Sunday, April 25, 2021

Birth of the Church: The Act of Listening

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
    and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
        so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
    Who can describe his generation?
        For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. --Acts 8:26-39 (NRSV)

How well do we listen? How well do we really listen?

When I was going through my chaplaincy training in Minneapolis, this was one of the primary focal points of our learning. Being taught to listen.

What I knew from my own experience in negotiating labor contracts in my past life, and what was reinforced for me during this clinical training, as well as, what I learned in 2019 in mediation training is that we don’t listen well.

We think we do. But, we don’t. We may talk incessantly and just never listen. We may listen once in awhile, especially if it's something we want to hear. We may often listen fully. But, I would suggest that we don’t listen well. Because, even when we think we are listening fully, most of us are thinking about the next thing we have to say. How we will respond to what we are hearing.

We don’t listen well.

Listening is at the heart of today’s story. It begins with Philip. One of those seven we heard about last week. Appointed, along with Stephen and others, to oversee the food distribution program of the early church. Do you notice, once again, where we are seeing the Spirit at work? In the kitchen?

After Stephen’s death, the persecution of Jesus believers belonging to “The Way” increased, led by Saul, who we would later come to know as the Apostle Paul. As a result of this, the Jerusalem church scattered. Philip travels down (really up) to Samaria to proclaim the good news of Jesus to the people with a positive result. Soon Peter and John join him there. Then, all of them return to Jerusalem. While Philip is in the city, an angel of the Lord speaks to him. Calling him to get up and go south to the city of Gaza.

Now, Gaza is along the southern coast of Israel. Traveling there is not easy. Even our text says it’s a “wilderness road.” It’s a journey through rocky territory that takes you to hills of sand that must be traversed before reaching this coastal city.

Notice though, that in our story, Philip listens. And, then, he acts. And begins his wilderness journey. 

It’s not long before he meets someone on the way. An eunuch. An official of the queen - the Secretary of the Treasury for the Ethiopian nation. One appointed who’s entire focus would be one of serving his nation. One who, in our world today, we might view as “other.”

He’s been to Jerusalem to worship there. On his return, he’s stopped along the road in his chariot, reading from the prophet Isaiah. We read in our text that the Holy Spirit directs Philip to go to him. Again, Philip listens. And acts. When he comes to the Ethiopian, he hears him reading. And inquires whether the official understands. Philip, again, listens to his response and his invitation to Philip to join him in his chariot. The passage he is reading is from Isaiah 53, the same passage we heard on Good Friday, often titled “The Suffering Servant.” The Ethiopian asks a question. Philip listens. Then he begins to answer. To share the good news about Jesus. And about this suffering servant. Once dead, now alive. 

But, notice that Philip isn’t the only one who is listening. As the Ethiopian hears Philip’s witness, he, too, is moved to act. In a way that perhaps is surprising to Philip. “Look, here is water!” he says to Philip. “What is keeping me from being baptized?” Immediately they stop and the Ethiopian is baptized by Philip.

Then, notice, as a colleague has mentioned, notice that once the Ethiopian - this unnamed man - is baptized, Philip gets out of his way. Or rather the Spirit whisks Philip out of his way. One can only wonder how the Holy Spirit continues to work transformation in the heart and life of this stranger. This "other."

Today is Creation Care Sunday. Yet, this Sunday is also set in the midst of an eventful week for us in this country. A verdict. Yet, even in its midst, more shootings of people of color. 

The cries of communities of color have been heard in our country for decades. Even centuries. The warnings of environmentalists and scientists about the damage we have done and continue to do to creation have been lifted up, as we just heard from Lana, for over a century. 

Are we listening? Or are we so concerned about our own needs that we have failed to hear or even refused to listen - and, then, to act? Notice that in our story listening is always connected to action. What are we doing to change how we live? What are we doing to correct the damage and trauma inflicted upon people or God’s creation we have “othered” in our world?

As is apparent from this story, we trust that God through the Holy Spirit is at work in our world to bring about restoration. And new life. But, like Philip, we are called to come alongside this work. To listen. And, then, to act. Because to do otherwise simply cheapens the gracious gift of life given to each one of us in Christ.

Are you listening?

Preached on Sunday, April 25, 2021, online to Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, KY, and Third Lutheran, Louisville, KY.
Easter 4 - Creation Care Sunday
Readings: Acts 8:26-39, Luke 24:44-47

Friday, April 23, 2021

Birth of the Church: Conflict and Change

Our text today is in three parts. 

Before we begin, it’s important that we understand the context and background of our story, as well as, a tiny bit of explanation as to how the Narrative Lectionary works.

Since Christmas, we’ve spent our time working through the gospel of Luke. We’ve heard different themes: the theme of journey, both as Jesus travelled from Galilee to Jerusalem plus the journey of the disciples and their own understanding of who this Jesus was. Then, there’s the theme of welcome and inclusion, as we were witness to how Jesus healed and invited in those residing on the edges of society. We also heard the theme of conflict, as we watched the escalation between Jesus and the religious leadership in the temple, eventually leading to the crucifixion by the Romans.

Many of these same themes carry into the book of Acts, which is where we move today. 

Acts is really the second volume of Luke, written by the same author. Addressed to the same person we met early on - Theolophilus, which is translated “God lover.” But, while Luke is the story of Jesus and his ministry, Acts - its full name being “The Acts of the Apostles” - Acts is about the early church and its ministry. But, more than anything, Acts is really about the work of the Holy Spirit - this third person of the godhead that continues to be active in our world today. That is still so mysterious to us. And that is, honestly, the most subversive person in the Trinity. 

It may seem odd to move so quickly to Acts after the Easter story. But, really, that’s what happened. It was only 40 days after his resurrection that Jesus ascended and then only 40 days later that God poured out the Holy Spirit on the growing group of disciples on that first Pentecost. We will hear story when we celebrate Pentecost Sunday in a few weeks. However, for the next few Sundays, we’ll be moving into the book of Acts. And our primary focus, uncomfortable as it can sometimes be - our primary focus will be on conflict. Because in ministry to human beings, whether inside or outside the walls of the church, conflict happens. It did in the early church. It still does today.  

We begin in Acts, chapter 6. 

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. --Acts 6:1-7 (NRSV)

When problems or conflict in our church communities arise they are rarely about theology. How many times have you gotten into an argument with someone over a theological issue? Right. Probably never. Problems in the church often begin in the midst of practical ministry. Choir. Or the men’s or women’s groups. Or altar guild. Or, as in the case of today’s reading, in the kitchen. 

In this story, we have two groups that are linguistically and culturally different - the Judaic Jews and the Greek Jews, or Hellenists in our story. The Greek Jews speak the language of imperial Rome and come from outside Jerusalem. They’re the newcomers to the city. And, according to them, they’re being treated by the other disciples as though they are the newcomers. Treated unfairly. Their widows aren’t getting the same amount of food as the Jewish widows from Jerusalem. So, they complain to the leadership of this first church. To the twelve. 

In the world of leadership there are two kinds of challenges. The first is what we call a technical challenge. It’s something that can be easily fixed. Like when the roof leaks. Or the grass needs to be mowed. We just need the right person with the right skills to make a fix. The second type of challenge is what is called an adaptive challenge. It doesn’t have an easy fix, but requires a complete change of mindset. What’s happening in this first part of our reading is a technical challenge. There’s a fairly easy fix. The twelve disciples meet and devise a plan to expand their leadership team to include some of the Greeks. Seven to be exact. It’s to this group that the twelve will delegate this ministry of service - of feeding the poor. It’s a different type of ministry than that of the twelve. But, just as important. So, while these seven men do their ministry of service, the twelve disciples will continue their ministry of sharing the Word. 

Do you notice, though, where the Spirit seems to be most at work? It’s from out of this group of seven that Stephen comes. The Spirit, subversive as it is, is more at work in this moment in the kitchen. 

Our reading continues.

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.

Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”

So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”

All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?”

To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran.

“Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him.

“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:

“‘Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
    Or where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things?’
 --Acts 6:8-15; 7:1-2, 44-50 (NRSV)

They’re trumped up charges. Just as the charges against Jesus were trumped up. Stephen, like Jesus, is a threat to the status quo. In his speech, which is much longer than what we read, Stephen is telling the Jewish people that things are changing. Perhaps the thing he says that is hardest for them to hear is that it’s no longer about the temple. It’s not about the building. God will not be and cannot be contained within four walls, as much as we’d like to contain God and limit the movement of the Holy Spirit in the world. This is an adaptive challenge for the people, because it will require a huge change of mind and heart. To recognize that God’s dwelling place is no longer only the temple. That the Holy Spirit will be and continues to be at work, not only within the walls of the church, but also in the wide, wide, world beyond. 

The reading continues.

[Stephen speaks.] “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. --Acts 7:54-60 (NRSV)

As we hear the end of this story, it’s hard not to see the similarities between the stoning of Stephen and the crucifixion of Jesus. Yet, what we know on this side of Easter, is that it is often in the darkest places, in the places where there seems to be no hope, that the Holy Spirit is most at work. Because, just as the Spirit was at work bringing life out of Jesus’ death, so, too, would the Spirit be at work bringing life out of Stephen’s death. Not in the same way. But, still working goodness out of evil. Light out of darkness. Spreading the good news of Jesus Christ into the most unexpected parts of the world. 

We are in a season of change in the church. It began well before the current pandemic, but has been pushed even more quickly as a result. The Holy Spirit is pushing us outside our church walls. Outside our comfort zone. Into a world that desperately needs to hear and see and feel the love of God, a world that as we’ve seen especially in the violence of this past week is a world that desperately needs to know the love and grace and life that God offers. 

It is our natural human tendency to resist change. This can lead to conflict. But, here’s the thing. As we are hearing today, the change and the conflict that may result as we continue to grow and move beyond our walls is not new to the church. We’ve been here before. What we learn from this experience of the early church is that no matter our resistance or the conflicts that may arise, God can and has and will work through it and us to do new things. This is the message of the resurrection. This is the message of the early church. This is the message for us. Here. Now. In this brand new world.

May God the Holy Spirit do its subversive work in our churches, in our people, in our hearts, so that we might share in new and unexpected ways this amazing good news of new life. Amen. 

Preached April 18, 2021, online with Third Lutheran, Louisville, KY and Grace & Glory, Goshen, KY.
Easter 3
Readings: Acts 6:1-7:2a, 44-60; Luke 23:33-34a, 46


Sunday, April 4, 2021

Birth of the Church: Easter is Coming

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. --Luke 24:1-12 (NRSV)

Grace, mercy and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! Alleluia, Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

I wonder what their plans were after Jesus had died on that Passover evening - the disciples who had followed him so long on the journey to Jerusalem. Simon Peter, James, and John, from the beginning, then the remaining nine. The tax collectors and those whom Jesus had healed or raised from the dead. And, the women. Yes, the women. So many of them named in Luke’s gospel. All of the disciples, men and women alike, coming from so many different lives. What would they do now that Jesus had died? Would they simply go back to life as usual? 

This was what the women were doing that early morning after the Sabbath. They’d watched from afar as Jesus died, followed Joseph of Arimathea as he’d taken down the body of Jesus, wrapped it in a rock-hewn tomb. Not the typical tomb where bodies were stacked upon each other, but one that had never been used. Perhaps, for the women, this irony was not lost on them - that Jesus’ life had begun in a virgin’s womb and ended in a virgin tomb. They hadn’t been able to prepare Jesus’ body properly for death that night, because it was the Sabbath. He’d been buried without the proper rituals and anointing, without the ability to properly mourn his death, much like so many families in our world have experienced in this past year. 

But, the women were determined to keep their traditions, to do life as usual. This meant preparing the burial spices and the ointments. Then resting on the Sabbath, waiting for the next day to begin to do things the way they had always been done. 

Except this wasn’t how things had always been done. It wasn’t long before they learned this. The two men at the tomb, standing there in dazzling clothes, who reminded them of what Jesus had told them, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day would rise again. The women remembered this. And, then, quickly returning from the tomb, they went to the remaining eleven disciples and all the others and shared this news. 

But, it hadn’t taken long for the other disciples to revert back to the way things had always been done. The women’s voices were quickly dismissed. Nonsense, is what these disciples said to them. Dismissing their voices. All of the disciples. Well, except for Peter. Who quickly ran to the tomb to see for himself. 

The truth of this story is that the resurrection of Jesus and the dawning of the new creation along with him is a threat to anyone who would rather continue living as if the cross were the end of the story. The women, going to the tomb, were planning to perform that one last act of love for Jesus and, then, return home to their former lives. Peter and the rest would have returned to their boats, their nets, their many occupations. 

But the empty tomb changes everything, opening up new possibilities. There is no way back to their former lives in Galilee. And, even though Luke tells us that Peter went home after seeing the empty tomb, we soon will learn that this wasn’t the end of it: Peter would become one of the primary leaders in this new movement that would become known as “The Way.” And he, like Jesus, would eventually die on his own cross. 

The resurrection is a joyous event. But it also moves - no, compels the disciples forward to bear their own cross. To go into the messiness of their world and to share this good news. To forgive. To heal. And to love. 

This call by Jesus for his disciples to take up their cross and follow him is still valid for us. It would be so much simpler for us to go back, post-pandemic, to the old way of doing things. It would be so much safer if we were not compelled by the resurrection to oppose injustice, oppression, and all forms of evil. The message - the full message - of Easter is both joy and challenge. It is the announcement of unequaled and final victory over sin, death, and the devil. But, it is also the call to radical, dangerous, and even painful discipleship. 

Easter is coming. What will you do?

Preached April 4, 2021, online with Grace & Glory and Third Lutheran churches, Goshen/Louisville, KY.
Easter 1
Readings: Luke 24:1-12, Psalm 118:17, 21-24.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Journey to the Cross: It's Not About Us

As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” --Luke 23:26-47 (NRSV)

If we think the cross is about us, we are mistaken.

I was raised with a rather fundamentalist viewpoint of the cross. That it and that Jesus’ crucifixion on it had to happen because someone had to pay for the fact that I was, inherently, a bad person. So, God had to send Jesus to suffer and die on the cross. Which then meant that I would feel so bad about this that I had to try and try and try all the harder to be a good person.

But, that’s not really who God is, is it? Which is why, when we begin to think that the cross is about us rather than about God, the only view we can have of God is of God standing in heaven, arms crossed, looking down at the cross and judging us, while punishing Jesus. It’s no wonder then, that our natural inclination is to skip the events between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, even more so because of all the death and trauma we have been experiencing that, perhaps, seems as though it will never end.

But, here’s the thing. God isn’t standing above the cross looking down on us. God is hanging from the cross. 

Maybe the problem begins when we think we can know God, simply by looking at who we are and projecting this on God. We’re vengeful, so God must be vengeful. We’re power-hungry, so God must be power-hungry. We’re selfish, so God must be selfish. Which makes it all the more difficult for us to believe that God would choose to go to the cross. Because we wouldn’t.

But, we can’t be saved by a God who’s a worse version of ourselves. Or a bigger version of the better parts of ourselves. No, we can see who God actually is when we see how God chose to reveal God’s self. In a cradle. And on a cross. Because, it’s not about some legal transaction where Jesus pays our debt. Instead, the Word made fleshing hanging from the cross is God saying to us, “I no longer want to be in the sin-accounting business.” It’s from the rough, splintered throne of the cross that Christ, the King, looks at the world and at us and none of us escape his judgment. Those who have betrayed him, those who have executed him, those who have loved him, and those who have ignored him. All of us, he judges. And the pronouncement? Forgiveness.

Jesus will not condemn anyone who put him there. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.”  Only a God who is not like us can save us from ourselves - a God who enters into our human existence and who suffers our insults with only love and forgiveness. So that, through the cross, we finally know that God isn’t standing apart from us, but is right there with us in the brokenness and messiness of our lives and of the world around us. God is present in all of it. 

The cross is not about you. But, it is for you. It is so much for you that God will go to the ends of the earth to be with you. Nothing, nothing, nothing, can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Not insults, betrayal, isolation, suffering. And, as we learn from that coming Easter morning, not even death itself. Amen.

Preached April 2, 2021, online with Grace & Glory and Third Lutheran churches, Goshen/Louisville, KY.
Good Friday
Readings: Luke 23:26-47, Psalm 31:5-13.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Journey to the Cross: God, the Ultimate Baker

Now the festival of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was near. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death, for they were afraid of the people.

Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve; he went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers of the temple police about how he might betray him to them. They were greatly pleased and agreed to give him money. So he consented and began to look for an opportunity to betray him to them when no crowd was present.

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.” They asked him, “Where do you want us to make preparations for it?” “Listen,” he said to them, “when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.” So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.

When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. --Luke 22:1-27 (NRSV)

Tonight, we remember the last night Jesus spent with his disciples celebrating the Passover meal. We remember that the early church would gather for Agape meals or love feasts to remember Jesus’ life and ministry, to affirm their communal identity as the body of Christ, and to share food and resources so everyone would have enough. 

Tonight, we gather at many tables in many different homes to remember that meal so long ago when Jesus gathered with his dearest friends, his disciples. We remember the wilderness around us: isolation, illness, unemployment, homelessness, racism, violence, fear, uncertainty, grief. We also remember the wilderness to come for Jesus: betrayal, denial by his closest friends, suffering and death. 

Yet, in this wilderness through which we have been walking, and in the wilderness Jesus would experience, there would be moments. Moments of the unexpected. Moments of new realization. Moments of learning.

Over this past year, I’ve become a YouTube watcher. Some of this certainly has to do with the algorithms that continue to offer videos that draw me in.  Many of them have been about food and cooking. And bread baking. Perhaps, it’s the bread baking videos that catch me most, because, I don’t know about you, but there is something about a freshly baked loaf of bread that brings back many memories. Memories of my mother, who, for many years, would diligently bake a couple of loaves of bread each week.

I recently watched a video by Peter Reinhart, author of many books on baking bread. In it, he talked about the transformational aspects of bread. He suggested that to fully understand what it is about bread that is so special - the metaphorical and mystical aspects of bread baking - we must understand it at the most literal level. 

So what must happen to create a loaf of bread? Bread first begins as wheat. A grass that grows in the field at some point puts out seeds. That we harvest. Harvesting is really just a euphemism for killing. The wheat gives up its seeds, which, for the wheat plant are a promise of future life. But, instead the seeds are given up, crushed, and turned into flour. The plant is killed and denied the potential for creating future life. So, the first transformation, which is a radical change from one thing into something else - the first transformation is that the wheat stalk moves from being alive to dead.

Next, the flour is merged with water and salt. This creates something like a clay that is then infused with yeast or leaven. The word “leaven” is related to the word “enliven” - to bring life. The Hebrew word for clay is adam. The baker, according to Reinhart, is the god of the dough. When the leaven is added to this clay, it grows. Or proofs, in baker terminology. It proves that there is life. There are things happening: the enzymes break forth sugar, the yeast eats the sugar, which turns to carbon dioxide. The bacteria eats that same sugar to turn to acid. The personality and character of the bread is being developed under the watching gaze of the baker. The bakers choices all along the way determine the outcome of the final product. A subtle change in temperature or time or something else can change the final product. Then, the dough that worked and kneaded to develop the gluten - this net that develops that holds the loaf together - yet all along, the dough continues to prove that it is alive and is developing character. This is the second transformation - when the wheat and the dough created from it has moved from being dead to being alive.

But, then, it’s time to bake. The dough, shaped and formed, is placed into an oven. When the bread reaches the temperature of 140 degrees it passes the TDP, the thermal death point. All life ceases there. The yeast, whose mission up to now has been to raise, to enliven the dough to complete its mission, has to give up its life. It moves from being alive to being dead. Another transformation.

The final transformation involves us. We eat the bread. It nurtures us and gives us life, thus completing the life cycle once again. 

Over and over and over again, this process of death and resurrection happens in the life cycle of the bread. In the same way, over and over and over again, this process of death and resurrection happens in the bread we eat in this meal. This final meal that Jesus shared with his disciples on that Passover Eve. A meal that would bring betrayal and death to Jesus. And yet, a meal that would bring life to the community he would leave behind, that he would infuse with his Spirit. That he would continue to transform through this meal - a meal that we still share today. A meal of bread and wine that is not simply about remembering, like the memories that I have of my mother baking bread. But a meal that is transformational. A mystical meal in which we believe that Jesus is present with us, here and now, continuing to transform us. Forgiving the dead parts of us. Bring life out of that death. Molding and shaping us into the people and the community God desires us to be. A people like Jesus. Humble. Serving. Loving. 

May we trust in and experience this transformation tonight and as we go throughout our lives, challenging as they may be in this very moment. May we remember that God is the ultimate bread baker. That God makes the ultimate choices. And that, in the end, God always brings life from death. Amen.

Preached April 1, 2021, online with Grace & Glory and Third Lutheran churches, Goshen/Louisville, KY.
Maundy Thursday
Readings: Luke 22:1-27; selections from John 13.