Martin Luther described the Holy Bible as the "cradle of Christ"...in other words: The Manger.
Not only at the Christmas stable, but all year-round,
God's people are fed at this Holy Cradle.
We are nourished at this Holy Table.
We are watered at this Holy Font.

This blog is a virtual gathering space where sermons from Bethlehem Lutheran Church (ELCA) and conversation around those weekly Scripture texts may be shared.

We use the Revised Common Lectionary so you can see what readings will be coming up, and know that we are joining with Christians around the globe "eating" the same texts each Sunday.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

August 26 -- Fourteenth After Pentecost

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we put on the whole armor of God in the midst of incomprehensible evil in this world.

This is a challenging text because it talks about evil—evil that is all around us, and evil that is inside us as well.  

There was a trend in some theologies during the 20th century to downplay evil.  “To say that humans are evil is just too negative,” some said in the 1920’s & 30’s.  Then comes Nazi Germany: millions of Jews were tortured and killed during WWII.  And theologians started rethinking the human potential for evil, not only because of the horrible evils inflicted by the Nazis, but also when they considered how many stood by…while the Jews were being murdered.  

And evil is real in our lives today, too.  One of my professors in seminary drove this point home for me when he said, “If you don’t believe in sin, just open your window and breathe the air.”  Air pollution is a constant reminder of our recklessness, apathy, self-centeredness, ultimately our sin.  This is not a fun text, here in Ephesians, to deal with…especially now—at the end of the summer, we’re getting geared up for the fall, new ministry is stretching its wings, revitalization all around, and here we are talking about evil.  It might be easier to discuss, if I could just point to some group of people and pin blame and sinfulness and evil on them.  Or, if I could just point to an individual engaged in some sort of sexual impropriety that would make us all gasp, that I know we would never be a part of, but Ephesians nips this one in the bud and says, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against cosmic powers of this world, against spiritual forces of evil in high places.”  Evil is much greater than one person or a group of persons -- “the wiles of the devil” are much more elusive and very hard to pin down.  

How do we address world hunger, for example?
I preached a sermon once on my internship in St. Louis, and I was talking about a service trip that we took to Nicaragua, and I said something like, “poverty isn’t just an issue, it’s a face” and went on to describe sweet little Olivia who I at one point even carried on my shoulders there.  A woman came up to me afterwards and told me that she liked my sermon, but hated that I had put a sweet face on poverty.  “Poverty is not Olivia,” she said to me with tears in her eyes, “Olivia is a victim of poverty.  Poverty is a horrendous monster.”  Hunger, poverty—these are elusive, gargantuan evils, too great to pin on any face.

How do we battle—to borrow the imagery that worked well for the people of Ephesus—the cosmic forces of evil?  How do we acknowledge, confront and defend against sin?  

You ask me these questions directly, and I’m afraid I’ll tell you that I cope with these things usually by ignoring them—barricading myself from them with my own preoccupations.  I’m on the mailing lists for orgs that send out alerts, and I can’t even tell you how many of those emails I’ve deleted.  Sometimes I do pay attention to such great evils, but just to assuage my conscience I write a check or even take a trip.  I go down to Mexico to build a house.  Then I come back across the border and get back into MY life.

These elusive and tremendous evils—hunger, war, famine, poverty, environmental degradation—are not easy or fun things to talk about.  Very quickly we can talk ourselves silly and just give up.  It’s not REALISTIC to care that much.  It’s not PRACTICAL or LOGICAL.    

But then, neither is our God.

If God was realistic or practical, I’d never be standing here preaching.  Who am I to speak?  I’m too new, too young, too old, too inexperienced, too imperfect, too shy and self-conscious.  But God says, “I have chosen you Dan for special things. I need you.”  
If God was realistic or practical, we couldn’t call ourselves God’s children.  There are far too many terrible things that we have done to each other, to our neighbors, our families, our friends and even to our own bodies…way too many things to really call ourselves “little Christs.”  But God is unrealistic and says, “I have chosen you, Zoe, Tim, Jay, Barb, Marva, Adam for great things.”  I have chosen you to be my messengers.  I have chosen you to go out into the world and share the Good News of my love, offer hope…despite all the dangers, all the hopelessness, despite hunger, war, famine…not because you’re gonna fix it all (only God can do that), but because this is what God “splashes us in baptism” to do.  

Not to belabor this, but if God was realistic or practical, why would God become human?  Why would God come down to earth in the form of a peasant to take on all the sin of the world?  God became human!  That defies all logic and reason.  It is completely unrealistic!  Why would the God of the cosmos choose to do such a thing?  Christianity, by its very definition, defies all logic and reason.  God forgives us all our sin.  That’s crazy!!  God lifts the burden and frees us all!!

So here in Ephesians, we hear of what we are offered for defense amid this chaotic and evil world:  standard issue.  Freely forgiven of our sin, in the midst of the swirling powers of evil, God covers us with something completely new.  Not just armor…that’s something old.  It’s a metaphor.  The Pauline author takes imagery that was very effective for the people of that time, who were used to seeing Roman centurions, pushing everyone around, forcing them back into place if they got out of line.  But Ephesians speaks of a different kind of armor:  THE ARMOR OF GOD.  The NEW image breaks into the OLD.  I’d like to reflect on a few of these articles of God’s armor this morning:  

First, the belt…of truth.  Big word these days: truth.  Putting on God’s belt of truth, all that we say and do becomes honest, caring and sincere.  Gone are the days of double talk, trickery, gossip, deceit.  God, through this letter to the Ephesians, invites us into a new communication and lifestyle—one that is genuine and clear, speaking the truth in love.  (Bonhoeffer)

The breast plate of righteousness.  We don’t show respect for our neighbors because we have to, or because we are guilted into it, or because it’s politically correct.  We respect and even advocate for our neighbors because it’s simply the right thing to do.  Righteousness is about right living; I think the Greek word is even better translated as “justice-orientation.”  When we put on the breast-plate of righteousness, we orient our lives in a way that resembles God’s justice and love.  When we put on the breast-plate of righteousness, issues of hunger, poverty, harassment, racism, sexism, heterosexism—these become important to us because they are about God’s justice.  When people are treated unjustly or as objects, subjected to another’s abuse, we move into that fray, chest first, heart first, to care and speak as people of God, even if an end to injustice seems unrealistic.

“As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”  (combat boots) Shoes take us to new places.  This passage calls to mind another scripture passage from Luke 1: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us…[and] guide our feet into the way of peace.”  To talk about peace, or to have a moment of silence to “visualize world peace,” is not enough.  In the midst of violence and apathy, God invites us and leads us into moving our feet into the way of peace, from war to dancing.

The Shield of Faith.  Faith is what we live by.  It is [get ready, definition :) ] “the ability to trust the promise”.  Thinking about faith as a shield helps us think about faith as actually protecting us, as opposed to so many other things we are tempted to use to protect us from harm.  

I’ll never forget, when I was in college, I had this position on our student congregation council called Global Peace and Justice Coordinator.  And we’d put on events that were designed to be thought provoking.  We’d bring in two people on different sides of an issue, and let them go at it.  The most intense event was when we had this guy from the National Rifle Association come and literally face off with a guy from some organization called the Coalition for Peace in the Inner City.  And they fit their stereotypes to the T.  Also present in the audience at the event was this old and pretty famous Lutheran scholar named Eric Gritsch.  The NRA guy really seemed to be dominating in the “discussion,” but I’ll never forget when Professor Gritsch entered the conversation using his faith as a counter-response to arming oneself against danger.  He was challenging the NRA representative, and he was doing while sitting cool and collected.  He eventually made the NRA guy so upset that he was literally standing over Gritsch barking all the reasons why he should carry a gun.  And Gritsch just kept saying essentially that God was his protection.  It makes me think of the shield of faith.  I can’t remember Gritsch’s eloquent words, but I certainly remember his body language.  I’ve never been more amazed with that visual image of this angry, seemingly paranoid, “protected” man standing over a calm, cool, even humorous, faithful man. Now was Gritsch being stupid or unrealistic?  I mean there are some dangerous places in this world.  Maybe he was, but maybe he was simply choosing to carry a different type of shield. 

Helmet of salvation.  Our heads sure can mess with us, can’t they?  I don’t know how, but one constant source of distress is thinking that we have to earn God’s favor.  Whether it’s by doing good things, or stating out loud our beliefs and commitments, somehow we hope that God is hearing and seeing it all and will reward us.  (Lifelong Lutherans stiill.)  But friends in Christ, OURS IS A GOD OF GRACE!!  The helmet of salvation is what covers our heads with the promise of salvation.  It protects our heads against all those other voices...  Maybe we think of the helmet of salvation as BAPTISMAL water.  It is that ever-present protection that allows us to stop trying to win-over God, for God has already won-over us!  Jesus died so that we could live, and so we LIVE in that joy.  

Joy is the final concept here, in thinking about God’s whole armor.  Joy spreads through every aspect of these articles of equipment and sinks into our flesh and bones too!  We could be terrified at what lies ahead on the journey that God has set before us.  Many soldiers are traumatized by battle, and understandably so.  But God is doing a new thing here with us, instead of marching ultimately in fear, and in aggression, and in trauma, and in joylessness --  we march, completely covered with God’s joy.  We are “marching in the light of God.”  

Evil is real.  But so is our God, who abides with us today.
And so we press on, day by day, despite the cosmic forces of evil, we continue on, marching, singing, dancing in the light of God, covered and protected with divine joy, peace, the promise of forgiveness, love, and the hope that only God can provide…this day and forever.  AMEN.             

Blessing for the New School Year

God our creator,
you surround us with the marvels of this world
and give us the ability to explore 
the mysteries of creation.
You fill the earth with the Spirit of wisdom
and inspire us to search for the truth.
You have sent us prophets and teachers
as witnesses to your love for us.
You have come among us in Jesus Christ
to teach us your saving truth by word and example.

We pray for all who are beginning a new school year,
that both students and teachers
will be blessed in their academic endeavors and explorations.

Almighty God, you give true wisdom and knowledge.
Grant teachers the gift of joy and insight,
and students the gift of diligence and openness,
that all may grow in what is good and honest and true.
Support and cover with peace all who teach and all who learn, 
that together we may know and follow your ways; 
through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

What is BLC’s Mission and Vision?

Dear Bethlehem, I’m sorry — I’m guessing you may have been asked some form of this question a time or two in recent years, as you’ve journeyed through pastoral and congregational changes.  I know that our most recent official mission statement is “Building lives — through worship, mission and connection.” But honestly, I haven’t talked to too many who have much to say about it, or even know it.  
Anyway, I am asking a different kind of question; I’m not wondering if you can recite what was voted on a while back (if you voted on it)...

Here are my working definitions of mission vs. vision statements:

mission statement says “who we are (right now)”.  It’s not about what we fancy ourselves to be, or where we’ve been in the past.  Rather this reflects who we are as God’s faithful people...in this moment.  Bethlehem is a lot of good things...in this moment.  Amid all our hopes and dreams for the future, and any sadness or frustrations about the past, who are we right now?  How would you answer that about BLC?  (It may be helpful to get at this by trying to imagine how God — as opposed to me or you — might describe us right now: beloved, forgiven, welcoming, quilted together in love, etc.)  

Then, a vision statement says “where we are going”.  Like Moses or Martin Luther King Jr., we might not ever get there.  But a vision statement is most definitely clear about our direction.  My favorite example from the secular world is Microsoft:  Their vision statement a few years ago was "to put a Microsoft computer in every home in America."  Probably not possible — they might not ever get there — but you know exactly where they're going and what they’re all about.  What is Bethlehem definitely all about, even if we have yet to arrive?

How I would love to retreat to the mountains for a couple days with you all and delve into this conversation at one of our Lutheran camps, with a bible and a guitar nearby, sipping coffee or wine.  But alas, life is busy.  And we probably need to settle for a virtual fireside chat...  

So I am asking a couple things of you:

a) Please pray about this for at least a day, first.
b) Then, write a bit about 'who Bethlehem is right now' as God’s faithful people in Fairfax.  What are the unique gifts that describe us...today?  (Mission)
3) Write a bit about what you believe God is calling us to be all about.  Where are we going?  (Vision)
4) Pray and let this marinate for at least another day before hitting the final “send”.  (Think of this not as homework with a deadline, but soul work).

May I share your responses?  

Grace and peace, 
Pastor Dan

Sunday, August 19, 2018

August 19 -- Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Friends, today the Christian community continues to worship together and sing.  That’s something to give us pause and ponder. 

After everything that’s happened! 

One of the more pressing concerns on our congregation's mind, I imagine, is that we had yet another vandalism this week.  If you hadn’t heard, a window in the basement was broken.  What is going on?!  I don’t know about you, but this has re-triggered my feelings of anger and fear and frustration and sadness.  “Why haven’t the police caught anyone?  Are they doing anything?  What about our safety and that of our children?  Are these events all related?  What are we going to do about it?!”  That’s a big, troubling thing that’s happened.  Lots of activity here at church, with LSS, new members, Living Room Faith series, Sunday School planning, continued orientation for me…  After everything that’s happened: So many traveling this month.  Some of you too.  I’m learning, Washington clears out in August.  So that means lots of us are jet-lagged, road weary.  Filled with new adventures, or skeletons in the closet.  Travel brings up all kinds of things, good and bad.  We’ve got this hot, humid weather.  More rain coming.  (“August, you are a garbage month”) Our lead headlines show us all-too-often how divided and cruel we can be as a nation, as the human species.  Family issues at home, healthy issues, work issues.  Busy-ness always, the drive to produce and succeed, or just the drive to stay afloat!  Revving up for the new school year.  A lot has happened! 

And yet we continue — the Christian community even today continues  — to gather, to worship, to sing.  Profound really.

I want to reflect a bit on Ephesians today--

Ephesians instructs us to be wise and not foolish, making the most of our time, for the days are evil.  (Sure can be evil...) 

And then Ephesians says “so don’t get drunk,” and I want to stop right there…

This is obviously good literal advice — for all sorts of reasons.  But this is more than a finger wag for temperance.  

I’d like to invite us to look at getting drunk as a metaphor this morning.  What happens when a person gets drunk? 

They stumble, say things they don’t want to say, they slur.  A person who’s drunk misses the details.  They miss the expressions and emotions of others (which aren’t too hard to see otherwise) because they’re too caught up with saying or doing what they want to say or do.  A drunk person is reckless, God forbid, driving off the road, causing accidents and terrible consequences.  Blacking out.  And waking up later not even knowing what all they’ve done.

Consider of all these disturbing images as metaphors.

A person may never even touch alcohol, but live his/her life in a way that is reckless, self-centered and loud.  Slurring their actions and interactions, only interested in themselves, not realizing what they’ve done, missing the details, how others are hurting, and causing all kinds of accidents in the process.  

(Now, there’s a tendency to point fingers right now in our minds eye...but consider your own actions too.   What are ways that you’ve perhaps acted drunkenly?  And if you haven’t, you’re better and way holier than the rest of us ;) 

Ephesians warns us all against drunkenness, calls it “debauchery” in this translation. Other words that are derived from that Greek word are “wasteful”, “reckless abandon”. When we get drunk, metaphorically, we’re not just wasted, we’re wasteful.

So, all those images help instruct us and call us into images for how we are to be in the world.  Basically the opposite -- 

But...Ephesians envisions that as singing, being filled with the Holy Spirit.  Fascinating!  It’s not the image to which one might oppose drunkenness.  One might think drunkenness would be opposed with solemn sobriety, right?  Imagine that in metaphorical terms.  Sitting proper, quiet, stoic, studious...

That’s really the interesting part of this Ephesians text: the opposite of drunkenness is singing together — hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs...a whole variety of singing that’s very intentionally listed here.  Sing all kinds of things, but sing together in praise.  That’s the opposite of drunk.
We finally made it to a Nats game this week!  And one of the many reasons I love going to baseball games is because we sing together -- it’s one of the only public places where that happens anymore.  And I was nearly moved to tears during the National Anthem.  Nats fans sing, they don’t just let the voice on the mic do it for them!  I loved it -- singing together the National Anthem, and of course the 7th inning stretch.

Something happens when people sing together -- not one person with an awesome voice on the microphone, but everyone singing together.  We do this all the time, and it’s what you’re supposed to do in church.  And it can be very powerful…and when it happens out of the normal context, it’s incredibly moving.
(Story of the Metro train, back in 2012, visiting Tim.)  

We are filled with something when we lift our voices in song.  We transcend barriers and boundaries, and you really have to just experience it to understand it.  We become aware of being part of something larger, and part of something hopeful.    

Sisters and brothers in Christ, even after all that’s happened, we continue to come together to sing.  To worship God with a grateful heart.  Even after all that’s happened in our churches, in our lives, and in our world, we continue to sing God’s praises, with old songs and new songs.   

At the Pentecost event when God’s people were singing they were accused of being drunk.  Remember that line?  But they weren’t drunk, they were filled with the Holy Spirit.  And they were deeply aware of what was going on around them.  They were deeply aware of the pain and the suffering that needed their attention and care.  They were deeply aware of each other, and interested and concerned about the other -- the stranger, the widow, the immigrant and the orphan.  They were not stumbling around, slurring their words and actions, blacking out.  They were walking and singing together in unison, deeply aware.  Noticing the world.  Lifting one another up, holding one another in their pain.  God made us and calls us to be like that too -- not drunk but singing. 

After everything that has happened, the Christian community continues to gather, to break bread together, to trust in God, and to sing.  And this is Christ abiding in us and we in him.  

Will you pray with me:
“Gracious and loving God, transform us again this day...from drunks...to singers.  Thank you for giving us the stamina, the faith, the voices, and the hope to keep gathering and singing even today.  Thank you for giving us new life now.  AMEN.”

Monday, August 13, 2018

August 12 -- Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

Our wedding day was a day to remember.  June 25, 2000, Thousand Oaks, California.  From start to finish it’s one of those days at the top of my list.  It was a Sunday, and our families and friends had started gathering in and around our hometown a few days before – the bachelor party was on Friday, Saturday was of course the rehearsal and the rehearsal dinner, and Sunday was the big day.  

A wise friend of ours – and I can’t even tell you which one – had suggested we stop and take moments throughout the festivities just to take it all in – really intentionally stop and look around or pause and consider all the love and joy that is present.  I had one such opportunity after the Rehearsal Dinner: the older crowd had all gone home to bed, the younger crowd was out dancing at the restaurant next door to where we had the Rehearsal Dinner, and I had decided to leave that party a little earlier to get some rest.  I had walked back to the hotel by myself and apparently that same weekend at our hotel was a big international Irish folk music convention.   In the lobby of the hotel were all these Irish folk musicians – this is a random hotel North of L.A., not the north coast of Ireland, but there they were, circled up, about 30 of them.  The lobby was filled with this beautiful music, so I sat down right in the middle of it to—as our friend said—take it all in, to consider the all the love that was present.  And it was a foretaste of the joy to come.  That was Saturday, the day before I got married.

Then on Sunday, the wedding was scheduled for the afternoon, and so I went to church with my family in the morning.  And we gathered with the faith community around the Word.  Lots of winks and hugs and “see you laters” that morning I remember.  Such a special time and a centering place for me.  I won’t go on and on with the details of the wedding and reception.  But I can tell you, that in the midst of it all there was such great joy and peace that over came us.  The ceremony was beautiful; it was at California Lutheran University’s chapel, where Heather and I had met.  Mark Knutson was our campus pastor and the pastor that married us, so our 2 pastor dads could wear tuxedos and just be dads.  The words and the toasts were all so touching (and appropriately humorous), the pictures turned out amazing, there was dancing and singing – literally: our friends got up and did a rendition of a Jimmy Buffett song in our honor.  We had negotiated to have the hotel ballroom until 1 in the morning, unlike most contracts, I understand.   And people stayed late into the night, talking, and laughing and dancing.  Heather and I stayed ‘til the very end too!  It was all our closest people at the time gathered in one place!  We couldn’t miss it.  

But you know what I didn’t mention in my recollections here?  The food!  Traditionally, isn’t this one of the greatest food days in so many of our cultures?!  I honestly don’t even remember what I ate for dinner!  I’m sure it tasted great.  And I never even had a slice of wedding cake!  I know I ate.  

But when I look back at it all, I think the real food that sustained me that whole weekend, the real food that filled me was the love and the community and the laughter and the joy that had come to surround and embrace Heather and I, as we made our sacred vows to each other...
This is my illustration for our Gospel text today.  And my great wedding experience is only a glimpse of the way that God feeds us.  Jesus says, “I am the true bread that comes down from heaven.”  There’s lots to be said of earthly food – and I love it – but when Jesus says he is true bread, we are brought into something much greater than the short-term joy of a good meal or even a wedding feast.  When Jesus offers himself to us as the true bread of life, we are offered a place on the dance floor, a seat in the pew at church surrounded by the faithful, a front row to the swirling melodies of traditional reels and jigs, with fingers and toes tapping along to the rhythm, our bellies full of laughter, our eyes full of tears, our hearts full of joy, and our minds full of peace.  This is what God’s got in store for us.  And it’s offered to us here, in this life, even in this day, at this table!  Christ is present with us, today, offering himself here – in bread, in wine, in water, and in the community of faith and doubt. (reverencing both ways)  

Let us eat of this Bread of Life.  Because it’s so much better than just the bread of lunch or even the fancy breads of dinner.  The Bread of Life gives us the true strength and nourishment and the p-e-a-c-e of God that we need to face our difficult days.  [pause]

Now, we can actually become addicted to earthly bread: to food and other substances, to money, to stuff.  Those earthly breads do comfort us at times, they even give us great joy in the moment...or at least, they numb our pain for a second.  And they’re not all bad.  But all the earthly breads do come up short.  
The real bread, the true bread that comes down from heaven, is God’s Love.  Have you received this bread before?

This is the true bread of forgiveness.  All that you’ve done, all that you’ve failed to do.  Mercy.  ...held out to you this day.
Have you been able to accept this bread before? (dead ritual)
Friends, I want to invite you:  don’t look at the bread and wine that you will receive at this table in a few minutes with earthly lenses.  Everything else we consume, we use our earthly lenses to evaluate it, critique it, quantify it. 
Don’t taste and compare this meal to other breads and wines you’ve tasted before, don’t pay attention to the flavor, with an earthly palette.  Don’t think about digesting with an earthly stomach.  But when you come to this table, you are not receiving earthly bread!  Through faith, through the words of Christ, through this sacred community — you are receiving heavenly bread today!  So see this holy meal with the lenses of faith, taste it with the palette of trust, digest this meal in a body of hope.   

For this is the true bread of justice and compassion!  In a climate of injustice and hatred, Christ is born in quiet, holy ways, in crumbs and sips, and yet fills us to the brim with the ability to open our hearts in care for the stranger, the immigrant and the orphan, the hungry and the sick, and also those we’ve struggled to love and like! – This is the true bread of justice and compassion, and it is offered to you this day.  

This is the true bread of joy and peace.  Calming our anxieties and our cravings for more, bringing a contented smile to our faces and air to our lungs. “Ah,” take it all in, like my wedding weekend.  Joy and peace is offered to you this day, despite all the chaos, all the opposite-of-joy-and-peace swirling around our cities, our nation, our world, our our own hearts — divine joy, peace, the true bread of heaven, Christ himself is for you.

Let us take this bread together.  Let us break it and share it.  Let us eat it in community, with the whole earthly community heavy on our hearts in prayer.  For this is the true bread of heaven that raises us all up on the last day, that draws us to God and therefore to one another and the good earth.  
“Take and eat, this is the body of Christ, 

given for you and for all.”  AMEN.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

August 5 -- Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

There’s an organization that our last congregation, Shepherd of the Valley, back in San Diego supports heartily.  The nonprofit is called Third Avenue Charitable Organization — TACO.  It’s located in the heart of downtown SD, and it’s part of the ministry of First Lutheran Church there on 3rd Ave.  I’m reminded of their story on this, our second “Bread Day” in John’s Gospel.  (Last week it was the feeding of the 5000, where we talked about abundance vs. scarcity mentality.  How’d that go?)  Today, that same crowd is tailing after Jesus, and he’s inviting them to consider what they really need, beyond just reacting to their growling tummies... 

So I want to tell you a little more about TACO in San Diego:  Perhaps there are stories like this here in the DC area, I just don’t know them yet :)  It was the 1970’s and people were moving out of downtown SD to go live in (and fill up the churches in) the suburbs.  White flight.  First Lutheran downtown was panicking:  “We’re loosing people!  We’re loosing kids!  We’re loosing income!  We’re loosing our church, the way it always was!  Death is pressing in on us!”  So — true story — a few of the members (with some gifts and passions for baking and cooking) got together and decided that they would bake bread.  “We’ll bake bread during lunchtime, during the week...and all the doctors and lawyers and CEOs who work downtown will smell our bread and come eat and join our church!”  Do you think they came running?  

Who do you think did smell the bread and come?  The homeless and working poor of San Diego.  So the church got back together, and prayed about this:  It’s not what they were expecting/wanted (?), but they trusted God might be up to something.  It wasn’t going to yield more members or income for the church, in fact it might even cost the church more.  But they trusted that God might be up to something.  God was showing them something, a sign: hungry people on their doorstep... 

Well, that was the birth of TACO, the beginning of a weekly (and it grew to twice a week) meal event, serving 150-200 hungry people on Mondays and Fridays still to this day.   It’s an amazing organization that has grown from just the Bread Days in the 70’s to also offering medical, dental, legal services, acupuncture, and even an end-of-life hospice care program called “Simon’s Walk”!

All from thinking they wanted one thing, but Christ interrupted their plans and their wants with something else!  God needed something else, which ended up being greater than they ever imagined.

Friends, Christ is always opening our eyes to gifts, needs, possibilities greater than we can imagine.  “No one saw that coming!”  Ever felt like that?  

“But God, look!  [panicky] Look at what’s happening!  We want this for our church, for our families, for our communities.  We know what’s best.”  And Christ smiles lovingly and says, “That’s just your tummy growling...”

Have you ever gone grocery shopping when your tummy’s growling?  Do you make good decisions then?  I don’t make any good decisions when I’m hungry.  (Or in our family, we use the term hangry.)  

Those members of First Lutheran in San Diego, back in the 1970’s initially were hangry — they were panicking, desperate, not even making sense.  And that’s OK, God showed up anyway.  God loved them anyway.  God smiled and gave them a sign…and — what I love about this story — is that they paid attention to it and prayed about it together.  (What if we just got together and prayed, every time we faced some difficult things here?)  First Lutheran trusted God, even in their struggling, tummy-grumbling state.
How is God showing up anyway for us as a congregation, as Bethlehem “House of Bread” Lutheran Church?  How is Christ messing up our initial plans?  [pause]
How about in your own life — at home and at work?  How are you personally hangry and feeling anxious, like death is pressing in?  

Or in our wider culture and world, how are we getting all desperate and panicky?  Forgetting who’s holding us?
Friends, Christ is our bread.  And this is not exactly the bread we had in mind!  Remember the Israelites in the wilderness, with the manna comes down from heaven?  Do you know what “manna” means?  It literally means, “What is this?”

Christ is our bread, he offers himself to us freely and in abundance, and we’re like, “What is this?  This is not what I had in mind?”  (It would be fun to hear your stories of ways in your life that God has surprised you:  you had initial plans — thought you should be doing this or going there — but God got in the way, interrupted.)  

How has Christ provided for you, taken you places you never imagined, opened up new opportunities, comforted you when you thought there was no way possible?  ...

...well, one central example takes place right here every Sunday:  Friends in Christ, what we trust about this Holy Meal is that it provides everything we need.  [pause] Do you believe that’s true?

That’s an almost impossible leap of faith in our highly consumerist culture:  “What do you mean some crumbly piece of bread and a drop of wine is all I need?!  That’s crazy talk!”  And yet, this is our confession, the Bread of Life.  In this meal is Christ himself.  In this meal is the forgiveness of our sin, and new life.

It’s absolutely not to say that we don’t need our growling bellies taken care of — we do, and it’s our job to feed and take care of one another — both friends and strangers alike — with earthly bread.  But the bread of heaven: that’s what we can’t provide, that’s what we just have to trust God to provide.  And God does.

All we can do is open our hands to receive it.  Martin Luther’s legendary words, on his deathbed (anyone know?):  “In the end we are all beggars.”  Luther was not a beggar in his earthly life.  He had a great big house, crops, family, education, plenty of food (and beer), lots of friends, music, animals.  But in the end, he prophetically notes, we are all ultimately in need of God’s bread, God’s gracious abundance that comes down from heaven and embraces every single one of us — even you.

Friends, we don’t have to wait for the end of life to open our hands and receive God’s providence, God’s bread, God’s surprises.  Christ interrupts us right now!  It’s right here.  Free for us today.  (Doesn’t matter if it’s a small piece or a large, if it tastes good or tastes terrible, if it’s sour wine or sugary grape juice — it’s not about the physical nature of the bread and wine.  That’s tummy-growling theology! ;)

Friends in Christ, this day God’s bread of life fills you and revives you for serving in God’s hurting world this week.  God’s wine of forgiveness warms you and frees you—you no longer have to carry the burden of guilt and shame.  God’s meal of grace sends us outward to feed others, to house others, to love others, to welcome others...into this place, into this grace.

We are received and nurtured by Christ’s body and blood, and so we receive and nurture this world.  Not what I originally had in mind (like the story of TACO), but that’s our God for us...once again.  

Friends, when you open your hands at this Holy Table, know that you are loved and held in grace, in the name of the True Bread, in Jesus’ name.  AMEN.