Category Archives: Sermon

Holy Communion & Them

Pic by Bernadette Morris (creative commons)

Pic by Bernadette Morris (creative commons)

Sermon: Emanuel Lutheran Church, Strawberry Point, Iowa
August 23, 2015

John 6.56-69

Lutherans talk about two sacraments: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion— visible signs of God’s invisible love. In Baptism, what’s visible? (Water). But Martin Luther taught that it’s not really about water. It’s about God’s promise inwithandunder that water. (Cool expression, huh? Say it with me: InWithAndUnder.

In the same way in Holy Communion, what are the visible, tangible elements? (Bread and wine or juice). Lutherans tend to say it’s not magic food. It’s the mystical presence of Christ’s body and blood inwithandunder the elements of food that are important.

In both Baptism and Communion, we celebrate the invisible, unspeakable mystery with ordinary earthy stuff.

Today’s gospel reading seems to be an invitation to think about the question: What is Holy Communion? 

It’s more than a mini-Meal. It’s about being intimately woven into God’s love, connected to the wider church and living day to day at school, where you work, where you play and at your kitchen table.

Last week our confirmation students and their parents gathered to talk about what confirmation instruction might look like at Emanuel, and I was remembering when I was in middle school in Rochester, Minnesota going through my 3-year career of confirmation: Classes each Thursday night including lecture, memorization of Luther’s small catechism, writing papers, Bible study, class discussion.

What was that like? To be honest…

I kinda loved it.

It was an important time for me. My intellectual self was so ready to explore my faith. Someone brought up at our meeting that Martin Luther loved questions. As both a pastor and a professor, he framed religious education with questions. So in his Small Catachism, for example, we pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Our father, who art in heaven” and we stop there and ask: “What does this mean?” We think about the words, we wonder at their meaning. And then we move on with the next petition: “Hallowed by thy name.” And we pause again. “What could this mean? We study carefully and take it in, following our curiosity and allowing the mystery of faith to soak into us over a lifetime, our education never complete.

I think part of Holy Communion is being students sitting at Jesus’ feet over a lifetime. A holy communion— togetherness—all of us with Jesus. Asking our questions, feeling the richness of our ancient tradition and experiencing what’s brand new that God is doing in you and me.

But we don’t do this alone with Jesus. Holy Communion is also about being connected to one another.

And to me that means jokes.

You see, almost every Sunday, my friend Gabe and I find each other and share a joke. All week I’m on the lookout for a good one to tell him on Sunday. Sometimes he has one for me. Because one of my favorite things in the world is laughter, I love that Gabe and I are connected this way. So, Gabe, here’s my joke for you today. Musicians will appreciate this one.

What’s the most musical part of your body?

Your nose, because you can pick it and blow it.

[Wait for uproarious laughter and/or disapproving groans]

Communion is about community with one another. Laughing with Gabe. Knowing where people at Emanuel usually sit. That Elle will probably be at the organ, Cathy at the piano, Robbie strumming and one of our many brilliant singers helping to lead singing. Passing the peace and knowing that some of us don’t like to be touched so I can hold my hands together as a handshake-hug for them. Being in touch with Chuck’s cancer, the success of our youths’ 4-H showings at the fair. Feeling the newness of our life together as the call committee works to discern calling a new pastor.

Communion means we are doing life together. I’m grateful for where we are together and how God is leading us into the future.

But community is not only us in this room. Let’s pull the camera back. We in this room are part of a larger body, along with every other little church worshipping this morning— here in town, across the country and all over the world.

The Apostle Paul’s favorite metaphor for the church is one single body to which the many, many body parts belong (obviously) and where each body part belongs to the others. Picture a human body— male or female— with each arm, leg, ear, toe and pancreas are fully whole, each body part good, good, good and clearly belonging to the whole person. Where would we be, Paul asks, without any one part?

Holy Communion means we’re jerked out of our individualism and self-centeredness to understand we are part of something way bigger than ourselves. Something we’re not in charge of. It’s world-wide, made up of all kinds of people, most of whom do not have white skin, do not speak English and do not own a car. The church we are part of is embarrassingly wealthy, and it is dangerously poor. Our one church suffers, our one church rejoices. Our one church has AIDS, cancer, and gets shot at; our church celebrates birth, scientific discoveries and the teensiest sign of peace anywhere in the world.

Holy Communion means we claim one another– all the One Anothers to whom we belong. Beyond this room, beyond our personal preferences and prejudices, even beyond this time!

That’s another dimension of communion. We are surrounded, the book of Hebrews reads, by a great cloud of witnesses, beyond space and time. So we are part of the whole people of God that includes Abraham and Sarah, King David, Ruth and Naomi, Simon Peter and Mary of Magdella as well as our loved ones no longer with us.

Who comes to mind for you? Picture there faces, hear their voices.

We are the church that includes our ancestors going way back, our dearest companions of our lifetime as well as children and grandchildren yet to be born.

A Russian Orthodox theologian named Alexander Schmiechen puts it this way: Worship with our One Body never really begins or ends.

When we ring the bell here at Emanuel and start our service, we are simply joining the worship that has been going on continually for eons and that continues in other time zones when we at Emanuel Lutheran are finished. It’s like we just sort of step into a stream that has been flowing almost forever.

Because we are in Holy Communion.

Let’s close with John’s gospel today.

Jesus says again, “Eat and drink. But look deeper. It’s me. Eat and drink and make me part of you.”

Now people who heard this were starting to get what Jesus was about. And it made them nervous. Why? They noticed the people with whom Jesus ate and drank.

Treasonous, cheating tax collectors working for Rome.

People so sick there were laws against touching them and being close to them.

Prostitutes, and women of ill repute that didn’t have much standing in the community apart from a man.

People it was a waste of time to be with, so ridiculous a prospect to be seen with them that it truly effected the reputation of Jesus’ 3-year ministry.

Because Jesus touched them, ate with them, laughed with them, went to football games with them, quilted with them, hung out with them. He treated them like he didn’t know they were a Them. You could make the case that Jesus was killed because of who he ate and drank with.

So when Jesus said in a number of different ways, “Eat and drink me,” it began to dawn on his students what he meant. Their lives would have to change to be with those Them. The barriers between Us and Them would be dissolving into respect, compassion, maybe even handshakes and hugs.

It must have seemed impossible.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Jesus went on: “I’m telling you. This is the Only Way. God, the Holy One of your ancestors, is calling you.” (John 6.65)

This was the last straw for some followers, the gospel says. Reading from chapter 6 that we heard today:

“Because of this many of his followers turned back and no longer went about with him.

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

There was, I imagine, a pregnant pause. The twelve looking around at each other.

And out of the awkward silence Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.

We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6.68-69)

Can you feel a bit of what that must have meant to them?

And we sing those words from Peter’s mouth every Sunday around the gospel reading: “Alleluia. Lord, to Whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia.” Except what’s different about what we sing and what’s in the story?

No alleluia.

I imagine the tone of Peter’s words to be pretty heavy. Maybe even agonizing.

Like: “Jesus, this is hard. You’re asking for a revolution. A way to live where there is no Them? Nobody that’s not part of who we think of as Us?!  No male or female, no black or white, no gay or straight, no republican or democrat, no honor student or drop-out, no diseased or healthy. You want our whole lives to change to be about Communion— you even want to change the way we think!”

And the twelve men looked around at each other. And the women disciples who probably were there but weren’t counted. Restless silence.

“Jesus. A change that’s inwithandunder this meal like a contaminant? Jesus, a new world that’s somehow hidden within this world? Holy Communion with you and *Those* People— the Only Way? Outrageous. Impossible. So much at stake.

*Sigh*.

Maybe there were tears in Peter’s eyes when he said it:

“Where else can we go? You have the words of real life.”

And maybe, in considering his failures of the past and knowing so well his fear of the future… maybe Peter added under his breath: “Alleluia.”


Dirty Confessions

Water RipplesWell, it’s gettin’ on Lent. That means good Christians everywhere are making plans to feel bad.

A friendly reminder for your upcoming 40 days: confession is about facing a life of forgiveness, not one of grieving the past.

Psalm 51 is the classic prayer of confession: Make me new. Restore my life. It’s really a deep trust in a simple principle of the universe: things change. 

Lord knows David had some baggage, so when we utter Psalm 51 together we know we’re in good sinner/saint company. (Is my Lutheran showing?) I don’t know a soul who doesn’t desire renewal in their life in an honest, continual way.

This 3000 year old text has been spun into the liturgy for a loooong time. We pray together:

Create in me a brand new heart,
       forgiven and renewed
Restore to me your spirit now
       and the joy of your rescue

May you and your circle experience true renewal this Lent.

Listen to Richard’s community song “Wash Me Clean” for Psalm 51. It’s a little groovy, but don’t worry– if you feel bad about feeling good after, read the Psalm again.


To Give Yourself

When our ten-year-old son comes to ask me to play, I am sometimes more willing than others.

To be honest, sometimes I agree with an inward sigh because I want to be a good dad and putting in my time is important.

Other times, I fully give myself to Sam with a wide-open heart smile.

I give myself.

I let go of my agenda and allow myself to swept away. I’m clearly not in control and into it, whether it’s dominos, chess, a light saber duel or freestyle wrestling. Whatever the play, I am so There. I will not be a spectator this time. I will not be juggling the thoughts of my little projects. I am in it for a real encounter with my beloved boy, not to check a box when the task is done. Not this time.

There are two ways to approach the spiritual life:

1. Disciplined and goal-driven.

2. Mystical and Experientially-driven.

Neither is wrong. They are two sides of an important coin. However, I think the first mode is what our consumer society imposes, so the latter is more deeply needed in this time.

In the first case, our ambition and desire motivate change. Through discipline, we take the wheel with some measure of assurance that we have what we need to navigate the watercourses of our lives. The positive is that we draw from the strength of our personhood. In this current season of Lent, there are disciplines that may shape the design of a faith-full life. It’s good. Spiritual practice can show us it’s possible to live consciously, intentionally.

The downside of this perspective is that the sense of responsibility for one’s life makes us prone to feel either pain in failure or pride in success. Grace and mystery are kind of bottom shelf.

In the second mode, we are immersed in Great Mystery and, like a daddy with his kid, we give ourselves to It. We are All In. As one theologian puts it, God is shaping us “like water shapes a rock.”

Like a bride to her bridegroom, a mama nursing her baby, a passionate student to her studies, we give ourselves.

The downside is that mystics may be so good at opening, allowing and surrendering, that we neglect agency. (Talk to Neo about that.) Martin Luther wrote that even the will to make the tiniest choice originates from God’s Holy Spirit.

But in every spiritual tradition I can think of, there’s a dimension of surrender where we put ourselves in the flow of something we trust is bigger than ourselves and watch ourselves be part of it.

In Lent, I suggest there is more to give ourselves to than be in charge of. as we hear the stories of Jesus and soak in the Psalms, we might open our imaginations to what transformation looks like in us. There might be some work to do, but maybe most of it is allowing stuff to happen to us. One could make a case that the whole of Jesus’ ministry was about these two words: “Give yourself.” Give yourself to me and share abundant life. Give yourself away to one another and discover a large, round filled-to-overflowing life. You are seasoning for the earth and light for the planet, after all.

It’s human to want to give ourselves. We desire to see our existence expand past our perceived personal borders. A rich life means losing track of our individuality sometimes to know ourselves large, as Uncle Walt wrote.

Rumi:
“And still, after all this time, the Sun has never said to the Earth,
‘You owe me.’
Look what happens with love like that.
It lights up the sky.”

What this means is that giving yourself is a spiritual practice. When we do it, we are magnetically drawn to Fullness and Goodness and Holy.

So we give ourselves to our kids and to our parents. We give ourselves to our neighbors, to our community, to our leaders because we witness life being more full.

We give ourselves to strangers, to the poor, to the widow, because that’s where we are most certainly present.

We give ourselves to the Samaritan, to the Muslim, to the bullied because we get clear on who we are.

We offer ourselves gift-wrapped to our unique and sometimes hard-to-explain callings.

When you eat, be mindful and completely savor. When you make love, be totally There. In fact, whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of Holiness.

Teachers, give yourself to your students. Nurses, give yourselves to your patients. Dentists, serve as unto the Holy One.

If you fish, consider yourself a fisher of humanity. Surrender to fishing, to the lake, to the fish. Make yourself part of the circle of life. Your life will lure the Holy, your fish will feed the world. Your heart, so present.

Like a gardener, full of hope and trust, plant seeds. Your nests will gather immigrants and strangers into Love.

We are up for anything the spirit of the Living God puts in our way today. We may set aside our preferences in order to serve. We may set aside our theological commitments to say yes to stretching and growing. We offer ourselves as students, disciples–  teachable, shapeable ones.

To One we lay ourselves open to service, open to healing, open to surprise and to an ever-emerging future.


New Year’s, The Point of the Church, and Johnny Depp

After the Twelve Days of Christmas is Epiphany. It kicks off the most important season of the church year– better than Christmas, stronger than Easter, able to leap Pentecost in a single liturgical bound.

At this point in the post, I pause for a number of you to scoot to the edge of your seat in fascination, and the rest to politely excuse yourselves to do anything else you can think of.

Bob Webber called Advent-Christmas-Epiphany “The Cycle of Light,” (unrelated to Tron). If Advent is about longing and preparing for Christ’s presence and Christmas rejoices in the eternal breakthrough of God-With-Us, then Epiphany is about manifesting the Christ.

Which, in my humbly-justified, sinner-saintly opinion, is the Point of the church.

It’s too bad only 11 percent of church-goers know what Epiphany is about. (Okay, I actually made that stat up. But shocking, right?)

The church exists to reveal, proclaim and embody the Christ. If that seems like a funky new theology, note that the New Testament people of God are collectively called the Body of Christ (Romans 12; I Corinthians 12). That’s a metaphor for the physical manifestation of presence.

It’s the Incarnation kicked up a notch.

We hear some strong stories in the Epiphany season, among them:

  • The Magi pilgrimage with gifts: devotion made manifest.
  • Isaiah 60: “Arise, shine! Your light has come… and nations shall come to your light.” We occupy with our lives what’s otherwise 99% invisible.
  • Jesus is baptized by his cousin John, J’s anointing revealed publicly. (The Baptizer played by Johnny Depp.)
  • At the Cana wedding party J does water to wine, saying something about “his time” coming, the first of seven signs of transformation in John.
  • J calls and trains the disciples– gathering, equipping, sending.
  • The Transfiguration. Glory in the ordinary leaves us sputtering in awe.

To me, all these stories are images of transformation, inviting us to imagine what’s possible in a life. What a great way to begin a new calendar year.

In these Epiphany stories, God is up to something brilliantly earthy and mystically intuitive: Christ is to be found in the ordinary, even enacted in you and me with all our uniqueness, embodied in us together.

Look up “Christ, Body of” in the dictionary, and you see a family picture of all of us (that’s all) with J. Our Celtic brothers and sisters would not leave out the earth itself, insisting we honor God ‘s presence in all of creation.

Of course, there are other ways to put it:

  • My “conservative” Christian friends speak in terms of evangelism, proclaiming God’s love to all the world. Yes, that’s it.
  • For my “liberal” Christian friends it’s the call to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, making a difference in creation. Absolutely.
  • My Buddhist friends work with radical compassion, recognizing that everything is impermanent– the world can change, and we can be part of it. Amen and gassho to that.
  • My New Age friends speak about manifesting divinity in our lives. Sure, that’s it, too.
  • My Muslim friends are clear about his call to serve the world, enriching human fitrah.
  • The Hebrew Covenant in Presence and Torah is embodied in family, politics, religion, meal, prayer, story and song. Yes!
  • My pagan friends are committed to actively honoring the holy in each and every piece of creation.
  • For my atheist friends, there’s transcendent purpose in doing good on behalf of ourselves and the world.
  • Mr. Rogers taught me it’s good to share who you are and what you have. Your seven-year-old knows it.

As the New Year turns, we take stock of last year and let it go. Then we turn, taking a deep breath with some hope and some trembling as we face another year. Our call as humanity has never been clearer: we are important to one another. We are designed– mind, body, soul and strength– to be of influence and to work/play together to be of even greater influence. This is the metaphoric Light of Isaiah and of the gospels. Didn’t J say not only, “I am the light of the world” but also, “You are the light of the world?”

In Epiphany, this is a moment to celebrate this is how the universe works. We might also meditate on the poignancy of just how connected we all are.

How might this Epiphany be a time of renewal for your local church? Time to celebrate your light that naturally shines, to consider how you are embodying the Christ, and how God is leading you more deeply in and in some cases farther out.

Here’s a short but juicy song for you and your community this Epiphany: “Your Light Has Come” crystallized from a great discussion with Marcia McFee‘s Worship Design Studio a couple of years ago.

The lyrics reflect a post-modern paraphrase of Isaiah 60:

Lift your head, raise your eyes, look around:
       Your light has come! your light has come!
Light the world, heal the earth, bear the Christ:
       Your light has come! your light has come!

Here’s to the New Year with a Eucharistic toast all together.

Download Your Light Has Come music resources from Worldmaking.net.


When Your Theology Changes

I am circling around God, around the ancient tower
and I have been circling for a thousand years,
and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm,
or a great song.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

Carl Jung wrote that a Circle is an archetype for wholeness or God. We are always drawn toward it, June Singer said, yet “to fly straight into it would be like a moth darting into a flame.”

I guess, like Moses, we don’t look directly at the Holy. We circle around. We admire its posterior, its profile, its moving shadow.

At seminary I heard all theology is autobiography. True, I think. If we’re paying attention, all our life experiences are naturally integrated into a Story of what’s holding them together. We come up with integral symbols, signs and words that help us make sense of it all: theology. God-talk. The witness of Scripture is that. We’re designed to do that, too.

We are God-seeking, tower-circling, hungry-by-design, circumnavigating-Life-by-instinct creatures.

You’re a falcon circling.
When Rilke describes circling around the Tower, it’s what all of us are always doing.

Whatever language and symbols you have going right now for the Holy One, it hasn’t always been this way. Your autobiography has grown with your years on the planet, and your theology has developed with you. Each time you’ve crystalized a personal belief, it’s been merely a stepping stone of long-haul enlightenment.

In other words, your theology has evolved.

You’re a storm circling.
Like a scientist in the lab, when something interesting happens, our definitions are disrupted and our Story of God grows beyond its previous borders. Bill Moyers’ Genesis: A Living Conversation project suggested the narrative of the Older Testament is really the Story of God evolving in the human experience. Your story is a kind of scripture, too. Everyone’s is.

We know change happens, yet when seasons of transformation dawn, we pretend to be surprised. As if life is supposed to be stagnant and smooth, and moments of transition are really messing it all up. Humans are funny.

Pete Seeger said we can’t know the whole Truth. We can only circle round the gorse-berry bush hearing the rabbit, pointing and saying, “It’s in there somewhere.” Observe a sculpture with three trusted friends at the compass points, and you have access to four different views, all true, all different. The community, friends, church, sanga, is a vital thing in your God-Story evolving.

Paul Tillich said the word “God” is so old and tired, it should be banished from our vocabulary for about a thousand years. Then that word might begin to mean something again. We outgrow language sometimes.

When you come to a place where old words don’t work anymore, tell someone. Because that’s the Christ story unfolding: death and resurrection, and old wineskins breaking. When a season of questioning moves through, share that story of Christ emerging. Don’t circle alone, at least not for long. Your story– everyone’s story– is something we need to hear. I’ve been part of some communities over the years where seasons of deep questioning are avoided as a failure of faith. I’ve been part of others that treat these seasons as holy moments where faith is growing. I hope you have a sense of being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses where your Story of God is welcomed, honored and treated as revelation. After all, didn’t he say something about being born again? And again?

You’re a song circling.
Who are you? After a thousand years, maybe we can say with Rilke, “I still don’t know.” Maybe the point of a creative, juicy life is to lose track of ourselves and know ourselves to be In Holy Process. We think we know what the point is; we think it’s all about the tower. But what about the circumnavigated path you’ve worn? Your favorite beverage on the journey? The weather lo these many years of orbiting? The company and the conversations? These are all parts of a spiritual life. The experiences of a true Christ life cannot always be neatly filed.

To conclude, let’s stretch the metaphor with Rilke:

You are circling ’round the One Holy Tower– a falcon, a storm, a song.

You’re a lover dancing round your Beloved.

You’re a storyteller wondering about the twist at the end,
a hawk patrolling her valley,
a youngster on the playground with one end of the  jumprope, whirling, whirling with your friend.

You’re an explorer of God downloading continuously to a universal core.

When your theology is changing, you are in the midst of a Holy Endeavor.