Sermon: Zucchini God

9th Sunday After Pentecost, Year B
2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-18
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be faithful and fruitful in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand is, hands-down, a gospel favorite. In fact, out of all the miracle stories told in the four gospels, the Feeding of the Five Thousand is the only miracle—aside from the resurrection—that all four evangelists tell. It’s a stunning tale of scarcity turned into abundance, as Jesus takes a little boy’s lunch and transforms it into a feast for thousands.

And I am so glad that we get to hear it now, at this time of year, when creation is retelling the same miracle.

When I walk the dog in the evening, I pass garden after garden where a similar miracle is taking place. It never ceases to amaze me how a tomato seed the size of a hole on my watch band can grow into a plant taller than my waist, with pounds and pounds of red fruits.

And the same thing is happened with green beans and eggplants and patty pans and cantaloupes and cucumbers and squash, and even beyond the gardens. I took Barnaby for a walk at Cove Gap the other day, and the thorny brambles that usually lie in wait to ambush us were instead gesturing like welcoming hosts, offering drooping branches of ripening fruit. The whole earth is singing the story of God’s abundance.

It is, in fact, the season of first fruits. And first fruits have a special meaning in the Bible. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people are called to offer the first fruits of their harvest to God at an altar—in fact, it is bread of the first fruit that the man brings to Elijah in today’s reading from Second Kings.

And the thing is, giving up your first fruits to God isn’t just a gesture of thanksgiving for the harvest; it’s also an act of faith. You bring your first fruits to the altar unsure of what the rest of the season has in store. Maybe a bad storm will wipe out much of your harvest. Maybe disease will strike your herd. You just don’t know.

So when God responds to the offering of the barley loaves by multiplying them to feed one hundred people, it’s not just a happy little miracle that makes for a nice story. It’s a symbol of God’s promise to God’s people: to take care of them, to respond to their faithful risk with God’s own divine faithfulness.

In Great Britain, this act of bring your first fruits to God was ritualized into a festival called Lammas Day, from the words for “Loaf-Mass,” during the Middle Ages. On the first day of August, households would take the bread that they had baked from the first wheat harvest and bring it to church with them. Some of it would be set aside for communion bread. Some of it would be set aside to give to the needy members of the community. Some of it would be blessed and returned to the members of the congregation.

I want to hit ‘pause’ for a moment and acknowledge something here. Sometimes, in the passage of the thousands of years since the different bits of the Bible were written and today, the symbols can change meaning.

For example, in Jesus’ day, and in medieval England, bread was a daily staple. You ate it every day, for just about every meal, especially if you were poor.

We lose track of that in the American melting pot. I myself come from a firmly committed potato household. For others, it’s rice or pasta. In fact, it might very well be the case that quite few of us eat bread on a daily basis, as Jesus and his friends did. I even read an article this week that said that one in three Americans avoid bread and all its gluten-bearing kin, for reasons of health or preference. Bread is no longer a staple, and for many, it’s not even an option.

So maybe, just for today, we could try out a new symbol. Something that evokes first fruits. Something that symbolizes abundance. Something that we could visualize multiplying to feed five thousand people.

Fortunately, something of just such a nature appeared on my porch this past week.

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What do you think?

If you have a zucchini plant, then you understand abundance. You understand what it means to eat squash at every meal for a month, and to give away gourds the size of a baseball bat. Garrison Keillor said that July is the only time of year the people lock their car in the church parking lot, so that people won’t put squash on the front seat.

It is a kind of miracle, a multiplication that takes place in every summer garden. God takes that little seed, smaller than my pinky fingernail, and produces a dozen gourds bigger than my arm. And they all have more seeds. It’s actually a little bit scary.

Particularly when you think about how often the Bible uses the imagery of seeds and green and growing things—and not just in parables, but in prayers. Just today, we heard the author of Ephesians pray that the church might be rooted and grounded in love. It is a prayer for strengthening and fullness and growth, and it is beautiful—but it’s also scary. Because this is a prayer to the God who invented zucchini. Who knows what a God like that will do with a prayer like this?

What if we grow like squash? What if we end up with the spiritual equivalent of boxes of zucchini, filling the aisles, so much giftedness and abundance that we have to sneak out and leave it on other people’s doorsteps in the dead of night because it’s just too much grace for us to keep for ourselves?

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I’m only half-kidding when I talk about how frightening that is. That kind of abundance necessarily transforms the ways that we think about the world. We’re so used to operating out of a sense of scarcity. It’s almost as if there’s a sort of security in the not-enough style of thinking. At least we understand how the world works in that scenario: those who hold back, hold out.

There, the gospel brings us good news and bad news. Every story of abundance in the Bible begins with the fear of scarcity. It begins with a kid’s lunch when what you need is a catered feast. It begins with an idea for ministry and one guy saying, “We don’t have the budget for that.” It begins with Jesus responding to that kind of scarcity-thinking with, “That’s adorable. Bring me what you have.” And then he takes a gift, and gives thanks to God for it, and blesses it, and breaks it. And he hands it off, and says, “Here. Share this.”

It solves the problem of scarcity. But it also requires that we let go of our understanding of the world, and especially of the church, and particularly of this congregation, as a place with a problem of “not-enough.”

Here, after all, we gather to worship a zucchini-creating God, a God who doesn’t just feed five thousand people, but makes sure that there’s twelve baskets left over. Those baskets are a symbol of the twelve tribes of Israel—that is, everyone who wasn’t there on the mountain that day. In other words, God not only answered the need of the crowd, but made them the answer to the prayers of others.

Which is exactly what God does to us, every Sunday. Today, you will receive the Body of Christ in your hand, and as you eat it, you will become the Body of Christ for the world.

In the fine tradition of Lammas Day, I have something for you to take home with you: zucchini bread. I would like to ask you to do something special with it. Take it with you, and let it anchor a prayer for the week: a prayer in which you ask God what seeds God has given you. A passion or hobby, something you love to do. Bring that gift to God in prayer, and as Christ did once so long ago, give thanks for it. Ask God to bless it. And then ask God to help you break it and share it.

Perhaps God will call you to use that gift in a way that you and I can’t even envision right now, a way which is only possible thanks to the power at work within us through the Holy Spirit.

There is only one thing that is certain: this is the God who created zucchini. Anything could happen.

Let us pray:

God of the first fruits, we give you thanks for every sign of your unbounded abundance: in the food of the earth, in the sharing of love, in the gifts of the Spirit that fill this place. Bless this bread, we pray. May it lead us into deeper contemplation of the gifts with which you’ve blessed us, and the ways in which we may be a blessing to others. In the name of Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, we pray: Amen.

Lessons from bread-making

As those of you who read my most recent post know, I’ve decided to learn how to bake bread. Like, really bake bread. I am determined to learn how to bake the shit out of bread. I shall walk the mysterious connections of gluten networks. The secrets of why bread rises shall soon be mine!

To aid me in my quest, I purchased a book called Flour Water Salt Yeast which, I trust, shall unfold to me the mysteries of the wild yeasts. This tome is at pains to teach the discipline of bread-baking: the precision of temperature, time, and ingredient amounts and quality. I have made three recipes from this book so far, and in this post, I’m going to share with you some of the sacred tenets of this book, as well as what my experience so far has taught me, all without violating copyright. Behold:

Good baking requires precision.

The book is very clear about this. For example: from the get-go, the author, Ken Forkish, makes clear that there shall be no namny-pamby volume measurements in his book. “Seven cups of flour”? What kind of measurement is that?! Perhaps your flour is affected by any one of a thousand circumstances that can make the difference of several grams between your seven cups of flour and my seven cups of flour! Therefore, measurements shall be given in proper grams, the culinary measurement preferred by reasonable people throughout the rest of the world. Only in America, where people still drive their cars on the wrong side of the road and drink light beer, could the vagaries of standard units be tolerated!

(Or so I imagine Ken’s thinking went.)

Fortunately, at this point Ken Forkish’s American editor stepped in and told him to include standard measurements or else his royalty would be converted from dollars to crates of Miller Lite. Therefore, the book begrudgingly includes the number of cups of flour that you need.

On my first recipe, a white bread, I tried to atone for my heinous lack of a kitchen scale by following those measurements exactly: fluffing my flour as per instructions, leveling each cup off with a knife, and getting so anxious and worked up about it that I lost count around the sixth-ish cup and had to re-measure everything.

I breathlessly added water and combined the two, noting with dread that the mixture seemed woefully underhydrated. My dad looks on from the background. “You need more water,” he said.

“But I followed the measurement exactly!” I returned. “This has to be right. I was precise.

“It’s too dry,” Dad said, pointing out the obvious. “Add more water.”

“No,” I said. “I can’t just add water. I measured everything exactly. YOU CAN’T JUST ADD WATER.”

Dad walked over and calmly dumped in a few teaspoons of water.

“There,” he said. “Try that.”

I tried it.

It worked.

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Precision requires a kitchen scale.

Success notwithstanding, I determined that I absolutely must purchase a kitchen scale. Because what, after all, is success when compared to doing things right?

I combed through online reviews to find a digital that combined quality with low cost, and found a lovely decent one for $18 on Amazon. I ordered it. It arrived. I excitedly took it out and started on a new batch of bread. I went to measure the flour, and…

…the scale returned a number that wasn’t anywhere close to where it should have been.

And as I watched, grams kept dropping off.

The scale was clearly mad.  My dad inspected it. My mom inspected it. Lacking calibration weights, we tested it using cans of soup, cans of cat food, and cans of artichoke hearts. It failed every test.

Disappointed but optimistic, I filled out a return form on Amazon and requested a new scale of the same type. It arrived a few days later, and filled with hope, I broke out the cat food, the soup, and the artichoke hearts, and breathlessly placed them on the scale.

This one, too, was bonkers. But a different kind of bonkers. It didn’t change weight, like the other one. It simply refused to acknowledge that it was weighing anything, unless quite a lot of weight was on it.

My mom, my dad, and I all stared at the scale. What were the chances that we would get two malfunctioning scales right in a row? And each malfunctioning in its own special way?

We stared some more.

And finally, my dad said, “Maybe if we took the lid off.”

Yeah. That worked.

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Dough temperature is crucial.

According to Forkish, the temperature of the dough when you let it do its bulk fermentation (i.e.: when you’ve finished mixing everything and are prepared to let it sit for several hours) can make the difference between OK bread and YOWZA bread. The variation of a single degree Fahrenheit (because apparently Fahrenheit is fine, even if cups have been exiled) can change the world, at least as the world pertains to your bread.

Just FYI, I haven’t, even one single time, managed to come within five degrees of the optimal dough temperature.

It still works.

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Real bakers know the difference between pizza and foccacia

Tell me, what is the difference between a white pizza, and a thin foccacia topped with cheese and herbs?

Oh, you don’t know? YOU PLEBIAN.

I’m pretty sure this is actually a trick question. I believe this because I used half of one of the white bread recipes for pizza dough. I made two pizzas, using nothing but the oven and some cast iron cookware.

The first was a quattro-formaggio pizza, which is Italian for “We have extra cheese to use up.” After a brief argument over proper cookware with my dad, which he won, I moved the dough from a skillet into the bottom of a huge cast iron pot, grumbling about how the extra manhandling was going to positively RUIN the dough, which, according to the book, should be treated as gently a butterfly.  One made of glass.  Glass and eggshells.  Glass and eggshells and innocent dreams and unsullied aspirations.

I spread it with sauce, topped it with cheese, and resigned it to its fate.

For the second, I lovingly gentled it into a 9-inch iron skillet, which is what Forkish’s book actually called for. “Hmm,” I thought to myself as I persuaded the dough into position. “I think this is going to be a rather thick-crusted pie. But whatever. PRECISION!”

I accurately added some precisely-cut fresh tomatoes in a specific fashion, layered on exactly 8 slices of panchetta, and topped it off with carefully measured cheese and 6 leaves of torn fresh basil. This was my masterpiece.

I popped both in the very hot oven.

When they came out less than ten minutes later, it was clear that the quattro-formaggio had spent that time thinking carefully about its purpose in life, and had emerged from its contemplation in the way that you hope your pizza will: full of flavor, with a chewy character, and only slightly charred in spots.

The panchetta pizza, meanwhile, was a battlefield. Apparently its gentle treatment had allowed the unmolested gas pockets to wage a final battle for supremacy in the heat of the oven. As the dough expanded from the edges inward, the topping slowly slid toward the middle until what was left to emerge from the oven wasn’t so much pizza as a lightly baked loaf with a little ditch of toppings in the middle. It was like a pizza donut.

So I called it foccacia.

And that worked too.

Barnaby begging for his share of panchetta.
Barnaby begging for his share of panchetta.

You are saved by grace, and not by works.

I have not, not even one single time, despite all my best efforts, managed to follow a recipe successfully. And still, bread has happened with astonishing persistence.

I’m convinced that this is down to divine intervention. I can in no other way account for the fact that despite my screw-ups, the flour and the water still very much seem to want to be together, to create beautiful networks of gluten to hold enthusiastic bubbles of gas. I have over-hydrated and under-hydrated, used incorrect flour ratios and the wrong kind of yeast, overcooked and undercooked and managed to do both at the same time, and still, bread happens.

Clearly this is divine grace. The bread just really wants to be bread, and it’s going to be bread, even if it has to use me to get there.

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I knead a new hobby.

Well, it’s happened. Two weeks ago I graduated from Yale Divinity School with my Master of Sacred Theology degree with a little more knowledge and a lot more debt, packed all my stuff, and drove south. And now, I’m living into a fine tradition of my millennial, nearly-30, overeducated-but-underemployed cohort: I’m living in my parents’ house, waiting for a job.

I mean, it’s slightly more elegant than that. I’m trained, qualified, and approved to be an ELCA pastor, it’s just that with the way the call process works, I don’t get to be ordained until I receive a call from God through a specific congregation. It’s an idea wrought of beauty and simplicity, which I’d be in a much better position to appreciate were it not also wrought of ever so much waiting.

My parents are very generous, very hospitable people, and are letting me and my large dog sleep on the futon in their home office/guest room for freesies. I’ve done nothing for two weeks except sleep in, binge-watch Doctor Who, and fret over the fact that my health insurance expires in July.

And yes, I’ve started to go a little tiny bit stir-crazy. To the point that I’ve started putting on makeup for grocery store runs, because that represents my most intensive contact with non-familial members of the human race.

Clearly, I need a hobby.

While casting about for just such a thing, I noticed that it’s Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary, and that means that Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations will start reading their way through John 6 on July 26th. That’s right: buckle in, people, because five straight weeks of sermons on the Bread of Life are headed your way.

And I thought: I bet I could learn a lot about bread by July 26th.

And then: I bet there’s probably some good sermon material to be had in that learning process.

If only you had a congregation to preach to, replied some unhelpful bit of my brain.

Well, if you had a congregation, you probably wouldn’t have time to learn about bread for fun, responded another bit.

I really hope you have a congregation before your loan repayment grace period expires, chimed in some obscure lobe.

This is unhelpful. Can we think more about making bread? I silently queried.

Whereupon all thought circuits agreed that, concerns about utility aside, making bread sure did sound like fun.

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Next thing, I was on Amazon, looking for a really good book about making bread. Not just recipes, but something that would actually explain why bread happens when you mixed certain ingredients together, and why different kind of bread happened depending on which ingredients they were.

I ended up ordering one called Flour Water Salt Yeast based on a Google search for “best bread books.” The book arrived just a few days later, while my excitement about a new project was peaking, and therefore I was determined to dive in right away.

I flipped open to a random page, my eyes devouring the gorgeous photography of pretty, pretty artisanal bread before taking a look at the recipe. And I thought, “What the hell is this?”

The list of ingredients was in grams.

And there were phrases I didn’t understand. Like: “Bulk fermentation: 12 hours.”

And there was an absurdly small amount of yeast being used.

And there were only four ingredients. Guess which four?

It turns out that the basic premise of Flour Water Salt Yeast was that every recipe in the book is made out of…omigosh, you’ll never guess…. Flour. Water. Salt. And yeast. And in demonstrating the myriad of different ways you can combine and treat these four ingredients, the author, Ken Forkish, endeavors to teach not just how, but also why, bread happens.

Which is exactly what I was looking for, if in maybe just a leeeeeettle more detail than I’d been expecting. So I set about reading the first three chapters of the book, which, as it turned out, was a prerequisite (or at least highly recommended) before making the first recipe.

As I read, it became clear that Ken Forkish does not bake bread the way that I know how to bake bread. My bread-baking know-how involves eyeing ingredients, kneading dough, short rise times, and—my favorite bit—punching down the risen dough in one extremely satisfying poof!

POOF! (From: recipetips.com)

His involves being incredibly exact about everything, from measurements (which accounts for the metric units, though, to be fair, he does include standard measurements in small print) to the temperature of the water, rise times of anywhere from 5 to 14 hours, and never ever raising a violent hand to one’s dough. No poofs!. Just very gentle folding that keeps air pockets in and eeeeeases the gluten into stronger networks, which is what kneading is supposed to do.

It’s actually kind of hard to believe that this approach to bread-making, which is so different from anything I’ve encountered before, is actually going to produce markedly better bread. And according to the book, it takes several tries before you can produce a reasonably good loaf. Even the slightest factor, like the dough being a couple of degrees too warm or too cool when you let it rise, is apparently enough to make a noticeable difference to flavor.

Either someone’s taking the mickey, or there’s a whole new world to bread baking that is mine to discover.

In any case, with all the stir-craziness, it’s nice to have something to actually stir.  :-)

Worship is what makes us Christian

“Worship is what makes us Christian.”

I first heard those words over coffee with Justin. We were fellow Lutherans in our third year of seminary classes, both called to parish ministry, and I was trying to find out more from Justin about these liturgical dramas he kept writing for daily chapel services (don’t scoff—they’re awesome) when he said, “Worship is what makes us Christian.”

I had to pause for a moment to take that in, because I’d never heard it before. I was surprised, and curious, and later on, a little disturbed. I was three years into seminary and it had never before occurred to me to think of liturgy, this thing we get together and do every Sunday, as an event that defined me as a Christian? What else hadn’t I learned in seminary?!

(That sound you just heard, by the way, was the ironical laughter of hundreds of pastors remembering their first calls.)

Perhaps more to the point, if I didn’t think of worship as the formative thing that made me a Christian, what did I think it was?

Poking more closely at that question actually yields a perfectly reasonable response, maybe the same one you’d have given: before that conversation with Justin, I would have said, “Belief in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” And this is true. But what I’d never seen before is that that response is actually saying something else: that faith is synonymous with intellectual assent. I believe, and therefore I am Christian.

When we say that worship is what makes us who we are, we are saying that being Christian is not just an act of intellectual assent, it is an act, period. We’re saying that Christians aren’t defined solely by what happens in our heads, but also through what we do with our bodies—and even more significantly, in what God does with us when God gathers us as the Body of Christ. We are also saying that faith is not born fully formed in a moment of rational choice, but is actually formed and reformed through liturgical practice.[1]

Consider C.S. Lewis’ tongue-in-cheek explanation of that concept from The Screwtape Letters. As one demon writes to another:

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“One of their poets, Coleridge, has recorded that he did not pray ‘with moving lips and bended knees’ but merely ‘composed his spirit to love’ and indulged ‘a sense of supplication’. That is exactly the sort of prayer we want….At the very least, [humans] can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”[2]

We might take exception to Screwtape’s demonic snark, but we can’t deny the truth of his point. When Lewis, through Screwtape, makes the claim that choosing whether to kneel or not while praying is a choice that actually matters, recent scientific evidence supports his conclusion. Research has shown that arranging our facial muscles into a smile makes us feel happier,[3] and that changing our body posture alters our hormone levels.[4] While no one that I know of has yet undertaken a study of what happens in our brains when we submit to the ritual motions of a Sunday morning (that would be really cool, by the way—anyone looking for a research project?), worship is an embodied experience, and what we do in those bodies shapes who we are.[5]

In writing about the Rule of Benedict—basically the medieval rulebook for how to live in a monastery—Nathan Mitchell claims that “ritual is not only a way Christians negotiate their access to the Sacred; it is also their way of editing experience, ‘rewriting’ personal history, and appropriating a new identity.”[6] The curious thing about the Rule of Benedict, according to Mitchell, is that intellectual assent and spiritual readiness for worship were secondary considerations for taking part in regular worship: the primary value of participating was the training of bodies in order to produce a holy people.[7]

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Of the Sunday gathering, Evangelical Lutheran Worship liturgists wrote, “regular keeping of Sunday gives a gospel rhythm to all our days and to our entire lives.”[8] They take their cue for this from generations of Christians who have gone before them, to whom the weekly gathering around bread and cup were vital: “We have to celebrate the Lord’s Day. It is our rule,” said the martyrs of Abitina. “We could not live without celebrating the Lord’s Day.”[9]

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How is it that this Sunday gathering, this thing for which I was so reluctant, as a teenager, to leave my warm bed, was so important to those forty-nine Christians of the early church that they considered it a matter of life and death? What is the connection between the essentiality of the Sunday liturgy and the forty-nine people whose lives were thought so holy that the Church still remembers them, two millennia after they have died?

Wikipedia Commons.

The children’s book The Little Prince offers a fable-like answer. In the book, the eponymous Prince tells the story of meeting a fox who asks to be tamed: “If you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…” The prince agrees, and returns to visit the fox the next day, but the fox objects:

“It would have been better to come back at the same hour,” said the fox. “If, for example, you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o’clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you … One must observe the proper rites…”

The Sunday assembly is the rite through which God “tames” us, teaching our hearts to long for the divine presence, training our eyes to see reminders of our beloved in the world around us, shaping our deepest longings so that we desire nothing in the world more than we desire God’s nearness.

Alexander Schmemann, a famous Eastern Orthodox liturgist, suggested that original sin “does not consist primarily in disobedience, but in ceasing to be hungry for God alone, and therefore, in seeking fulfillment elsewhere.”[10] Through participating in the rites that shape us into a holy people, we find our hunger restored: “The practices of holiness, the acts whereby the assembly bears witness to the truth of God, are like beggars’ hands out for mercy, naked bodies presented for the cloak.”[11]

Associated Press image, originally found on “Christianity Today” website. Follow image URL for original location.

[1] The Augsburg Confession points in this directing in Article V, where it states that God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these means, “[God] gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when it pleases God, in those who hear the gospel.”

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan Co, 1943).

[3] Daniel Goleman, “A Feel-Good Theory: A Smile Affects Mood” New York Times, (July 18, 1989). http://www.nytimes.com/1989/07/18/science/a-feel-good-theory-a-smile-affects-mood.html

[4] Dana R. Carney, Amy J.C. Cuddy, and Andy J. Yap, “Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance” Psychological Science 21, no. 10. (October 2010), 1363–1368.

[5] Cf. Frank Senn, Introduction to Christian Worship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 189-195.

[6] Nathan Mitchell. Liturgy and the Social Sciences (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999), 75.

[7] Ibid, 73-4

[8] Gail Ramshaw. Keeping Time (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 8.

[9] Qtd. in Ramshaw, Keeping Time, 9.

[10] Frank Senn, New Creation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 64.

[11] Gordon Lathrop, Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology (Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2006), 226.

21 Steps to a Productive Afternoon

1) Commit to work on your thesis for the entire afternoon.

2) Get roped into a job for the admissions office.  Because their free candy has sustained you through many a morning when you didn’t eat breakfast, you say yes.

3) Get home an hour later and remember that you scheduled an extra meeting with your music director.

4) Finish the meeting, return to your apartment, go to your desk, and realize that it is not so much a desk as a pile of paper and books loosely held together with granola crumbs, half-eaten chocolate bars, and dirty coffee mugs.

Photo by Jeffrey Beall. Flickr Commons.

5) Clean your desk.  In so doing, you find bills to pay and papers to file.

6)  Pay the bills.  File the papers.  You are adulting so hard right now.

7) Sit down to work on your thesis.  Remember that you still haven’t done your reading for class tomorrow.

8)  Try to find book for class tomorrow.  Realize that it’s somewhere in the burrow of crumpled sheets and deflated pillows where you sleep.

9)  Make bed while dancing to Harry Belafonte’s “Shake, Shake, Shake Senora.”  So much adulting.

10) Read two pages of the book.

11) Remember that you were supposed to send an email by noon, which was three hours ago.

12)  Send the email.

13)  Read two paragraphs of the book.

14)  Realize that there are three other emails to send.

15)  Send those emails.

16)  Read two paragraphs of the book.

17)  Realize this would make a great blog post.

18)  Reflect on how you haven’t updated your blog in over a month.

19)  Admit that it’s because you were supposed to be writing and posting material for your thesis.

20)   Have a come-to-Jesus moment about all this procrastinating you’ve been doing.  Make it heartfelt.  Commit to do better.

21)  Feel exhausted from all the soul-searching.  Decide you need a nap.  Go sleep in your freshly-made bed with your newly-unburied half-eaten chocolate bar.

Sermon: Possessed by the Spirit

A sermon preached for an Episcopal-Lutheran joint Eucharist, held at Yale Divinity School’s Marquand Chapel on February 4th, 2015.  Text: Mark 1:20-28.

At the Lutheran seminary where I earned my M.Div., we are spoiled with two very smart, very kind, very eccentric NT professors. These two professors alternate teaching summer Greek every year, taking a classroom full of terrified new seminarians and teaching them half a textbook’s worth of biblical Greek in two weeks.

Through observation, I know two things about how they manage to do that without forever scaring students away from theological study. First, they bring their incredible personalities into the mix. And second, as soon as possible, while we’re still working out the omega from the epsilon, they make us look at the New Testament, and the ways in which knowing Greek can make the text a lot more interesting.

And this is why, a few days in my theological education, I sat in Room 314 of Valentine Hall, looking at the word “peristeran” in Mark 1:10—the story of Jesus’ baptism. This is a word that I had always thought was “dove,” but Dr. Carlson disagreed.

“This is also the word for pigeon,” Dr. Carlson told us. “And the only reason translators chose ‘dove’ instead of pigeon is because a pretty small white fluttery thing is a nicer image for the Holy Spirit than a street bird that eats barf. And look at this preposition,” he continued, pointing to the eis. “Who has a translation that reads ‘descending like a dove on him?”

Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons.

We all raised our hands.

“What does eis actually means?” he nudged us.

“Into?” someone suggested.

“YES!” cried Dr. Carlson, jumping to his feet. “So forget that picture of a nice white dove descending on a beam of light to settle gently on Jesus’ shoulder! Jesus just got divebombed by a dirty street bird that came down into him! That’s the Holy Spirit in Mark!”

In the glow of this understanding of the Holy Spirit, there are two wonderings that I’d like to lift up to you:

  • Perhaps we should find John the Baptist’s promise that one is coming who will baptize us with the Holy Spirit a wee bit more worrying than we usually do, and:
  • Maybe we should wonder if, when Jesus was confronted by the man with the unclean spirit in that Capernaum synagogue, Jesus’ first thought wasn’t of casting out, but commiseration: “Possessed with a spirit? Yeah, takes one to know one, buddy.”

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus is a man possessed by the Holy Spirit from the moment of his baptism. I’m not saying that Jesus loses agency in the way that the man in the synagogue has lost his, but it seems clear from the very outset of Mark that the Holy Spirit drives Jesus to do things that Jesus isn’t necessarily too keen on. Like spend forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, for example.

But the Spirit does more to Jesus than simply divebomb him, cast hum out into the wilderness, and generally inconvenience him for the sake of the gospel. It also gives him authority.

The Greek for “authority” is exousia, a word which breaks down to mean “out of one’s being.” This exousia seems to instill in Jesus some quality, exuded from the center of who he is, that inexorably draws fishermen and tax collectors to leave everything behind to follow him.

It is this exousia that the unclean spirit recognizes when it cries out, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

It is this exousia that the author of Mark clearly wants us to remember, because the second-to-last thing he records about this episode is about how the people were astounded, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him!”

That is a strange reaction. The people are talking, not just about the exorcism, but about the Jesus’ teaching, as though they made equal impressions.

That’s like having a conversation about the Superbowl halftime show where I say, “Oh my gosh, the dancing sharks,” and someone else says, “And did you notice the lyrical complexity of ‘Teenage Dream’?”

From twitter.com: @SharkSuperbowl.

But this is Mark’s point. Many commentators identify this exorcism as Jesus’ first act of public ministry in the gospel of Mark, but the exorcism doesn’t stand on its own: it’s the second half of an act that begins when Jesus starts unfolding the Word of God for those assembled in the synagogue.

It’s as though Mark is saying: this is what happens when you preach the Word of God. Powers and principalities will resist and disrupt you.

Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons.

Granted, the chances of it happening for us as it did for Jesus are slim. We are mostly an assembly of Lutherans and Episcopalians, members of congregations who would never dream of such attention-drawing rudeness as interrupting the preacher in the middle of a sermon. But:

A: You never know. And:

B: You might not ever get an interrupting unclean spirit. But you will get the anonymous notes. And the Monday morning emails. And the woman who pins you after the service to tell you that so-and-so was really offended by your sermon. And the man who quietly stops coming to worship without ever saying why. And perhaps most discouraging: you will get the people who listen to the Spirit speaking through you, and change nothing about the way that they live.

It is hard to seek out a prophetic gospel week after week for such as these, but it is these who most need to hear that gospel, for these are the people possessed, not by evil minds, but by paralyzed consciences.

As Jana Childers points out, “On Sunday mornings, most preachers do not face people who actively seek to do evil, but rather people who are complicit with the powers that hold them captive.”

These are people who are tired of school shootings, but overwhelmed by the politics of gun control legislation. Who are tired of the way creation is abused, but overwhelmed by the difficulty of finding out where their food comes from. Who are tired of children starving, and know that we should care more about Ebola in Africa, and understand that the prison industrial complex is a problem, but are paralyzed by the magnitude of those problems, and have given up in the face of the powers and principalities that overwhelm them at every turn.

And some Sunday mornings, these people are you. They are me. Reading this text, it occurred to me that Jesus actually faces my worst nightmare as a preacher: a congregant who stands up in the middle of my sermon, looks at me, and says, “What do you have to do with that pulpit? I know who you are.”

Because who I am? Is not as good as I should be. Not good enough to be standing in a pulpit, daring to preach God’s Word, that’s for sure.

But—to shamelessly paraphrase Nadia Bolz-Weber—that’s the God we’re dealing with, people.

We’re dealing with a God who loved us even when we were dead in sin, and made us alive again in Christ Jesus.

We’re dealing with a God who divebombed us with the gospel good news, filled us with the exousia of God’s transforming and redemptive Word, and sent us out to share it.

And even when that Word seems to fall on deaf ears, even when your brilliant preaching fails to make a congregation live again, even when you are convinced that your preaching that Sunday was a gut-wrenching example of what [Yale preacher] Hopie Randall aptly calls “walking the dog,” it cannot touch the inalterable fact that God works in us, and through us, and is accomplishing what God has promised, in God’s own time.

Because we’re dealing with a God who makes good on prophecy, including the one that John made about baptizing us with the Holy Spirit:

this is a God who possesses us: who claims us: who will not let us go.

this is the God who interrupts us in the midst of our doubts and self-loathing,

and says, “Yes, I do know exactly who you are. You are a child of God, baptized in water and the Holy Spirit; sealed with the cross of Christ; and you are mine, forever.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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What makes worship Lutheran?

What makes worship Lutheran?

By this, I don’t mean what makes worship Christian. That’s a broad and deep question with incredible and life-giving answers, but it ain’t the one I’m asking.

What makes worship Lutheran? What is it about Lutheran worship that sets it apart from, say, Methodist/Catholic/Mennonite/Moravian/Catholic/etc. worship?

And what is it about Lutheran worship that has always been true about Lutheran worship for as long as there have been Lutherans to worship, no matter when or where they are when they worship…Lutheran-ly?

Over the course of the past several months, I’ve asked this question of several different people, people who spend a lot of time thinking about Lutheran worship. I’ve gotten answers that range from a resolute and immediate “Nothing,” to a thoughtful and rather academic list of attributes.

I’ve also come up with a few answers of my own, and I’m a-gonna share them with you, in the hope that you, too, will share your thoughts.  Therefore, without further ado…

What makes worship Lutheran?

#6: The way we think about singing.

Don’t get me wrong; other denominations, traditions, and churches have impressive, rich, beautiful hymnodies. But Lutherans take it to a special level. It was Luther himself who said, “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.” One of the first things to set the Lutheran worshipers apart from their Catholic counterparts was the insistence on singing being done by the congregation, not a special choir.

The other indicator of music’s importance to Lutherans is the fuss we make when anyone tries to change it. In an interview with Eugene Brand last fall, he told me about putting together the Lutheran Book of Worship during the 1970s. Early in the process, a not-final draft of the list of hymns somehow got into public hands. In one month, in an age when you still had to write letters by hand and spend money on postage, Brand and his team got 14,000 angry letters from people who were offended by what was missing as well as what was included.

Lutherans and music. We go together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong.

A Lutheran Psalmbook painted into the very famous “The Ambassadors,” by Hans Holbein the Younger (1533). Public Domain image from Wikipedia.

#5: Our use of confession

Right now I’m planning a Eucharistic liturgy for an ecumenical chapel service. My planning buddy comes from an evangelical background, and the service we’re planning is inspired by an Episcopal congregation in San Francisco. As we were picking service elements to include in the Word portion, I looked at my buddy and said, “You know what I want to do right there, after that reading?”

Looking at my shining Lutheran face, he said tiredly, “Include a confession and absolution.”

Yup.

Cropped image from Wenceslas Hollars’ woodcut illustrating the Articles of the Augsburg Confession. Public Domain image from Wikipedia.

I haven’t done an extensive comparison of denominational liturgies, but Lutherans have almost always included an opportunity to profess sins, in an extended corporate act, near the beginning of the liturgy. Many denominations de-emphasize this part of the service, out of deference to the fact that people who have been burned by the Church don’t do well when hit with the “sinner” stick.

Even Lutherans make room for this possibility: Evangelical Lutheran Worship now included an option for “Thanksgiving for Baptism” instead of “Confession of Sin.”

Which leads me to…

#4: Remembering our baptisms.

Public Domain image from Wikipedia.

So much remembering. When I needed to run home through the rain during seminary, rare was the instance that someone would fail to shout: “Remember your baptism!” as I dashed through the drops.

It did actually make things better.

Working as a worship planner for this afore-mentioned ecumenical chapel, I planned an All Saints/All Souls service including a Thanksgiving for Baptism. My boss, a very experienced Anglican, wanted to know why on earth I would do such a thing. I was baffled. It seemed like a really obvious connection to me—baptism is what ushers all of us into community with the Body of Christ, a cloud of witness including all saints and souls. My boss was (rightfully) dissatisfied with my bumbling explanation, but let me do it anyway. It worked, but I remained deeply confused about my boss’s confusion.

I later learned that every time my boss had let Lutherans plan services in the past, they always wanted to do a Thanksgiving for Baptism. As surely as my dog seeks out the smelliest patch of grass to roll in, so do Lutherans look out for opportunities to remember our baptism.

We just really love those holy waters.

#3: Proclamation is at the center of our worship

Ok, this is different than saying that our worship is based on scripture. Everyone’s worship is based on scripture. You will not find a single worship planner of any denomination who’s like, “Scripture and worship, pfffft. Whatever.” No, God’s Word is universally central. (If you do want to see Lutherans explain this very slickly, though, check out the back pages of the ELW, because there’s an awesome section back there about the scriptural basis for worship.)

What I’m saying here is that Lutherans focus on proclamation in two ways that, when combined, are distinctively Lutheran:

  • Just about all of our services include a preaching element of some kind. The proclamation of the word is pretty important to us. In Lutheran worship of yore, sermons were regularly several hours long, and preaching services were waaaaaaaaay more common than Eucharistic celebrations.
  • Lutherans see the Words of Institution (“In the night in which he was handed over, Jesus Christ took bread, gave thanks… [etc.]”) as a proclamation of the gospel. This is why Luther took the Words out of the silent priestly prayer they were embedded into and set them, stark naked, before the people. In his Deutsche Messe, he makes clear that he wants these words sung on the same pitch as the Lord’s Prayer, which did two things: first, it made sure everyone could hear them, and second, it made it so that the musical pitch of the Words sounded like Jesus’ voice to the listening congregation. (In a tradition where the scripture readings were sung, Jesus’ words got their own special pitch.) For Luther, the power of the Words of Institution lay not in their magic ability to transform the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood, but instead in the fact that this was the gospel in a nutshell: God coming among us, offering forgiveness and salvation.

    “Broken for you.” It works on so many levels! Public domain image from WIkipedia.

#2: Liturgy lovin’

Lutherans love liturgy. We have a very high regard for liturgical forms that are in continuity with historical practice, reasoning 1) that they keep us in communion with the church throughout the centuries and in different places, and 2) that tradition’s got some good stuff.

Liturgical tradition is like the attic in your ancestral home. So many things have been shoved into it that over time, the junky stuff like your grandfather’s collection of plaid shirts that smell like moose sweat have been chucked, and the nice stuff like the family silver is still there.

(I think this metaphor has some legs: I would liken the “Dies Irae” to a collection of really creepy dolls. Some people love it, and it’s definitely worth something, but I am never bringing it out for public viewing, ever.)

“O day of wrath and dolls impending.” One of the less creepy public domain images, courtesy of Wikipedia.

#1: Liturgical flexibility

At the same time that Lutherans love liturgy and value tradition, we are also firmly rooted in liturgical flexibility: we can, have, and do alter the form and content of our worship to meet contextual needs.

Sometimes these attempts crash and burn. Example: during the Enlightenment period, just 30 years after Luther died, Lutherans in Magdeburg heard these words when they were handed the communion bread and wine: “Taste this bread: may the spirit of devotion rest upon you with its fullest blessing! Taste a little wine: the power of virtue resides not in this wine but rather in you, in divine doctrine, and in God!”

WHAT THE FREAK. That, friends, is horribly warped Lutheran theology. Where is the proclamation that this is Christ’s body and blood? Anything about the forgiveness of sins? Would someone like to take a shot of the no-good-very-bad contradiction of Luther’s basic tenets about the bondage of the human will?!

*hyperventilates.*

Oooookay. So, on the other hand, we do make up for it by creating beautiful prayers, rituals of profound meaning, and quality hymns that all become part of our liturgical repertoire.

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Basically, creativity and tradition both need each other. Creativity keeps worship from ossifying into traditionalism, allowing it to be relevant, contextual, and vernacular. Tradition keeps worship from venturing into creative deep space, where there be dragons, Martians, and deflated footballs.

  • Do you think there’s anything missing from this list?
  • Do you think there’s something on this list that shouldn’t be?
  • What do you love about Lutheran worship? What do you not-love?

Please leave comments and questions!

Comment policy: The comments section is for our mutual edification. I learn a lot from you all, and I’m grateful whenever you take the time to offer your thoughts. To make sure people feel that they can continue to do that without getting eaten alive, I screen comments, and do not post those that are nonconstructive, derogatory, or disrespectful.