect us with the ground of our being—God’s creative and redeeming love. Even though the plumb line of our life is crooked, God has created us and links us to him eternally as beloved children, freely offering unmerited forgiveness and undeserved grace. Instead of seeing our imperfection, God sees the straight plumb line of Christ. God showers us in lavish love that changes our present, redefines our past, and seals our future.

Indeed, this is the purpose of our prayer and worship—to experience the lavish love of God that defines who we are—child of God, loved by God, made by God, saved by God, returning to God, always connected and re-connected to God through grace. Out of this experience of being loved, we move into the public square to advocate for justice, peace, food, housing, opportunity, dignity, and respect for all people, whom God made and also lavishly loves!

Ephesians gives us the final vision toward which we move "…God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth."

Again, Richard Rohr says, “God’s love always yearns to save and transform us and the world. From Genesis to Revelation, we see images of God’s intended and preferred vision for us: a world made whole, with people living in a beloved community, where no one is despised or forgotten, peace reigns, and the goodness of God’s creation is treasured and protected as a gift.”

We live at the intersection of religion and politics everyday—there’s no way not to. Amos and all the Prophets, John the Baptist and Jesus call us to live in the world fed and led by God’s lavish love for us and all of creation. French poet and essayist, Charles Peguy said it this way, “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” Our inner world—must inform our outer world. When our political, economic and social structures mistreat or oppress any individuals, the role of us as God’s faithful people, is to re-ligare—to reconnect our structures and institutions with the values of justice, fairness and the common good. Such activism has enabled the reunification of some children with their immigrant parents last week.

Connecting religion and politics has also always been part of our Lutheran tradition. When you look up "Advocacy" on the ELCA website, you will read:

As members of the ELCA, we believe that we are freed in Christ to serve and love our neighbor. God uses our hands, through our direct service work and our voices, through our advocacy efforts, to restore and reconcile our world. Through faithful advocacy, the ELCA lives out our Lutheran belief that governments can help advance the common good.

ELCA advocacy works for change in public policy based on the experience of Lutheran ministries, programs and projects around the world and in communities across the United States. We work through political channels on behalf of the following biblical values: peacemaking, hospitality to strangers, care for creation, and concern for people living in poverty and struggling with hunger and disease.

Together, we achieve things on a scale and scope that we could never do otherwise. When we act as a coordinated network of advocates and reach out to officials on relevant, timely issues, we effectively impact public policies.

There is an entire list of advocacy and justice issues you can get involved in through our church including food insecurity, keeping immigrant families together, gun violence, support for veterans, maternal and infant health, farm policy, climate change, homelessness, and more. You can sign up for Advocacy alerts on the ELCA website and join local efforts for justice with Faith in Texas—religious communities working together to promote a public life that seeks the common good. We can’t do everything, but we can pick one issues that breaks our heart, get informed, and communicate with our legislators.

We do not live with Amos in Scripture, or in Westeros of Game of Thrones, yet the abuse of power, and the cries of injustice are certainly as real. God calls us to speak spiritual truth to political power because God’s lavish love always yearns to save and transform the world and calls us to be a part of this work, creating a straight plumb line for justice in God's kingdom on earth!

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linda anderson little
Linda Anderson-Little

Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.